Tag Archives: instant messaging

Why Hotels Should Avoid Social Media

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a copy of my column for newspapers)

If The Wall Street Journal is to be believed—and as a former contributor I’ve no reason to doubt it—the best way to get decent hotel service these days is to tweet about how bad it is.

And reading the piece made me realize that, when it comes to an industry like the leisure industry, social media can only be a disaster for your brand.

An article by Sarah Nassauer says that “hotels and resorts are amassing a growing army of sleuths whose job it is to monitor what is said about them online—and protect the hotels’ reputations.” It also offers a handy list of eight tips on how to “snare better service”, including:

Before you check-in: Post a comment on the hotel’s Facebook page or send a tweet saying you’re looking forward to your stay. A savvy hotel will put you on its radar and may dole out perks or give specialized service.

or this one:

Have a lot of online friends or followers. Hotels will pay more attention to your requests.

Now I’m a big fan of social media. And hotels. And the Journal. But this kind of advice is WRONG.

Basically, what the paper is suggesting is that you abuse social media, and the hotel’s check-in system, to snag yourself better service. Unfortunately it betrays a distinct lack of understanding of how things like Twitter work.

First off, you don’t just “have” a lot of online followers or friends. Followers and friends are earned through providing interesting commentary, in the case of Twitter, or being there for them, in the case of friends. OK, you can buy both, but that’s not the point.

Although I suppose you could calculate your savings through free hotel upgrades and offset that against the purchase off Twitter followers through services like usocial (“become an overnight rock star on twitter!”).

Now I’m not averse to hotels and other companies using Twitter and Facebook to keep an eye on what people are saying about them. That’s good, and, frankly, it should have happened a long time ago. I’m frankly amazed that companies measure their footprint on social media quantitatively rather than qualitatively: in other words, they count the number of followers they have, rather than look closely at who those followers are, learn about them and recruit them as unpaid evangelists.

As the piece mentions, hotels and resorts are setting up their own social media monitoring centers which sound like Churchill in the bowels of London in the middle of the  blitz, but is probably more likely some overworked drone monitoring a laptop in the hotel kitchen or a workaholic F&B manager checking TripAdvisor his BlackBerry while his wife is delivering their 4th baby.

The problem is this: Social media is social. If I grumble about my hotel on Twitter, it’s presumably because the other options open to me aren’t working. And those options usually involve something other than boring all my friends about the state of the bath, or the shortage of Mountain Dew in my minibar.

These are things that I should be bringing up with room service, or the front desk, or the F&B guy. If I’ve started twittering about it, it’s proof the system doesn’t work.

So, unless I’ve got really patient followers and friends, using them as a platform for my grumbles isn’t only an abuse of social media, it’s an abuse of my friends.

The problem with the Journal piece is that it assumes that social media is merely a public platform for self-promotion: either for getting better deals, or for getting better service.

But it’s not. Social media only works because we’re interested in what other people are saying. Those people who tell the world they’re about to have coffee don’t have many followers, unless they’re someone famous.

The value in social media—in any network—is the information it’s carrying. Whines about the view from one’s room isn’t information. It’s a whine. (Unless of course it’s me, in which case I’m being wittily ironic in a post-modernist sort of way.)

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and a recent case in point: hotel guest complains about the quality and price of Internet in their hotel on Twitter, including the hotel’s twitter name. Hotel responds within seven minutes, asking guest to direct message them—in other words, to send a message that can’t be viewed by anyone else.

So, now the conversation goes offline. No more tweets that anyone can read. In short, guest is basically saying to his followers: I’ve got what I wanted, thanks to all of you for helping me get my way. Hotel is saying: We’ll solve this problem privately, thank you, and leave no-one the wiser about whether this was a one-off complaint or something other guests may have to worry about.

Neither respects the audience on social media who have to watch this public face-off and miss the private make-up.

The upshot: Guests learn that twittering gets results. Hotels learn that twitter guests can be bought off as easily as non-social media guests. And the followers of that particular twitterer come away none the wiser and feeling slightly used.

For sure, it makes sense to use social media as a platform to air your grievances–if other paths have failed. If you want to warn others. Just like writing a letter to the editor back in the old days.

But hotels and other companies that scour social media to buy off bad-mouthers will do terrible damage to themselves, and to social media, if they seek to reward anti-social behavior. If you broadcast to social media that bad-mouthing your brand pays dividends, expect to get lots of bad-mouthing on social media.

If you then try to solve the problem in private, all you leave is a paper-trail of bad-mouthing, and no happy ending.

So the solution is simple: Social media should be monitored. Grievances should be addressed. But rather than setting up time-consuming twitter monitoring teams money would be better spent on developing rapid responses internally—a instant messaging service only accessible to guests, say, or a texting service so guests don’t have to listen to jingly jangly phone music while they’re being connected to reception.

It comes back to an old adage: Social media is not another broadcast platform. It’s a very public forum. So having a twitter feed is a life-time commitment to allowing every customer grumble to be seen by everyone on the planet. Don’t go there unless you have to.

Instead, keep those private channels with your guests as free of friction as possible. Don’t encourage them to go public, because however it works out, it won’t be pretty.

Oh, and provide a decent service. That always works.

The Revolution That Keeps, Well, Revolving

It’s interesting to watch how quickly our Web 2.0 tools are changing, changing us, changing the way we communicate, and being changed by us. And how each step feels like a revolution, and yet, usually, isn’t.

The latest thing is Twitter 2.0, as I would call it. Nothing has actually changed in the software, but the way people are using it has. What was originally a presence and status tool has become a communication, networking, information delivery and spamming tool. And it’s creating its own unique problems–which probably aren’t that unique, if you stand back from them–and now, its own rules.

Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations, is the first I’ve noticed who is trying to wrestle with the new realities.

He starts out:

I’m a passionate about Twitter.  I spend more time in on it than in any other social media venue.  Twitter has been good to me.  It is the source of leads for my text and video blogs, not to mention several very nice consulting and speaking offers.

This has created what Shel calls “the most up close and personal of social media”. Shel uses Twitter as a place to communicate with fellow twitterers and meet new people within a “small neighborhood, one where it’s safe to speak out, where strangers are scrutinized by locals this all happens at a certain easygoing pace.”

But then he goes on to talk about the “new wave of adopters coming in”. I suspect we’ve all noticed this: legions of “followers” who add your twitter feed (“tweets”) to their list. The worry is that now the conversation Shel was having with his small neighborhood is being listened to by a legion of outsiders who may or may not be anonymous.

Twitter, it should be pointed out, allows various options: You can be private, or you can allow anyone to follow your tweets, or you can vet who follows you. If someone follows you, it kind of behoves you to check out their tweets, if not to actually follow them, then at least to get a sense about whether the person following you is the sort of person you want to have following you.

Shel has come up with what he calls his “Twitter Follow Policy:”

  • If I do not know who you are, or what you look like, or where you are coming from I will not follow you.
  • With very few exceptions, I will not follow brands, candidates, causes or company names. I wish to talk with humans, not brand icons, neither surveys nor bots. If you are a real person & you are passionate about your work, then I embrace you. If you are a Direct Marketer using Twitter to push you brand into my forehead, I will block you.
  • Even if you are a real person, I may not follow you. I need to see that you are talking either about topics or people I care about.
  • If you disagree with me, do it under your own name and I will respect you. If you personally insult me, I will block you. If you are consistently unpleasant or just boring, I will unfollow or block you.
  • With extremely rare exception, I will not follow anonymous Tweeters.

Wise stuff. But as some of the commenters on his blog post point out, people use Twitter for different reasons. Not everyone follows Shel (or to a much more modest extent, me) because they want a conversation with me. I don’t follow others for the conversation, necessarily. Many people don’t want to be followed, just like many people read blogs but don’t necessarily blog.

The problem here is that Twitter is a great tool that has already broken out of the constraints of its creators’ imagination. But now it’s created uses that may conflict with each other and create fresh problems, such as those experienced by Shel who see the informal networks with fuzzy but distinct ‘village limits’ undermined by outsiders who don’t know the ‘rules.’

I applaud the new lease of life that Twitter has been given with this new kind of usage. In some ways it is a striking counterbalance to what I believe is the failure of Facebook to evolve beyond the huge surge of a few months back; I’ve noticed that usage in my little world have fallen off quite dramatically since the beginning of the year. Facebook will eventually become a sort of ‘profile cemetry’ unless these users are convinced it represents more than a novelty ‘old friend discovery’ tool.

Twitter has stepped into the gap left here by the declining appeal, and lack of direct communication that presence tools offer (Jaiku et al) and the walled-garden, asynchronoous web page to web page/email world of Facebook. Twitter, via delivery mechanisms like Google Talk, have colonised a space that is “instant messaging with social characteristics.”

Shel’s approach is a smart one. Though I wonder how many of these kinds of policies we’ll have to come up with as the landscape continues to evolve.

Global Neighbourhoods: My Twitter Follow Policy

Computers: Right Back Where We Started

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A lot of my time is spent writing for and talking to people for whom the computer remains a scary beast that is best kept at arm’s length, or, better, in a closet. I feel for these people because I’m not naturally a techie myself.

I failed science and math in school and almost certainly would again if I retook those exams. (I blame the science teacher, an evil vicar who tormented me, but that’s another story.) But perhaps these technophobes have a point? Perhaps computers and the Internet haven’t really done us any favors?

Firstly, the stats. Has the computer/Internet boom made us more productive? Apparently not. Well, it did the first time around: the 1990s technology surge (the steep red bit in the chart above) made us all productive, and that continued until about 2003 (the extra years beyond the bubble burst helped by the momentum of the surge, and some serious cost-cutting. But since 2004 the U.S. has been in decline in terms of the rate of productivity growth (or trend productivity, to give it its proper name), to the point where we’re pretty much back where we started in 1995. I know it doesn’t exactly follow, but given a lot of us didn’t have BlackBerries, ultraportable laptops and ubiquitous Internet connections in those days, does that mean we’re doing about the same amount of work then as we are, with all those gizmos, now?

Scary thought. And in some ways the answer is yes. According to research firm Basex, nearly a third of our day is eaten up with interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging, and blogs like this one. In financial terms that’s a lot of

McKinsey sees it differently: We’ve outsourced or automated all the simple stuff, so we’re left with people whose jobs can’t be done by computers.

I see it a little differently again. I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing — in other words, the ability to do stuff anywhere, anytime — as making us more productive because we’re filling “dead time”. It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems. Take some of these quotes from a story on how BlackBerries make us more productive, from July last year:

I can now use downtime–waiting to collect daughters, train journeys–to continue to read and action e-mails, which means I don’t have a huge queue waiting for me when I’m next in the office

After a recent long weekend, I would normally have returned to around 150 e-mails …Instead, I spent an hour on my PDA the night before I was due back into work, and the next morning, I walked in to only six mails that required attention. Not only did this make me more efficient, but it totally reduced my stress levels

The technology both increases output by enabling what would otherwise be unproductive downtime to be used positively, and is liberating in that it allows flexibility and responsiveness.

The BlackBerry has definitely extended the capability of utilizing ‘dead’ time effectively–trains, taxis, 10-minute waits or answering questions like this

We are all benefiting from quicker response times to things that need actioning ‘now … Communication between department managers is much quicker.

Each statement is usually followed by a ‘I realise I need a balance/the wife hates it’ comment, as if the user is aware of the pitfalls. But the pitfall is not the ‘always on’ culture this creates, or even the lack of awareness that the ability to react quickly to something will simply prompt another reaction and require another response. The pitfall is that the “dead time” of waiting for your daughter to finish school, or the “unproductive down time” is actually an important component of our lives, and therefore of our productivity.

Sitting in your car waiting for your kid, the lazy hour on a Sunday evening after the washing-up’s cleared away and the kids are in bed, used to be time when you’d think about what needed to be done, or to reflect (on your daughter, hopefully, so you’re mentally ready for her rather than still mentally scanning emails when she’s gushing about gym class.) Dead time was there for a reason: a chance to think outside the box, reflect, think about that email you’re going to send the boss rather than jab a misspelled couple of lines on your BlackBerry so you can cross that item off your Getting Things Done list.

Productivity may be slowing because we’ve just filled every second of that dead time already and there’s nothing left to fill. If that’s even partly true, then the productivity was fake, since it was based on a false assumption: that the dead time was empty, an unused resource. Anyone who has sat in a moving vehicle and looked out of the window reflecting on stuff knows that this is actually the most important part of the day, and by removing it most of our BlackBerry-wielding friends/colleagues/bosses/spouses have turned into zombies, unable to locate themselves in the here and now.

The solution then, to this productivity crisis is to use technology less, not more. I’m not suggesting we don’t use BlackBerries — although I don’t — but I’m suggesting we stop deluding ourselves that these gadgets are saving our marriage/hearts. They’re not. They’re like ping pong paddles with the ball on a piece of elastic — we think are batting the problems out of our lives but they’re just coming back at us. Time to put the bat down and look out the window.

User Determined Computing

I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, but Accenture reckons it is: employees are more tech savvy than the companies they work for and are demanding their workplace catches up.

A new study by Accenture to be released next week (no link available yet; based on a PR pitch that mentions no embargo) will say that until recently all the most advancted networks and communication devices were at the office. Now they’re at home. The company calls it “user-determined computing”:

Today, home technology has outpaced enterprise technology, leaving employees frustrated by the inadequacy of the technology they use at work.  As a result, employees are demanding more because of their ever-increasing familiarity and comfort level with technology. It’s an emerging phenomenon Accenture has called “user-determined computing.”

The global study of more than 300 Chief Information Officers (CIOs) will argue that “executive and technology leaders are undertaking superficial improvements in their information technology systems rather than making fundamental changes to meet the growing demands of users.” The research will show that the high performing companies are those that are deploying the new technologies.

So far so good (and until we see the report that’s all we’ve got for detail.) I’d argue that this disconnect has existed for years and only been exacerbated by the rise of Web 2.0. But I’m a little less sure of Accenture’s argument when it says that it has launched an internal initiative of its own — what it’s rather lamely calling “Collaboration 2.0”, which involves

rolling out enhanced search capabilities, high-definition and desktop video conferencing solutions, unified messaging, and people pages (similar to personal pages on social networking sites).

A good enough start, I guess, but hardly an office revolution. And I think the term “user-determined” is misleading; it sounds as if users actually have a say in what computers, communications and software they use. Even Accenture’s own Collaboration 2.0 doesn’t sound as if that’s the case. “User-influenced”, maybe.

What do I think? I believe that most companies’ internal software systems need a major more radical overhaul — of five media companies I have had dealings with recently, one still uses the same editing software it had in place more than 10 years ago, another uses a system that has no major changes to its interface since the early 1990s, and another uses DOS WordStar.

I believe that companies need to be more flexible about how/where/when their workers work. The when and where is being addressed with telecommuting and flexible hours. But I also think that workers should be free to use everything that Web 2.0 has to offer — collaboration tools like stuff from 37Signals, Google Apps, Skype, their own hardware, whatever it takes. I know there are security and legal issues involved, but, let’s face it, what worker doesn’t use their own instant messaging program, log into Gmail on their office computer and other “illegal” moves inside the enterprise?

It’s time to let the worker work as s/he wants. If Accenture has spotted anything, it’s probably that the most productive workers are independent workers — those who set up their own systems so they’re not dependent on and held back by their employer. If that’s true, then the logical conclusion is that those employees are probably not employees anymore, but have struck out on their own either as consultants, freelancers or hitched their wagons to smaller, leaner and more flexible startups.

PS I wasn’t hugely impressed with Accenture’s own website, which didn’t comply with the most basic standards of Web 2.0. For one thing, it’s Flash-based, with no options for a quicker loading, HTML version. And the Flash doesn’t load quickly:

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Secondly, a pop-up window greets you on your immediate arrival requesting your participation in a survey:

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Not a good start.

More on Veronica and Fake Flirting

Courtesy of ABC Australia IT guru Paul Wallbank, the source of my chat with Veronica Sexy may have been discovered: an automated sex talk service called CyberLover.ru. Paul points to this story from Conor Sweeney of Moscow’s Reuters bureau:

A Russian website called CyberLover.ru is advertising a software tool that, it says, can simulate flirtatious chatroom exchanges. It boasts that it can chat up as many as 10 women at the same time and persuade them to hand over phone numbers.

The service, on the surface, appears aimed at guys who aren’t able to win over girls online any other way: “It’s happened – a program to tempt girls over the internet!” Reuters quotes the site as claiming. “Within half an hour the CyberLover program will introduce you to … girls, exchange photos and perhaps even a contact phone number,” it states. Woohoo. 

But is that all it does? Antivirus and software developer PC Tools says it’s much more dangerous than that. “As a tool that can be used by hackers to conduct identity fraud, CyberLover demonstrates an unprecedented level of social engineering,” a company press release quotes Sergei Shevchenko, Senior Malware Analyst, as saying. “It employs highly intelligent and customized dialogue to target users of social networking systems.” The goal, Sergei says: to gather personal information about users and also to lure them to websites, possibly to infect them with malware (a generic terms for software that infects their computer which can then be used as what is called a bot to grab data, infect other computers or send spam.) That doesn’t sound like the Veronica I know. 

The website itself denies this, according to the Reuters report. “The program can find no more information than the user is prepared to provide,” one of the site’s employees, who gave his name only as Alexander, said in an emailed reply to Reuters questions. “It maintains a dialogue with a person, but is not engaged in hacking or any other such schemes, I think this should be obvious,” he said.

Well, there’s hacking, and there’s other stuff that comes close to it. The company or individual behind this product appears to be the same as that which runs Botmaster.Net, both of which are registered to one Alexander Ryabchenko. Botmaster sells a $450 piece of software called Xrumer, which spams websites, forums and blogs to build up a website’s profile on search engines (it claims to get past CAPTCHA screens, where users are asked to identify letters in images.) Given the name of the website is botmaster you can’t help wondering what else it does. 

So was Veronica Sexy an early prototype of of CyberLover? Well, they’re both run by Russians, but beyond that it’s not clear. I hope to find out more. What is clear, though is that SkyperSex, the website Veronica was trying to lure me to, is an affiliate of Streamray, a sex website that is one of several just bought by Penthouse Media as part of its purchase of Various Inc (for $500 million). It should make for an interesting bit of research. 

Oh, and if you’re looking for automated online chat that’s a bit more real, check out My CyberTwin.

Russian computer program fakes chatroom flirting – Yahoo! News

Technology and Getting A Life

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Why do I like technology? Well, I don’t, actually. I think back wistfully do the days before computers and my love affair with the typewriter and my newspaper cuttings library (which I still have, weirdly.) But technology isn’t going away, so rejecting it is a bit like rejecting clothing. But if I was being honest, I would say: technology allows us to think hard about the future, to see it more clearly, and to be able to argue with people who are much smarter than us.

Take a column I have just been reading by a guy called Nicholas Carr. He’s a very smart fellow, written a skeptical book about IT called Does IT Matter? and generally says things that are smart. But like a lot of people, he doesn’t always seem to get things. One thing he doesn’t like is the idea that as technology gets more ubiquitous, so does recording our lives get easier. This, he says, in a recent editorial piece in The Guardian, would make Socrates (who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living”) turn over in his grave: “We’re so busy recording our lives that we have little time left to examine them.”

This is the kind of thing that technology users have learned to live with: the nonsense that everyone who uses technology is obsessed by it, and watches as their lives roll by. But like all balderdash it has some truth to it. As parents we seem more determined to plot our child’s progress through the filter of an viewfinder or LCD monitor than to actually absorb the moment through our eyeballs (babies one day are going to start thinking a human face has one big eye on it, one vast rectangular ear and a blinking red light for a nose.) And as I’ve mentioned before, we cubicle wallahs may be forgiven for mistaking virtual lives via our Twitter and instant messaging lists for real ones.

But Nicholas is not really talking about that. He’s talking about things called lifestreams – where we nerds create a digital feed of all the things we’re doing, reading or taking photos of and share it with anyone who’s interested. One or two folk take this a stage further, and walk around with cameras on their head. Or they record on their Twitter page what they’re eating, or write blogs that redefine the notion of boring your audience to tears. (I have read blogs that have had me literally weeping with boredom.)

Now I can understand that non-techies may feel this is a vast waste of time, and can’t think of anyone whose lives they’d want to follow in such excruciating detail. But just because we, and Nicholas Carr, can’t imagine anyone wanting to see or hear or read this deluge of life-data doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. As with all technologies, we’ll both adapt it to our needs, and adapt to it.

Posterity is a funny thing: We don’t know what it is our future selves and descendants are going to be interested in. A BBC website requesting photos and recollections of the 1970s, for example, found that most British people fondly remembered the strike-induced blackouts. (This is true: I remember looking forward to them because we all slowed down for 10 seconds and Dad told us a story around the fire.) But don’t expect to see any family snaps of that particular aspect of life back then. Unsurprisingly, not many people thought, as they shopped in the flickering gloom of candlelight, “Oo! I should record this for posterity! We’ll look back on these grim days in 30 years’ time with fondness!”

Then take a look at Flickr, or any online photo sharing site and see what people record and share these days. Now, technology allows us not only to see ourselves immediately — no more waiting for the film to come back from the developer, no more tiny digital display that doesn’t let us see much of what we’ve just shot — but also, via 3G and GPS, to share it immediately with anyone else on the planet. Technology, in other words, lets us hold a mirror up to our existence, which we can observe in real time. Socrates wouldn’t be alarmed, he’d be dancing around considering the possibilities.

True, we may not use this mirror as well as we could. A lot of what people record is banal, but who knows what people are going to find interesting about us 30, 50, 300 years down the track? Who knows what we’re going to find interesting about us 10 years down the track? (I’m guessing the lurch in male fashion from long pants to those over-the-knee numbers.) The point is that we’re not just recording our lives because technology allows us to. We’re recording them because we want to. Nicholas Carr thinks this is narcissism. For some it probably is. For others the technology becomes a fence from which to hide behind and not participate. For the rest of us it offers chance to capture and reflect on a life that goes by way too quickly.

The Future of the Interview

There’s been a lot of talk about whether interviewees should insist on email interviews with journalists, to avoid their being misquoted, quoted out of context, ambushed with a question they were not ready for or whether an interview took place at all. In short, the likes of Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine believe that journalists have exerted power too long by conducting voice interviews and that interviewees are clawing back some control by insisting on email interviews.

This is what I think. I agree the game is too heavily tilted in favor of journalists, many of whom seem to think they have a God-given right to interview anyone they like when they like and on whatever they like. Interviewees decline interviews, they don’t refuse them.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Interviews aren’t just a series of questions. They are

  • an interaction between two or more people, where interviewees can be interrupted, asked to repeat things that are complicated, and where hand gestures and napkin-based demonstrations are part of the menu.
  • an exploration on the part of the journalist of the subject, the person, and anything else that may come up
  • a chance to not only understand but to capture the excitement, character and tone of the interviewee. Great quotes are not just about a fancy expression, but ones that capture the ideas of the story being expressed in the vernacular — short, pithy, eyecatching phrases that stand in beautiful contrast to the prose around it. These quotes, I find, often come outside the usual run of the interview, when the food arrives and the interview shifts to a more informal discussion, or when someone gets up to visit the bathroom. Unpredictable and unguarded, yes, but a good journalist will ensure the quote reflects the more thoroughly articulated points the interviewee has made.

So we should separate up what both sides want to keep and what they should give up. Interviewees fear being misquoted. Fair enough, and there’s no real excuse for this. But as I’ve blathered on about before, there’s being misquoted and being misquoted. Everyone thinks they’ve been misquoted, even if you show them the instant messaging text chat record. When people say they’ve been misquoted more often than not they mean the main idea they wanted to convey wasn’t what the journalist focused on or chose from the interview. That’s tough, but it’s not wrong. And it’s not misquoting.

This is where perhaps the problem lies. When the interviewee talks about control, are they talking about ensuring their words are not distorted, or are they talking about wanting the journalist to take a particular angle. If so, then they have to let go. Everyone has an agenda, and the piece is the journalist’s agenda (or, more likely, their editor’s.) I sometimes have no idea what my agenda/angle is until I’ve started writing, but don’t tell my editors that; they would assume the story is pretty much cut and dried from the get-go (this is what proposals are for.)

This is where interviewees, I think, want to have their cake and eat it. If they want an email interview, they will have just eschewed the opportunity of persuading the journalist of taking the story in another direction, since a journalist is much less likely to be persuaded by the written word than by a face to face interview. So demanding both an email interview and a chance to influence the journalist away from their preconceptions is asking for the impossible. You can’t have both.

What interviewees fear, above all, is the unpredictabilty of the interview. They want to rid themselves of the uncertainty and danger of talking to someone who will consider anything they say fair game. True. It’s unnerving, and I’ve had a taste of it myself in a mild dosage. But that brings me to what I think should happen: Recording.

Take this example from Lawrence Lessig’s blog:

After my debate last week at CISAC (at Google Video here), The Register published a piece (archived) about the event. I’ve received a bunch of angry email about what was reported in that piece. The relevant quotes offered in the Register’s article, however, are not correct.

First, The Register writes that I said: “I have two lives,” he said. “One is in Creative Commons…the other is in litigation against authors.”

In fact, I said: “I have two lives in this. One is leading Creative Commons. And the other [is leading] litigation which is , I’m sure, in conflict with the views of many people about copyright.” Listen to the clip here: mp3, ogg.

I don’t know whether The Register has a retraction to make here, or an apology, or a broadside. I can’t find anything on The Register to indicate they’re considering a response. But I do know Lessig’s version of things, and more importantly, I can listen to a recording of it.

This is what I think interviewees need to do: record their interviews. It’s simple enough, and I am surprised that someone as tech savvy as Jarvis doesn’t do it as a matter of course. It’s not just about defending yourself; sometimes your best ideas come out of a conversation — even one with a journalist.

LOL? Not If You’re Dating By SMS

Technology can be a dangerous place for relationships. You’ve really got to know your lingo. And stay up to date with it. From this morning’s Sunday Jakarta Post (afraid this piece is not available online, but the Web site is here), which always has an amusing column at the bottom of the first page, we read of “Miss Twinky’s” difficulties with men who seem to have lost the art of chivalrous behavior. She was introduced by SMS to a guy who maintained a dialog via the medium, right up until he invited her for a date:

It was not much of a surprise that our first date would be at the movies but the real shock came from his last SMS that day; “You can choose the movie and venue. I’ll pick up the bill or do you want to share it? LOL” (Lots of love.)

I was stunned. I didn’t know how to reply and lost all interest to meet or get to know him.

And there the relationship ended. And with good reason. What kind of sleazeball would try to split the bill on a first date? Only, hang on a minute. Does LOL really mean “Lots of love”?  For those whose familiarity of acronyms predates the Internet, it may well mean that. But for regular users of Instant Messaging, or even SMS, it doesn’t. It means “Laugh out loud”. I suspect the writer might have been trying to tackle the problem of whether it’s chivalrous or patronizing to pick up the tab on a date before it happened, by making a joke. Of course he may not have been, but I think he might be granted the benefit of the doubt.

Another budding relationship crashing onto the rocks of technology.

Well, actually, strictly speaking, neither of us might be right. Chances are he meant what I think he meant: Wikipedia has it usually meaning Laugh out loud, though it does acknowledge its meaning as “lots of love” predates the Internet. There are other possibilities, though: The Wikipedia page on LOL lists “laughing out loud” at the top, and puts “lots of love” a seemingly lowly seventh, after a Loyal Orange Lodge, Lloret de Mar, Lands of Lore, Legend of Legaia and Love of Life, a soap opera. So it is conceivable our misunderstood and maligned Lothario might have been referring to two games, a soap opera, a coastal town in Catalonia or a Protestant fraternal organization.

And that’s just the start. The Free Dictionary lists 62 of different meanings of LOL (I think. You count), so he could have been making a reference to the Ladies of Lallybroch (a good name for a brothel, but in fact a community for fans of Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander series), Lawyers on Line (a wild bunch, I should imagine), Lewd Obscene Language (which should definitely rule him out for future dates), Longitudinal Output Level (ditto, for reasons of boredom), Love of Literacy (a worthy goal, but not necessarily something to bring up on the first date), or Lower Operating Limit (this at least has potential, if we’re talking alcohol levels).

If I were Miss Twinky I would drag his number out of the trash and start finding out what this guy really meant, or might have meant. At least the conversation would make a more interesting date than a movie. And we, more broadly, should learn a lesson from Miss Twinky’s discomfort. Acronyms and smileys do not travel well between people who do not yet understand or know each other. So they should be avoided. (I’ve always added three periods to my instant messaging and SMS messages, thinking they conveyed a sense of flowing conversation, softening any possible statement so it did not look like I was trying to have the final word. Turns out my Canadian friend thought I was being sarcastic. We’re still friends, but only after exceeding our Lower Operating Limits at Bugils several times.)

A lesson, then: We should vow not to allow an acronym, a smiley or period marks to come between us, and we should give the benefit of the doubt if we are not completely confident of their meaning. (Google is a good place to start educating ourselves.) And for Miss Twinky, I hope that maybe you’ll give your mysterious acronymizing date a second chance.

Phone as Beacon

The idea that your cellphone may become a beacon of your availability took one small step closer yesterday, although you’d be forgiven for not noticing amid all the post-turkey bloat.

The theory is this. Cellphones have gotten smarter, but they still miss one vital ingredient that computer users have had for years: presence. Anyone using an instant messenger, from ICQ to Skype, will know that they can indicate to their buddies, colleagues and family whether they’re at their computer, in a meeting, dead, or whatever.

I’m not available. Leave a message

This is useful information: It’s a bit like knowing whether someone is at home before you phone them. But this only works if the computer is on, connected to the Internet and the user has the software installed and sets their ‘presence’ accordingly.

Think how more powerful this concept would be if you carried it with you: if your cellphone could transmit to friends, colleagues and family whether you were available — and even where you were. This is not that hard to do, via the same instant messaging programs that now operate only on your PC. This is the vision of companies like instant messaging developer Followap, bought yesterday by a company called NeuStar, which handles a lot of cellphone number traffic via its directory services. (Followap press release here.)

The problem remains twofold: how to get all the instant messaging users onto their cellphone, and how to make these services work with each other, or interoperate. After a decade of these services, few still allow a message sent from one service to reach another. NeuStar, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Gerry Purdy, has been developing the standards for mobile instant messaging, or Mobile IM, not just in terms of Session Internet Protocol (which sets up the communication between two users) but also for interoperability and directory standards.

Clearly NeuStar, positioned at the hub of cellphone traffic, are well placed to see the potential of Mobile IM and to act on it. Followap have the software and the ears of some cellular operators. I should have spotted that both companies occupied booths next to each other at Singapore’s recent 3GSM Asia confab, and were busy singing each other’s praises. (I wrote something about Followap in my weekly column earlier this month, tho subscription only, I’m afraid.)

Of course, it’s going to be a long march to persuade the big players like Yahoo!, AOL and Microsoft to share their IM traffic with each other (something they’ve not yet managed to do on the PC) but also with cellular operators, but something like that needs to happen if Mobile IM is going to take off. Says Mr. Purdy in his most recent note (sorry, can’t find this online): “And, maybe – just maybe – the NeuStar-Followap combination will lead to the Holy Grail in messaging – where all portal users and wireless subscribers will be able to freely IM each other. That would be huge.”

It would be huge, but don’t underestimate the power of SMS. Gerry sees SMS as having inherent limitations — 160 characters only, lack of message threading — but these aren’t necessarily downsides. The character limit has never been considered a real burden for most users, who either enjoy the brevity or else can simply send a longer message and have it split. As for message threading, this is a simple software problem that is being fixed in many phones. Mobile IM will only really take off if it is cheaper than SMS and includes powerful features that extend the use of the phone to a device to signal one’s availability, or presence.

For me the best thing about the Followap demo I received was that by switching your phone to silent your buddy list presence was automatically switched to ‘Do not Disturb.’ Immediately, all your buddies/colleagues/family know you not available without having to do anything. Now, that’s a glimpse of the future.

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