Saturday, July 09, 2011

Dare we hope?

Are we witnessing the start of a crumbling News International media empire in Britain? Only sales figures will tell.

Thinking back on the decades since Murdoch owned the Sun, his influence has been significant. It was the flight to Wapping and subsequent strikes that are in my consciousness as the equivalent of the miners' strikes, showing how unions could be broken and working conditions gradually stripped back, not because of a lack of rights but because workers willingly entered into jobs or continued them in an industry they felt passionate about. I moved away from that industry, as I've stayed out of party politics, under the assumption that I could never change the things that made me feel uncomfortable, even fearful at times.

And yet things are changing.

I have renewed respect for the Guardian, whose relatively quiet work on this story has underpinned all that we now tweet and retweet. The patience that the editor has had in commissioning journalists goes against the belief I had developed that all newspapers only chase the fast story, the easy conflict. There are other journalists with stories that will be equally, if not more important, whose time could still come. The unpredictable thing about online mobs is that, like a swarm of bees, they can land anywhere.

There is the possibility that buyers of newspapers will look again at what they're reading and look around, try one of the different, very good newspapers that are still being produced. That they might think a little more about the sources of the stories that are so compelling and wonder whose privacy has been invaded, whose door has been knocked upon, to get it. They might, as they did this week, think "What if that was my family?" Newspaper sales may have declined, but there is still a market there of millions, and the potential to grow many more with investment in news that people want to read. Newspapers, after all, have been running on the web model of micropayments and advertising for centuries and most of the infrastructure is still there. Time may be up for newspapers that simply rewrite what we can already find online, that don't allow their journalists to do the job that we need: curate, reflect, dig deeper, ask questions.

As Nick Davies said in much more detail in Flat Earth News, phonehacking was a part of the churnalism culture. It's cheap and easy to do from your desk. You don't even need to send an agency hack round for the deathknock. There were no ethical considerations before it was made illegal because they were just responding to the market. Why would millions of people buy a product or advertise within it when the means of making it would, apparently from this week, disgust them? We can only assume that they didn't know, or they hadn't thought about it. And that, in itself, has a lot to do with an addictive, fast-moving culture that wasn't a Murdoch invention, it was being written about in the 50s and probably before that. Stuff that drives the emotions, gives people a sense of belonging, provides enjoyment.

Could we imagine a market for regional and even local newspapers, working with the web, the millions of voices that can be so easily found now, to provide newspapers that are enjoyable as well as useful, where they can say "nobody was hurt in the making of this newspaper (except in the public interest)".

Dare we hope for more diversity in mainstream journalism in the future; a change in the industry that, maybe without intending to, produces the same homogeneity we see in politics? That communications officers might be hired to share messages, not 'manage' them? And that the Labour party might stop blaming everyone else for a second and talk about why they spent so many years inflating the power of people who, at the end of the day, just run some newspapers? And rather than calling for new laws (which will be completely unenforceable now we can publish from anywhere), look at why our existing laws weren't applied?

Twitter is an intense place to be at the moment and emotions are running high. It has, after all, been an amazing week for news. I guess I'm writing this blog as a reminder to myself to step back, to take a bit of time to think, and to encourage more of the careful, thoughtful work that we have seen so much of this week, from powerless people as well as the big names. Let's not get too addicted to the thrilling rush of the next twist. Let's not, as newspapers might, overplay the power of 'social media' which is as meaningless as saying it was the News of the World that hacked those phones.

Luckily for us - on the whole, we are lucky to live in a country like Britain - our version of the Arab Spring won't see us overthrowing a brutal dictator. But there are parallels, especially for those in my generation and younger who have never known a world without Page 3 (for any overseas readers who might stumble upon this: topless women seen as soon as we open a number of tabloid newspapers). And there are also serious questions to be raised about some of the things that have been ignored over the years. I hope politicians and grassroots activists will feel emboldened to tell their stories and speak out about things they have been frightened about in the past. None of this will be easy. It requires exchange, education and probably all sorts of other things I haven't even thought about yet but I'm sure others have.

Because if there's one thing I know which makes me hopeful, it's that there is an amazing world of good people making rapid new connections and, maybe, shifting old power structures, even just a fraction.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

If Twitter was a nation state... would be Sparta.

Disciplined, it makes its members perfectly concise, not like those verbose chatterers of Facebook and Google+. The harsh isolation of Unfollows for those who transgress against unwritten rules. A stern framework with boundaries. Full of strange rituals, games that appear on the surface so pointless. There be wolves and other dangers and tests which all young tweeters must face.

But it's so frikkin' cool! The ladies so tough and sexy, its citizens standing up and fighting for what they believe in!

Twitter looks like a mess at first. But suddenly the enemy realises there are hundreds, maybe thousands of tribes, all standing together with one voice when they have to,

Shouting: this is Twitter!

(admitted: I learnt everything I recall about Roman history from the film 300)

Monday, July 04, 2011

It's time for an entente cordiale

As anyone who bothers reading my updates on Twitter or Facebook knows, I got very excited indeed about Google+, finally got in and have been enjoying playing with it for a few days now. First impressions are very positive, with the usual reservations of any beta Google product and the excitement that us early-adopting geeks always have when we get to link to the same people in exciting new ways.

Google+'s engineering is very snazzy indeed - although it doesn't have as many features as many of us imagined, we have faith that they will come and with a very few glitches what it has built works very well indeed. An exciting sign is that Google's generally fairly antisocial founders are using Google+ to share and an interesting one is that Mark Zuckerberg is lurking there, not sharing in public but making some circles. It's intriguing enough that he has already been ranked as Google+'s most popular user. Yep, geek gossip heaven, this stuff.

My biggest request now is not new features, but a friendly agreement. The big three - Google, Twitter and Facebook - are so ingrained in our lives now that it's hard to imagine us drifting away from any of them, but so it was with Myspace. I don't doubt that everyone expects to see a massive battle to the death with one winner, but I'd prefer another path.

For someone like me, Google Circles is already an interface that I really like using. I want to make my public updates broadcast straight to Twitter. I would prefer however, to continue to read most updates on the Twitter interface because the updates there are snappier. The only reason anyone can follow more than 1,000 people on Twitter is that we say very little on there. Perfect.

I would love to have a circle called Facebook, where me and people who were happy to authorise the link could communicate, with me on Google+ and them on Facebook. Then, while they play on Farmville, I can be reading and +1ing the latest geeky discussions in my stream. Or Reader articles; Reader needs to become incorporated into Google+ forthwith, they could simply merge it into Sparks. Oh yeh, and I want this blog post to automatically go into my Circles stream - *obviously*.

What I'm trying to say is we all want something different: we want to concoct our own unique mix, a little bit of Twitter here and a little bit of Facebook there, a few of Google magical interfaces pulled together into one page. For that to happen, we need the big three to give us the ability to push and pull our data very easily, to link up our contacts rather than duplicate groups and to manage our communication in whichever ways work for us, not the way websites lay on for us. Each site will always have features that you have to visit the site to use but we should not have to feel like we're dumping old friends by spending more time in new communities just because we like a new interface more (or just because we're super-twitchy early adopting geeks). Twitter, Google and Facebook all have an interest in making 'their' site the universal website, but equal interest in defending an open, social web and making it easy for us to connect communities. I mean genuinely easy too, not just 'we'll make it really easy for you as long as you come over to us' easy.

Facebook has everyone I love (at least all of them who have joined Facebook), therefore I have a lot of affection for it. Twitter and Google have my trust because they work so well I barely notice them and they connect me with information and people I like and respect. Love and trust are very emotional ways to talk about websites, but this illustrates how much these tools have become part of our lives and the way people interact. There are billions of unique individuals using the web and website developers do not need to seek universal use. By improving on the different strengths of their sites and their communities as they evolve, they will create stronger loyalty amongst their users and this in turn makes it more likely that we'll build up more detailed profiles and be served more useful, efficient advertising. And while all of you enjoy your riches, the rest of us can enjoy the rich variety of the ecosystem.