Apparently I have the right “not to remain silent”… Well, cheers. Here’s what I think.

anything you say may be taken down and used as evidence

The police have some new posters on display around the UK. I don’t like the posters. It was a definite case of dislike at first sight.

It turns out the posters are there to advertise the new Policing Pledge:

The Policing Pledge is a set of promises to local residents that not only gives more information about who their local neighbourhood policing team is, but also ensures that communities will have a stronger voice in telling the police what they think is most important and what they are most worried about.

We’ll have to see if that turns out to be successful. The posters themselves contradict both of those aims. So judging by the posters, I don’t think they’re on to a good start.

PR, publicity and communications for the police is a difficult job, worth doing carefully. I think they’ve got it wrong because the way they’re communicating clashes with the intended message. The medium, the method and the message are all at odds. I’ll try to focus mainly on the posters as communication. This is not a personal rant against the police – I’ve not had any major dealings with the police as an organisation. If anything I try to avoid them wherever possible, as a good citizen should. Who knows what the police themselves think – this campaign is mainly about Home Office diktats of course.

I had a whole load of thoughts about this campaign all at once. I’ll attempt to summarise them now.

Confusion
As other people have pointed out, the perceived message of the posters is unclear. I first saw the posters on bus shelters in Cardiff city centre. They are very eye-catching but I was in a hurry to go elsewhere. So I was left wondering what they’re advertising. My first question was “are these teaser ads for a new film?”. Really it just made me think of cop shows and how awful it would be to get arrested and hear those words in their original form. (I had to use my imagination. I’ve never been arrested.) I wasn’t left with any impression of how personable and nice the police now are. Or are being commanded to be.

Lack of depth
How many people will take time to research the underlying message about the Policing Pledge? The original press release about the adverts might tell you something. I learned that the adverts ostensibly publicise some well meaning changes in the police that Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has ushered in. And that other citizens are subject to a large scale campaign of confusion, not only in Cardiff but across the UK and across a variety of media including radio, press adverts and digital. On closer inspection of the poster it says “The police now pledge to listen and respond to residents’ concerns about neighbourhood crime”. Isn’t that what they’re supposed to be doing anyway? By that measure, it’s merely a publicity campaign, spending our money to correct our perceptions. It raises more questions than it answers.

Unintended messages
You may have seen the slogan “Keep Calm And Carry On” on posters and t-shirts recently. It’s a poster design from the archives of World War II, when invasion of these islands was expected. It’s now the direct inspiration for this new police campaign. The original has grown in popularity because it’s a quaint relic of a bygone era which has seen its message of stoic British resolve reapplied now. It’s all very tongue in cheek. By using this format, the Home Office may be seeking to be trendy – but they just end up co-opting aspects of what the message meant then and means now. The original was simply a propaganda poster. Draw your own conclusion from that.

Institutional
Orwellian is a word that has been used about the police posters. It’s an almost artless design and very “official” looking. This just likens the police to an institution, rather than individuals who speak with a human voice – and listen back. I did have a thought that PR Week may have covered this and would give me the details of which agency had received how many thousand to throw together this campaign. I found a recent quote from Jacqui Smith saying she hoped to “increase public confidence by 15%“. This is vague at best. It made me think of the film adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four when the tannoy repeatedly announces to the proles that living standards have improved by x percent. Smith says in the article that she’s “scrapped all but one central target for the police – to raise public confidence”. Public policy is not my area of expertise but I thought “public confidence” was something you earned indirectly by conducting your service in a way that’s effective, sensitive, impartial, speedy, intelligent and things like that. They could have gone for a cheesy picture showing community relations in action. In my head I’m imagining a uniformed police officer shaking hands with a smiling youth while an old lady looks on approvingly. That would have been clichéd, but better.

Advertising
Mainly though, my confidence in the police was unaffected by this advert. Arguably, advertising is a poor medium to get that across. You can’t use a cheap tactic to grab attention and then make your more subtle points in other media. It just doesn’t work like that. If it’s part of a media mix then each element has to make sense in isolation. Advertising is by and large, in my opinion, a self-referential medium. You always know you’re reading adverts. They make you think about the way advertising pervades society and also about specific advertising campaigns – whether they’re effective and that sort of thing. With other media you “zone out” and listen to the message. That applies to a conversation, phone call, television programme, radio, a newspaper article or this blog post. You have a chance of thinking about someone’s thoughts and taking your mind off the medium itself. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying that – advertising makes you think of advertising. If you’re interested in communications as I am, then you also wonder how much money was spent and what’s being done to measure the effectiveness (if at all). It’s comparatively easy to measure value of marketing for a commercial product, but less so for a Home Office strategy. Besides, advertising is one of the least trusted forms of communication. The value of print advertising to business buyers is declining – look at the way newspapers are struggling. That should tell you something.

Broadcasty
This is supposed to be about local policing. But there is a pool of only three slogans (I think) which are the same, uniformly across the UK. There is one aspect of this which forms an exception – there are Welsh language versions of the posters on bus shelters, at least in Cardiff and probably elsewhere in Wales. They look very similar and say essentially the same thing as the English versions. That’s at least a concession to “local”. But it’s not local enough. Try harder. Again, model what you’re trying to say. It’s not enough to broadcast the promise that you’re listening to individuals.

Only a bit digital
The mention of a digital part of the campaign intrigued me. But when you follow the URL mentioned in the poster, you go here. It has a copy of the Policing Pledge and a search engine taking you to a page about your neighbourhood policing team. Unless I’m missing something, that’s it. I also found a bizarre page of commands about linking to Directgov which I’ll ignore, thanks.

There are other ways to communicate which are more nuanced and interactive. Initially, you can monitor blogs. This will give you some insights into what people are saying in local communities about the role of the police. It won’t tell you what everyone’s thinking because at the moment only a few individuals have blogs, arguably within a certain social group. But you would get some genuine feedback. You also have the opportunity to comment directly, in a transparent, open fashion.

In a wider way, you can also monitor Twitter searches (which can be thought of as a kind of blog). Even Flickr is a bit like a blog platform, in the sense that somebody can run their own media outlet for photos. The barriers of entry to both services are lower than that of a written blog. Again, that’s a good way to get opinion and respond. Be prepared to see people remixing your messages, as they did with the recent terror scare posters in London.

For companies, social media now allow you to do some of your customer service in public. That could work equally well for the police, even though they don’t have “customers”. While I’m on it, neither should they use the term “service users”. “People” might be a good term. I genuinely hope they’re reading this blog post – that would be a welcome bit of police surveillance. (Disclosure: my work involves online community building.)

You could possibly use online video. Show your face. Introduce the neighbourhood policing team for each area. It would be cheaper than advertising and it would persist for longer. It would be a start. (What about the digital divide, does that create a barrier to access? Well, the current ads only give two options if you want to find out more – visit a URL or send a text. I sent a text and it just sent me the info on my local neighbourhood policing team, as above. Either way, the technological requirements remain the same.)

There are also good established ways. Go out and meet people. Listen to them and have a two-way conversation. I’m pretty sure there are police who understand this. It’s about earning trust. Public confidence increases by one person at a time.

Delia Derbyshire on Ada Lovelace Day

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today and the brief was very open – just write a blog post about a woman in technology who you revere.

So here’s mine. The above video shows Delia Derbyshire demonstrating reel-to-reel music recording and production.

Derbyshire was known for her creative sound engineering work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (which was itself the subject of some 50th anniversary retrospectives last year). Among those working long-term there in the early days there were three women in total, all of whom deserve credit. But I’m going to focus on Derbyshire.

Although many might know her as the warped genius behind the original – and best – Doctor Who theme, Derbyshire was very prolific. There are countless more fascinating themes, incidentals and effects on her CV, including a big batch of recordings which have only recently been found and reported.

While DJing, I’ve been known to play the spooky, beguiling and downright peculiar tune Love Without Sound by The White Noise, a band in which Derbyshire was a key member. The track is 40 years old but sits quite comfortably (but in a funny way, uncomfortably) with latter day tunes.

The fact that it’s now difficult to find the original vinyl LP, entitled Electric Storm, is some sort of indictment on either the record buying public or the marketing people at the record label. Either way, in 1969 that lack of attention would have been disappointing. But not for me in 2009 because I own and cherish one. W00t!

If you’re curious, the album was reissued last year by the famous (but somewhat oxymoronically-named) Universal Island label. You can hear it on CD, download or on Spotify where such services exist.

Delia Derbyshire was by many first-hand accounts a shy person. Dedication, focus and extremely high levels of patience were almost requirements for the job at the Workshop. These character traits, along with the BBC’s low esteem at the time for this mere “service department for drama“, may explain in part why appropriate recognition for her talents has been late in coming.

But among other luminaries who have been hybrids of performer, composer and producer, she really holds a place. Joe Meek, who was working on similar techniques in the 1960s but in the more mainstream world of pop, can be considered a peer. More widely, the name Delia Derbyshire should really be listed next to visionary producers like Phil Spector, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Brian Wilson (for adventurousness of musical output, it should be said, rather than behaviour).

Here’s to crazy electronica from the 1960s. And here’s to Delia Derbyshire!

Do You Use WordPress? Cardiff welcomes WordCamp in July 2009

WordPress has become the platform of choice for many people, for conventional blogs and also as a fully-fledged, customisable CMS.

It’s a seriously good piece of software. If you don’t care about the technical reasons, it’s very easy to use. In my opinion, that’s what a blog should be – as simple as possible so you can jot out your thoughts freely and unencumbered. It’s for normal people. But if you want something customisable and extensible, it allows that too.

This blog is powered by WordPress – as is Sleeveface.

If you’re not familiar with it and you want to test it out you could start with the hosted version – just open an account at WordPress.com

And so to WordCamp.

WordCamp is an annual event for people interested in WordPress, whether they be developers, designers, bloggers, users or half-curious bystanders.

This year’s UK edition of WordCamp will be held in Cardiff on 18th and 19th July. It’s just recently been announced but already you can signal your interest in attending.

The whole thing is run by volunteers so the ticket price will be low, just to cover costs. The ethos of the event is fairly in keeping with WordPress as a piece of open source software. People are happy to contribute their time, energy and skills to the effort because they will all get more value back.

Cymry! This is a massive opportunity for WordPress enthusiasts in Cardiff and wider Wales to exchange notes and learn stuff, not only with each other but with other people from many parts of the world.

Personally I’m really keen to see usage of the Welsh language – on the event website, press relations and around the site. So I’ll be working with other volunteers to make this happen. I’m also working on a group effort to get the WordPress 2.7 software available in Welsh, as well as the extra stuff that comes on the hosted version at WordPress.com.

So this spring will be translation-a-go-go for me. What do I get? I get good practice with the language, chats and co-operation with other people and the chance to watch a significant part of the Welsh language online world bloom and flourish. Plus there are a couple of projects I’d like to start which would be aided greatly by this…

With WordCamp coming, I might have said that an up-to-date WordPress in Welsh will be good timing. But it’s actually been a long time since the software was last translated. I know there are people who want to see this and use it. It just needs a smidgen of activation energy.

A Look at Spotify – With My Music Industry Hat On

Spotify on a Snowy Day in Wales

Have you tried Spotify yet?

Tucked away in today’s post on Spotify’s own blog is a file listing newly included recordings by some of my favourite labels and artists.

Labels represented on the list today include: Rough Trade, Poker Flat, XL, Rhino/Elektra, ECM, Universal, Pressure Sounds and more…

Artists on the list from today include: Stereolab, Antony & The Johnsons, Evan Parker, Basement Jaxx, Ray Charles, Si Begg, Elvis Presley, Henry Mancini, Ozzy Osbourne and loads more…

While I write this, I’m listening to a very timely collaborative playlist of snow-related songs. Thanks to @radioedit for that tip-off. I just added “Winter Sadness” by Kool and the Gang for anyone else who’s listening to it.

OK, so what’s Spotify? Rather than rehash what stacks of articles and blog posts are saying, I can recommend Chris Salmon’s introduction to the music streaming service from the Guardian and Rhodri Marsden’s early peek last year from the Independent.

My angle on Spotify? I used to run a label fulltime. It was my business to find revenue streams for recordings and artists. Spotify should be tremendously exciting for anyone in that position now. I still have good ties with the music industry. (I help people with blogging, social media and how to promote on the web without being annoying or spammy.)

The music business is very often criticised – sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly – for being slow to take advantage of new distribution methods. Of course, when people say “music business” here they really mean the “record business”, which is a subset of it. Now, let it not be said that any of these labels has been backward in signing up for Spotify. It feels like we’re reaching a zone of mutual agreement where everyone’s happy – not only the people running the service and the fans, but the artists and labels as well. Merlin (which represents digital rights for many, many independent labels, often slightly overlooked by online music services) were happy to sign their deal with Spotify in September 2008.

If you are a band, record label or otherwise involved in the record business or music business in any way, make sure you try it. It’s all legal, licensed and legitimate. If you’re in the USA or one of the territories not currently covered by Spotify, you have the right to feel left out.

You should be able to create a free account here. (It doesn’t appear that you need an invitation at the moment. As far as I can see, that was clever marketing – creating an impression of scarcity and bestowing users with a limited number to pass on to their friends.)

Barring any mishaps, this is a future of music distribution. Notice I said “a future” – it may not be the sole future, but if you’re a label you need to consider it and put as much time and energy into researching it as you would into being stocked on iTunes and other services. You’ll reach people who wouldn’t normally listen to your music. You’ll get money from Spotify as a direct result, as well as drawing attention to your other music activities, like your gigs and merchandise. Ask your digital distributor or aggregator about it.

People are comparing it with other music streaming services like Pandora and Last.FM. While Pandora was groundbreaking in popularising the track play rather than the track purchase, it had licensing problems leading it to withdraw from the UK. So that’s clearly no good. Last.FM has been well adopted by music aficionados and the tech savvy, but in my opinion needs to work to grow its user base beyond the “heads” and keep all the labels happy, not just the major labels. Its distinctives are music discovery and tagging. (In fact you can scrobble your Spotify listening to Last.FM.)

Even YouTube is a fairly good celestial jukebox for many. Whether YouTube are actually paying rights owners or not is another question. My strawpoll of independent labels says ‘no’. YouTube are busy enough trying to get revenue for themselves.

That’s three examples of music streaming. On a technical level, to casual observers I’ve spoken with, Spotify doesn’t appear to be doing anything dramatically new. But I disagree. The streaming is flawless and uninterrupted. It’s as good as iTunes for sound quality. Importantly for me, the bass is rich and heavy. Hardcore audiophiles may grumble about the bitrate, but they always do – and they still have their cherished music formats.

The main technical reason why Spotify will explode is its SIMPLICITY. People thought iTunes or eMusic was instant gratification, but now you don’t even need a credit card. You just start streaming. The barriers to enjoyment are just non-existent. It’s actually easier to play your favourite album than to grab the CD from your shelf and load it into a drive! It feels somewhat indulgent. That simplicity is why it will win. That’s why it can compete with unlicensed peer-to-peer filesharing services. Take music on tap and make it even easier.

Later, you can delve into collaborative playlists and the like when you feel the need. You can deep link to a chosen lyric or favourite guitar solo, which will change music criticism and other writing for the better. In a music education or academic research context, your citation can include a hyperlink to the moment in the recording to which you’re referring. In turn this availability will continue to open up influences on people creating music. (Although this process did begin with the first version of Napster.)

For now people will continue to acquire music files by other means, often unlicensed and illegal. The Spotify catalogue is huge with many surprising inclusions from the majors, like U2, Madonna, Prince and Coldplay all represented. But there are gaps because of various rights issues relating to other artists. After a recent cull, The Beatles are only represented in cover versions. The same goes for Metallica and others. The precise catalogue listings vary depending on which country you are in, again due to contractual rights.

For their iPods and other portable players, fans will acquire music files because you also need internet access to stream music on Spotify.

But if Spotify can succeed in expanding the catalogue and porting the application to smaller devices, in tandem with public expansion of free wifi access, it will render the arguments about filesharer penalties totally irrelevant. Why would fans expose themselves to the malware risks and badly named or encoded files? Even the time-rich, money poor kids will agree with that.

The advertising seems very infrequent which is good for the user experience. I would say it’s roughly every 20 to 30 minutes. It feels odd to hear the advert transition into a track, which is an association I have with commercial radio – yet I’m listening to genres I like that are almost never played on commercial radio e.g. proper ambient, Welsh language music and dub.

A recurring advert which amuses me is the Energy Saving Trust because it’s a campaign part-funded by the UK government. This is surely the best use of public money for fun and culture since the Soviet Union’s nationalised record label Melodiya.

That said, there is a very small pool of ads so they’re not very targetted at the moment. I’m getting UK ads (which is relevant to me) but they include an ad for Lady GaGa’s new album – when I haven’t been listening to anything resembling that kind of music. That can be improved when more advertisers are on board. Besides, I can imagine music fans in their hordes falling in love with Spotify and opting to escape the advertising completely by signing up to the paid service. It’s a very reasonable 99p for one day or £9.99 for a month.

Last Friday I was invited to talk on a discussion panel in Cardiff hosted by Welsh Music Foundation. (Incidentally, thanks to them and to the other panel members, Dai Lloyd, Simon Rugg (Indie Mobile) and Mark Mitchell (King Harvest)). We had a very insightful discussion with a diverse audience of smaller and newer labels and bands. Not too many of them had heard of Spotify, which leads me to think it hasn’t quite tipped yet. But that will change.

My New Year’s Resolution – White Inbox Every Night

I’m setting myself a few New Year’s Resolutions for 2009.

They’ll also be New Years’ Resolutions. Note the apostrophe placement because some of these things are just too good for only one year.

One of them relates to email.

Email is a blessing and a curse for me. Recently – OK, for the last few years actually – I’ve been trying to reform my approach to it in order to get more and better stuff done in a working day.

Some of this includes

  • Not “living” in email (because it takes me away from project domain into message domain)
  • Processing it all in one big batch, two or three times a day where possible
  • Then while I am looking at it, deleting junk and spam on sight
  • Ditching fiddly folders and just using one archive folder because search is all you need
  • Transferring stuff to a paper to-do list or some more appropriate medium
  • Phoning people instead

Additionally

  • I use Thunderbird so to speed things up I’ve got Quicktext (for quick fire templates of readymade “cheat” replies) and Buttons so I can have a lovely massive “Archive this!” button (like the one in Gmail).

So aptly enough, I just spotted this tweet on Twitter from @billt and @suw linking to a new pledge on Pledgebank (built by mySociety who are doing several rather neat things with the web).

I had no problem with the spirit of the pledge. Email was designed for sending and receiving messages. It is not a to-do list – it wasn’t designed for that.

Now and again though there could be a day when I’d need the freedom NOT to check email, so I was initially reluctant to sign.

Then I realised, with some prompting, that this was about inbox rather than pop box. The distinction is important. In other words, if I don’t want to look at email for one day (which is possible and desirable once in a while!), then I can keep to the pledge by not downloading any email at all.

Here we go.

Between you and me I’ll be keeping the pledge whether or not they hit the target number of signatures. But if you fancy joining me – or rather, us, because in this wired world you might as well take full advantage of sincere encouragement on offer from absolute strangers – then you can sign up.

I’ll probably be spending less time on email now, somewhat freeing me to make curries and also visit new places. Incidentally, both of these plans form the essence of a couple of other resolutions.

The Pledgebank system just sent me an email – to confirm my signature on the pledge. Which is a rather apt but not entirely helpful start…

Wordwhale – Fun With Anagrams Via Twitter

wordwhale

Meet the Wordwhale.

If you like solving anagrams, the Wordwhale is now pos(t)ing one daily.

Follow @wordwhale to join the lexical fun.

(You don’t need to be signed up to Twitter to try solving it. You can still view the webpage twitter.com/wordwhale to monitor what’s going on and try solving it. But if you’d like to enter and have a chance of being recognised as first to solve the anagram, you need to be signed up.)

A Pyramid of All the World’s Knowledge

One video which I really enjoyed this year was this 20-minute talk about endangered languages.

I wasn’t particularly following this subject in any great depth before. Let’s just say raw curiosity can take one to some unexpected places.

You can open it in a new window here.

Dr. David Harrison says:

There are 7,000 languages spoken in the world and this represents the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled.

But they are rapidly going extinct and eroding under various pressures of globalization, which I will talk about today.

And this loss will be catastrophic for humanity, both in terms of science and technology and culture.

And not just to the people who speak these languages, but to all of us.

Harrison gives examples of the riches which are bound up in just a few of these admittedly obscure languages, including knowledge from medicine, geology and biology.

The most striking thing for me is when he refers to the Yupik language of Alaska as a “technology”. This might be obvious to some, but to me it was an intriguing perspective.

It may be possible to invoke arguments for preservation of these languages on the basis of feelings about old village life and its unfortunate decline. Those kind of arguments may have validity, but Harrison’s emphasis in this talk is on the value of languages to science, technology and the world’s knowledge.

It’s also a heavy blow to the assumption that we have access to all, or nearly all, of the world’s knowledge through the web and through our dominant majority languages. We don’t. Apparently, according to his closing words, it’s possible for these minority language technologies to co-exist with English and so on – although he left me wanting more details.

Harrison depicts the globe’s very uneven language distribution on an inverted pyramid, where the pyramid represents all languages:

83 of the world’s languages account for nearly 80% of the world’s population and I would draw your attention to the base of the inverted pyramid. 3,586 of the world’s smallest languages are spoken by just 0.2% of the world’s population.

It brought me back to this speech from Kevin Kelly, the thinker and founder of Wired magazine, in which he suggests that technologies don’t die. Surprisingly, technologies that we might think are obsolete (parts for steam-powered vehicles, ploughs, stone age knives and so on) can all still be bought from specialist shops – new!

For what it’s worth I usually love Kevin Kelly. Recently I’ve spent several evenings exploring his ideas, to then feel them rattling around my brain for days afterwards. I’m still trying to work out if his towering optimism about technology is a weakness.

Language would appear to be one big exception to Kelly’s assertion that culture tends to accumulate. Retrieving the total benefit from the world’s languages, as opposed to other technologies, will take a huge amount of effort.

If only we could get these guys in the same room for an intellectual deathmatch. Let me know if it ever happens, because hearing them slug it out on matters of technology would be sweet. In the meantime, once I’ve grokked Harrison’s whole entire web presence, I shall be tracking down his book, When Languages Die.

That 20-minute video is well worth a watch and back there I had to restrain myself from quoting the transcript in full. On a tenuously festive tip, the bit about the Tofa language of Siberia might teach you something about the classification of reindeer.

What’s the point of Twitter?

twitter google trends 2008
Google searches for “Twitter” over time, source: Google Trends

This graph shows the huge increase in searches for the word “Twitter” on Google. It could be said to roughly correspond to the service’s popularity and importance.

Or maybe, for some of the non-adopters, it signals their rising levels of scepticism and annoyance in constantly hearing about it.

After some heavy field testing, I have discovered that Twitter is not exclusively for smug fools. Actually I have even stopped coyly referring to an update as a “Twitter post” and just started saying “tweet” like everyone else. Indeed.

Yes you ARE justified in feeling a little online service sign-up fatigue, but this is not another Facebook. The tweet hype will increase well into 2009, so you may as well try it. At least to avoid that kind of feeling of being the only person not on pills at a student disco.

Here’s a decent Twitter tutorial and here’s a persuasive intro to Twitter by Tim O’Reilly, the tech publishing overlord.

Such a medium gives tiny glimpses into the everyday. So if you were ever to meet Tim O’Reilly you could ask him about, say, his horses. That kind of question is officially not weird anymore – should it be that you find yourself stuck for an opener, meekly cowering beneath his guru beard.

The existence of a communication platform based on 140-character messages shouldn’t be shocking. Text messages have been widespread for about a decade. Yet, even among tech people, some of the admittedly valid criticism of Twitter points to this issue of brevity.

Other than being the soul of wit and all that, this is a definite limitation. But every medium has features which can manifest as weaknesses.

Nobody’s suggesting this should be the optimum or dominant form of communication between you and me. It can just augment and support what already exists and fill a niche of its own, just as conventional text messaging has done. Besides, a big part of the appeal are web links which telescope off into bigger “messages”.

As you read people’s tweets over time, you build up impressions. Twitter is months of agonising smalltalk, crushed down to the basic eigenvectors.

So I am intrigued by the pure economy of Twitter communication. It reminded me of other things – its precursors, especially other technologies.

My dad isn’t on Twitter, but when we’re apart he and I often communicate by SMS. The text message he frequently sends me is:

ok

That’s it – low fat communication with no caps, no punctuation, no salutation, no sign-off. A mere two letters and with that the most commonly recognised word in the English language.

My brother gets them too and it’s become a small point of reference in conversation between the two of us. It’s one of those trivial but cherished things that families have in common.

The fact is, because of the context and who it is, these replies from my dad always mean a lot to me. The “ok” signifies several things… I am here / I agree / No problem. It’s usually in reply to a plan or proposal from me, for example an initial text to the parents saying “hi, see you sunday, will pop round” so it’s about optimism and expectation too.

It also reminds me of the ultimate succinct exchange, when the author Victor Hugo was relaxing on holiday and used the high speed technology of the day, a telegram, to send his London publisher a single question mark. Keen to get news concerning sales of his new book Les Miserables, he received an equally terse reply. The first print run had entirely sold out and the publisher’s telegram was a single exclamation mark.

We can speculate why this took place. My theory is that the author was just too exhausted to embellish the message after the long process of getting the book finished.

Did the book REALLY sell out on the first run? Or is that fact included just to spruce up the anecdote (which I first read as a boy in Reader’s Digest)? How would Victor have reacted to the West End’s frilly-costumed musical adaptation?

We need not concern ourselves with these uncertainties. What we do know is, the messages are only rendered meaningful by the “metadata” of CONTEXT, with just enough content to work. See also: the Laconians, who stripped away all the redundancy to deliver pointed, concise, laconic comebacks.

Perhaps tellingly, the second biggest adopters of Twitter have been the Japanese, where wired openness about daily life gives rise to thousands of digital haikus per second.

We should also note that English and Japanese are currently the only interface language options on the Twitter website, although client software in different languages is available. I’ll reserve that line of enquiry for a future post.

The upshot of these examples is: we’ve long known that you can squeeze a lot of feeling or intent into a message with tiny informational content, from a round of applause to a marine distress signal. So the brevity is fine.

But what about Twitter as an echo chamber of self-referential tweets and inane signalling about Twitter itself? “Hello world.”, “I’m tweeting.”, “Which client do you favour?”, “test123” and so on? Well, the channel is open, and I think this is all possibly fine too.

Socially, amateur radio was always a marginal hobby and I guess it still exists in some corners. My awareness is largely informed by the Tony Hancock sitcom episode, The Radio Ham (although I believe enthusiasts hate this term). In reality, I’m told that much of the chatter on the airwaves was to exchange callsigns, establish contact and discuss – wait for it – the newest equipment for doing amateur radio.

Young boy riding by at high speed on a bicycle shouting repeatedly, ‘I am here.’ Perhaps the central and single message of humanity.

A Year with Swollen Appendices
Brian Eno
24 February 1995 (Diary entry in Egypt)

The last time I did a precise measurement of a message’s informational mass, I was studying a module on coding theory. We learnt how to introduce redundancy deliberately, to assist error-checking when sending data signals. It was useful but a bit on the dry side. I much prefer the riffing from people-to-people – and the joy of a communication which even, at times, celebrates itself.