Concise and succinct

Sometimes you have to prove things to yourself and this post is here to prove that is possible to be concise and succinct. I’m talking about blogging here but mainly about communication in general. OK, point made.

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.

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.