Archives For analysis

A short presentation I did at work on understanding how products are used, using Instapaper as a case study.

Cyberpunk notes

September 2, 2012 — Leave a comment

I would argue that the significant interest directed toward the cyberpunk genre in the 1980s reflected not merely the topical appeal of computer adventure for readers, but also an interest its technologically inclined readers felt as writers – individuals already trying to write themselves into the global network, looking for vocabularies and identities to borrow and cut up in this process of self-creation.

Hicks, HJ, ‘… She’s Since Become”: Writing Bodies of Text and Bodies of Women in James Tiptree, Jr.’S” the Girl Who Was Plugged in“ and William Gibson’s” the Winter Market’, Contemporary Literature, 1996

Craig Thomler has a great analysis of a social media job up at the moment, unpacking the somewhat ridiculous requirements of this particular position:

a strong understanding of how the web and social media operate, the ability to contextualise that within the Government’s needs and find creative solutions; and have the technical skills to transform those solutions into product within tight deadlines!

You will need excellent communication skills, and experience in website design and development and in project and database management. You will be proficient in using a range of web design applications including Adobe Photoshop, have a sound knowledge of HTML, and a strong understanding of web publishing principles and techniques.? Knowledge of relevant web standards and guidelines and community engagement practices are essential! Experience in multimedia authoring and video production would be a strong advantage.

While he does have some valid critiques, it’s not impossible to find people to fill these roles. I’ve had positions like this over the last couple of years, and they’re not always bad, if the person in the position isn’t expected to do everything. Without getting into the everlasting debate around whether social media experts exist, it’s possible to have substantial experience in social media research, analytics and execution, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that in an online media position.

However there are a couple of major issues that I’ve been finding working on these kinds of roles. The first is that when you have such a broad range of experience / skills, you end up being the go-to person for technical support. I had this problem working at university, where I was known as someone who could edit video, fix a CMS, get a printer working, etc. I ended up coming into my office at 4pm and working till 2am just to get my own research done.

The second is managing expectations. Editing video and multimedia takes a long time, and doing it well takes even longer. When you couple that with the million-and-one things you have to do daily to keep the CMS up to date, maintain running social media conversations, monitor for feedback, run SERPS and so on, you end up pushing the longer, focussed tasks to the back of the queue. Time management becomes a huge pain, because you often can’t block out time for focus – and this impacts both your state of mind (constant split focus) and your professional development. There’s no time to learn how to do anything particularly well, because you don’t have the time to allocate to deliberative practice. You might get better at multitasking and responding quickly, but professional development ends up happening when you do it on your own time.

That feeds into the other major issue with these roles – you end up getting spread sideways instead of moving upwards. There’s no established career trajectory for this kind of role, and you often simply end up getting weighed down with more and more duties. It’s no coincidence that these roles are almost always 6-12 month contracts.

I don’t particularly want an iPad. I do use macs – macbookpro, iMac and iPhone – but that’s because I do video editing and a lot of writing, and my favourite applications (Marsedit, Sohonotes, Quicksilver, Fluid, Scrivener, Omniplan, Final Cut Studio) make what I do a lot easier. But the main reason I don’t want an iPad is that I’m not the target market.

I use an iPhone because it does everything I need for a mobile computing device – phone calls, email, IM, social networking, note management, audio recording, photos and music. I prefer the iPhone keyboard to Blackberry because I have big hands, and the touchscreen works better than the cramped Blackberry. The interface makes sense to me better – the Blackberry interface is awful.

A lot of the criticisms of the iPhone strike me as a bit odd. Sure, there’s no multitasking – but apart from a few cases like running a chat client, that’s actually not really an issue. I have a dozen apps open at all times on my mac when I’m working, but I don’t do web development on my phone. The battery life is crap but manageable – and substantially better than a netbook.

That said, I have three main computing needs: mobile device, mid range video/project management/writing, and heavy duty video/compositing. The iPad doesn’t fit into that matrix, all my needs are taken care of. What I’m finding is that a lot of the critiques of the iPad are coming from people whose computing needs are covered – which is not where the demand for the iPad is going to come from. It’s going to come from people whose computing needs are not covered – people who are not technically oriented, who want a usable, simple, trusted computing option that is easy to use, easy to install software on, and one that doesn’t have to be concerned with viruses.

While some of Joanne Jacobs’ critiques are valid the demand for the iPad won’t be comparable to the smartphone market – the demand will come from the market identified here: people who’ve been sidelined by computer design by nerds, for nerds.

Far too often the demands for computer freedom have been dominated by a notion of software freedom that only make sense to programmers. Computer freedom is also about the freedom to use the technology. That’s the market the iPad is going to serve. Computing pundits and free software advocates need to start thinking about how people actually do use computers – or, in many cases, simply don’t. It’s indicative that people are condemning the lack of multitasking when people who are interested in buying one don’t care about multitasking.

If the iPad and its successor devices free these people to focus on what they do best, it will dramatically change people’s perceptions of computing from something to fear to something to engage enthusiastically with. I find it hard to believe that the loss of background processing isn’t a price worth paying to have a computer that isn’t frightening anymore.

I can actually see my parents using an iPad. And that is revolutionary.

I’ve been following the State of the Industry twitterstream over the past couple of days and keeping an eye on the comments at Mel Gregg’s article at New Matilda.

It’s an issue that resonates with me, having left academia about 18 months ago. I’m still resolving how I feel about the situation – I didn’t leave as a principled stand on the exploitation of early career academics, I mostly just wanted to get my hands dirty as a practitioner – but Mel’s points about the treatment of ECRs rings true. One point that I want to address though

The contradiction at the heart of today’s universities is the expectation that employees will uphold the ideals of scholarship in tandem with commercial values, and that they will do this in every area of their working life except pay. Is it any wonder that our peers are leaving for other professions?

For starters, I think this misses that it’s not a dichotomy of academia – other careers, and it’s not a dichotomy of poor pay – better pay. I feel that my academic work feeds my media practice, and vice versa. I feel my studies have contributed to my political policy work, and my policy work feeds back into my academic work. I anticipate returning the academy some day, and I still do academic research now. I have always considered my self a researcher-practitioner. I have worn many hats, and worked for many organisations, but I don’t feel that I’ve ever left the profession. On a personal level, I feel attachment to many different areas of work. I want researchers to come and infect other professions with their approach. They don’t have to make a career out of it, but a bit of cross-fertilisation is good for everyone.

Valuable academic work can come from outside the academy, and can come from within the corporate world. While universities may trade on the fantasy (and it has always been a fantasy) of the purity of the academy, career academics can reinscribe this fantasy by not acknowledging the validity of academic endeavour in other industries. I find it amusing when academics who decry researchers who work within the corporate world as inevitably tainted by the structural pressures of business then defend hoary old cultural studies tropes with reference to disproven psychological models, ascientific garbage, misunderstood statistics and even horoscopes. Good research comes from many different areas, as does poor, compromised and tainted research.

Similarly, the point about pay is a little problematic. I get paid less now than I would as an ECR – probably not quite as low as a sessional academic – but I feel that my work with EngageMedia is more valuable to me. A lower pay-packet is the trade-off I accept to work on a project I genuinely love. While the well-worn trope of universities as removed from the ‘real world’ is inaccurate in many respects, it rings true for me. I like research-oriented and reflexive practice in my work, I find straight research a bit suffocating. (I should also point out that QUT – where I have done the bulk of my research – is actually marvellous in this regard. The YouDecide2007 project was a great example of the kind of work I like to do.)

I could be doing academic work and earn more – hell, I could do corporate work or political policy work and earn a bucket more – but I value my independence and autonomy more than a bigger pay packet.

Certainly, ECRs should get paid commensurate with the work they do. However, there’s a bit of a tension here. Should universities step back from commercial values, and accept that ECRs won’t get what they can command in the marketplace? If we demand higher salaries to prevent researchers leaving for the corporate world, does that mean we should expect the ROI expectations and overwork that corporate work entails? Mel notes that 100% of the workers at Sydney Uni work on weekends, but this is a problem everywhere, and corporate level remuneration is unlikely to reduce that level of overwork.

Should universities move towards paying ECRs higher, headhunting and using a corporate approach? As Alex Burns notes in the comments, universities are already headed down this path:

Many positions are not openly advertised – rather, Faculties may attend conferences or look to ‘strategic hires’ to build up their reputation in specific fields. You can see this on university HR sites, in the change plans for Faculties and Schools, and in head-hunters who attend conferences to find out who is the emerging talent.

Certainly, there should be reforms around workload, the misuse and underpayment of sessional academics, and increased public funding of research. But ECRs should also broaden their horizons a little. Ultimately, academia, like any job, involves a level of self-promotion, jostling for position, strategic career moves and career changes. We should fight for fair pay, but if I have to choose between a move towards headhunting, cross-career fertilisation and the associated politicking that may come with it, and a return to a self-mythologising ‘pure’ academy, I’d have to go with the former.

You can be a researcher, an informed practitioner, a contributor to public discourse in many fields, and retain as strong a dedication to research values as any university-based researcher.

I’m hoping the video of my presentation makes it up online, but in the meantime, a few thoughts:

The journalists vs bloggers debate has never been about a new approach to journalism. The debate around user-generated, transparent, co-creative and activist forms of journalism has existed as long as journalism has existed. The rise of blogging and social media has simply allowed the minority tradition of journalism to come to the fore.

Investigative journalism – while a very valuable form of journalism, and one we need more of – is a very minor part of journalism as it exists, and an over-focus on investigative journalism as the dominant form of journalism obscures vast bodies of journalistic output.

Social media is not just about the new; it is about making sense of the new by sharing, documenting and archiving the historical.

Slate has a great article up about whether quality journalism is the best way to sustain democracy that is in line with some thoughts I’ve been having recently. The following is a collection of thoughts regarding journalism in an age of data abundance. (I’m reworking this into a longer article, feedback, thoughts and corrections are appreciated.)

Journalism and Data Abundance

With the long-needed changes of freedom of information laws in Australia starting to come online, it’s worth thinking about how these changes might affect the way we practice journalism and politics.


Journalism’s base narrative has long been built around Watergate. It’s a highly romantic story, and one that changed politics in America: two plucky young reporters working with a secret informant to reveal dirty tricks by the US President, culminating in the only resignation of a US President in that nation’s history. Its strength still resonates in Western journalism, with Australian journalists regularly referring to minor political scandals as (scandal)-gate.

However, Watergate must be viewed as an artifact of its time. It happened in a period when freedom of information laws and governmental disclosure were far less formed. It happened in a time before widespread computerisation and data analysis, and it happened in a time before the rise of hyper-empowered politics . It also happened in a time when politicians felt beholden to the moral force of public opprobrium. By comparison, look at the way George Bush Jr reacted to worldwide condemnation of the Iraq War when his deceptions in its service were revealed.

The major difference between the 70s and today in journalistic practice – besides ratcheting up institutional pressure to produce large amounts of copy for less cost – is that information has gone from scarce to plentiful. The changes to FOI law in Australia and the widespread adoption of social media platforms promise to turn up the volume even further. How then do we deal with that?

Continue Reading…

Cathie’s given me a little dig in her most recent post, and I thought I might respond….

I’d argue that in the spirit of marketing via social media, clicks are the least important measure of success – offering little or no insight into engagement, reach or virality…..
But while not the key metric, clicks are still a metric, and I would be delighted to be able to help my talented friend fund her next film…

Which is, of course, true, but not the point in this case.

Social media – as with any promotional campaign – will have key metrics that must be achieved. Any other metric may be useful, but they are only important insofar as they contribute to the key achievable metric. Virality is great, but unless it translates to achievement of a key metric, it’s useless. Engagement is good if it’s useful – though you’ve only got to look at Harley-Davidson to see that a passionate, engaged fanbase can be a liability as much as an asset.

In this case, the campaign is designed to achieve 50 000 clicks. Clicks are usually not a good measure of much, except a basic understanding of popularity, but in this case the financial success of the project is tied to that basic metric. Tactics that promote virality, engagement and reach are useful in reaching that goal, but the metrics of those are of secondary importance in this case.

This goes to a consistent misunderstanding that I see in social media promotions. Virality, engagement, reach and the like are all valuable measures, but they are rarely goals in and of themselves. The useful key metrics of a campaign are rarely about the number of clicks on youtube or the volume of online conversation, they are about the increase in car sales, the petitions sent to a politician or the public support of a political change (or an Australian Idol contestant). These things are often hard to measure, and the change may not occur in a helpful timeframe, but that doesn’t mean we can blow off clients with a measure of virality or clickthroughs.

When I was working at WWF-Australia, it was spectacularly irritating when columnists would decry Earth Hour on the basis that the power usage drop during Earth Hour was minimal, or that the city didn’t appear to darken greatly. The fact that the power use drop was never the point, or that Earth Hour was always intended to be a symbolic gesture was lost on them. While the imagery of lights going out is powerful, and was used substantially during the campaign, the reality is that for most cities the overall light level wasn’t going to drop a great deal – and photographic representations of that drop were not a useful metric in any case.

While working on some of the social media stuff, the Earth Hour campaign had some great successes – several videos in the top ten on Youtube, massive numbers of mentions – but the key metric for Earth Hour was people and cities who had signed up with Earth Hour to commit to switching off their lights as a gesture of support for international governmental action on climate change.

Deploying social media, broadcast and print in its service was helpful, and those metrics were of supplemental value in making the case for public support, but the key metric was signups.

The key metric in this competition is clicks. Other metrics are useful, but in this case, they are not key.

So, now, if you’re interested in that bottle of Laphroaig….

Short Thoughts: journalism

August 20, 2009 — 2 Comments

It’s easier to teach a statistician to write than to teach a journalist to understand statistics.

Lolcats are user-generated Disney films, commenting on current political and cultural concerns via anthropomorphised animals.