24 Oct

How to communicate with the online community: a report from both sides of the wall

As part of Quadriga’s Online Communication 2009 conference, I was invited by the organisers to present some reflections about how to communicate with people online, drawn from both personal and professional experiences, in the form of an after-dinner speech. This was a new experience for me: I’ve never done an after-dinner speech before. Lots of presentations, lectures, debates and panels, but nothing in quite this format before, with no visual aid, nestled in between main course and dessert.

Rather than just post my notes, here’s a fully-written up version of what I said, including links to sources, resources, inspirations and further reading. Forgive the slightly odd formatting, with so many paragraphs – it’s structured this way to reflect the emphasis and pauses and topic sections as I spoke.

If anyone wants it, I was thinking about making an audio version available to download, because this is fairly long (about 25 minutes) – let me know if this would be interesting to you. And if you’re interested in me giving this presentation (or one similar) at an event you’re organising, do get in touch.

When I first told my friends I was coming to Amsterdam to speak to a room full of online communication executives, they asked me why I had to fly to Amsterdam to do that. Why do we all need to get together in one room? Couldn’t I just do it by email, maybe in a newsletter or a series of tweets?

Well, maybe – but if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy such a delicious meal and wouldn’t have met so many of you face to face. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that.

Actually, yesterday I asked my Twitter contacts whether there’s anything they’d recommend to a room full of the best and brightest communication professionals in Europe. I got a lot of interesting answers, many of which I’ll draw on later, but I particularly liked this suggestion from a contact who said:

“Just tell them they should promote the juniors for two months and let them run wild over the internet.”

Well, it’s an idea. Not sure it’s the first thing you could do, but still…

When Quadriga were putting together the conference programme, I was asked to present my perspective on online communication from “both sides of the wall” – as a keen online user both personally and professionally.

I’s just like to note that that implies the wall is somehow this insurmountable, divisive thing which is rarely scaled. In fact, the walls are coming down. I think it’s remarkably easy – and getting easier – to hop from one side to the other, and in fact the boundaries are blurring for many of us every day. I count myself as incredibly lucky that my professional life draws on my personal experiences and passions.

As part of that, I have a confession to make.
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23 Oct

Goodnight, sleep tight…

So it’s something after 4 in the morning, and I’m sitting in the business centre of a supposedly 4* hotel in the middle of Amsterdam, trying to figure out how much time I need to kill before the sun comes up so I can go for a walk, to kill some more time before I can head to the airport for my noon flight.

I’m here on business, so the hotel is not my choice, but the reviews on Tripadvisor seemed to indicate that it was OK at least, and the photos on the hotel’s own glossy site gave the impression (of course) of a spacious, luxurious space. Of course, it’s possible that my experience has just been unlucky, and that the rest of the hotel is fine.

When I checked in, they gave me a room on the first floor, except when I get to it I realise it’s up to the first floor then down a couple of flights of stairs and so actually in the basement, more or less. It’s stuffy as hell and completely overheated, and the windows are nailed shut. Not so 4*.

So I call reception and they transfer me to another room, this time on the second floor, at the front of the hotel, overlooking one of Amsterdam’s main streets and all the trams, traffic and hubbub that comes with it. The room is small – miniscule, in fact – but once the balcony doors are shut it seems quiet enough and it’s only for a night so I get ready to do my talk and then leave for the evening.

When I get back, it’s late. I have a shower and crash out on the bed to watch Nick Griffin making an arse of himself on Question Time, and then drop off.

A couple of hours later, I wake up. My skin is itchy and red, especially in places where my allergies usually show – cheeks, thighs, chest, upper arms. I figure that they must use some particularly strong detergent on the sheets, so I get (partially) dressed, throw a t-shirt over the pillow and roll over.

A little while later, I wake up again, with the unmistakable feeling of something crawling over me.

I sit bolt upright and turn on the light, and there it is, on the sheet next to my pillow: a little ovalish reddy brown beetle, scurrying away. I scoop it up with a tissue and look at it closer.

My first thought (borne of too many dodgy hotels on my travels in South America) is teeny cockroach, but I look again and it doesn’t have the wee feelers and the wing structure. Plus this is really small – like ladybird size, maybe half a centimetre.

I flush it down the loo, but I can’t go back to sleep, because I’m wondering what it was. I get out my iPhone, connect to the wifi and search for small, red brown oval bug.

What I read, strewn across the first page of results, makes me leap out of bed, brushing myself down. Bed bug.

Wah.

I shake out everything I’ve brought with me, resolving to wash it all the instant I get home. I stand against the wall of the room, eyeing the bed suspiciously.

Eventually, I gather my things together and head for reception.

The night receptionist is polite and offers to get me another room. He says it’s an executive room, much bigger, and imprints me another keycard as I stand there, wild eyed and hair dishevelled, at the desk, with luggage in hand.

This room is on the third floor, so I take the lift up there, navigate the labyrinthine corridors and then unlock the room door….only to discover that the bed looks unmade, the room smells like it needs cleaning and…what’s that on the table? SHIT! An open suitcase!

The unmade sheets on the bed rustle and move, and I back out as quietly as I can, then leg it down the corridor. When I get back to reception, on the verge of overtired stressy tears, they look puzzled and apologetic, and then say the only other room they have is a smoking room.

I opt instead to sit in reception – or here, in the business centre – for the next few hours before I can head to the airport and home, to boilwash everything I brought with me.

So here I am. It’s nearly 5am in Amsterdam, as Michelle Shocked once said. And I’m crazy tired, itchy all over, grumpy and killing time.

Plus, of course, mentally composing my Tripadvisor review.

07 Oct

Synchronicity and gaming

I was interested to learn (via Mashable) that Hipster social location game Foursquare is launching in London at the end of the week. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s not in fact the primary school playground game we used to call “Champ”, but a location based social networking game played mainly via mobile apps, which involves players “checking in” whenever they visit a bar, restaurant, event or hangout to receive points based on frequency, pattern of activity, who else checks in at the same time as them and so on (there’s a full breakdown of points awarded in their Wikipedia entry). With enough points, a player becomes the “Mayor” of a particular venue, until someone else overtakes them.

Friends (and family) in the US tell me that it is hopelessly addictive and that it’s increasingly the first thing people do when arriving at an event these days.

I’m not sure that London has enough social butterflies and hipsters to make this take off in much the same way (who am I trying to kid? Of course it does!) but it reminded me a bit of two other things I’ve been engaged with in recent time.

The first is recently-acquired by Nokia social travel tracker Dopplr, which contains strong elements of synchronicity and coincidence built in to the user experience – while no points are awarded, the service tells you when your friends will be visiting your city, or when your scheduled trip will coincide with that of another traveller you’re linked to. In theory, that could mean that you’d be able to drop people a line saying “Hey, Dopplr tells me you’re going to be in Madrid at the same time I’m going to be there – let’s do lunch!” though in practice my experience has been that I tend to know when friends are going to be in the same place as me because we’re going there for the same conference or wedding or whatever.

But another game I’ve been playing recently (and really getting into) is the rather marvellous noticin.gs which is wonderfully simple yet very addictive. The game involves taking photos of things you’ve spotted and then geotagging them on Flickr.

You get points for noticing things
and points for being geographically near someone else’s noticing
and points for being the first noticing in a new area
and points for being noticed within a few minutes of another player’s noticings
and so on.

All you need to do to play is take a photo and upload it to Flickr, tag it “noticings” and make sure it has location data – some mobile phone apps include this on upload, but if not, you can always do it manually later, bearing in mind that points are only calculated on the previous 24 hours of noticings.

It appeals to me partly because it’s a habit I have anyway (spotting interesting things on my daily routine or extraordinary explorations and migrations across town) combined with a delicious frisson of pointy reward but for things which are not to do with effort but to do with coincidence and synchronicity and chance.

In other words, playing the game is rewarding in itself because it encourages you to open your eyes and capture interesting stuff in the everyday; getting points for doing so in a time/place which coincides (or not) with another player’s actions which you couldn’t know about is a delightful, random cherry on top.

04 Sep

The many ways in which the experience of Twitter’s development and growing popularity is very much like the experience of early blogging

The reminder a couple of weeks ago that pioneering blog publishing engine Blogger was launched ten years ago got me thinking.

I’ve been blogging for nearly ten years now – since it began with a W – and being involved with something from the beginning, plus passionate (and sometimes despondent) about its potential and usage in the years since means I’ve had a lot of time to watch and think about how it has matured and been used. There are certain things which we can now look back on and consider milestones in the development and maturing of blogging – like how the media responded to it, how people embraced and used it and how it penetrated mainstream web usage over time.

Likewise, Twitter.

Like blogging (which I started doing in January 2000, and used Blogger to publish my blog from April of that year), I’ve been using Twitter since relatively early on – my earliest update via Twitter was in November 2005. I’d link to it, but
a) it’s in my private/personal account (@megp) and
b) all my archived tweets (pre July 31 2009) have disappeared, as experienced by many others in this thread on the Twitter help forum.

It’s actually that help forum – and the appalling petulant and rude manner in which some users are addressing Twitter staff – which got me thinking more specifically about how, in so many ways, the timeline of the Twitter story mirrors that of Blogger and early blogging. Both have seen similar patterns of early usage and behaviour and adoption by certain functional and social groups, and both have learnt – the hard way, sometimes – about technical and social scaling issues as well as being a playground for emergent behaviours and activities, and all the fun and challenge that comes with that.

This isn’t an attempt to demonstrate that startups and new technologies are subject to many of the same pressures and reception issues – that’s been clearly documented and brilliantly expressed in Gartner’s Hype Curve. Rather, I wanted to explore some of the striking similarities in specific situations, movements and experiences in the early days of both micropublishing and blogging, from the perspective of an early settler and long-term resident of both of these strange and wonderful new(ish) countries.

So here’s something I’ve been working on for a little while: it’s a very approximate timeline of the activities, patterns, behaviours and reactions experienced by both Twitter (/micropublishing) and Blogger (/early blogging) during their first few years.
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02 Sep

One in 10:10

Yesterday, a new empowering climate change campaign called 10:10 launched with the aim of encouraging as many people, companies and institutions as possible to sign up to a pledge to cut their personal carbon footprints by 10% during 2010.

Here’s a chunk from one of the articles from yesterday’s Guardian G2:

The 10:10 campaign, which is launched today in partnership with the Guardian, is designed both to answer the call for immediate action, and to offer individuals and organisations a meaningful way of taking it. It is the brainchild of Franny Armstrong, the irrepressible film-maker behind The Age of Stupid, a powerful docudrama about our failure to tackle climate change. The idea is compellingly simple: by signing up, individuals and organisations from multinational companies to schools and hospitals commit to doing their best to cut their emissions by 10% by the end of 2010, precisely the sort of deep, quick cut the scientists say is needed.

You can read much more about the initiative, the launch, the philosophy behind it and the difference that such an apparently small commitment would make here on the Guardian environment site (The Guardian is a supporting partner of 10:10, though this probably earns it a higher place on the IoS’s smuggest Britons list – this year we were included for being “Patronising toffs, taking their revenge on the world after being bullied at school.” Does that mean the IoS are pro-bully? Or just bitter? Most confusing. Anyway, I digress.) or at the official campaign site at http://www.1010uk.org.

I signed up yesterday:

I signed up

10% is a very achievable reduction for the vast majority of people, and can be made through a small number of very simple (and not too hairshirted) actions (which we should all be doing anyway and which take very little effort)..

I’m inspired to think that a committed movement of people making small, personal but significant actions might be able to make a real difference. What was it Margaret Mead said…?

I hope you will consider signing up, too, and encourage your friends to do likewise, even though I know that many people try to live in an environmentally-sensitive way already, for lots of varying individual reasons.

Proselytizing aside, I went along to the launch event yesterday at the Tate Modern on London’s south bank, and had a few thoughts and experiences there that I wanted to jot down while they were still in my head.
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19 Aug

Fogtown

Oops. It all went a bit quiet there for a while, while I was on holiday. Sorry.

Downtown

We went to San Francisco to visit my lovely sister and brother outlaw, and spent a lovely week and a bit wandering around the city; meeting up for food and banter with various friends; watching unexpected 1940s-themed burlesque in a jazz bar in Haight Ashbury; exploring Golden Gate Park and Noe Valley and the Mission and Japantown and other areas both new and familiar; drinking margaritas the size of our heads and summer ales from local breweries; going to the baseball; clothes and art and sushi rolling equipment shopping; watching lovely movies (Up in 3D a particular highlight); picnicking in Napa valley (the wines (and views!) at Artesa are phenomenal, especially the Meritage, and I highly recommend the deli at V.Sattui) plus a night in Sausalito (nested holidays rock) and more pleasant pootling around the Bay area (eating at In’n’Out – I had my burger animal style, natch, but don’t ask how many calories are in the chocolate shake) and playing minigolf in the blazing sunshine.

You're looking the wrong way

This building, viewed from the roof of SFMOMA, looks like something Gothamesque

Speaking of sunshine, everyone we spoke to before we went said in dubious tones “San Francisco in August? Better pack your thermals” and “don’t forget to bring a jacket” and “well, you can forget the sunglasses”

So we did.

In'n'out

And then we got there, and it was balmy and beautifully sunny every day and we ended up having to go shopping for more summery clothes (me) and sandals & sunglasses (P) plus silly hats to wear at the baseball (both, but you’ll never see the photos) and sunscreen. Phew!

Now, I’ll accept that we were staying on the traditionally “sunny” side of the city, but even our local resident experts had told us it was pretty chilly, and that the fog belt was heavy every afternoon. But the reputation for fog and summer chills wasn’t fulfilled in the slightest.

So it came as something of a relief when, on our last afternoon, we drove up to Sutro Heights for a picnic on our way to the airport for our flight home, and discovered the whole of Ocean Beach wraithed in white fluffy stuff. So that’s where they’d been hiding it all week.

Some photos here – more to come when I’ve recovered from jetlag a bit.

Anyway, I’m back. What did I miss?

26 Jul

Malapostrophication (redux)

Seth Godin poses the question “Am I the only one distracted by apostrophes and weird quoting?

When I get a manuscript or see a sign that misuses its and it’s and quotes, I immediately assume that the person who created it is stupid.

I understand that this is a mistake on my part. They’re not necessarily totally stupid, they’re just stupid about apostrophes.

No, it’s not just you Seth. We are judging them.

Slapdash malapostrophication

Longtime readers of this site may be aware that this is a particular bugbear of mine, and one that I have ranted about previously in these pages – with specific reference to marketing and other professional communications – and devised a classification system or malapostrophication offences, to boot.

1. Permissible Error
This usually means that the sign is handwritten, chalked or otherwise home-produced, and is generally an indication that the writer was in a hurry, or without English as a mother tongue, or both, and can therefore be permitted to make a small, apostrophe-sized slip once in a while. Classic greengrocer’s apostrophe territory.

2. Should Know Better
These are usually printed items which are created for a one-off, limited audience purpose. It tends to be that this usage is seen in charity shops, local church/school/community organisation newsletters and on the stand-up A-frame boards for independent delicatessens and sandwich shops. Most of these will have either been created by the proprietor or, occasionally, created by a signwriter acting under direct comission commission (oops!) from the owner. 99% of the time, it’s a plural error.

3. Utterly unforgivable
These are the real clangers. High distribution (vast print run – adverts, merchandise and the like), very visible channels (like billboards and television), otherwise high production values (design, or materials used) and – most importantly of all – very likely to have passed (in copy, design and approval stages) through the hands of several people, at least one of whom should have spotted the mistake. This is a quality issue, and is something that creative or marketing agencies (especially) are particularly bad at managing.

Apostrolypse now

That post from March last year contains a number of photographic examples, too.

As an additional example, here’s a photo of our local chippy, captured for posterity by one of my neighbours:

All the right bits, just not necessarily in the right place.

It’s been like that for at least the six years I’ve lived here, and I’ve come to think of it as one would a slightly batty aunt – well meaning, a little scatty, beyond redemption but utterly forgiveable because she knows how to make a mean saveloy & chips.

24 Jul

It must be time for another rant about commuting, surely?

Given that I currently spend a minimum of two and a half hours in transit every day, I’ve been pondering for a while whether there’s a particular thing that would improve my commute.

Certainly less time on public transport would be a boon, but would unfortunately mean living somewhere either entirely unaffordable or unsavoury, neither of which I’m keen to do.

So in the absence of cutting the time spent down, I’ve been wondering whether the addition or removal of anything specific might actually make the whole thing more tolerable.

Not going yet

The short list so far includes:

  • Air conditioning on the tube: not a big thing at the moment, and I understand there’s work under way, but some of the lines – the Victoria, mainly – do seem to get ever so fetid in summer rush hours
  • Turning off the heating on London bus services: I know that it’s probably related to the engine of the bus, but there’s been times on my twice-daily bustrek that I’ve been sure I could smell something singeing. Like human flesh. Forty years ago, we managed to put a man on the moon. Are we seriously unable to stop grilles pumping out heat on buses during the hottest part of the year?
  • People shutting up on the tube: I know it’s a bit anti-social, but on the longest bit of the tube journey, I generally try and read, and if people are shouting at each other in English, Spanish, French or German, I find it enormously distracting, no matter how loud the music in my ears is. So sometimes I wish they’d SHUSH or (better and less grumpy) that there was a dedicated reading/quiet carriage, like on long-distance trains.
  • Less human chaos in and around King’s Cross Underground station: I know they’re redeveloping it at the moment, but the fact that there’s only one main entrance/exit which is around a hairpin corner from the ticket gates means that every day – without fail – is a seething mass of bewildered tourists and idiots dragging suitcases behind them and tripping people up while looking for the right exit for the Eurostar, all bottlenecked into a pretty narrow space.

    Plus don’t get me started on the poor escalator and platform etiquette I observe daily – standing still in the “fast lane” or in the doorway to a platform is still one of the quickest ways to get punched in the back of the head in London. Fact.

    In fact, I feel that a general reduction in human idiocy between stepping off the tube and stepping into the office would be a massive (but unlikely) improvement: the main problem here is that I work close to a major transport hub, so all human life is there, albeit mainly just standing about gormlessly and smoking.

    And on a related point, whose bloody stupid idea was it to put a major bus stop on a bit of pavement just around the corner from the station on York Way? The pavement is so narrow and there are regularly 100+ people waiting for the next bus to trundle along, and since they’re not as well-versed in the art of queueing as their W/SW London compatriots, that makes it impossible to actually walk down the pavement, which instead means anyone wishing to do so needs to make a detour into the (three lane, busy) road, which can’t be a long-term good idea.

The tube renovators can't spell

All of these things are irritating, and removal/refinement/improvement in each area would doubtless improve both the experience of commuting and the state of my mood when I arrive in the office or back at home.

But after much consideration, I must conclude that the single thing that would improve my commute – and, I’m sure, that of countless other poor souls in London – is some sort of ASBO preventing people in branded T-shirts from handing out free commuter newspapers while standing in the middle of the pavement.

Thrust

I appreciate that their job is to hand out free newspapers, but standing in the middle of a busy public thoroughfare, desperately thrusting free sheets into the hands of harassed commuters may well be an effective way of dispensing resources but it’s a remarkably piss-poor strategy for making people feel well-minded towards the companies who instruct their minions to do so.

Thruster

Every evening is like a gauntlet of dodging the eager profferings of these branded thrusters. It’s not enough that I don’t actually want to take one of their papers – I still have to dodge and swerve around them as they slow traffic by standing directly in front of the entrance to the station, or in the middle of the pavement, or at the point at which the pelican crossing disgorges onto the main pavement from the road.

I don’t blame the individuals, but I do wish I could get a message to their shift supervisor, or whoever instructs them in the tactics of their tasks.

So here’s a message, specifically to whoever’s in charge of distribution training at thelondonpaper and London Lite, in the hope that this mention will get picked up by their social media signal filters:

Tell your uniformed distributors to stand beside rather than in the flow of foot traffic around major stations and busy areas.

If you don’t, I’m going to report them – and you – for causing an obstruction and endangering safety on the public highway, and start a campaign to get your antisocial tactics banned altogether.

Here endeth the rant.

13 Jul

Time tourism

Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could not only visit a particular place for a holiday but visit it during a particular era?

Looking back at the city

I’ve been thinking about this in preparation for our upcoming visit to San Francisco, a city that I know and love and have visited a number of times over the past 20 years (erk!). It’s always good to visit (and especially so nowadays, as I have family and friends there), but on the train the other day I found myself ruminating about how interesting it would be to visit that incredible city, but during it’s hippified free-love-and-flowers-in-your-hair heyday in the late sixties. Or during the wild days of the Barbary coast?

San Francisco Panorama

What if you could book a holiday in the past?

That got me thinking about other places with particular times it would be interesting or characteristic to visit – like Manhattan during the late 50s and early 60s – the Madmen era.

Or London during the swinging 60s…wait, is this just a 60s thing? No, there must be other places with characterful or formative times associated with them…. Help me out here.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine that the tourism time machine doesn’t go further than 200 years without your face melting off, so no visiting of Pompei or having hot chocolate with the Aztecs.

Where would you choose? And when?