Sending up the trolls – “Thank You Hater! – by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay” [video]

I have written about haterz and internet trolls before (here and again here) but this video – which includes brief accounts from those who have been the target of spiteful comments, such as comedian and performer Richard Herring – captures perfectly the tone of the troll and how he or she might be dealt with in a humorous way (strong language: not suitable for work).

Some of the comments are funny and insightful – one invokes Godwin’s law, another suggests there should be debate in the video’s comments about creationism – and overall it’s a brilliant lampooning of the trolls and the haterz.

‘The righteous indignation dollar’: Bill Hicks on marketing terms

It seems to be the Holy Grail of the social media age – invent a meme that becomes incredibly popular and spreads around the globe. Sometimes that meme is a video or a song, sometimes a new word or phrase. Perhaps it was the latter the following website had in mind when attempting to introduce new marketing terms:


Definition: SoLoMo is the blend of social, local and mobile. It represents the growing marketing trend of targeting consumers based on their current location with content or promotions designed to be shared via social networks.

Ok – I know marketing is an easy target but it still needs an odd arrow shot in its direction. No one did this better than Bill Hicks and this piece of genius reminds us how [NSFW].

Or maybe I’m just a target for those interested in the righteous indignation dollar?

Wikipedia, Wickerpedia and the Wikki-Wikki Song

Everyone, including me, seems to pronounce the world’s most famous online encyclopaedia as ‘wickerpedia’. Unsurprisingly, there’s a website for that.

Alas, the enticing links in the main English language site do not work – I would have dearly loved to learn more about the role of wicker in the space program.

It’s not the only time the term wiki or its derivatives has been found in popular culture. Yesterday I listened to Streetsounds Electro 1, where ‘Jam On’s Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song)’ appears. That was twenty years ago or so. I understand Hawaiians have been using it a bit longer.

Jonathan Franzen on the impermanence of ebooks

Franzen's 'The Corrections'

Jonathan Franzen has caused a stir by critiquing ebooks in what appears on the surface to be an outmoded and backward-looking account of their usefulness. I liked his The Corrections a great deal and Freedom, too, so I thought I’d not just quietly dismiss his comments and probe a little deeper.

I think the gist of what he’s saying is based upon the notion of impermeability of printed books, their ability to remain steady when all about is changing:

When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.

He has probably been impressed by the fact that books can be changed, or even erased, in that infamous case of Amazon. I think, perhaps in time of technology torment (when we can’t get our broadband to work or the update screen keeps appears over our presentation) that we wish for something substantial, something we can hold on to and understand immediately. Franzen then turns to the ways in which he sees printed books as a gesture to certainty:

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

When a popular book is published at the moment there is a both a printed book and an ebook version. In both cases, the author has paid equal attention and care to the words he or she has used – the texts are identical. But Franzen perhaps reveals his latent prejudices here: he suggests that if you’re a writer solely of ebooks (and perhaps self-published, selling large volume at low prices) then you don’t pay enough care and attention to your work. In creative terms, Franzen is creating a pernicious hierarchy where paper is at the top and ebooks somewhere below.

That said, Franzen does raise some significance points about scholarship, perhaps inadvertently. Say, for example, a scholar now or in the near future is interested in a writer whose development of an idea is outlined in a series of blog posts. Technically, we can capture that blog at any one given time and archive it. But I’m not sure this will be done and it’s possible that the source of their ideas will be lost. We know, for example, that Shakespeare read The Bishop’s Bible and how, therefore, he might be directly influence by its particular approach – its language, themes, interpretation and so on. Can we say the same for writers who use more transitory formats for their sources and development (given they are more transitory)? The likelihood is that we’ll develop new ways of creating books, electronic or printed, some more transitory than others, but that will result in a text that is subject to change – something that we’ll get used to and no doubt welcome.

Franzen extends his idea about the necessity for permanence for literature by contemplating a more transitory culture. He asks:

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

Moving sideways, there remain reasons to still like the printed book. We cannot forget the aesthetic pleasure of handling a physical object like a book well-made. Or seeing – and smelling – shelves of them when we enter an ancient bookstore. The two are different pleasures, almost opposite ends of the continuum: we enjoy the splendour of a weighty, new, uncreased volume as well as the the dirt and (moderate) annotations of the book’s previous owner. Franzen doesn’t address all of the ebook’s contributions to literature and why should he – this has been done elsewhere, and rightly, too.

It remains instead that the ebook’s  (to use a horrible term but one which perfectly captures the stark cost-benefit analysis of this pressing issue) affordances so outweigh its shortcomings that only the most dolefully nostalgic reader will not forever leave the Kindle on the shelf.

These are a few of my favourite things – a cultural review of 2011

I won’t do anymore throat-clearing before starting the list other than to say that this list might equally (and more accurately) be called ‘stuff which I listened to / read / watched, etc but that didn’t come out in 2011’. Although many of them did appear for the first time in 2011, many didn’t – this list just means I encountered them in 2011. Since I have an almost preternatural way of seeking out and sharing what you’ve already seen / done /read, this comes as hardly a surprise.

So, that said, here they are, in no particular order…

Favourite song – ‘Video Games’ by Lana Del Rey

I read on Twitter from Caitlin Moran that she had more or less repeatedly listening to Lana Del Rey’s song, ‘Video Games’, all summer long. Clicking the link, I could hear why. It’s amazing. Best seen as well as heard – the video and song work seamlessly together – it has topped the polls for many others, so I’m hardly being original – a theme that perhaps is true of all my list. This piece nicely sums up why we like it. I like it because it will forever remind me of my little bike tour, where I sang it, if not word perfect then with gusto (and aloud), for most of the way.

Favourite album – The Courage of Others by Midlake

I started listening to The Courage of Others in 2010 and I haven’t stopped playing this regularly since. It was the same with Vanoccupanther in 2009. The Courage of Others might 2012’s favourite album, too – I wouldn’t bet against it. I know it will always remind of being here in France and the mountains in particular. It’s so tied up with memories it’s hard to think of anything else which has touched me like it.

Favourite book(s), article

Remainder by Tom McCarthy

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill

‘Two Paths for the Novel’ by Zadie Smith

I’m opening up the idea of a ‘favourite’ book by including two books, both published outside of 2011 and one of which I read in 2009; and by including an article. It’s a bit sneaky, I know. Bear with me and I’ll explain.

Remainder is one of those books that helps you rethink the boundaries of fiction and offer a glimpse of where it might be heading. There are problems with it: the forensics of assembling some of the scenes can drag and some of the red herrings seems a little contrived, by even both of those approaches illustrate how this book is different. That said, it is brilliantly conceived and is packed full of ideas – what time means; how we construct reality; the difficult of being authentic; public and private lives. There’s so much there to think about. Its style is deceptively light: it’s a complicated book with an unforgettable ending that seems to capture what it means to be living now.

I wouldn’t say that either book is ‘about’ cricket but both contain an element of the fine game, so that’s my ill-conceived ‘hook’ to bring them together. Netherland is a novel about being lost in a new country; about expatriation and changing identities; about new worlds and the old. As such, it spoke to me a little following my move to Switzerland, then France. The character of Ramkissoon is brilliantly drawn, the narrator convincing. Alas, it dies a little by the end; but what comes before is enough.

As good as these books are, I would suggest they are best read in conjunction with Zadie Smith’s perceptive work of comparative analysis which considers both books and their contribution to the identity of the contemporary novel. I think Smith (who also wrote a brilliant analysis of the effect that computers have on us, ostensibly as a discussion of Jaron Lanier’s book You are not a Gadget and David Fincher’s film, Social Network) offers two paths that fiction might take, illustrated by these two novels. Remainder and Netherland diverge in many ways, not least in realism and technique – one more conventional, the other ‘experimental’ (that dread word). It’s ok, though – we can read both.

Favourite internet meme – Ultimate dog tease (hungry dog)

In our house, something that is especially good is now referred to as ‘the maple kind’. If a video is good enough to get you starting you own, minor meme then it has my vote. Honourable mention goes to Fenton. Unusually, it’s dogs, not cats, that rule the roost.

Favourite restaurant – Bistrot des Halles de Rives

This unprepossessing place appears to offer very little if judging by appearances. Sandwiched between the stalls in the indoor (admittedly, gourmet) food market in Geneva,  there really is (for me) only one dish – the steak frites equivalent, served with buerre Parisien and garnish (a rather lonely half tomato). It is uniformly superb. I have to keep returning to make sure they retain their standards.

Favourite computer game – Dead Space 2 (Playstation 3)

I played Dead Space 2 before the first version and nearly didn’t play either. I played the first Dead Space in demo and thought to difficult and unexciting. I was wrong – the difficulty is just right in both games and it could hardly be said to be boring. Rather, the often samey scenes – both games are set onboard spaceships – are deliberately crafted to appear claustrophobic; their uniform design appears authentic and contrasts well with the horrors you find within. A superb game, superior in all departments to any other I’ve played this year.

Favourite Tweet / Status Update

This tweet made me laugh when I first read it – always a good sign:

#midnight #snack

It introduced a whole new way of thinking about Twitter for me – no content, only metadata. Wow. Perhaps this is how we will communicate in the future – perhaps the modern aside (or soliloquy) will make the hashtag its vehicle? Who knows. This just made me laugh.

Favourite gadget – Apple iPad

I’ve used this more than any other single gadget, mostly for ebook reading, but also for travel – it’s 3G is useful for maps and for learning more about the place your in. I can’t imagine life without it now – and the new iBooks night reader has made it even more useful.

Favourite blog – ‘Heathen’s Progress’, Julian Baggini, The Guardian (Comment is Free)

The latter half of the year saw the start of philosopher Julian Baggini’s excellent blog on philosophy and belief, Heathen’s Progress. This series has sought to further understand the nature of belief as it is experienced. It suggests that rather than a single set fixed dogma, believers often have individual ideas about how to characterise their faith. It has sought to understand, if not to reconcile, without fundamental compromise. The comments are also unexpectedly good; like so many blogs, the author’s by line should be supplemented with a thanks to those who comment.

Favourite photo that I took – Tate Modern (version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

Tate modern (Version 5)

I had some trouble with this photo. I asked my Twitter contacts if they could help and they made some good suggestions. But still I couldn’t get the crop right. Even now, when I look carefully, it doesn’t fully work. Still, it’s an interesting image and one that I like because it happened completely spontaneously. They are sitting where I had just sat, to have a beer and a sandwich and watch people flow over the bridge across the Thames.

Favourite photo that someone else took – Black Macaque Self Portrait (David Slater)

You may have heard the story of a photographer – David Slater – who had his camera stolen by a black macaque, who then went on to take photographs of itself, like the one below. A great story – and some accomplished photos. Honourable mention to all those excellent photos I’ve seen on Flickr, too

Copyright David J Slater / Caters

Favourite television programme – The Hour

I think Mad Men was excellent again, now at Season 4. But the show that sticks in my mind was The Hour. It approached Mad Men’s mix of private and public politics – the grand and the great, the intimate and the secret – and I loved (again, like Mad Men) the period feel, only this time it British. Well worth seeing, I hope they make another series.

Favourite film – Rabbit Hole

I was completely surprised by Rabbit Hole (2010). I think Nicole Kidman plays some interesting parts and acts well but I was suspicious it might have suffered from the Hollywood gloss. It hasn’t. It’s very moving, horribly so around half way in – but it captures the horror that few of us will hopefully never know so beautiful and with such dignity. It was also superb at the dynamics of relationships and the sudden escalation of marital arguments.

Favourite artwork – Isenheim altarpiece

I saw the Isenheim altarpiece for the first time this year. I’ve written about it elsewhere (with photos) so I won’t repeat that, suffice to say it was incredible to see in the flesh.

Favourite memory – pitching a tent by the lakeside on my bike tour

Camping by the lake, Provence

Camping by the lake, Provence

Aside from all those wonderful times I have shared with Jennie (and which remain private), my bike tour provided me with the most pungent memories. But which one? Starting off, thinking I had forgotten to pack something – then relaxing and starting to enjoy it the ride? Arriving on a sweltering hot day in The Camargue, the journey over, and sitting in a bar to order a beer – when the waiter took my dry bidons and filled them with ice and water? All of these – but this one, moreso – making camp on the banks of a lake in Provence; cooking dinner on my portable stove; and looking over the lake, listening to the cricket on BBC TestMatch Special. Oh happy day.

England won, too.


That’s it. That was my 2011. Here comes 2012…


You are a text: social networking’s canonical equivalents

There is a corollary between key texts on a given subject – known as ‘canonical texts’ – and the most prominent contacts in online social networks on a given subject.

That social networking contact might be an individual on Twitter; an institution on Facebook; a photostream on Flickr; or a business web presence and so on. The important point is that the contact is ‘canonical’: it is one to whom we are recommended to turn through a consensus of opinion, either through word of mouth online, or through ‘recommendation services’ such as that found through Twitter’s ‘Discover – Who to follow’ function, for example.

I call these ‘canonical contacts’. These contacts are to social networking what Shakespeare, Chaucer and Jane Austen are to the literary canon.

As such, I would argue that canonical contacts have similar problems and benefits to the textual canons which preceded them and which have been discussed at length. The following are a cursory considerations of the kinds of objections made regarding the textual and canonical contacts.

1. Canonical contacts are not chosen by us (or by anybody). The mechanism for establishing a network has many paths that lead in the same direction – to a set of established (not by us) canonical contacts. This canon is handed to us, conveniently readymade and therefore narrows the perspectives otherwise open to us.

2. Undermining the potential of chance encounters. This is one of the ways in which ‘recommendations’ – the removal of chance encounters and serendipity – is damaging to our to the development of knowledge and understanding. Establishing a ‘canon’ is one way of reducing the number of available options for learning and removing the notion of ‘chance’ encounters. How do we learn if we do not make the mistakes – and how far is not following a canonical contact a mistake?

3. Who has the authority to determine a canon? In conventional terms, a canon reflected the choices of scholars, course designers, the academy, Government advisors, schools and many other individuals and institutions of power. An objection is that it reinforced the liberal, white, male culture of the time. In addition to these similarities, there are differences worth exploring: in terms of social networking contacts, it is Twitter, Facebook, Google and so on, who recommend contacts based upon their algorithms. Importantly, it is also the sharing online of useful contacts by users themselves.

4. Homogenisation of culture. Where we all choose the same sources of information, we are likely to not just arrive at similar conclusions, but only ask those questions that are within the intellectual framework of the contacts in which we are immersed.

5. We are not beautiful unique snowflakes. Online, we are free to choose our information from many sources. But we already know that using search engines such as Google’s influences, necessarily, the availability of information online. We are free to choose any contact and we might consider our choices as unique. Yet, I imagine a high degree of consensus between users when considering the same subject. I speculate we do not (often) have a high degree of individuality in our choices: we are not beautiful unique snowflakes. We choose the same people when wanting to know about the same subjects.

There are many ways to defend either the textual canon or the canon of contacts. Certainly, in a potentially bewildering array of users, websites, services and so on, it is often wise and natural to gravitate to the most popular and/or the ones recommend by people we trust. I wonder if we are currently in a similar position to the one John Searle outlines below, when he considers the historical placing of the western literary canon:

There is a certain irony in this [i.e., politicized objections to the canon] in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, the “canon” served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.

Searle, John. (1990) “The Storm Over the University”, The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.

There is much more to think about on this subject. I’m not the first, of course, to recognise some of the negative effects of reducing chance encounters, say; or the ways in which search engines effectively narrow our scope. But thinking about canonical contacts – and I had in mind individuals on Twitter especially – leads me to think that we can use our understanding of the decades of debate on the textual (and specifically literary canon) to think about the ways in which we might choose the contacts we follow and what this means for us and education.

Can social media support social change? Geneva Forum for Social Change Conference

University of Geneva, 'UniMail', site of the 2011 GFSC conference

I recently attended a conference organised by the Geneva Forum for Social Change called ‘Social Media for Social Change: Bridging the Gap, Creating Impact’, held over two days at the beginning of April 2011. Geneva, Switzerland hosts several international organisations, including the United Nations, The World Health Organization and the International Federation of the Red Cross / Red Crescent, so it’s fitting that a discussion of social media should focus on issues of social change, global development, and humanitarian response.

It was timely, too: recently we’ve seen immense social changes in parts of North Africa and the Middle East, where a groundswell of public dissatisfaction has challenged the dominant power. The first discussion I attended addressed that issue directly and considered the role social media played in facilitating social change. Entitled ‘Social Media and Political Change: The Middle East Today and Civil Society’ we heard from the speakers how Facebook and Twitter, in particular, fulfilled several functions for those directly immersed in these periods of social revolution. Following this panel discussion, I listened to the next panel discuss ‘Innovative Social Media Trends in International Organizations‘ (you can learn who was on the panel and more about them by following the links above). Some members of the panels embraced the notion that social media has supported social change and continues to do so, whilst others probed more tentatively at its potential to harness activity.

We quickly moved beyond the notion that social media is neither inherently good nor bad but its value depends upon its use. The panels took turns to discuss their version of how social media might support social change. For some users, especially those in a repressed society, using social media meant that their story now had a global audience. The Twitterverse quickly understood that a primary source of news was available from those on the ground, intimately involved in events. Users providing updates through Twitter accounts offered an alternative source of news updates from the mainstream ‘old’ media. Yet, despite their apparent immersion in the event, such accounts, one questioner later urged, should be considered only as part of the entire ‘news picture’ we assemble and should not hold any special relationship with the truth. As with all perspectives, they should be evaluated in an objective, balanced and probing manner. Problems of authenticity remained: in some cases, often through no fault of the individual who reports on an event, information is inaccurate; in other cases, those sympathetic to the government are thought to mask their identity and attempt to undermine the people’s case, even posing as anti-regime protestors.

Libya and Egypt: net shutdown and ‘Speak to Tweet’

Even if we remain skeptical of the power of social media in particular and the internet more generally to facilitate social change, it appears that the ruling power in Libya is taking no chances. A well-reported shutdown of internet services, as shown in the graph of net traffic below, demonstrates how those in power there consider it a threat. As you can see, traffic flatlines at around 8am of March 4th 2011, thought to be a result of the Libyan government ‘pulling the plug’ on its net links.

Such examples also serve to show how flexible the net can be when its freedoms are threatened. In countries where net use was suppressed or unavailable, Google and Twitter combined to offer a ‘Speak to Tweet’ service. This was designed especially for those on the ground in Egypt who had little or no access to the internet. Users of the service would call a number and their voice message would be translated into text and tweeted onto a special Twitter account. No internet connection was required at any time.

Gladwell and Morozov: the revolution will not be evangelised

The arguments of Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, both of whom insist, in different degrees and through different arguments, that social media does not convincingly facilitate social change, were not represented in the conference. The reader can make up their mind for themselves: Gladwell’s most notable discussion can be found here. Morozov’s book, ‘The Net Delusion’ is available now; sample chapters, which give a flavour of the book’s central arguments, can be found here.

In my view, Gladwell’s assertions serve only to remind us that we shouldn’t rush headlong into the view that social media will revolutionise the frequency and the ways in which people will attempt to challenge repressive authority. Only the naive approach social media with an evangelical zeal rather than a energised skepticism. I don’t think anyone takes seriously his suggestion that social change appeared before Twitter, therefore Twitter cannot be central to social change – this misrepresents the view of those who understand social media to play a part, perhaps a growing one, perhaps even a central one, in the apparatus and resources of those who seek to challenge authority.

Development analytics: evaluating impact

Some panel members at the conference demonstrated their social media sites through slides and videos, mostly of Facebook (and equivalents worldwide), Twitter and other, sometimes bespoke, social networks. Many discussed the culture in which these social networks operated and the kinds of issues they raised. Even if not explicitly addressed, a theme was the two-way communication nature of social media. Users would seek and expect responses from organisational sites. Similarly, some social media services required moderation to prevent disinformation or inaccuracies, deliberate or otherwise.

Social Media for Political Change, a session at the GFSC conference

I asked a question about how the panel members measure the impact of their social media strategy. During the initial stages of projects on which I’ve worked, we’ve been faced with the question of whether to harness the popularity but suffer the inflexibility of existing social media networks such as Facebook; or risk creating a new social networks that could fall outside of everyday use but that would be tailor-made to fit our users. In all cases, existing social networks won and were used. But one insurmountable area of inflexibility is created by the ‘walled garden’ approach of much popular social media. Administrators of Facebook accounts will know that, in many other areas of the web, they might use metric services such as Google Analytics to measure web traffic and exposure: but because Facebook is behind a technological wall of its designers’ making, this is simply not possible there.

So, how does one measure the immeasurable? Needless to say it’s difficult. Both qualitative and quantitative analyses are inevitably cursory and relatively subjective. Members of the panel discussed how the quality of the discussions they found on their social network sites was a source of information of their impact assessments. The number of users or ‘fans’ of the account was less meaningful, given many sign up to such services (including for reasons to impress their friends) but do not actively participate. In addition to this, we have some tools at our disposal and used in conjunction, they can provided some indicators.

Another option is to think about how existing social networks ‘offline’ register impact. Outside of the web, there has been a great deal of research into this area; one might say that, in the absence of technological developments that measure web statistics, then ‘new’ media practice can learn from the ‘old’. Both marketing and the social sciences have been interested in assessing the quality of relationships for some time. We may also turn to businesses practice in thinking about our metrics, too: the branding of our international organisation often shares as many similarities with commercial marketing as it does differences.

Steve Bridger, the chairperson of the panel on social media innovation, was right when he retweeted the response of someone who said: ‘The only metric that really matters is ‘impact”, where impact means something like real tangible change to people’s lives. We all hope that these tools are employed to the benefit of those who use them. But if we’re interested in creating and/or facilitating impact, then thinking about the seemingly rather dry, seemingly rather bland areas of data analytics and metrics should be an integral part of any initiative which aims to inspire social change through social media.