The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

The Revolutionary Back Channel

A tech conference appears to have marked yet another shift in the use of social tools to wrest control and flatten the playing field.

Dan Fost of Fortune calls it Conference 2.0 but I prefer the term (which Dan also uses): The Unconference Movement. (I prefer it because anything with 2.0 in it implies money; calling it a movement makes it sound more like people doing things because they want to.)

Dan summarizes what is being billed as a pivotal moment: an ‘interview’ session where columnist Sarah Lacy faces a growing discontent of the audience for her interview with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg. (You can see the interview here, and the comments are worth reading.)

Jeremiah Owyang pulls it altogether and tags it as a Groundswell, which happens to also be the name of a forthcoming book by his Forrester colleagues. A Groundswell, he says, is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions.”

Shel Israel sees it as “revolutionary in the same way that American colonists wrested power from the British; that Gandhi did it with homespun cloth and boycotting British-supplied salt and in the same manner that students attempted to do it in America of the 60s.”

Tools used: twitter, meebo.

What’s interesting here is this:

Twitter has changed, at least for some people, from a presence/status tool (“doing the ironing in my underwear”) to a communication tool (“@burlesque you were right to slap him. where’s the altavista party?”)

I must confess I haven’t caught up with this trend. When I complained to a geek friend that tweets were no longer entertaining and now more likely to feel like eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, he said that was the point. But it’s not eavesdropping: these conversations are public and, by definition, open to including others.

Indeed, that’s how, at SXSW, a lot of the parties and gatherings evolved: one tweet offering a party in an empty bar attracted 100 participants in minutes.

But we need to recognise this isn’t for everyone. Twitter tools work great for people who share the same interests, or inhabit the same area. And the difference with Facebook here is instructive: Status messages are just that, while postings on friends’ walls can be seen by other friends, which makes those messages social (while messages can’t).

Which is more social? Facebook is a walled garden of trusted friends; Twitter is an anarchic network that allows users to hunt down new friends based on what they’re talking about. In a way it’s more like music taste-sharing sites like than Facebook: I join a service like that not because I only want to hang out with the people I know, but to meet people I’ll draw value from via a shared taste and interest.

So what else is worth noting from this ‘Groundswell’?

Is this revolutionary? For those of us who have nodded off in presentations and dull panel discussions that could, for all the lack of connection with the audience, be on another planet, this can only be a good thing. Allowing the audience to participate is clearly a must, and any interviewer or moderator in that format who denies that is wasting a key resource: the audience.

That was always true, but the audience is not passive anymore: They have the tools to discuss and organize among themselves, and, in the case of the Facebook session, to fight back. It can get ugly (at times the video felt more like a mob lynching than a ‘Groundswell’, but after 45 minutes of poor questions, maybe my patience might have snapped too.)

I am not sure this is a revolution on the par of Shel’s comparisons, but there are lots of things happening here. Destructive as it may appear on the video, this is actually an example of collaboration, however chaotic, and alliance-making, however brief, that is social media at its best. A group shared a technology that allowed them to communicate, and they collaborated. The mood of the room could be felt by those present. But the mood defined itself on the backchannel chat (“Am I the only one here who is finding the questions boring and irrelevant?”) and then expressed itself vocally–one individual, initially, but supported by the applause of others in the face of the interviewer’s defensiveness.

I’d love to think that audiences, with their collective knowledge, enthusiasm and, let’s face it, investment in being there, can turn the traditional format of dominant speaker/moderator and appreciative but docile mass on its head. If that’s a revolution then I’m up for it.

How to be a Press Expert

Interesting post (a bit late reading of it; apologies) On Being a Press Expert and dealing with the media by danah doyd [sic], a PhD student in SIMS at Berkeley and a social media researcher at Yahoo! Research Berkeley. She makes some good points, and she’s clearly exhausted after three years of becoming sought after (eight matches on Google News is quite a whack, one of them after she wrote this blog entry).

She makes some great points, which I encourage you to read. It makes me realise that despite the sophistication of the news gathering process those playing the role of “expert” have only limited information about the role they’re being asked to play. This leads them, like danah, to being mercilessly exploited by journalists who use them either as a lazy way to figure out the technology they’re writing about (MySpace, say) or simply sought out as a contrary viewpoint to whichever other experts they’re interviewing. With the rare exception of TV-bred pundits, who know exactly what they’re doing because it’s their job, most such experts pour their heart and soul into responding to journalists’ requests, quickly burning themselves out.

I thought I’d try to make these people’s lives a little easier by offering a few guidelines of my own. I’m a columnist, so I guess my needs are different, but I’ve also been a reporter for nearly 20 years on varying beats so I think I know a few things about that side too. Generalizing wildly, here’s what I’d suggest

  • Respond to all requests if you can. Not responding at all doesn’t come across well.
  • When you respond, try to get a quick and dirty idea of what the journalist is looking for:
    – What kind of outlet do they work for? TV has different requirements to print, radio to online, magazine to daily, etc.
    – What kind of piece are they researching: A primer? A quick soundbite for a bland piece? A wide-ranging discussion with a view to an iconoclastic column? A book?
    – When is their deadline?
    – Is the subject matter something you feel competent to talk about?
    – Are you being wheeled out to represent a particular point of view? The journalist might be coy about this, but it’s worth trying to get a sense of where you fit in their story, and if you’re being typecast in a way you don’t feel comfortable with.
    – Do they want to email a few questions, or an IM chat, or a phone call? If the last two, how long is it likely to take?
  • You can always turn down an interview after learning the above. Sometimes there’s no point in wasting time if you feel the journalist is not serious about their work, or that the story is not something you want to be a part of, or that you’re being cast in a role you don’t like.
  • You can always turn down an interview if you don’t think you’re an expert in this field. There’s little to be gained by genning up on a subject for a specific interview, unless a) you don’t mind spending the time doing that b) you may find yourself saying something that’s incorrect and c) you end up being an expert in that field too. It’s good to prepare for an interview but don’t learn a whole new field just to keep the journalist happy/buttress your growing fame.
  • Arrange a time to talk you feel comfortable with. The journalist shouldn’t expect you to drop everything to answer their questions, unless the story is about you and a major felony you’ve allegedly committed. If their deadline is unreasonable (“Anytime in the next 5 minutes”) think hard about whether it’s worth it.
  • Spend some time before the interview trying to figure out the main points of what you want to say. Make sure they’re what the journalist wants to talk about.

During the interview:

  • Don’t be offended if
    – the journalist isn’t interested in small talk. They may just not have time, or were rebuffed when trying to make small talk with other experts. Conversely, however warm and friendly the journalist is, they’re not your confessor or a friend, so be polite but don’t feel you have to ask about their dog, or whatever.
    – the journalist only stays on the line a few minutes. They may just need a few quotes. This is a good thing, either because the journalist already knows their stuff and just needs to reflect your point of view correctly, or else the journalist is on deadline/a freelancer not earning much from the piece/a hopeless case who isn’t really going to listen to you however long you talk to him. Most importantly, they don’t take up half your day.
  • Try to bear in mind the journalist’s needs during the interview/IM chat/email exchange. That means:
    – Don’t talk/type too much. The journalist probably won’t have much more space than two sentences to capture the interview, however long it was and however eloquent you were.
    – What you do say, make snappy. Avoid jargon. Even if the journalist understands what you say, he still has to translate it for his audience.
    – Stick to the question they ask. Unless they’re horribly off track or can’t smell the elephant in the room (in which case, you may want to make a mental note not to talk to them again) you should just answer the question you’re asked, and never add stuff that’s not directly connected to the question.
    – Think quotes. Be yourself, but remember for them a good quote is not what you might think it is. “The ex-combustible lozenge which foments the understabilizer is one of the most underutilized pigment enhancers in modern electrophotoendoscopy” may sound great to you, but the journalist may not agree. Better would be a seemingly throwaway line like “This is something the industry has been waiting for for years. It could be the rock star of our little world.” No need to talk down to the journalist, but make his job easier by trying to talk in a way that his readers are going to enjoy reading.
  • Don’t be scared to tell the journalist when you don’t know something. Suggest another person they could talk to. You can’t know everything.
  • Don’t try to persuade the journalist. Your role is not to convince them but to represent your point of view. Someone trying to convince someone else usually talks way too much. Talk too little. Make your prepared points (twice, if possible, expressed slightly differently) and then stop talking. The journalist can always ask you to elaborate.
  • A good journalist might realise there’s another story there, either an additional piece or an alternative angle to the one they had envisioned. Be ready for this. They’re not being lazy or poorly prepared, they’re doing their job. These are people worth talking to because they have an open mind. Help them frame their ideas, if they ask for it, and if you have time. An interesting chat might help both of you.
  • Keep your own notes about the interview. Jot down what you said, roughly (or keep a record of the email exchange or IM chat.)
  • Before the interview concludes, make sure:
    – they spell your name right
    – they get your title as you want it to be
    – (where necessary) they get your employer correct (I’ve made mistakes here before)
    – get a rough idea of where/when the story will appear. No need to pry too much, but it’s worth knowing.
    – the journalist will promise to email you a copy of the story. They’ll forget. They’re not being rude, they’re just being forgetful (sorry for all the times I’ve promised this and not done it. Will try to do better)
    – you get a contact number/email for them. You may want to change or clarify something, and you need to be able to reach them. You may also need to yell at them after the story hits the stands, but both of these are advised against unless you really feel strongly about it.

After the interview

  • Don’t pester the journalist about when the piece might appear. Big turn-off for the journalist who will feel a bit harassed if you do this. The Journalist Rule is: We can pester anyone and demand they speak to us now. Anyone pestering us, however reasonable their request, is interference in press freedom. Yes, I know it’s not fair.
  • Look back on the experience and work out where you could have done better. Did you get all your points across? Did you lapse into jargon? Did you talk too much? Did you answer his questions? Could you have expressed yourself better?
  • Prepare yourself for the next interview. There’s no shame in being polished.
  • Don’t be too upset if your interview never sees the light of day. See below
  • Don’t be too upset if your quotes are mangled and your views misrepresented. If you have to, complain to the journalist (not his editor). There’s not much that can be done unless there’s a factual error; that can be corrected. Put the rest down to experience, unless you’ve been doing it for 20 years, in which case, you probably want to think about retiring.

I’m sure there’s more to be said but this is longer than a post should be anyway. Experts have a difficult, largely thankless but vital role to play, and I apologise here and now for the number of times I’ve chatted with you for hours and then not had space to put you in my story. I am sorry. Sometimes it’s just impossible to find the space, or the story gets cut; while it’s going to be scant comfort, it’s likely the wisdom you shared with me improved the story. Next time I’ll try to do better. But we journalists are grateful for the time you do give us. Even if we don’t show it.

My PR Pet Peeves

On the whole, I find PR people to be great —  helpful, quick and thorough. But some have their quirks. I know I shouldn’t but I’m going to anyway. Here are some of my current pet peeves, all of them including examples I’ve collected over the past few days. Let me just first say that of the 100 or so communications I have had with PR people in the past week, these represent a small minority. But you know who you are!

The Who Are You And What Do You Intend To Do With My Daughter? Response  I have a stock email I send PR people when requesting information, review units or software to test. This stock email includes a list of the publications I work for and my title. Not everyone seems to read it. Here’s one: “Thank you for your inquiry. xxxxx passed your name onto me and he has asked what your intention is on requesting the device.” Just once I’d love to write back “I fully intend to elope with your device and have many, many children with it out of wedlock” or something less suited to a family paper. Sadly, I’ve not done that yet.

The Yes, There is Google, But How Do I Know You’re Really A Journalist? Gambit Not everyone believes me when I tell them I’m a technology columnist. Is it my name? Does it sound shifty? Neither do they seem to know how to use Google, which other people have found to be an excellent background research tool. One email I got this morning: “In order to do this I will need to verify your credentials. Could you please send me a couple of links to technology articles you have written.” Of course this kind of email also crushes one’s ego: “You mean you haven’t heard of me? Outrageous! Make-up!”

The How Is The Review Going Email? Approach Here’s one I got this morning: “I wanted to check in with you to see how your review of xxx is going.” I try to be a nice guy, but if I told everyone how my review of their product was going, I wouldn’t actually have any time to review any products, or write peevish posts like this. The problem is threefold:
– It’s rude not to respond, but by doing so you invite more.
– If you don’t respond, you get more anyway.
– The truth is I have no idea how it’s going. I know PR people would like to know when the column might be due, and I sympathize, but folk like me may have dozens of columns on the go at the same time, and just because we’ve requested a review unit/copy of your product, doesn’t mean we have a clear date set as to when it may appear. If I see something I’d like to review at some point I fire off an email. Then the device sits in a drawer until the planets are aligned and I feel cosmically ready. Really. Just because you launched your product this month doesn’t mean that’s when I’m going to write about it. Honest.

Only one thing worse than this is people calling me in the middle of the night, unaware of something called timezones (usually PR people who work for watch manufacturers, oddly enough) to ask me how the review is going.
“Right now, you mean? Right now I’m dodging flying furniture from my recently awoken wife while also testing whether your product works when flushed down the john.”
“Oh. Is this not a good time?”

The I’ll Let You Review My Product If You Let Me Review Your Copy Before Publication Response Here’s one I got a few days ago: “We would be more than happy to provide a sample unit for your review. However, we would like to preview any articles that you write based on the unit, before they go to press. If you are happy with this, please reply to the affirmative, and we will have your unit shipped via express FedEx within 3 business days. The reason we ask this is that a previous newspaper article had several minor factual inaccuracies, that could have been easily corrected with a quick review of the draft copy.” Er, no, is this short answer to that. Firstly, my publications frown on this kind of thing. Secondly, who in their right mind would agree? Why would a journalist allow the person they’re writing about approve their copy before publication? Would anyone ever trust that journalist again? Finally, what is this person grumbling about? They got a review, with a few “minor factual inaccuracies”, and they’re upset? Sometimes I wonder whether some people even want people to write about their product. Harumph.

The We Got Amazing Coverage In Your Rival Publication, Isn’t That Just Grand? Email This doesn’t seem like a big problem, and it’s not. But why bother? Are we supposed to be so impressed that we immediately feel the need to write something too? Journalists don’t like to be second to something, and don’t see coverage in other publications as evidence that they should start covering the story. In my case, I usually ditch any idea I had to write the story, unless the other coverage seems off, in which case I feel it’s time to do a “more balanced look”, which is journalist-speak for writing something the PR people will inevitably hate.

The If You Won’t Write About Us, We’ll Find Someone in Your Company Who Will Gambit This is one of those sinister ones, where PR firms cut a deal with a journalist to give them the scoop. It’s usually along the lines of “We’ve got this great story/product/event/announcement/report and we’re happy to share it exclusively with you if you publish it”. I try not to get involved in these. First off, because I’m allegedly a columnist, I don’t need scoops, but I also don’t like the implicit compromises that come with it. Mainly, I feel as a journalist you’ve already become hostage to a PR company’s agenda. They want something out in your publication and you’ve agreed to provide it. I’m too prickly to go along with that, most times. Sometimes these compromises are explicit. The offer often comes with a threat: “We need your response by such-and-such a time, or we’ll take the scoop elsewhere”. That always makes me bristle. (I bristle easily.) Call me old fashioned but I reckon readers deserve more than some cut and dried deal between PR and journalist.  

OK, with that off my chest, I’m now going to promise to try to be a better journalist for PR folk. There are some truly great PR people out there who try to move mountains for journalists, with rarely a thank you or even a nod of the head. They deserve better. We journalists should treat you PR people with respect and civility, and shouldn’t ride roughshod over you on our way to your clients. Actually we shouldn’t ride over you at all, roughshod or not. I just wanted to use the words “roughshod” and “bristle” in the same post. Now I have, so I can stop.

Markets May Be Conversations, But Weird Ones

My conversations with some quite senior PR people are often somewhat bizarre: stilted, me trying not to sound like I’m the ghost in their machine, the castle-wall destroyer, them so defensive about their product and brand they could easily be replaced by robots. Cluetrain Manifesto should be required reading for these guys. Or at least Micropersuasion.

Recently, inspired by Kate Fox’s observations about the role of SMS in her book Watching the English and recalling Motorola’s sponsorship of research a few years back of Sadie Plant (PDF only) I approached a major handset manufacturer to see whether they had anything similar on how people used SMS and whether it differed from country to country.
No, that sort of thing would be kept secret.
– So there is research but I can’t see it?
– I’m not sure. But this kind of thing would be important marketing information. Commercially sensitive.
– (Audible sigh admitted by columnist).
I see. (Thinks: There goes their chance to seem like a company bigger than merely the next dollar.)

Actually I knew I was in trouble when I complained earlier to this PR person about their company’s desktop software, which I’d found almost impossible to install on three different computers. I found myself being talked to as if I were a small child (which I am, but I was upset at being found out) and told that “focus groups and users have actually found it very easy to install. Maybe you’re doing something wrong.” Yes, believing that the 104th version of your software was going to be easier to work with that all the previous versions, I thought to myself, but didn’t say out loud. At least I don’t think I did.

Now I know we journalists have thin skin, but I’m not sure this is the best way to go about engaging in a meaningful dialog with someone who is about to review your product.

Being A Reporter And Being A Columnist: The ‘Good Story’ Trap

I’m a journalist. You probably knew that. But since focusing on being a columnist (rather than a reporter) I’ve tried to avoid the journalist crowd. Not because they’re not interesting, dedicated, very smart people, many of whom I count my friends. It’s just that journalists have a certain way of thinking, and I’m not convinced, at least as a columnist, that that is the best way to think. Last night, back in Hong Kong, I think I was able to pin down another reason why.

I was hanging out with some old former colleagues. Nice guys, all of them. We were talking about stuff, and I couldn’t help noticing the habit that all journalists tend to have. They’ll share stuff, anecdotes, things they’ve done, heard or seen, and all the others will be assessing the information in terms of whether it constitutes a story. The biggest compliment one journalist can pay another is to mutter, at the end of a tale, ‘good story’. It doesn’t just mean, of course, that the narrator has spun a good yarn. It means he or she has imparted enough juicy material for the other journalists to realise they’re working on something good. It’s a natural way to think — after all, we’re only as good as our next article — but is it the best way?

I try to think a bit differently as a columnist. For me, the lead in a story — the meat, the point, the angle of the story — doesn’t cross well to a column. Think ‘lead’ in a column and all you get is a bad news story. Writing a story is building an inverted triangle. The meat is at the top, and then you throw in as much other stuff as you can before you run out of space. Sure, you could try to come up with a good bottom — what’s called a kicker — but only if you have a good editor who won’t lop it off because of lack of space.

Writing a column for me is like layering a cake. You have all these different audiences you want to try to capture, so you need to add each layer carefully, not leaving behind those less than interested in the topic while not boring those who already know the background. You need to have a point, of course, but it’s not always going to be the ‘newsworthy’ bit a journalist would focus on — the ‘good story’. You need to put it in perspective, just a like a news piece. But you also need to throw it forward, and not in the way news stories usually do (‘the revelation is bound to cause concern in the market/cabinet/UN etc’) but in terms of what the users might expect to see around the corner, up the road, or over the horizon. As a columnist too you need to pronounce judgement on the trend/product/statement/issue, a luxury journalists don’t have. Your opinion, for once, counts.

I suppose my worry about the ‘good story’ thing is that journalists don’t, or won’t go much beyond that. Calling something a ‘good story’ implies that the angle has already been pinned down, the incremental step forward that the ‘good story’ will push the issue as a whole. But by defining ‘a good story’ journalists also tend to draw a line around the discussion, the issue, the debate, and thereby limit their thinking. There’s no point, journalists know, of taking the discussion further forward because until that incremental ‘good story’ is written, the issue — the bigger story — will stay stuck at that point. News is about angles, what is ‘new’, not necessarily what is really important. To journalists ‘good story’ is a way of saying, ‘interesting. Next subject, please’.

What I’m saying is not new, and it’s been much better expressed elsewhere. Neither am I criticising journalists, who know their ‘good story’ is the one that will pay the bills and please their boss. And, interestingly, journalists not covering the topic they’re talking about will happily debate the ins and outs of the subject till the dawn. The ‘good story’ bit only really applies to topics that might be within the beat of the reporters having the chat. But I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the chance to write a column, not least because it’s forced me to think outside what constitutes a ‘good story’ into thinking about the issue from a much greater distance, and to try to find a way to make it as relevant as possible to the reader. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job, but I think I’m beginning to understand what is required of one as a columnist, as opposed to being a reporter.

Plaxo Gets Lax?

Sometimes things change, and it’s hard to stay on top of them. Plaxo is supposed to help with this — an Outlook plug-in (i.e. a little piece of software that attaches itself to Outlook) which will update your contacts with other Plaxo users you know, and vice versa. Nice idea, and on the whole they did a good job of executing it. But now things are changing in PlaxoLand, and I’m not sure I’m on top of them anymore.

There are privacy issues: who exactly gets to see your data? And then there’s the money issue: how is Plaxo going to make money out of it? These sort of things worry folk: David Coursey, a columnist like myself but with more readers, trashes Plaxo, as does Mike in his excellent TechDirt blog. Plaxo was fine when people you knew added themselves and shared their info, but what happens, as Mike points out, when complete strangers do it?

I started to get peeved when I noticed that insurance salesmen started adding their contacts to my Plaxo setup. Surely that couldn’t happen? I thought folk needed permission to do that? I asked Plaxo about this a few weeks back and was told: “If you are a Plaxo user and someone sends you a Plaxo card, there is a link in the notification to add them to your address book. They are only added if you explicitly click on this link.” But I’m not sure that’s true. I’m a journalist so I’ve got a lot of people in my address book I couldn’t identify in a police line-up, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t let some of this pondlife into my Outlook.

Bottom line: Plaxo need to address this and other issues before folk believe them. Sure, 800,000 people are using it in over 200 countries (how many countries are there? I thought it wasn’t much more than that) but they’ll leave in droves if they feel their privacy is being compromised.

News: Journalist Blogs, Gets Fired

 And more on the growing pains of technology and journalism from Poynter: “[name removed at request of journalist] a Chinese journalist who worked for the Bloomberg news service, was fired because of statements made on his personal Weblog. [name removed] is not the first journalist to experience troubles because of his personal Web site. A long-time writer at the Houston Chronicle was fired for what a Chronicle editor called “gonzo journalism” on the reporter’s personal Web page, and a columnist at the Sacramento Bee must now obtain an editor’s approval before posting his blog.”
Hmmm. More on this in a future column.