What do we keep private?

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Given our ability to join everything up and share it, sooner or later we have to make the decision about what exactly we want to share – before we inadvertently share it.

Case in point: I’m currently looking for a house, and I’m employing RSS in all its glory to help me do this. The system works quite well, and between us, myself and my partner are able to go through the feeds coming in, click the shared icon to go through the shortlist, then star those items we really like and want to see.

It wasn’t until I had this system up and running that I realised, with a slight amount of panic, that I may be sending all my shared items out to Twitterfeed, and from there, to Twitter. So, every time I find a property I sort of kind of maybe like, I could be telling 215-and-counting people about it. And not only that, but giving them details of the prices and locations.

Fortunately I wasn’t, but I did then realise I was still running a del.icio.us feed into Twitterfeed. If anyone is following me they’ll have noticed a sudden glut – yes, glut – of shared items from me. To be fair I did apologise, but the episode did scare me a little.

I’m still not sure how to get around this if/when I use del.icio.us for research. Maybe people want to know what I’m researching? But then again, maybe I don’t want to tell? Maybe use a specific ‘forblog’ tag?

Looking into this more deeply, I realise there’s all kinds of potential for making public what perhaps you would rather keep private. For example, I noticed that my gmail accounts have a feed. For why? Do I really want to syndicate out my mail? Would anyone?

My Google Calendar has feeds too. I’ve just started using Google Calendar so it’s currently reminding to do things like get the cat boosted at the vets or follow up on the various blog arguments that seem to be ongoing right now, but is this of interest to people? And what about when I start adding dates to have my bespoke Morris dancing costume fitted*? Do I really want people to know about this?

Then again, your social bookmarking is exactly that – social. Be warned: you have to specify that a bookmark be private if you want to use del.icio.us. So what happens if/when you’re a rookie PR exec and, on behalf of a client, you’ve classed a whole load of bookmarks as ‘competition’?

I’m looking at pulling everything I have into the Google ‘world’ – that is, all my del.icio.us bookmarks to be pulled in as Google Bookmarks, annotated with Google Notes, shared with labels. But I’m now wondering whether there is benefit in keeping these things separate. As in: del.icio.us is everything I’m happy to share; Google Bookmarks are things I want for myself. And never the twain shall Twitter.

* This is not true. I am not, nor have I ever been, a Morris dancer.

Welcome a new blogger to the blogosphere

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Visit http://mouthtomouthcomms.wordpress.com/ to get the inside track on Word-of-mouth marketing. This is a new blog in the firmament by a colleague of mine. I’m hoping he’ll help me move away from the linkblog darkside, which I appear to have been doing lately. OK, so he hasn’t actually posted anything yet but there’s no harm in flagging a (totally) brand new blog, right?

Happily, he’s another of these people with consummate common sense in that they realise that, to understand a blogger, ideally one must be a blogger.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this applies to all professions. One can be an unmarried marriage guidance counsellor – or, in Ann Widdecombe’s case, an unmarried member of the Inner Temple and comment on divorce. There are plenty of PRs who weren’t journalists but get along and work with them perfectly well. And we don’t all have to be particularly ill to work in healthcare.

However, blogging is different. I’m not just talking about the differences between bloggers and journalists here, all of which has been well enough documented (with cool advice on how to approach bloggers recently published).

What I mean is, blogging is free. You can be up and running in minutes. You don’t have to get your foot in the door at your local rag if you want eventually to be an award-winning Guardian journalist. You don’t have to get an MBA or your CIM diploma to do this.

Moreover, blogging helps you engage, not just with people, but with subjects. This is because, well, everything else is free too – other blogs, podcasts, social networks. There is so much great information out there, and I find it incredible that more people don’t take advantage of it. It doesn’t all have to be about social media.

Heck, what is social media anyway? At the end of the day it’s another way to communicate, and you’ll find plenty of clever, insightful people talking about PR, advertising, marketing and general comms along the way. In fact, it’s in trying to separate these activities out that people generally come unstuck.

And, given that you find more out about this stuff, blogging also helps you figure out your stance. You can tend towards opinions or violently disagree with them, mainly because you know about them. And you haven’t had to pay one single penny towards gaining this knowledge.

So, check out the new blog when it starts to grow. You never know, it might even figure on the next PR Friendly Index.

links for 2008-06-27

links for 2008-06-26

Summer Solstice 2008: from the Ridgeway to Avebury

I know this is supposed to be a blog about all things PR and social media but what the hey, surely I can post the occasional personal piece. And the subject matter is kind of social media…

I got back from the summer solstice at Avebury last Saturday. I’ve been going to Avebury for the summer solstice for over ten years now, and I’m still recoving from this year’s solstice while typing this!

This year, thanks to the miracles of modern tech, I was able to capture a fair amount of the goings-on with my trusty Sony Ericsson mobile phone, then stitch it together using Windows Movie Maker. You can see the results below: it’s a tale of two parts, with the first being our 40-mile walk along the Ridgeway over three days, and the second being the shenanigans at Avebury itself, throughout the day and ensuing night, through to the solstice dawn.

Post-edit: YouTube is a bit borked currently. If the link above tells you the video is no longer available – which it most definitely is – then try just going to YouTube instead. If that doesn’t work then try using the funny &fmt=18 extension which sometimes magically makes things work. And if that doesn’t work then complain to YouTube. And I might just find somewhere else to put this in the meantime.

Post-post edit: It’s now on Vimeo too – http://www.vimeo.com/1236557

Post-post-post edit: It’s also now on DailyMotion – http://www.dailymotion.com/BrendanCooper/video/9961901

But why? It all started when I was walking the Ridgeway (the prehistoric path from Ivinghoe Beacon to Avebury) with a friend, who suggested we take a look around the stone circle and village. I had no idea about it but – blow me down with a feather – I actually recognised it from the very scary BBC TV children’s series ‘Children of the Stones’, which was filmed there. I cannot describe what a strange feeling it was, ‘remembering’ somewhere I’d never been, from images I’d seen as a child, especially given that it’s such a strange place anyway. A few months later I went to my first summer solstice and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Eleven years on and, apart from every summer solstice and a few winter ones, I must have visited Avebury on dozens of occasions. I’ve walked all around the area, seen Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill, the West Kennet and East Kennet Longbarrows, the roundbarrows on the Ridgeway, the Sanctuary, the Swallowhead, the Avenue, and the Tolkien Trees (and, of course, the Stones). If you want to know about any of these things, look them up on Google. Together they form the neolithic metropolis of the Avebury area which, since 1986, has been a designated World Heritage site.

Again, why? Because the whole area is just bizarre. There’s nothing like it. The stone circle is so large that the village is inside it. Silbury Hill is the largest man-made mound in Europe, equalling some of the smaller Giza pyramids in size. West Kennet Longbarrow is the largest of its kind in Western Europe. As the antiquarian Aubrey said, Avebury “doth as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doth a parish church.”

No, really why? Well, because there’s a pub there. In fact, the pub is in the village and the village is inside the stone circle, so that makes it the only pub inside a stone circle. It’s much more conducive to a good time than Stonehenge.

And why the solstice? Literally it means ‘sun still’, that is, the sun slowly rises higher in its path across the sky until the longest day of the year (June 21st), at which it seems to stop rising, then declines through the next six months to the shortest day – the winter solstice – on December 21st. The solstice is basically a pagan festival but it has its roots much further back. Both Stonehenge and Avebury might have been aligned around them.

But what really matters is that you can go there and just enjoy a brilliant day out in summer. You can watch the druids worship because you’re not kept out like at Stonehenge, so long as you watch from a respectful distance. As the day progresses you see all manner of things going on, from slightly naff Morris dancing to amazing drumming, fire juggling, firebreathing etc.

You can be as lairy or laid-back as you like. Drink the pub dry or have a picnic at the foot of a stone. Stay awake all night to see the sun rise, or fall asleep in the long grass around the henge. It doesn’t matter. Main thing is, it’s probably the most unique way to spend a summer’s day, for free, and I recommend that anyone and everyone do it at least once.

I also feel quite strongly that everyone can go there for their own reasons, and that this is essentially what people have been doing for thousands of years. I’m sure that people would gather there not just for the religious ceremonies, but to meet, exchange information, be entertained and so on. So by going there I am continuing a tradition that is as relevant today as ever.

I’ll certainly be there again next year. So if you fancy meeting up for a nice frothy pint at a trestle table next June, let me know! Alternatively if you just want to go and see the place, do it. It’s amazing at any time of the year.

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Searching for property in a forgotten land

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If one definition of Web 2.0 is the ready integration of data across different sources, well, property searches and it seems the entire property industry have some way to go.

I’ve decided I’ve had enough of London. Actually, that’s not entirely true – I quite like my leafy North London enclave, but if I want to buy a house, I pretty much have to move out. Given that I’m a social media type person, with a particular predilection for RSS feeds, I’ve decided to employ said feeds to help in my property search.

Should be pretty simple right? Unfortunately not.

There are plenty of fairly competent property search engines out there, but not many of them offer RSS, such as Rightmove for example. If you sign in to Rightmove, you really do sign in – that is, they haven’t realised the benefits of making their data interact with anything other than their own systems. You can get email alerts but that’s about it. Meh.

Looking at RSS, for the UK, it seems like I only have two decent choices. One of them is utterly superb but doesn’t quite have what I want from its feeds, while the other is limited but has what I want.

Firstly, the great one: Nestoria. These guys really sat down and thought about how to integrate just about everything with everything else. It’s so simple to set up a search, and having done so you start to see how they’re pulling data together very nicely. Maps abound, with stats such as average house prices in the area. Your feeds come in various flavours. And they have a lot of great integration tools with Facebook, Firefox, Google, Netvibes and so on.

However, while they offer funky search features such as whether the property has a high roof, it doesn’t actually let me specify, oh I don’t know, that it’s green with white spots and is made of jam – that is, no keyword filtering.

So I decided to push the feeds into Yahoo Pipes to filter out the noise. But, on testing, I couldn’t get filters to work that, from other searches, I knew should.

And the culprit? The sparsity of information in the feed from Nestoria. The item description is usually just a sentence of 20 or so words, certainly not enough for Yahoo Pipes to get a grip of and filter out.

I sent them a quick email and they responded explaining that sparsity of information is a real problem in the industry as a whole. So it’s cool that they’re on the ball with their customer relations because I am most definitely a fan. But I would like to see them push more data out. Nestoria’s explanation is that the industry needs to put more data in to start with. Bum.

On to the other solution: ThinkProperty. They’re not nearly as forward-looking as Nestoria. The search interface is absolutely standard – price, locale, bedrooms – and you have to save a search to get a feed from it, which seems to have a nasty unique database key in the URL. It’s very clunky. What’s wrong with just generating the feed straight off, from a nice human-readable URL?

But their RSS feeds carry much more description. Why so much more than Nestoria? I dunno. Main thing is my Yahoo Pipes can search through this and start filtering me some decent properties.

So whereas with Nestoria I can just specify quite cool parameters, but not then filter with Yahoo Pipes because of the lack of decent descriptions, with ThinkProperty I get the descriptions but not the other cool stuff. For example, I cannot just say ‘Hertfordshire': I have to specify by placename or postcode.

Meanwhile, I don’t get decent keyword filtering with either, which is why I’m using Yahoo Pipes. Aargh!

This means I’m building my own customised search system with a combination of Google Reader and Yahoo Pipes, bringing together the quick-and-easy-but-slightly-abbreviated Nestoria searches with – get this – separate postcode searches from ThinkProperty for for Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and Kent. It’s taking me ages.

What I’d like to see is a site that doesn’t have these holes. One that offers good descriptions, readily available feeds, and flexibility in the way you search for properties. Sometimes it’s not enough just to specify a 2+ bedroom detached in Godalming: sometimes you need to specify more.

But that’s just features. What I really mean is that I’d have thought property search would be absolutely tailor-made for Web 2.0 as a philosophy. Maybe it’s different in the US but we’re not there yet in the UK.

By which I mean: chuck the data in, and give people the tools to pull it out, readily and easily. Integrate it with every other social app going, and spread the word. In fact, let people chuck the data in to start with too. Let them pull other data in and treat it in a nice, flexible way, the way data wants to be treated.

Then agencies can busy themselves with what they should be doing, that is, providing a meaningful local expertise service where they can answer people’s questions and actually sell something of value.

Like, for example, the estate agent I met at a property yesterday who, it turned out, went to the school at the end of the road, knew the architects who lived next door, and whose parents lived in the next town along. That’s what I’d really be prepared to pay for: good advice. The relationship. The qualitative stuff. Because computers – strike that, the web – strike that, Web 2.0 – is really, really good at the quantitative, especially now that we all get to play.

And while we’re at it, can I have a nice graphical interface that lets me draw the areas I’m interested in, and generate searches from that? Because not all counties are completely round.