Monday, 28 November 2011

Headline Virus Spreads Through Facebook!

As stories propagate through the world's leading social network irrespective of readers interest, is it time for Facebook tae think again about their news strategy?

This morning I saw a headline on Facebook: Harry Potter's secret is out after PR slip gives... and it tantalisingly stopped there.  What with the last film being out and the last film long since published, I was quite curious about what secrets might be left to let slip, so I read the article, which was about some web-based project.  I continued reading down to the comments section, where the first comment was:
Um... beta details for this have been available for a long time, and I have played this in September - unless the alleged leak applies to the second book or later of Pottermore; then it really doesn't matter.
And then came a second comment:
Check the article date. 23 June 2011.

Aha!  I haven't even thought to do this myself.  So this isn't really news.  And worse -- it turns out that this story is currently the number 1 shared item on the website.

How did this happen?

Simple - if you read the story, it gets added to your profile.  But when I say "read", I simply mean "click on the link".  There is no attempt made to verify that it's an article that you find interesting or relevant, and the story spreads to others who will find the headline compelling but similarly find the content lacking.

The top 5 most shared stories on the Independent website are:
  1. Harry Potter's secret is out after PR slip gives the game away - 23rd June 2011
  2. Inbetweeners boys bullied on set - 4th August 2011
  3. A-Level Results: Britain's top pupil rejects Oxbridge - 20th August 1999
  4. Father, 11, hides as pregnant girl faces the media - 19th August 1997
  5. Why single-sex schools are bad for your health (if you're a boy) - 1st December 2009
Now while numbers 1 and 2 are subject to fashion and will die off as people lose interest in Harry Potter and The Inbetweeners, numbers 3 and 4 are items that will always draw attention, as evidenced by the fact that they occured last century and are still stimulating interest today.

As such, any sufficiently interesting headline gets converted into an instant trojan that spreads virally through the network.  But unlike most viruses, this doesn't damage our computers, it damages our minds - the news we read starts to make us more ill-informed, and keeps us away from the current stories, and for pity's sake, there's more than enough current news to keep up with already.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Don't work for free, work for charity!

The word "crowdsourcing" is less common now than it was five years ago, but the concept has never been stronger.  It's time tae think again about who profits from this.
A computer program is not just code, it's a combination of code and content.  When we buy a computer game, we're not just paying for the technical side of things, we're paying for the graphics, the sounds, the level design and everything else that goes with it.  The code is worthless to the average gamer without the content, and the content is worthless without the code - the two gain value from each other.
This holds for many things in the digital realm, and yet the concept of "crowdsourcing" has tried to deny this simple truth, because the crowd is told that their contribution is of no monetary value, while a single commercial interest coins in the profits on the crowd's work.

Google, now effectively the world's biggest advertising broker, does a lot of stuff with our data.  A lot of it's really good stuff -- photos of the world organised on maps and the like -- but they're getting paid for it, and we're not.  That would be fine if the data was free for everyone's use, but it's not -- we've not given that data to the world, we've given it to Google.

This model extends to many sites even with paid subscriptions: you pay to sign up, you give your content for free, and someone else pays to use it.  If you're lucky, you get given some "points" to use on the same site... but don't expect to get paid.

One site, a language learning site, asks you to mark content from paying subscribers with the vague offer that in future people with the best tutor rating might (not "will") pick up some work later as paid tutors.

Why doesn't these people pay contributors?

In the question of people like Google and Microsoft, the answer to this question is simple: the data gains its value from volume, and the contribution of any one individual is far too small to have any commercial value in this context.

On sites where each individual submission is an individual work, and not merely a single point in a massive dataset, it would be entirely possible to pay contributors.  But it would make the product more expensive.  These sites are arguably operating illegally, as they are using unpaid labour to gain a commercial advantage on their competitors.  They have both a lower price and (often, not always) a higher volume of material.  It's sharp practice, and it can only lead to more job losses.

An alternative to working for free....

Let's set aside the sites who use crowdsourcing purely out of commercial greed, and focus on those activities that genuinely need high volumes of low-value data.

I want to ask you to cast your minds back to the last century, before we had widespread doorstep collection of recyclables.  How did most recycling get carried out?  Aside from the bottle-bank at your supermarket, most of it was through fundraisers for the Girl Guides or the like.  The monetary value of recyclables was too low to incentivise individuals to recycle, but when amassed by a charitable organisation it made a difference.  Even now no-one recycles house-keys, but at least once Blue Peter ran an appeal collecting these for their scrap metal value.

What is nothing to the individual becomes something on a grand scale.

So even if our labour is worthless to us, someone's going to profit on it.  Why should that be a commercial entity and not a charity?

Think about it.  Imagine if a crowdsourced project had to split its profits 50/50 between the technology and data.  We, the contributors of the data, would sign over our share to a single charitable fund.  Each project could have a list of several charities, and we'd chose a charity.

It would be vital that there's a choice, as charity must always be a matter of conscience -- choosing a single charity would potentially alienate many contributors.

Right now, technology companies are blatantly ignoring labour laws.  There needs to be some kind of regulatory control telling them that they either pay for something or it's not theirs, because "free" is an unfair competitive advantage if it's not free to the whole market.

But regulatory control on the internet will be a long time coming.  In the meantime, I urge anyone who'll listen to show the way by starting this off.  Split your profits between technology and content.  Get your members to pick their charities and start paying out on the content.  Don't just skid along under someone else's power.

Don't Be Evil.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The beginning of the end for the soundbite...?

As the BBC increases access to unedited interview material on-line, is it time for politicians tae think again about their use of soundbites?

The peasants are revolting, and our political classes are having none of it.  According to the BBC news, Labour leader Ed Miliband feels that "these strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are going on".  So they put up an extended section of the interview that gave them this particular soundbite on the BBC News website.

As you can hear, he is asked 5 or 6 questions, and every answer contains a refactoring of the same words - Miliband has one soundbite he wants to give, and nothing else.  Perhaps that's fine for the BBC under most circumstances, but I strongly suspect that in this case they really wanted to interview him, and that this video was put up as a bit of quiet revenge against Miliband for not playing ball.

As a tactic, it's got potential.  Politicians don't really want to talk to us - they want to give us professionally pre-spun platitudes, and keep everything tightly controlled.  But this video clip shows that they're not in complete control, and hopefully will convince them to actually communicate with us, albeit through the intermediary of the interviewer.

So I hope that the BBC keep this up and that other press organisations pick up on it.

If politicians refuse to do a proper interview, let them look like fools.  Maybe by the time the next election comes around, they'll be over their addiction to spin and start talking freely again, like Real Human Beings.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Is Green Good for the Environment?

For years, the green lobby have presented themselves as the guardians of the planet.  But many people look at green campaign issues as impractical flights of fancy.  As big business rallies under a new banner, "sustainability", perhaps it's time tae think again on the reality of ecology in the modern world.

The notion of being "green" really became big news in the 1960s, with the dawning of the environmentalist and ecological movements, but it wasn't until the 80s and the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer that it really became a mainstream issue.

I grew up in an era where TV was dominated by debate on acid rain, the greenhouse effect and rivers poisoned by industrial, domestic and agricultural waste.  Smog was causing athsma, industrial chemicals were causing increases in allergies.  The campaigning of the time was successful, and many of the most harmful substances and practices of the time were banned.  As children, we celebrated that our future was being preserved.

And what now, when the children of the "green revolution" are now settling into marriages and mortgages?  What do generation most informed about the environment do?

Not precious much, truth be told.  We resent the simple act of splitting our rubbish into different bins for recycling, but we pat ourselves on the back for doing it and ignore all the things that we bin unnecessarily.  I've bought, broken and binned several pans in my dozen or so years out of the parental home, and meanwhile my parents have binned none.  My collection of CDs, DVDs and computer games, safely stored in a series of disc caddies, has been responsible for the production of almost a thousand little plastic boxes that have gone to landfill.

And then there is that great totem of our time: the carbon footprint.

Why do I call it a totem?  To me, it is purely symbolic.  Many talk of the "carbon cult", and they're not far wrong.  Very little is understood about the meaning of the carbon footprint by the general population, and to me it seems to have become a substitute for education and critical thinking.

Two examples spring to mind.  In the UK, a best-selling brand of crisps now have a little "carbon footprint" boxout on the back of each pack.  The exact amount escapes me, but the weight of carbon dioxide produced outweighs the weight of the packet in the region of 2:1.  Unfortunately, there is no comparitor that I can use to evaluate whether this is good or bad.  The pack contains a vague promise to work to decrease their carbon footprint.  Nothing anywhere states that these crisps are any better for the environment than their competitors, but the consumer is likely to assume that on the grounds that the environment is mentioned at all.

Even if they are using the environment as a badge to sell a normal product, they're not as bad as my second example: a market-leading laundry detergent that sells itself as good for the environment by allowing washing at low temperatures.  Certainly, low temperature washes have a lower carbon footprint than washes in hot water, but carbon footprints are not the be-all-and-end-all of environmentalism.  Low temperature washes rely on biological agents, and if there's one thing I remember from my childhood TV it's that biological washing powder is one of the worst household polutants, poisoning rivers and killing frogs in particular.

When pollutants can be justified as environmental protection, it is surely fair to say that the carbon cult has indeed got out of hand.

And yet the environmental lobby still love the carbon footprint.  It's easy, it's convenient, and even if their enemies can abuse it, so can they.  Not everyone in the environmental lobby is interested in honesty and openness.  While calling them "human-hating greenies" is unfair, they does seem to be some among them willing to lie on the grounds that the ends justify the means.  (Even the man that coined the term "the ends justify the means", Niccolo Machiavelli, was probably being sarcastic.)

For most of my life, I've heard the same question: how do we make business more environmentally-friendly?  Up until recently, the only answer has been legislation -- any attempt to sell a company as "environmental" has meant a premium pricetag and often an inferior product.  In some cases it has worked -- for example, the Ecover brand of detergents has carved a niche for itself not just in the homes of the "right on" crowd, but has become popular in the Western Isles of Scotland where the locals have a more direct experience of and relationship with their environment.

But that's still not the mainstream, and when it comes to mainstream business, the keyword isn't "ecology" or "environment", but the press like to simplify it all back to "green", but when you listen to someone like Logica's Andy Green, the word you'll hear most is "sustainability".  Green comes across as a man who passionately cares about the environment, a man who understands that caring for the environment is an extension of looking after his children, but he's a successful businessman, and that has to come with viability built in.

Sustainability is an idea with a history far older than environmentalism.  Even the book of Exodus, the second book of the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament and almost 3 millenia old, recounts the story of "mannah from heaven" in the desert, a fable cautioning against taking more than needed from nature.  Every morning, the exiles woke in the desert and on leaving their tents, were faced with more food than they could eat in the form of "mannah".  When one or two of them became concerned that it wouldn't last, they hoarded all they could, and the next day there was less and what they had stored had gone rotten.  The story told is directly analogous to our recent problems of overfishing, where we have simply sucked entire populations of fish out of the sea, leaving less to be caught year on year.

Very few human civilisations have taken so much from nature that nature has been unable to recover.  The worst offender is the civilisation of industrial Europe.  Sources of food that have persisted for millenia wiped out by industrial scale "harvesting".  The forests of Europe stripped bare to fuel furnaces and build ships to conquer foreign nations.  It's only us who have been so stupid as to reduce our resources beyond a level where they can recover of their own accord.

Who will stand up for sustainability?  Unfortunately not the environmental lobby.

Back in January, there was an interesting program on BBC2: The Guga Hunters of Ness.  It follows the work of a small group of locals in a small Scottish island community who travel out once a year to catch and kill young gannets on a remote sea skerry.  This tradition dates back centuries to when food was scarce.  In years gone by, catching and preserving the guga provided them with most of their meat for the year.  The SSPCA want an end to the hunt, saying that it is unnecessarily cruel and that it is no longer required as a source of food.

However, the number of birds breeding on the skerry has been constantly increasing over recent years to the point where the hunt has become exceptionally easy, as demonstrated in the film by comparing the climbing required 50 years ago with the locations from where the young birds can now be simply picked up without any serious risk to the hunters.

This is sustainable. It is a source of food that has a negligible effect on the environment.  As more and more traditional sources of food are banned and our palette narrows, we are increasing pressure on the environment.  Sustainability comes from diversity -- a little of this, a little of that.  The birds on Sulasgeir and places like it have very little in the way of natural predators.  They live in places that we cannot farm.  Their main source of food is fish, and one of their biggest competitors for that food is man.  The more we can take from the wild, the less land we have to dedicate to intensive farming, and the more is available for wild animals.

The green lobby should be championing this, but many of them started from a vegetarian standpoint which they are unwilling to abandon.  To them, it is impossible to accept that eating animals might actually be the best thing for animals in the long term.