Social media and the Blackberry Riots
Wednesday August 10th 2011, 7:42 pm
Filed under: General

Shortly after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power, an activist told CNN that “Facebook was responsible for the success of the Egyptian people’s uprising”. The revolution in Iran was attributed to Facebook, Tunisia to Wikileaks, Egypt to Twitter, and now in Britain, BlackBerry.

At the time of the toppling of the Egyptian government, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron called it a “precious moment of opportunity” to move towards “civilian and democratic rule”. But today it’s the Blackberry smartphones that have won out, with their semi-encrypted messaging system, sending England into revolt, with Cameron scuttling into position, calling it “sickening”.

In the political context, this breakdown of civil order is inescapably based on poor young people of England wanting to take their plight to the streets, to defy the deeply unpopular police force and to damage the property of the rich. In short, to “take back” what they feel has been stolen from them.

A mother whose store was attacked in London described the looters as “feral rats”; not quite the voice of reason that accompanied the Egyptian people’s release from repression. In a BBC interview, two girls, who had been drinking all night on stolen bottles of wine, said in “Showing the rich we do what we want”: “Everyone just wanted to riot so bad…It’s the government’s fault.” When asked why they were then targeting local people and businesses, the girls responded: “It’s the rich people…we want to show the rich people we can do what we want.”

In an Al Jazeera article, one pundit put it: “So there is no single meaning in what is happening in London and elsewhere…We have a major problem with youth unemployment. There have already been cuts in services for young people. State education in poor areas is sometimes shockingly bad. Young people cannot afford adequate private housing and there is a shortage of council-built stock. Economic inequality has reached quite startling levels…”

Mr Cameron, meanwhile denouncing the “mindless violence” of the looters, continues to support a “system of political economy that was as unstable as it was pernicious,” as Al Jazeera put it. And when Cameron talked about preparing to stand up to the City to drive through reforms to break up Britain’s so-called casino banks, he failed, miserably.

However couched, even the best of us should have great difficulty in creating a credible link between global economics and inner-city rioting. As one looter in Clapham Junction, London, suggested, it’s not about the economy as such, he said, “I’m just getting my taxes back.” But as appealing as it is to dig out the root cause of it all, comments from the rioters have been incomprehensibly feeble, trite and vengeful.

And while writers of all political hues point the finger of blame towards “social media channels for inciting and spreading violence”, others believe it’s overarching police violence, racial conflict, ethnic tensions, social disadvantage and the failure of government to deliver appropriate services for the hopelessness of youth with nothing to look forward to, while still others blame the bankers and the politicians for an alleged theft they were left to service. No one, it seems, can make any real sense of what’s happened.

Just looking through some of the comments on Twitter for the hashtag #londonriots, some were enlightening. Lulu Rose thought: “The Youth of the Middle East rise up for basic freedoms. The Youth of London rise up for a HD ready 42″ Plasma TV.” While Aaron Peters thought: “Britons chose to be consumers over being citizens. This isn’t anarchy, this is the consumer society without the means.” More comically, Allison & Busby, writing for Waterstone’s bookstore, noted: “We’ll stay open. If they steal some books they might learn something,” while Declan Fay rallied with: “They’re blaming mobile phones for the #londonriots. Clearly they weren’t with Vodafone or the riots would’ve suddenly stopped after 1 minute.”

But these youths who are said to lack opportunity, some from their own making and inadequacy one must conclude, are angry at “the system” and have organised themselves using social media. But while the pro-democracy demonstrators of the “Arab Spring” marched in the hope of positive change and a better life, Britain’s violence has been positively narcissistic and nihilistic, focusing narrowly on arson and looting and are only too ready to cock a snook at the rich, by whatever means they feel able.

But whether this disenchantment is about today’s youth that don’t really care, the dynamics of social change is now powered by the rise of social media, a platform that allows immediate social organisation that governments are powerless to mitigate or regulate.

In the Maghreb, the riots were about escalating food prices, which turned into anger at the authorities. But in Britain, with its latent social problems, compounded by a perceived cover-up of a police shooting, is an altogether a different kind of revolution.

As John Bassett, a former senior official at the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, put it: “It does look as though social media is changing the balance of power between the state and the individual, whether that is manifested as regime change in Cairo or looting in Tottenham.”

In Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, countries that are suffering from a sovereign debt crisis, governments are struggling to placate market demands and delivering austerity. And in Britain and elsewhere, it’s been young people who have been at the vanguard of protest.

But if social media really is going to be the panacea to society’s feeling of loss and lack of future, the people using it should also offer a platform of hope and engagement rather than co-opting to fight bland consumerism and materialism for their own sakes.

Until that time, the politicians, the police and the rich should brace themselves for the onslaught of social unrest as the angry poor have discovered they can steal Blackberrys and organise anti-social events in great numbers.

In a bygone age, the English revolutionary would have been considered it most uncivilised to stage a riot, except of course at Lord’s cricket ground when an umpire declared “rain stop play”, followed by crustless cucumber and cress sandwiches being hurled at him in an undignified pique of rage.

To be taken seriously, Britain’s counter-culture of hedonistic impulses seem to have evolved into little more than a new set of dumb leisure pursuits that engage in social media as a means to satisfy a silent, dirigible “revolution” of dispossession. Yet as the second wave of recession arrived, Britain is being stifled once again by coordinated, counter-intuitive rebelliousness against those that meet the shaky criteria of solvency.

From the recent reports on Britain’s riots, it seems that the dispossessed aim to get what they want by burning and looting as some kind of parlour game. But just maybe the riots are really a token gesture against a growing police state and perceived institutionalised theft that is viewed as so objectionable.

The “rich” in this context, both political and economic, have once too often been found colluding with each other to get their paws in honey jar, then acquitting themselves and absolved of all wrongdoing, while at the same time having the cheek to demand that the poor finance and forgive the corruption of excess.



Journalism rocked by News International scandal
Thursday July 14th 2011, 7:17 pm
Filed under: General

Way back, when Rupert Murdoch sanctioned the Times Online’s blocking policy, calling the search engines “plagiarists” and “parasites,” and removed all of his content, leaving two million visitors a month without links to the site’s content now seems almost quaint in light of the scandal rocking the British press which may quickly move to America.

Rupert Murdoch is facing outrage in Britain over allegations that his paper’s journalists paid police for information and hacked into the voicemails of murder victims and the grieving families of dead soldiers. These revelations culminated in the decision to close the News of the World after 168 years and put 200 journalists out of work.

With all the brouhaha surrounding the closure, questions are being asked about corruption at NI and how press regulation hopelessly failed in the UK. Now, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, says he is “genuinely shocked” by allegations that the Sunday Times accessed some of his personal files.

Britain’s coalition government has now set up a judge-led inquiry into the media, which will look at the “culture, practices, and ethics of the press”, following “revelations of phone hacking and payments to police by the News of the World, and dozens of accusations of wrongdoing by it and other News International titles,” reported the BBC.

The Times’ bold content blocking policy may well be turn out that there’ no content to block, as prime minister David Cameron has called for a new press regulation system and pledged a public inquiry into what went wrong as the head of NI’s UK operations alluded to the fact that “more revelations are yet to come”.

Murdoch has remained resolutely silent amid the furore, except for issuing a single official statement describing the allegations as “deplorable and unacceptable.” The media often portray themselves as defenders of the public good, but what will emerge after NI’s rogue operations?

The phone hacking scandal that sunk Murdoch’s News of the World extends beyond the tabloid, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said on Thursday that the problems in the UK media were “systemic”, and characterised by a “cosy relationship between journalists, politicians and the police”.

This scandal has caused a wave of outrage that is reshaping the media landscape. The Guardian reported recently: “At the start of the month no senior politician dared defy Rupert Murdoch. Now, all of them have. Party leaders united around the terms of the inquiry and the Labour-sponsored Commons debate ‚Äì itself presaged by the collapse of the deal it had been arranged to condemn.”

It is interesting to note that earlier this year French President Nicolas Sarkozy argued that internet users must not forget that “governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people”. He championed tougher government control around the governance of the web, focusing on increased regulation.

So here we have the British media in a state of flux when, at the same time when governments are attempting to hijack the freedom of the internet. Britain’s PM David Cameron said that the focus on privacy “was a timely debate” and he would ask parliament to review British privacy laws. This was after Twitter users circumvented super-injunctions, which the newspapers had been prevented from publishing.

It is even more curious that Sarkozy’s comments came at a time when the Gadaffi-led government in Libya had locked down of the country’s ISPs in order to suppress rebel, anti-government sentiments.

In May this year at an e-G8 event, Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt pushed hard against Sarkozy’s calls for more government regulation and interference, with Schmidt responding that as far governments go, implementation of “stupid” rules such as these would “slow the growth of the internet”. This is at a time when almost $8 trillion changes hands through e-commerce each year, or three times the annual output of the entire British economy.

In an editorial on the Economist website: “The politico-media establishment has decided that an earthquake is imminent. Sensing the danger that lies just ahead, central figures in the crisis are rushing and scrambling to get their version of events out first. From News International to the government and the police, powerful figures seem to have decided that the public are about to want answers to a lot of very painful questions, and that the best defence is transparency.

But while the debate rages in Britain, analysts in the US say it’s too early to tell if there will be serious damage to Murdoch’s US business interests, but these calls raise the spectre that his smeared reputation in Britain could have ramifications stateside.



Facebook rejoices at Mubarak departure?
Monday February 14th 2011, 11:40 am
Filed under: General

It is being claimed in many news sites that the fireworks that lit Cairo’s skies and the joyous tears of the protesters which celebrated the end of ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 years of despotic rule, is curiously all down to Facebook.

On Friday, President Hosni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt’s after widespread anti-government demonstrations. The country is now under the control of the armed forces. US President Barack Obama called Egypt an “inspiration” and said that “Egypt will never be the same again”.

However, the advocates of social media quickly claimed victory for themselves, in that it had “helped build an international community of support for the Egyptians” and was somehow instrumental in bringing about the end to Mubarak’s presidency.

Wael Ghonim, Google‚Äôs marketing manager, led the charge on Twitter with: “They lied at us, told us Egypt died 30 years ago, but millions of Egyptians decided to search and they found their country in 18 days,” while a New York City-based digital strategist opined that: “Social media was a driving force in the revolution.” Mr Ghonim dubbed it “Egypt 2.0″, delivered in an interview to CNN.

Meanwhile, CompterWorld chimed in with the headline: “How Facebook Toppled Hosni Mubarak” and that in a battle with the dictator of the largest nation in the Middle East, “it took Facebook 18 days to help topple the Mubarak regime in Egypt”.

But doesn‚Äôt this sound all too obsessive? Not according to some, as ComputerWorld continued with its ruminations: “The significance of social media isn’t lost among political and military observers, as Facebook served as the key tool used by protesters to organise huge, effective protests.”

In another article from the same source (it seems as if the writer held the voice of the opposition to these far-flung claims): “Is the role of social media in Egypt being overstated?” In his article he went on to explain that Facebook in Egypt is extremely small, about 5.2 million users, or less than 7 out of every 100, while only about 31% of Egyptians who have internet access have a Facebook account. So, a minority of educated Egyptians changed the face of a nation and brought about democracy. Hardly.

I had always thought that Facebook was a communications tool and not one that can claim to be the mastermind behind toppling repressive regimes. And while social media certainly played a dissenting role in disseminating information on the end of the Mubarak era to the rest of the world, and amplified what was going on, the idea that “the combination of Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones left Mubarak and his security forces powerless to stop the protests,” is simply too fantastic a statement to take it seriously.

Mr Ghonim, perhaps, was in a state of fevered intoxication when, in a conversation with CNN he claimed that, “Social media brought democracy, at least for now, to Egypt.” Democracy? But Egypt is in the hands of the military, if the mainstream media have any right of voice in this.

Robert Fisk, a staff writer for The Independent newspaper, who has been covering Egyptian political affairs since 1976, writes: “History may later decide that the army’s lack of faith in Mubarak effectively lost his presidency after three decades of dictatorship, secret police torture and government corruption.” So it was the armed forces. Not Twitter, then?

He continues: “The chains which bound the military to the corruption of Mubarak’s regime were real. Are they to stand by democracy or cement a new Mubarak regime?…As yesterday afternoon’s events proved all too clearly, it was the senior generals who enjoy the luxury of hotel chains, shopping malls, real estate and banking concessions from the same corrupt regime who permitted Mubarak to survive.”

Predictably, Mashable had not bothered to read this piece and weighed in with: “Egyptian president steps down amidst groundbreaking digital revolution” and led into the article with: “From the beginning, the revolution in Egypt was propelled by the use of social media…Subsequently, the government blocked Facebook and Twitter and eventually shut down internet access completely…For perhaps one of the first times in history, history itself has been recorded instantaneously, as reporters took to Twitter to share 140-character updates…Images of the turmoil spread around the world via Flickr and Youtube, too. Al Jazeera made its images available by a Creative Commons license and its work reached an even broader audience around the world.”

Well, perhaps history belongs to social media now. But the claims that it has somehow usurped dictatorship and brought democracy to the Middle East sounds just quaintly absurd.



Is there a market for a social media consultant marketing RatKiller 3.0?
Monday January 24th 2011, 3:46 pm
Filed under: General

A writer at LinkedIn posed the question: “Will businesses pay to have a social media consultant manage their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc…In my opinion, most business owners don’t have a clue where to start regarding social media and mobile text advertising. Dan Hughes

Before we start with a precis of certain opinions on the subject, it may well be worth reading an article on The Guardian website, which headlined as: “Social networking under fresh attack as tide of cyber-scepticism sweeps US” where it is argued that: “The way in which people frantically communicate online via Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging can be seen as a form of modern madness, according to a leading American sociologist…A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological,” MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in her new book, Alone Together, which is leading an attack on the information age.” For the full report, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jan/22/social-networking-cyber-scepticism-twitter.

Now, getting back to the debate on LinkedIn, I think, besides the “pathological” desire to be “connected” even at the most enduring moments of one’s life that it is extremely rare for senior management to understand the benefits and economics of SEM in organic search and how it can lead to extended market reach and more customers.

Too much of the time they seem to take the view that to increase revenue, or in a recession to maintain it, they need to fall back on the reliance of traditional media. The result of this is that migration languishes and profitability targets stagnate. We somehow need to convince them otherwise, but I would estimate that only 10% of my clients actually have an understanding of the mechanics and involvement in successfully promoting social media campaigns. SEO is a tricky enough subject to convey, but social media?

Selecting random posts to comment on, maybe it would be useful to loosely define what “social media” actually is. Let’s assume it means article writing, blogging/RSS, social bookmarking, maintaining Facebook pages, posting tweets, engaging in forums and creating videos/podcasts.

There were a number of responses to this: “Paul wrote that the “consultant” only has experience at a “surface level at best” and that there is “little substance to their consultancy other than how to create a Facebook fan page and Twitter account.” This I would mainly hold as true as a “consultant” is not a Jack of all trades but a master of some. Calling oneself a self-proclaimed “social media consultant”, which I onerously do, is tantamount to saying that I am a “web designer” when I use designers to design, programmers to program, coders to code and animators to animate.

I can write, sure, but am I a journalist that can back up my arguments by unique industry quotes? I can write searchable headlines but I’m not a qualified headline writer. I also cannot shoot professional video or write music. A guy called Yoav agreed with this lack of substance when he said that tweets and posts “are not enough” and that clients need someone that will “drive high quality traffic to your business”. He doubted that the “social marketing consultant” is qualified to do this.

I would have to disagree with this at some level as most of the onsite blogs I produce often produce far more site traffic than the site itself. As to the broadening of enquiries, well I doubt that, although it does a site’s rankings no harm.

Another argued that the key for any social media consultant is relieve business owners of the tasks “since they simply do not have the time”. Let’s add to that understanding, resources, commitment and ability. There’s a whole spectrum of content running in the social media construct, and it requires almost other-worldly skills to fully introduce its benefits to senior management when they offer opposition due to “the bottom line”.

This, of course, leads us on to money. Kate thought the “biggest obstacle” to social media consulting is being able to “prove the return on investment to managers”, and that “top executives [often] fail to understand the benefits”. Not only that but “ROI is very hard to measure and for that reason I think it will struggle as a stand alone outsourced marketing services function.”

Mashable wrote about the subject of ROI last year, saying: “Last month, we reported on a survey that found that 84% of social media programs don’t measure return on investment (ROI)…Companies and executives are finally beginning to really jump on the social media bandwagon, and that’s fantastic. However, for social media to fully work (for everyone), businesses and brands need to be able to evaluate the impact their social media use is having, both positive and negative. Measuring social media ROI isn’t impossible, but it can be difficult because many of the pieces that need to be evaluated are difficult to track.”

I’m not so sure this has changed that significantly and I think we need to be far clearer about what we mean by a “social media consultant” in that it defines a myriad of diverse skills. What I agree is the “biggest obstacle” is to convince management is that it’s not only ROI we are measuring but disseminating social messages and interacting with customers about products and services. This, I would argue, is achieved via distinct media that all comes within the ambit of the all-encompassing term “social media”.

My understanding of social media is just that, of communicating, rather than relying on mere economics alone. It is a new paradigm not exclusively modelled on the profit motive. That’s advertising’s job. But back to the original question: “Will businesses pay to have a social media consultant manage their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.” An unqualified “yes” if the consultant knows their subject

But hold on a minute, let’s just take an extreme and hypothetical case of a company, PestStopper, that wants to engage in a social media experiment and is selling electronic rat killer online. We know that their extermination methods are top-notch but we also know that their English and the description of their product is shocking.

You are now employed to write a press release about PestStopper’s new and hyper-efficient RatKiller 3.0. There is no brochure to accompany the release and little can be gleaned from their website. So, you research other rat killing products on the web and make a stab at a press release. You post it on social media sites. Then, you set up a Facebook fan page. You post a brief summary about the company and its product. But who would wish to be a fan? And when you tweet, who will follow you?

There would probably be no issue following a company on Twitter that sells cute puppies, as is the case with ZeitGeistNews with 4,166 followers, but a company that sells electronic rat killer?



Googlezon and a swan song for the Fourth Estate?
Monday December 20th 2010, 5:26 pm
Filed under: General

In the spirit of Winston Smith, will “net neutrality” cease to function and will the “public internet” then become the mediascape for the poor at the finale of the evolving media wars?

“Epic 2014″ coined the word “Googlezon” from a fictitious future merger of Google and Amazon to form the GoogleGrid, and speaks of the final war with The Times as becoming a newspaper for the elite, culminating in the “Evolving Personalised Information Construct”, at the Museum of Media History. With “net neutrality” being hotly debated, could this be a timely vision of Google and Verizon’s merger?

Author Oscar Wilde described the Fourth Estate as: “In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralising. Somebody ‚Äî was it Burke? ‚Äî called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three: The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by journalism.” Not any more, it seems.

Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-American economist and political scientist popularised the term “creative destruction” in economics. One of his three well-known typologies expounds the theory of entrepreneurial motivation: the desire to found a private kingdom or dynasty; the will to win, to fight and to conquer; and the joy and satisfaction that comes from creation and problem solving.

His theory is implied by Columbia law professor Tim Wu, when he talks of “Googlezon”: “Just consider the power and public role of firms like Verizon or Google (especially if they work together). Sitting atop the web, they can influence what firms succeed or fail ‚Äî by making sites load faster or slower…It goes further ‚Äî in subtle ways, the information carriers have the power to influence elections and even censor speech they don’t like.”

What he’s suggesting is that “Googlezon” is being geared up to become the gatekeeper for web services and content, with the abolition of “net neutrality” as we know it. In this scenario, “Googlezon” might make an agreement with CNN to load its pages faster than the BBC as part of its “special services” packages. CNNMoney.com wrote in “Who controls the internet and how you access it” that this subject of an increasingly heated debate about net neutrality “is being fiercely fought out by content creators and internet providers.”

Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” in a research paper years ago and has just written a new book, “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires,” in which he staunchly maintains that neutrality rules require internet providers to treat all web content equally but that Google and Verizon are on the verge of announcing their own deal, mapping out what they think the “playing field” will be.

Last week’s Economist ran the story: “How long will Google’s magic last?”, arguing that the European Union has announced a formal investigation into claims that Google has been manipulating search results to give an unfair advantage to its services and that the company is facing problems on finding new sources of growth outside of its search-related advertising.

However, bring in the concept of “Googlezon” and their argument would seem to fall to bits. According to io9.com: “‘Googlezon’ is redefining the internet as a tiered service, like cable. And this new thing called the public internet is the lowest tier…Pledging to keep the public internet neutral is great, but what happens when companies stop wanting to offer their services on it? Googlezon has the answer: In their proposal, they say that it’s perfectly OK for companies and consumers to buy non-neutral, non-public “special services” online…a superfast connection for the privileged few with money to burn.”

This is a story that Tim Wu and Joseph Joseph Schumpeter would seem to agree on, that big corporations truly rule the web though manipulation and “innovation”.

io9.com continues: “Quite simply, the Googlezon agreement means that if you access the internet via your Android phone (or other mobile device), there will be no public internet at all. Your access to the web will be determined by your carrier, who may or may not offer special services ‚Äî and who may decide to block any content it likes.”

They also argue that the “public internet” will be run by slow social networks that will be “drenched in advertising and spyware” and that users will have the indignity of suffering “long buffering times and bad commercials” as its staple.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the article suggests virtual civil war in which: “…the public internet is the least public place online: It’s an antisocial space; a crumbling, unsupported legacy network full of ads and graffiti. Googlezon has succeeded in creating a caste system in the online world, and the public is the lowest caste of all.”

Mostly these principles are harbingers of a dystopian, Orwellian-like media future, with the professionals removed in the narcissism of the age.

Which brings us to the point where the 21st century Newspeak-type world of Winston Smith was summed up succinctly by spiked-online.com in 2009: “All the commentaries, the blogs, the tweets…a spectacle of feelings, a seething mass of self-affirming emotional incontinence, a carnival of first-person pronouns and expressions of hurt and proxy offence.”

I feel, therefore I am, may well herald in a swan song of the Fourth Estate and the incontinence of our online future.



Symbiotic relationship between Google, the EU and dinosaurs
Monday December 20th 2010, 5:25 pm
Filed under: General

Fittingly perhaps, at Googleplex there is a bronzed T-Rex skeleton nicknamed Stan, which is said to remind them to not become a digital dinosaur. But as EU regulators are set to probe Google for manipulating search results, the zone nears extinction.

Mashable wrote of Googleplex: “One of the most arresting is surely the gigantic T-Rex skeleton ‚Äî nicknamed “Stan” after a “real” dino found nearby ‚Äî that looms menacingly at Googlers in Mountain View.” Another account of the gigantic T-Rex ventures that Messrs Brin and Page brought him home as homage to the previous occupants, who were said to have helped Steven Spielberg animate the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

The story of Stan, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, began 65 million years ago in the heart of what is known today as North America. By studying the earth, along with fossil bones and plants, scientists have pieced together a picture of what life was like when this massive carnivore walked the Earth. In Stan’s world there were crocodiles, flying reptiles, large lizards and small mammals, along with a host of other dinosaurs.

When Stan was old enough, he left the family group and fought many battles. Bringing down his prey afforded Stan not only the opportunity to dine, but also the possibility of injury and competition. And by studying “pathologies” in the bones, scientists surmise that the T-Rex scuffled for territory, fought over food, and engaged in other behaviors similar to today’s carnivores.

Last week, European Union regulators were set to probe whether Google “scuffled for territory” by “manipulating its search results to stifle competition, funnel more traffic to its own services and protect its global stranglehold of the online search market.”

By far the largest carnivore in its environment, Stan was an “apex predator”, preying upon hadrosaurs and ceratopsians, although some experts have suggested he was primarily a scavenger. Tyranno means “tyrant”, sauros “lizard” and the species Tyrannosaurus Rex (”rex” meaning “king” in Latin), sheds some evolutionary evidence on the symbiotic¬† relationship between Stan’s skeleton and “today’s carnivores”.

The European Commission’s formal investigation into Google’s business practices could potentially result in billions of dollars in fines. In the recent case of Microsoft, Europe’s antitrust slapped the company with around $2 billion, and a further $1.4 billion on Intel Corp, in fines.

The issue could boil down to whether “Google has a right to program its search engine the way it wants or whether it is abusing the market power it has accumulated by processing about two out of three search requests made worldwide.”

But let’s take a look at the EU itself, which is now facing three profoundly disturbing scenarios: fiscal union, debt restructuring and Eurozone break-up. Against a backdrop of discord and hesitation among its most influential members, European Union leaders held a summit last week to deal with the growing threat to their common currency, the euro.

On Thursday, Spain was forced to offer significantly higher interest rates at a debt auction. Bond markets fell across Europe. So far the EU has failed to halt the spread of the turmoil as its members are expected to raise $2 trillion of debt. Read Germany. Now, Europe risks triggering the unthinkable: the extinction of the euro.

This week the Economist noted that: “Google has been able to afford such flights of fancy thanks to its amazingly successful online search business. This has produced handsome returns for the firm’s investors, who have seen the company transform itself in the space of a mere 12 years from a tiny start-up into a behemoth with a $180 billion market capitalisation that sprawls across a vast headquarters in Silicon Valley known as the “Googleplex”, an area near to where Stan used to live.

But the alpha male of the unorthodox is now faced with two major challenges: the first is to ponder whether Europe will go under while negotiating with the regulators; the second is how Google will address the issue of sourcing new growth as it is still heavily dependent on its search-related advertising model.

In words that Stan would have been abjectly proud of, Steve Ballmer, the boss of Microsoft, “derided” Google for being “a one-trick pony” but whose apologist “two-ageing ponies”, the archaic Windows operating system and Office, are those I am at this moment grappling with on a friend’s PC. I can feel Tourette’s coming on strongly again, I fear.

Microsoft aside, is it then fair to write Google off for its innovative deficiencies when the likes of social networks such as Facebook, which has seen traffic to its site surpass it earlier this year, and when apps are being offered by Apple in search without the use of a web browser? The Economist notes: “Google recently clashed publicly and caustically with Facebook over the latter’s data practices, warning potential users that the social network had become ‚Äòa data dead end’.” Ouch!

Other barriers are being erected too, such as media companies that are now rethinking their policy of licensing content to Google, and television producers now wary of supplying programming to new internet-enabled television services such as Google TV.

While writing this, I came across an interesting comparative I read years ago while working for an African magazine in London. It is a novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart”. This is a story of Okonkwo, a great man in his home of Umuofia, who began building his social status by defeating a great wrestler, propelling him into society’s eye.

Because of his great esteem, Okonkwo was selected by the elders to be the guardian of Ikemefuna, a boy taken prisoner. For three years the boy lived with Okonkwo’s family and he grew fond of him. Then the elders decided that the boy must be killed.

Shortly after Ikemefuna’s death, things begin to go wrong for Okonkwo and when he accidentally killed someone at a ritual funeral ceremony, he and his family were sent into exile for seven years to appease the gods. While Okonkwo was away in exile, white men began coming to Umuofia and they introduced their religion. As the number of converts increased, the foothold of the white people grew beyond their religion and a new government was introduced.

Now, with Greece and Ireland under the virtual stewardship of the EU and the IMF and Portugal threatened with a similar fate, there is a growing recognition that policy-makers are running out of options. Spain is also in jeopardy due to unknown losses in its banking system and even Italy and Belgium are coming under pressure in the bond markets.

As the Economist points out, “This is not happening in a vacuum. As Europe tries to sort out its economic problems, China, India and other countries are on the rise, providing tougher competitive challenges. Because of that, the European social model has to be reformed radically to increase competitiveness.”

Across the Atlantic, Google could also suffer from government threats against companies that are perceived to have violated users’ privacy online. If so, it will be more difficult to carry on “minting money from ads”. And this month, America’s Federal Trade Commission said it favoured a plan to allow consumers to choose whether or not their web-surfing habits are tracked by others.

In a statement last Tuesday, Google reiterated its belief that it hasn’t done anything wrong. But if the Commission finds that Google has abused its position it could levy a fine of up to 10 per cent of its revenue, or $2.4 billion, based on its 2009 earnings figures.

During the spring of 1987, amateur paleontologist Stan Sacrison was exploring outcrops near the town of Buffalo, South Dakota, when he came across a large pelvis weathering out of a sandy cliff face 100 feet above the prairie.

During that summer, Stan spent his free time attempting to uncover what was obviously the skeleton of a large dinosaur. One serious injury left it with a broken neck — and probably terrible headaches. But the most interesting wound was a hole at the back of its skull, which is a perfect match for a tooth from the lower jaw of another T-Rex. Although wounded, it  lived to fight another day.



Twitter ye not, Europe is but another random meme
Thursday December 02nd 2010, 6:21 pm
Filed under: General

In “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay, he treated many psychic states as that of the economically hackneyed word of today, “random”; the new bubble meme of demographic herds.

Will Self postured in an article for the New Statesman in 2009 that the word “random” has become a “nonce phrase” and ventured that ever since the credit crunch it registered with him that the word “random” has insinuated itself into British vocalisation by responding to the universal, but imperfectly acknowledged, awareness that it was bankers’ willingness to accept systematically flawed calculations of risk that led to the near-collapse of the Western financial system. “Random,” he asserts, has resurged like a talismanic word in a form of prayer.

While European banks are busily extending loans to bankrupt states on the basis that “they cannot go bankrupt”, bailouts have been issued to European governments like the burgeoning underclass of celebrity; as Greece and Ireland receive their billions, Portugal and Spain are under pressure to request even more.

And this has led some observers to note that the whole financial system seems to be tottering on the precipice, with Bloomberg predicting that as the global financial crisis moves on to Spain, the “big elephant” will spell Europe’s conclusive financial chapter over.

At the same time as the random meme takes hold of the instability in the Eurozone, it is causing the value of silver to spike, according to CNBC. A Manhattan coin dealer admitted: “This is probably the strongest demand there’s been in the last 25 years for silver,” as gold is now so expensive.

There is also talk of Belgium and Italy “being in danger”, and that if France and Germany continue to extend these “guarantees” they’ll get sucked into the maelstrom of the damned.

In “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” there is a history of such national follies, such as England’s South Sea Bubble and Holland’s Tulip Frenzy. The Scottish historian Charles Mackay observed: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.” And that “money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of the multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper.”

These words take on their own peculiarity when one looks at the Dutch tulip mania of the early seventeenth century. At the time, the Dutch aristocracy was extremely wealthy, while the average Dutch worker in the 1600s made about 150 florins annually; a rare tulip bulb, however, could easily be sold for 1,000 florins. Tulips were worth more than gold.

But then the market crashed because the unregulated futures market or derivatives market for tulip bulbs had skyrocketed. Tulip bulbs had bubbled and the market abruptly collapsed. It was decreed that futures in tulips could no longer be traded as an investment, but only as an actual product in the marketplace. How strangely familiar.

Among the crowd syndrome of bubbles and financial manias, as described by Mackay, are the South Sea Company bubble of 1711–1720 and the Mississippi Company bubble of 1719–1720.

Bubbles had all seem so rare at the turn of the millennium, but the first recorded bubble case in England was that of the State Lottery in 1569. The South Sea Company had a monopoly in trade with South America, which underwrote English National Debt, which stood at £30 million. Shares immediately rose to 10 times their value; the country went wild and vast fortunes were made.

Then the bubble burst; stocks crashed and people all over the country lost all of their money, mostly the moneyed clergy, bishops and gentry, who lost their life savings. The whole country suffered a catastrophic loss of money and property. Suicides became a daily occurrence and the gullible mob, whose innate greed had lain behind this mass hysteria for wealth, demanded vengeance, much like it is today towards bankers in particular and elected governments (some unwittingly like the Obama’s inheritance of the global ponzi scheme) in general. Socially, the South Sea Company bubble caused frantic bankers to throng the lobbies of parliament until the Riot Act was read to restore order.

Will Self referred in another of his articles to The Stockholm Syndrome. When landing at the airport one day he observed guys with mobiles phones that were “either talking to Wotan or were schizophrenics”. He could not tell which. What is it nowadays with civil society, he mused, that anyone with a portable phone now believes they have an inalienable right to “yatter on in public, at inordinate length and as loudly as a trombonist”? As an antidote to this random meme, when “deranged persons” begin to “Samsung-soliloquise”, he tries to bring them to their senses by reading aloud from Schopenhauer…” The mobile bubble; the communications centre of the insane.

About a year ago I read, dubiously now, that the only country ever to go bankrupt was Newfoundland. Now I see that Spain defaulted on its financial obligations seven times during the 19th century alone; Argentina’s bankruptcy in 2001 was caused by a run on the banks following a collapse of the country’s national currency; Germany has the dubious distinction of having gone bankrupt not once, but twice in recent memory, the first during in the 1920s as a result of losing World War I; Britain was bankrupt after World War II; and Russia went bankrupt in 1998, when the former communist country suffered the “ruble crisis”.

In J.P. Chaplin’s “Rumour, Fear and the Madness of Crowds”, on 24th August 1926, one of the worst riots in the history of New York erupted, with between sixty to eight thousand people involved. And the cause of these unruly legions in the heart of New York City was the dead body of Rudolph Valentino as he lay in state.

It is said that it was an outbreak of mass hysteria in an era celebrated for excess and exhibitionism. In his words: “There seemed to be no limit to human ingenuity in contriving masterpieces of sheer stupidity.” The riots today seem so redolent of this one event.

Similarly, the exaggerated newspaper reports of wild grief and the long delay between the actor’s death and his departure for Hollywood added fuel to the fires of madness in conjunction with panic and fear.

Today, the financial auditorium, the false sanctity of grief, is fuelling another random meme. And in the words of Shakespeare, “the blind monster, with uncounted heads, the still discordant, wavering multitude” social media would do well to abandon its interactions on this subject lest it actively drives dialogue into fear and panic into the random meme.



Web Design Bangkok – an evolution of keyworded domains
Friday November 05th 2010, 2:20 pm
Filed under: General

Back in the days when we started a Bangkok-based web design agency, there was little mention of keyworded domains. In those days, the ease of getting high placement was all about having good SEO and links. Not now.

It was probably always the case but we just failed to think it through properly. The title, the meta tags, the h1 tag, the keywords in the body copy all had profound significance in the days of SEO in the uncompetitive market for search. But the company domain was somehow sacrosanct in the rather old-fashioned idea in delivering the “brand” and we somehow got round it by varying the link text to match the search term.

But, according to an article written a while ago by Marketingweek: “The most successful domain name strategies will use more than the company name alone ‚Äì incorporating keywords relating to a particular vertical market will reach a wider audience and build brand associations far more effectively.

“Some good examples of companies already doing this include Johnson & Johnson with Baby.com; Calvin Klein with Underwear.com and Proctor & Gamble, whose Crest brand owns Toothpaste.com‚ĶOne brand that seems to have taken this strategy to heart is Toys ‘R’ Us’, who recently purchased toys.com for $5m (¬£3.2m). The retailer correctly viewed domain names as an asset not an expense and toys.com is putting them in the top search ranking for their market and to considerably improving their digital brand recognition.”

Digital brand recognition? Then why doesn’t Nike have runningshoes.com and Amazon books.com? Because it’s too late to register them? Or why not have Coca-Cola re-brand to fizzydrink.com or Toyota to reasonablypricedcar.com?

I wrote an article a while ago that argued the case that Google had decided to place a heavier emphasis on “brand” for conventional corporate websites when deciding how to rank and I said it was the new “oligarchic algorithm”.

Added to that, I said, in the Google universe, each business has size and gravity that can be determined by measuring mass, presupposing that mass, as determined by established brand, is the only variable that determines gravity. I was wrong.

Two years ago, ignoring my own prejudices, I registered vietnamwebdesign and webdesignbeijing and, through merely throwing a link from my home page plus a couple of other permanents at them, I got to #1 in a week for both.

I closed down the latter through lack of a strategic partner but the former has remained in that spot ever since and without any link building, social media or article writing. Both are admittedly in uncompetitive markets. And I have recently done the same with webdesignlaos. I expect the same but this time with sales staff on the ground.

It’s a very different story for web design bangkok, though. That is because the market space has become so saturated with the search term in titles. The first page of Google’s listings though has #3-5 registered as keyworded domains.

Just to explain how this skewed algorithmic madness actually works in practice: according to Yahoo stats, the #1 site has 68 pages and 1,305 backlinks; #2 has 510/1,903 and #4, which has just been registered by a company that significantly failed to penetrate the market by its brand, has 1 page registered and 2 inbound links. Priceless. And Bing is even worse.

Recently, in the seo.com blog they talked of Matt Cutts, who works for the Search Quality group in Google specialising in search engine optimisation issues, talked about how “keywords in the domain carry weight with users” and, for this reason, “Google also gives some weight to a keyword in the URL and/or domain name”. Some weight. Some understatement, judging by site #4 above.

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see if this story gets through the bot moderators to land up anywhere near the top ten. I know that won’t work.



Google’s $5m charitable donation to the newspaper industry will surely not include Murdoch
Thursday October 28th 2010, 3:55 pm
Filed under: General

Google is to give $5 million dollars to organisations trying to find innovative ways to continue the practice of journalism, while estimates of traffic to News International sites’ front pages has declined by 43% and the number viewing stories by 88%.

Google, having strained relations with many US newspaper publishers, has donated $US5 million to encourage innovation in digital journalism. Today Nielsen estimated the number of UK web users going beyond News International’s front pages to their paywall in order to access subscription content is around 362,000 362,000 monthly users. They also estimates that before the paywall went up, content from Murdoch’s papers averaged 3.1 million unique monthly visitors. It is now only 1.78 million with just over 20% going on to access subscription content.

TechCrunch published today that Google executives have felt so bad about the newspaper industry’s malaise and blaming itself for all that’s gone wrong, it intends to give away $5 million dollars. But on the proviso that only those finding “innovative ways to continue the practice of journalism” will receive the funds.

Google will be giving away $2 million to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with $1 million going to the Knight News Challenge and $1 million going towards continuation of US Journalism grant making. The remaining $3 million will be spent internationally.

I can’t really see that Mr Murdoch will be one of the many beneficiaries and he has in the past accused them of “stealing” his content and having announced: “The aggregators and plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content. But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid content, it will be the content creators ‚Äî the people in this hall ‚Äî who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs who triumph.” Google, content kleptomaniacs?

It is worth quoting Google in full on Techcrunch’s donations story: “Journalism is fundamental to a functioning democracy. So as media organisations globally continue to broaden their presence online, we’re eager to play our part on the technology side ‚Äî experimenting with new ways of presenting news online; providing tools like Google Maps and YouTube Direct to make websites more engaging for readers; and investing heavily in our digital platforms to enable publishers to generate more revenue.” Not to mention the $5 million dollar tax write-off.

And while in this guilty frame of mind, Google has plans to release a micro-payment system later this year that links to paid newspaper content directly from search results called Newspass, in another attempt to save the newspaper industry. Newspass will provide news organisations with micro-payments for direct links to their properties from Google News.

Basically the system works by Google News providing both paid and unpaid results. If a user chooses to click on the paid results, they will be charged a fee via Google Checkout; if they don’t want to use Google checkout they won’t be able to read the content.

In a report by CNN, Italian newspaper La Repubblica is reporting that Google is already piloting the service with publishers in Italy and has been contacting Italian newspapers. Henrique de Castro, a Google vice president, said in a translated statement, “Google wants to be partners, not competitors, with the newspaper industry.”

Google will launch “an integrated payment system” allowing users to buy news content with just “one click” and Newspass would allow publishers to use a single infrastructure for web, mobile and tablet computers to monetise their content. Consumers will have a single log-in across a multitude of news sites that would be flexible enough to accommodate various kinds of payments, including long-term subscriptions and one-time micropayments.

Murdoch’s paywall initiatives seems to have had a predictable result: that of falling subscribers. The BBC argues that the number of people buying online subscriptions at The Times is very low, meaning much of the audience behind the paywall, that 362,000 of which Nielsen says it is confident, are either print subscribers or people who have free access, and “if only a fraction of people are paying online, that suggests that the 362,000 could be off and that the real number is far lower.”

Murdoch’s paywall idea for news sites has been highly controversial and there has always been justified scepticism about its ability to work: only a handful of specialist financial publications around the world have got it more or less right, but for mainstream, general news, paywalls have not been a success.

In the early 2000s many online publishers tried to put their content behind a paywall, but were forced to retreat in the face of what became known as the “web 2.0″ era, which saw a tidal wave of user-generated content and blogging.

Now, driven by a slowdown in advertising, a financial crisis and an inability to make real money out of online advertising, the paywall debate has resurfaced with vigour, with much of the noise coming from Rupert Murdoch. The Times controversially implemented its paywall earlier this year and ever since the reports talk of plummeting readership figures.

Google’s initiative does not follow the Murdoch’s approach, which involves individual publications creating their own bespoke paywall and payment system. This, it is argued, contributed to the failure of multiple paywalls because it constitute a barrier to entry for users.

The Times’ solo paywall attempt was just repeating the mistakes of the past, it seems. Google’s Newspass is a no-brainer: it proposes a one-stop solution and, as a neutral service, offers the best chance of a paywall system working as it is one of the few internet players able to implement such a broad-ranging initiative.

Google argues that it drives traffic to newspaper websites and newspapers can easily prevent the web search engine from accessing their content if they choose to do so. Murdoch did and this unprecedented charitable donation will not be going anywhere near News Corp’s bank account.



Social media’s rampacious herd: of gadgets, madness and crowds
Friday October 15th 2010, 4:58 pm
Filed under: General

In Babbage’s column this week, Virtual Lemmings, he argues that humans are a gregarious lot, which gives rise to herd mentality, while Will Self writes of superficial advances that provide us with more disposable time we just fill it up fiddling with iPhones.

First, let’s look glance through a few headlines in today’s Mashable. One talks about how many texts an average teenager sends per month, another that Obama was answering tweets during a town hall event and, one that caught some sense of my imagination, was by Jessica Faye Carter on why Twitter influences cross-cultural engagement.

In Wilfred Batten Lewis Trotter (no relation of Del Boy) was known for his studies on the herd instinct, which he outlined in two papers in 1908. Trotter argued that gregariousness was an instinct in line with bees, sheep and packs of wolves, while William James proposed a little earlier that the impulse of an instinct is of such  axiomatically obviousness that any idea of discussing its basis is ultimately foolish.

Elaborating upon this, Professor Lloyd Morgan defined instinctive behaviour as: “that which is on its first occurrence independent of prior experience; which tends to be to the well-being of the individual and the preservation of the race; which is similarly performed by all the members of the same more or less restricted group of animals; and which may be subject to subsequent modification under the guidance of experience.” Social media would not quite fit this criterion, perhaps.

But it’s to this millennium I turn and who better than “The Madness of Crowds: Gadgets”, by Will Self. In his column he talks about how he often succumbs to: “one of the great delusions of the modern world: namely that a gadget or device will allow me to do something I’ve been doing for years faster and more efficiently, thereby gifting me more of the kind of time I so desperately need: down time.”

He describes in some detail about “gizmos” that do nothing for him and yet when confronted with an advert or hear some “Twittery spiel of some deranged early adopter”, he flies off into some imagined computer-generated fantasy of “techno-adequacy”, when really “we yearn to dabble for ever in the rock pools of juvenescence”.

Satnav, he argues, “has to be the ultimate useless gizmo when it comes to saving time. I’ve lost count of occasions I’ve had to deprogramme a minicab driver and persuade him that just possibly I know a better route across town than his dash-mounted white pebble, as I’ve lived here my entire life.”

But getting back to Jessica Faye Carter, she believes that” “We might be intrigued by a comment we see in the Trending Topics, and we visit the person’s profile to see if it’s someone we want to follow [herd mentality]. Or we see a Trending Topic we’ve never heard of and want to know what’s going on…

“But even without the third party apps, there is a universality of shared experience that underlies interactions on Twitter. Nancy Perez, CEO of Social Media Wired, sees Twitter as a place of shared human experience, noting that ‘the interests, behaviors, thought processes, speech patterns and daily commonalities of life translate [Twitter] conversations into the universal language of humankind.’” Or, how Will Self would have it: “How mad is that?”

In “The Dynamics of Crowd Conflict” it states: “As human beings, we have a natural tendency not to want to be alone in what we think. If we have a thought, opinion or view that we thought no one else had, we might compromise that view in order to fit in somewhere. Human beings are social creatures and fear nothing more than being alone. Adolescents get pinned with having more of a ‘herd mentality’ than adults, but I would argue that the bandwagon psychology is rampant even among the most mature adults.

“The bandwagon psychology, or the ‘herd mentality’, is the process of a person joining a group of people that believe in something, even though that person might not believe in it themselves…Human beings are more connected than they think according to the bandwagon psychology.”

The has been weighted to be typically cynical, so I’ll introduce James Surowiecki, who thinks us lemmings are in fact “often better than could have been made by any single member of the group”. In the “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”, he breaks down the advantages he sees in disorganised decisions into three main types, which he classifies as cognition (thinking and information processing); coordination of behaviour, which alludes to optimising the utilisation of a popular bar and not colliding in moving traffic flows; and cooperation (how groups of people can form networks of trust without a central system controlling their behaviour or directly enforcing their compliance.

Surowiecki also studies “rational bubbles” in which the crowd produces very bad judgements, and argues that in these types of situations their cognition or cooperation failed because “the members of the crowd were too conscious of the opinions of others and began to emulate each other and conform rather than think differently”.

“Crowds collectively swayed by a persuasive speaker, is the main reason that the reason why groups of people intellectually conform when that system for decision-making has a systematic flaw.” And he asserts that this can lead to “fragile social outcomes”. Also, emotional factors, such as a feeling of belonging, can lead to peer pressure, herd instinct and, in extreme cases, collective hysteria.

In the Economist, Dr Reed-Tsochas and Dr Onnela are quoted as having “duly discovered that the social networkers’ herd mentality was intact, with popular apps doing best, and the trendiest reaching stratospheric levels…What did come as something of a surprise, though, was that our inner lemming only kicked in once the app had breached a clear threshold rate of about 55 installations a day. Any fewer than that and users seemed oblivious to their friends’ preferences.”

At some level then, virtual lemmings as described, we all seem to be.