Post 121: The miracle of self-organising institutions

After my son had been going to school for about a month, it dawned on me that a primary school is an amazingly self-organising institution.

Before the school bell that starts the day, all you have is a bunch of kids milling about. Some are on the monkey bars, some are playing soccer. Others do all sorts of other stuff.

Then the bell goes and … zam! … this loose group of people self-organise into a school that has its different classes. A whole new set of rules about being quiet, attentive and respectful suddenly apply and hold sway until the end of the day. It is all essentially voluntary.

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the federal election and the change of government, all of which seems to be more or less self-organising too. We vote, some nebulous numbers change and all sorts of people start behaving differently as a result.

From primary school to parliament, the same rules of voluntary consent seem to apply, in a weird sort of way.

Post 120: I despair

Post-election coverage analysis is weird stuff, because on the evidence of one election the punditariat go nuts with long term predictions that have little or no basis in fact.

The current theory du jour is that Rudd will win at least two terms.

Well head on over to the Australian Election Commission’s Virtual Tally Room and you’ll see that as of today there are still eight seats in the lower house that are too close to call, because the two party preferred vote is somewhere between 49.5% and 50.5% for the Libs and the ALP.

Unless the postal votes go nutty, that translates to eight seats that will end up with tiny margins.

A couple of scandals and the Ruddbot could be out on his ear in three years.

So let’s not have this Rudd dynasty, Libs in disarray argument running uncontested. The ALP has a healthy margin for this parliament. It will not take many votes changing to make it a very slim margin next time around. And with general agreement that the world economy is not exactly poised for a fabulous few years, how exactly will the ALP extend its lead in those marginals next time?

Post 119: (In)Security

What’s the old saying? There are lies, damned lies and statistics?

That’s the way I feel about security statistics at the moment, given that about two or three times a week I receive “news” that research sponsored or conducted by a security vendor finds that things are pretty scary out there.

This research always includes any or all of the following assertions:

  • There is more malware/viruses/adware/generally malicious software out there than ever before
  • Things are not getting better
  • The bad guys want money, not status, which means they have an incentive to do more of it (see the first and second bullet points)
  • You’ve gotta take it seriously
  • Social networks are a risk
  • Email is a risk
  • For chrissake teach your people about phishing

Now the sheer frequency of this stuff at least confirms that everyone’s research is pretty spot on.

But from the point of view of trying to excite media about a security vendor, research is now, IMHO, worse than tired. And how is this research a differentiator? I mean, if everyone is doing the same research and coming up with the same conclusions, why is every security vendor trying to use this as its PR platform?

These questions are why I was very happy to be able to write this story in which one security vendor says there is not much difference between security vendors’ products and that “our marketing and PR people fight in public.” At least now I know one reason there is so much security research going on out there … marketers need to be seen to be busy, after all!

Post 118: What to read?

What should I read? What should you read?

It seems to me that there is now so much content out there, in so many forms, that deciding what to read in order to achieve the status of being “well-informed” is getting harder and harder each day. This, I reckon, can make it possible to read all day on the thin premise that one might be missing out on something!

I think I shall make some more conscious efforts to add sources I do not find entertaining to the list of things I read each day. And try hard to not let myself read all day too!

Post 117: I’m voting for …

For me this election campaign has added up to this:

Liberal: We got you into this mess, only we can get you out of it because the other mob are unionists.

Labor: We have some shiny new ideas and we are not the other guy.

And the winner is?

For me, Labor. At least they are coherent.

The Libs lost me (logic-wise, not affections-wise) on the day Howard said he wanted to take Australia away from being a welfare state but then announced handouts to cover educational expenses including private school fees, as it showed his ideology is divorced from his policy. The gap between the two is filled by costly expediency: My family is pretty well off yet is eligible for plenty of welfare we do not deserve. I suspect the many, many handouts on offer these days have given Australians a false sense of entitlement that will serve the country poorly for years.

And that from the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” Tories.

When a political party gets that confused about how to achieve its desired outcomes, its gotta go.

Oh yeah … and I really HATE Howard. But I am worried that Rudd has Blair-like  shallowness.

Post 115: Following up

PR firms are, in my experience, generally very keen to promote their pro-activity. Back when I did PR, we were encouraged to tell prospective clients that we were out there suggesting story ideas and setting the agenda, rather than letting media come up with all the story ideas and then using us as a conduit to reach clients.

It was all fluff. The majority of PR people I worked with had very little idea how to frame a story. And the one person in the office who, about once a month, actually sold a story pro-actively was considered a bit of a hero.

Which brings me to some recent incidents. I cannot really call them pro-activity because they have been reactions (albeit spontaneous) to stories I have written.

This story about how charities are using the Net, for example, generated a response that said:

“Hi Simon, I saw your story about the charity websites. Would you be interested in writing about my client’s fashion website.”

The thing about this pitch is that it relies on singular induction, never a good idea. That’s because a writer penning one piece about the web does not mean they are necessarily open to other stories about other web sites. I would argue that it is a very long bow to draw when the initial story is a survey of a sector to then pitch a single website.

I did not reply to the mail and there has been no followup. So much for pro-activity there.

A while back I had another contact after I wrote a column in which I wondered about the way security vendors present to market.

A few days later, one security company emailed me their client’s boilerplate, which I argued was not exactly a strong contribution to the debate. Weeks later the MD of the company concerned emailed me some expanded comments. But (irony of ironies) it landed in the Spam.

The same PR company, a few weeks later, noticed another story and out of the blue emailed me one of their client’s devices in the hope I would review it.

This time, they got a result. I have not reviewed the product. But I was asked to fill a page on short notice and with the device staring me in the face, covered the general class of gadget it belongs to.

Were any of these truly pro-active? No. I suspect the agenda-setting blurb I once used was a fiction. Was the reactivity worth it? One from three is not a bad hit rate.

Post 112: Chasing eyeballs

I’ve been doing some analysis of the techtarget.com.au sites over the last couple of weeks.

The signs are very encouraging, for reasons I won’t discuss here in case I give away some commercial secrets.

A couple of incidents, however, are worth discussing. One involves a story we carried about a prominent online game, which generated rather a lot of traffic. I subsequently write another story about the same game and had the same result.

On the one hand, this was good as traffic is always welcome. On the other, the topic is tangential. So even though we could get more traffic by covering this subject in depth, it might not be the right traffic!

I mention this incident because, as I trawl the Net, I see a lot of stories that seem designed to generate traffic. Daily newspaper sites, for example, seem to hone in on a couple of celebrities. These folks are not news. Stories about them look out of place on the sites’ front pages, where they sit alongside tales of national affairs.

I suspect, however, these celebrity tales are traffic generators par excellence.

I have personal experience that lends credence to this theory. With my freelance hat on I have been asked to write local versions of stories with proven eyeball-pulling power, on topics like Apple and Linux, when local tech sites do not have the resources to do so themselves. The brief was ‘Can you write this? We need it for Google but do not have the time to write it ourselves.’

For sites whose bread and butter is Linux or Apple, this makes sense.

But the topics that occasionally drive traffic to TechTarget are not our heartland at all.

Which makes me wonder if it is worth chasing eyeballs. On the one hand, analysis of the stories that generates traffic can be seen as a clear indicator that this is what the customers want, making it seem nutty to reject that positive feedback. On the other, there is always the chance that a big spike in traffic comes from one or two well-placed links, rather than your heartland community. So tailoring output to cater to the spike audience could alienate the steady audience.

RE-WRITE

I also wonder about the value of  chasing popular topics. Sure, I could spend all day looking for more stories on the topics that have given us big spikes, but I worry that doing so would reduce the variety of the sites and also mean I spend time on relatively trivial matters when I could either be exploring new ideas or applying solid journalistic values to other topics.

Whether to chase the top 10% or the middle 50% is, I suspect, a topic I am alone in pondering.