Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Future. Now…

I went to the London Bloggers meetup the other day, which had a panel scheduled to talk about the future of blogging – of much interest to everyone gathered there. It was a good evening – thanks due to Fishburn Hedges for hosting (and the excellent confectionary-based goodie-bags!) and the collective conversation of the meetup (and for Andy for organising this regular bash!) – but I didn’t feel that the panel really addressed their topic: they spoke about what their blogs were doing now and what their next steps would be, but next week isn’t really the future.

But whilst such criticism is fine, it did make me I should put my money where my mouth is. What do I think the future of blogging is?

I have absolutely no qualifications for making any predictions whatsoever: which makes me as qualified as most of the people who make predicitions (the others must work in strategy, technology and futurology, and they would have data to support their views. I don’t…). And of course I will be wrong. This seems very presumptuous. But hey…

So here goes…

  • blogging becomes even more mainstream: everyone’s on Facebook; schoolkids use blogs as portfolios of their schoolwork – at least in the west. It can only get bigger, frankly – so normal that it isn’t even worth mentioning. Of course, this means it stops being something specific – no more blogging – but somewhere to put online, digital stuff, and maybe a bit of writing
  • blogging becomes more open: I must thank Lloyd Davis for this one, because we were chatting about this over coffee this morning (indeed, maybe that prompted this whole post – thanks, Lloyd!) – but as blogging becomes ever more mainstream, we will want to own everything: no more beholden to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon or whoever, we will move from platform to platform. This may mean the rise of social aggregators. Or not. (Lloyd pointed me to this excellent, challenging post by JP Rangaswami; he may be saying I’m completely wrong, at least about my next point…)
  • the resurrection of walled gardens: of course, the providers of services will want just the opposite: the value of the networks they create increases with the number of users, so they will do what they can to keep us – and our data – on their platform: sites will work to become more sticky
  • someone will come up with a new, shiny, must-go social network. That does everything. Until the next one comes along
  • changing views of privacy – and with it, perhaps, culture: or vice versa; but as billions more people around the world come online (particularly in Asia and Africa), online – and blogging – will change
  • everything everywhere – not the UK mobile firm, but mobile: the difference between mobile and non-mobile – static? – access will change and become seamless, or change and become completely differentiated, depending on the use. People have been saying the future is mobile for years, so they’re probably right…

I could play this game for ages, and probably will, but that will do for now…

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Press Regulation Post-Leveson

I went to a debate at the RSA on press regulation after Leveson. A bit premature, as all three speakers agreed, but some crystal ball gazing can be fun.

Chaired by John Lloyd, Hugh Tomlinson and Guy Black talked through theirs’ and others’ views – all three were interested parties and active in the media. (Just to be clear, that’s an editor at the FT, a QC and life peer… Hardly non-establishment, then.)

Guy Black spoke first. He had been a director of the Press Complaints Commission until 2004, and clearly felt the PCC had achieved a lot – despite the criticism levelled at it through the Leveson Inquiry so far. He strongly believed that self-regulation without the force of statute was important, primarily because any involvement of Parliament would threaten the independence of any post-Leveson press regulatory body. He sees the ability of the press to hold those in power to account to be crucial, citing the Telegraph’s investigation of MPs’ expenses as an example. (Notwithstanding that it appears to have been Heather Brooke who really broke the story after a painstaking investigation based on freedom of information requests and the Telegraph only got it because they could pay more for the information that was leaked.)

His proposal was a for a self-regulatory body with teeth, enforceable through civil contracts [PDF]. It would have two functions – complaints and compliance – so it could investigate and hold newsrooms to account. Contracts would allow it to levy significant fines.

By using contracts, Black felt that it could be future-proofed – changes would be easy. It would be open to digital as well as analogue publishers (though I am not sure how it would regulate blogs – such as this one; I can see that websites like Huffington Post might be enticed to sign up, but it is hard to envisage common-or-garden bloggers being interested. Regulation of digital media may remain a stumbling block).

Tomlinson came from a very different perspective: he believed the PPC wasn’t responsible for regulation, and hence there had been no self-regulation; and self-regulation would not work. Reporting from a media committee (on which Lloyd sat, too) which had published its recommendations in February [PDF], Tomlinson asserted that regulation would require statute, which could be drawn up to ensure independence from politicians. The statute would only define the powers for the new body (Tomlison even had a name for it – the Media Standards Authority, or MSA).

The MSA would be able to award compensation (which the PCC cannot do, apparently – hence those who feel they have been wrong by the press resort to the courts rather than the PCC) and would be able to discipline members (and presumably enforce any punishment).

Fundamentally, Tomlinson felt some body such as the MSA would need to overturn the old newsroom culture, which had allowed behaviour such as that discussed by witnesses to Leveson to spread.

There were interesting similarities between the two ideas – and I think they were closer than the two protagonists would say. Neither wanted compulsion – both were essentially voluntary schemes (albeit with sanctions and incentives to ensure publishers engage with their schemes). Both relied on contracts to enforce regulation. Both envisage some form of compliance instead of just complaint resolution.

For me, the big question was why no compulsion and why no statutory enforcement? In essence why the MSA rather than OfPress? The answer from both Tomlinson and Black was that to compel publishers to join and have strict OfCom-like regulation, one needed a form of licensing which could be removed: with broadcasters, regulated by OfCom, the sanction for non-compliance is the removal of access to specific channels in the spectrum.

Newspapers are not licensed: there is nothing that OfMed could take away. This is probably a good thing – issuing licences to publish would be riven with difficulties, not least political interference. So a regulator needs to work in a different – and, apparently – voluntary fashion.

The risk of course is that such a regulator lacks teeth.

The questions raised afterwards were interesting, although not necessarily resolved. Were the failures of the press that prompted the establishment of Leveson a failure of regulation or of enforcement? As Ian Hislop pointed out in his submission to Leveson, the behaviour of the press – phone hacking and so on – was illegal, but the police failed to investigate – to enforce the existing law. Sufficient legal powers existed to punish journalists who transgressed the law.

Something that came up again and again was that a change in behaviour – in the newsroom culture – was needed. The press felt and acted above the law. One difficulty is that there are times when it may be advantageous for the press to behave like this. The investigation of MPs’ expenses, for instance, required journalists to break the law to obtain damning information – the details published by the Daily Telegraph were illegally obtained. How can one form of illegal behaviour be condoned whilst another attracts sanction?

The public interest is not, of course, what the public are interested in…

There was a discussion about how the press works in the USA. There is apparently no formal press regulation in America: the US constitution provides certain rights and the press adheres to the first amendment, which includes a right to reply. The speakers believed the US press has higher professionalism than their British colleagues, and a greater pride in their work – both of which are reflected in a different newsroom culture. Many newspapers are local monopolies, reflecting individual cities and providing local news – and being family owned meant that the owners felt responsible for what was printed. (I didn’t buy this at all: local monopolies and restricted ownership sound like a situation ripe for abuse.) Of course, News Corporation – the owner of two newspapers at the heart of Leveson – appears to be run as if it were a family owned enterprise (that family being Rupert Murdoch‘s): their ethics haven’t been helped by keeping it in the family.

There was also discussion of the concentration of media and press power in a few hands – and again Murdoch was invoked. Neither of the models of regulation sought to address press power, just abuses of it.

We’ll have to wait to see what Leveson does actually recommend…

Two Changed Processes That Fail Badly

I have recently been surprised by the way two – very -different – process have been changed that make things way, way more difficult for the user.

Haringay Parking Permits

I live in Haringay, and like many other urban boroughs, there are parking restrictions. I don’t have a car, but I occasionally need visitors’ parking permits, which I can buy from the council.

How It Used To Work

  • go to the council offices
  • queue for a while
  • fill out a form
  • hand form to council worker
  • pay for the permits using credit card
  • receive permits from council worker, up to the limit I’m allowed if I so wish

There may have been an online option, but since this was the first time I needed permits and I needed some quickly, it made sense for me to pick them up from the office and register in person.

How It Works Now

  • go to the council offices
  • queue for a while
  • fill out a form detailing how many permits I wanted (32 in this instance)
  • hand form to council worker
  • council worker explains that they can’t take payment at the office
  • receive eight two-hourly permits from council worker – all she was allowed to distribute – without paying for them
  • another council workers makes repeated phone calls to my phone (which I ignore, because I don’t recognise the number)
  • council worker finally leaves a message on my voicemail
  • I call council back
  • I give the council worker my credit card details
  • council worker takes payment from my credit card
  • council worker puts 24 permits in an envelope (32-8, since I already took 8 permits)
  • council worker puts envelope in the post
  • postman delivers envelope
  • I receive permits

The whole process has been redesigned to create more touch points from the council, meaning much more work for them, much less convenience for me, and decreased security since I have to give my credit card details to someone over the phone (who could be using my card right now…). What’s more, they had to wait three weeks for their money: I wanted to give them money, and the council didn’t want it. It is, frankly, bonkers, and I can’t work out why they would have designed it the way they have: separating out the supply of permits from the payment, and restricting the number of permits that can be given in person, imply there were some issues with the face-to-face parts of the original process. How these were solved by greatly increasing the complexity – and the work done by the council – baffles me.

Photographs from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum

At last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, they had some great interactive software that allowed you to select your favourite pictures. They had something similar this year. Except that they completely broke it.

How It Worked Last Year

I think. As much as I can remember…

  • sit at a console at the end of the exhibition
  • select favourite pictures
  • type in your email address
  • go home
  • log into email
  • open email
  • click links
  • look at favourite pictures online

Simple. Really.

How It Worked This Year

  • sit at a console at the end of the exhibition
  • select favourite pictures
  • scan barcode on ticket stub
  • go home
  • go to http://www.nhm.ac.uk
  • click on the link to the exhibition
  • click on the link which said something like “how to view your favourite pictures”
  • type in 16 digit number from ticket stub – yes, a sixteen digit identifier – were they really expecting trillions of visitors?
  • register to join the Natural History Museum’s “Wildlife Photographer of the Year community”, which required giving my email address and a password (which must include an upper case character, a lower case character, and a number)
  • wait for them to send a confirmation email
  • log into email
  • click link to confirm my email address
  • log into the community site
  • look for the link to access my favourite photographs (which the instructions said would be at the bottom of the community page)

Guess what: no link, no photographs.

So the Natural History Museum took a process which was so simple it impressed me last year and did exactly what it needed to do – and which I raved about, sharing the photographs with friends and giving the exhibition free publicity – and ruined it.

What’s more, why do I require a password? Why does the museum make me choose a variety of characters to secure an account which I do not want with a community I have no interest in joining which contains no information about me except my email. What is the security risk? That someone might pretend to be me to look at some pictures which the system has singularly failed to deliver? (Actually, my guess is that the community is open to children of all ages, so they feel the need for some control: but their process has not verified my identify at all. And I am trying to imagine young children navigating this process.

The thing is, I can look at all the pictures without this process anyhow, by going to the exhibition’s online gallery. You could have told me that before going through all this bloody process!

The whole thing has been a waste of time.

I can only think that the Natural History Museum has been told by some social media consultant that they need to have a community, and that they have decided the best way to do this is to force visitors to the exhibition to do this.

Of course, maybe I have been doing something wrong. The process is so complicated – unnecessarily so – that I may have made a mistake. So I’ve just logged in again, following the instructions once more. No photographs, no link.

And apparently no way to delete my account.

Great job there.