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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.

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

 

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Why The Entertainment Industry Is Wrong About Everything Pt. 2: Sports Broadcasters

OK, I say “sports,” but I’m going to stick to the area I know best which is football (or “soccer,” if you swing that way). I think the issues are pretty much the same for all sports, mind.

Sometimes the Swiss aren't so neutral.

In some ways, I think there are easier issues to deal with here than music or film. Sporting events have the greatest audiences on the day the events are taking place – either live or highlights; only important matches or ones with extraordinary outcomes tend to make much impact in, say, DVD sales. Clubs can monetise the audience over the longer term through season tickets, merchandise and the like, whilst broadcasters tend to rely on subscription fees and the odd one-off payment for special events. And in this episode, I reckon there’s an answer to that whole interweb “problem.”

Now then. 20 years ago I was one of the first people I knew with a Sky box. For about £18 a month I could get The Simpsons, the footy (in every division and country in the world just about), “movies” (or “films,” as they used to be known) piped right into the house.

Everyone remembers that episode, right?

And it was ace. I found friends that would magically appear on a Sunday for the treble bill of football, The Bill omnibus and The Simpsons – popularity guaranteed for under 20 spons a month. Not bad.

Flip forward 20 years and surely things have got even better, right? I mean, that’s what progress does, doesn’t it, make things better? Nope. As a consumer, things are rubbish. Let’s say I want to be able to watch all the games for my chosen team – I only care about club football these days and I don’t have time to watch everything. First, I search for things like “Club X TV fixtures” or “When are Club X on TV?” and a number of related searches. The results are perplexing – smart keyword buyers have managed to associate everything from blogs to football kits and boots to website forums and comment pieces. Finding a list of fixtures and what channel they are on is not something natural search does well. So, we go to the club website and trawl through their own TV channel listings and other sundry items before finally finding a list of matches and TV channels. But wait – something’s missing:

That’s right – listings only go up to a couple of months in advance – TV channels don’t want to have to bet in advance on which teams will be doing well / playing attractive football “for the neutral” so far upfront, so the televised games are selected later in the season.* This is fundamentally troubling – after all, there is a choice between ESPN & Sky for coverage. Maybe I can only afford one – what offers best value for money? Well, I choose my subscription by the year, not month, so I could choose Sky now only to find that ESPN have all the good games later. So, I have the functionality available to bet on a match in January 2012 (which is always highlighted by the fixture), but I can’t tell what channel it’s going to be on? This situation suits the broadcasters, but not the fan. Moreover, I follow my club for the whole season, not just some of the games. I don’t like going to pubs and being forced to endure the commentary by fellow “fans” who parrot what they heard on phone-ins that morning as “opinion.” I want it in my house. And that’s going to cost.

In fact, when it comes to package selection, there is just too much choice, it’s way over-complex, and the price is unbelievable. OK, so the latter might just be me being a miserable old git, pining for the days when I could have all the channels and still have enough change from a £20 note for fish and chips and a can of Coke, but it seems like there is very little change from £100 a month.

"Sky or ESPN.... Sky or ESPN... or how about those nice chaps from Setanta... they still make football, right?"

Bear in mind this is 2011 and we have HD tellies so who wants non-HD? (I’d throw 3D into the mix but – ha- that viewing experience is just rubbish for football, so I’ll leave it out for now), but even with a deal on installation etc as a new customer, Sky plus ESPN plus a basic channel package in HD plus the ability to watch it in more than one room (honestly, the chutzpah!) comes  in at around £80 per month. The club I support has season tickets which cost around £725 a year for an adult and £300 for a child (cheap for a Premier League club). A year’s worth of telly – which is never going to be the same as going to the game – comes in at around the same price. Telly was always regarded as what you did because you couldn’t afford to go to the game – now it is priced on a par with the real thing. And that seems wrong. Sure, I get a whole load of crappy channels thrown in and that has some value, but it’s not what I want. I am a consumer – I have demands and they are not being met. My money stays in my pocket.

And so we turn to where my demands are being met. For about the last five years, I have been able – pretty much wherever I am – to switch on my PC and watch my club. At this point, someone screams “piracy!” whilst the crowd look horrified, policemen prime their truncheons and delicate ladies faint in swoons of shock. Aren’t I taking something for free? Aren’t I stealing? I wouldn’t download a car, would I?

You wouldn't download a car. Unless you were playing, say, Gran Turismo. Then you probably would.

It is a measure of the sheer genius and efficacy of entertainment lawyers, PR peoples and lobbyists that this mindset has come to pass. Sadly, it has nothing to do with reality. Firstly, “free” is not free. Secondly, stealing a car deprives someone of that object – nothing I do deprives anyone of anything physical – I don’t stop the same thing being sold to anyone else. Thirdly, I am sat here with a sum of money that would be spent on football with whichever provider decided to comply with the laws of supply & demand. I have written more about the myths surrounding “piracy” here.

Firstly, then, watching without paying is not mere “freeloading.” Setting aside the nominal licence fee (a tenner or so a month) I have Freeview. All of those 70+ channels are not merely sharing my tenner are they? Mostly it goes on the BBC and, frankly, when compared to the price of satellite / cable, I see the licence fee as a bargain for news, documentaries, Match of The Day and various radio stations alone. But those other “free” channels are surviving somehow, right? Yes. It’s called “a-d-v-e-r-t-i-s-i-n-g.” You may have heard of it. You may also be aware that different channels charge different rates for their advertising – the more viewers they have, the more the ads cost. Amazing! So when I watch, say, a Champions League match on ITV (a free channel) am I thieving my footy? I am not.

And don’t forget sponsorship. The exact amounts involved are hard to discern, but three top sponsors pay in the region of £135m for a 3 year deal.  It’s worth that much because of the numbers that will be watching the games, of course. Those numbers are partially on subscription channels, partly from pubs and, yes, partly from “free” viewers. It is the total number that is important and it is made up of significant chunks of each – no one audience is sufficient by itself. That huge audience is, then, rather valuable – which is why so many broadcasters want it.

ITV, then, who paid c. £160m for three years’ worth of rights, clearly believe they will make that money back because of the value of ad sales. A cheeky enquiry to a colleague in a media-buying agency (the people who buy ad space on behalf of their clients) tells us that the cost of a 30 second slot for a regular Champions League game is c. £45,000 for ITV as opposed to c.£15,000 for Sky. For the final it’s more like £40,000 on Sky and £105,000 on ITV. Do you see that? The audience for “free” viewing is bigger and thus the ads cost more. Oh, and let’s not forget all the ads on players’ shirts and advertising hoardings around the ground. Someone paid money for those in the hope someone is watching. And they’re happy if more people are watching, too.

In other words, when I watch something for free on a channel that sells advertising, I am not a freeloader – I am a crucial part of the channels’ & sponsors’ business plans.

So, why do people host pirated football? Because – guess what? – there are people that will pay them money for hosting adverts whilst they show unlicensed sports. But surely this will be ads for dodgy porn, malware-infested fakes and all manner of under-the-table tomfoolery?

Well here’s the fun part: UK companies are already using these illegal channels for advertising. And not small outfits, either. Big ones. The biggest. Vodafone, Disney, big pharma, the lot. It’s not a few odd cases, it’s everywhere and it’s everyone.

This weekend, I saw UK adverts for washing powders, coffee and mobile phones. And let’s be clear: these weren’t European or Chinese versions of the ads that have somehow found their way onto my machine.

The European Commission, Vodafone, more pharma, Airwick. And there's plenty more where they came from. And I mean *plenty*.

These were the same ads I see on TV, with .co.uk URLs and British accents. And these were not just video trails (which tend to be served whilst streams load) but banner and other display ads, including interactive ones. In other words, the same advertising you would see on official channels. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that most media buyers probably don’t realise that this is going on as this would be wrapped up in the lower end of the inventory they purchase – probably listed as “miscellaneous websites: reaches 100,000 people, costs £X” – and is a very minor amount in comparison to the total, so it isn’t likely to be something that gets much attention. But for their clients, unless anyone flags it, why complain? You want to advertise to a certain audience, you go where they are – and if they’re watching pirated football, who cares? They’re still consumers.

Oh look: Disney, Bonjela, gambling and more

Next, I feel obliged to point out that downloading something for free is not the same as stealing something physically. ITV & Sky can continue to sell their services to other people, I am not stopping them. It is a complete fallacy to equate downloading something from one source as somehow depriving them of a sale. They simply don’t have what I want in a format I want a price I can afford, so they are “losing” precisely nothing. I was not going to spend that money with them, so how can they have “lost” it? Perhaps, instead of wringing hands about “lost sales,” the better answer would be to examine the pricing, format and availability of the product? Because, in fact, the rights-holders (clubs, leagues, official bodies) – as well as broadcasters – are all losing out on potential revenue by not servicing demand adequately.

Which brings us neatly to the third point – that supply and demand (aka everyone’s first lesson in economics) tells broadcasters exactly what they should be doing. At the moment, my personal demand is supplied by crappy streams. Why?

  • I can see whatever match I want
  • It is a reasonable stream
  • I can choose which broadcaster I want to view it with (including which commentary)
  • I can follow just my team, I don’t need a package of things I don’t want in order to do so
  • The price is right

The downside:

  • I have to search around a bit which is a bit annoying (although I usually find it quicker to track down a stream than, say, track down figures for what sponsors paid for Champions League rights)
  • The quality is occasionally poor
  • I may have to switch streams mid-match
  • I probably miss, on average, 10-15 minutes of the match through any / all of the above.

Various broadcasting friends wanted me to add that I also risk malware, viruses, penury and lupus too, but I like to think that my level of tech expertise avoids this. However, for many people this will be true enough. If you download the necessary software for viewing from official sites, no problem; but many streaming sites have links to software that is filled with malware, frankly. That’s because they are in control of how they get money from you; it’s not regulated or licensed so they do whatever makes cash and adding spyware means someone somewhere is paying them to do so.

Even so, ultimately, when faced with a choice of all the above, it’s streams every time. Had I the simple choice of being able to follow all my team’s matches for, say, £20 a month, nothing else included with them, I’d pay it. And so would hundreds of thousands / millions of other people.

But that requires something we are not used to in commercial models: non-exclusivity. If UK broadcasters pay £400m for TV rights, it’s because they know they become the only show in town. Once other people can show those games, their rights are worth less. If Tommy Streamer can show the game on his blog page then why is anyone going to watch ITV or Sky? Exclusivity guarantees the broadcaster they will have a monopoly on showing a game; that means they are guaranteed a certain minimum audience to watch the game and that means a minimum amount of income.

But the market supports multiple types of demand. At the prices they are charging, broadcasters only service a certain percentage of the potential audience – the rest of us would be happy with less quality for less money, either as paid-for or ad-supported streams. But the only people smart enough to tap this market are the “pirates” and the advertisers who serve ads on their networks. If I was a broadcaster I would offer those networks  a license to show streams at a maximum quality of, say, 50% of the HD streams I can offer and take a percentage of the advertising revenue.

I wrote about this yonks ago when I worked for a company that became EMC (and whose blogs have been similarly assimilated) as an idea for content distribution, the principle being that nobody should care who shows the content as long as they take the ads? Reward people for doing it too – even if it’s a small share of the proceeds it incentivises them for finding an audience and your revenue goes up with the growth in total audience size. I called this “microdistribution.” It has a lot in common with the Long Tail in that it recognises that a myriad of tiny niches may add up to something huge, a la Google Adwords etc.

And there’s another reason why this might improve the delivery of football. At the moment, I am stuck watching, say, Match of The Day on the Beeb or Sky’s full match programmes. MOTD is the last resort of the desperate fan – matches reduced to highlights which are ridiculously short to squeeze in every game. Here’s the build-up play, here’s the shot, here’s the goal. The replay is rarely anything more than the final ball and shot. But what makes a goal amazing is often the quality of the build-up, the passing, the bypassing of the defence through tactical executions. All of this is lost – and the result is the barf-inducing banality of football phone-ins which consist of people making comments about matches based on the few minutes they saw on MOTD and the commentary they heard. In other words, you are listening to opinions about opinions. As a result this promotes a shallowness in the way many people engage with the game. Tactics are reduced to quick soundbites – talk about a pressing game, playing two up front or one in the hole behind the striker – but tactics go much deeper than that.

In the 1990s, before we all agreed he was a bit of a twat, Andy Gray used to do a tactics session in the hour or two before a big game – full on tiddlywink counters and pushing them around, examining why certain managers chose different formations and so forth. It was a big part of my deeper understanding of the game; what had been based solely on a love of playing, mixed with the tribalism of being a fan, developed into something more. The various tactics sections on football shows of all sorts are now lamentable. A favourite piece of utter crap was Andy Townsend’s Tactics Truck on ITV – like so many ex-footballers, a nice chap just repeats the obvious, draws some circles around defenders who have lost their man and that’s it.

But this is because TV is broadcast to such a big audience – it’s not possible to cater to all the different tastes fans might have. I know not everyone’s a tactics nerd, but I’d liketo watch a real tactics nerd doing their thing. Allowing the little guy to broadcast would allow the niche interests to blossom – tactics, Alan Hansen-a-likes who only see the defensive errors, students of the cultured pass, the different chants, partisan commentaries which barely mention a single opposition player’s name except to berate them (which, in fairness, is what it’s like watching any footy on a club’s own channel). All these would be possible.

All of this and more. I get better insights from the cat.

This creates a “long tail” of football consumption. And in the long run, it’s better for the game because everything is catered for.  Again, it’s fair to say that specialist broadcasters do make an effort to vary the programming – there’s the Saturday morning “variety show,” or the highlights reels or the fan-led shenanigans. But consumers are way more varied in type than a broadcaster alone can deal with at times. Niche interests are often what keep subjects interesting to a wider audience; I can’t see anyone likely to broadcast, say, a programme just for referees or coaches. But I bet there’d be some people who’d like it. Search the net for football blogs and you’ll find women tacticians as well as “I love Thierry Henry’s thighs”; Villa fans who only want to discuss the 1970s, others who only ever discuss one player at their club. The “tail” may be lengthening but it’s just not long enough.

Broadcaster and event owners aren’t  going to give in easily – the one thing about selling exclusivity is that you get a big lump of cash if you’re the event owner and the chance to earn a big lump of cash if you’re the broadcaster – it’s a high stakes game with big rewards (unless you’re Setanta and screw up the maths / sales).

And that’s why chasing pirates seems like a better bet – who’s going to say “Yes, this year we shall forgo our £100m income for £25m with the potential to earn an extra £150m”? You’d take the lump sum every time. I get it, but it’s clearly short-sighted.

Free market exponents will consistently tell you that free market means more choice for the consumer. And yet, here we are, us disenfranchised punters, we buy our replica kits, matchday tickets, programmes, consume advertising on hoardings round the pitch, idents and ad-breaks, we’re happy to consume and maybe even pay you some money… but all we are is “thieves.”

Meantime, I’ll just leave this here…

*EDIT : I showed this piece to a number of friends who work in sports broadcasting – amongst the points they wanted to add were that “…the TV fixtures situation is not the great TV carve-up as many people would believe. There are great number of factors why [they] can’t set the fixtures for the entire season in advance: clubs, local authorities, transport providers, and the police influence dates/kick-off times. There is the performance of the clubs in the cup competitions to consider and the sheer logistical weight of organising the fixture list. Hence it is split into 3-4 phases. [Sports broadcasters] attempt to even out each club’s number of appearances on [TV] throughout the season.” Only fair to include that. It can’t all be hyperbole and invective.

 

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Hacking? Wise up – this is just democracy in action

Hackers – we’re all going to lose our financial information, our national security, our gaming info, our very LIVES. And it’s all their fault.

The mad bastard that started it all?

Once the reserve of honourable and lovely young men like that chap in War Games or that nice Angelina Jolie in “Hackers” the movie, now it’s the reserve of dangerous anarchic nerds and –worse – one of them is from Essex, goddamit.

You’d be forgiven for holding this view if you get your information from a media that clearly doesn’t understand what a hacker actually does, the difference between a thief and a pisstaker or the cultures that surround either. As a source of information on hacking, the media at large is distinctly underqualified.

We're in BIG trouble, people.

First of all, let’s discount the thieves. A thief is a thief – they are motivated by personal gain and their motives for said gain are not our concern here. Whether it’s a starving artist stealing to fund his art or a drug addict stealing to feed a habit or organised crime looking to amass vast piles of cash, the end result is the same – it’s just theft. When someone steals 10s of millions of bits of credit card data they are thieves. Occam’s Razor: that data is highly valuable, you most likely don’t steal it for any other reason than profit. When Sony pointed a finger at Anonymous for being a suspect in their data theft, they displayed just how little they understood about both Anonymous and data theft. Treat thieves like thieves, but be cautious about what their motive is.

The truth is, when someone steals my credit card data, this has a direct effect on me so I want justice, pitchforks and lynchings, redress and revenge. But when Gary McKinnon tries to steal UFO files I just think “Bless. He’s not really doing much harm.” In fact, the net result of McKinnon was that various government data holders wised up to the fact that a lot of their security was piss-poor. Once you subtract the thieves from the hacking, you’re left with more people like this – enquiring minds at one end of the scale, mischievous anarchists at the other. Neither make me quiver in fear in my bed.

The reason I don’t fear them is that I haven’t pissed any of them off. At least, not yet. Hacking targets are much more likely to be organisations or people that have acted badly – see Blizzard, Sony (multiple times),Scientology and The Westboro Baptist Church for details. Sony compounded their sins by attacking a teenage boy as if he was a criminal mastermind – this perceived injustice (rightly or wrongly) was never going to be allowed to stand and just poured toluene on the flames. And, just like in my chemistry lesson, it blew the fuck up. See this site for the latest.

This, then, is democracy in action. It’s just a system that we haven’t recognised up ‘til now – we usually think of voting, lobbying your MP, demonstrating, gaining media support or writing letters if we think about how to engage in government; we think of writing feedback via letters or websites or Twitter / social media, or, again, gaining a bit of media coverage if we have a problem with a brand.

Trouble is, none of it works very well.

If you’re wealthy, you can afford to lobby government. You can donate to campaign funds for a political party, or you can sponsor events or policy. These options are not open to most of us as individuals. Who listened to “the people” over companies when it came to the DMCA or control over ISPs? Who’s listening on net neutrality or education or the NHS?

So you complain your train service is rubbish. Who’s changing anything? You sign a loan agreement you can’t possibly understand because you aren’t a commercial lawyer; maybe you have the chance to challenge the hidden effects with the ombudsman, maybe you don’t. Maybe your new car starts playing up but for some reason the warranty doesn’t seem to cover it. There are any number of reasons why traditional methods for engaging with either brands or government are often insufficient – the majority of the power lies on the side of the big guy, however you look at it. That’s why Vodafone can get away with not paying a £6bn tax bill.

Yeah.

What do you do then? When you’ve exhausted the existing possibilities? Shut up and take it?

Hackers in the majority are just disaffected voters and consumers like the rest of us. Seen some government-sponsored injustice? Take action. Seen a big brand run over the little guy – stand up and defend them. Years ago, this would have just been called “direct action.” You campaigned against racism, you voted out the racists wherever you could, but you still had to go and stand on Brick Lane and defend the curry houses and the Asians from the White Power newspaper sellers and their attendant little crowds of hatred. The legal stuff had to be done, too, but you needed a physical presence the police couldn’t provide.  This was a grey area, and it still is.

Democracy requires (by definition) a free flow of information; we are meant to be informed before we make our choices. But that [Adam Curtis voice] is a fantasy. Information is carefully controlled, partly out of habit. That’s the way it’s been for years. But now we have the internet and we can exchange information quickly. Failure to be open with the official information on everything from UFOs to 9/11 has left a vacuum which is filled by – often – the ignorant rather than the informed. This helps nobody. And so Wikileaks and those like them – the hackers supreme – respond to the demand of the market and provide real information when its guardians refuse to release it. Have a look at this list of info released by Wikileaks – how many people died like governments said they would? Or are we better off for knowing? Can we be trusted to know?

Hacking and leaking are on the same spectrum. Give us the information to make the democratic choices we are told are so important. Don’t treat us badly knowing that all anyone can do is fine or reprimand you – that’s insufficient if you are walking away with enormous profits. Protect our valuable data. Don’t sell us shitty products.

Our consumer champions are no longer the likes of Esther Rantzen and ‘That’s Life’–  they were the ones I remember as a kid who picked up the consumer cause when the little guy had got nowhere. They may have struck fear into the hearts of the big brands of the 1970s, but they would be a rather blunt instrument in 2011. The lesson is this: if you don’t want to get hacked, behave better towards your public. I can’t help thinking that if, on day one of discovering their hack, Sony had said to their audience “We’ve screwed up. Please help us” a load of hackers who also love their PS3s would have joined the team. And they would have been far more effective than some of the snake-oil-selling security people that always seem to crop up in these affairs.

Hacking – the Esther Rantzen of the internet. Who’d have thunk it?

 

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The Madness of Crowds: Twitter, 4Chan & Chaos Theory

We all know what chaos theory is, right? That whole schtick about a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan followed by an Indonesian volcano erupting a few days later and so forth, yeah?

Well, that’s a bit simplistic and a bit misleading, as examples go. Chaos theory is all about how a tiny event can have seemingly unrelated consequences somewhere down the line – but those events are connected. Trying to imagine the series of events that causes a butterfly flapping to set off a volcanic eruption is a bit much. But if you imagine said butterfly flap causing a small bit of air to move, and in turn that movement triggers more movement and so on, until you get to a point where a tornado may or may not form… we’re getting closer.

Why is this relevant? Because Twitter, that’s why. (And Anonymous / 4Chan but we’ll get to that in a bit). This week the marvellous Graham Linehan, writer of Father Ted (one of the greatest British comedies ever) and the nearly as brilliant IT Crowd, decided to have a bit of a laugh. As a comedy writer, this seems quite natural. So he tweeted the following:

Silly, really, but worth a chuckle. Reminded me of Chris Morris saying (live on Radio 1) that he “would let listeners know if there was any news of the death of Michael Heseltine” – but without specifically saying he was dead. Cue the predictable fawning followed by uproar. Marvelous fun.

But then it goes a bit mad. People often see what they want instead of reading something carefully. And then you get tweets like:

“So, apparently OBL was a fan of The IT Crowd? @dalehernando + I were in an episode of The IT Crowd. OBL saw my face. Mixed emotions” tomadolph May 7, 2011 at 18:58

And

“If you’ve never seen The IT Crowd, please don’t let the fact that a mass-murdering terrorist leader watched it put you off. It’s still great ” Lennon_Scented May 7, 2011 at 19:26

And these little shifts in the story get carried by the wind. And the butterfly’s wing wafts them every further afield, until suddenly it’s a story that appears in the mainstream press and everyone goes a little bit meshugah. This kind of thing isn’t new – we used to call it “Chinese whispers” – but Twitter as a medium really enables this kind of spread. Once upon a time, this kind of thing spread from group of friends to group of friends via any number of method. A hundred years ago, it might have been people talking over the garden wall; more recently it would have been “down the pub,” and now it can be over Facebook or Twitter. I can remember when every year at Glastonbury there would be some huge rumour that would start in the camp sites in the morning – you’d wake up and hear people shouting “Thatcher’s dead!” and so forth, and the rumour would persist for the weekend ‘til you got home. That was until smartphones became ubiquitous and people could check the veracity of such claims in seconds. The only difference is the time it takes to spread – what once took weeks now takes seconds.

It’s like seeing Chaos Theory, which should take reams of data spread over vast stretches of time to identify, but happening all speeded-up like a Benny Hill sketch. Follow the path of any story and it takes on tiny embellishments, changes of meaning and people’s own interpretation of the original story; then people comment on someone else’s analysis of the original story until you’re so far from the original facts that you have no chance of really grasping them.

Take a football phone-in on the radio. You listen to an opinion that’s based on a commentary they’ve heard on the radio (which is, in turn, just the commentator’s opinion of what he / she is seeing). The host adds in their take, you react, spin your own interpretation of the point of view and then repeat it to your friends down the pub / on Twitter who then repeat it to someone else… but with all the authority of having been there in person and watched the game from the bench. See also: Match of The Day. If you have watched 8 minute long highlights of a 90 minute game, your opinion that “Lucas was shit and kept giving the ball away” may not actually be as close to the truth as you think.

And so the strange movements and minute changes that, over time and space, become enormously significant once again look like our theoretically chaotic friend. Only unlike the sodding butterfly, this is an effect you can actually see.

And then there’s Anonymous. If you don’t know what Anonymous is, I don’t feel that keen to be explaining it as (a) it’s hard, (b) describing something that is the sum of millions of moving parts, all changing, breathing, reacting and crashing into each other is always going to be inaccurate and (c) I am scared of them. But I shall try. Anonymous was born out of the 4Chan message board. 4Chan is the ultimate in free speech – there are no rules and you don’t have to post under a name (most posts are from “Anonymous” although some people do choose a moniker). Posts range from discussions to Photoshopped images and range from the inane to the pant-wettingly  funny to plain creepy or shocking. Such is freedom – people can be total arseholes and they often are.

Anonymous as an “entity” (term loosely used) is when the hive mind decides to come together to pursue a common cause; it’s as if there is a tipping point (fuck off Gladwell fans, I don’t want to hear it) is reached where a point of view reaches critical mass and action is demanded. Whilst some have tried to portray Anonymous as a politically-minded entity, it is really nothing of the sort. That title indicates an agenda that is cast in stone, and as far as Anonymous is concerned the only underlying ethic that ever tied it all together was that they were “doing it for the lulz” (lulz = LOLs / laughs btw). In other words, they’re having a bit of a giggle. I first remember seeing Anonymous about 5 years ago when they started on the great Habbo Raids. This involved mass invasions of Habbo (an online kids’ virtual world kind of thing) and, shall we say, behaving somewhat inappropriately. Childish, but it made me laugh. Later came more serious matters: a white supremacist website Tom Cruise seen "shitting pants" with ragebelonging to Hal Turner got hit with a distributed denial of service attack (DDOS), costing him thousands in bandwidth charges; YouTube got hit with hundreds of porn uploads; any number of frankly silly, yet rather amusing, activities.

And then there was Project Chanology which was when the hive mind took on Scientology. When a video of Tom Cruise talking Scientology bullshit was uploaded to YouTube, the Church Of Scientology claimed copyright infringement to get it taken down. And this is the kind of attack on free speech that really gets 4Channers / Anonymous types going. And there was a war. Likewise, when Blizzard (makers of World Of Warcraft) announced that posting on their forums would require people to post under their own names rather than behind a pseudonym, Anonymous types proceeded to demonstrate the value of anonymity on the internet by hacking & posting private details of Blizzard employees and their family members. Blizzard backed down.

The fact is, when a consensus arises within Anonymous, they act. But how they get to that point is fascinating (although difficult for the casual observer) to observe. In 1991, Loren Carpenter, a leading computer engineer set up an experiment to show what a hive mind can achieve. The results were fascinating. (Stop @ 11:28 if it doesn’t stop itself)

The fact that everyone doesn’t just indicate “up” or “down” is an amazing demonstration of the hive mind. And it doesn’t just work in “yes” or “no” decisions (although that is how the individual works) but there is a point where consensus is seen as representing the group desire and accepted by the whole. And that is kind of what happens with Anonymous.

Whilst some things they do seem predictable, others fly in the face of reason. Take the delightful Westboro Baptist Church, the “Christians” that like demonstrating at soldiers’ funerals and reminding people that their God hates fags. Anonymous had already taken aim when Pastor Fred Phelps sent a message to Anonymous that laid down a challenge, goading them that they wouldn’t be able to take WBC down. And a few attacks on the WBC, over and above what was already happening, did seem to take place. And then this happened.

When some anonymous (small ‘a’) hacker goes on a news programme and purports to represent the collective, there seems to be a debate that rages on the various forums, followed by an acceptance / rejection of the “spokesman” in question. More have been disavowed than accepted, for sure. And that person’s legitimacy and platform then falls away. Think about how this would have happened had it been a club or society or organisation. There would be meetings, agreed messages, votes, appeals, whatever – a lengthy process. But these Anonymous decisions seem to happen in almost real time.

But what gets me most is how unpredictable it is. I thought when I saw the WBC goading Anonymous “Woah, get the popcorn, this is going to be fun.” And then there was this outbreak of outstanding rationality which delivered a far more humiliating blow to Phelps and his mob than any DDOS attack. But it could have gone either way – and that’s the chaos stuff. I watch marketers dropping links / videos that are clearly (to me) marketing dressed up as community postings and think “pah.” But sometimes stuff gets through. The likes of Digg, Reddit & Stumble represent potential marketing gold because of the huge potential audience but gaming the system is almost impossible as you just can’t predict what exactly the community reaction will be. Can technique improve the chances your submission will get upvoted? Yes. Can it guarantee it? Nope.

All communities over a certain size are subject to this unpredictability because once you reach a certain size there can be no single defining characteristic that overrides all other personal concerns to keep people unified. That’s why you can see enough of a political party during an election campaign to vote for them, but a couple of years later when you’ve seen all their policies in action you realise you don’t agree with X% of their activity.

Chaos theory lives large in our lives in all kinds of ways; Twitter and other social media just lets us see it writ large. But the lesson is that you can’t always manipulate things to be the way you want them to be. Some things are just… unpredictable.

 

 

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