Thursday, 25 October 2007

European governments move to control Web 2.0

For a long time, the blogs, virtual worlds and social media sites of the Web 2.0 world have been legislative no-man's-lands: too new, strange and complicated for governments and regulatory authorities to understand.

I'm talking about Western governments, of course; governments in less tolerant places like China, Egypt and Burma have had no qualms about shutting down dissenting blogs, throwing bloggers into prison or even pulling the plug on the entire internet when things go wobbly.

Here in the West, though, we cleave to quaint notions of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech, which is why our governments are having a hard time figuring out what to do about the fact that when millions of people are let loose to express themselves online, unpleasantness inevitably results.

Following then-Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell's appeal in May for British bloggers to behave in a more civilised fashion, the Times reports this week that the UK government is sharpening its interest in illegal goings-on inside virtual worlds, including identity theft, sex offences and - somewhat ominously - 'anti-social behaviour'. Lord Triesman of the Ministry for Innovation, Universities and Skills said at this week's Virtual Worlds Forum that there was "a certain inevitability" about the prospect of increased government control of online worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, although he didn't say whether any specific legislation was planned.

In Italy, meanwhile, bloggers have been up in arms about a proposed new law that appears to require anyone with a blog to register with the country's communications regulator as a media site. The act of registration would involve the purchase of official stamps, which is being interpreted as a tax on bloggers. Many Italians see the draft law as a personal vendetta on the part of the government against Beppe Grillo, an influential political blogger known for exposing government corruption. It remains to be seen whether the law will be enacted, and if so, whether it will indeed render any unregistered blog illegal, but it does suggest that the Italian government has been looking at blogs and not liking what it sees.

The main sticking point in both cases is whether a blog or virtual world that is hosted outside the country can be subject to that country's laws. If a blog is hosted on Google's US-based Blogspot servers, like this one is, can the Italian government exercise any jurisdiction over it? The same goes for Brits behaving badly in Second Life - and that's without even considering the difficulty of correctly identifying and apprehending a real-life perpetrator who is masquerading under another name in a world that has no physical substance. For a lot of police officers and government officials, I suspect that real life's already complicated enough.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

And the prize for shortest awards ceremony goes to...

...The Flackenhacks, which by my reckoning took about 15 minutes from start to finish.

Some of this was thanks to the speed-compering skills of Weber Shandwick's Paul Wooding, who was selected on the basis of an impressive ability to tell computer jokes to firemen.

It was also partly due to the fact that in some categories (mainly 'Hacks' Choice of PR Person of the Year' and 'Loveliest Client') there were no nominations whatsoever. Read into that what you will.

Still, hearty congratulations to the winners, and a special round of applause to Microsoft's Phil Devery for the best acceptance speech I've ever heard.

I nicked off to the pub afterwards, but the party seemed to be still in full swing when I passed the Audi Forum in a taxi just now. Good work.

Best consumer tech publication goes to...

...Stuff, who, like most of tonight's winners, couldn't be here in person, but sent a text message of gratitude.

Oh, the glamour.

Best staff hack gong goes to...

...Phil Muncaster of IT Week, who should definitely have won Best Haircut as well.

It's getting very hot in here now

No sign of Stephen Davies, the mysterious 'Third Man' of tonight's blogging troupe. That just leaves the tag team of myself and Mr Smith, and he's got more gossip than I have. Must... make... something... up...

Ooh no, the awards have started!

Peter Kirwan is on stage...TWL still apparently missing in action...wonder if he will put in an appearance at all...

Oh god, the pressure...

Well, here I am at the Flackenhacks - I'm not sure I like this blogging in public the keys are made of metal and only let you type at the rate of one word a minute, so if anything exciting happens, it'll have to happen really slowly.

Also, I've already broken the monitor.

The place is filling up though, and apparently an extra 50 tickets were sold this very afternoon to the great and good of the UK tech PR industry. No sign yet of 'mystery' blogger TWL, although I'm hoping for a dramatic unmasking later on, in the style of a classic Scooby Doo dénouement.


Let the Flackenhacks liveblogging commence!

Lest anyone forget, tonight I will be part of a select team of crack bloggers (not crackbloggers, they're different and more scary), hand-picked to liveblog the Flackenhacks, the self-styled 'alternative awards for the UK's technology PR and media community'.

Promisingly, the event organisers, anonymous blogger The World's Leading and Peter Kirwan of Fullrun, have already generated some controversy by shortlisting one young whippersnapper for the probably-not-very-coveted 'Tech PR Fuck Up of the Year' award, and then withdrawing the nomination when the nominee cried foul.

(I'm not going to name any names, but you can read the whole sorry tale unfolding in the comments here.)

As an aside, it's interesting that this individual was singled out for an award based on his apparent misogyny, as I'm not sure that The World's Leading is entirely squeaky clean on this issue himself. For a start, he's recently been decorating his blog with stylised drawings of male genitalia and pictures of scantily clad women. The fact that tonight's event is taking place in the undeniably laddish Audi Forum makes me even more suspicious.

Anyway, I very much look forward to taking my seat on the blogging flightdeck this evening, alongside Messrs Smith and Davies. Festivities kick off at 7.30pm. Stay tuned for updates...

Monday, 22 October 2007

BBC R4 launches new blog programme - iPM

As noted previously, BBC Radio 4 is now about to launch a new weekly programme devoted to rounding up the best of the debate in the blogosphere and elsewhere in the social mediasphere.

It's now called iPM, and the first programme is due to be broadcast on Saturday 10th Nov at 5.30pm UK time. You can read more about it here, including information about how to nominate online content for inclusion.

iPM also has its own blog at

Friday, 19 October 2007 the DNA database it's fun to be on

Tired of the surveillance society never giving you anything back? Now you can get something nice in return for handing over your most intimate information.

Thursday's Telegraph reported that geneaology website has built a huge DNA database that enables people to trace long-lost family members, and it's proving very popular:

Visitors to simply take a swab of saliva from inside of their cheek and send it off for analysis.

"DNA testing in family history is reaching critical mass," said Megan Smolenyak, the site's chief family historian.

"As more people add their results, the DNA database becomes a powerful asset for users to make connections and discover their family tree."

UK government take note: all you need to do to persuade people to hand over their DNA details (or any other deeply personal information) is to make it seem like fun.

Alternatively, wait for the inevitable widget for Facebook, then plunder the whole lot at once. Surveillance has never been so easy.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The influence of blogs: greater than the sum of its parts?

We've been having numerous discussions with clients recently about how to measure the influence of blogs on buying decisions.

For corporate communicators, measuring influence is an essential activity. Assigning a quantifiable degree of influence to individual publications and journalists has allowed them to concentrate their limited resources on those that are the most influential, and to discount those that are not.

It also allows them to quantify to some extent the value delivered by PR. 'We had a mention in the Wall Street Journal, which is read by 2 million business decision-makers,' they can say. That 2 million is a nice, high number, likely to convince the powers that be that PR is getting the company message across to the right people.

Of course the more pertinent, but infinitely more difficult, questions are: 'how many people read that particular article?' and 'of those people, how many were moved to buy our product?'. These aren't easy questions, and finding the answers costs the kind of money that few PR teams are able to spend.

If the exact influence of the established media is difficult to measure, the influence of blogs is even trickier. It's rare for a blogger to reveal how many readers they have, and when they do, they rarely seem impressive. This week, techblogger Robert Scoble (the 36th most popular blogger in the world, according to Technorati) revealed that he gets 6,000-22,000 visitors a day. Compared with the Wall Street Journal - hell, compared with the Aberdeen Press & Journal - those figures are tiny.

And then there's Jeff Jarvis, who infamously created a PR nightmare for Dell in 2005 when he wrote a post (actually a series of posts) about Dell's customer service practices. It caused so many other people to weigh in with their own comments, links and blog posts that it was picked up by the mainstream media. But it wouldn't be accurate to conclude from this that Jeff's blog is always influential. I know this because he once linked to a post on this blog (which I was very excited about, because I thought it would lead to unimaginable popularity and possibly also free gifts), but only a handful of people clicked on it.

What made Jeff's 'Dell Hell' story influential wasn't necessarily that it was written by Jeff Jarvis, but that it struck a chord with a lot of people. And the beauty - and danger - of the blogosphere is that a story that strikes a chord with a lot of people rapidly gets taken up by a lot of people, creating an amplification effect that can quickly become larger than the sum of its parts. It only needs one other person to write about it on their own blog - or 'share' it on Facebook, or Digg, or - to start a snowball effect that may see it filter all the way into the public consciousness.

So perhaps we shouldn't be asking 'how influential is this blog?', but 'how influential is this story?'. If it's interesting enough, it will be picked up and amplified. If it isn't, even if it's written about by a 'top' blogger, it's unlikely to make a difference in the grand scheme of things. PR folk, then, might be better off thinking about how to write their own stories on the internet that other people will want to read, comment on, circulate, 'share' and write about.

But that's a topic for another time.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Bloggers strike for Burma - but what did it achieve?

You may not have realised it, but yesterday there was a worldwide bloggers' strike.

Orchestrated by a group called Free Burma, the aim of the strike was to show support for the Burmese people protesting against their country's ruling military junta. Free Burma called on bloggers to 'refrain from posting to their blogs' on Thursday 4th October, and instead to display a single banner image reading 'Free Burma'.

The exercise seems at first like a nice case study in the use of social media to organise and stage a global event. Free Burma used the 'events' feature of Facebook to spread the word quickly about the strike, relied on bloggers recruiting other bloggers in their social networks, and made it easy for people to participate by giving them a piece of code to paste into their blogs to display the banner image.

By 8pm yesterday, more than 10,000 bloggers had apparently taken part. By some measures, this would be classed as an enormous success and a testament to the word of mouth marketing power of social media. Most marketers I know would give anything to attract 10,000 people to an event without printing a single flyer, making a single call, or renting a single list.

But what has actually been achieved? Those 10,000 blogs displaying the 'Free Burma' banner can't be seen by the Burmese people, because their government has blocked internet access. As a gesture of solidarity, then, it's all but useless. As some bloggers have noted, by encouraging bloggers not to post, Free Burma effectively shut down a potentially powerful worldwide lobby for 24 hours, creating 'dead air' in the blogosphere and nothing of note for the mainstream media to report. Which is why you probably weren't even aware the strike was happening.

And by 'making it easy' for people to participate, the group may inadvertently have made it too easy. Cutting and pasting a piece of javascript into a blog takes seconds. Joining a protest group on Facebook only takes a single click. People are being made to feel that by pasting and clicking they've done something to help, but in reality I doubt they have done anything to affect the situation on the ground in Burma.

But there's one way the strike might have been successful: by using social media to raise awareness of important political events among the growing number of (mostly young) people who don't watch television news or read newspapers. And if that motivates people to examine the world around them and to try to make a positive difference, then social media will indeed be fulfilling an important role in society.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

I bet Robert Scoble never has this trouble.

Another day, another social media-related ignominy.

I've now been press-ganged into liveblogging at an event themed with a giant purple and yellow penis, at which drunken PR people are being actively encouraged to taunt me, fight with me and 'stroke my multi-coloured fur'.

I was thinking of asking to be put in a cage for my own safety, but I have a feeling that might not raise the tone of the proceedings any.

Fortunately my good chum Andrew Smith will be on hand to keep the crowd at bay, armed with his natural wit, gravitas and profound insight into the dynamics of the modern technology public relations industry.

I just hope I manage to post something decent before I'm bottled off the stage with a free sample of Dogs Bollocks Reserve Premier Cru.

(If anyone reading is attending the Flackenhacks on 23rd October, I look forward to seeing you there, and to documenting your antics for posterity.)