Archive: social-media

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the rioting at looting that has been taking place in parts of the UK. But I fully support the sentiment behind Operation Cup Of Tea, the “Anti-Riot” that took place on Facebook and Twitter at 8.30pm today.

Stay positive and have a cup of tea.

Operation Cup of Tea

WTF

When adding social media icons to a website, take care over the order in which they appear.

Google has never quite worked with social media. After buying Blogger, it never seemed to know what to do with it. Then there were the high-profile flops Google Buzz and Google Wave. It was tempting to think that the mighty Google had lost touch completely while Facebook and Twitter gain more ground all the time.

Google+ is another attempt to take on Facebook. The twist is that this time it might work. It threatens to buck the trend of gaffe-prone Google product launches. People are actually excited about it. I’m excited about it. And I can’t remember when I last felt excited about a social media offering.

Google have obviously spent a lot of time and effort on making sure that Google+ works. A big emphasis has been placed on the user interface, with changes being rolled out across all of Google’s major products.

Circles

Google Circles interface

On that front, the biggest head-turner has been Google Circles. There is nothing particularly revolutionary at all about the concept. You separate people into different groups, meaning that you can share certain information with your close friends while keeping it hidden from occasional acquaintances.

Facebook has had this feature for as long as I can remember. But it’s never been sexy. Google has realised that people are attracted by flashy and playful interfaces as much as (or even more than) interfaces that are merely functional.

I was initially not impressed by the idea. But I have found that I have created many more circles than lists in Facebook. In Facebook I only have two — ‘Close friends’ (which I don’t particularly use) and ‘Limited profile’ which hides certain profile information from certain people.

But on Google+, I now have separate circles for six groups of people, with the intention of creating more. At the time being it is difficult to tell if the Circles feature will be useful in a way that Facebook’s lists feature isn’t.

A relatively clean slate

But what really strikes me about Google+ is the fact that its main selling point is that it’s not Facebook. Most are focusing on the privacy aspect of this. I am not sure if Google is less of a worry than Facebook on the privacy front.

But where Google has the upper hand is on its image. Over the years, Facebook has built up a lot of baggage. Facebook is now a massive deal with complicated systems of etiquette. Look at how people (only half jokingly) talk about relationships only becoming ‘official’ when your relationship status is set on Facebook.

For this sort of reason, Facebook has become a minefield. I often think twice about adding someone on Facebook just because of all the baggage that comes with it. Some people might take offence. Do they want to be Facebook friends with me? I am never sure. Which pretty much means that I add almost no-one these days.

Google Circles has a major advantage, in that it doesn’t come with all of this baggage. Moreover, it cleverly avoids calling everyone friends. When I signed up, by default I had circles called Friends, Family, Acquaintances and Following (for people I have never met but whose posts I find interesting).

The crucial inclusion of the Following circle means I can feel more comfortable about adding people. Already it is starting to feel more like Twitter or Tumblr in terms of the people that are on there, but with the functionality of Facebook.

Partly this is because, for the time being, Google+ is mainly full of the geeky types that I only know online anyway. Time will tell if Facebook users and more ‘real life’ friends will join Google+. But for me, it is a massively good sign that I have already happily added a number of people to my Google Circles, some of whom I would not consider adding on Facebook.

The other features

This is where it starts to unravel a bit for me. Beyond Circles, which is more about a change in culture rather than any revolutionary new features, I am not sure what else about Google+ is exciting.

I have tried, but I just do not understand Google Sparks. What is it for? It seems like a really bad version of Google News or Google Alerts.

Meanwhile, Hangouts looks like it could be fun, but probably not for me. Out of curiosity, I tried it out on my netbook, which has built-in the only webcam I own. But it seemed like Hangouts almost killed it! Admittedly, my netbook is a bit old and is creaking at the seams, but it wasn’t the best of experiences.

What’s to come

Overall, though, the most exciting thing about Google+ is that it heralds a change in direction for Google. It sounds like there is more in the pipeline and that they are intent on shaking up the social web. Circles is a great start.

If you happen to want to, you can add me on Google+.

There is a slightly bizarre article today on Online Journalism Blog advocating that newspapers should turn off their RSS feeds and instead push their stories to Twitter (via Cybersoc). Many people have noticed that Twitter has become one of the easiest ways to disseminate content on the internet, leading some to predict the death of RSS.

There are many advantages of using Twitter to spread your message. I have written before about the fact that in some respects Twitter seems to have superseded social bookmarking sites like Delicious. The reason? Twitter has an upper hand in any activity where you want to alert people right away to something you want to share right now.

But this immediacy comes at the expense of its long-term value. Trying to find an old tweet is a nightmare; an impossibility even. You can’t tag tweets — at least without substantially eating into your stringent 140 character limit. And the use of URL shortening services necessitated by Twitter’s character limit comes with its own bucketful of problems.

So should a newspaper completely ditch RSS feeds in favour of Twitter, as Malcolm Coles seems to suggest? Hell no.

His first argument is the strangest of the lot. He points out that many RSS feeds provided by newspapers appear to have few subscribers, and maintains that this is a weakness of RSS.

Despite having virtually no users, the Mail churns out 160 RSS feeds and the Mirror 280. All so a couple of thousand people can look at them in total.

The other papers are just as bad. And while the Guardian has a couple of RSS readers with decent numbers (partly because Google recommends it in its news bundle), it has more feeds than there are people in the UK …

Never heard of the long tail? Having few subscribers to an RSS feed isn’t a weakness. In fact, it plays to the strengths of RSS feeds as the ideal way to disseminate niche content. For me, the problem with newspapers’ approaches to RSS feeds is the complete opposite. As I have written before, they don’t offer enough RSS feeds.

You can scoff at the fact that The Guardian publishes more RSS feeds than there are people living in the UK. But the cost of doing so is pretty small, especially if the feed doesn’t actually have that many takers (because then it uses up less bandwidth). Indeed, as Jon Bounds notes in the comments to the article, in a decent CMS it will take longer (i.e. be more costly) to switch an RSS feed off rather than leave it on.

What potential alternative does a newspaper have if it decides to give up on RSS? Twitter seems to be the big suggestion. Would a Melanie Phillips Twitter account run by the Daily Mail have more than 11 followers on Twitter? Maybe, but the majority of them would probably be robots advertising mucky webcam shows.

For Malcolm Coles, Twitter would be better because you can see which stories are the best by seeing what is retweeted. Retweets are extra good because they promote a newspaper’s content. But people will tweet and retweet about articles they like anyway, whether it comes from an official newspaper Twitter account or not. And to be honest, I could do without my Twitter stream being filled with yet more junky retweets.

According to Malcolm Coles, you can also provide more context in Twitter because “There’s space in 140 characters for newspapers to give some background to stories as well as the headline.” But you can provide the whole article in an RSS feed if you want to, as The Guardian (whose RSS feeds are by far the most popular) has demonstrated. The inability to provide context is in fact Twitter’s greatest weakness. Even a social bookmarking site like Delicious gives you 1,000 characters to play with, not just 140.

It is true that you can have a conversation about stories on Twitter, which you can’t do with RSS feeds. Conversation is practically the raison d’être of Twitter though, so this is not exactly a surprise. All that this underlines is the fact that Twitter and RSS are two very different kinds of tools. One cannot be comfortably substituted for the other.

Malcolm Coles says that the newspapers agree with him because they do not bother to promote their RSS feeds properly. He says that they “have already given up on RSS feeds and no longer actively promote them.”

This ignores the fact that newspapers have never actively promoted RSS feeds. Promotions of RSS feeds haven’t just recently been relegated to the footers. If anything, they have just been promoted there. My last post about newspapers’ RSS feeds outlined my exasperation over the fact that their implementation is sloppy and amateurish, and it is nigh-on impossible to find out if the RSS feed you’re looking for even exists, never mind where it is.

Perhaps, indeed, the newspapers’ failure to properly promote their RSS feeds this is the reason why Melanie Phillips only has eleven subscribers in Google Reader. Maybe Malcolm Coles sees this as a chicken-and-egg scenario, but in this case I definitely know which came first.

The real problem is not that RSS has failed for newspapers. It’s that newspapers have failed at RSS. This is demonstrated by the fact that in the comments, Malcolm Coles ends up relying on the unreliability of the Express’s RSS feeds, rather than any inherent weaknesses in the RSS format itself, in his attempts to support his arguments. If the Express’s RSS feeds are broken and poorly promoted, that’s the Express’s fault, not RSS’s fault.

Dan Thornton in the comments hits the nail on the head:

Personally, if newspapers turned off RSS, I suspect they’d never see me visit their sites again – I use Twitter as a real time stream of information, but my RSS Reader is a library of sources I’ve invested time nad effort in reading regularly and getting to know. One doesn’t replace the other – they co-exist.

I saw this story on Scotsman.com today about the Scottish Parliament’s Public Petitions Committee attempting to reach out by using social media. Of course, I am all for the correct use of social media as a sensible and low-cost way for any organisation to communicate with the public and to allow people to get in contact. But there was something about this story that just seemed odd.

HOLYROOD chiefs are to use blogs, Wikipedia and YouTube to make Parliament more accessible to the public, they said today.

People petitioning Parliament will be able to provide videos and photographs.

And Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee is to have its own blog and Wikipedia page.

It’s the mention of Wikipedia — twice — that tweaked my antenna. How exactly does Parliament intend to “use Wikipedia” to become more accessible to the public? Perhaps they meant using wikis, and got that confused with Wikipedia.

I decided to delve a bit further in case The Scotsman got the wrong end of the stick (which, let us face it, is fairly likely). But the Scottish Parliament’s press release seemed even odder.

As from today blogging, Wikipedia and YouTube will be some of the new social media tools introduced by the Public Petitions Committee as part of its report publication. The report is the result of a year-long inquiry into improving awareness and participation in the public petitions process.

Petitioners will be able to provide videos and photos about their petitions as part of the committee’s new blog page. A podcast, Wikipedia page and dvd about the Parliament’s public petitions system all signal the committee’s commitment in encouraging access to and awareness of the petitions process. The committee also supports the creation of local petitioning systems with local authorities.

I was still confused, so I took a look at the Public Petitions Committee’s report to see what the plans actually were. You can read the details of its plans to use social media under the heading “E-Based” (paragraph 84 onwards).

In paragraph 119 the Public Petitions Committee says: “We are launching, alongside this report, a dedicated Public Petitions Committee Wiki page.” The footnote takes you to this Wikipedia article. This is an article which was already deleted when I checked it early this afternoon, and remains deleted as I write this article.

The Public Petitions Committee’s attempt to use Wikipedia like this completely misunderstands what Wikipedia is for. A page such as the one the Public Petitions Committee tried to create is completely against Wikipedia guidelines. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not some kind of worthy version of Craigslist. They could try reading about What Wikipedia is not, notably that Wikipedia is not a soapbox:

Wikipedia is not a soapbox, a battleground, or a vehicle for propaganda and advertising… Therefore, content hosted in Wikipedia is not… [p]ropaganda, advocacy, or recruitment of any kind, commercial, political, religious, or otherwise…

[Content hosted in Wikipedia is not] Self-promotion. It can be tempting to write about yourself or projects in which you have a strong personal involvement. However, do remember that the standards for encyclopedic articles apply to such pages just like any other, including the requirement to maintain a neutral point of view, which is difficult when writing about yourself or about projects close to you.

An subject is considered worthy of an article on Wikipedia by the bottom-up processes upon which Wikipedia is based. It is not for the Public Petitions Committee to swan in and create a page for itself. Nor can it be the final arbiter on what that article contains. The report somewhat states in somewhat Orwellian fashion:

We are of course mindful of the ability to amend text given the ‘ongoing principle’ under which Wiki pages are created. Our clerks will monitor the page carefully to ensure it remains a factual and authoritative source of information about our public petitions process.

Moreover, Wikipedia is not a manual, guidebook, textbook or scientific journal:

Wikipedia is an encyclopedic reference, not an instruction manual, guidebook, or textbook. Wikipedia articles should not read like… Internet guides. Wikipedia articles should not exist only to describe the nature, appearance or services a website offers, but should describe the site in an encyclopedic manner, offering detail on a website’s achievements, impact or historical significance…

In paragraph 109, the Public Petitions Committee itself says of its attempts to use social media that it is “not seen as ticking a box which says ‘look, we are doing this because everyone else is!’”. But this Wikipedia stunt has box-ticking written all over it. It has Dad-dancing written all over it.

I’m sure using Wikipedia to publicise the Scottish Parliament’s petitions process seemed like a good suggestion in a meeting room somewhere. But they could have done with having a bit more of an understanding of what Wikipedia actually is before actually proceeding with the idea.

Luckily, the Public Petitions Committee didn’t put all of its eggs in one basket. There will also be a “pod cast”, which currently seems to be a solitary MP3, tucked away at the bottom of the press release. Other than that, there is a promise to link to the Scottish Parliament’s own podcasts. There is no RSS feed and no option to subscribe.

Let’s look it up on the Public Petitions Committee’s new best friend Wikipedia. The article for Podcast is currently illustrated with a massive RSS icon. It says:

A podcast is a series of digital media files, usually either digital audio or video, that is made available for download via web syndication. The syndication aspect of the delivery is what differentiates podcasts from other ways of accessing files, such as simple download or streaming: it means that special client software applications known as podcatchers (such as Apple Inc.’s iTunes or Nullsoft’s Winamp) can automatically identify and retrieve new files in a series when they are made available, by accessing a centrally-maintained web feed that lists all files currently associated with that particular podcast. The files thus automatically downloaded are then stored locally on the user’s computer or other device, for offline use.

I therefore await the launch of some actual podcasts, not just MP3s branded as “pod casts”.

The Public Petitions Committee will also have a “blog page”. That can be found here and, in fairness, it doesn’t look all that bad. It looks like a good way to highlight the work of the Public Petitions Committee.

I think organisations like the Scottish Parliament should be using social media and web technologies more. So the Public Petitions Committee’s steps in this direction are welcome. The blog looks particularly promising.

But engaging with the public is about so much more than tossing around buzzwords like ‘Wikipedia’, ‘YouTube’ and ‘podcasts’. A proper understanding of social media would provide a better service to the public and waste fewer resources.

Regular readers will know that until January this year I worked for Woolworths — I wrote about my experiences. Since then I have taken an interest in the future direction of the brand, which was sold last month to Shop Direct.

The new, online-only version of Woolworths is not set to launch until this summer. However, it has already established a strong online presence, effectively utilising social media tools. What strikes me about this activity is that I cannot imagine the old Woolworths doing this — certainly not with as much success.

For the time being, woolworths.co.uk redirects to The Woolies Blog. This new blog is largely used to ask readers what they’d like to see from the new Woolworths, and keeps people updated on all their future plans. A common theme seems to be how the new online-only store is going to make pic n mix work, and I’m certainly interested to see how they crack that one.

There are also a good deal of nostalgic reflections on the old version of Woolworths. The sidebar contains links to classic Woolworths adverts (though disappointingly all but one of them are from 2006 or later). Readers have been asked what items from their Woolies memories they would bring back. The blog also covered the story of the last ever bag of pic n mix which sold for £14,500 on eBay.

Generally there is just a warm and fuzzy feeling to the Woolworths blog. You can see this most in the description of their team. All the teams even have their own cute little icon to represent them. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into little things like this.

It probably signposts the way the Woolworths brand will be developed by its new owners. A year ago Woolworths was stale and perhaps even tacky. Over Christmas the brand was tarnished. Today Woolies already feels more personable and friendly.

Woolworths on Twitter Woolworths now also has a Twitter stream, and they are doing a really good job with it. It is done with a good sense of humour. I do hope they get that kettle and fire extinguisher for their portacabin.

They are also using Twitter to ask followers about the five things from the past of Woolworths that they’d like to see back, with the hashtag #woolies5. (I’m working on my top five, but I’m struggling to get beyond the payslip.)

There has also been a hint that there will be an e-museum. I liked the online museum that was part of the old Woolworths website. I doubt that Shop Direct will have access to all of the old material, but I do look forward to seeing how they will recognise the heritage of the brand, which they clearly have a lot of respect for.

I can’t imagine the old Woolworths being able to embrace Twitter and blogging and getting it the way Shop Direct have. The only sign of a sense of humour in the old Woolworths was some cheesy dialogue between Wooly and Worth.

All-in-all, Shop Direct’s approach to relaunching Woolworths is a great demonstration of how a business can use social media to build a relationship with its customers and to refine its offering. Their Twitter stream is an example that corporate use of Twitter doesn’t have to be annoying. It goes some way to disproving this website.

(Hat tip to Chris Applegate via whom I discovered the Woolworths Twitter stream.)

One of the problems with social networking sites is that not everyone is on the same one. Thankfully I don’t find myself having to login to MySpace any more. But I would drop Bebo at a moment’s notice if I could get away with it. Unfortunately, a lot of my friends — particularly those from Fife, and perhaps those thatare younger in general than Facebookers — are on Bebo only. So I have to keep that account going.

I have a friend who refuses to join Facebook, partly because he is worried that it is just another website to sign up to, only to be replaced by the new flavour of the month as soon as he’s done it. I can sympathise with that. We’ve all been there with MySpace and now Bebo, and I probably have dozens of dormant web 2.0 accounts.

There is also the hassle involved with getting your head around a fancy new social network. So many people tell me they find Facebook too complicated. Meanwhile, Twitter is so disarmingly simple that it confuses and spooks many first-time users.

Another of my friend’s objections to Facebook involves the perception that it is too posh. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room, but when you think about it it’s difficult to avoid the fact that there is a class division in the way different types of people use different social networks. Danah Boyd wrote about the case of MySpace and Facebook in the USA two years ago. Today in the UK you could say a similar thing about Bebo and Facebook.

I guess that was inevitable given the exclusivity of Facebook in the early days. At first you had to be at Harvard to use it, then one of the Ivy League universities. Then you had to be at any University (this is when I joined). Then when it was a few years old it opened up to everyone — to howls of protest from many of the people who were already in the exclusive Facebook loop, as I recall. It’s probably fair to say that Facebookers think of themselves as being a cut above their chavvier Bebo-using counterparts — though functionally the sites are very similar.

When someone says to you, “you really should be on [social network x],” it is almost like being invited to a new (slightly posher) pub or restaurant. You’re used to eating out at Wetherspoons (well, that’s all they’ve got in Kirkcaldy — even Burger King upped sticks a few years ago). Now someone has invited you to Di Chez El Nom Nom, or something.

You wouldn’t have countenanced going in by yourself. But it would be rude to turn down the invitation. When you go in it’s a bit unfamiliar. What is the etiquette? What is the third spoon for? Why is my napkin folded into the vague shape of a cockerel? Am I allowed to poke you now, or is that just for special occasions? What is this exotic feature? What is that strange item on the menu and how do I pronounce it? It seems too complicated!

It feels awkward. You will make mistakes at first. But soon enough you will get a taste for it, and you won’t ever consider setting foot in Burger King again (I still like Wetherspoons though).

I got that experience when I signed up to LinkedIn, on the advice of Chris Applegate in the comments here. I’d passed LinkedIn on the street a number of times and peered in, but it didn’t look like the sort of place where I’d be welcome. It describes itself as being for “professionals”. Pah!

Well now Chris has given me the green light to enter, though I still don’t quite feel welcome. Anyone who thinks Facebook is complicated needs to check out LinkedIn. It took me quite a while to work out that really no-one there is interested in my favourite music or my drunken photos. It really is just a glorified (and inflexible) CV.

Even after I have filled in all my details and added a few connections, there is still a little power meter on my page telling me that my profile is only 70% complete! And moreover, I am less likely to appear in searches until I reach 100%. How rude!

But I can’t help thinking already that LinkedIn is the way to go. I mean, if I meet someone in a professional capacity, I might well want to connect with them online in some way. And with its complete candidness, with my personality presented warts and all, Facebook is probably not the way to do that.

So my friend is kind of right. If he signs up to Facebook, he will probably find it’s only a matter of time before he finds himself being asked by his peers to join LinkedIn. I myself wonder what even smarter social network I will end up having to sign up to next.

It seems like a pain at first. But I guess it’s just like dressing smartly for a job interview then lounging around in Pot Noodle-stained boxers in your house.

All of this is quite a long-winded way of saying that I have recently joined LinkedIn. If I know you, you are welcome to connect with me on it. I will probably go on my own adding spree soon. If you’re a veteran, please excuse my only 70% complete profile…

View Duncan Stephen's profile on LinkedIn