Smells Like “Free”

Like you, I’m a sucker for those books which identify an emerging area of economics or sociology and boil it down to some zeitgeisty theory.

Most of us would like to say we can pinpoint the exact trends affecting society, business and bookshelves alike for the next three to six years. Somewhere within my own bookmarks, real and virtual, I think I’ve nailed it. It’s definitely about groups of people (Here Comes Everybody, Tribes, We Think) but also influential individuals (Outliers), perhaps with remarkable offerings (Purple Cow). Given the right timing and people (The Tipping Point) and marketed differently (What Would Google Do?, Free Prize Inside), you can at least hope for a minor hit in your niche (The Long Tail). Your instincts will be correct (Blink) or if not, the whole thing will be downright counter-intuitive (Freakonomics).

Together these guys are revolutionising barbecue conversation among a certain aspirational demographic who like the inside track.

And now! Chris Anderson’s Free is the latest new topical thing to dazzle the blogosphere with its rightness/wrongness.

Story so far: Anderson’s The Long Tail sold pretty well, became a successful talked-about blockbuster and thereby failed to remain in the long tail. By contrast, Free is more aptly pioneering a real live marketing experiment (only somewhat brave now, in these post-Radiohead times) where already you can download the entire audiobook for free. While infinite stocks last!

Or read it online for free, USA-only. Or, only in the United Kingdom (land of the free Prince album), you can stream the audiobook for free or get a free but abridged softback version which is printed on bog roll or something.

The whole plan is flawless except “freeconomics” as a buzzword sounds very much like “freakonomics“. That aside, a guy can only launch this perfect combination of title, contents, packaging and distribution once. Although I would like to get my paws on the supposedly upcoming Free – Super Deluxe Version, which could be some kind of expensive “premium” edition for the real fans with – I don’t know – WATERMARKING, GOLD LEAF, HOLOGRAMS, SPOT VARNISH, STROKEABLE EMBOSSING and HEAVY PAGES WITH A SMELL.

Take that, Radiohead.

My prediction is some hapless fool will mistakenly heed the title on the lavish display stand and attempt to carry it out of Borders without paying.

Truly though, every mug who blogs about it (me included), regardless of their verdict, gives it a boost in the positive feedback loop. It’s seen as a significant book and if you didn’t agree, you wouldn’t be mentioning it. If you haven’t absorbed its contents, you can. Download now!

Meanwhile, Anderson will be appearing at a prestigious future-of-content symposium near you so make sure you understand expressions like “freemium” and “feels like free” AND have your own personal view worked out. For the other seers appearing on the panel with him, that had better include custom-prepared awesome anecdotes and a high degree of variance with his take on it. It’s a macho world and you can’t just agree. Besides, you guys were picked for the panel because you’d already branded your own thoughts into an identifiable corner anyway.

Anil Dash adds to the loop by acknowledging the loop:

I haven’t had a chance to finish reading Free yet, but I am sure that both of these authors’ books absolutely do lean more towards anecdotal evidence than statistical proof. And honestly, it’s okay that these books don’t necessarily follow the tenets of hard science. In many cases, they’re arguing that a cultural trend is becoming true, or is about to become true, and the reality is that asserting that these trends are ascendent actually helps them come true. In short, these are books designed to create culture, presented in the guise of reporting on culture. I like that!

I too admire the moxie of anyone who presumes to serve me up some exciting trend as a nutritious bundle wrapped up in easily-digested futuristic pill form.

The career path of Andersonomics (have observation, name it, bring insights about – say – migrating birds and Brazilian musical movements, add liberal sprinkling of futurology, blog it, refine book, do speaking engagements, repeat) may seem easy. But if you’re considering it, you first need to consolidate your reputation in an established field.

Where else can we turn if not to our qualified experts? In general, nobody gets to be a disruptive writer speculating on “disruptive” things without a whole heap of life experience and hard graft. Actually, stop press – that’s wrong, some 15-year old kid just stepped up and did. So all bets are off.

Do you care about Wales? Can you code? Fancy helping TheyWorkForYou then?

Below is some full background to this, but in summary TheyWorkForYou are looking for volunteer coders interested in working on Welsh Assembly data. If that’s you, please join the new discussion list and let’s figure out how to do it.

If you don’t know TheyWorkForYou then take some time to familiarise yourself. It’s a well established site taking parliamentary data and presenting it in a queryable form. It’s free, loaded with information and very useful indeed.

The whole thing is maintained by mySociety who are world class at this sort of thing.

Have a play and see what you can glean about your MP or issue of choice. The search function allows you to subscribe by email (or better still, RSS feed) to notify you immediately whenever something you care about is discussed.

This is all very well for the UK parliament but the Wales section of TheyWorkForYou is currently looking very bare, containing only the following text.

We need you!
It’d be fantastic if TheyWorkForYou also covered the Welsh Assembly, as we do with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but we don’t currently have the time or resources ourselves — in fact, both those assemblies were mainly done by volunteers.

If you’re interested in volunteering to help out, please get in touch!

So yes, Wales is the only constituent part of the UK which doesn’t have its parliamentary data available on TheyWorkForYou.

There is nothing preventing us, it’s purely because nobody’s stepped up and done it.

As a quick explanation of the work that needs to be done: Welsh Assembly proceedings and transcripts are already available on the web from the official site. But they’re effectively raw dumps – of speeches and other data. It’s almost impossible to get useful insights about members’ voting records. It provides no option to subscribe to notifications that a phrase was used. Apart from a very basic and clunky site search function, all the insights are locked in. You could do a human-powered research trawl through the records, but that starts to get a bit unwieldy for normal people. It feels like the preserve of experts and not really like proper democracy.

Most of TheyWorkForYou’s engine is already built. In the words of Matthew Somerville at mySociety, the work now is to “parse the official report of the Assembly into structured machine-readable data to feed into TheyWorkForYou, along with member information for the Assembly. This will need programming skills, I’m afraid.”

So if you know anything about data structures or programming, why not apply that knowledge for the good of everyone? Join the discussion list for now as we’ll be figuring out how to tackle it.

Any given Assembly Member who does his or her job properly would surely encourage the kind of scrutiny that TheyWorkForYou could bring. You might be wondering why nobody at the Welsh Assembly has added the necessary features to allow their data to be queried. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt this time. Maybe they don’t always intend to obfuscate and hide this stuff. It’s just they’re not up to speed with any better ways of doing it. You might be able to help them! And the people of Wales!

I’m not naive enough to think that all problems can immediately be solved by opening up this information. Neither will it be enough to get every voter running to the polls once the information is available. All manner of things can go wrong in the democratic process. But if your thing is data, there is a clear problem there and maybe that’s the part of the scene you can help with.

In Wales we have a good selection of knowledgable, principled and often witty political bloggers. I’m not one. But I can help resource the conversation in the party political domain by opening up the possibility of insights from the data. It will be a step towards better accountability among our representatives. Let’s hope it does clear a pathway to some possible solutions.

If you’re not a coder, you could make a donation to mySociety or spread the word.

Reaching for a better email tomorrow (my white inbox resolution six months in)

Happy new half-year!

Back in January I made a resolution to leave my inbox empty every night. I have partially succeeded. It’s forcing me to make those little decisions. It’s a lot more manageable. Hooray!

At times I’ve let it slip. But there’s no use feeling any guilt over it. Guilt won’t motivate me, it won’t fix anything and it’s never the right response to ANYTHING. It’s probably better to feel total, utter freedom. FREEDOM. Try it.

The overall point is I CARE about my work and the promises I make. The act of giving out an email address carries responsibilities. If the inbox were to flood to a river of unanswered messages, bacn and spam, it would be time to rethink my involvement. Merlin Mann wrote a good piece about the high cost of pretending. It’s well worth a read. For instance, if you’re going on holiday why make a weak promise about your email backlog if you just can’t keep it?

I also like Donald Knuth’s stance on email (total abstention so he can have the time to write huge books about algorithms).

I am continuing with email but those guys have taught me it should be a deliberate decision, not a default. Most of it is up to me because on a positive note, I am totally at one with my Thunderbird email software. I have customised every square millimetre to my little foibles. (We all have little foibles.) It runs locally so there is a minimum lag between my commands and its obedience. It will always be quicker than Gmail’s web interface, for instance. Thunderbird engenders super slick sensations of being highly-effective which I then transmute into reality.

By contrast, I dislike these pseudo-email systems that are creeping in. By that I mean direct messaging on any social site which is a bit like email but doesn’t let you DO STUFF to it. Facebook messages are pretty awful. The interface is clunky. I need to archive things out of sight and it’s not possible. I’m left with a river of everything. I think it probably reinforces bad habits for people. Don’t even mention auto-filtering, that’s nowhere. As for the volume of messages, if you don’t respond to an event you’ll get every single mass broadcast related to that event.

I can’t turn off Facebook direct messages but I do want people to be able to contact me. So next to my face I’ve written “If you are thinking of sending me a private message, I will respond far more quickly to proper email. Just saying.”. Let’s hope it doesn’t sound too arsey. I just want my every action to be gilded with quality feelings for all involved.

Twitter direct messages are OK I guess. You can’t DO STUFF with them. (Scoble listed the stuff.) But at least they’re 140 characters long or less – you can express anything with that! Well, nearly.

Anything more interactive deserves a wiki or a Google Doc. (Or a Wave but that isn’t available yet.)

Or a good old phone chat.

Maybe even a face-to-face meet-up.

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.

All my trivial status updates in one big list

There is a lot of trivial information on the web. You know the sort – status updates about the minutiae which make up life.

It’s all fine I guess. I could pick an example, but then I would probably try to find something noteworthy about the event, its ramifications for society, etc. which would make the update seem less trivial. It’s not my job to judge another person for writing something which was only meant for a few of their friends. That would be mean of me. Imagine trying to compare that to a great work of literature when it was never intended as such!

Why all the trivia now? The web has lowered the hurdles of cost and effort in getting your message out there. Messages which would never get through to you can now get through. All kinds of important and worthwhile examples abound. Creative ideas and works which previously lacked the funds or force to emerge. News from brave dissidents in oppressive regimes. Forgotten, sidelined or hard-to-find historical documents, files and recordings. Current dispatches from remote places far away from big city journalists, news agencies and PR companies. That sort of thing. Maybe I can talk about this stuff next time. Today I’m here to give you the trivia.

Before you cry “hyperbole!”, my title above is incorrect. It’s not “all” my possible trivial status updates. It’s just a selection. But I’m sure you’ll agree it gives a diverse range of magnolia shades – numerous daily activities in all their unsurprising, inconsequential and marginal glory. Actually there’s not much glory, just indifference. May the vastness of its triviality yawn before you.

Does a big list of all this stuff become, by virtue of its existence, any less trivial? I don’t know. It’s probably more trivial for all I know.

What I’m mainly trying to do is collect them somewhere for those that might care. If nobody reads them here then I don’t particularly care either. I have used this to fully purge my system of triviality sharing. From now on, if you are wondering what trivial things are happening to me or being occasioned by me, you have the option of referring to this list. One or more will have applied to me in, say, the last hour (if I’m still on this planet when you read it).

After this moment, everything that I put or publish online will have some wilful intent to provide relevance and value to finite groups of other people. The urge to detrivialise is the only change. I mean, I might fail to do this and put something really trivial on the web by accident. Or something which you would consider trivial. You could earnestly point it out – but only if you feel you have the time and energy.

OK then. What don’t I mean by “trivia”? Last summer I went to a gig and saw a grey-haired man, a band member, swooshing a live chainsaw through the crowd, augmenting the music with its ferocious buzzing sound. It was supposed to be a pleasant evening of vintage German experimental rock music but in that moment, seeing and hearing the thrashing chainsaw, I actually feared for my life. It was then that I realised I must send a short text to the world to announce this. You might have wanted to do this too if you’d been there. Fearing for your life. Or, if not your life, then the integrity of your limb attachments. Obviously I didn’t succeed in texting the whole world, but a little section of my tiny world may have taken note. I sent something to Twitter and that’s when Twitter began to make sense to me. Myspace made sense to me when I used it to listen to some music by a band I’d never heard before. Facebook made sense to me when I saw a photo of somebody with a funny facial expression which made me feel somewhat cheery. The items in these examples don’t count as trivia, neither are they all that notable. Nevertheless these kinds of activities will probably continue.

Obviously I can’t promise ever to succeed in actually being “profound”, but I can at least clear away the reports of the everyday and the banal. To be sure, there are people who’d be well advised NEVER to attempt to be profound – or even allow themselves to consider the possibility. I’m mainly thinking back to ex-footballer Eric Cantona and the seagull metaphor he once used, tenuously, in a press conference. Maybe he should have stuck to what the French call the quotidian.

Other than that last unprompted and – might I add – uncharacteristic slight, I’m not talking about other people. This is the web and what they or you do here is not my business. This is MY trivia!

Usually you can comment on my blog but I’ve disabled the comment function this time. It would be cruel to tease you with the opportunity to attempt a response when you can only but salvage a meagre something from this litany of the nondescript. So let’s hear no more of it.

This post may leave you feeling somewhat beige. Feel free to read in any order, or not at all.

  • eating breakfast
  • putting the rubbish out
  • putting the recycling out
  • washing a few dishes
  • buying sponges and detergent to accomplish previous chore
  • trimming my nails
  • shaving
  • going to the toilet
  • flushing
  • shuffling some papers
  • deciding what to eat
  • putting on socks
  • choosing colour of socks as prerequisite to previous task
  • double-checking the oven is on (or off)
  • deleting a text message
  • doodling
  • posting a tax form
  • standing and waiting in a queue
  • picking up a leaflet while waiting in a queue
  • making tea or coffee
  • querying a bill
  • sniffing the milk to discern its fitness for consumption
  • buying a bag of frozen peas
  • deciding whether or not to “call it a day”
  • eating some cake (a pre-packaged, shop-bought variety)
  • invoicing
  • deleting an exclamation mark
  • setting mobile phone to silent
  • using the computer cursor to idly highlight some text in an article
  • reviewing bank statement
  • trimming nasal hair
  • cleaning a kitchen worktop (or inside walls of microwave oven)
  • checking a spelling
  • using cling film to cover a plate of food
  • placing food in fridge
  • using a hole punch to punch two holes in a piece of paper
  • being on hold
  • checking the small amount of change that has just been handed to me
  • reading food packaging
  • sleeping normally
  • remembering a dream which happened during the previous activity
  • hanging clothes
  • peeling aluminium seal from the spout of a new tube of toothpaste
  • waiting for a bus
  • stretching an elastic band for no good reason
  • deleting my spam email
  • reviewing a miscellany of stationery items which have accumulated in drawer
  • operating a light switch
  • gathering pens from the four corners of the desk
  • breaking wind
  • opening a jar
  • closing the windows
  • crossing off a task which I previously wrote on a list
  • adjusting a shoe
  • ironing
  • going into another room to fetch something
  • eating an apple (or banana)
  • scribbling on a piece of waste paper to coax an old ballpoint pen into a working state
  • washing my hands
  • placing wallet and keys in their rightful household place
  • scratching my leg
  • making minor adjustments to items on a shelf
  • picking my nose
  • buying a postage stamp
  • crumpling receipt into a ball
  • plucking crumbs and other specks from a garment

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.

The Day I Knocked Out A Really Awesome Web App

I’m currently nursing a desire to create a

  • really useful
  • game-changing
  • paradigm-shifting
  • enormously successful web app.

Bear with me because I know exactly how it will all pan out.

In true web 2 fashion my app would get better as more people joined, harvesting their many billions of click patterns to form the ultimate dataset. So, ideally it would suffer from early scalability problems that I would of course cunningly find a way to overcome.

All this would be topped off by a default graphical front-end of such jaw dropping beauty and simplicity, that usability gurus would gush literal torrents of saltwater into their keyboards (in a good way) – impairing their collective ability to appraise its feature set.

We’re not talking about some mere lunchtime mash-up here. (As if auto-marking, say, actual canine poo dollop locations on Google Maps is ever going to secure your status in the geek stratosphere.) Rather than try to content myself with teasing out piecemeal insights from someone else’s API, I would be the one bestowing access to my extensive library of database query functions. Just when those nerds are reeling in gratitude from their last RSS hit, I would smack them with another announcement – yet another tantalising update detailing a few choice procedure calls they will be skipping class and otherwise putting off normal life in order to try.

In time, I could expect a series of approving blog posts from industry veteran Tim O’Reilly, in which he would insightfully re-align everyone’s perception of my thing not merely as an app: but as a platform. And also encourage governments to embrace it for the good of humanity. And also change his mind about a blog post title, as evidenced by the URL (in a good way).

I won’t go deeply into the whole money aspect right now, but in 24-carat contrast to many before me I would obviously earn cash along the way rather than rely on some upcoming flip-over event involving an established key player.

Clay Shirky (the socio-techno-analyst) would adopt that wry smile of his – while itching to reference it in his numerous speeches and writings. Such would be its awesomeness. It’s collaborative, it’s social, it’s got news in it somehow. Make no mistake, if you’ll liken “traditional media” players to the dinosaurs then this is surely the asteroid.

Now, the only thing I need is an idea.

Cached Version from Jeni Barnett’s Blog of Comments Relating to MMR

[ UPDATE 10/02/09: As pointed out by Steve Anderson below, the two MMR blog posts have been removed altogether from Jeni Barnett’s personal blog – with no explanation. It doesn’t exactly underscore credibility for her arguments, does it? If she would like to retract any of her statements then it would be better if she did so explicitly. The original blog posts remain archived here, with the comments. ]

On Monday I wrote a piece on Native blog about the LBC Radio story where presenter Jeni Barnett discouraged the use of MMR vaccine in children – on very spurious grounds indeed.

The Times now have an insightful opinion piece called The preposterous prejudice of the anti-MMR lobby.

I just went back to Jeni Barnett’s personal blog to see how many people had commented (almost entirely to signal their disapproval of her views). It had been 82 comments for Bad Scientists and 134 comments for MMR and Me.

But now the counts both stand at zero because the comments have been deleted.

If you’re curious to see what people wrote – in the interests of openness, public information and rational debate – the original pages are here.

Please do not attempt to leave a comment on these pages – it won’t work.

Bad Scientists
https://morris.cymru/cache/sarcasm_is_the_lowest_form.htm

MMR and Me
https://morris.cymru/cache/mmr_and_me.htm

Nothing has been changed in these files.

I have retained the filename of Bad Scientists which appears to be a past vestige of a previous title.

These pages are very similar to what you’d find in Google’s Cache, although that may only exist for approximately a week.

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.

Sock And Awe Google Analytics (Just A Flash In The Pan?)

sock and awe

After the Bush/Shoe incident, anyone who’d spent even a few moments in eccentric corners of web knew there would be a creative response online. And it came. Wired has a summary of the shoe-inspired games and animations.

So Sock And Awe wasn’t the only Flash game based on the Bush/Shoe event. But it was the best.

Now Alex Tew, its creator, has sold the site as a property on eBay for £5,215. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a good rate for a few hours of work – not to mention the email subscribers he gathered, which were not part of the sale.

Rory Cellan-Jones at BBC News has the details of this high speed micro-start-up.

As Cellan-Jones notes, the site is based on a current affairs event and will now rapidly decline in value. It’s up to the new owners to extract value from it.

But this doesn’t detract from the cheek and verve of Tew and his colleagues. Everything from the choice of name to the design to the speed of launch and then the one-day auction was executed with skill. See also: his Million Dollar Homepage. If you’re curious about his next move in the world of the web, check out Tew’s forthcoming start-up PopJam.

While the Sock And Awe site was being auctioned, I contacted Tew and asked to see the full visitor stats, via Google Analytics. The visitor counts and top countries were already generally known, but I wanted to see precisely what was happening.

Now that the sale has closed and people are chatting about it, the full analytics make interesting reading so I thought I’d post them up here – with first some graphical highlights then the unexpurgated PDF dumps. (“After the jump”, if you will.)

It’s a good case study in site design and branding.


Sock And Awe – Visitors Overview
The bounce rate is high, which for the average site would normally be very bad. (In other words, most people are just looking at the homepage then leaving.) But Shock And Awe is mainly about the homepage, so it’s an exception to most sites.


Sock And Awe – Top 20 Referring Sites (Detail)
Most visits are getting there by typing into the address bar. Far fewer are clicking to come from other sites. This shows the value of having a good web address that’s memorable and easy to spell. Notice I said “visits” rather than “visitors” (uniques). As you can see from the New vs. Returning PDF, 13% of them are repeat visitors, presumably returning to play again.


Sock And Awe – Map of Visitors
An unusual sign of accord between USA and France, who occupy the top two spots. Google Analytics also records “not set” for country unknown but this is much further down the chart at position 42. Middle Eastern countries can’t get enough of the Bush bashing, as you can see from the full countries PDF

All of the analytics in my blog post here were taken at around 6:15AM GMT on Thursday 18th December. As you can see, the graphs and figures plummet on the 18th because they’re not showing a full day’s stats. It may be better to disregard that day’s totals and regard all analytics as a snapshot showing qualitative insights.

Grab the ZIP file of all sockandawe.com analytics. Or view individual pages below.

Dashboard
This is the overview data.
Dashboard

Visitors
Check out Time on Site for All Visitors – the earlier visitors have much longer attention spans!
Visitors Overview
Map Overlay
New vs. Returning
Languages
Visits
Page Views
Absolute Unique Visitors
Bounce Rate
Time on Site for All Visitors

Traffic Sources
As I mentioned before, the direct traffic is by far the largest. With no time to mount an SEO campaign, Sock And Awe still captures some keyword search traffic, again thanks to the memorable name. (Google and other engines recognise matches with the domain name.) It also captures a few who mistakenly type the URL into their search bar instead of their address bar. (Incidentally, you may be wondering why my own personal blog is called, of all things, Quixotic Quisling. Well, I like to play the long game.)
Traffic Sources Overview
All Traffic Sources
Direct Traffic
Referring Sites
Search Engines
Search Keywords

Content
Content analytics are perhaps the least interesting because this site has very few pages. Although Top Content does give a hint how many people attempted to sign up for the newsletter – at least 30,000 it would appear. (After signing up, they arrived at sockandawe.com/email for a confirmation message. This folder has now been removed.) I say “attempted to sign up” because my own experience is that many people try search queries in these boxes, even despite clear labelling. Tens of thousands is still a good order of magnitude, even if half are bad. Many of the web addresses listed in Content account for framed visits (one recognisable example is somebody using Babelfish, in vain, to attempt to get a translation).
Content Report
Top Content
Top Landing Pages
Top Exit Pages
Average Pageviews

Quick word on Development Costs
According to reports, the game took a night to build. The game engine is very simple – if you think about it, it just compares the X-position of the mouse cursor (which is invisible) with the random X-position of Bush’s head graphic. If the distance is within a pre-set striking tolerance, then the whack graphic is shown. I would say the most time consuming part of the Flash game development was designing the graphics and animation.

Similarly, the bandwidth costs would be low. If you run the site through an analyser, it’s currently around 200kb of data. The site has been slightly modified to remove the subscription option and add advertising, but these are not big changes.

Discussion
Can you glean any more significant insights from these stats? You can comment or send me a message on Twitter.