Thinking yourself into a corner

9 09 2012

Yesterday, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s father died. Although he had battled ill health, it was an unexpected death. The majority of her political opponents, the media, and social media pundits offered her their condolences, and newspaper articles eulogised on his role in bringing up and educating Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Whether you agree with his daughter’s politics or not, he did a good job bringing up his daughter to contribute to public life and achieve on her own terms.

But some social media pundits couldn’t help themselves. They made snarky comments about her, her father and various other personal issues. Speculation ranged from how he felt about her politics to whether the tax payer would pay for his funeral. It was almost like they thought she had arranged this personal tragedy for her own political gain.

Now I can’t help wondering – are these people like this in real life? Or, in real life, are they normal compassionate people who, despite differences of opinion, recognise that a personal tragedy is common to us all, a precondition of being human. People you and I would be happy to know.

There has been a lot of conversation in Australian media and social media about trolls – people who (usually anonymously) frequent social media sites for the purpose of vicious personal attacks. An anti-bullying ambassador, Charlotte Dawson, was hospitalised after vicious attacks on twitter (#diecharlotte) became too much for her.

Who are these people? Why do think they have a right to attack others?

At the same time, US news reported on a 16 year old who called for the assassination of her president, Barack Obama, via twitter. Where does this hatred come from? Why do people think this semi-anonymous (although in the case of the above 16 year old, her twitter handle was in her own name) forum is OK for vitriolic hatred, calls for violence and personal attacks, the sort of behaviour that most of us would not engage in, in real life?

There is a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance. Most of us like not to feel hypocritical. We like to feel we are logical, our thoughts, taken individually or en masse, make sense. We don’t want to seem to contradict ourselves.

So maybe these people have thought themselves into a corner, whereby their unrelenting hatred and attacks in a political context cannot be stopped, even for personal tragedy or common decency. They have objectified the focus of their obsession and no longer see them as sharing the common human experience that unites us. They cannot back down or rethink their position, no matter what.

This is not logic. This is irrational. This is hatred.

There is a level of intellectual sophistication involved in being able to deal with, to hold, two cognitively dissonant thoughts at the same time. Say, hatred for someone’s politics and compassion for them as a person not feeling compatible in one psyche. This sort of sophistication and maturity might not be expected from a 16year old (although her parents should cut off her social media accounts until she understands the concepts of treason and inciting violence as criminal offences) but it would seem the majority of trolls are not under-age.

But just like the metaphorical “paint yourself into a corner”, some people think themselves into small confined positions, from whence they are unable to be flexible and respond to changing conditions. But wouldn’t you rather react and change according to changing conditions (evolution having shown us the options are adaptor die) than make ourself into a public fool and be publicly castigated for your rigidly inflexible position? Let alone possibly do actual harm to another, as occurred with Charlotte Dawson.

A year in blog-land

7 07 2012

I started blogging approximately a year ago.

I had been intending to blog for some time, and had even started a couple of times on various topics, then abandoned them when I decided that the topics were too self-indulgent and really of no value or interest to anyone other than myself. And even my interest was fleeting.

The decision about topics was problematic for me – I wasn’t intending for it to be a work related blog, it wasn’t to establish my credibility or expertise in a field. But the types of things I was interested in were many and varied and really didn’t hang together very well, except in that they interested me.

Analysis Paralysis.

The answer was: write about what interests you. Once I decided I had permission for this to be about interesting things rather than being constrained by a specific topic, I was off and running – or writing. In the end it doesn’t seem to have mattered that I have several different topics going. Some weeks I blog every day and sometimes have several new posts in a day. Other weeks I can barely get one post up. And occasionally one topic – for instance the leap second – inspires three posts. (Did you sleep well? , Nostradamus and Y2K and Why the moon rules your life)

As well as what I have posted (this is my 301st post), I have about 70 drafts sitting behind the scenes. Some are posts that I started and haven’t finished because the story petered out. Others are where I just made a quick note about a topic for those days we the topics seem hard to come by.

I am loving the stats page, and particularly the maps. I initially thought I was probably writing for my friends (and thank you for visiting, liking and commenting!) But it turns out that people visit from all over the world, even some small islands I didn’t know were separate countries. It’s really quite interesting to ponder what might interest someone in Belize, Venezuela, Jordan, Iceland, or the Russian Republic, and how someone from Trinidad and Tobago, Malta, Qatar, and El Salvador might have ended up reading an Australian blog. Truly international, and always fascinating to see who has been here.

The topics vary quite widely, but I don’t seem to be able to predict what will attract a broad readership. I loved being able to go through my holiday photos and record and relive some of the places we went and the things we saw. I also love pondering news events and recent studies that I have come across, and the occasional joke or cartoon. Social media, psychology, science (particularly weird science or pseudo-science) usually capture my attention and interest long enough for a post to evolve.

Sharing on StumbleUpon has been a surprising and unpredictable event. A posting on Steve Jobs garnered 9,822 viewings, thanks in large part to StumbleUpon. The general page comes second with 7,958, followed distantly by How to Open a Padlocked Suitcase: A lesson in travel safety for us all with 804, and Imagine what you could do if you thought you couldn’t fail at 597 (this posting was on Moira Kelly, the woman who sponsored Krishna and Trishna, conjoined twins from Bangladesh).

I also post links on Facebook (mudmap) and Twitter (mudmapped) and occasionally on Pinterest, although I have not had much success there. But StumbleUpon has driven the occasional peaks in my stats – a top score of 4,837 views on one day that seems almost impossible to beat and quite bizarre to contemplate. I don’t know how it happened and I can’t replicate it, but it is amusing and rewarding to think that something I wrote “touched a chord” and nearly went viral! (This was some considerable time after the death of Steve Jobs so I didn’t really expect a massive reaction.)

In one year Mudmap has had just under 28,500 viewings (and increasing as we speak). This is a lot more than I probably could have expected if I had written a book – unless I wrote the Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey. I know that some of you are repeat readers. Some of you are my friends, family and acquaintances, others are people I will never meet. Some are fellow-bloggers who stop by and encourage, chat and exchange ideas. Thanks you, everyone!

As a frustrated writer, it is gratifying to be able to write something that someone else will read. And on a good day, you might click “like”. And sometimes you might comment. I appreciate each and every one of these.

Here’s to the next year! (Please drop me a line….)

Flashback: Nostradamus and Y2K

1 07 2012

I admit this has little to do with the topic at hand but is such a cool photo I thought I’d put it up anyway! Think of it as a photo of planes NOT dropping out of the sky. Read on for more…
photo credit: licensed under Creative Commons from Beverly & Pack

Growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century, the year 2000 loomed large. It didn’t help that famed soothsayer and bane of the Spanish Inquisition, Nostradamus had predicted the end of the world in the year 2000.

Yes, way before the Mayan calendar, Harold Campling and unnumbered apocalyptic suicide cults, we worried that a middle-ages apothecary and reputed seer had predicted our demise in his obscure and vague quatrains. After all, the year 2000 was a nice round number, some Christian sects felt that God had given us two millennia to get our act together and was probably losing patience with our lack of progress. And if you looked hard enough, with enough confirmation bias, signs of impending cosmic doom could be spotted (fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 symbolised the coming-together of Europe etc).

Spoiler Alert! Earth survived.

However, even for those not prone to flights of fantasy, there was another impending doom associated with this date: the Y2K bug.

This was going to end our (increasingly computer-dependent) lives as we knew them. So the story was this. Apparently computer programmers in the late 1980s and 1990s didn’t realise that the year 2000 was coming. Seriously. It snuck up when no one was looking and all the computers that had a date in their programming were going to stop working. At least that was their story.

Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Water filtration and pumping was going to fail leaving cities to die. Banking systems would crash. Medical life-support machines would expire. And worst of all, having recently come out of the cold war, missile “defence” systems would malfunction and cause world war three, the nuclear version. Truly apocalyptic.

We responded in the normal rational way we humans always react. People stockpiled water, canned goods and medicines. Some built underground bunkers. Some left the cities or holidayed in the country at the fateful time. Staff were trained, emergency plans were formulated and put in place, back-up communication systems were tested, generators were on stand-by. People stayed at work overnight “just in case”. Computer programmers no doubt found themselves in great demand – job creation, perhaps?

Midnight New Year’s Eve came and went with the usual fireworks and sense of disappointment.

Nothing. No-thing. Not-a-thing. Nothing happened.

We all went back to our lives with a sense of mild embarrassment alleviated only by our commonality with others. If they didn’t mention it, we wouldn’t either. What to do with casks of water? Gradually the canned supplies dwindled away and we moved on with our lives. The only issue that remained was whether the new millennia started in 2000 or 2001. And really, who cared?

All in all, the 30 June 2012 leap second caused more drama, bringing down the airline booking system in Australia, Reddit, Linked In, Gawker, Foursquare and Yelp. Again one assumes the computer programmers didn’t know about leap seconds. There have only been 25 since 1972.

So when the Mayans (or latter-day crackpots) predict the end of the world – well, some of us have seen it all before.

Did you sleep well?

1 07 2012

Did you wake this morning feeling especially rested? Or did you toss and turn all night wondering why the night was taking so long?

Either way, you were right. Last night we had an extra-long night (30 June 2012), thanks to a leap second.

Yes, our official time (courtesy of the atomic clock which measures time via atomic vibrations) gets slightly out of synch with “real” (solar) time, by which I mean the natural time set by the rotation of the earth around the sun. Again, the moon is at fault; the tidal surges, waxes and wanes are causing a slight slowing and wobbling of the earth’s rotation. Hadn’t you noticed the wobbles?

We could adjust the length of the unit we call a second to account for this, a minuscule lengthening. But then counting “one-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus” etc might not work so well. And it’s not even regular about how often the atomic clock needs adjusting. It has been adjusted 25 times since such accurate time measurement began in 1972. The first year saw two leap seconds (June 30 and December 30), followed by seven years of one second per year. The last three adjustments were 1998, 2005 and 2008.

So instead we wait until a whole second has accumulated and add a leap second, just as we add a leap year, thereby adjusting our inflexible human system of measuring time to the mutable system that exists in nature.

And so we got an extra second last night, to sleep, toss and turn, or party, whatever you happened to be doing at 11:59:60 last night, which fell between 11:59:59 and 12:00:00 (midnight at the International Dateline).

Hope you enjoyed it! And if you wasted it, don’t worry another one is sure to come along sooner or later!

UPDATE: Latebreaking news! While the Y2K bug turned out to be a fizzer, the leap-second has actually had consequences! For those who are too young to remember the Y2K bug, this was the predicted beginning of the apocalypse caused because computer programmes in the 1980s and 1990s apparently didn’t have the forethought to realise that eventually in the not too distant future, computers with a clock in their functioning would need to click over from 19XX to 20XX. People (who would now be called preppers) stocked up on water supplies and canned goods and built underground bunkers. Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Nothing happened. Complete fizzer.

The leap second on the other hand has managed to bring down the airport check-in system at Australian airports, resulting in airline staff having to check in passengers and luggage by hand, delayed flights and lots of irritable grumpy passengers. Also reportedly brought down, Reddit, Gawker, LinkedIn, Yelp and Foursquare. And according to news reports, this is because the computer couldn’t cope with the leap second (which was 9:59:60 in Australia EST).

Have you heard of any other effects?

Want more? Try…
Why the moon rules your life and..

Career-limiting moves in social media

3 06 2012

We all know (or hopefully we know by now) about the dangers of posting inappropriate material on social media. Drunken pictures of yourself partying when you are off work sick. Abusive rants about coworkers, clients and bosses. Confidential work information. Plans to apply for other jobs or debriefs on interviews attended. Not good career moves.

Some high achievers take it to the next level however. Herewith, a celebration of the high points of career-limiting moves in social media.

Former American Airlines Employee Gailen David posted a series of videos on his blog mocking his (at the time, current) employer and in particular executives. After a disciplinary process, American Airlines terminated his employment. His blog seems to indicate that he saw himself in some sort of whistle-blowing role, saving the airline from its executives. Unsurprisingly, they saw it differently and commenced court proceedings against him for a number of issues including breach of their trademark. The latest can be found at his blog The Sky Steward. One wonders if, had he done it anonymously and without naming specific airlines, he could have been an internet comedic sensation and indeed found a new career for himself.

Rhode Island Prison Guard Matthew Lacroix created a Facebook page in his boss’ name. And you know that can’t be a good thing. As anyone who has watched CSI or any other crime show can predict, the IP address used to create the profile was quickly tracked back and once the nice people whose internet had been used to create the profile mentioned that coincidentally there was in fact a prison guard living next door….well it didn’t take long for the dots to be connected. Can’t imagine relations between Lacroix and his boss were any improved by the incident, and in fact, he was arrested. (No news on his fate as yet)

Earlier this year, a political staffer in Alberta Canada resigned after a tweeting a personal comment about an electoral opponent of her employer. The tweet in question read:

“If @ElectDanielle likes young and growing families so much, why doesn’t she have children of her own? #wrp family pack = insincere”

Now you probably know where this is going. “ElectDanielle” is in fact Danielle Smith, leader of the Alberta Wildrose party, and she revealed that she and her husband had struggled with infertility and had accepted that they were not going to be able to have children. The political staffer had gone too far and brought personal information into the public and political domain. And from a political standpoint, may have attracted a sympathy vote for her opponent. The staffer’s employer rapidly released a statement apologising and announcing that the staffer in question had resigned and was sorry for her actions. Which her tweet followers could tell from the follow-up tweet:

“Fine. I apologize”

And this one is quite stunning. A first year graduate is suing his former employer “big-law” firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman – for $77m dollars severance claiming he was fired because he exhibited intelligence and creativity. Now, I don’t know the merit of the case – but he must be very hopeful of the large settlement because now that there is so much all over the internet about him, he may find it difficult to get another job in the industry.

And finally – show and tell time! Even quitting via social media can be a career-limiting move. I think of this one as Jenny vs Spencer: no-one wins.

Want more? Have a look at page 2.1.7 onwards in this document, Death by Facebook, for some more salient lessons on how to avoid career-limiting social media moves, or What’s your Social Media Policy? for more ideas on what to avoid.

Social media: Just add water….. Instant expert

3 06 2012

In an exercise in sheer bluff and hypocrisy, I am now going to expand my hypothesis (aka brief thought and opinion) on social media encourages us to turn a fleeting thought into an opinion, and an opinion into instant expertise.

Somewhere in medical school, they teach doctors how to sound like they know what they are talking about. Not lie, not guess, but somehow, to convey an air of authority and confidence so that patients feel comfortable undertaking treatments. When you go and see a doctor, you want him or her to tell you the truth, but you also want them to tell you what they think is wrong with you and confidently lay out a treatment plan. You don’t want them umming and aahing about possible diagnoses and treatments and unable to make a decision. You want assurance that they know what they are doing.

Of course there is a down-side to this. When they really don’t know what they are talking about, they still manage to convey an air of authority, as anyone related or in business with a doctor may tell you.

Well, social media has the same effect. Social media wants you to say something. SOMETHING. Anything really, given some of the things we have all seen floating around the internet. But it wants you to have an opinion, pick a side, take a stand. Then we can all agree with you (*like*) or disagree with you (sometimes erupting into flaming). Social media does not want you to be reasonable and rational and tentative. Social media treats such rationality with the withering scorn it deserves. Social media IGNORES such approaches.

So being the attention-seekers that we are (not you and me – other people online) we turn into mini-shock-jocks. We start spouting opinions and, with the nice but false anonymity that sitting behind a screen seems to give us, we become mini-experts on a given subject. And then another, and then another.

And once you have put your opinion out there, you need to defend it.

While in real life we might be reasonable and rational, venturing opinions, gaining feedback and using it to modify our opinions, online we are experts. We have staked out our opinion in black and white and it cannot ever be retracted. Therefore no matter what evidence is presented to us, we must resort to the lowest of low tactics to defend our spot. Attack the messenger. We must dominate.

Present company excepted of course. You and I would never do that. But does it sound like what you have seen online?

Surplus social media

24 03 2012

As an intrepid explorer of social media, I find I am increasingly coming across a number of new social media options. And quite frankly, I’m not sure of their value and I’m not sure if I physically have the time to deal with them. So let me know your opinion.

I’ll start by declaring my social media preferences: I am addicted to Facebook, I love LinkedIn, I am quite active on Twitter (but largely promoting my blogs – true confession). I am somewhat present in Pinterest and Foursquare (although frankly Pinterest’s “ownership” of content makes nervous). I dip into Youtube from time to time but generally I don’t actually have the time to sit through a 3 minute video. True story. And I am obsessed with blogging. If you can count it, it is a competition. Sad but true.

1. Klout. I confess I lost faith in Klout when it nominated me as an expert on London. Why? I have no idea since I have not knowingly written anything about London online (it is too long since I have been there) and only a couple of my English friends live in London. How did Klout decide this was my area of expertise (as opposed to, for instance, the country I live in)?

2. Branchedout. This Facebook app bills itself as the network boasting the most job connections on Facebook. Hmm. Possibly because there isn’t any competition.

3. Aboutme. Point? Niche? I just don’t get it.

4. Peerindex. Seems like a copycat Klout.

Fundamentally these all don’t seem to add any value to my life, they take time and they request and collate my personal and online information into yet another source that I need to manage. Maybe I’d be better off being streamlined – sleek and aerodynamic and dump all the excess baggage.

Of course I could just be grumpy.


Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat

18 03 2012

While I am the first to enjoy a good PR / social media disaster – I also enjoy a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Follow this link to a few of the best recent PR saves.


10 03 2012

The old fashioned way of social activism? photo credit: spotreporting

The current debate on the Kony 2012 viral video is really only the tip of the iceberg for social activism. Grass-roots causes, campaigns and groups have taken to social media in a big way. It would be interesting to know whether this has meant:

• More petitions
• Bigger petitions (ie: more names per petition)
• Any actual better outcomes for the causes involved. Do foreign dictators / big corporations / African warlords / NATO / US Government / whoever else is being petitioned actually care if there are millions of extra signatures? And if those signatures are from all over the world? Does that give the petition more or less value as a measure of public opinion?

I suspect the answer to the first two dot-points is yes. The third dot point is probably doubtful (IMHO).

And how has activism going online changed the way we behave in choosing what we do and do not support? For the individual…
• The effort to sign (or click) is minimal. Often the information provided with these campaigns is minimal, emotive – designed for our short socia-media attention spans. It is easy click without really thinking about it too much.
• The immediate result is often posted on our Facebook wall / Tweeted to the world so it makes up part of our public image
• The proliferation of online petitions online has meant that they are in our face (or on our wall) on a daily basis.
• Suddenly, instead of just seeing local petitions, we see petitions from all over the world – some about very small local issues about which we may know very little.
• While many of the petitions and other online activism messages come from reputable organisations, many come from previously unknown organisations. Just as my email is now full of spam and various cons, social media is a rich ground for the unscrupulous. It amazes me that people still fall for the Nigerian scam, but many of the more recent scams are much more sophisticated and difficult to detect. Particularly when forwarded by friends.

While many existing organisations have taken advantage of the social marketing opportunities presented by social media, other organisations have set up specifically to harvest this ready community – GetUp, Change.Org and other such groups are not cause-specific but rather present a wide range of causes, one after the other. If one cause attracts your attention and you sign your e-name – you are on their list for all the other petitions as well. It seems churlish to unsub when all of these causes are so worthy….but compassion-fatigue can come on very quickly when signing one petition leads you to another and another and another. And another.

And another. (I’ll stop now but you get the point.)

Social activism has always been a marketing exercise to attract attention and gain committment (and sometimes money) from the general public. Going online has given causes and groups many more tools to achieve this marketing outcome…but the backlash for the Kony 2012 campaign has been significant. In the last two days I have heard or read…

• Criticism of the oversimplification of the issues (which was probably required to create an impactful video)
• Hyper-vigiliance and criticism on any purported “facts”, irrespective of how central they are to the issue
• General backlash about whether this is a valid way to achieve any change.
• Questions about the organisation, Invisible Children, running the campaign,
• Is spending donation money on marketing a legitimate way of doing business for a charity (or should they be spending it on on-the-ground-services)?
• Is it what the people affected want
• Should we be minding our own business and not imposing our solutions on other people’s problems
• Is this the most important problem to focus on and what about all the other similar and maybe worse problems?

While some of this is certainly valid, it is a distraction from the actual issue in the video, and potentially an action-stopper for all social activism. Questions put to this organisation could be, and perhaps should be, put to every other organisation. As to whether this campaign can do anything beyond raising awareness – whether this will indeed translate into action on the part of any governments or agencies to do something about not just Kony but the entire LRA, remains to be seen.

So in an effort to try to find out what activism going online has meant for the social activism industry, I have created a brief online survey. It is a quick ten questions, anonymous and hopefully not obtrusive. Please click through and spend a couple of minutes telling me how online social activism has changed your activism – and forward the link

to your friends. (I am keen to get responses from people who do and don’t participate in these online activism campaigns.)


Why do Big Brands keep failing on Twitter?

10 03 2012

Another major corporation has come a-cropper in Twitter-land. Given the recent examples of major campaign stuff-ups, and an assumption that these corporations are buying in advice on their social media campaigns, it is hard to understand how these things keep happening.

The latest incident involves supermarket giant Coles. At 7.55PM on 6 March, they invited twitter-readers to:

Now leaving aside all the very first-world consumerist implications of this sentence to start with, it would seem that a major corporation asking people to finish sentences about their brand in public is asking for trouble. At 8.48PM they followed up with:

(The attached responses below the tweets demonstrates some of the erudite negative comments they received)

To give them credit – they monitored the responses and acted quickly (tick). This hasn’t stopped the issue but it has probably lessened it. And secondly, in response to an on-twitter accusation that they had deleted the critical tweets:

Big tick for not trying to cover up their mistake.

Unfortunately these companies seem to be surprised by negative responses. While some of the responses played along and gave positive responses, many others responded disparagingly, with comments including references to the supermarket duopoly that exists in Australia and the effect it has on prices for consumers and the prices paid to farmers.

So this set me wondering why these issues keep happening. What is it about social media, and Twitter in particular, that these campaigns fail. Here are my thoughts.

1. In old marketing campaigns, the brands told us what to think. The message was one-way, and they could say pretty much whatever they liked within the bounds of the Advertising Code of Conduct and the law. These campaigns are very much two-way communication and “open response”. This is not a television campaign. However the message has not neccessarily been adjusted (exhibit one, #QantasLuxury campaign)

2. Some of what is happening is almost market research – only market research conducted in public. If you were researching an advertising campaign you might ask these sorts of questions. But you would not be giving the research participants an unfettered voice and a microphone, the way that social media does.

3. Do they know their audience? These campaigns seem to assume that they are talking to their “fans” when in fact they are talking to potentially everyone, including their harshest critics. I wonder if the brands had an ideal response in mind when they wrote the campaign and that blinded them to the possible negative responses.

4. Brands seem to underestimate how polarised opinion can be. Tweeter “Brand Meets Blog” rightly pointed out that if an individual had tweeted this question, the response might have been quite different.

5. The style of campaign exhibited in the Coles “it’s a crime” campaign and the #qantasluxury saga are more like old competitions. “In twenty-five words or less tell us why you should win”. However Coles did not offer a prize so there was n inctentive to write nice things, and Qantas offered such a pathetic prize (particualrly in light of their recent industrial debacle) that again there was little incentive to write nice things. I am guessing when they ran these sorts of competitions off-line they probably still got some negative responses, but fewer because these were people who cared enough to pay for a stamp to air their negative reaction. On social media it is so much easier, cheaper, and negative responders get an audience which can rapidly build momentum for you witty / negative comments.

6. Maybe Twitter isn’t the place for your broadcast marketing campaigns. A quick look at the rest of the Coles Twitter feed shows a brand that is engaging with both positive and negative feedback on an individual basis. It is actually quite exemplary in the way it deals with complaints, responds to positive feedback, cross-references to its other feeds (such as @ColesRecipes) and generally chats with tweeps. Complaints about in-store music are dealt with respectfully and humourously, complaints about stores, products and service are followed up both online (so we can all see they care about the issues) and referred to their other complaints handling mechanisms for more detail. One wonders why they stuffed up this functioning communication channel with a silly campaign.

Do you know of any really good Twitter campaigns? How did they compare, what were the factors that kept them on-track and made them work?

Want more social media stories?
Managing social media complaints before they explode into Tweets, YouTube videos and Facebook shares
The saga of #qantasluxury