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The failure to explain

In the wake of the recent UK elections for members of the European Parliament, I am unbelievably fed up of hearing that the rise of undesirable parties is the fault of non-voters.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

All. The. Fucking. Time.

It is not.

I am fed up of being told that if I don’t vote I am not entitled to an opinion.

I am.

Let me be clear – I have an opinion, and I am not going to stop having one because you believe that you have the right to tell me what you think I should do about it.

There are two strands here which bind together in an ever-quicker plunge into a vortex of dumb that will doom us all. Not that I want to over-cook it, but I mean it this time – this is the stuff that is going to fuck us right up… The first strand you know, already. C’mon, deep down you know it. And you know it isn’t just you or me. It’s the people you’ve been listening to, too. C’mon, it’s OK. We can let it go. Together.

1. The trend towards “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP”

You do not know what you are talking about. You looked something up on Google. You listened to a friend’s rant in the pub; you read something by that columnist you like. You took an opinion – someone’s interpretation of the facts that they arranged into a pleasing narrative – and you made that opinion your own. I do this all the time and so do you.

To pick a UKIP topic, everyone has an opinion on the EU. Do you know what makes it work? Why it exists? Do you even know that some of it might function adequately and appropriately? Or have you only been listening to all the fun, easy-to-remember bits about stupid rules and corrupt bureaucracies?

Seriously, this woman was a freak with a vision of a world that ignores what 90% of the population are actually like. And people adopt her narrative as if it's the only thing in the world worth listening to.

It’s always at least partly Ayn Rand’s fault.

What’s your take on the effect leaving the EU would have on the UK economy? What do you think about tax cuts? Interest rates? House prices? Perhaps you completed your PHD in economics after a decade of study and research and followed it up with a decade of experience in practically applying it to be able to deduce an adequate opinion.

No? Oh, so you have an economics-based background of some sort, right? Or perhaps, at least, you’ve read a good few of the classics of economic literature? You read quite a bit about economic theory other than just leader columns in newspapers or leaflets that came through the letterbox? Maybe just a few contemporary thought-leaders in… wait – hang on, I get the feeling you never did any of those things. Why do you think your opinion is valuable again? Have you checked it against the leading opposing argument to see how it stacks up? No?

Fuck off, then.

We all follow up the tendency to think we know what we’re talking about but this is going beyond mere debate and exploration and delving into deep pools of madness.

So, the latest round of politically and morally bankrupt narratives surrounding immigration and the time-honoured tradition of blaming Johnny Foreigner for everything comes around again. Never mind that nobody really knows any of the immigration facts; never mind that the reality of the economy is that it is made of many complex threads which can barely be affected by governments and policies, dependent as they are on global circumstances beyond our understanding.

Instead, people buy the pleasing, easy-to-understand narrative. And because it is pleasing, because it “chimes” they will tell you that they “know what they know and shut up.” The power of the narrative has become all-encompassing.

If the narrative sounds right to you, it must follow that it is right.

This brings us to strand 2:

2. “The Failure To Explain”

Go on, tell me why free education is important. Then tell me about the importance of healthcare. Tell me why the banks shouldn’t pay bonuses; later, you can give me your explanation of why Michael Gove is an arse or Ed Miliband is whatever he is or why Nick Clegg is just a house-can’t-use-that-word-any-more. Then you can explain why you can’t use “that word” any more, right?

Offensive? Maybe. But not as offensive as enabling the most ideological parliament in recent UK history despite that party's ideology having been voted for by a minority of the population. Good work, Lib Dems!

Nick Clegg, yesterday. Just helping out the massas.

Except for the most part, you can’t.

Because either you actually don’t have a cogent argument (because it is a belief you have grown up with and adopted – see above) or because you don’t have the ability to communicate with your audience.

Try explaining why welfare or taxation are important to a 14 year old at the bus stop. Or maybe just someone who isn’t as middle class as you are. No fucking chance, mate. Then try it with someone just as middle class as you are. Then, when you’ve listened to them drone on about whatever version of the narrative they last heard on 5 Live / Radio 4 / Match of The Day, you can deduce that there is no substance whatsoever. Mainly because they can’t quite remember the exact words, the salient points, just their own slightly corrupted, waffly and inconsistent version. They don’t have to try hard to remember these things because “I KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT SO YOU SHUT UP.”

These issues were important 50 years ago because people had lived through the circumstances these policies were designed to eradicate. Now the same people these policies are meant to help no longer realise or understand that they affect them. They have no idea. And you are not helping.

Bankrupt and dead ideologies – party politics and religion alike, philosophies that were imagined to explain an era long in the past, are simply not equipped to adopt to change. And like it or not, the world always changes. And it is changing quicker than ever.

But when you combine the polarisation – which comes as a result of everyone thinking they are right without the need to hear another side to the argument  – with the failure to properly explain their own argument, then GUESS WHAT! People just drop both sides. Or take the easy argument that appeals. The pleasing narrative, the one they actually understand.

Voting? Fuck off. The old jokes of “the government always wins” are writ large; they all end up tasting like shit – just slightly different flavours of shit. A choice between a big plate of shit and a big plate of shit with extra cheese is not a choice. You want some shit? No? But it’s got extra cheese!

You want me to vote? Explain why. Explain what you have that is meant to be appealing to me and my values. Maybe explain why I should have any values at all. A lot of talk based on opinion polls is just politics, not government. There is no choice, so why choose?

The illusion of this kind of choice and why people get involved is something I wrote about a long time ago in a music magazine far, far away. At the time it was all “Kylie vs. Posh Spice” and “Blur vs. Oasis.” If you’d asked me if I liked Kylie I would have said no. Likewise for Posh. But ask me which one I’d prefer and suddenly I have to make a choice. I didn’t like either, but I did feel the need to choose. The same went for Oasis and Blue – the implicit polarisation in the question drove people to choose and this helped both sides’ record sales. Disinterested fence-sitters became fans. Nice trick. Behavioural economics at work, right?

Well, I fucking hated all 4 of them. And I wouldn’t have voted for any of them, either.

This, of course, is where people step in and say “But you need to vote for those guys – or those other guys will get in!!” So let me say this straight:

If the best reason you have for someone to vote for your party is that the other guy is shit then you have nothing worth voting for.

You are the Dave channel, showing the Top Gear rerun for the 3098th time, knowing full well that you will pick up sufficient viewers who will choose you as the least-shit thing on. And that will do. You know people won’t just shut the TV off – just like Labour and Tories,  Republicans and Democrats; they know you won’t shut off their bullshit game, either.

But the game has changed.

The masses are people you do not know. I see them in the data I work with, but they are practically unrecognised in the media. UKIP tipped the nod to many who may be unengaged with politics, but they still had to be registered to vote and know what to do. There really is a silent majority out there and they do not know how to vote or – most importantly – why the hell they should. And I’m not talking about underclasses or squeezed middles or any of that narrative-driven crap. I’m talking about all kinds of people who are out there living their lives without any reference to newspapers or news programmes, Westminster or whatever.

With thanks to a random B3ta user whose name I could not find

Plane-crashing twat.

They don’t vote because nobody has ever given them a good reason why they should. If you don’t know what it’s like not to have free education, you don’t know what it’s like to want it. If you didn’t live through polio epidemics you probably don’t have an idea what it’s like to see your friends die. The explanations that worked for generations that did experience those things are not going to work for those that did not.

The arrogance of people going around telling them that they know they should vote, that people died for it, that not voting causes cancer – whatever narrative works for them, huh? – you really think that’s going to work? That the world will change because of such weak premises?

When voter turnout is so low, when the debate is so criminally under-informed, it is time to hit the reset button. The old arguments are done; they are boring; if they are important, they need a rewrite and a re-representation. But if you are clinging to the current crop of political parties, you are the problem. You are just a ripple in the far reaches of the pond, far from where the original rock was dropped, the last dribbled smear of a once-joyful but long-spent ejaculation.

You have a point of view? EXPLAIN. Convince me using evidence you came up with through investigation, checking facts, using experience you have actually earned. Stop bullshitting based on other people’s bullshit.

But tell me again that my failure to vote for your favoured shitty candidate is responsible for whatever ills you perceive in society and watch what response you get. I assure you, it won’t be an especially democratic one.

The failure to explain is everywhere.

And that is the real threat to democracy.

 

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Look at all the lovely things a link spammer says

When a notification arrives in my inbox to approve a comment, it’s often just a link spammer.[If this practice is unknown to you, people do it purely in the hope that (a) someone might read the comment and click the link to their profile / direct to their blog, leading them to whatever sorry sack of crap they're peddling and/or (b) in the hope it helps their search rankings. Meh.]

Anyway, the latest is a joy as this particular brain-dead moron seems to have pasted every single one of their comments into one post. Obviously they keep them all in a text file and then cut and paste as needed. So, in case you’re stuck for a comment on someone’s blog, just choose from those below and you’re good to go.

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The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: debunking marketing bullshit since 1968

Segmentation. It’s been part of marketing for eons, but now the age of Big Data is bringing it all into a new level of efficacy. And bullshit, obviously.

Obviously.

Obviously.

But what do such terms mean? Segmentation means working out who your audience is so you can advertise to them more effectively – splitting them up into segments so you can pick the message that’s most relevant to each one rather than a “one size fits all” approach.

Big Data? Your company collect loads of data and has done for years: from purchase information to website analytics, email addresses to birthdays and anniversaries. And now you want to use it, but there’s so much of it you don’t have the manpower to sift through it all. So you need software to do it for you and come up with the insights you need to be more effective.

So put those two things together and you have loads of data which should help you understand your customer better to inform your marketing and product decision-making processes.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Now, marketing types love a bit of segmentation. It’s always in the top 3 of management consultants recommendations when they don’t know what else to suggest: “Perhaps it’s time to segment your database?” is right up there with “ Let’s look at a loyalty programme” and “We should consider retargeting as an online marketing tactic.” It all sounds lovely when spoken authoritatively and with a big folder of research statistics to hand to make it look like it’s all based on sound evidence, of course. But does it actually work?

"Wrestle poodles... AND WIN!!"

“Wrestle poodles… AND WIN!!”

Well, yes, actually. It isn’t controversial to say that well-targeted messages  perform better than poorly-targeted generic ones. But there is often something missing – a soul. The hidden extra factors that make something human are not always revealed in data because – despite what neuro-marketers wish you to believe – we simply don’t understand everything about how the human mind works. As such, expensively-produced marketing that works by the numbers can – and sometimes does – still fail.

And so to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band. For the unfamiliar, an acid-drenched muso-fest of a band, public schoolboys who got beaten up during sports lessons but excelled at music; classically-trained bods who, through a love of comedy, eccentricity and, erm, psychedelic drugs, somehow uncovered many fine truths about what it is to be British that still hold up some 40 years after their heyday.

I had heard the song “Urban Spaceman” a thousand times before it suddenly clicked what it’s really all about. The 1960s saw advertising take off in whole new directions, along with the increase in media space to deliver it. And so, the song was a paean to these characters seen only in adverts – beautiful superhumans beyond reproach, not a human flaw amongst them.

Only the last line of the song reveals the truth – I’ll leave the punchline to them. And marvel at how a bunch of very fine musicians with an odd sense of humour realised it long before the rest of us.

 

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“25 minutes to go (in a marketing meeting).” With apologies to Johnny Cash.

Found this scribbled on a scrap of paper in a forgotten jacket. It was an excruciating meeting. The endless clock-watching led to the voice of Johnny Cash appearing in my head. It helped. A little. It’s about as worthy a tribute to his memory as this delightful place…

Respectful

Listen: it’s the sound of a grave and a lot of spinning

And so…

The agenda suggests there’s… “25 minutes to go” – Live From Kensington Hilton Prison 

Well, they’re talking about shit that no-one needs… …and there’s 25 minutes to go
“This is how we get machine sales to breed”
24 minutes to go
Well, the woman keeps talking but she makes no sound,
23 minutes to go
And the audience keeps nodding at the things she’s found
22 minutes to go  

“Giving people x makes them want to buy y”
21 minutes to go
“Hit them again with comms and hear their little brains fry”
20 more minutes to go
“44 emails in 12 months’ time”
19 minutes to go
“If we use swish creative they won’t see that we’re slime”
18 minutes to go  

[PowerPoint animation solo]  

“Well, exploiting motivations should be our new creed”
13 minutes to go
“The consumer may not like it but we’ll pay no heed”
12 more minutes to go
And the woman rubs her hands and lets slip some drool
11 more minutes to go
I think she’s taking revenge for what that teacher did in school
10 more minutes to go  

Perhaps she’ll finish up early and reduce my hate,
9 more minutes to go?
Nah, 18 more charts, the fucking bitch is running late,
8 more minutes to go
“Targeted communications work – here’s the stats”
7 more minutes to go
“If it sold me more products I’d strangle me some cats”
6 whole minutes to go  

[Short swishy slide transition solo]  
So the break is surely coming, I’m a desperate man,
3 short minutes to go
“I’ll hand you over to my colleague” (and his dreadful spray tan)
2 more minutes to go  
So it’s finally time for them to lift our yokes, 1 more minute to go,
“We’re running over time, so no break just now folks”
NO-NO-OH-oh-oh-oh…      

True story.

 

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WTF is wrong with agencies?

[This post was first published on Imperica here]

So, you walk into a room full of the brightest and best that agencyland has to offer, a collection of the digitally-enthused and passionately adept, charged out by their agencies for hundreds, even thousands of pounds a day, all in a room to share knowledge and swap best practices.

And then you realise that there’s a surprising common factor – a lot of them appear to be dumb.

The clue comes from the presentations; one is essentially a series of links, as if a bunch of digital heads don’t have any other way of sharing such things, as if Twitter, Stumbleupon, Reddit and, y’know, email groups never existed. Another presentation lays out the revelation that stories have – I kid you not – a beginning, middle and end. This revelation causes much scribbling of notes, swiping of iPads and, yes, even tweeting. I look around me and think: is this it? A stone’s throw from “Silicon Roundabout”, the much-vaunted (by politicians, anyway) digital tech hub of London, where all the cool smartarses should be and it’s just… not San Francisco.

This is only one of a number of occasions recently when I’ve looked at agency staff doing, y’know, stuff and thought “Why do you exist?”

Account team to the rescue

Why do clients hire agencies anyway? Why, if you run a business and employ staff, do you need to bring in an external company to do bits of your business? The answer is that agencies are supposed to be better at certain things than you are. You hire in specialists to do work that can’t be completed internally to the same standards. Simple, right?

At least, that’s how it should be. Digital has been like this for a while – once the preserve of unemployable nerds, later the territory of the whizzkids and geniuses, but always an area where clients were lacking in knowledge and / or experience. Why? Well, often, it was an age thing. Marketing directors and other senior stakeholders were of an age where they hadn’t grown up with the internet and weren’t enthused about it. 10 years ago, people were still debating whether or not they should even have a webpage (mind you, a couple of weeks ago, a large client of mine was still debating whether or not to have a Facebook page. Sometimes things don’t change). Agencies who needed to sell these services found the employable geeks and snapped them up on far better wages than yet-to-be-convinced-of-the-value-of-digital clients. They gave the unknowledgeable the option to buy a service with a set of deliverables attached; if you don’t understand what the work is really about, having a checklist of documents to be produced and webpages to be constructed allowed you to tick things off one by one, and assume you’d done your job.

And then people started to make money out of the web, and things changed again.

Suddenly, this stuff was deemed measurable in metrics normal non-digital people could understand. Did we make a return on our investment? Are we selling things through our website? The demands on agencies changed – and agencies changed to meet those demands. Instead of “digital strategy” meaning “what colour should our website be?” it became “does our web stuff help meet our business objectives?” and so new kinds of planners and strategists were needed, ones that understood the workings of businesses more than just the workings of marketing.

At this point, the advertising agencies who had successfully sold in the notion that the web was just another billboard, somewhere to extend the “above the line” creative, a place to put pretty pictures from the real world in front of consumers (just in smaller boxes)… they began to look, well, a bit shit.

Digital engagement is not like advertising – there is very little value in engagement alone. Whilst you may get a bit of all the above-mentioned metrics, if you don’t give an end user something to do you’re missing an opportunity – that might be the opportunity to engage in conversation (two way communication breeds better engagement than just getting people to watch a film or an animation or read some text), or it might be to drive people to a web or social media page with a stronger call to action, to sign up, to contribute, to purchase. But it’s not just that it’s an “opportunity” – it’s that these are things people want to do online. Passive viewing and sucking up marketing doesn’t cut it. And this kind of activity is more measurable than “how many eyes walked past our poster.” Analytics will tell you exactly what response something got.

And then there’s the user. Digital requires more understanding of individual users’ needs because people do more things in digital than, say, when they’re walking past a poster or watching the telly. They search, they research, they talk with friends about things they like, they shout at brands they hate, they create and distribute, influence and are influenced. And they often do it by themselves in a room with a screen. Advertising & PR have to talk “one to many” – so advertising a product on TV to millions in the hope you hit 2 or 3 target markets means finding messaging that works across all targets; digital has an element of the same but often requires a more individual approach, understanding that it’s just you and the user communicating, albeit in a context of more people / friends / followers etc.

"Yeah, sorry, gotta dash, got a client meeting in 20 minutes, gonna sell them some elephants."

This puts the ball in the court of the strategists. Where great advertising planners of the past were often a mixture of creative instinct, sharp minds and bucketloads of experience, digital planners and strategists need a mix of those things plus one all important element: evidence. That means that you can prove what you say; charm and a few lunches might sell something in to the client, but it won’t sell it into the punter. Smart agencies now buy into psychology, anthropology, data and research. And strategists & planners need to be able to help turn all of that into yer actual real stuff on the other end.

For a while, digital people looked pretty smart, then. The explosion of social media brought a new generation of socially-minded people who got lumped together under the “digital” banner and then… Well, I’m not sure the two are wholly related but there seems some correlation, if not causation. Social media seems much more sexy than “trad” digital because, hey! Everyone’s got a Facebook page and – bejasus! Some people have even tried that Twittering thing and it looks fun and so can’t we have one of those? Can we make it sell our widgets? … and so forth.

The less you know about a subject, the harder it is to be strategic. One of the stupidest mistakes of people in positions of “authoritah” is to assume that any job they’ve never done themselves is actually easy. Now they had a Facebook page, they were social media experts, right? Which is a bit like saying you read a paper every day so you know how to be a journalist. Marketing directors would start looking at social as a way of delivering campaign tactics – short term, marketing objective-driven executions; and the new generation of social media agencies have got fat off the proceeds. It was the Wild West all over again, and without much in the way of competition the fees were high and the audience easier to reach. There’s gold in them thar hills, and all that.

Now, things are different: everyone’s doing it. It’s harder to win. Real social engagement means a sustained presence; listening and responding goes further than just communicating – consumers expect companies to change when they demand it, and in the age of social CRM, they do. Marks & Spencer are brilliant at this and they run most of their social engagement from a small in-house team who know what they are doing. Who the hell needs an agency, when you’re the most-engaged UK brand on Facebook and you’re driving sales?

Proper strategy means knowing what businesses need as well as consumers – and over time, not just in the short term. Relationships mature, they aren’t always created in an instant. Knowing the whizziest of whizzy gadgets and gimmicks is not the whole game any more – but it is a part of it. If you stop learning every day, technology-based disciplines will always pass you by. This is the technological imperative at work – just because you know something about Twitter today does not mean you can answer business challenges tomorrow.

All this “smart, experienced people” schtick flew in the face of standard agency hiring practices. Agencies weren’t where a lot of smart people went, not outside of planning departments anyway. If you had a modicum of charm were good looking and had a nice haircut, wore the right clothes and kissed the right sphincter, you could get a pretty decent job. Smart people went into planning and strategy and were locked away in dark rooms. At this point, I expect a lot of agency types to be fuming, but, frankly, if they read this far they aren’t the targets (reading seems to be anathema to a certain type of agency person, long copy a distant dream). Anyway, the needs of the digital market brought in smarter people. Agencies who had never considered such things as, y’know, how a business actually works, started to employ business analysts and consultants, whole departments sprang up that dealt with data and research. Anthropology, sociology and psychology became important.

So, what’s with all the agency dumb?

My theory: money breeds complacency. And complacency breeds poor hiring practices. The lack of competitive pressure which has allowed a whole slew of agencies to gain cashflow on the back of average work. So they keep hiring the same people they always have. They forget – or don’t know how – to look into social and digital expertise. In the ’90s you used to have to check that someone had “Microsoft Office” in their skillset; now kids learn that stuff in school. Just because someone has a Pinterest account it doesn’t follow that they know how to use it for business (and for an explanation of why social media consulting is almost dead for the same reason, see here). And if you don’t use it yourself, you sure as hell can’t check whether someone else is any good at it.

I keep wondering what it would be like if you got into a car for your first driving lesson and the instructor had a book open on his lap. “I don’t drive myself,” he says, “but I have an excellent book here written by some of the best drivers in the world. Now…. If you can…” [reads from book] “depress the clutch with your left foot…”

You would be out of that car in a second.

"Where to guvnor? Can you just put me 'and on the satnav? Cheers."

So why do agencies think it’s alright to charge people for the services of people who are reading from the approved text?

The trouble is, they all follow a similar trajectory. That complacency allows their competitors to nip in and point out that they could deliver the same work (a) considerably better and (b) considerably cheaper. Non-experienced people take longer to do the same work and they’re learning as they go – inevitably costs go up as quality suffers.

Agencies that want to prosper with digital and social offerings need to get their heads out of their collective backsides. Compete with Silicon Valley?

You. Are. Fucking. Joking.

 

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Pinterest & Canvas: Sharing Made Easy

Funny, whilst Google Plus and Facebook are the media darlings duking it out for supposed primacy in mainstream social networking, there’s a few newish sites that are doing good work and with significantly less attention. I think they do a better job of sharing (to a point) than the two great behemoths as they’re more focused on the things human beings actually want / do. I’m going to highlight Canvas and Pinterest because I think they are two sides of a coin; the latter aimed at more of a mass audience and the former at the meme-loving hordes with a bit of a creative bent.

Sardonic sneering: implied.

First, Pinterest. Simple version: it’s a way of saving webpages you’ve visited.

Saving webpages: very easy, thanks.

I’ve used a variety of sites / applications for this kind of thing over the years. Delicious was my original place, but its links to Yahoo! always made it clunky and you’d often find yourself logged out and needing to remember passwords etc. But it worked, so it was good. Later came Evernote, which mixed the simple link-saving with some visual “clippings” of the webpage to remind you what it looked like, etc. As I started to post more and more to Twitter I found myself mentally relying on the fact I’d tweeted as a “store” of my links… only to realise that searching tweets was annoyingly tricky sometimes – and then Trunkly came along. All you had to do was log in with Twitter and there were all your links you’d posted, neatly searchable. And then Delicious bought Trunkly and they’re about to turn it off whilst they integrate it into Delicious. And that felt like a step backward. I want “simple” – push button, everything happily stored. So I took a look at a friend’s recommendation: Pinterest.

Pinterest lets you save webpages as collections of thumbnails with a short description. Example. You can create a board about anything. In the “About” tab you’ll see “Pin It Button” – go there, drag it onto your links bar, then every time you’re on a webpage you want to save, you just hit the button. It’ll ask you which board you want to put it on, then you can add an image from the page and a description (tip: highlight text on the page and it’ll automatically add it as the description, so no additional typing required). And that’s it.

I love the simplicity. If you see an entry posted by someone that you like, you can “like” it, share it, follow that particular board. Whilst you can follow people, the chances are you aren’t interested in everything they are; perhaps you share just one common interest – so you follow the board not the person.

When you consider the relative complexity of Google’s Circles in Google Plus – and the amount of time it takes to administer it all Pinterest beats it hands down. I save content because I want to – if anyone wants to share it with me then that’s fine, but because my primary behaviour is “I want to save this” not “I want to display this” or “I want to draw attention to (or market) this” it just feels much more intuitive.

In the last week I have watched as the activity levels have shot up. Somewhat unbelievably, Alexa ranks Pinterest at #34 in the US traffic rankings – considering it’s still in beta and you need to request an invite, that’s… astounding. And it’s not just the stereotypically male, geeky early-adopter types; there’s a real spread of gender and age in the people I’m seeing, far more than Google Plus has managed to date.

If you’re interested, here’s me btw.

Onto Canvas, then. This is also a site about sharing, but it also adds a couple of neat elements: (primarily) visual conversations and the ability to create content easily. I’ve long been a fan of the likes of 4Chan and B3ta,

It's still rude, but not as rude as 4Chan

image boards that allow users to post Photoshopped images, animated gifs and other links – and with a streak of free-minded, anti-censorship liberty thrown in. Both are beautifully NSFW, 4Chan markedly more so than B3ta. Both are chock-full of laughs, mind, if your brain is wired that way. They are probably my two favourite sites which have lasted over the years. Which says a lot, probably.

Why is Canvas a leap forward? Because in the 8+ years I’ve been on both I’ve hardly posted any images. I’m laughing, but I’m also in awe of the Photoshop / other tech skills involved. I don’t have the chops, so I “lurk” rather than create. You may have heard of the  “1% rule” that says that only 1% of people are regular creators of content and this certainly applied to me with these sites. But Canvas (which, by the way, was created by Chris Poole aka “Moot” who created 4Chan) makes it easy – if you see an image, you’re encouraged to “remix” it. Hitting that button opens up an image editor with brushes, text editors and more that even I can use. And suddenly, I have started creating more. It’s just what you want if you love “meme” culture and want to get involved. And unlike sites like memegenerator.net – which has its charms – it has a much more conversational flow to the content and the way things are posted.

But that’s not the whole picture. “Liking” content is done through “stickering” – you drag a sticker onto the image you like. And there’s different stickers for different emotions – the traditional “LOL,” a shocked face, a “wise words” sticker, and more. The more time you spend on the site the more stickers you get access to.

There's more to life than "Like"

Finding images you liked is easy, too, as you just have to go to the “stickered by you” page and everything you liked is saved there.

And this, frankly, is better than Facebook “Like.” Liking is fine, but it’s too simplistic. I don’t “Like” my friend’s status saying that they’re having a rough time; I may LOVE a particular picture; I might be inspired by a comment. But it’s all just “Like” and that just isn’t human enough. I want to comment without (always) having to write something; sometimes you just need to smile or grimace at someone, give them a pat on the back or a roguish slap on the cheek. Humans interact through expression as much as through words; Canvas gets this.

So, two entirely different sites but with a common theme: they understand your social behaviour better than the two giants that we all talk about constantly. Neither are anything like “Facebook Killers” (stupid idea) – they’re just healthy additions to online life. And Google Plus seems to be doing a good job of killing itself with no outside assistance.

Anyway, these two sites appear to have done more to enable the truly human sides of sharing that either of the giants in recent times. “Like” is too simplistic; Circles is too complicated and time-consuming. Enabling human behaviour is at the heart of what makes a good social site and these two do it in spades. Enjoy.

 

 

 

PS No, I’m not going to link to my stuff on Canvas ‘cos it’s rude.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Communities, Digital, Social Media

 

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Why The Entertainment Industry Is Wrong About Everything Pt 3: TV’s Shiny New Things

In previous instalments I’ve dealt with the entertainment industries’ addiction to myths about piracy and how internet pirates are doing a better job of delivering sports over the web than some mainstream broadcasters. This installment is about how the lot of them are missing the boat when it comes to promoting new stuff: new TV shows in particular (although the thinking is similar with music that’s a proper kicking in an installment coming soon – the music industry have done enough wrong to deserve that one all to themselves).

The internet is not a “thing” per se; it doesn’t have a particular identity, it is not evil, it is not kind. It does not care, but it also doesn’t not care. We have a tendency to anthropomorphise things in rather a counter-productive way. This is why when Twitter came along, numerous credible journalists decried it as being mindless, noisy and self-obsessed whilst others were still blaming it for the London riots, terrorism and gayness long after they should have known better. In fact, it’s just lots of peoplelinked together. Alright, technically it’s lots of machines hooked up to each other, but it’s really just people. There is no defining characteristic when billions of people

See?

are grouped together. All kinds of very different people exist alongside each other in that group: from good to evil, blondes to brunettes, psychopaths to philanthropists, genius to music industry executive.

This linking of so many people leads towards the so-called hive mind, a mass of people thinking and combining as if one unit; then there’s the ability to see actual chaos theory at work – tiny ideas can become memes, spreading like the proverbial viruses and becoming so powerful that they can actually change behaviour. Such characteristics are, frankly, the wettest of wet dreams to marketing people. Remember, these are the people who want you to associate any positive emotion you may have with, say, buying a car; for them, somehow promoting the idea that washing powder may actually change your life is a career highlight. When people start to believe that their shaving kit is the “best a man can get” they really do buy more of them. So you would think that if you had a new TV show, then this whole interwebs thing, something which allows friends to share new stuff at the speed of light, would be marketing gold.

A wee tale from history. It is 1996 (I think – my memory is hazy). We are in our offices in Pudsey, Yorkshire, where we have recently installed THE INTERNET*. Our swanky new place has more wires behind the skirting boards than GCHQ and all so we can ALL access the internet. True, my machine has to be logged on for everyone to get a signal, and, yes, I have to redirect people’s emails to their machines (as there isn’t a way of everyone getting their email directly yet) and yes, true we are all sharing a 56K modem, but WE HAVE THE INTERNET. And this is very exciting. Suddenly a world of message boards and forums opens before us. Flash is yet to be ubiquitous, Netscape is the browser of choice, the animated .gif is but a pipe dream. Video? HA! Good luck with that – it takes about 15 minutes to download 1 whole megabyte so video is not on the cards at all. But we somehow manage to enjoy the South Park short Jesus vs. Santa. We are howling with laughter, doubled over the desk.

We are – I kid you not – reading the script. We have never seen more than a picture or two of the characters and don’t know which one is which. But we are sick with the laughing and can’t wait to tell everyone we know.

A friend in the US sent us a link to the script. We had never heard of it before, but you can be sure we sent it to all our friends on email too (probably about eight people we knew had email at the time, admittedly). And by the time it was shown on UK TV for the first time, we had amassed an army of fans-to-be ready to suck it all up. Like it or not, South Park was one of the first things I remember “going viral”** over the web. And none of us had seen a single frame. This is what happens when like-minded people are linked together. They share, they enthuse, they become an audience together, even though they aren’t in the same room.

This is what sharing TV programmes on the internet looked like c.1996. True.

But that was 15 years ago and we have progressed, right? Erm… nope. In fact, we are right back where we were. Keeping with the theme of childish, toilet humour, animation-based chortles, I was recounting an incident in “American Dad” to a fellow Hebe. Roger, an alien, goes on a date with a woman he meets on JDate, a Jewish dating site. It is an astute piece of observation and bitchiness. My friend has been on a JDate not so long ago, but he’s never seen American Dad and I want to send him a link so he can share in the laugh. He is thus primed for a bit of advocacy / evangelism (as marketers oft call such behaviour). But there is no such thing as a link I can send him, because either (a) any clips from said programme on YouTube or Vimeo have been removed for copyright violations, (b) there are no Google or other video search results that have it listed in the rankings or (c) the places where it is featured or ranked tell me that it cannot be shown in my territory.

The thing is, I know my friend better than the broadcaster could ever do. BBC3 may have bought the rights to the series, but their ads for it are restricted to the BBC network (and there aren’t many of them other than “Over on BBC3 right now….” style stuff). I know my friend’s sense of humour, I know this will appeal and I have the technological means to put it right in front of his eyes. But this is where our old friend “le dumb” has come round to play. I cannot do this. I am not allowed.

Here, then, is another example of ignoring audience demand to serve no particular purpose (or, at least, no extra benefit to the content owner).

The perceived benefit to the content owner is that they restrict the exploitation of the content; the original content owner will license the content rights to broadcasters in different territories – each of those broadcasters may also license the rights to some form of “internet broadcasts” too – and they don’t want to lessen the value of those rights by letting any old soul watch the stuff via an unlicensed channel.

This is understandable in one sense but short-sighted in another. If I own the rights to broadcast a show, I most likely make my money from  the advertising that I sell pre- post- and during broadcast. The short term view says “if people can watch it online, they won’t watch it on TV.” And that means they don’t watch adverts and I can’t make money from it. Understandable.

But look a little further ahead: For a series license to be renewed, it needs an audience; for it to gain an audience it needs exposure and / or marketing spend. True, some of the bigger series get a marketing budget to pay for TV trailers, a PR agency to handle the press, a website perhaps, maybe a localised Facebook page and more. But a “gamble” show doesn’t get that kind of spend. It may also get a relatively lousy time slot. Then, without the budget to hire outside agencies, the marketing becomes the responsibility of in-house teams at the broadcaster – and they’re responsible for “everything else” on the schedule; perhaps if it’s a show someone on the team particularly loves it may get a little extra love, but the likelihood is that it gets mostly reactive marketing – if someone emails asking about it they get some spiel, maybe a press pack or whatever, but very little active work will be done on it. The viewing figures are accordingly modest, perhaps it holds its own for ad income just about, but it doesn’t set the world on fire.

In my mind all this looks a bit like planting a sapling. Sapling grows branches, branches grow other branches, branches grow twigs and so forth. The web and its interconnectedness of everything makes it easy for new branches and twigs to grow. When I show someone a clip I know they like I create a new branch. It may yet produce some more twigs. Restricting that behaviour is like building a wall around the sapling’s trunk and saying “nah, we don’t need it to grow anymore.”

Fact is, if you want something to maintain a large audience, you need a depth of engagement. “Yeah I saw it, it was quite good” or “I Tivo’d it… will probably watch it at the weekend…” may not be a strong enough reaction to result in a 2nd week or 3rd week audience worth talking about. What you need then is the people who saw it and loved it to be saying “What?! U Mad? Did you not see the bit where the kid slapped the donkey with the kippers? Watch this NOW [link]”… In the first dozen years since my first internet pipe was installed this was a predominant behaviour. People sending each other stuff they liked, those people sending it to more people.

Which brings me to my next case study of doomy dumbness: MTV (not the villains here) and their parent company Viacom (have a guess). At the end of 2007 we got asked if we wanted to take a look at a brief from MTV that was toilet humourish, childish, rude, offensive. We were there in seconds. No, really, we actually worked across the road from them. And there was this odd combo of Warp Films (godlike coolness) with some damned funny writers on board and MTV who were prepared to risk quite a bit on it. It all revolved around puppets doing un-puppety things. Nods to Avenue Q, Meet The Feebles (and way before Mongrels). Moreover, and with a prescience that did not really exist at the time, they were into social media as a way of building interest in the show. And we had a plan.

This kind of thing is de rigeur now but at the time the idea of creating myspace, Facebook, IM and forum / message board profiles for the puppet characters was pretty out there. We couldn’t believe they (MTV, Warp & the writers) were backing us. We got three guys in the office to method act the three characters, behave just like them, respond to people, create their pages the way we thought they’d really look and do all this for a good couple of months before any content was shown or even any hint of it being a TV show (we figured people would work out that it was something like that, but people just seemed to ignore it and talk to the characters directly).

And then we dropped this little beauty into the mix (NSFW, language)

And off we went. I posted it from my personal YouTube account at the time as did the characters from their own pages. And off it went. Millions of views. Top of the video charts in UK, Poland, Germany, Spain, people translating / subtitling it themselves. It went, as they say, “viral.” [That’s actually viral as in people spinning it out to other people they know, because they know they’ll love it too etc., not pretend viral which is buying enough slots for a piece of content until people can’t ignore it any more.]

The time slot wasn’t brilliant – too late at night – and the marketing budget got cut before we had a chance to refocus. More stupidly still, no other channel in the group was allowed to show it for reasons I couldn’t understand. We could see the buzz from fans was brilliant but then things got really stupid: Viacom sued YouTube and the fallout began to reach the UK. And suddenly, any piece of content that Viacom identified as its own, YouTube had to do some heavy backpedalling, issue takedown notices and so forth – and that meant neither I nor my furry little friends could access our accounts, not without getting into a debate about whether or not we had the right to post the content. If this all sounds complicated then think of it like this: We were working for Viacom, promoting their shows, doing a very good job of it, only to have YouTube tell us to take it down because Viacom had told them to do it. The million-viewed, award winning vids were mostly deleted. Links that featured high in search results led (and still lead) to deleted clips. Branches got walled up and lopped off.

Once again, the people who did very nicely out of the entertainment industry, thank you very much.

OK, let’s leave aside the yays and nays of that little contretemps between the old media and the new and be clear that we understand that a whole company’s future relationship with a major medium (YouTube) shouldn’t revolve around the fortunes of one show. This isn’t about whether or not Viacom should have sued YouTube. But this is about the effect restricting viewing opportunities on the show had then and still has now for new shows. If you let people spread stuff, they advocate for you. The economics of allowing that to happen are simple – more fans means more viewers, more viewers means better advertising income, DVD & merchandise sales and so forth.

This recent article listed a load of shows that I would never have seen without t’internet. I have bought boxsets of several of them. And I have become an advocate for many of them. I have single-handedly converted people to Breaking Bad if it meant stapling them to the sofa with their eyes taped open and projecting it onto their retinae. Moreover, when some of those series finally make it onto some pisspoor Freeview channel late at night, I will watch the odd episode. And by watching it, I increase their audience; should more like me do this, they will increase in audience share and their advertising rates will go up. This addition of numbers to the audience pool seems like it might be a good idea.

The fact is, what passes for piracy in the common lexicon is often of vast benefit to content owners. Nobody is pretending that mass copying & distribution of valuable products doesn’t do some harm, but the entertainment industry needs to buck up its ideas and work out how to turn all this stuff to its advantage. Blindly shouting “piracy is bad” is ensuring they continue to miss valuable opportunities. And that’s just dumb.

Perhaps my friend will watch American Dad on BBC3 late night; perhaps he will, by chance, catch an episode that completely appeals to him. Perhaps, but I cannot help. I do not even have a script to send him.

 

 

*This has to be in capital letters because in 1996 having your own internet pipe was a REALLY BIG DEAL. We’d fax people to tell them all about it.

**Every time a marketing person uses this phrase a LOLcat dies. And a really good LOLcat, too, not one of those shit ones your cousin made with Comic Sans.

 

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