Friday, July 29, 2011

He was right about the global village

Here is a link to my blog for the BBC College of Journalism about Marshall McLuhan, the centenary of whose birth is being celebrated in Toronto: We need a new McLuhanFascinating character, fascinating pronouncements about the media. Douglas Coupland wrote a book about him last year. 

(The cover of a McLuhan original from the 1960s.) 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Growth of my Twitter empire

Seven weeks ago, I began an experiment to see if you can build a Twitter audience without writing anything. I set up a set of six new Twitter accounts that were fed automatically with news updates from Google and Yahoo! news searches. Every hour or so, each account tweeted links and headlines relating to one of six tech companies - without me having to do anything.

Somehow, right from the start, they managed to acquire some followers - mostly between ten and twenty each. I don't know how those people found the accounts: perhaps they were 'suggested' to them by Twitter if they'd mentioned the company names in their own tweets?

I tracked the numbers of followers every day, waiting to see whether they were going to rise, or dwindle away. Seven weeks later, I still don't really know: there's a generally upward curve in the weekly totals (above), but nothing decisive.

A couple of weeks in, I added to the accounts with four new ones: following news of the London Olympics, Facebook's IPO, East Sheen (in West London) and one which combined news of all six tech companies, under the name Tech_Biz_Today.

The last had far more tweets than the others because it was getting all six of the original feeds, and it is now the most popular (26 followers, acquired in a shorter time than the original six). The least popular is the one about the Facebook IPO. Its only follower has been me, even though I have retweeted its messages to some of the other accounts, hoping to interest someone in following it. I can't understand why it has sat there so unloved when even my obscure East Sheen account, mostly full of irrelevant news about Wimbledon tennis, has found four followers. I have now changed its name from FB_IPO to FacebookIPOnews, but I don't suppose that will help.

This is still a work in progress. I'm going to have to keep following what happens because I want to know the end of the story.

And there are always little tweeks to be made. So this morning I realised that I might as well have the various accounts follow each other - because if someone takes an interest in one of them, they may look at who it is following and find one of the other accounts. Also, I wonder whether Twitter promotes accounts that seem to be acquiring new followers fast?

This process took the total followers of all the accounts up to 222. (But I will discount the ones that are really just me from future calculations.)

If Tech_Biz_Today is the most popular accounts (because it does so much tweeting?), I may start a Bank_Biz_Today, or something like that. Learn from what works...

Links to all the Twitter accounts are here.

My previous update about this is here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There's life in the independent bookshop after all

My high street in West London has one bookshop, which, until a month ago, was a rather unfriendly place which I assumed would soon be replaced by another estate agent or stupid gift shop. The man behind the till wasn't exactly rude, but he did seem uninterested in books.

Then it was bought by a woman who owns two thriving bookshops within a couple of miles. I know both of them, and they're bustling, cheerful places and, what's more, places which I have left having bought a book without intending to.

Well, today, I went to my local shop which has been in her hands for just over a month. I was just browsing, but I found two books I couldn't resist on the table just inside the door (Keith Richards' autobiography and Michael Lewis' book about the financial crisis).

While I was paying, I asked the new owner how it was going. She said business was up 40% on the same month last year and she expected to make the same increase again when she'd had a chance to change more of the stock and do more reorganising.

It was a dramatic result, but she was unsurprised. She put it down to a better selection of books, better presented, and more enthusiastic customer service. To my untrained eyes, not much had changed, but the subtle differences were obviously effective.

I nosily asked about how books are sold and she explained that most shops deal with publishers on a sale-or-return basis. In other words, they're not stuck with books that don't sell.

She could choose a higher profit margin by buying books outright, which some publishers prefer; but she said that shops would only do that with a massive discount. She'd want to pay no more than 25% of the retail price, which would mean she could still make money by selling the leftovers for 50% of their original price.

So it's not impossible to make a living as an independent bookseller, I asked, despite everything you read to the contrary? She said it was quite possible, as long as you had a real interest in the book business, so you knew what to put on the shelves, and good customer service, so people wanted to come back. She reckoned there was probably another ten years at least for people like her, before she was overtaken by the digital revolution.

It wasn't what I expected to hear, and it was a refreshing note of optimism: a new bookshop business that's doing well, with an owner who isn't gloomy, and no particular gimmick or formula. Amazing. And I'll be going back.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Social Animal works - despite everything

The Social Animal: A Story of How Success HappensThe Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens by David Brooks

In 1967, Desmond Morris wrote a non-fiction best-seller called The Naked Ape, which described human behaviour in terms of animal instincts - aggression, hierarchy, sexual signals etc.

David Brooks has done the same kind of thing with the unconscious, which, he argues plays a far more important role in our lives than as some kind of primitive animal memory which only comes into play when the more advanced parts of our brain can't cope.

I don't know if Brooks read Morris, but I'm pretty confident he's read Malcolm Gladwell, whose Outliers is subtitled The Story of Success, and whose Blink is all about the unconscious.

But Brooks is much more than just another clever journalist jumping on a trend - although he may be that too.

The Social Animal, like Gladwell's books, takes research from psychology and sociology, and weaves it into an easily digestible sequence. But Brooks goes a step further, mixing his factual material with a kind of mini-novel, the story of Harold and Erica, a couple whose lives he traces from birth to death, dramatising his research findings through their experiences.

It sounds a weird mixture and could have gone horribly wrong. But in Brooks' well-judged prose, somehow it works. I sometimes found myself wanting to get away from Harold and Erica and back to some proper factual information, and sometimes the other way round, needing a bit of light relief from talk of the vital role of the amygdala.

Once in a while, I felt that Brooks didn't know much more about the research than he needed to complete his chapter. And I wondered just how universal his conclusions are, featuring as they do, in Harold and Erica, a very culturally specific American world - with Erica a strikingly successful woman who makes it to the White House from humble beginnings.

But any misgivings are put into perspective by the common sense and solid values that Brooks seems to be directing us towards. While he's a student of science, the book is peppered with references to literature and history, to which he gives equal weight. And then there are what appear to be the author's own views, such as the following brilliant theory of everything:

"The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past, we call genetics. The information revealed thousands of years ago, we call religion. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago, we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago, we call family, and the information offered years, months, days or hours ago, we call education and advice."

If Brooks reaches conclusions, they are along the lines of a message that humanity with all its flaws is heroic, and life is full of opportunities to shine. The Social Animal may have started out as a publisher's idea for a best-seller, but it is full of interesting material, and easy to like.

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