January 2011 Archives

Staying connected at conferences

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I was a bit surprised to see a tweet today from Gartner analyst Merv Adrian where he mentioned that he is at the Gartner BI conference in London and a delegate in the audience had asked him to stop typing.

He was using a "noisy" Lenovo before switching to the quieter iPhone.

What surprised me is that whenever I attend conferences, there are people all over the place using laptops, phones, iPads, and other devices to capture information as the speakers do their thing. It might be that they are taking notes, tweeting important soundbites, or sending comments on the talk to colleagues - whatever they are doing it is interacting with the speaker.

I can understand why Merv switched devices, he represents Gartner after all so he is a host at the event. But what should the rest of us do when taking notes at a big conference and asked by a fellow delegate to 'stop typing' because they find it a bit of a distraction? Agree with them that conferences should be all about an expert talking on stage for half an hour, or suggest to the person that we have moved on and are living in a more interactive age?

Perhaps you can type your responses on a postcard?

Conference crowd

The social media revolutions... Tunisia, now Egypt?

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In 'Common Sense' his (anonymously published) pamphlet on the creation of government and society, Thomas Paine described how a ramshackle group of people might form a government: 

"Some convenient tree will afford them a State-House, under the branches of which, the whole colony may assemble to deliberate on public matters. It is more than probable that their first laws will have the title only of Regulations, and be enforced by no other penalty than public disesteem. In this first parliament every man, by natural right will have a seat." 

Paine published this in 1776, in the midst of the American revolution. It aimed to remind the American people of the kind of government they should be creating - representative and democratic - with every voice heard. An organisation that remembers it is representative of the people, and not that the people are subjagated by it. 

Governments today are often not like this. Politicians are power-hungry and fly around the world in private jets, enjoy limousines to ferry them from one meeting to the next, and far from representing the people of their country, they often become an untouchable elite answerable only to themselves. 

Not every politician is like this. It still pleases me to see political representatives in 'normal' situations, such as on the bus or underground. I met (until recently shadow chancellor) Alan Johnson on the tube once and he explained to me that it is the best way to get around London. This is the kind of pragmatic 'normal' behaviour that keeps elected officials closer to the people they are supposed to represent. 

But away from England and America, there are far more despotic regimes where leaders suck wealth from their people and enjoy a life most can only dream of. Often the people on the streets don't even get a real chance to elect or choose those leaders, and if they do get an election, it's rigged anyway.  

Revolution has been the historic answer, sweeping away a corrupt regime and introducing a fairer society. However revolution is hard to control and even harder to create - it doesn't just happen because people are fed up. But look at what is now happening in north Africa. The people of Tunisia rose up and removed their corrupt government. 

It's overstating the power of the Internet to suggest that this was a social media revolution, but the fact is that 1 in 5 Tunisians is on Facebook - and this was a major contributory factor in spreading the news of the initial suicide that sparked the protests. The Tunisian leaders failed to block the Internet in time. 

Egypt has seen protests all week now and the protestors have used the Internet (#j25) to promote the idea of a mass protest by the entire nation today after prayers. The police chiefs have already warned the government that if the protesting crowds swell to anything greater than 70,000 people then the police will be overwhelmed and can offer the government no protection. 

Naturally, the government has banned access to the Internet. 

Whatever happens today in Egypt, revolution or not, it will be reported on and spread throughout the world. A light will spark in the mind of every person dissatisfied with the way their leaders fail to represent the people - especially those leaders who sit in power for decades, only to hand the riches of office to their own children. Since when could a government leader believe that they own the right to hand power to their child? 

It's surprising just how many leaders still behave this way. Not for much longer. 

Julian Assange may have been vilified by the USA for his Wikileaks website, but what he showed the world is that any government - even one that proclaims to be democratic - needs to answer to the people who elected them. And the Internet is now handing power, and freedom, back to the people.
Big Ben in front of the sun

This blog was originally published on my personal blog. Once I published there, I thought it would be suitable for cross-posting given the social media comment and relevance of the story - apologies if you had already seen it on my other blog.

Computer Weekly wedding on the BBC

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BBC Technology Editor, Rory Cellan-Jones, is launching his new series on Radio 4 today. Titled 'The Secret History of Social Networking' it is a three-part documentary exploring the origins of social networking, going back to the 1970s.

The programme starts with my wedding to Computer Weekly Associate Editor, Angelica Mari, and here is a film preview featuring the wedding...

Scam of the earth in Brazil...

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If you have not noticed, it's been raining a lot recently - in a lot of places. I live in Brazil now, so I've seen the wave of rain sweeping across the South of Brazil and causing chaos in São Paulo and the loss of over 800 lives in the region around Rio de Janeiro.
Rain in São Paulo

Queensland in Australia has seen enormous floods, with an area similar to France and Germany combined underwater, and other countries have been suffering too, notably Sri Lanka.

When these natural tragedies occur, it's only natural to want to try to help. It can be difficult to know who needs money, for what purpose, and where the need is most urgent though. When I was sitting in São Paulo watching people in Rio struggling just to survive, my wife said to me that we must offer something to help them. I replied that I would love to, but I just don't know who is coordinating the response and where the need is greatest.

In the UK, the Disasters Emergency Committee does a good job of coordinating several major charities when there is a big international crisis. In Brazil, I have no idea if such an organisation exists.

And so I was interested when Symantec got in touch to ask if I had seen the website setup to solicit donations to help the victims of the Brazil floods. It's a scam. Some villains have used the loss of nearly 1,000 lives and the misery of thousands of people, who have lost all of their possessions, to solicit cash from people who want to help. Take a look here for details of the scam as published by Symantec. Not only would the scam solicit donation money, it allows the thieves to capture card details and then suck each account dry. Just because that person was kind enough to want to help.

It would be a tragedy if people are put off from donating to help after major disasters because they fear for the security of their card details. Individuals need to be more vigilant about where they are entering their details to prevent phishing attacks - even when your defences are down because it is a charitable donation. In addition, the genuine charities appealing for funds need to get more coordinated so donors know who can help and how to donate safely.

Social networks isolate users

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There is growing a body of academic evidence suggesting that social networks lead to more isolation, rather than communication and connections.

It's true that when you walk into a bar or cafe and see people all around the place on their own and interacting with digital devices, rather than the people around them, there appears to be an issue. It would seem that communication behaviours have changed. But is that really the whole story?

Most people I know use social networks to augment their personal networks, not replace them. A social network provides an easy way to keep in touch with people and to share information, but sitting in front of a PC or phone posting links to funny YouTube videos or retweeting a great joke does not replace real social interaction - getting out there and meeting friends and family.

Perhaps the academics claiming we are all about to disappear into an online communications vacuum are just publishing hyperbole in the hope that they draw attention to their research, getting themselves one step further towards a nice comfortable tenured chair?

In my own experience with using Twitter to bring neighbours together in London, social networks have been proven to connect people who would never have met in other circumstances. And there is one more Tweetup coming soon in London where I will be passing through London, between India and Brazil, so if you can make it then it would be great to see you there...

Covent Garden, the bridge of aspirations

The Online Political Merry-go-round

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Once again, Twitter proves its worth as an unbeatable source of real-time information. Forget indexed search engines, or search engines that try integrating tweets into results, just take a look at what happened today.

Before any public announcement about the British Shadow Cabinet reshuffle had been formally made the rumours already started to swirl. In particular about Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson stepping down for "personal reasons".

A full 10-15 minutes before any of the authorised news agencies started reporting the story, the Twitter debate had already gathered enough threads of information together to report Johnson's mysterious resignation, but all the posts associated with the shuffle were all being reported.

Those who challenge the wisdom of crowds should watch a rolling news story breaking online and see how good information bubbles up while false rumours die through lack of support.

Mark at Number 10

CIOs who tweet. Why?

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I saw a Computer Weekly story about CIOs who tweet flash by on my news feed and clicked through to it, only to find that my online friend had recommended a story from ten months ago. Well, it's still interesting, but with almost a year passing a lot must have changed - not least John Suffolk heading off to a warmer climate for the winter.

The debate still rages on about whether or not senior management should be tweeting or using similar open communication tools. It's like that favourite cliche of business schools - the paradigm shift. The old school of management considered that keeping knowledge close to your chest was vital for survival, owning information creates power.

Those of us already familiar with a more open flow of information will be happy to consign these ideas to the history of IT management - or any business management for that matter.

There is immense power in being able to tap into the knowledge of a trusted crowd. Transparency and dialogue are the new tools that will create a power base for those managing information systems - this is already happening today - so how come I still hear from so many senior managers who consider Twitter to be a waste of their time?

If anyone has a more recent list of senior IT managers who tweet then I would appreciate a pointer to it - I'd love to follow up this issue and find out what the leaders are really using Twitter for...

Q&A at Reboot book launch

Dell enabling social conversations

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Just before Christmas I had a chat on the phone with Richard Binhammer (@richardatdell) at Dell because I had heard about some interesting initiatives they had for enabling the employee use of social media.

Unfortunately, at the time I needed to talk to Richard, I was stuck in a very noisy Paddington station in London, so my recording of the conversation was next to useless - no chance of getting a good Audioboo published, but the key points I discussed with Richard were:

  • Dell believes that social media is just another communication tool that all employees will use in the near future, if they are not already doing so... it's just like companies introducing a telephone onto every desk, or an email account for every employee.
  • To overcome the issue of unauthorised employees talking online about the company - like non-media-trained executives talking to the press - they created a course that is open to all employees. The course gives guidelines on good online etiquette related to the use of company information and references.
So, in theory it's quite possible to have a very junior member of staff who can freely talk about Dell online because they have taken the course, and a senior member of management who can't say anything online because they have yet to complete it.

The reality is that this is unlikely - Richard explained to me that pretty much everyone he works with uses social media on a daily basis as an information resource and so they will all have completed the training.

But, the interesting thing here is that the company has acknowledged that social information tools can be a great source of debate and information, enabling people in knowledge jobs to perform their role more effectively. Allowing a free-for-all online would be dangerous for any company, but by establishing some ground rules about best practice online and offering training, Dell has shown great maturity.

Even when employees are denied access to social tools on corporate networks, they usually have immediate access to the web on their phone, so attempting to close down online discussion by employees is pointless. Far better to accept that employees will talk about their workplace online and to give some guidance on what works and what does not.

Getting ready for NASSCOM 2010

A life saved by Twitter

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Chris and Katy Mann (@mannix1000) tragically lost their three month-old son, Charlie, to meningitis in October 2010 and are now passionate about trying to save the lives of others from this devastating disease, which took their baby son away - and I know about the disease personally as my own grandmother died from a sudden attack where she was well in the morning and dead by the evening.

The husband and wife team took on the challenge of contacting celebrities and well-known tweeters, and asking them to help, just by simply retweeting this message: 
"Hi please help with a RT. Meningitis awareness, my son died age 3 months. http://charliecheekychops.blogspot.com/ thanks..." 

Comedian Ed Byrne duly retweeted the message and his tweet was spotted by the mother of a child who was concerned about their ill child. The tweet prompted the mother to ask for a second opinion and then to call an ambulance... @daisydoug sent this tweet
"@mannix1000 @mredbyrne Meningitis tweet prob saved my son today; I got a second opinion and they called the ambulance. Thank you both. X"

Congratulations Twitter... the social network that saves lives.

Twitter Sponsored Tweets

Myspace (almost) RIP

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Myspace has slashed it's workforce, cutting half of all jobs on one fell swoop.

How long before it folds completely to exist only as a chapter in the history of social networking?

In the days before Facebook, Myspace was the dominant social network. It offered a space to connect with friends, share music, and interact in a way that now looks rather quaint when compared to the Zuckerberg juggernaut. In 2006, Myspace was the most popular social network anywhere. As Facebook grew in popularity and eclipsed Myspace by 2008, the site reinvented itself as a space for unsigned musicians to host their music, list gigs, and promote themselves to a community of fans.

Now musicians have an entire array of tools that do the job better, so does Myspace have any purpose left today? If a network doesn't have people and traffic then it has nothing. 

Facebook knows this. If they do not keep on innovating and making Facebook the sticky network of choice then one day they could be the next Myspace, but Zuckerberg is making a far better job of integrating his network into the daily life of hundreds of millions of people than News Corporation ever did with Myspace.

My guess is that 2011 will see the sale of Myspace to someone who sees some value in the millions of dormant accounts - all that contact information must have some latent value. But as a social network, it's dead and almost buried.

My MacBook and iPod on Myspace

Could you ditch your customer database and just use Facebook instead?

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How much do you know about your customers? Do you have a database on them with information such as address, email, phone number and when they last bought something from you? But do you know details of their spouse, or their birthday, or their wedding anniversary, or even their favourite movie? 

You don't have that kind of information on your customers? Well that's probably natural. Customers don't go giving away all that information to every firm they buy something from, but they do give it away to Facebook. What if you could start using Facebook as your customer database?

Just imagine the benefits, it is self-administered because users manage their own data and generally keep it up to date - a lot more up to date than anything you can manage in-house. It requires almost no infrastructure because all the data exists in the cloud. It is freely available. And best of all, people on Facebook give away a lot more about themselves than they would in a commercial transaction - say buying a meal in a restaurant or buying car insurance.

What could be the downside? 

You no longer have any control over the quality of data - that all going to be outsourced to the users and some customers might find it creepy; this really has to be an opt-in kind of database.

Steve Jones, global head of Master Data Management (MDM) at Capgemini, recently explained this potential use of Facebook to me over a coffee in London. MDM is a notoriously complex subject that can drain the will to live from even the most hardened database administrator, but the idea of using open data in this way - whether with Facebook or another social network - opens up a world of new possibilities and deals with most of the complexities of managing customer databases internally.

Steve explained how companies that have already started exploring community building on Facebook can go a step further and start using the data that is freely open to them. It sounds incredible, but I know that I have joined many groups on Facebook representing businesses that I know and trust. I don't think I would be offended if I was a member of a group for my local Italian restaurant and they emailed me offering a special deal because they could see my wedding anniversary coming up soon.

The one big question here is over data use. People feel free to expose their personal data when confined to friends and family, but would they be comfortable opening it up to companies and organisations too?

Facebook Places

Is 500mb enough for fair use on mobile broadband?

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T-Mobile has backed down on plans to slash download limits on mobile broadband use - the so called 'fair use' policies rearing their ugly head again.

The entire mobile market has been exploring how to start reducing the amount of data that users download on their phones, and to determine what is a 'fair' amount. Obviously if someone is regularly using their iPhone to view endless YouTube videos, or stream video content live via ustream then anything other than occasional use of those services might be declared unfair. But is it?

T-Mobile has declared that they are going to allow users 500mb a month of data before they start throttling downloads and streaming. Until recently, I was on a Vodafone contract with a 500mb limit - interestingly, when I signed up for the service a couple of years ago the very big letters advertising the package said it was UNLIMITED INTERNET.... I never used to do a lot of video streaming, but I would check email, browse the web, and use Google Maps regularly. By the second or third week of each month I would be getting warning texts from Vodafone telling me that I am about to hit my download limit. So much for unlimited.

I am now based in São Paulo Brazil and I'm exploring which local mobile provider to start using, but the data cost is quite prohibitive here. The only providers offering so-called unlimited data wrap it up as a 'premium' service and charge a hefty premium price for phone users who have the insolence to not only use their phone as a phone.

It's not a good situation. Brazil still does not have the same penetration of iPhones and Android devices that demand heavy data use, but when phone networks in the UK are already restricting their customers to an amount of data that is not really enough for modest use then I don't hold out much hope of getting a good deal here.

Me in Rose and Crown pub in Ealing

Computer Weekly Wedding on the BBC

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As some of you may know, I married Computer Weekly associate editor Angelica Mari last month. What you might not know is that the BBC recorded the wedding for use in a Radio 4 documentary series that will start on January 26th...

The reason? Certainly not that Computer Weekly hacks are now as famous and sought-after as Peter and Katie used to be... it's because BBC Technology editor Rory Cellan-Jones was making a new series about social media and he noticed that I organised the entire wedding on Facebook - he thought it made a great example of just how far social media has penetrated everyday life.

The Times is free for a moment. Rejoice?

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A hot trending topic on Twitter today - The Times paywall is broken! The content of the newspaper is all online and free - go and lap it up!

The Times paywall is one of the most contentious subjects in British print media. Advocates of the Murdoch press believe that branded media products, such as The Times, must charge for their content and cannot afford to simply distribute it for free online. The opposing view, with supporters such as Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian, believe that you must spread some content for free because links, recommendations, and debate cannot happen if comment is behind a paywall. How do you recommend an article on Twitter if you know 99.9% of people on Twitter can't click on the link to read the article?

As any watcher of British media knows, The Times is having a hard time claiming any success from their paywall experiment. Talk of six-figure subscribers is blurred by the lack of transparency over subscribers being active for a single day, or being genuine long-term subscribers.

Of course, many in the media say that you can't judge Rupert Murdoch on a single experiment in online payment for news content, and it is a fact that news organisations need to be funded somehow, but the bottom line is that nobody I know reads The Times anymore because of the paywall. Nobody reads it. Nobody recommends their stories. Nobody sends out links to the opinion pieces by Times columnists because hardly anyone bothers to subscribe to the online version of the paper.

And now I have lost the habit of taking a look at The Times to see what they say (once upon a time I used to get the print version everyday) I can't even be bothered to take a look when the online version is free. It's apparently an error, a problem with the paywall, but I suspect those naughty Public Relations consultants have had a hand in it... leaking messages to Twitter advising the public to take a quick look at the paper 'while you can!'

So, In response to all the Twitter messages urging me to take a peek while I can, all I can offer is a very jaded yawn.

Bangalore cartoon in Times today


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