Post 21: Cricket and the push/pull of the information age

I’m a cricket fan. I adore the longer form of the game.

Part of me understands that a game which spans thirty hours over five days is anachronistic and I see why some say Test cricket is dieing. It’s easy to see the logic that asserts that condensed forms of cricket tailored to the hectic demands of modern life make more sense than a game invented to prevent Victorian men from feeling bored.

Except they don’t, because Twenty/20 cricket still needs a big slab of one’s time to watch. Matches require at least 150 minutes, a long-ish period to devote to a contest that generally lacks the tension that comes with a tactical game in which thrust and counter-thrust are part of the play. Twenty/20, in my experience of the game, has few moods. Things are either going well, or badly. There are few shades of grey.

For me, Test cricket’s ability to provide a finely graded spectrum of states of play is its strength and the reason I appreciate the game. Appreciate, however, may not quite be the word. I’ve long thought of Test cricket as a not-unpleasant anxiety to be endured. Just knowing there is a match in progress makes me ache for information about it. When I can devote my full attention to it, I will do so. At other times, I seek out the less sensorily intensive  ways of covering the game. For me, the sound of an Australian summer is a slight increase in urgency of the sounds emitted by an AM radio, the increased noise being a sign to devote more of my attention to the goings-on in a  game I cannot stop myself being curious about.

I also adore technology and the way it enables communication. Tools like Twitter allow me to immerse myself in my friends and sources of information I value. Myriad other services let me watch or learn or hear what I want to, when I want to.

Today, those tools are applied to cricket following old models. They insist I pull information, rather than anticipating my needs. Test cricket, it seems to me, can thrive if it inverts the pull and instead embraces the fact that while it is hard to immerse oneself in 30 hours of action, it is possible to deliver a variable drip of information that gives those with interest but little capacity for full attention the essential experience of the game by blending short updates, near-relatime video and other ways of presentingthe game.

If cricket can get this right, I believe it will create an experience more compelling than any two-hour hit and giggle.

And I’ll happily pay for this partial-attention experience,  rather than for subscription television. Especially as the latter is giving away summaries for free! But that’s another story.

P.S. I know I owe you all a third way of funding journalism in the future. I’ve also got a fourth. I’m working on them and you can expect a post … eventually.

Post 20: Will SEO homogenise English?

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague and, as often happens these days, the topic turned to getting more traffic for web sites.

One of my colleague’s foremost requests was for me to stop using British English in my writing, and to stop applying it to stories we source from our content partners.

The reason? “Virtualization” is a mighty search keyword, requested by hordes of folks around the globe every day.

But “Virtualisation,” our genteel Australian alternative, is searched for several orders of magnitude less often. So it makes no commercial sense for us to make the small adjustment to our copy to spell the word with an “s” rather than a “z”.

Some would argue that changing the single letter was a futile act of pedantry in the first place. I argued against because I think that small elements like this can be an important marker of identity that is appreciated by readers, even if only because it shows you care enough to make some small adjustments.

Right now, however, the fact that commercial online publishing is driven by the need for good search engine optimization* outcomes seems to me to be a likely source of homogenisation of the English language.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I find bland opposition to change stupidly antediluvian. But I think it is worth noting that the combination of commerce and technology are creating forces that work upon language in interesting ways.

* Yes, that is a deliberate and ironic reversion to “z” there, folks

Post 13, 2009: Events need to get over the artefact, too

I’ve written several times before that I try not to attend real-world press events. They are nearly always overly-long and contain too much marketing-speak, so are not often particularly good uses of my time.

I’ve been thinking about why, and I think there are some hints in the decline of newspapers.

The thing about newspapers is that while they are nice artefacts, the journalism they contain is what is really important. The artefact of the newspaper has massive cultural inertia for many people, but the sheaf of cellulose that arrives on my doorstep each morning is now just one of several ways to distribute and monetise journalism.

I’m beginning to think that press events (and many conferences) are in a similar position to many media outlets, i.e; wedded to the artefact of the get-together in a big room with adjacent catering facilities, when the real issue is not how to run good events but how to preserve the information transfer they allow while thinking about how to use technology other than that embedded in today’s most popular artefact.

There’s one barrier I perceive: no-one’s very good at using the technology yet. I’ve attended webinars that were just the usual drone-and-slides affairs. If I had any real wisdom in this area, I’d be starting a consultancy around it right now, to help businesses take advantage of web conferencing and similar technologies to improve the effectiveness of their communications. Because I don’t have that wisdom, I’m hoping someone else does so they can lead a charge towards new ways of sharing information that take the good bits from the meeting/event artefact of today and take steer it in useful new directions.

Post 12, 2009: Twitter means journos always have react quotes

Maybe I am dense, but while writing a story this morning it hit me – I can now get instant reactions on almost any topic or issue via. Twitter. A quick search, a few cut and pastes and …. bang! … the voice of the people, fresh from the Net can adorn any story.

I slipped a couple into this yarn.

It’s kind of nice to know that there is now such a fine resource out there. It’s also nice to know that the material is written in a human voice, unlike the quote the story contains. It was sent to me via. a PR company.

There are questions about how to use Twitter in this way, of course. It can be hard to know if a Twitterer is really just an ordinary member of the public or truly representative of the community. I think permission is cool – you can block updates if you don’t want your Tweets re-used.

I’ve decided to always link to Tweets and quote them whole. And I won’t be using them for every story.

But to add the “person in the street” reaction that is a journalistic convention, I think Twitter is very valuable.

(More so than blogs, on the topics I cover, a blogs are dominated by vendors or their employees. And they tend to spend their time calling one another names or spruiking their latest wares, rather than offering useful reactions).

Post 10, 2009: Some reasons why Twitter is and is not the new e-mail.

I’m getting a fair few Direct Messages and @messages from Twitter friends – and folks like PRs.

They’re using it as an alternative to conventional messaging tools like e-mail.

Is it a good idea?

Perhaps, because Tweets are:

  • Short! (mercifully so compared to many emails)
  • Intimate, thanks to Twitter’s rules it is very hard to spam someone
  • Deniable – Email is pretty reliable these days and false positives in spam filters are rare. Twitter’s flakiness as a message delivery system is therefore potentially useful!

Perhaps not, because:

  • Twitter is unreliable – if you want to communicate something important, will Twitter get the job done?
  • Twitter messages don’t queue well. Many Twitter clients – and Twitter itself – collects @messages. But while I, for one, process all my emails every day, I might go days without reading every @ message I’ve been sent.
  • I have a whole application that collects and stores email and makes them available offline. Most Twitter clients rely on a live link to Twitter and do not store many messages, reducing the chance I will read a tweet vs. reading an email.
  • Direct Messages generate email anyway – so why use Twitter?
  • Can you really say that in 140 characters? (Yes, probably, but I am saving that for another post)

What do you think?

Post 3, 2009. Mnemonics

I was writing a document yesterday and found myself thinking about which phrases it contained that I would one day use to find it using Google desktop search.

In the past, I imagine I would have thought about the name or been more careful with the folders I saved the file into.

Now my whole thought process assumes I have rapid and easy access to a search engine and an index of my work.

Anyone else thinking this way?

Post 70:08 Social networking saves my bicycle

Last week my nicest bike, a road bike with carbon fibre forks,  was stolen.

I rode it to the station, locked it on a bike rack and … when I returned it had gone.

I parked it there because it is 10 metres from the entrance to a train station and in full view of a shop. Between the presence of the shopkeeper and the near-constant foot traffic to the station, I figured it was pretty safe.

I was wrong.

Someone approched the shopkeeper and said they had lost the key to the bike lock, which was why they had a hammer and chisel with which to break my cable lock.

The first thing I did was call the police.

The next thing I did was log on to Sydney Cyclist and the Dulwich Hill Bicycle Club‘s forums  to report the loss. And of course I Tweeted about it on Twitter, which quickly offered all sorts of solace and suggestions.

The immediate outpouring of sympathy was just what I had expected and hoped for, in a needy kind of way. And the “I’ll spread the word” and “I’ll keep an eye out for it” sentiments were definitely what I wanted when I let people know about the theft online.

What I did NOT expect was that Sydney Cyclist members started offering money towards a new bike. In $10s, $20s and one $50 they raised $120 as gifts to buy me new wheels. Just how touching that was, I cannot begin to describe. But suffice to say that when people you may or may not have met in the real world reach into their pockets to help you out, you feel very good and very humbled at the same time.

Others on the two sites started to suggest possible locations that stolen bikes have been known to turn up.

I followed those suggestions and, happily, recovered the bike.

The first thing I did was Twitter it. And as soon as I found a moment, I got onto the DHBC and Sydney Cyclist sites to let those communities know about the good news. Suffice to say I felt the love again.

Some members of the social networks are now networking in other ways to take steps to restrict the market for stolen bicycles.

Thinking about it now, I find it simultaneously remarkable and natural that I turned to social networks so quickly in this situation. I wanted to share events and emotions with people that matter to me – even if only because they have taken the time to join the same online community as I.

I’m now trying to figure out how I feel about socialnetworking’s role in the incident. It says a lot about the things I use social networks for and the power of those networks. It makes me wonder if I should explore more networks to tap into their power for other occasions in my life.

Above all, it cements the power of social networks for me while also re-enforcing their social nature because this was a social transaction, not a for-profit use of a network.

Many, many thanks to anyone who contributed to helping me find the bike, or participated in discussions about it!

Postscript: Since I got the bike back, our iPod has died. We ripped all our CDs and stored them in the shed three years ago. Looks like the household will be making another purchase soon after all!

Post 69:08 Globalism schmobalism

A few months ago, a large software company invited me to the USA for one of its events. I would have flown at the nice end of the plane and been entertained grandly for the duration at a cost of $15,000-$20,000.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked the local outpost of the vendor for a briefing on the product with the local experts. Response to the product has been varied and I wanted to learn more.

It seems I cannot have that briefing form local spokespeople. And the folks in the USA won’t talk to me about it either.

I recount this story not to get grumpy with the PR, but to bemoan the lack of globalism I see every day. The fact I cannot get this interview is just one example of political boundaries creating pointless policies in an age when ideas and information can cross borders in a heartbeat, yet some insist on controlling them by country.

It’s not just PR departments. TV shows I want to watch are being shown in free-to-air in the USA and may take a year to get the same treatment here. iTunes rents TV shows in the USA that I cannot purchase here.

Now I know that there are licensing and distribution agreements behind these restrictions. But from a consumer’s point of view, all I perceive is an industry uninterested in giving me choice. When that attitude crosses over into my work life, it’s even dumber given the various online media – both legitimate and back channel – that are already global.

Post 64:08 Hi PRs – thanks to my new experiment you can send me ALL THE PRESS RELEASES YOU WANT!

For more than five years, I have asked vendors and their PR companies not to send me unsolicited press releases.

I don’t really need them and I was sent so many, they became an irritant. Most are drivel.

So I decided to do without them.

I’ve had to be a bit prickly about it, but I think the experiment has worked, if only because my inbox is less full than would otherwise be the case.

One thing my inbox is full of, these days, is twice-daily mails from Twittermail, a service that takes all the @messages you receive on twitter, rolls them up and sends them as email.

I’ve created a new Twitter ID, jmpressreleases. If you want to send me a release, send it there as an @message. Sometime in the 24 hours after you send me the release, I’ll get notified about it.

Please don’t start emailing them to me. But by all means send as many via Twitter as you want. Of course you’ll need a URL to point to. And you’ll only have 140 characters with which to pique my interest.

If you want an email address to do this, ask me and I might give it out.

So … let’s see how this little experiment goes!

I expect the effort required to use this method will not result in a massive increase of releases sent to me, and that I will still junk 99.5% of them anyway. Let’s see what happens.

Post 61:08 The other way user-generated content is killing quality journalism

This is NOT a rant about bloggers being sloppy journalists.

But I think user-generated content has a lot to do with the problems publishers like Fairfax are experiencing.

Here’s why.

In the good old days of journalism, publishers effectively operated three business. One was a journalism business, which kind of broke even from display ads. One was production/distribution business, that was essential to operate business number three, a directory services operation.

Directory services? WTF?

Well … I argue that classified advertising was basically a directory services business. Back before the Net and before other advances in publishing technology and distribution made niche publishing possible or profitable, large publishers had the means of production to collect and distribute information on a scale few could match.

Their ability to do so turned classified ads into a de-facto directory. If you wanted to buy or sell, there was one place to go.

Classified ads are, basically, user-generated content – AND THE USER PAID to have their content distributed.

Over the last ten years, we have seen classified revenue disperse into many different sorts of directory services. One, Google, has even taken its role as a directory and done radical things with it. Users still generate their content. But they pay different people for it and newspapers have lost their share.

This is why, IMHO, user-generated content is killing journalism. Blogs etc are eroding audiences, no doubt. But the proflieration of directory services and the production/distribution mechanisms that enable their rise is the thing that is really killing newspaper revenues and therefore putting pressure on journo headcounts.

Okay … amatuer economics session over!