Archive for April, 2008


Angel of the North

Taken as I sped by on my way to Newcastle. I wasn’t driving, honest, officer.

I remember being mesmerised by this on my first (and up ’til now, only) trip to the North East. It’s lost none of its magic for me.

Category : Photo | Blog

Flat Earth NewsI am currently reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which focuses on journalism and news and how the profession is failing in its duty to protect and disseminate the truth. This isn’t, Davies claims, because of a some moral failing on the part of journalists, nor out of commercial pressure, or indeed interference from proprietors. Instead, Davies points the finger at the way in which stories are promulgated across the media as a result of a lack of fact checking and a desire to cover breaking news regardless of whether or not it is actually verifiable.

The first example Davies provides is that of the millennium bug. Before the turn of the century, significant numbers of column inches were dedicated to describing the disasters and calamities that would befall society if nothing were done about it. But in truth, the actual number of systems affected by the bug were minimal:

…the problem would only occur in computers which had internal clocks (most desktop computers do, but most ‘embedded’ systems, on which big organisations rely, don’t), but only if those clocks calculated time by using a calendar rather than by simply measuring the gap between two dates, and only if those calendars used only two digits to register the years, rather than four, and only if the computer was being used for programs which had to calculate time across the boundary between 1999 and 2000.

Needless to say, there weren’t many such systems around, and at the dawn of the new millennium, there were no planes falling from the sky, nor riots destroying our streets. The story had spread because the actual likely dangers were exaggerated by the various sources that the journalists were relying on, and those sources were not necessarily acting in a malicious way. Firstly, the IT security experts exaggerated the risk so that people would listen to them and take the issue seriously. From this, parties with an interest in the issue added to the noise: office managers seeking upgrades to their systems used the millennium bug as an excuse; governments overreacted so a not to appear as taking the nation’s security lightly. Then the third wave of opinion started to be voiced: those who had no clue what they were talking about at all.

This cacophony is self perpetuating, until some point where the truth becomes self-evident, and in this case that point was 1 January 2000, when nothing happened. Davies gives other examples too: the rumours around Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and the furore surrounding the prescription of heroin by British doctors. In the latter case, this can be seen to have had some serious consequences for society.

I’m interested in seeing what Davies comes up with in terms of explanations as to why journalists appear to be so compliant with this. Reviews of the book mentioned issues such as the demands of time and resources leading to a over-reliance on wire copy and a reluctance to fact-check. The rolling 24/7 news agenda must have some bearing on this with news TV channels demanding constant big stories and breaking updates and this is also true now of print journalists who provide content for news websites as well as for the print editions.

Does the use of social media tools by citizen journalists help or hinder the journalist profession in it’s pursuit of the truth? In many ways the influence is a negative one - bloggers have no requirement to meet any kind of professional standards and can publish more or less what they like - there is no Blogging Complaints Commission for example. This means that stories can get some air before they reach the traditional news media, giving them a life that they might not otherwise have got.

But that’s just one side of the coin. Citizen journalists can also get the truth out quicker, even when the mainstream media is pushing a different line. And while the authors of blogs might not necessarily always write the truth, it’s far harder for the majority of folk to falsify photographic or video social reporting (ok, so there is always Photoshop, and the equivalents for video editing, but the numbers of people who can produce convincing falsification are few and far between).

I mentioned in a previous post that perhaps a role for the professional journalist in the networked society might be in turning the fragments produced by the social reporters, the citizen journalists, into cohesive wholes, by taking a perspective a bit wider than the folk in the street with their camera phones who are providing the building blocks of the truth that in turn provide the journalists with the authenticity their stories need.

There is a Flat Earth News site with further information, extracts etc. It runs on Drupal!

Update: Just found this Guardian podcast featuring an interview with Davies. Well worth a listen.

Category : Journalism | Blog

What sort of things do you look at to measure the ’success’ of your blog, whether as a whole site or on a post by post process. I guess it might depend on why you are blogging as to what your actual definition of success might be.

Here’s a few basic ways that I thought of:

  • Page views
  • Number of comments
  • Saves to del.icio.us etc and other social bookmarking sites like Digg etc
  • Links to you from other blog
  • Number of RSS subscribers

I suppose even these measures aren’t definite. For example, a few comments having a quality discussion are probably more valuable than hundreds saying ‘Great post!’ or something equally rubbish.

But of course there are other things to, which might tie in more to your reason for blogging. For example, campaign blogs which have a particular cause in mind, or blog that promote a new way of doing things. You might not get many comments, but if you manage to change the way people are doing things, then you have been successful. I guess the only problem is that you won’t know about it!

The great thing about blogging, though, is that if what you are doing is useful to people, or if it is something that folk find interesting, then people will link to you, or comment, or bookmark your stuff. It’s almost inevitable.

How do you measure your blog’s success?

Category : Blogging | Blog

There are some interesting points in this PDF about the skills required in the age of web 2.0 from Harold Jarche, including:

Attitude: Accepting that we will never know everything, but that others may be able to help, is the first step in becoming a learning professional. This is an acceptance of a world in flux and that knowledge is neither constant nor fixed…

Learning: Learning professionals can no longer rest on their past accomplishments while the field changes and grows. They should be testing Web 2.0 tools so that they can develop optimal processes to support their organizations. If learning professionals are not setting the example of learning online, who is?…

Collaboration: Through sharing and exposing their work on the Web, learning professionals can connect to communities of practice and get informal peer review. There is no way to stay current with the technology, the neuroscience or the pedagogy all by ourselves.

Category : web 2.0 | Blog

Interesting re-post of an article that appeared in the BBC’s in-house magazine Ariel by Rory Cellan-Jones on the issues around the launch of the various blogs written by BBC journalists:

It strikes me the initial concerns were twofold - that nobody would be interested in our blogs so they would be a waste of a correspondent’s effort, and that they would threaten our impartiality. But the blogs have attracted plenty of readers - Robert Peston’s Peston’s Picks gets a million page views a month - and they’ve done that without descending to the opinionated, loudmouthed knockabout which was previously seen as the prerequisite for success in this arena.

What blogging does allow a broadcaster to do is to cover stories that would never make it onto the airwaves, and, in my case, to engage with a different and very knowledgeable audience. Mind you, that’s bound to be a minority audience and the danger is they become a distraction from the job of reaching the mass of licence-fee payers. Alf Hermida suggests that the BBC bloggers need to do even more to have a conversation with these people - I think there are risks in getting too involved.

Are these issues peculiar to the BBC, I wonder, or indeed peculiar to journalism?

Category : Blogging | Journalism | Blog

Shane McCracken has blogged at Cllr 2.0 about the experience of Norfolk County Councillor Tony Tomkinson who started blogging at the beginning of this year:

The post is a superb example of how using a blog a civic leader can gather considered and in-depth views from a wide range of people with a wide range of views.  The blog hasn’t replaced the village public meeting but it has complemented it very well.  Although Tony is prevented by his position as a councillor from expressing an opinion before the Planning committee meeting, he is providing leadership by encouraging discussion and opinion through having a place for that discussion to take place.

A great example of the benefits that blogging can bring for local politicians and their communities.

I wonder how well a blogging councillor like Tony would fit in with a local social media community like I described this morning?

Category : E-Democracy | Blog

Interesting post from MJ Ray on the need for organisation - which perhaps busts the myth that open source software development is a perfect model to follow for other types of groups:

Are free software users particularly bad at the basics of running an interest society (like welcoming and expiring members, calling meetings, publishing routine communications, and so on), have I been spoiled by cooperatives with their friendly Member Services departments or secretariats, or what? Is this why so many free software orgs seem to include self-perpetuating leadership groups? Is this a serious problem if, as reported, Software Development is a Team Sport [etbe]? Are there fully-working free software mass participation groups out there?

I feel a lot of these problems are caused by attempting to order our inherently entropy-filled world completely and insisting everything follows petty rules, such as refusing to answer a question because the “wrong” member asked it. The world will not become less random just because hackers try to impose arbitrary rules. Sometimes it’s good to put down minimum standards (because calling zero-day meetings is a mostly-avoidable way of excluding some members) but it will always be a poor alternative to trying to do the best you can for others.

Category : collaboration | Blog

Jon Bounds has put together a nice little site for guiding people around Birmingham. It’s wiki based, so anyone can get involved, and there is some nice Google Maps action going on there too. There’s quite a big group of social media savvy folk gathering in Brum, thanks to Nick Booth’s Birmingham Bloggers meetups, and hopefully this group of people will be able to fill the site up with some great content. It is also the latest in a line of useful tools being built around Birmingham in the social web space - see BirminghamBloggers (put together by Paul Bradshaw) for example.

I attended the first Birmingham Bloggers meet but haven’t made one since - mainly because I have been tied up with other stuff, but its fair to say that I struggled to feel like I really belonged there. I work in Coventry, down the road from Brum, but live close to Kettering in Northamptonshire. What struck me at the meet was how strong a sense of geographical belonging was evident. It’s wonderful, but meant I kind of felt a bit excluded.

I’ve been thinking over the last week or so about how one can create local groups around topics of interest, and how this can tie in, or learn from, initiatives like Birmingham Bloggers, the Membership Project and the Tuttle Club.

I have no idea whether there is any appetite for any kind of social media meet in Kettering. I’ve looked around, and there is a Flickr group or two for Northamptonshire; and a county based Linux Users Group, within which there may well be a few bloggers. Perhaps something based on a larger area is more appropriate for less urban areas?

I’ve set up a few feeds to check for Kettering popping up in Flickr, Google Blog Search, del.icio.us and Technorati - it will be interesting to see exactly what starts to appear. Can anyone think of other ways of monitoring for this kind of stuff?

It doesn’t help that the local paper doesn’t provide an RSS feed; and while the borough Council does, it doesn’t actually work (at least for me, anyway).

So what are some of the things that might be needed to form a community around social media in a local context? Firstly a common tag which can be used to identify content, whether blog posts, photos in flickr, video on youtube, del.icio.us links etc. This has to be right and everyone clear on what the tag is - if people start using different tags then it’s going to be difficult to keep track of stuff. It’s probably also worthwhile created a hashtag for Twitter and other stuff like that - even if people aren’t using it straight away, it will be useful to have in place for the future.

The common tag is really the starting point of the community, because people can use it to follow conversations with their RSS readers. The second step is to create a hub where a lot of this content can be aggregated in one place. The easiest way of doing this is with a public personalised start page like those at Netvibes or Pageflakes. This gives some centre to the community, a single place for people to go and find out what the latest is.

Hopefully by this time people are talking to each other by leaving comments on blogs and other mediums, but the conversation is likely to be spread about and it might be difficult for people to feel completely involved. It’s probably time to arrange a face to face meeting, whether a few drinks in the pub or a photo  walk if there are lots of flickr fans about. How can this be organised though? It’s time for something to be built: maybe a wiki, or a Google Group mailing list or just a space on a social network that everyone is on. The latter is good because you can pick up new members easily, but not everyone will be on that network. I wonder, though, if putting this communication channel together should come earlier?

If the group starts to have some interesting discussions that are developing, it might be worth putting together a group blog as a focal point for others. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a blog about the group itself but about the issues that the group is interested in. As the group matures and other projects get started other stuff can be developed to meet the need, whether it be wikis or other collaborative environments like Basecamp.

So, the things to do to establish a local social media community (according to me) are:

  • Establish tags
  • Aggregate content
  • Communicate
  • Meet
  • Develop

I might try and put this into effect and see who else is about in Kettering or Northamptonshire who digs this stuff. If you pick up this post somehow and are interested, let me know.

Otherwise, what other thoughts do folk have on using social media to form local groups?

Category : Communities | Blog

From a piece by Helen Milner of UfI in egov monitor:

The flipside of our increasing reliance on ICT - in public, economic and social life - is that the digitally excluded, by default, also become excluded from public services, modern working life and society itself.  Digital inclusion is at the heart of the debate not just around skills and the knowledge economy, but around social justice and personal well-being.  The new research is a continuation of UK online centres work in this area, and stems from a previous report which examined the links between digital and social exclusion.  It found 75% of those counted as being socially excluded were also digitally excluded*.  Those already at a social, educational or financial disadvantage are therefore three times more likely to be off-line, and missing out on the potential benefits, conveniences, opportunities and savings computers and the internet can provide.

Category : E-Democracy | Blog

…this blog to WordPress 2.5. Possible weirdness ahead!

Update: upgrade went fine, with the exception that my theme got overwritten, and my backup wasn’t complete. Hence why you might be looking at the boring old default theme. Am on the lookout for a new one, as rebuilding the old would be too depressing. Any suggestions gratefully received in the comments.

Update 2: giving the rather lovely Curved a run out at the moment. Any feedback on the new look?

Category : wordpress | Blog