Internet ‘not all bad’ shocker

There are over a billion websites. 17% of people admit to arguing with their partners every day over their use of mobile devices (read ‘looking at Facetwat during dinner’) – 17%! Every day! I’ll admit to not being certain that either of these statistics are correct – but it’s that sort of order of magnitude and if it’s not that’s because I’m slightly ahead of my time, but given the way that anything to do with technology is growing these days, then it will be very soon. Alternatively, I’m way behind the curve, the actual numbers are much greater and if this is the case then we can only but sit here with our mouths open at the sheer gigantic aweseomeness of it all. Anyway, whatever, I think we can all agree safely to assume that most of the internet is bad, unnecessary and destructive.

What do you mean, you’d like me to explain that?

Oh – so you’d like me to explain that then?

OK. Supposing I’m within the ballpark and there are a billion websites. (It’s certainly not a million, definitely had ‘bill’ in it, so it’s a big number. Well, it is to most of us. Not so much to Len Blavatnik.) So you got to ask yourself why there are a billion websites. My money’s on because none of them are very good. If they were any good, then, d’you see, there wouldn’t be any need for more than say – ooooooh – ten? 20? 72? Definitely not a billion.

And if they were just ‘not very good’, then there would be less than a billion, I’m guessing, because, let’s face it, it can’t be that hard to make a decent website and once you’ve got some, then you wouldn’t need any more. No – we’ve got a billion websites because some of them are not just ‘not very good’, they’re the complete opposite of good (which isn’t ‘evil’, it’s anti-good, where no good exists in any form) and these sites act as a negative number and require correspondingly more good websites to – I believe the phrase is – ‘net them out’.

And the fact that the internet and its proliferation of anti-good sites can cause 17% of us to have a row every day – well, do I really need to spell it out? What kind of dystopian dysfunctionality is this that we (as a society) seem to be accepting, here?

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? The internet has coerced many into selling their souls for the proverbial mess of pottage (apart from me, of course, I’m in PR and I sold mine a long time ago for a pot of messages) – easy access to news, film, music in return for your personal data and your privacy. Now looms the Internet of Things – not content with having created an internet for people, the shadowy people who control the whole show – yes, they do – have created an internet for things, over which 17% of your fridges can have daily fallings-out with 17% of your toasters, and, of course, in many ways, it’s already here and – here’s the kicker – nobody has noticed.

It’s all gone rather Aldous Huxley, I fear. With a smattering of George O. But if you want to see what it’s going to be like in the very, very near future, then can I suggest ’12 Tomorrows’ – 2014’s MIT science fiction anthology? Or perhaps just pick a Bill Gibson, any Bill Gibson. The truth is that the access to all this stuff that has been granted over the last 15 years or so is now inseparable from daily life and the loss of a few secrets seems a small price to pay.

Like I said, bad, unnecessary and destructive.

And then yesterday, as I was walking through Piccadilly on my way to a reasonably acceptable luncheon, I was stopped by a Australian lady, who asked of me directions to Warwick Street. Now I’ve been living in the Smoke for years, but – dear reader – I had no idea where Warwick Street was. All seemed lost – I know, I know, you can see where this is going and, yes, were I much younger I’d have got there quicker too – but, of course, it wasn’t because in my pocket, I have an internet-enabled device with some of that good, good 4G onnit. So, with a flourish of buttons, I was able to furnish lost Australian lady with directions and we both went our separate ways.

And, in truth, I am prepared to give up a little privacy – in this case, for Google to know where I am – in return for that sort of informational access.

 

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Public Service Announcement

This, I’m afraid, is one of those moments when I really, really wish I’d written it down. Then I’d have a source and the point would be better made than it’s going to be. Then again, in the interests of mitigating against the possibility of doing a Bercow (Sally, not John) and becoming liable for an enormous sum through having referenced something or someone wot didn’t like it up’ em, maybe it’s better that I don’t have a source.

Anyway, you be the judge on the whole sourcey debate. I’m just going to push through it. There I was, either watching TV or listening to the radio – see why I wish I’d written this down? – and up popped one of what I guess are still called ‘public service announcements’.

The sort of thing that is produced by government, funded by the taxpayer and, in a mostly well-meaning, slightly patronising and broadly ineffective way, attempts to ‘help’ the general population with some tips on how to make things better.

The sort of thing that springs to mind is – and forgive me, for, clunky black plastic device from an early episode of Star Trek(*) that I might be, I am not of this vintage – the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ campaign, later, advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear strike (hide under the table, as I recall), later than that, the Green Cross Code Man (which was quite good AND starred Darth Vader), about the same time, Charley the cat and his advice on any number of issues including strangers and, into this century, The Management (actually, these were excellent) and Gimme Five a Day (not so much).

So this was a public service announcement, probably the work of the DTI, in conjunction with the DEL, quite clearly aimed at small businesses. So far so good – the success of small businesses is central to the success of the economy, to boosting employment, to facilitating training and skills development. The UK needs entrepreneurs. The UK needs to be seen to be business-friendly and open for business. So I’ve been told by my mates Dave, Nick and Ed, anyway. (Not by Nige, mind.)

Unfortunately, this PSA (looky here, I done made a TLA(**)!) centred around – in the first instance – an hairdresser. Whose mates and clients were all on social media. All on social media, apparently, discussing their hairstyles. And therefore, through the voodoo and spooky juju of tinternet, boosting our heroine’s business to the point, we were led to believe, that Vidal Sassoon himself may have thought ‘oi, oi, competition!’

Then, a voiceover which had, quite clearly, been scripted by someone in government and recorded by someone in education and was, therefore not wholly in touch with the subject matter, the audience or the zeitgeist (which, of course, I so am), told us that there are hundreds of people looking for your (the target audience’s) business and unless you’re on the social, they won’t find you.

Where to start, gentle readers, where to start.

First, I don’t think there are hundreds of people looking for your business. Hairdressers in general, maybe, in the same way that people look for toilet roll, but you’ll not build a business on people looking for you. Second, they’re most definitely not looking for you on social. Social media strategy is – once and for all – for the larger business that has the time and resource to waste on it.

Third – if it’s a PSA about new media – why use old media to get it out there? Hmmmm? Is it that social doesn’t have the reach – or is that traditional media carry more weight and are more likely to influence?

And if so, why advocate social to business people who do not have time and whose marketing efforts would be better focused elsewhere?

Nanny state. Makes me cross.

(*) Old communicator

(**) Three Letter Acronym

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Yammer, yammer, yammer

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (actually, it was on the outskirts of Luton, but when you work at head office in the City, Luton really does seem far, far away) I was privy to an early dabble in using electronic fora – messageboards, if you will – for internal communication purposes.

I am, as my regular readers will know, an old communicator. (Rather like one of those clunky black plastic devices off of an early episode of Star Trek. Badoom tish. The gag that never stops giving.) So this was many years ago – indeed so much so that my memories are sepia-tinted and stored on five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies – and it was a bit of a groundbreaker.

The idea – of course – was based on the concept (still current today) that you should engage with your employees, give them a voice, listen to what they have to say, encourage them to contribute and get it on with a bit of the old ‘you said….we did’ malarkey. It was also believed that such a forum would encourage sharing of knowledge and experience and – in a corporate context – allow for the dissemination and subsequent passing on of policies, procedures and operating practices.

At this time, being part of an electronic and virtual community, powered by the wonders of the new-fangled interwebosphere, was really rather daring. And – here’s the key bit – no-one had any real experience of how such a thing would function and – most importantly – how the key players (the employees) would interact with it.

Now I just know, at this point, that you – loyal readers – are shaking your heads and averting your eyes because – with the benefit of your years of exposure to social networks (for yes, this is what that was, in essence) – you can predict what comes next.

But in case you’ve not arrived at the ugly conclusion (for such it is) yet, let me tell you that the users of this proto-social medium, this ur-twitter, were many thousands of employees, scattered around the country in small teams, manning what can best be described as lower-end retail outlets.

As I recall, it took less than a week for the sheer quantity of ridiculousness and the myriad examples of internet Tourette’s to warrant the beginning of a damage limitation process that – in fairly short order – saw the tool shut down. No – it didn’t work as expected – no-one was really into sharing knowledge and best practice, no-one was into disseminating corporate updates.

No – they were in to insulting each other across the country, excoriating management, getting all sweary and generally getting their inappropriate on in a jungle stylee. This was, I have to say, something of a surprise at the time – I don’t think anyone saw it coming – as we simply didn’t equate giving people a voice with them using it.

I think we believed in some happy nirvana where people took responsibility, used their common sense and where ‘selfies’ did not, and never would, exist. Today, of course, with Zuckerberg-tinted hindsight, we recognise the awful truth of what we’ve done (and what, I’m afraid, cannot be undone).

Give people a voice and they will use it, as if it is a right. They will use it despite the fact they have nothing to say. They will use it to settle grievances, even scores, wash dirty laundry, put hearts on sleeves, bare souls and share the unthinkable. And probably try to unscrew the inscrutable. Given half the chance.

Which is why I’ve never had much time for Yammer – the so-called ‘enterprise social network’. As Spinal Tap said ‘there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever’ and – from experience – I think it is too much to ask of your employees to have to tread it.

Facebook are, apparently, contemplating a similar tool – if this is so, I think that the line is getting finer and finer by the minute.

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The Emperor’s New Wearable Tech

Just to be quite clear, this is one from the vaults – what I laughingly refer to as an ‘archive’. A back-catalogue, if you will. Which means it’s a little out of date, because normally, in these infrequent nusings, you’ll find me chuntering on about stuff that I’ve either been (metaphorically) hit over the head with, or have gleaned from rapid perusal of the news media. And news has always been quick to become ‘olds’, and doubly so in today’s age of instant-gratification citizen journalism, so it would be – I’m sure you’d agree – pretty much inevitable that anything I write on the topic of news is likely to be out of date fairly soon. (Is it just me or is this all a bit, well, prolix? Get on with it Jeremy, spit it out, man!)

However. The musing that I post below, while news related, actually centres around tech and the development of. What makes it interesting – and, I think, indicative of where we, as a society are headed, increasingly rapidly – is that it was written in October last year. October 2014. We’re now in April 2015 – six months on. In that time, Google Glass – for it is this tech that I’m writing about – has been introduced, has been the subject of a myriad failed attempts at assimilation by a myriad of businesses, large and small, has been deemed a failure by Google itself and has been pulled. Talk about a week being a long time in technology.

As an aside, I’m reading a book at present called ‘Twelve Tomorrows’ – twelve science fiction stories based on actual articles from the MIT Journal. All the stories were written in 2014, almost all contain some element of wearable tech. There’ll be another twelve published this year – and I wonder what shiny object du jour they’ll all incorporate.

So, a quick show of hands. Who here is getting involved with Google Glass, or any other bit of wearable tech, in a business context? Now, clearly, I can’t see how many of you have your hands up at this point, but when Google Glass is purported to be owned by 8% of the total population of South Korea, I am betting it’s quite a few of you.

The problem, of course, is that Google Glass – and indeed any form of wearable tech – suffers from the same issue that social media did and, despite its ubiquity and billions of users, still does. Shiny Object Syndrome or, in what I believe to be the current vernacular, FOMO.

In other words, the desperate and rather unseemly desire of brands, businesses and organisations to try and shoehorn wearable tech into their operational practices, in order to be seen to be surfing the next wave – in order that someone else doesn’t get there first.

And, much like social media, we’re starting to see the growth of an industry around wearable tech. The Google Glass Gurus will soon be here, the Smart Watch Swamis and the entire rag, tag and bobtail who will very soon be plugged in to your operational, marketing and customer service budgets, providing essential advice on how best to revolutionise your business with wearable tech.

And, as usual, the only people who will actually see an upside from incorporating wearable tech into sales, marketing or CRM will be the very same snake-oil salesmen who convinced you to do exactly that in the first place.

Recently there have been a number of examples of businesses who have succumbed to the blandishments of the tech gurus – a healthy sense of self-preservation and a desire not to incriminate myself prevents me from naming names – however, this time round, and unlike the unstoppable rise of social media as a marketing tool, the businesses involved have left themselves what you might call ‘wiggle room’.

I’m an old communicator. Like one of those clunky black plastic devices out of an early episode of Star Trek. When I started out (with nothing, and I still have most of it left) there weren’t social media. Actually, there wasn’t email. We used to communicate over distance using flags. (Just kidding. We used to shout.) What we did do a lot of, however, was spinning yarns – using research, and innovation and, let’s face it, stuff that, on a nice day, with a fair wind, might possibly come true, to create stories and generate media coverage.

In many cases, the wares that we hawked up and down Fleet Street came with clear ‘caveat emptor’ signs – we were ‘trialling’ this and ‘testing’ that – we had conducted a ‘limited roll-out’ and whatever it was became available in ‘selected outlets’. And this is what we’re seeing with wearable tech – the businesses I’ve mentioned are all very much ‘trialling’ the usage of the kit in their operations, they’re ‘evaluating’ its potential.

Which leaves me some hope that, sooner or later, our collective hive memory will recall the fate of the Bluetooth headset, once the darling of the thrusting young exec, now the accessory of choice of a certain type of minicab driver.

And recalling the fate of the Bluetooth headset, we’ll look anew at Google Glass and see it for what it is – a stepping stone. You see, I don’t dispute the potential of the tech. It’s widely agreed that smartphone design has evolved as far as it can – it cannot get much thinner, or much larger or much simpler to interact with.

But the future’s not wearable tech. Nope – in the future the bloke who was recently reported as addicted to Google Glass won’t have to take it off ever again. Because it’ll be implanted in his skull and hardwired into his brain.

And, obviously, available in selected stores, for a trial period only.

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What’s In A Name?

Sometimes, I feel that all this was made up just for my benefit. My older readers will remember a movie called The Truman Show, in which manic comedian Jim Carrey discovers that his whole life is a reality TV show played out for the entertainment of the masses. It’s the little things that, eventually, give it away.

For me, it’s names. Striking and wonderful names which, somehow, give pause for thought. Quite clearly, it is a game being played by those who are running my personal show – seeing how just how far they can take it before I have to stand up and say ‘c’mon guys – really?’

It started quite innocuously. President Canaan Banana. Rugby player Austin Healy. Emma Dale. The news reporter, Julia Caesar. Recently, however, it’s become quite serious. Obviously, the directors of my show – confronted, I imagine, by collapsing ratings befitting a programme probably entitled ‘The Not Very Inspiring Life and Times of the Rather Humdrum Jeremy Probert’ – need to provoke me to some sort of reaction.

So they’ve thrown me into contact with Hubertus Funke, Elly Button and – I kid you not – Ting Ting Dong. (Never mind the spurned mistress of billionaire Samuel Tak Lee, who tried to blackmail him for £3m – take a bow, the entirely-appropriately-named Fuk Wu.) But it’s not just amazingly named people that are the cause of my disquiet.

Toward the end of 2013, The Wall Street Journal (I have to say, I think Big Brother could have done better with that one) published a list of companies entitled ‘The Billion-Dollar Start Up Club’. These are startup companies that are valued at $1bn plus by venture capital firms. Running down the list, we see included Jingdong, Zalando, Houzz, Jasper, Deem and – oh, yes – MongoDB.

Now, the so-called ‘Wall Street Journal’ (I’m on to your game, sonny) has a back-story for each of them – quite convincing as it turns out – but even then, there are the little clues, the in-jokes, the oh-so-arch references that give it away. Take Palantir. Valued at $9.3bn in the last quarter of 2013, its data mining software is used by ‘the CIA and the FBI to distil large amounts of information’.

Of course, everyone here will know that a Palantir is a creation of JRR Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. An artefact of great power, of Elvish creation, it was an early form of mobile communication device (although the largest of the Palantiri suffered from the same design flaw as the Motorola DynaTAC in 1973 – it was the size of a small room) combining some of the features of Cisco’s TelePresence. More germane to my argument, however, is that fact that when we see a Palantir in action – so to speak – in The Lord of The Rings, it’s being used by Sauron, the Dark Lord.

And, arguably, he’s using it to ‘distil large amounts of information’. Coincidence? I think not. (Yes, I realise that it is possible that the founders of Palantir decided to use the name for EXACTLY THE REASONS I HAVE OUTLINED HERE. But they can’t have – because that would be the conclusive proof I’ve been looking for. Wouldn’t it?)

Another unmistakeable hole in the fabric of what I will laughingly call my ‘reality’ is, of course, the frankly silly numbers that are being attached to these startups. In the WSJ’s list, Snapchat’s there with a value of $2bn. (Twice the value of Mogujie, as it turns out. See? See what I mean?) Today, and following a judicious investment of $20m from the VCs, it’s got a valuation of $10bn. Not bad, Messrs Murphy and Spiegel, for a few months work on something that doesn’t actually generate any revenues (no surprises there, then).

Frankly, with all of this going on, you cannot expect me to believe I’m living in a sane and rational ‘real world’. I’ve been Jeremy Probert. Thank you for watching.

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Never Trust a Hippie

This got me into a bit of trouble. Here’s the unexpurgated version for thos amongst you who don’t hold with no new-fangled expurgation and likes to call a spade a spade. Or in this case a ‘pikey’.

What? Are you still here? I have to say, what with the yawning abyss of time between this issue and the last, I’d have thought you might’ve got bored and ambled off in a slightly distracted (but wholly benevolent) manner. Found something else to watch. And on the subject of watching, which I am (serendipitously enough), let’s talk about hippies and social media – ideal bedfellows, perhaps, at first glance.

Well, yes, in one way. Like a hippie, social is all about freedom of expression and speech, it’s all about participation and equality, it’s about everyone having a voice and being able to use it, it’s all about a lack of rules and regulation, about immediacy and instantaneous sharing.

Oooooh, it makes cold shivers run down my spine. As John Lydon once said ‘never trust a hippie’ and social media are a breeding ground for them and their woolly, ill-informed (if well-intentioned) thinking. It’s a mire of mung beans, a lake of llamas, a whole load of hessian and the usual of yurts. If I think about it – if social had a colour it would be pastel and tie-dyed, if it had a sound it would be pan pipes and if it had an odour it would (of course) be patchouli. Its metaphorical smell would (equally of course) be fishy. Because I don’t trust it.

(I find writing quite therapeutic. Like Timothy Leary and his LSD (he was a hippie), and the South American Indians and their ayahuasca (they’re all hippies), and the publisher of this very magazine and his habit of going to festivals (I suspect he’s a hippie) – I find writing is a path to higher consciousness. For example, I have just now had the revelation that my loathing of social media stems directly from my mistrust of hippies. In the same way that my inability to countenance camping is related to my horror of pikeys.)

(That’s probably an indie band, and if it isn’t it should be, ‘The Horror of Pikeys’.)

Is there any point to this? Sorry, that’s not a metaphorical question, it’s more a summation of what I imagine you’re thinking. And the answer is yes – yes, there is. You see I recently had a run in with some hippies which only served to reinforce many of my beliefs about social media and why they are – in a business communications context – so badly contaminated as to be dangerous.

Exploring that for a moment. I know that social media, like traditional media, have many aspects – a gamut of seriousness and usefulness, from the gravitas of the FT to the fluffery of OK Magazine. Where there is a difference is that there are only two social media and this entire gamut is contained within each one. You can’t choose to opt out, in the same way that I can choose not to buy Grazia.

Did you know, for example, that Shakira (whose hips, clearly, do not lie) is the most liked thing on Facebook, after Facebook itself and its ‘phone app? That’s a Grazia piece of news that I didn’t need, but I couldn’t choose to avoid. I even know what a ‘Jennifer Aniston’ is. Yes. I do.

Getting back to my friends, the hippies, or, more accurately, the ‘brave young protestors’ of The Future (see what I mean?) – they recently caused me no little irritation, not by what they did, which was more performance art than protest, but by making unsubstantiated claims on social media. This translated into blogs and citizen journalism and suddenly something completely without foundation or substance might as well be hard fact.

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Not-So-Private Lives

Ah! There you are. Come in, come in – do close the door, there’s a good reader. Now, I imagine you’ve been wondering why I sent for you. You see, something is troubling me and – unsurprisingly – it’s a something not wholly unrelated to Big Social. It’s message control, reader mine, and how one manages to maintain it.

I’m talking from a corporate viewpoint, obviously – as far as personal use of social goes, well, how you present yourself is unfortunately up to the individual selfing, trolling, lolling halfwit. I sometimes feel there should be a Ministry of Social, to protect – by force if necessary – the limp-brained feeble buffoons who believe it a good idea to share pictures of themselves sleeping in a nice pool of sick – however recruits to the Ministry would likely be deeply into sharing content and unnorming privacy and it’s jackboots we need, not Crocs.

Recently, I drew up a corporate Use of Social Media policy (bear with me – sounds dull, is important) not because I wish to stop people using social media (actually, I do, but that’s just me) but because I wanted to highlight the possible pitfalls of confusing professional and personal, provide some examples of good and bad practice and spell out potential consequences. One could just block Facebook and Twitter at work (and some do) but a) it seems a bit Draconian (I’m getting soft in my dotage) b) hands up who’s got a smartphone? and c) just wait ‘til they get home.

There’ll be some, I know, who will be outraged at the lack of trust this displays and others who will maintain that employees should be actively encouraged to use social media to promote their companies, organisations and brands.

Thing is – like it or not – social media are communications tools. As already stated – how the individual manages the communication of their personal brand is no business of mine. (The Ministry of Social – like Robocop. But with an attitude.) But communication of corporate brand messages is best left to the professionals. It is not by chance that people make a living out of being professional communicators, nor is the old belief that ‘anyone can do PR’ actually true. In fact, even in the PR industry itself, there is a high number of people who can’t do PR. Why would you put the fate of your business in the hands of an amateur?

Unfortunately, this is exactly what a lot of organisations seem to be doing. I do not have time, or the will, to go into the differences in attitude between public and private sector – suffice it to say that not so long ago I was exposed to a woeful display of social media usage that seemed wholly predicated on the argument ‘I can, so therefore I will’. When questioned further, the answer became ‘people have a right know’. No. Actually – and close your ears those of delicate disposition – people do not always have a right to know. Ask the CIA.

So back to my policy. It went down fine. Most people seemed to understand what it was trying to do. I wasn’t chased down the street with flaming torches and spades. But then I get an email – from an IT security consultant, strangely enough – enquiring whether I’d taken the Human Rights Act of 1998 into account, specifically regarding a right to privacy.

Ooooh, Alanis. (For you, my young reader, that’s Alanis Nadine Morissette, Canadian songstrel.) So, privacy is no longer the norm (according to the Zuckerberg) and anyone can, and does, post anything. Social media are free and all but unregulated – and that freedom is defended vigorously.

But try and establish some right of redress should an employee bring your organisation into disrepute via social and – oh yes – you could be breaching their human right to privacy. A right which the social media world gives away freely, every single day.

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