Friday, 29 June 2007


I was sad to read today that FOPP, the high street music chain for geeky types, has called in the administrators.

Like King Arthur in his final battle, FOPP mounted an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful last stand against the relentless invasion of mp3s, peer-to-peer file sharing, iTunes, mp3 blogs and digital music in general.

While HMV and Virgin have tried to keep people coming to their physical stores by focusing on the customer experience, FOPP focused on its stock. Its decision to stock more obscure, more indie-ish albums, art-house DVDs and intellectual books carved it a niche as the high street music store for more cerebral, older customers.

Its policy of selling back catalogues of indie, hip-hop, dance and electronica artistes for a fiver each seemed like a stroke of genius - I can't be the only one who eagerly bought back all the albums I loved in my teens and early 20s but had subsequently lost.

As recently as May 15 this year, the Financial Times [subscription required] ran a profile of FOPP, lauding its strategy of marketing to discerning (and, apparently, male) thirtysomethings.

But you don't have to have read The Long Tail to know that FOPP was fighting a losing battle. Recorded music is just data, and data is incomparably easier and cheaper to distribute and buy over the internet. iTunes and its ilk don't need to pay for premises, shelf space or counter staff, and they can stock as many titles as they like. Even Amazon, which still sells physical CDs, can afford to stock many more titles in its warehouse than FOPP could ever afford to do in its stores.

They say no medium kills the one before it, but that's wishful thinking as far as music retailing is concerned. Today's Times also notes that HMV has reported a 73% decline in profits, and it can't be long before it and Virgin Megastore are both consigned to high street history.

For people like me who grew up thinking of record shops almost as pilgrimage destinations, it's a sad day indeed.

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Thursday, 28 June 2007

Facebook no more

After a month of playing about with it, I've deleted my Facebook account.

I say 'deleted', but Facebook doesn't like the idea of you leaving completely. It only lets you 'deactivate' your account, and then it makes you go through a kind of exit interview, in which it asks you why you're leaving and tries to make you stay by promising to make things better.

I ticked my reason for leaving as 'I don't find Facebook useful'. The site immediately suggested that this is because I don't have enough friends. In fact, it said:

You might find Facebook more useful if you connect with more of your friends. Check out our Friend Finder, or search for them.

Also, try taking a tour of Facebook to learn about features others find useful.

Ooh, clingy!

Tellingly, other potential reasons it gives you for wanting to leave include 'I don't feel safe on the site' and 'Facebook is resulting in social drama for me'.

As far as I'm concerned, these reasons don't even cover the half of it. Not only does Facebook make me feel unsafe, it also makes me do things I don't want to do, and think things I don't want to think.

Being on the internet under my real name makes me feel anxious (this blog doesn't count because no one is reading it). Mixing up my professional life and my personal life makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. Spending hours seeing which of my friends have the most celebrity friends makes me feel disgusted with myself.

And it goes on. The very thought that someone might 'tag' me in a photo, for the whole world to see what I look like, frightens me beyond belief. Having a dream - an actual dream! - about trying to make Facebook friends with Cory Doctorow is just not right.

And to cap it all, I ended up joining a group called 'I love pants', simply because it came up in discussion on my other blog and it seemed like a laugh.

And that's the thing about Facebook; all this indiscretion seems like a laugh. Everyone's doing it - even Alan Rusbridger! - so it must be OK, right?

Wrong. It feels like getting drunk at university and playing the Truth Game, or strip Monopoly. It's fun at the time, but afterwards you really regret saying that thing, or removing that last item of clothing. You long to return to a more innocent, more guarded time, when you had a bit of self-respect and maybe even a bit of mystique.

Once you're on Facebook, all mystique is gone. It doesn't matter if you're Prince William or Prins Thomas, you boil down to a list of books you've read and what sort of friends you've got. It's so uniform and regimented it makes you nostalgic for the riotous self-expression of MySpace or Geocities.

Before I left, I looked at Emily Bell's profile page and noticed that she's giving Facebook another month before it becomes passé. I don't think it'll be long before 'not being on Facebook' is much cooler than 'being on Facebook'. Start brushing up for your exit interview.


Thursday, 21 June 2007

Privacy advocates reveal all on Facebook

The anti-ID card lobbying group, NO2ID, has a group on Facebook.

Leaving my own political views to one side, I can't help but smile at the fact that the anti-ID card lobby is using this particular platform to make its voice heard.

The group says it's opposed to the idea of the government having 'a huge database to keep tabs on everyone, a massive infrastructure to collect peoples' [sic] details, and a giant network of technology required to verify people against their cards and both of these against the database'.

If Facebook continues on its current trajectory, very soon the government won't need its own huge database, massive infrastructure or 'giant network of technology' to keep tabs on UK citizens. We'll all have willingly uploaded our most intimate details to Facebook for interested parties to browse at leisure.

In May, the Guardian reported that Facebook had 3.69 million UK users, with membership growing at 3% a week. Much of its rapid growth is down to the way it recruits new users. Every time someone signs up, Facebook encourages them to send 'join requests' to all of their email contacts. This has led some to view Facebook as a virus, or a 'social pyramid scheme'.

But whether you view Facebook as a fun way of keeping up with friends or as a virus infecting the population, one thing's for sure - a lot of people seem quite happy to use it to publish every intimate detail of their personal lives.

One click on NO2ID's group page, for example, takes me to the profile of one of its officers, Bridget Fox. Here I can view 54 photos of Bridget, plus photos and profiles of her 90 friends; read about her cat Percy, her partner Richard, her day job at SirsiDynix Ltd and her political activities as a Lib Dem PPC; and commend her for her taste in TV programmes (Doctor Who) and literature (Cold Comfort Farm).

The amount of personal information on Facebook has already led to its being used as an investigative tool by some police forces. It only needs one hip young policy wonk to persuade the Home Office to rebrand the ID card scheme as a social network, and the whole thing will probably take off without a hitch.

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Monday, 18 June 2007

Life at the very end of the Long Tail

Ooh, this blog is so far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the blogosphere that I can proudly claim to have scooped Business Week by a whole eight days, and no one will even notice.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new media frontier. It's like having the television on in an empty room.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Pupil expelled over Bebo comments

The dangers of Web 2.0 became painfully apparent to one young teenager this week, when he was removed from his Cambridge school for writing rude things about his headmaster on the Bebo social networking site.

The Cambridge Evening News reported on Wednesday that the boy had been removed from The Leys School because his online remarks had 'brought the school into disrepute,' according to headmaster Mark Slater.

What worried the headmaster was not that pupils were insulting him, but that people coming across the comments might think badly of the school. Kids have always written rude things about their teachers, but writing them on the internet has much wider ramifications than scratching them on a desk or scrawling them inside a pencil case. Comments made on the internet are public, persistent, and 'findable' by search engines.

It's not just institutions that should be concerned about their online reputation. People who use social networking sites, blogs and micro-blogging services like Twitter are steadily building up an online picture of themselves that employers are finding very useful when weighing up job candidates.

In February, for example, the HR director of PR agency Brands2Life told CNN that she had turned down a job applicant because of some 'unsuitable' things the candidate had written online about a former employer.

Today's teenagers are growing up online and in public. They may not think about it much, but their contributions to sites like MySpace, Bebo, Facebook and LiveJournal could remain online long after they grow up. Some will find that their youthful prose, videos and photos come back to bite them when they start job-hunting.

On the other hand, the increasing use of these sites may eventually lead to a tolerance shift among employers. There may be a reluctant acceptance that people are, after all, only human. When everyone’s human foibles are laid bare online, the occasional off-colour rant, photo or confession may no longer be considered as anything out of the ordinary – and headmasters may come to see derogatory online comments as no more damaging to their school’s overall reputation than a rude word scratched on a desk.

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Thursday, 14 June 2007

Ceci n'est pas Fiona Blamey

'Well, I can't say it's the most *profound* utterance I've ever read in the Telegraph.'

So said my dad when I showed him my quote in last Saturday's Digital Life section about women's use of online social networks.

I think dad was trying to be encouraging in an odd sort of way, but in another way, he has a point. While part of me is pleased that the Telegraph is dispelling some of the myths about the internet to the good citizens of Middle Britain, another part of me was bemused to read that these myths even still exist.

Surely by now, the fact that 'normal' people socialise on the internet shouldn't be considered shocking, surprising, or even very interesting. Isn't it just part of everyday life?

Like my dad, I can't see anything particularly earth-shattering about the fact that I met my current partner on a chat forum, or that I was comforted by the many messages of support I received from my blog readers when my mum died. Why should I restrict myself to people I meet in the world around me, when there's a whole virtual continent out there full of people whose company I might also enjoy?

And yet a strange notion seems to persist that people you meet online are somehow not quite 'real'. When I was talking to IBM's metaverse evangelists last week, one of the things they were keen to stress about Second Life is that everyone in it is 'a real person', as if this fact might somehow be in doubt.

Others fret about anonymity on the internet leading people to behave differently from how they behave in the physical world. Extreme examples of bad behaviour - such as the death threats made against blogger Kathy Sierra, or the abuse meted out to Guardian columnists on its Comment is Free site - are often held up as evidence that adopting a 'fake' persona on the internet is a bad thing.

And yet, as the Telegraph piece hints, the ability to remain anonymous online can also be a good thing. It can give people a way to speak out when doing so under their own name might be dangerous. It can allow people to discuss highly personal issues without fear of embarrassment or stigma. It can give people who are not confident in themselves the confidence they need to put themselves forward, air their opinions, find new friends.

Above all, adopting a different name on the internet can be a wonderful way of exploring aspects of your personality. My various online personas may have different names and (slightly) different personality traits, but they are all still me - just as I only portray certain aspects of myself in my real-life dealings.

Its rules of engagement might be somewhat different, but the internet is just as real as the real world, with all the good things and the bad things that that entails. Although that perhaps doesn't make for such a good story.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Hello World

I once thought it would be nice to make an anthology of inaugural blog posts, but this probably isn't the place or the time, especially as I've only got 27 minutes of battery life left.

Anyway, this is my new blog, where I'm going to post all of the stuff that I currently post on the Prompt group blog, most of which is cross-posted from my weekly Web 2.0 Watch column in the (eminently subscribe-worthy) Prompt newsletter.

I'm aware that Web 2.0 is already a terribly passé term, incidentally, but I'm hoping that by refusing to let go of it, I will eventually surface on the other side of the trough of disillusionment and acquire some kind of retro-cool. I'm still hanging on to my Compuserve t-shirt for the same reason.

Rest assured this isn't going to be another PR blog; there are plenty of those already, and some very good ones, and although Prompt does provide PR consultancy I'm not very involved on that side of things.

No, instead it will be a place for me to subject the quotidian events of the world of Web 2.0 to analysis and scrutiny, and essentially indulge my fantasies that I could easily have been a writer for the Economist or Wired if I'd really wanted.

Yes, I know, deluded. But I shall enjoy writing in here anyway.