Podcast: The Myth of Focus

A weekly column I recorded on the fact that we’re not very good judges on what we want for the BBC World Service Business Daily (the Business Daily podcast is here.)

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Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

The New Normal: Constant Flux

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

I was reading a blog by a World Banker the other day—now there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have thought I’d use a few years ago—about our old favorite in this column: Twitter.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good that the World Bank is blogging, and talking about Twitter. And one shouldn’t judge the thinking of the Bank from the words of this World Bank employee—who is not part of the banking part of the Bank.

But it does reflect, I suspect, a lingering and dangerous misconception about what Twitter—indeed, social media—is among institutional thinkers.

The writer, Filipino Antonio Lambino, writes:

The point is this: norms will continue to shift around a bit (or a lot) but will eventually take hold.  The same medium or application is likely to be used differently by different people in different contexts – and rules of engagement will emerge for these various uses.  Until things settle down, however, some of us are bound to remain a little conflicted and uncomfortable.  And through this transition period, by using what we like and rejecting what we don’t, we become direct participants in the norm-setting process.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The truth is that there is no norm. Or the norm is that there is no norm. We’re now in a state of constant flux. Antonio can become a direct participant in the norm-setting process, but he will be disappointed if he’s looking for some norm-setting moment. The reality is there is none.

The fact that he’s using a blog—and tweeting his post on his twitter feed—should give him a clue. Blogs were the first assault on the citadel of there being any ‘norm’. They were initially a reaction against the idea that you needed to know HTML, the formatting and design language of the web, in order to create stuff on the web.

The argument went: Why should we have to know that kind of thing to be able to share our thoughts online? We don’t have to know how to make a notebook to write things down. We don’t have to know how to make a camera to take photos. Why should we have to know the inner workings of the web in order to use it to create stuff?

So blogs were born. But they quickly evolved. There was no norm. Blog is short for web-log since it was assumed that blogs would be online journals. But they’re not. When was the last time you read a blog about what someone was up to? Blogs are a medium for ideas and reporting.

Then along came things like Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster et al.

All have had to adapt to their users. YouTube was ‘broadcast yourself’ but now is more about rebroadcasting what other people, or TV stations, have already broadcast.

Facebook was supposed to be for college kids to connect to each other. Wikipedia was originally supposed to be content produced by academic specialists. It only took off when they let anyone contribute. Now it’s evolving again, as users wrestle with each other over what constitutes a Wikipedia-worthy entry.

And this process of evolution is also evolving. Twitter started out as a SMS message sharing system. Users took it in different directions and the founders were smart enough to follow. As you know, most of the features that make Twitter what it is—hashtags, mentions, retweeting—were all devised by users themselves.

Twitter is just one: look at FriendFeed, Google Buzz etc as examples of flux, where users figure out how they want to use it and the creators of the service hold their breath. 

The point, as Antonio would say, is this: Norms were norms because they were set by a limited group of people. Those with power—either financial or political. Newspapers have all sorts of norms, from the headline size to the fact that sports are usually at the back. Norms get established because the creators are limited in number and control the means of creation.

That’s no longer the case. Now the people who create things on the web have to genuflect before their customers, because the customers determine the success of a product. The customer is the user is the creator. The customer sets the norm. The creator of a medium in this new world is not the creator of the content that makes it a success. The two have been separated.

Hence, a norm today may not be there tomorrow. It used to be the ‘norm’ that if someone followed you on Twitter, you politely followed back. That’s no longer the case (spammers put paid to that, but it also became unwieldy.) It used to be the norm that you posted links to your own content on twitter; now you do it sparingly unless you’re a Twitter god.

So, Antonio and others who are waiting for things to settle. They won’t. Already Twitter is becoming something else, and probably has a life span of five more years max. Other services will come and take its place. It’s a fast moving universe.

I’m glad the World Bank is making space for Antonio and like-minded souls to ponder the significance of these new networks. My advice: jump in and experiment, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect it to come to a final destination. Especially one called Norm.

We’re All Kevin Smiths Now

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

A few weeks ago a gentleman of, by his own account, more than average girth was thrown off a Southwest Air flight between Oakland and Burbank.

Unfortunately for the airline this was no ordinary gentleman but Kevin Smith, director of such classics as Clerks and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and, perhaps more importantly, a man conversant with social media.

As he was unceremoniously removed from the flight because he was a “customer of size” and therefore a safety risk, he turned to twitter to vent his spleen.

The resulting fracas was what we in the nerdy world call a twitter storm. That is, one person is able to leverage the power of social networks to make a much bigger noise than would otherwise be the case.

Some commentators have suggested this is a new kind of customer: “a new kind of uglry customer who isn’t always right but insists on his right to share his feelings with us and his right to be heard”, as one Singaporean travel industry insider put it.

Of course, this isn’t the case. There have always been Kevin Smiths, it’s just they have not been able to convey their disquiet so effectively. Now they have, at their fingertips, the ability to express and disseminate their feelings.

I’m a Kevin Smith. We’re all Kevin Smiths. We’re all capable of knowing when we’ve been discriminated against—not, in this case, because of his girth but because he was not told before he got on the plane, or when he bought his ticket, that he wouldn’t be able to fly.

We’re all Kevin Smiths, and we’ve all got the tools of Kevin Smith. Perhaps not the colorful turns of phrase, but the means.

Now I’m not blaming Southwest here, at least at the corporate level. Actually they did all the standard things to try to put out this blaze. They tried to reach him by email, by phone, and then publicly by twitter, to apologize.

They blogged about it, about their policy and the lessons learned.

But their failure was to understand that information travels much faster now. So in the crucial hours—no, minutes—after Kevin Smith was dumped off the flight there was a chance to turn all this around.

It didn’t happen. Either those overseeing the Twitter feed didn’t see it coming, or they were at dinner, or they had to escalate the matter. Whatever happened, there was a chance to stop the storm before it had left the building.

In this new world, minutes count.

People in the leisure industry would do well to draw different conclusions than perhaps they are.

The temptation is to label Kevin Smith a noisesome celebrity and thereby both give him star treatment and to treat him as an unusual case.

He’s not. He’s a star, true, and he’s got a strong following, both online and offline. But his diatribe is just as likely to be echoed by others—indeed, the anger his supporters felt is as much to do with a sense of injustice as of having their hero treated shoddily.

In the old days we could write a letter to the CEO, or complain to the cabin crew, or write a letter to the local paper. Most of us wouldn’t bother.

But now we can. We can tweet about it, Facebook it, blog about it. It may not always snowball but it’s there, out there for millions of other people to find, indefinitely.

In other words: Not only do we have the means to vent our spleen, but we have access to everyone else’s vented spleen. No longer are we the lone eccentric to be tolerated or ignored, bought off with a $100 voucher or a free pass to the poolside barbeque.

We are validated.

So no, Kevin Smith is not the new kind of ugly customer. He’s everyman: He’s a customer who not only knows what he wants but knows that he’s not alone in wanting it. And that he can find a way of getting satisfaction in the most public way possible if he feels his rights are violated.

Not exactly good news for those companies that would rather we kept quiet or were bought off. But good news for those of us who have bitten our tongue and kept mum one too many times.

The Power of Non News

I attend a lot of conferences where newsmen (yes I know it’s an outmoded, sexist term, but that’s the kind of industry we’re in) wring their hands about the future of their profession.

Or rather the lack of it.

And loyal readers of this column will know I tend to throw my hands up in the air at such discussions rather than wring them. Because these discussions never tackle the central issues of their industry.

One of them is this: What exactly is news? Or more precisely, what is the product that people are buying—even if they’re not paying for it—when they read your paper, your website, listen to your broadcast or listen to your news bulletin?

There are lots of angles to the answer to this. I’ve only got space to address one of them here.

That is: Are people looking for information, or the absence of it?

Let’s face it: Most of us don’t watch the evening news to catch up on the situation in Haiti. We don’t watch on the off-chance they’ll do something on President Obama, or a cute piece about a donkey making friends with a goldfish.

We watch because we need to know what the big brains at the BBC, or CNN, or our local news channel think are the top stories. That enough is obvious.

But why? Why is it important to us what someone else thinks are the main stories of the day?

Well, first off, it’s because if something really big has happened then we want to know about it. 9/11, tsunami, a culture-changing event, or even a big local event that we haven’t already heard about.

That’s good. Important. Significant. Editors will be happy: They spend a lot of time deciding what the main stories are and how to tell them.

But buried in that data—the data of news—is more important information: the absence of news.

We watch, read, scan and listen to news sources not only to discover information, but to discover, or confirm, the absence of information: the absence of news. Non-news.

We need to know, in other words, what isn’t happening because that way we can be sure that we’re safe. That we’re not about to be swallowed up by a tsunami, or a rate cut, or a virus.

Call it the power of non-news.

Comics like Seinfeld and George Carlin understand this. The joke usually involves the question: When would a newspaper/TV or radio station admit there’s nothing exciting happening and say: “We’re not putting out a paper/bulletin today. Nothing going on folks. Relax.”?

Not going to happen, because a) there’s space to fill next to the ads and b) journalists never think there’s nothing to say. We’ve always got plenty to say. Slow news days are great because then we get to write the pieces we want to write. Our stories. Which are usually so obscure only our mothers will remember them.

And this is the point. For those people outside the profession of news, the absence of news is actually, to them, news. Having the lead item on the news the airlifting of a donkey out of fire strewn mountains in Crete is the equivalent of saying to listeners/viewers/readers: “Nothing going on here folks. Take the rest of the day off.”

Except if you’re the donkey, of course.

In other words, non-news is good news. But it’s still news to most people.

This may sound obvious, but it’s not to most people in the profession. They are news junkies. And they think everyone else is. They think everyone wants to read news, however petty and parochial it is. Something big comes along, everyone wants to read it. Naturally. But if nothing happens, they still think everyone wants to read a second or third rate story, or some feature that’s been sitting in a drawer. That these are going to be just as compelling.

Well, they’re not. The power of news, for most people, is that it tells us what isn’t happening. No big crisis, no need to ship the kids down to the nuclear shelter, no need to line up to get shots. The power of news is, in short, the power of non news.

Understand that and we’re half way to figuring out what news people might be willing to pay for.

Remember you read it here first.