Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Can you build a Twitter audience without writing anything? An experiment.

I am more than a little sympathetic to the critique of Web 2.0 trends in Jaron Lanier's mind-broadening book You Are Not a Gadget (2010).

Lanier complains about the fragmentation of communication encouraged by today's social media. People post tiny nuggets of news and information - status updates, tweets etc - which tech companies slice and dice by demographic and pair up with commercial interests.

The result is a kind of information slurry into which advertisers can dart strategically.

It's very different, Lanier argues, from the good old days of the internet when people created individualistic online worlds with weird, elaborate websites and idiosyncratic messageboards.

But, hey, you have to know your enemy.

So over the weekend I tried to find out whether I could generate some information titbits that would build an audience without me actually having to say anything.

The idea was to create a group of Twitter accounts fed by RSS feeds from Google News searches. Each account would provide the latest news about a different hi-tech business.

On Saturday, with a little help from Photoshop, the _TODAY GROUP was born, with six new Twitter accounts. The designs would all match, and my customised Twitter background, with a bit of tweaking, revealed the Twitter names for all six accounts on either side of the page (below).

Then I went to Hootsuite and directed the RSS feed from the relevant Google News search to each account - with a few adjustments for the more ambiguous company names: Amazon "-rainforest" and Apple "-fruit", for instance.

Having pointed each feed to the right Twitter account, I could sit back and see what happened.

Sure enough, the Twitter accounts soon began to fill with news that looked appropriate to their subjects. "Will Google Wallet end up in your pocket?" asked my Google News account. "Pressure on Microsoft boss," warned Microsoft News. Each headline was accompanied by a link to the full news story, culled from different outlets that Google News was scanning.

I'd told HootSuite to update once an hour, so as not to overwhelm my followers with too many tweets.

On Sunday morning I checked back to see how it was all going. Between them, the six accounts had 29 followers. A sort of result, though a quick scroll revealed that many of them ranged from the blatantly self-promotional to the outright dodgy.

I noticed that the account following Google was my most popular, with 11 followers. But, because I'd done something wrong with its RSS feed, unlike all the others, it hadn't actually put out a single tweet. Hmm... perhaps I could get a bigger audience by tweeting nothing at all.

On the other hand, I hadn't told a soul about the existence of this fine new 'suite' (as I liked to think of it) of Twitter accounts. Maybe when I did they would take off.

How to do that? Well, I started by 'following' my services on my own Twitter account (which boasts a pathetic 50 followers). I retweeted a couple of the more interesting headlines, hoping to build up interest in these exciting new sources of techie information.

Then I resolved not to waste the whole weekend on this nonsense and went out to repot the dahlias - and think strategically about my next move.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Waiting at the hospital

I amused myself with the Scribbler app on my phone as I waited for my mum to be released from her cateract operation...

A visit to an NHS hospital is disorienting: you're not in the familiar commercial world, and yet it's not a normal public space either. It's dirtier, less manicured, less owned, than even the average school, local government office or library.

It's all big signs, bossy instructions, plastic on floor and chairs and a layer of grime that has, no doubt, been swept for dust this morning.

Attempts to improve the look of a hospital, like the Turner prints of Greenwich on the wall outside the eye clinic, create not so much a pleasant environment, as the message that a well-meaning committee has been at work. The pictures are so obviously a gesture. They just say "we're trying" - like the gardener watering the hanging baskets in the tiny patch of garden between criss-crossing hospital corridors.

And the tired-looking people who work here really are trying. Yes, you can come back and take your mum for a cup of tea during her three hour wait, even though that's not really the system. And we'll even make one for you too when we're giving her another cup of tea after the operation - milk, sugar?

It's a bit like I imagine it would be in a Mother Teresa clinic in India: you'd be struck with how people could be oblivious to their working conditions.

With the NHS, it's not so much 'you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' as 'you don't have to be a decent, good-hearted person to work here, but you won't last long if you're not.'

As I whiled away the hours, I came across an article in the Guardian predicting that by 2050, Britain will be spending more than a fifth of its national output on services for the elderly. How can the funding and organisation of the NHS get ahead of the demographic curve? Especially if immigration is restricted, or just less attractive to those who have wanted to come to Britain? And if medical science and practice continue to advance?

Five satisfied customers have left the eye clinic by half past four, some saying they can already see better. My mum and I go out into the sunshine and drive home. Far better for the NHS to have achieved the miracle of good people working in poor surroundings than to be stuck with the opposite.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Trump not running: but did he still win?

Trump Abandons Designs on White House in 2012 Reuters reported today.

So did President Obama's jokes about him at a White House press dinner recently finish off Trump's Presidential ambitions?

No, Trump is not a quitter: if anything, adversity spurs him on. He probably found it more difficult to give up after Obama's jokes because he would have been worried it might look like the President had got the better of him.

But the new Apprentice season has launched with the kind of marketing of Trump that money couldn't (and didn't have to) buy.

In fact, Trump's presidential bid was part of a bigger pattern in his life, which shows up the media as gullible in the face of Trump's expert handling of his own PR.

It's been only 13 years since there was talk of Trump running for President in 2000 campaign, as the New York Times' archive for October 10 1999 reveals:

Donald Trump has announced his Presidential exploratory committee. He is dreaming of Vice President Oprah Winfrey, insisting that if the talk show host runs with him, they will win ...Some have said that Mr. Trump's motive is to flog the latest volume in his life story.

Journalists in 1999 might have been forgiven for letting Trump fool them: after all, he'd only tried this once before, eleven years earlier, in the 1988 campaign.

As the Times reported on September 2, 1987:

Mr. Trump was not available to comment on whether he means to be taken seriously as someone pondering running for President, or was just stirring up a little smoke to draw attention to himself or his views.

So, three periods of rumour, speculation and denial. Who knows how calculated each was in Trump's own mind? But he must have realised that this is a neat way to get a huge amount of attention while looking like he doesn't really want it.

If we take the average duration between these episodes, we should expect the next Trump bid for the White House in 2023. He'll be 76 then, so perhaps there'll be another autobiography to plug.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Like Eve, unable to resist Apple

I first bought a Macbook about five years ago, and it had never gone wrong before last week.

My old PC was always grinding to a halt, and had to spend days being fixed at the home of a man I didn't know in an unsavoury part of town: I always imagined he was copying everything about me he could find on the drive he was recovering.

When my Macbook started taking several minutes to load up, I knew it was sick, but it wasn't dead.

Thanks to Apple stores, I didn't have to call the dubious man. Three visits to my local Apple emporium solved the problem:

On the first, I bought a small hard drive to back up my data, with advice from a young man who said I didn't need the more expensive one I was looking at because something that cost about half the price, around £40, would do just as well.

Backed up, I returned to the store and explained about the slow startup. Someone else looked at it, and said that the hard drive had failed. They could supply a new one but I'd be much better off going to a shop across the mall which sold them a lot cheaper.

New hard drive installed, back home, I tried to restore the data from my new backup drive. It copied back onto the computer, but then the computer wouldn't start.

Third visit to Apple store: a young woman was given my case, and sat me down to hear what I'd done. She operated on the laptop, and decided it was all probably fine. She'd call me later in the afternoon and I could pick it up on my way home from work. She did, it's working again and Apple has created another satisfied customer.

Why? Well, apart from the fact that the computer is working, and fixing it cost me nothing - for some reason, Apple doesn't charge for this kind of thing - it was the attitude of the people at the store which won me over.

They have overcome the social problems of geekiness. They listen like good doctors, and engage you in what they're doing to sort things out.

My helpers sat across the desk with the laptop angled so we could both see what was going on. They didn't play the 'you won't understand this' card; nor did they treat me like an idiot by making everything stupidly simple. I left with my dignity as well as my computer, even though I'd probably made some silly mistakes.

Arguably, there was a slightly cultish, evangelical feel to the place, everyone bouncing round with iPads in hand. But it was upbeat, polite rather than alienatingly cool, and stuffed with staff ready to talk about whatever you wanted.

If this is cold, calculating brand-building, give me more of it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Please explain economics to me

So the Euro has been adopted by countries with very different economies. Some – like Ireland, Greece and Portugal – are in a bad way and need massive bailouts. Others, like Germany, aren’t doing so badly.

But because the Euro includes the weak economies too, its value has fallen (CHECK). And that means that Germany, which exports a lot of high tech stuff to the rest of the world, now does well because its currency is cheap to non-Euro countries (CHECK).

Meanwhile Britain has adopted austerity measures to sort out its public finances, and that reassures the markets. It’s not going to be another Greece, and so its currency rises in value (CHECK). And that means that British exports suffer because they’re expensive (CHECK).

Then there’s the USA, which isn’t really interested in getting its public finances in order. So the markets realise it could be a bit like Greece, and everyone sells dollars. So the value of the dollar falls (CHECK).

Yup. Nothing really fits.

But tell me this: supposing…

- The Euro had fallen in value

- German exports only did well under a cheaper Euro

- Sterling rose in value as the government tackled the deficit

- British exports were doing badly

- The dollar fell because market were worried about US public finances

…then you can bet your bottom dollar everything would be explained by the economic theories above.

Doesn’t what's actually happening show that economics is little more than a kind of folklore which just happens to fit some scenarios better than others?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Facebook for Dummies reviewed

Facebook For DummiesFacebook For Dummies by Leah Pearlman

Who'd have thought that even dummies would need a 330-page book to tell them how to use Facebook? But this casual Facebook dummy learnt a lot, to add to the superficial know-how he'd acquired without really thinking about it.

So now I can tell you the difference between Pages and Profiles, Lists and Groups, and how to advertise a page (not that I expect I'll ever want to do that). I know a bit about searching on Facebook, tagging photos, and how to adjust privacy setting for apps you use.

I also absorbed some Facebook company culture, through the glimpses into their own lives offered by the authors, present and former Facebook staffers. A lot of it seemed to involve organised games of ultimate frisbee. The authors are so relaxed about privacy that their own Facebook pages are used to illustrate the book.

Although it was only published last year, some of the details of the site are already out of date, and you can never be quite sure which until you're checked.

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 8, 2011



Why hasn't my previous post appeared on my Facebook Page, which has managed to scoop everything else from my blog as instructed by Facebook Notes? 

It was two and a half hours ago: that must be long enough for it to catch up? If this appears, then that was some kind of glitch. If it doesn't I'll try to link them up again. Irritating but we'll get there in the end...

Meanwhile, have a picture on a cross-channel ferry. 

The one-click publisher in action


I think my ultra-efficient publishing system is now working. But after using Twitterfeed instead of Posterous to link direct from Blogger to Twitter (as detailed on my last post), I've made another change for the same reason: 

When I found that the feed to my Facebook Page was also from the Posterous blog (which I don't really want to draw attention to since my Blogger one looks better and has more to offer), I have stopped Posterous from posting to Facebook for me. 

Instead, I have used Notes, an in-house app for the Facebook Page, to take a feed direct from Blogger. 

This will have one further small advantage: I have the ability to write a note on GoodReads, and link it to my Blogger account - which will mean those posts will automatically appear on my Facebook Page and Twitter feed, which would not have happened if I'd left it all to Posterous. 

But Posterous remains the way the whole thing is triggered - through the email I'm sending it now. So, let's see if it's actually working as I think it is.

One other point: both Notes and Twitterfeed only post after they have periodically scanned your blog, which seems to take up to 30 mins for Twitterfeed and a couple of hours for Notes. So the response isn't instant.

The only other way to make the system cover even more ground would be to add LinkedIn, but I'm not sure people really want lots of email updates from LinkedIn, telling them someone they happen to have on their list has said something.

Once it's all set up, I'll have to think of something else to write about. 

Picture is of Omaha, Nebraska.

From email to Posterous to Facebook and Blogger, and on to Twitter - via Twitterfeed


OK, this may be getting a bit too complicated, all in the name of simplicity. 

But following my Posterous experiment yesterday (see previous post, if it appeared where you are reading this), I have made some adjustments. 

Posterous basically worked, except I hadn't connected up my new Facebook Page properly, and while my post successfully appeared on my blog, the tweet about it linked to an automatically-created Posterous blog, which I don't really want to bother with as I already have my Blogger one. 

So this time I have tried to correct the Facebook Page link, and have told Posterous not to send to Twitter: instead I have connected my Blogger to Twitter using Twitterfeed. 

So that's what I'm trying out with this email - which should produce:

- A post on my Posterous blog
- A post on my Blogger blog
- A post on my Facebook page
- A tweet of the Blogger post

...all with one email, which would be great. 

And there's a pic attached for good measure. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Test of Posterous


It's a quiet Saturday, and alongside trying to make my Macbook work with its new hard drive (not quite successfully ...but very, very close), I have signed up with Posterous. It gives an easy way to post on blogs, Facebook, Twitter etc. just be sending a single email to posterous.com. 

It makes you its own blog with all the stuff you send it, and formats and forwards your posts, pictures etc to any other accounts you have linked to. 

I don't quite understand exactly what it does, so this is a test, which should appear at various places I've told it to link to. 

And, for good measure, a picture is attached, to see what it does with that. 

Press Send, and then I'll be checking my various accounts to see how it's turned out. 

Oh, and can it recognise colour in this email? And how about a different, big typeface?