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.

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.

The anti-social network

It started quietly, as most things do.

I was flicking through my list of friends on Facebook when I noticed I barely recognised half of them. It didn’t seem right using the term ‘friends’ for people I hadn’t met in person, or online; hadn’t met for years, or even forever.

Just before I starting deleting friends I saw a programme on TV about de-cluttering your house. Removing all that old junk – an empty tin of boot polish, a single sock, several heavy wire supermarket baskets – was a way of lightening the mental load, boosting your energy, getting a fresh start. Who doesn’t want that? I suppose this must have stayed in my mind, because I started to delete people from my social network. De-clutter a bit. Get a grip.

At first this was easy. I could see the faces of those I hadn’t spoken to for a while from looking at their profile picture. Ah, I remember her, I thought. What does she do again, how do I know her? That must be her husband. Funny looking fella.

It was more difficult for others, because some of the profile pictures didn’t have faces and I’m not very good with names. Instead, they had pictures of dogs or cats, or signs you might find hanging in offices, saying things like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ or ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here – BUT IT HELPS!’ in bold red letters. Even more had pictures of their kids, some before they were born.

I deleted these friends first.

I reckoned, as much as we love our kids, if you’re not going to put your face on your own personal profile then you’re missing the point. I got rid of the ones with pictures of dogs and cats, and those with the ‘funny’ signs, for much the same reason.

It was a victimless crime, really. They would probably never notice, or care. They were gone in a click (or two, I had to confirm if I really wanted to delete them first). I thought – you probably only added me as a friend so you could snoop around my profile, see how fat or bald I’d got (one out of two isn’t bad), what kind of car I drive or who I married. I could always re-add them as a friend later. But I didn’t.

Then there was this one, he sticks in my mind – kept on putting up pictures of his new home in France – the swimming pool, the mountains, even pictures of their fancy lunches – and banged on about much better and hotter and cleaner it was to live there compared to where they used to live. Where I live now. I hate show-offs. Gone, simple as.

At first it was easy. There were so many reasons to get rid of someone. Too easy, I’d say – too many went too quickly. I deleted one because she had a name I didn’t like – double-barrelled, probably – and another wore a zany wig and had fat arms in a photo at a nightclub. I’ve never liked nightclubs.

Text-speak was a no-go zone, too. I wanted to message them ‘U R DLTD’ just before I hit the button, but I didn’t. ‘LOL’ would do it, too. Although I was a bit of a hypocrite there, since I used it.

That reminds me, I’m a bit embarrased to say, but using some words or phrases alone would get you deleted. ‘Scrummy’ was one, especially when applied to non-food items. ‘All good’ – all gone. I didn’t much like ‘loving it’ – with or without the ‘g’ – but I tolerated it. For a while. ‘Simple as’ would mean the end and one that really got me – ‘kthxbye’. He went straight away.

Then there’s those who write about their dreams – goodnight Vienna – and those who go into every detail of their day. I’m not interested in what you’re doing at work. I’m quite interested in what you’ve had for breakfast of lunch though. I’ve always liked food.

Of course, I’m not going to be interested in your intimate details either. Someone posted something about their toilet habits. Terrible. Another friend of mine replied to them that this was ‘TMI’. They’re right, it was Too Much Information, but I had to un-friend them. I don’t do three letter acronyms.

A couple of so-called ‘friends’ would post leading phrases or questions, like ‘Oh no, I can’t believe it just happened!’ or ‘What am I going to do now?’. Some were more mysterious, like ‘The watch stopped on three’ or ‘They’ve all gone’. We’re not stupid, you know. You want us to ask what just happened, or you are just  looking for sympathy. Well, I never replied. And if any of my friends asked them, I’d delete them too.

I’m on a roll now. I remember having a thing about song lyrics. It was OK to post song lyrics if you’re marvelling at their beauty, or wondering which song a lyric came from. But just you try to update your status with just a song lyric! The amount of times I have read ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky!’. Ah, Jimi would have spun in his coffin. Write your own update, stop pinching someone else’s.

I hid one from my wall because they kept publishing terrible photographs, loads of them. It was clutter, like that programme on the telly said, and that’s the last thing I needed. I post photos, too. So, I started to say nice things about their photos, commenting of them, or ‘Liking’ them. I thought – if they never comment on mine (I posted a lot, most days), then I’m going to hide them from my wall. They didn’t, so I did. I hid them and their photos. After I changed my mind, and just deleted them.

All the time I deleted people I never gave them the reason. I wanted to warn a couple of them, especially about the grammar, but that sounded cranky. And besides, I’d made a couple of errors of my own. None of them contacted me, either, after I de-friended them. I guess they cared less; about as much as I did.

When I only had a handful of friends left, I introduced a ‘three strikes’ policy. For example, three status updates with basic grammatical errors would get you deleted. You know the sort of thing – mixing up ‘their’ and ‘there’, using ‘no’ instead of ‘know’. I got carried away with this one and deleted someone for a single use of ‘your’ when it should have been ‘you’re’. I didn’t feel bad about it.

So, don’t think I just randomly deleted anyone. There was always a good reason. Or a reason, anyway. And the more I deleted, so the reasons became more complicated. It wasn’t always easy you know. Some had to really try hard to be deleted. In the end it got so the remaining friends – unknown to them, of course – would have to tread very carefully around Facebook.

I can’t remember when I deleted the final friend. I just remember days later, thinking that the only updates I can see on my wall are the ones I’d written, alongside the adverts for weight loss and credit cards.

Using the web to emigrate

Men and women, I should say

Men and women, I should say

How did people emigrate before the web? With difficulty, surely. It’s been useful for almost every step and some of our move would have been impossible I feel without it, at least in the time we had. Of course, underpinning all the technology were two people filling boxes, completing forms, driving miles and pulling the levers and pressing the buttons. But the web has been outstandingly useful for several particular reasons. Here’s a quick fire list in no particular order – I’m certain I’ve left some things out – but like Kane’s gang (as if you’ve forgotten!) it’s what we’ve got:

Interviewed for job online. Without Jennie getting a job for the UN none of this would have happened. In her application she sent all documents online; underwent a test that was performed over the net; was interviewed via web-based video conferencing; and finally sent the medical / admin documents in PDF form to Kuala Lumpar for processing.

Google Docs for a to-do/resources list. This was invaluable and still is. It’s not as complex as something like specific to-do collaborative tools like RemembertheMilk, but it worked beautifully. Simple crossing things out with strikethrough was enough to say they’ve been done. We also collected resources, figures, phone numbers and so on here and worked on independently and together.

Synchronising weblinks using FoxMarks. We independently found various links as we browsed the web, hungry for a fix on our new country. I set up all computers with the favourites tool Foxmarks, regardless of operating system, to synchronise the links we dropped into a ‘Moving on’ folder in our browser. Worked well when Google Docs (eventually) became swamped. Sometimes we used Delicious, but not as often as I thought we would.

Sign-up service for moving. There are a handful of agencies online who make it easier to move by you entering some details and they doing some work for you, like letting the gas company know you need a meter reading and so on. We used these with partial success – sometimes the manual way is best.

Royal Mail’s redirection service. We have mail redirected and using this service meant we didn’t need to trundle down to the post office and take our identity documents, they check details online. We’d need the legs for the thousands of times we climbed the ladder to the loft to pack its contents.

Skype telephony. We bought a UK online number, so our friends and family in the UK would only need to call a local (to them) phone number. Skype has worked really well so far and since we’re not settled for a few months, goes where we go. It also works nicely on my iPhone, which saves us a fortune. We were able to stay in touch with our regi (estate agent) easily and without incurring further mobile phone costs.

Keeping the social network alive. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, this blog – all are things we use to share our experiences here and keep in contact with others. This is important when you’re away from home, and I’ve found it really useful to have some sense of continuity in terms of who I’m speaking with (especially when discussing the cricket, which is only available online here via the BBC’s wonderful TMS – this feels like I’ve never left!).

Transferring money. We now have to work with several currencies – US dollar, Swiss francs, Euro and GB sterling – and so being able to transfer them quickly online (and often without charge) helped us enormously. Of course, this isn’t just something you need when you move. What’s more, currency conversion rates online are always up-to-date.

Checking in online when flying. You’ve used this already, maybe, but printing out a boarding pass for flying seems novel still, and helped get things going when we were a rush: Jennie flew to Geneva and back the same day to secure our place in France.

Google chat. Sometimes email isn’t enough, and you need to make decisions through synchronous discussion. Google’s online chat, via GoogleMail, was vital for the hundreds of discussions we had when not together.

Removal quotes online. You enter your details and you get quotes from multiple removal companies. This helps get the best price of course, and is also a necessary part of claiming for expenses.

Google Maps and Google Earth. Knowing where you’re going to live and its local amenities used to something you needed to find out when you turn up. And although it’s still a thrill to find new restaurants and bars, knowing where the bank or petrol station is not so much fun. What’s more, we used Google Maps to find directions. If only it plugged into…

Satellite navigation. We bought a TomTom One XL, and this has the advantage of connecting to the web and downloading changes that users have made to the maps. In short, it corrects the errors that sat navs are annoyingly prone to, especially in areas under construction. Worked like a dream, although I wouldn’t say that it’s perfect even now.

It has helped me learn a new language. There is an embarrassment of excellent online resources for learning French. Some of the best are About.com‘s guide (with the inaptly named – for a grammarian at least – Laura Lawless); and the BBC comes up trumps again. Although not an online app per se, Genius (for the Mac, free download) helped with remembering verbs.

The web helped us find a place to live. We searched a variety of sites to find somewhere temporary in Geneva, and later, more permanent in France. In the case of the temporary accommodation, the website came with an interactive 3D tour of the apartment. Whilst this is pretty advanced I admit, all the websites we used to find a home had pictures. The difference was that we could save time and money using this process.

Hi-resolution floor plans. Houses in many European countries – alas, but excluding the UK it seems – come with detailed architectural plans, even those you just plan to rent. They locate plug sockets, light switches and so on and give precise details of every measurement both interior and exterior. Not sure if your sofa is going to fit? The plans will help tell you. These took seconds to send over email and illustrate how the communication between people in different countries is made so much easier.

Shopping. Inevitably we had to buy several things, oddments which we’d never got before or those things we needed to replace and pack. Ikea figured heavily in equipping our new place. Their website – intuitive, well-organised and with clear illustrations, it’s a good example of how we saved hours browsing online rather than visiting stores. What’s more, it provides real-time stock levels, is an example of how you can use the web to plan your deliveries or visits.

Freecycle. Even if you’re moving up the road you’ll still have a lot of stuff you’ll want to recycle. We used Freecycle online to invite people to collect some of the stuff we didn’t need or couldn’t find room for. They came in the night and collected, as if whisked away by recycling fairies, without us even knowing.

It would be no surprise to learn that one of the first things we did in Geneva was buy a 3G USB dongle to get us online (expensive but very fast).

Do you only use these things when emigrating? No, we use them now for a variety of reasons. It’s only together that they make sense as vital tools for moving country. Did we still print stuff out? Sure we did. Somewhere we’ve got a file with print outs of architectural plans, photos and the like. But this was as much as habit and security than anything: some lay untouched and unread. Is there anything I’ve missed – I expect so – even as I write I think of all the music and podcasts I’ve downloaded, some of which are about Geneva, or local news programmes and such. And booking tickets and… well, all those things we use the web for all of the time.

Now, if the BBC can get iPlayer available outside of the UK I’d pay the licence fee happily…

Twitter, the economic crisis, and Ralph Wiggum’s broken heart

Can you pinpoint the exact moment when a new technology becomes passé? Maybe it’s when the newspaper you dislike the most writes about it – perhaps linked to some heinous crime involving, in the case of social networking tools like Twitter, a violation of privacy. Perhaps it’s when marketing, business or celebrity have their interests piqued long enough to take part. Maybe it’s when your gran is using it, exhibiting their new found skill like a dancing uncle.

The exact moment Lisa breaks Ralph's heart: has Twitter's heart broken?

The exact moment Lisa breaks Ralph's heart: has Twitter's heart broken?

Perhaps the tipping point is when a ‘web celebrity’ and one of its key advocates thinks it might be past its best. Robert Scoble recently declared it stunned, if not quite fallen off its perch:

Scoble: Twitter is broken

Scoble: Twitter is broken

What does this kind of message mean for Twitter? A comparison with the current economic crisis is illustrative (formerly known as the credit crunch, but despite its cutesy alliteration, ‘crunch’ is not aggressive enough: ‘crisis’ retains the sound pattern and ups the ante). Scoble’s not saying it’s dead: just that it has problems – but other less high-profile commentators are similarly expressing their dissatisfaction.

Before we learned that banks made massive loses, that people became unemployed en masse, and that UK police anticipated a summer of  civil unrest and even riots, there was a pervasive feeling that the media had not just innocently reported on the predicted downturn but contributed to it. How so? Because we know that the markets depend on a constant drip-feed of cloying confidence-building, like a petulant child with low self-esteem. Only today did the markets lose millions – because the traders were shifting nervously in their seats. As a result, when he hear the BBC remind us on an hourly basis that we are in for a rough ride, it had a kind of self-fulfilling quality about it.

I think people recognise a pattern in that potential users might feel sceptical, familiar and then addicted to new tools, only to find the passion fade before the tool becomes the object of derision, cf. Facebook, before something replaces it as the new best thing, cf. Twitter. Twitter will go through the same phase, eventually. Could Twitter withstand competition from the next best thing now – I doubt it, but that idea was unthinkable six months ago.

Like the economy, confidence is clearly a factor. Networks are sustained when users are confident in them – not just their stability but that others use them and find worth in them. Investing time and effort is otherwise pointless. But like the broadcast channels that precipitate a downfall, comments like Scoble’s – and there are other naysayers that agree with him, almost through instinct it seems – might have more influence than otherwise thought.

Is Scoble’s comment and those like it the blood in the water that the sharks will smell? Perhaps it’s just one of many ‘death of’ sensationalist pieces which appear from time to time to create a stir. We’re all familiar with those who consider something over only moments before it began: like chopping down the tall daisies, it’s a phenomenon we’ve all become familiar with. But it’s hard to agree that broadcast news can influence the path of history without admitting that comments such as Scoble’s aren’t ringing the death knell for our beloved Twitter.

So, with apologies to Winston Churchill: Now this is not the end of Twitter. It is not even the beginning of the end of Twitter. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning of Twitter.

Social network: Arts away day presentation

Myself and Mary Thorpe gave a presentation to the Arts Faculty at The Open University this week, on social networking. We began with an overview of what social networking means and how it works, and discussed the specific applications of social networking to education, using the Social Networking for Practice Learning (SNPL) project as a focus.

Giving this kind of presentation raised some interesting questions. Our role, I think, was to outline the potential benefits of social networking – but stopped short of ‘selling’ the idea. I encourage healthy scepticism when considering these tools (and indeed most ideas) but there’s a thin line between being an evangelist for some of the tools you think could make a difference; and offering some objective, informative outlines which could then be picked up by those actually teaching using the tools. Anyway, I hope we got the balance right – here’s the presentation, some of which has been culled from the recent Learn About Fair presentation I wrote about earlier.

Social networking for practice learning project

The cloud crowd

The cloud crowd

One of my main roles is as project manager for the Social Networking for Practice Learning project conducted here at the Institute for Educational Technology at The Open University. It’s in the second part of its life, a pivotal time since we’re able to look back to what we’ve achieved and look forward to what there is still to do. I work alongside the project leader, Mary Thorpe.

In the first part we worked with a range of Associate Lecturers (ALs, or tutors) here at The Open University in using social networking and web tools. We’ve been working for several months on a range of tools – including Google Reader, Delicious, Facebook and Ning – and have collected thoughts, resources and reports on a wiki.

Ten tutors have been encouraged to create accounts in these web tools and perform some tasks and reflect on their usefulness. We’ve created some guidance materials for them, including some videos, as well as a ‘Helpdesk’ on the wiki which addresses those tips or tricks that aren’t covered elsewhere and which the tutors write themselves. Eventually, we intend to introduce new ALs to use these tools on a voluntary basis and then – well, who knows? Perhaps if they find it useful and find the time, the word will spread and tutors throughout the OU will join.

This project is significant in that it represents the tutor perspective to social networking and focuses on the needs and wants of tutors in using web tools, rather than the student perspective. That’s not to say we’ve ignored our students: indeed, the group has been inventive in suggesting ways in which the tools – and some of the processes and related ideas – might be used for teaching (here, Delicious appears to have been particularly inspiring). But the focus has often been on such things as professional development, knowledge sharing and maintaining best practice and how these tools can facilitate that.

The new strand of development (following a successful bid for funding) will see the toolkit – a collection of social networking tools along with some guidance on how to use them – distributed throughout the wider University, to course team, academics and other interested parties.

I intend to post some of the findings that have come out of the project, as well as the directions it has taken and plans to take. It’s certainly been very useful and fun to work on – I hope it proves likewise for my interested colleagues here a the OU.