Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My first steps with Storify

This morning I had my first go with Storify, a site that lets you easily put together a sequence of items from social media, by searching for them on its site, and then simply dragging them into a timeline and adding whatever you want to say between them.

It's cleverly easy to use, as well as to share and embed what you've made.

To help get a bigger audience, when you publish your 'story', the site offers you a one-click option to notify everyone whose social media contributions you have dragged in, that they have been included.

Using the embed code to copy it here too, here's what I wrote (for the BBC College of Journalism blog):

Friday, June 17, 2011

My Twitter empire falters: temporary blip or terminal decline?

My Twitter empire has become a bit of an obsession, and not a very productive one. I've set up a set of matching Twitter news accounts (like these two), which I rather like - and actually learn useful things from - but not many other people seem to appreciate.

The idea was to make them tweet automatically by directing news links into them using RSS feeds from a news search. They'd attract specialist audiences who would retweet interesting stories, and more people would join.

It's a kind of rerun of an early obsession I had with eBay: could you make money from things you picked up for free? Six years ago, I made a programme called eBay: Money for Old Rope? in which we found out whether you could actually sell old rope on eBay. (You could, up to a point.)

Well this was the same kind of idea: can you get people to follow you on Twitter if you set up accounts that only tweet automatically? It would be amazing if you could; again, the answer (so far) was an inconclusive yes and no.

The initial results were mildly promising. The graph seemed to be going up, but then it stopped, and started going down again. Why? There were several possibilities:

- Perhaps people had twigged that there was nobody posting this stuff, and they felt conned.
- Perhaps I wasn't promoting the accounts enough with retweets and other ways of drawing people's attention to them.
- Third - and this wasn't just a possibility - I noticed the accounts weren't getting new tweets.

I'd been feeding them through Hootsuite, using the RSS of a Google news search, but it had stopped working. I wasn't sure whether that was because Hootsuite had stopped sending Twitter the news, or whether Twitter wasn't posting what Hootsuite sent it.

I had a look through the Twitter rules, but couldn't see anything that suggested there was anything wrong with what I was doing in the eyes of Twitter - so I didn't think Twitter had somehow stopped the posts or frozen the accounts: indeed, I could still post things manually.

I reset the feeds using a Twitterfeed account instead of Hootsuite, and using Yahoo! News searches instead of Google. They started working again, although I suspected that the more complex the search formula (e.g. I had "Amazon - rainforest - river") the less posts were produced.

But restarting the tweets didn't immediately reverse the downward trend in followers.

And I wanted to try some other ideas. So in a flurry of activity last weekend:

- I put all six tech companies from the original accounts together in a new single feed - @TECH_BIZ_TODAY
- I set up a dedicated account for Facebook's public flotation - @FB_IPO
- I added one for the Olympics - @LD2012_TODAY
- And I tried a local news account for East Sheen, in West London - @ES_TODAY

But all of these did even worse than my original six tech business accounts.

I was particularly disappointed about the failure of @TECH_BIZ_TODAY because I felt my promotion of it really should have worked. I used Hootsuite to send out a tweet about it to all my other accounts, with a link to a blog I'd written about it. Strangely the blog got a decent (on my small scale) 45 hits after the tweet went out. But nobody - not a single person - signed up to @TECH_BIZ_TODAY, even though they were already following one of my other tech accounts and should have been interested in the subject.

I thought this was going to be a passive pursuit: just set up the accounts and watch them grow. But it turns out to be more like gardening: in a garden, everything changes rather slowly, and, in theory, should be able to look after itself. Indeed, if you haven't had a garden, it's hard to imagine what there is to do most of the time. It takes a matter of minutes to plant some seeds, for instance, and months for them to grow. But it turns out that there is always something that needs doing.

So with my 'automated' news services: there's always something that could be improved: a better formula for the news source, a strategic retweet, a look at who is following what, more stats to compile. This is all quite fun, but even if it was working well in audience growth, I don't think it would run itself.

But it turns out that  there are people making this kind of thing work: I've come across a few, such as @Lon2012don, which seems to have had the same idea as me - automated news of the Olympics. And this account, after 4,000 tweets, has an impressive 2,500 followers. Its weblink directs its followers to a dedicated sports books page on Amazon, which is presumably how it hopes to make money. I'd love to know the story behind it.

I have learnt a bit out of this, and can't decide whether to stop wasting time on it, or to keep on trying to make it work. I suppose it's less of a waste of time than Farmville, or being addicted to a soap - which is a bit what it's like. It's a soap storyline with numbers: will they go up or down? In fact this morning, 21 days into the experiment, you could look at the graph (below), and decide that after 'bottoming out', the trend is up again. That's what's so intriguing. I'm not going to be able to give up this storyline any time soon.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why the rare book market online is raising, not lowering prices

Tolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare BooksTolkien's Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books by R.A. Gekoski

Rick Gekoski is a dealer in rare books, but he's also a natural story-teller and a good gossip. He is happy to talk about money - which makes his accounts of buying and selling books all the more interesting. And he takes an almost philosophical view of what he and his peers in the book trade do for a living.

Tolkien's Gown is a gripping account of the famous writers he's dealt with, both in person, and personified by the first editions of their work that have passed through his hands. I was so enthralled when I read it last summer, that I went to see Gekoski talk at a rare book fair in London last week.

In person he's a slightly unkempt figure with straggly hair and thick glasses. But his mastery of his subject and confidence in his own judgement make him a charismatic speaker, funny, clever and wise. Here's some of what he had to say:

The internet is probably raising rather than lowering the price of his kind of books. As soon as someone has anything they think might be of value, they go online and price it according to the most expensive copies they can see, without the knowledge to realise the differences between copies that determine price. So instead of a dealer like him turning up and telling the seller what their book is worth, he is now second-guessed by his customer, who, in Gekoski's view, usually gets it wrong.

He is fed up with today's obsession with 'fine' copies. Older books should look old, he says. And there's a ridiculous premium paid for books with dustjackets. He cited one he bought with a jacket for £80,000 which would have sold for less than £2000 without the jacket.

His solution to the internet destroying his business is to deal in books that are so rare that they aren't for sale online. That way, his expertise can still play a part in the buying and selling. But it means the average price of books he trades is £8000. It also means that the old 'scouting' tours he used to enjoy, visiting bookshops and collectors in the US and Australia, are largely a thing of the past.

The fun's gone out of it, he said, and that special relationship between collector and dealer has been lost. Where once his customers, like a lawyer's clients, came to him for advice, in a mutually beneficial relationship, today he is at odds with them, sometimes even in competition for books. But there is still a wisdom he brings to the business, seeing the collector as a kind of artist, that surely the best collectors must still value.

Graham Greene told him, he said, as he was visiting him in Antibes, that if he hadn't been a novelist, he would have liked to be a book dealer, because it was a form of treasure hunting. And if I hadn't been a dealer, Gekoski replied, I would have liked to be a novelist.

He brings one quality to his business that the internet can never replace: he is obviously good company - and I suspect that much of his success is down to the fact that people such as Greene and many others he writes about in Tolkien's Gown enjoyed having him around. He appreciates writing as well as books, making him the perfect house guest to distract a writer from getting down to work.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tesco online - devious or maths fail?

How about this for a special offer from Tesco?

Yes, the Italian pizzas are £1.79 each and £5.00 for two. The Romanas are even more special: £1.79 each and £6.00 for two.

There's a promotion possibility for someone here - from Tesco virtual shelf stacker to AS level maths question setter...

Monday, June 6, 2011

How I'm building my Twitter empire

It's just over a week since I set up six business news feeds on Twitter, each covering a different tech business - as a I wrote about here.

Since then, the number of followers on my Twitter accounts has doubled - to 76 (see below). Not a massive number, but the point of the experiment was to see how far I could get in building an audience without actually producing any original content: all the Tweets are generated automatically through RSS feeds from Google searches for the names of the respective businesses. 
I've written about it in more detail on my BBC blog here

Now I'm wondering whether other subjects might work better with the same treatment. What's needed is a subject that can be easily specified by a single word. So Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook or Google are companies, words and subjects that people might be interested in hearing about. Amazon and Apple don't work so well because a news search for either word is likely to produce much news beyond the world of the tech businesses. 

I'm wondering about a collection of news feeds about universities: a story with "Oxford University" or "University of Oxford" would perhaps find an audience. Any thoughts about other subject areas would be welcome.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

My new blog on tech business news

Take a look at my other Blogger blog - for information about the _TODAY GROUP - a set of tech business news feeds I've set up on Twitter - and now on Facebook too (screenshot below).

I wrote about the idea in the previous entry here.