Google’s Suicide Watch

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I don’t really know what to make of this, but I occasionally trawl Google Search Trends/Insights to see what people are looking for, and whether they’re changing much over the past few years.

This seems to me to be as good an indicator of things as anything else.

I did it back in 2005 with Web 2.0, the tsunami,the economic crisis and seinfeld and tina fey.

But how about this one: the rise and fall of the search for “commit suicide painlessly”: things had been pretty flat since 2004 and then suddenly, over a period of three or four months from October 2008 to March 2009, the index goes from about 18 to 100:

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It’s not good to read too much into Google Insights for Search, but I reckon there’s some interesting stuff in here. For one thing, the spike is a real one. That’s no blip.

(I should point out that these figures are relative. What Google does is to take the highest point—the largest volume of searches for that term since they started saving data in 2004, and then work out the volume in relation to that.)

Secondly, by mid April things on a global scale return, more or less, to where they had been in August 2008, before the crisis hit:

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But if you look at individual countries, the picture is more complex:

In the U.S., where the search term rose from a relatively low base (actually it shows up as zero, meaning not enough data) it rises to 100, and then falls back by April to around 20. Only in the past few weeks does it seem to have returned to where it was to start with:

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Look at the UK, by comparison, and we’re not there yet: From zero it rose—a week or so earlier, apparently to 100 by January, and then dropped, but only to around 40. It’s now around 35:

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In other words, if one could take this data literally, the British are still very depressed and are still likely to be exploring ways of committing suicide. That’s pretty scary.

By the way, if you take these figures and compare them with the official UK statistics [PDF], they don’t tell you a lot. Brits have been killing themselves less since the late 1990s (though without figures from 2008 until now):

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This pretty much dovetails with the Google results, 2004-9

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PS I should point out that I used the term above because, having searched for “how to commit suicide” on the Google Trends page, I noticed that “commit suicide painlessly” was a popular search, rising 190%. Confusingly, “how to commit suicide” has, as a search been trending downward since 2004:

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PPS Google’s nonprofit arm does use its data for this kind of thing, at least in the area of flu. It now carries data on Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S.:

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Right Ears, Masked Passwords and Nail Printing

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I have actually been appearing on Radio Australia’s Breakfast Club pretty much every Friday—around 1.15 GMT–for the past year or so, but don’t always remember to post the links to the things I talk about (or intend to; there’s not always time).

Here’s to trying to remember to do it (and

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, now it’s available.)

  • Researchers in Italy have been going around nightlcubs in Chieti asking people for cigarettes. Turns out if you ask them in their right ear, you’re more likely to be successful. It’s called the right ear advantage (via the Daily Telegraph.)
  • Password masking is stupid, according to user interface expert Jakob Nielsen. Users make more errors when they can’t see what they’re typing, he says, and that makes them more likely to use overly simple ones. (Interestingly, one commenter on FriendFeed said the masking thing has less to do with fear of shoulder-surfing than of old CRT monitors, whose analog connections would give off radio noise which could be reconstituted with special equipment.)
  • Polaroid spin-off Zink has selected finalists for a competition to find novel ways to use its inkless printing (via Technology Review). My favorite: nail printing, via Singapore’s own Sonny Lim (above)
  • CEOs are media slackers, according to UberCEO.com. Most don’t have a twitter feed, a Facebook page or even a LinkedIn profile. Only Tom Glocer of Thomson Reuters seems to be doing well.  (via WIRED)

Nonsense Linking, Or the Rise of the Cheap Bot

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I’m a big fan of The Guardian, but their auto-linking software needs some tweaking. It’s a classic example of trying to provide that extra value to data on the cheap.

My argument for a while has been that the only lasting way for traditional media to make itself competitive again is not to create more, but to create better.

In one key sense this is about injecting extra value into words: metatagging them, in short, so that other content belonging to the media—or others—adds context.

But this is not easy. Lots of people are trying it, and some are doing interesting stuff with it. But building a library of words that creates automatic links to categories within the one site, as The Guardian is doing, is not it.

Take the example above. It’s in an article written by a woman who has given up sex for a year (neat and easily sellable book idea, or what?). But in the example above, where she’s talking about her lack of love life as a young journalist (tell me about it) she mentions her dating experiences.

The Guardian’s autolinker parses the story at some point and inserts a link for the word ‘dating’ to the paper’s ‘Lifestyle and Dating’ section.

Another example appears lower in the story, where relationships are mentioned, leading inexorably to a link to the section on Relationships:

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Now there’s nothing wrong with this story appearing in either of those sections (and it does), but to autolink these words to the section is meaningless. It’s out of context. It lacks context. It’s not contextual. It’ doesn’t add value.

Indeed, it cheapens all the good linking that is going on in The Guardian, because it reduces the reader’s trust in the value of all those links.

If you as the reader start to see links all over the place to places that don’t add value to what you’re reading, pretty soon you’re going to stop seeing those links.

So, Guardian, drop the autolinking bot and spend time thinking up a better way of adding value to your content. Metadata is too valuable, too important, to leave to cheap bots.

My year without sex, by Hephzibah Anderson | Life and style | The Guardian

Twitteran: We Should Do What We Do Best

Paul Lamb over at MediaShift asks:

Is there still a need for vetting and fact checking of stories. Absolutely. But isn’t that something a machine, building off our collective intelligence, could be trained to do far better than any one human or editorial staff? Of course this ignores the fact that machines aren’t good at storytelling or understanding the nuances of human emotions and interactions – that which makes for good reporting and journalism. But maybe that’s something the machine could be taught as well? Maybe even doing it better than the tired old formulas used in most mainstream reporting?

The twitteran thing has been ably covered elsewhere, but I couldn’t resist posting a comment, which I narcissistically reproduce here:

Paul, I think you’re right in your comment that journalists need to think beyond storytelling and reporting, but that is part of a bigger crying need for us in the news industry to think harder about how we report, write and convey the news, and, indeed, what constitutes news.

In the case of Tehran, it’s a complex picture. Reporting political upheaval is difficult at the best of times, and Iran is not the first time that crowd-sourced news has done a better job of capturing an overall picture–of what is visible.

But reporting is also about uncovering the hidden information–the behind-the-scenes struggle, and I’ve not seen anything either on twitter or, frankly, in mainstream media, that’s captured that more difficult part of the story.

Smart media practitioners will learn from this lesson, not only that they can out-source to the crowd some of the ‘public’ events, but that their value lies in better reporting the ‘private’ events, those that go on behind closed doors.

We need to move with the times, and see as a positive development the emergence of tools that create a more comprehensive picture of mass events like this. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of bringing light to the dark corners, and this could so easily have been–and may yet be–one of the darkest of recent times.

MediaShift Idea Lab . Twittering Away the Jobs of Journalists | PBS

The Economist’s Secret: Its Limits

Interesting piece by Rafat Ali on paidContent.org quoting Michael Hirschorn of The Atlantic as to why The Economist is doing OK, while Newsweek and TIME are in free-fall:

“By repositioning themselves as repositories of commentary and long-form reporting—much like this magazine, it’s worth noting, which has never delivered impressive profit margins—the American newsweeklies are going away from precisely the thing that has propelled The Economist’s rise: its status as a humble digest, with a consistent authorial voice, that covers absolutely everything that you need to be informed about…The Economist has reached its current level of influence and importance because it is, in every sense of the word, a true global digest for an age when the amount of undigested, undigestible information online continues to metastasize. And that’s a very good place to be in 2009.”

Apart from the obvious reasons–the global thing (rather than Newsweek etc, who catered only for Americans Abroad)—I think the key thing here is that The Economist is digestible.

This means it’s finite. It’s a promise of a definitive digest in return for a commitment of time. It’s an odd equation: Give us some money and then we’ll give you back your time. (I’ve whittered on about attention being the scare commodity these days elsewhere.)

The other thing they point to in their critique is the web. The Economist folks aren’t link whores—linking in. They’re not link journalists—linking out.  (This doesn’t mean The Economist shouldn’t be online; it’s just that it shouldn’t try to be just another part of the big wide-web.)

There’s a lesson in here for all mainstream media. Well, several, actually:

  • Don’t focus on eyeballs. Concentrate on attention. Your readers won’t thank you for wasting their time with more stuff to read. They want the digest.
  • Don’t try to be trendy. The Economist looks little different than it did in the 1970s. That, actually, is the selling point.
  • Online has lots of different opportunities. I don’t think they’ve made full use of them yet, but at least they haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater. That may prove the smartest thing they’ve done so far. As Hirschorn says in the TV clip, when you can get a subscription to a magazine for virtually nothing, what kind of commitment does that demonstrate (on either side?)

Hirschorn: The Economist Benefited From Being Semi Competent About the Web | paidContent

The Myth of Customization?

I noticed that the BBC website, one of the most trafficked news websites on the planet, is abandoning customization due to an apparent lack of interest. Instead of being able to choose between a UK version and an international version, all visitors will get the same homepage.

Steve Herrmann explains it thus:

So why bother with the change? Because the option allowing you to choose “site versions” (which relatively few of you actually chose to use) has started to lead to some potentially frustrating experiences for you, as well as some significant technical complications for us.

He says that one of the reasons for this is because of conflicting rights and legal issues to do with audio and video, which “has led to a growing number of potentially confusing results.”

But another reason is that it makes it easier to feed ads to overseas users:

The change also means that the advertising which you can see on our pages if you are outside the UK can be integrated around our pages without the need to change page formats for the UK version of the site.

Makes good economic sense. But to me the most telling thing about this is that users just weren’t using the customization enough. And not just the choosing the UK or international version, but the whole module thing that the BBC set up some time ago, allowing users to create a sort of iGoogle, or NetVibes homepage. Herrmann says that international users won’t be able to do this anymore but adds

[i]t was used by a relatively small number of you, but if you were one of them – I’m sorry, and please bear with us while we work on developing the site. We’ll be looking at how to make the site customisable in other ways as part of that work.

This is all quite revealing. I’d suggest a couple of quite possible conclusions:

  • Perhaps BBC website users don’t care so much about customization because they care more about what the BBC editors choose to be the news. In other words, part of the value in the content is the choice of that content, its placement, what is left in and taken out etc.
  • Users just don’t have time to customize stuff. My long-running point is that the scarcity in news is now attention. If you insist on users taking up some of that attention time with customization—whether or not it may save them time in the long run—it does not seem to be an investment users are willing to make. (Unless, perhaps, they pay for it?)
  • Customization is hard. It’s not easy to make it palatable and appealing to users.

BBC – The Editors: Changes to international pages

The Context of Content, in the Back of a Fast-moving Cab

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I was reading The Wall Street Journal in a cab on a BlackBerry just now and I realised what’s wrong with print media. It still hasn’t got that not everything is going to be read in a newspaper.

See this story about Gordon Brown. It might look good as the main story on the front page, but it looks and reads all wrong pretty much anywhere else:

U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, beset by scandals and sniping from within his own party, on Wednesday faced a battle for political survival just two years after ascending to the country’s top post.

Mr. Brown’s fortunes, already slumping in recent months amid Britain’s deep recession, have spiraled downward in recent days, hit by a series of political nightmares. Several top officials in the government of Mr. Brown’s ruling Labour Party have been caught up in the embarrassing revelations about dubious expenses claimed by U.K. politicians of all stripes.

And it goes on it that vein for another dozen paragraphs. They’e all good paragraphs—I know, I’ve written or edited hundreds like them over 20 years–earnestly written and no doubt earnestly edited by a bevy of subs. But they’re not contextual to me, in the sense that they’re not how I want to get my information bumping along in a cab driven by a guy arguing with his wife on the phone at 10 pm on a Thursday evening.

Why not? Well, the truth is that this style of writing—thoughtful, ponderous, with lots of subordinate clauses–is stuck in the dark ages of journalism. Valiant efforts at freshness—beset, sniping, political survival, ascending, top post, fortunes, slumping, amid, spiraled, downward, hit, political nightmares, caught up, embarrassing revelations, dubious, all stripes—sound turgid and forced, merely highlighting how far journalistic writing has departed from the way that we speak.

Not that we ever really spoke like this, but in the old days it didn’t matter. Because then news was scarce, and us journalists were like monks/nuns or doctors, permitted our own way of communicating. And the pomposity of a newspaper somehow made pompous language more fitting.

But nowadays this sort of writing just looks, frankly, archaic. And because it’s so far from the way we speak, it is unsuited for the way that we likely read it—on BlackBerrys, on the net, on scrolling tickers, on Tweetdeck.

The language of journalism, in short, needs to catch up with the fact that we consume it now in dozens of different ways. A self-respecting radio or TV editor would re-write copy so it sounds realistic when spoken. Why is the same not being done for newspaper content?

Contextualized content—in every sense–is the future of media, I have no doubt. But some of that has to do with making the actual content something that is suited to the device upon which it’s being absorbed. A smart editor should be rewriting this stuff so that it sits well on the devices it is being pushed to.

The value of content lies, in part, in its sensitivity, for want of a better word, to the environment in which it is devoured (OK, consumed, but I try to avoid that word.)

If you don’t believe me try reading a good blog post on a portable device, and then compare it to something like the above.

U.K.’s Brown Faces Battle for Political Survival – WSJ.com