Thursday, 30 August 2007

Keeping up with the Joneses

You don't need to have read Jeremy Paxman's soul-searching MacTaggart lecture from the recent MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival to know that the British television industry is in a bit of a flap.

Shrinking audiences, more channels competing for the same viewers and the increasing popularity of the internet, mp3 players and mobile phones were making life difficult for broadcasters even before the recent phone voting and documentary falsification scandals.

But while some are wringing their hands, a number of producers, entrepreneurs and advertisers are trying to recapture lost TV audiences by injecting professional television content directly into the world of online social networking.

June saw the launch of Where Are The Joneses?, a YouTube-hosted 'webcom' created by TV production company Baby Cow and digital agency Imagination. And earlier this month, social networking platform Bebo launched its teen drama KateModern, produced by the team behind hit YouTube drama lonelygirl15.

The Joneses are sponsored by Ford, whose S-MAX car features in every episode, while KateModern has struck deals with a number of household brands whose products will be written into the script, just like in the original 'soap' operas.

Both programmes air in 2-5 minute episodes and are highly interactive, with viewers able to suggest programme ideas and, in the case of the Joneses, submit scripts via a wiki and even appear in the show. The Joneses is a particularly comprehensive case study in using social media to engage and involve viewers, with the characters writing blog posts, sending Twitter updates, mapping their whereabouts on Platial and networking with their fans on Facebook.

(Yes, the characters aren't real people, but the internet makes such ontological niceties largely irrelevant. One of the most interesting things about lonelygirl15 was that after it was revealed to be a fictional drama, rather than the actual videoblog of an actual 16 year-old girl, viewers happily carried on conversing online with the character in full knowledge that she wasn't real and that their comments were actually being answered by the show's two male writer/producers.)

Despite their similar approaches, the programmes have fared very differently. KateModern saw 3 million hits in its first three weeks and has amassed what looks - if you can decipher the text speak - like a genuine fanbase. The Joneses have fared significantly less well, with viewer figures for each episode rarely exceeding 1,000, a Facebook fanbase of 368 people, and just 136 followers on Twitter.

This may be because KateModern is firmly embedded among its target audience of teenage Bebo users, while the Joneses have to compete for attention in the wilds of YouTube. And while dramas tend to unify audiences, comedies are divisive; different people find different things funny. I'm also not sure that the Ford logo looming over Where Are The Joneses? does it any favours: what discerning comedy enthusiast wants to feel like they're watching an extended advert?

But it's early days for 'television 2.0', and the makers of Where Are The Joneses and KateModern are charting a course that will deliver valuable lessons in how to keep audiences entertained in a fragmented, multi-platform world. Whether Ford will see any sales from its (surely considerable) investment is a different matter.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Facebook, puppies, and freedom of speech

I had a comment yesterday on my 'Facebook no more' post, from a person claiming to have been the creator of a Facebook group called 'Stop Dalhousie University from murdering dogs and puppies'.

The group was set up in protest at alleged animal testing taking place at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and had apparently attracted several thousand members before Facebook took it down.

Briana, in his/her comment, suggested that the fact that Facebook had taken down the group was a compromise of his/her right to freedom of speech.

I followed this up, to discover that the university had issued a statement denying that it carries out tests on dogs and puppies. What interested me more, though, was that the statement also said that the university had initially tolerated the Facebook group, and even joined in the discussion on the group's 'wall' to address the accusations and point out the factual inaccuracies.

The university says it only complained to Facebook after the group's moderators removed the discussion wall, thus denying the university its right to reply to the accusations:

"The tipping point, from our perspective, was when the group's creator removed the discussion wall," said Jim Vibert, Assistant Vice-President of Communications and Marketing. "Originally, there was energetic discussion taking place in the group, with several Dalhousie students questioning the accusations. Given the open discussion, we had no problem with the group continuing at that point.

"But when the group's creator took down the discussion wall after people were criticizing the inaccuracies, the content that remained was just flat-out wrong, and that's something that our university simply could not tolerate."

I see that the story has now started to gain some coverage in the Canadian press. But while spokespeople from the university have been widely quoted in the articles I've seen, I see no representation so far from Briana or any of the group's other officers. The Montreal Gazette says that 'Amy Scott', the group's founder, and who may or may not be my commenter Briana, 'could not be reached for comment'.

My message to Briana (if Briana is indeed Amy) is: if you truly want to exercise your right to freedom of speech, don't comment anonymously in the back of a blog that hardly anyone reads - take those press calls and put your side of the story across!


Thursday, 23 August 2007

No time to think?

The 'is blogging dead?' debate continues, with Drew Benvie noting that Guardian tech reporter Bobbie Johnson has given up his blog.

Johnson - whose relationship with Little Red Boat's Anna Pickard made him half of one of UK blogging's top power couples - says there's 'too much else going on' for him to be able to continue writing it.

I think this is one of the major dangers of Web 2.0 - there's so much information and so many opinions coming at us that it feels like there's no time to stop and think. And when it feels like there's no time to stop and think, it definitely feels like there's no time to stop and craft an 800-word blog post.

But as I tried to argue to an anonymous commenter on my earlier post, a world in which we attempt to express our every thought or opinion in 'microblog' posts of 140 characters or fewer is going to be a very poor world culturally.

Johnson, luckily, still has to stop and think in order to produce considered and balanced articles for the Guardian. The rest of us need to be careful not to start believing we no longer have any time for thinking, reasoning and writing.

Friday, 17 August 2007

How dare you call me inhuman!

For reasons I've yet to fathom, Google has decided this blog is a spam blog. Every time I edit or post something, I have to type a word verification to prove I'm human. I've actually had to request that a Google employee comes to look at it to check that it's authentic.

So all the while I've been wibbling on about what a great writer I am, it turns out I can't even pass a Turing test. It's an odd kind of modern-day humiliation, being accused by a machine of not being human. It almost makes me want to chuck it all in, join the dark side, and breed an unholy army of super-bots to take over the world.

Although probably I'll just go and do a bit more editing.

Not with a bang but a food fight

According to Facebook, I have 52 friends.

This is extremely modest by Facebook standards. I'm clearly no Robert Scoble, who has amassed more than 4,500 chums since Facebook opened its doors to the hoi polloi last September.

Scoble's enormous posse illustrates the way the meaning of the word 'friend' is shifting at internet light-speed. It won't be long before we'll need a new word to denote the people we go to the pub with, who console us with soothing words when we're sobbing in the toilet, or who let us stay in their spare room when our relationships go awry.

I've never met some of my Facebook friends, and I'm pretty sure that some of them wouldn't recognise me if they did encounter me sobbing in a toilet. But I do know who they all are, because they're listed under their real names, with real photos of themselves beside them. There's just one exception – a chap with a fake name who's chosen to illustrate himself with a picture of a monkey, and whose own list of 'friends', in the sort of postmodern twist that's commonplace on the internet, includes himself under his real name.

My monkey-friend isn't just an exception on my friends list; he's an exception on Facebook as a whole. Back in 2001, a chatboard I used to frequent carried the disclaimer: 'No one here is who they say they are. All celebrity postings are impersonated...badly.' On Facebook, you can be pretty sure that everyone is who they say they are, and that all celebrity postings are actually typed by the actual celebrity's own starry digits.

This may be why Facebook is proving popular with people who wouldn't ordinarily hang out on the internet. Rather than being a dangerous no man's land where girls who are boys like boys to be girls (and worse), everyone is exactly who they claim to be. It's a perfect, shiny, reassuring mirror of real life.

I think it's rubbish.

I'm already deeply nostalgic for the days when you had no idea who you were talking to online, when no one really did know - or particularly care - if you were a dog or a monkey or Christine Hamilton or that bloke out of Belle & Sebastian. When everyone had names like Wooden Spoon and Joss Ackland's Spunky Backpack and Backstage with Slowdive, and you could spend weeks flirting with a lego minifigure with half a raspberry on its head before finding out it was actually your mum.

Yes, a lot of that still goes on. But looking at Facebook, I can't help but think I'm seeing the future. And the future seems to consist of lots of neatly ordered photographs of people kissing their babies, looking content, and politely throwing pretend hamburgers at each other in a carefully sanitised play area.

It's hardly the dark, messed-up cyber-future I'd come to expect from reading Neuromancer and Snow Crash. If the state is indeed 'pooing its pants about the digital revolution', as Rafael Behr put it in last Sunday's Observer, its bowel movements may be in vain. We seem to be tidying up the internet, shelving our elusive alter egos, and obediently consolidating our online activity around our actual real-life identity - all without any encouragement at all from our apparently terrified government.

There are some people for whom this moment hasn't come too soon. I don’t think I'm one of them.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

The Herman Miller Index

Spotted twice in two days in Chiswick High Road: a huge Herman Miller lorry bringing Aeron and Celle chairs to West London's digerati.

I propose a new Herman Miller Index for measuring a previously frumpy neighbourhood's accession to nu-meeja wankiness. With a Herman Miller Index of 2/2, I reckon Chiswick definitely has the edge over, say, North Acton.

Foxtons have been informed of the dual sighting, and a two-bedroom flat on Turnham Green Terrace now costs eight million pounds.

Rock on, Chiswick.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Prompt shortlisted for B2B Marketing Awards

[Cross-posted from the Prompt blog.]

Much excitement at Prompt today at the news we have been shortlisted for the B2B Marketing Awards, due to be held in November.

We entered our Blog Monitor product in the category of 'Best New B2B Marketing Product or Service'. The Prompt Blog Monitor is a web portal that we customise for each client, which lets them track coverage of their brand and products across a wide range of social media platforms, from blogs and podcasts to online video-sharing sites, photosets and 'citizen journalism' sites.

We provide each subscribing client with daily email alerts and weekly reports to let them know who's talking about them, and how influential those people are. We also make recommendations for engagement when appropriate.

We're chuffed to have been shortlisted as we've put a lot of thought and effort into building this product. We're already helping a diverse set of clients to understand what's being said about them in the social media world - which is the first step towards engaging with audiences on social media platforms.

For clients who choose to engage further, we offer a portfolio of social media services ranging from blogging consultancy to the creation of professional podcasts and advice on the most effective use of social networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

The awards ceremony will be held at The Brewery in the City of London on 1st November this year. Wish us luck!

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Every blog has its day

There's been a lot of online discussion recently about whether blogging has had its day.

There's certainly evidence of a 'cooling-off' in the medium. In April, Business Week reported that while Technorati publicly states there are 70 million blogs worldwide, the real story is that the number of 'active' blogs levelled off last October at around 15 million.

More recently, popular bloggers like Shel Israel have reported a drop in readership figures, prompting an outbreak of navel-gazing of the kind bloggers specialise in.

One view is that the decline is due to shortening attention spans and the rising popularity of social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Pownce, Tumblr and Jaiku. People can no longer be bothered with long, ponderous blog posts, goes the argument, when there are new services available that let people post short statements, questions and links.

There's a lot of truth to this. Posts on Twitter and other networks are communicated instantly to 'followers' by email, SMS and/or RSS, increasing the sense of interaction and conversation that is characteristic of communications in the Web 2.0 world. For the networked generation, it's an ideal way to stay in touch.

But to think that blogging is 'over' is to misunderstand the differences between blogs and social networks. Blogs provide an outlet for more considered writing, while Twitter and its ilk are really only good for dashing off statements of one or two sentences.

It's a nuance that is well understood by Steve Rubel, author of the popular Micro Persuasion blog. Rubel says that from now on he will only post more thoughtful pieces on his blog, using Twitter to keep in continuous contact with his online social network.

Over time, the rise of Twitter, Facebook et al should lead to an overall rise in the quality of blogs, even as the number of active blogs declines. Why? Because people who are not writers by nature will gravitate to alternative social media, while the domain of blogging will increasingly be left to people who are prepared to put more care and thought into their posts.

It's good news for marketers, I think – a less crowded blogosphere will mean less competition for attention, leaving marketers who excel at written communications a clearer field for interacting with audiences.

tags: | |

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Facebook revisited

If only I were capable of effecting such a neat three-point turn in real life: I have completely reneged on my earlier post and rejoined Facebook.

I'm still very uneasy about the coming-together of my personal life and my professional life in one public place, not to mention the coming-together of my online life and my offline life (which, just to add to the general ambience of Baudrillardian fragmentation, are not the same as my personal and professional lives).

But for god's sake, I'm in charge of social media at Prompt. I can't just run away from what is possibly the most successful online social networking platform yet, simply because it makes me feel uneasy. Why, with that attitude, the crew of the Nostromo would never have gone to investigate that distress signal, and...oh, right.

Having operated under many different internet pseudonyms for years, I still can't quite bring myself to commit to a single online identity, so I've got a different name on Facebook. But on Facebook I am.

(Personally I give Facebook another six months before it becomes so clogged with widgets and 'mood applications' and other third-party tat that all right-thinking adults come to their senses IN THE NICK OF TIME, just like in that episode of Star Trek TNG.)