Monthly Archives: October 2009

Changing the World (part n…)

A couple of weeks ago, Francesca’s post on “how do we change the world?” prompted me to write about something I thought we needed to change – our approach to climate change.

This in turn prompted others to respond (and challenge…) [I particularly liked a blog someone linked to about changing the world by dancing – I can’t find the link now!].

Then we saw the Trafigura/Carter-Ruck gagging order farce, and the way the twitterverse and blogosphere reacted. (Joanne Jacobs has pulled together lots of different reports and responses to Trafigura here.)

Days later, Jan Moir’s careless comments following Stephen Gately’s untimely death prompted another flood of tweets and postings, resulting in the largest ever number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.

These may be small events in the greater scheme of things: the planet hasn’t been saved; no war has been stopped; no lives have been saved1. But people and organisations have been shown that they have to be accountable.

People of all political flavours have new tools available to make their voices heard, and we are finding out how to use them most effectively.

This is important. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. It was hard to have an impact, but people tried – including me. For me, politics is always personal. In the 60s and 70s, people went on marches – I went on many to make my voice felt (Rock Against Racism I remember best). The food we bought sent messages – neither South African wine nor apples, citrus from neither Franco’s Spain nor Israel. There were lots of boycotts (Barclays Bank sticks in my mind, which was easy – I didn’t have a Barclays account!).

These are all small things, but buying food became a political act. I think it still is – I believe that buying organic food sends a message (though it worries me that the message might be that I am middle class and can afford to buy organic food…). Buying Fairtrade products is saying that “this is important” – and many supermarkets have reacted by increasing the range of Fairtrade products they stock.

Lots of small things add up. These things do matter. Hundreds of thousands – perhaps evens millions – of people marching in protest of the Iraqi war may not have been able to change Government policy, but they certainly influenced a lot of other people, and made MPs accountable for their votes in Parliament.

Francesca’s point was that

I’m not doing a lot, and a big part of that is because… it’s not clear how to go about it. I sign petitions, but I don’t go out looking for them – I sign the ones that are tweeted or posted on my friends’ lists. I write Amnesty letters, because Amnesty makes it very easy for me to do it, but nowhere near as many as I ought to. And I also have work and family and friends and I never have a clue when to stop with anything, so quite often I don’t start.

But there is a lot we can do. We can make our voices heard – whatever our views or politics. We can bear witness. We can write, we can hold people and companies to account, we can influence our MPs. Indeed, I can’t think of a time when it was easier to do this.

We have the technology.

In a couple weeks, Amplified’s £1.40 “unconference” aims to

consider the ways social technologies have completely changed the environment for news makers and consumers, and also the changing landscape for politics, democracy and governance

That seems pretty much like what I – and others – have been whining about, so I’ve signed up for it.

Because these things are important – and we can make a difference.

1I can’t help but hope that some people’s lives might be improved by making others aware of homophobia through the scandal created in the wake of Moir’s lazy, nasty comments.

The Missing Link! Why Twitter Won’t Work In Learning…

(This was a footnote in my previous post, but for clarity I’ve moved it here…)

I recently posted about how Twitter creates a searchable archive which could be used in learning and knowledge management. I was clearly mistaken. The Twitter hashtag for the whisky tasting I recently went to was “#SMWStaste”. There were a couple of hundred tweets with the tag. But searching Twitter, Twitzap or DABR returns no results; googling #SMWStaste produces a few results, but no one page that shows all the conversations.

In essence, the conversations have been lost. I can get to my Tweets by scrolling back through everything I have tweeted until I get to 30 September on DABR, but the page numbers a relative, so I can’t show them to you – more tweets will push back the page number. This is bloody useless. I am disappointed. I thought the point of hashtags was enable effective searching. Clearly not.

What I’ve learned from Whisky. And #Trafigura…

In the past couple of weeks, I have been involved in a couple of events mediated by Twitter that have made me think about the use of social media and what they are good at.

The first was a planned, structured event: a whisky tasting1. I wasn’t sure how effective this would be: people gathered in three different locations, together with some at home, too; tens of different people tweeting about what they thought of a selection of four different whiskies. I was sceptical: I didn’t think this would work at all; a whisky tasting is all about the shared experience, and I couldn’t see how Twitter would provide this. So I decided to find out by joining in – indeed, after I asked one of the organisers how it would work, I was invited onto the panel sitting in London.

And it worked very, very well: mixing the social with the medium, lubricated with fine whisky, made for lots of interesting conversations both online and off. Reading what other people thought of the whiskies increased the experience, and people built on others’ tweets. I was surprised how quickly I took to it.

The second event happened last week, when I took part in the tweetfest which was #Trafigura. In case you missed this, the Guardian newspaper was subject to a “super injunction” preventing it reporting on a parliamentary question. (The Guardian has been subject to twelve such injunctions in the last year.) Since reporting on parliament was considered a fundamental press freedom in the UK, when word of this leaked, many people dug deeper, and when the nature and subject of the injunction was identified, lots – and lots – of people made a concerted effort to spread the word on Twitter, using the hashtag #Trafigura. After much publicity – a lot of it focussing on the role played by Twitter – Trafigura didn’t pursue its injunction.

I followed the story through Wednesday afternoon: I came to it late and ignorant, followed some of the links, got angry at the assault of British freedoms by big business, and started retweeting. I felt part of a movement, and I felt we played (perhaps a small) part in actually changing something.

The blogosphere has of course been buzzing with the story. Alix Mortimer provides a timeline, and plays down the role of Twitter; Evgeny Morozov says

So, was it a victory for digital activists, who have challenged powerful corporate interests? Well, this is not a lesson that I have drawn from this saga. What we have learnt from the Trafigura story is that digital activism campaigns have much greater chances of success in well-established democracies with a vibrant public life. … If Twitter wasn’t around, the British yellow press would surely pick up this fight, because it simply looks too tempting not to have a quick jab at the corporate interests here

And so on – a Google blog search finds over 38,000 posts about Trafigura. (Make that 38,001, after this… And now, minutes later, over 41,500 and growing!)

There are lessons here. Twitter added to the offline experience of the whisky tasting, and catalysed my action: I was sceptical and curious, and wanted to see how a Twitter whisky tasting would work. It mobilised me to get involved.

The #Trafigura tweetstream clearly mobilised many hundreds – even thousands I haven’t found a way to count the number of tagged tweets, nor the number of twitterers posting them) – of people. It is likely that newspapers’ lawyers and MPs such as Evan Harris and Paul Farrelly (who asked the original parliamentary question) would have succeeded in lifting the injuction without Twitter, but having the weight of that outcry must have helped – Trafigura were on a hiding to nothing. Twitter enabled people to get involved and spread the knowledge of the injunction, and the information Trafigura were trying to suppress, much more quickly and more widely than would otherwise have been possible.

Ultimately, I think, I have learned the value of Twitter as a communication tool: both the whisky tasting and the #Trafigura flood were about communicating; and they clearly worked for me.

1I wanted to show you the tweetstream for the evening, but I can’t. [Edit: The footnote was made a post of its own for clarity…]

The View from the Thirty Second Floor

Today is Blog Action Day, and the topic is climate change. This is something I think is very important. Every time I hear someone lecture on the subject, the more important I think it is.

Yesterday, I was stuck in a lift for nearly an hour in a tall tower in Canary Wharf with thirteen other people. It got very hot. Once I was trapped there, I wished I had walked down the thirty two floors, but obviously that wasn’t really a viable option – and I’d never have walked thirty two floors up.

Once more, I was reminded how fragile life is.

From the thirty second floor, there was a superb view of London Docklands and the Thames: there is lots of dense building there, residential and commercial. Much would be flooded if the level of the Thames rose much – a metre or so, and these stately skyscrapers and lowly dwellings would be unuseable.

The building – and its lifts – depend on electricity: it couldn’t function without an easy (and possibly cheap) source of power. Without it, there’d be no lifts to carry people up and down; no air-conditioning to keep the people (and their lifts) comfortable; no computers for them to use and to control the building (and those blasted lifts – when it stopped, and remained stopped, I wanted to tell the engineer to switched it off, and switch it back on…); no electric lights; no tube trains or DLR to bring people in and out.

There would be no Canary Wharf.

Not just Canary Wharf: without electricity, I can imagine much of London would become uninhabitable.

This may sound catastrophic, but at least much of Britain would remain habitable – unlike many of the low lying island states which would be at risk [PDF] if the sea level rose by a appreciably. (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest a rise of a metre or so is likely.)

Perhaps we should be planning for such catastrophes, like the people at the Institute for Collapsonomics is trying to do.

It sometimes feels like we in the west are living in a curious age, a narrow Panglossian time squeezed between pre-industrial hardship and post-industrial chaos.

It might be a strange, strange future.

Just In Time: using Twitter as a tool for learning

I have been meaning to write about the value of Twitter as a learning aid for weeks.

First off, Tim Difford and I were discussing its possiibilities, and second, I read this blog post on Twitter as a learning tool.

Years ago when I was working in the Learning & Development team of a large corporate (you’d probably call it the Training Department), we looked at a new learning management system being developed; it had lots bells and whistles, but one smart bit was the use of something approaching an instant messaging system that would allow people to broadcast questions, requests for help and answers. It seemed like a pretty powerful tool to use as the basis of communities of interest and expertise, and it could be incorporated into a knoweldge management system (five years ago, these were all the rage).

Nowadays, though, I’d think that something approaching a corporate implementation of Twitter would make much more sense (I have no idea if such things exist, though I can’t believe they don’t!). One hundred and forty characters is sufficient for most questions, and you can get pretty near immediate response. As Tim pointed out, the learning tweets – oh how I want to christen them leets! – remain on the server, where they are searcheable, so you can find out who else has the problem or might know the answer. Stats from the system could tell L&D managers what topics were most sought after, and so where to place their other, more formal training interventions. And the whole would build up into – well, a knowledge base.

I was discussing this with someone else recently: a librarian. She recoiled at the thought: she wanted all that knowledge classified within a strict taxonomy. I like taxonomies – I had a really fun project building a future-proof taxonomy for all the learning in the large corporate – but frankly, taxonomies are for the learning professionals: the real users just want to get to their problem – they would search for it, or ask for it in a tweet, rather than browse for it. Of course, the professionals could build a taxonomy if they wanted – but the metadata for a 140-character tweet would far exceed the data in the tweet itself. The information in the tweet is all that one needs – given adequate seach systems.

As this post points out, Twitter is a great – though not perfect – tool for informal learning. Out in the Twitterverse, the ability to be able to communicate ideas and through, links to blog posts, deep thought and knowledge is powerful. Within a corporate system, the ease of communication, the stats it could provide, and the precise delivery of just-in-time knowledge could make it a very useful tool in the arsenal of learning.

How Can We Change The World? Two Months to Copenhagen

Back in January, I saw – and wrote about – climate change campaigner and free-market proponent James Cameron talking about life after the Kyoto protocol and December 2009’s up and coming Copenhagen conference.

One of the things Cameron said was

“why are young people not angry with those who got us into this situation?”

It was a powerful message: here is the most important issue facing the whole of the world, and, frankly, not a whole lot is being done about it. Why isn’t everyone getting angry about governments throughout the world failing to get to grips with this issue?

Two things have got me thinking about this again. Firstly, Francesca raised the question how do we change the world? A pretty good question to ask, and when we really need to change the world – whilst we still have a world to change – why are governments so far failing to do it?

Secondly, and probably more directly related to Cameron’s talk, Graciela Chichilnisky gave a talk to the RSA on the topic “Saving Kyoto” (also the name of her new book…).

So: another talk on climate change. Another really scary talk: when the meeting’s chair Mark Lynas described the best case scenario of current models and what such an average increase of 4°C would mean, there was disbelieving laughter, as if one had to laugh because the likely outcome was too hard to contemplate.

There was also a lot of hope in Chichilnisky’s talk: but it was only hope that we might stabilise atmospheric emissions at this best case scenario, so we’d better get used to planning for this – and not a lot seems to be going on there.

Chichilnisky was one of the brains behind the market in carbon, and she reckoned that the short term solutions to climate change were different from the long term – short term solutions include “negative carbon” power generation incorporating carbon capture and storage whilst long term include utilisation of renewable resources such as solar, wind, bio- and nuclear power – so we need both short and long term solutions, but the short remains a fossil fuel economy at odds with the long term renewables agenda.

She foresaw that one of the big barriers to addressing climate change is the standoff between the US and China – what she called “a new cold war”.

Despite the new US President’s clear participation in the climate change debate, the Energy Bill 2009 has yet to be passed by the Senate and be signed into law: the USA signed up to the Kyoto protocol, but has not ratified its involvement.

Chichilnisky even put a price on solving climate change – that is, using short and long term solutions to stabilise the damage caused to climate at an average rise of 4°C: $200bn per year. That sounds a lot – but what was spent in stabilising the world economy from the ravages of the credit crunch? The US economic stimulus cost $787bn; the US Federal Reserve bought $1,200bn worth of debt to support the economy; the UK government spent $88bn rescuing banks and injected a further $350bn into the financial system to support short term debt; Germany spent $68bn on one of the countries banks; and so on. (All the figures cames from this BBC report on the credit crunch). From just these five interventions that I noticed, that’s nearly $2,500bn – over twelve years’ of spending needed to stabilise climate change.

And yet it seems like nothing is happening.

Why aren’t people more angry?

Why aren’t there marches through the streets in support of the 43 small island nations whose very existence Chichilnisky expects to be threatened by rising sea levels caused by climate change?

What can ordinary people do – and do quickly – to stabilise climate change? (I keep writing “stabilise” because remember, the best case scenario is that we might manage to stabilise global emissions at a level that causes an average of 4°C temperature rise – leading to melting ice caps, rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.

Well, we can sign up to 10:10 – though I greatly reduced my emissions years ago (I got rid of my car; reduced my air flights; buy carbon-offset; use low energy light bulbs; switch my PC off when I’m not using it…) [see – I believe in this stuff – and yet I am quibbling about what action I might take: you can see how governments will squirm to be able to keep their carbon footprint up there!]. We can write letters to our governments – though I wouldn’t expect to be able to influence the negotiating stance at Copenhagen.

I’m doing these things.

So how can I change the world? Before the world changes so much through our neglect that it is too late to do anything about it?

Lost in Search: why are media sites’ search engines so poor?

I have many persistant gripes; one of the most persistant is the inability of many media websites to have effective search engines.

This is something I have been meaning to post about for ages. What has actually prompted me to do so was searching for a story in yesterday’s The Guardian weekend magazine. It was an interesting story, and I wanted to share it through Twitter (potentially increasing the readers of the story and the website). Naturally enough, my first stop was the paper’s website, where I entered the subject of the story into the box marked search and pressed return. The site’s search engine found seven pages full of references to the subject, but what I was looking for was not on the first page, so rather than scroll through page after page of the wrong information, I tried again.

This time, I entered the subject and the article’s headline. I got two pages of search results – easier to skim through – but none of them was the article I was looking for.

Lastly I went to an external search engine. You know, the one that has something like 60% of the market share in search last year. OK, Google. I typed in the subject and the headline. And the article I wanted was the first item that Google returned.

So whilst the Grauniad failed to find its own article at all, Google not only found it but made it the top match for my search term.

It is not just the Grauniad; I have had very similar experiences searching the Independent and BBC News websites. Google can find articles on these websites that their own search engines cannot.

I was chatting to someone from the BBC about this a while ago. He said that perhaps it is because these organisations are not specialists in search – they are content providers rather than search engines. This is true, but if their own search system cannot locate their own content, promoting users to go to, say, Google – which could just easily send them to someone else’s website – then this represents a huge risk to their business. Especially when media firms are planning to charge for online content.

[Edit (a week or so later…): The Independent must have been listening: they’ve changed their search engine to Google.

The Political Web: two views on cyber activism

Two conflicting talks about the political use of the internet.

First up was a video of Clay Shirky at TEDxTuttle about social media and democracy. You may have seen the video: starting with the impact of social media on Obama’s campaign for the Democratic candidate for US president and then in his presidential campaign itself, and moving on to the citizen campaigns around the Szechuan earthquake (and the subsequent realisation that building codes were violated) and the Iranian elections, Shirky posits that the rise of social interaction enabled by the internet is a tool for delivering power to citizens. Providing people with the tools means letting the genie out of the bottle, and you can’t put it back: when consumers become producers, governments’ effort to control the media won’t work because their basic assumptions are flawed: the “many-to-many” model of the internet means that the systems governments use ot control and constrain won’t work: as Shirky put it, the firewalls are pointing in the wrong direction.

Clearly, the internet can be a power for good: removing people from the yoke of big government, shining a light on opaque practices, and making governments accountable.

And then… Evgeny Morozov at the RSA on how governments can use the internet to censor and control citizens and opinion. Morozov was partly playing devil’s advocate, I think – pointing out at least three ways in which oppressive regimes can use the web:

  • ”spinternet” – using the internet to distribute progpaganda and misinformation: Morozov gave examples of how Russia, China, and Iran are harnessing the internet to put their side of the story across; in the west, he said that the UK government are training pro-west Islamic groups to use the web effectively. Israel has developed a desktop utility called the “megaphone” to help people manage and influence internet news flows. Of course, companies and NGOs are probavly doing this too – using services like Usocial to buy friends, followers and Digg votes will increase. Where censorship and control fail, Morozov said, governments and others will spin

  • by allowing a certain degree of freedom, comments by citizens actually inform governments where the issues are – what Morozov called “authoritarian deliberation”. Governments can track dissent to find hotspots, and placate citizens by showing that they are taking some action. In this way, governments can brand themselves and through this, increase their legitimacy. The activity following the Szechuan earthquake – when those who had lost children in schools which had collapsed – prompted action against the violators of building codes. In Saudi Arabia, Morozov said that the government encouraged its citizens to identify videos on YouTube which violated their belief systems so that they could co-ordinate campaigns to have them taken down. (The amount of double-think there is pretty convoluted!) In Iran, following the protests at the elections in June, the government is using the wide coverage generated by protesters to identify and target people in the crowd
  • erode civil engagement: despite enabling civil activism and being a catalyst for change, Morozov reckoned that the internet was the ultimate “opium of the masses”: cyber hedonism way, way outweighs cyber activism. Surprisingly, the populations of those eastern countries likely to power the world economy in the future are more hedonistic on the internet than their western peers [opens in PDF]. Governments may not need to control their citizens: we seem to be doing a pretty good job of that ourselves

Morozov finished off by saying that perhaps we need to redraw Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the internet age. At the bottom of the hierarchy, Morozov put entertainment – the hedonistic internet world of porn, illegal entertainment downloads and gambling; above that he placed communciation through instant messaging and email, and then sharing, through social media sites; near the top he placed learning, facilitated through websites such as TED and Wikipedia. Only then, right at the top, do you get activism and campaigning – and, he reckoned, few people cared about that.

Of course, both Shirky and Morozov are right: the internet can used as a tool to democratise and to manipulate and control. One person’s democratisation is another person’s spin.

Through both talks, I had the underlying thought that these are still early, early days. The people at both events were those who find this stuff interesting: we were self-selected, the early adopters who think it is important. Despite the easy access, and governments desire to increase internet access, internet use is still pretty concentrated. (I’m sure someone can give me figures that prove – or disprove! – this…) Most people don’t care – but they do like the way the internet let’s them write to their representatives or access public services in the UK. Maybe even providing these relatively small amounts of control – albeit through “authoritarian deliberation” – will make governments of all shades more accountable.