It’s never been easier to engage, so if people don’t…

A hand cart, yesterday. Click image for source.

A hand cart, yesterday. Click image for source.

… then we’re all going to hell in a hand cart. Probably. A bit.

Sounds a bit alarmist I know, but here’s my take on this.

In the past, I’ve been fairly lackadaisical about politics. I thought I had left-wing leanings when I was younger but then who doesn’t/didn’t? At least I wasn’t a hippy like my father and I don’t think I’ll end up a neo-Nazi like my late Nan. Praise the Lord for small mercies.

However, this year, things are different. I can feel it. I’m not saying I’m running down the high street with a sandwich board haranguing passers-by and stuffing bits of paper into their pockets. Not yet anyhow. But I am thinking that there’s a lot at stake this year and that we have the first opportunity to track all of this. I should probably be more excited about the former but being a fairly shallow and narrow-minded chap, I’m actually more interested in the latter.

Fortunately for me – and the good people of Buckinghamshire who probably don’t want to be attacked by sandwich-board-clad fanatics – I can address both of these issues by setting up a dashboard.

So that’s what I’ve done. It started as a genuine attempt to find out what was going on for myself. It was just one tab and threw everything together in something that put the ‘mash’ into ‘mash-up’. Then I realised it might be of interest to other people too, so it’s expanded, been knocked through, had some new carpeting put in, been given a lick of paint and some safety rails and now it’s the UK Election Social Media Dashboard, covering what people are saying about Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and everything in between.

It’s worked. For me, at any rate. I actually found myself watching Nick Clegg be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. I actually had a sort of background in what Nick Clegg was representing. And I actually read the election coverage in the papers. Imagine!

But one thing I keep finding: apathy. Today I heard on the radio the traditional moaning from the traditional moan-mongers: “Politicians all say one thing and then do the something else”; “I don’t know one from the other”; “I don’t see the point in voting”.

I don’t blame them. I’ve been thinking much the same thing for the past ten years or so – however long it’s been in fact since I found out the crowds welcoming Tony Blair to Number Ten weren’t just spontaneously enraptured constituents, but carefully chosen, arranged, and strikingly telegenic activists.

But that’s because all I’ve been able to see of politicians has been on TV (“In that case it’ll be Enigma Variations, minister”), or hear on the radio, or read about in the papers. Today politics is EVERYWHERE. It’s on YouTube and Facebook. It’s being tweeted on Twitter and downloaded from websites. It’s EVERYWHERE, being expressed in each, any and every channel in every possible way.

So, if people really do still feel apathetic – if they have access to this information in easily digested chunks of 140 characters, fed to them by their family, friends and colleagues, or as a great big ScrumdiddlyUmptious Wonka-bar of a manifesto download to secret themselves in a corner and inwardly digest, or as magic lantern images projected to the back of their retinas as they sit drooling in front of YouTube at 3am each morning, or on their smartphones as they absent-mindedly forget to Mind the Gap and step onto the live rails – then we’re probably in trouble.

OK, so this is our first ‘social media election’, and maybe it’ll be better next time around. But politics is happening, here, now, and it’s everywhere. So if people still don’t see it – or watch it, or hear it, or discuss it, or share it, or bookmark it or tag it – then it’s because they don’t want to. And that means we’ll probably have to think of something better to replace politics. Benign dictatorship, anyone?

Humans do it better – but do they scale?

Its not right, is it? Click image for source.

It's not right, is it? Click image for source.

Today, two seemingly unrelated but actually very similar discoveries: socialmention is offering sentiment analysis among other metrics; and SpinVox uses people to transcribe messages.

Humans as machines

First, the second. SpinVox.They offer voice-to-text conversion which is something of a holy grail for computing, and given my past interest in AI, I found the proposition fascinating. I haven’t used the service myself but I’ve followed their progress keenly over the past couple of years, having actually done some work for them. At the time, I met Daniel Doulton and Christina Domecq, and they were a powerhouse. You got the feeling that everything, and anything, was possible.

And it turns out that yes, everything was possible, both good and bad, because news is out that their systems aren’t purely tech. They use people to transcribe, in call centres dotted around the world. This is a revelation to me and kind of damages their core proposition. People on Twitter seem to think so too, as does Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC who sees SpinVox not so much spinning as unravelling.

Quite apart from potentially being in trouble by having a call centre in Egypt, contrary to their claims of working within the European Economic Area, it implies to me that, far from having systems that scale, they have human beings that do not.

If their solution truly worked entirely with speech recognition then it would be gloriously easily – and a compelling business model – just to plug in server farms and data centres when load grew. But the ultimate corollary of human transcription is that you have half the world calling, and the other half transcribing. It doesn’t compute.

This would account for their other large headache: money. They’ve been asking staff to take share options instead of money, which was probably ok for Apple in 1960s, but times have changed since then. A while ago I heard Christina Domecq on Radio 4′s Bottom Line programme in which she implied the recession was a huge opportunity.I wonder whether she still thinks this?

She also said her systems ‘learned’. From what we now know, I guess this was the truth but maybe not the whole truth.

Machines as humans

Secondly, the first: the search engine socialmention which scans the social media space - blogs, forums, microblogs etc – for your search terms.

After reading about SpinVox I decided to use socialmention to see what people were saying about it. I noticed with interest that socialmention has some metrics I haven’t seen before (admittedly because I haven’t used it in a while). One of them I ‘get’: reach is calculated as the number of unique authors divided by the number of mentions. But the other three – strength, passion and particularly sentiment – I do not.

Strength is ‘phrase mentions within the last 24 hours divided by total possible mentions.’ Total possible mentions? What does this mean? Surely the total possible mentions is virtually infinite?

Passion is ‘the likelihood that people talking about your brand will do so repeatedly.’ This is maybe a bit clearer in that it probably uses frequency of mentions by unique authors. Or something. Again, it’s not particularly clear.

But sentiment is what truly gets me. It talks about ‘generally positive’ and ‘generally negative’ and, being free and openly available, it’s probably doing something similar to Waggener Edstrom’s twendz twitter sentimenting tool which, it seems to me, just uses fairly crude keyword proximity algorithms rather than anything rigorous.

That is, figuring out sentiment, but fairly badly. I used the tool as a test when Jade Goody died. I noticed it would class as ‘negative’ tweets that said “sad that Jade Goody died” – clearly figuring that the proximity of ‘sad’ to ‘Jade Goody’ implied negativity. Wrong.

I’ve done sentimenting myself in the past. I’ve been through search results for clients and figured out whether they’re positive or negative by actually reading them. But I can only do so much, often restricting myself to only a few pages of search results. Machines can do much more – they scale – but can they do it better?

I’ve recently been working a lot with PR measurement, and have had my eyes opened to the crudity of some measures out there. AVE for example, is only good for impressing people. That’s why some PR companies use it to impress their clients, and their clients, in turn, use it to impress their bosses. But it’s total bollocks.

So given the importance of accurate measurement, I would argue that tools like socialmention are actually dangerous. Some people out there might actually be using it to gain insight, and they will be doing so in a wholly unaccountable way. The conversation goes thus: “We’ve found that people are overwhelmingly positive about your brand.” “How do you know that?” “Socialmention says so.” “How does it know that?” “We don’t know.”

They’re not the same (not yet anyway)

On the one hand, perhaps it’s better that SpinVox is using humans because they understand language better than computers, at least for the time being (quite apart from also being naughty by posting their SpinVox grievances on Facebook). On the other, they have some explaining to do because they’ve kind of sort of perhaps maybe possibly led people into believing they were a tech solution, which would imply a much more effective business model if less effective transcription.

Meanwhile, socialmention is an unashamedly tech solution. But it’s claiming to do what humans do, and I just don’t believe that is the case. If they could, SpinVox would be using them, right?

Aaaaaargh! Sometimes, it’s just PR Fail.

Little people... why cant we all just get along?

Little people... why can't we all just get along?

I have a journalist friend who is hopping mad because PR people have forgotten the basics.

When I first got into social media, it was through PR. In fact, being fairly new to PR at the time, I used social media to help me learn more about it. I found my blog really useful in trying to articulate what I thought PR was, and wasn’t, and eventually started to realise how social media could slot into it quite nicely.

Sometimes I lose sight of this. I get so involved in talking about blogs and virals and bookmarks that I forget about the basics of PR, one of which is about relationships. And one of the most important relationships is that between PR and journalism. And, of course, professionalism throughout.

PRs are busy. It’s a fact. I work alongside tremendously capable people who sweat blood to help journalists out. But it’s hardly surprising that when PR goes bad, journalists get angry – because they too are sweating blood to get their jobs done.

So when this came through from my journalist friend, I felt compelled to pass it on. I’ve removed some details to protect the professional reputations of all concerned, but PR people, please take heed.

Here’s the story:

I have to sound off to someone who’d understand…

I was covering an event that I really needed to get good coverage for [frustratingly I really cannot reveal what the story was about but trust me, you will more likely than not have seen it covered, and even lead, on TV, radio and in the papers - it was a biggie]. The PR company, instead of pushing the material that I knew to be available, sat back and did nothing. By the time the story hit the wires I had to ring up people and get them out of bed to find out if anyone by some kind of miracle actually had possession of it. The PR didn’t even call me back, just sent a text saying it still couldn’t be accessed. I was finally called back far too late for this to be a story and I still don’t have the material.

I need to tell PR people – here’s how you need to start helping journalists:

1. Recognise a big story when you get one.

2. Don’t think “tomorrow will be ok”. Tomorrow we may have big stories around so it might only warrant a bare mention. At the time it was quiet and it could have led the news. Plus stories have a time limit and the longer it goes on the less valuable it is.

3. When a media organisation is chasing you, recognise that if you’re going to get the most out of it for your client you should bend over backwards to help.

Surely PR companies want us to want something they’ve got?

I am so frustrated, and not just own my own behalf. The PR’s client missed a huge opportunity because the PR company was not on the ball.

I can’t work out if I’m the one living on another planet or if they were a particularly incompetent PR firm.

No wonder PR Fail is winning (see right).

I think the journalist was right to feel aggrieved. And I think the points made are spot on. Do you?

Enviro.aero wins!

Just to blow my own trumpet a little, I found out today that a project I was heavily involved with while at Fleishman-Hillard has won a Flight Global Webbie award.

The prize-winning site is called enviro.aero, which is an initiative of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). It seeks to redress the balance in the debate over aviation’s impact on the environment, through fact and informed opinion.

The website presents the case for sustainable aviation, but it’s just one part of a joined-up system. The site features the Plane Talking blog where ATAG members give that important human touch through posts that cover everything from personal takes on environmental stories through to events such as summits and test flights. You can jump from the site to the YouTube channel to see more coverage such as a 3-minute journey through the development of flight towards neutral carbon growth.

Enviro.aero is also present on Twitter, both following and being followed by people interested in the debate, ranging from industry employees to travelling public. You can see what enviro.aero is reading on its Delicious page. And a Facebook fan page, entitled ‘supporting a future for green flight’ gives people the chance to vote for what enviro.aero is trying to achieve – in fact, today it just hit 200 fans, a momentum which has been picking up recently.

OK, so it’s not an Oscar, and I can’t put it on the mantlepiece, but it’s still recognition of what enviro.aero is trying to achieve, and I’m very pleased it’s won!

Google’s new search will be the best of both worlds

Which do you trust more, humans or machines?

Which do you trust more, humans or machines?

Google has released a video showing a Digg-like interface to its search. I think it’s going to change everything.

A casual glance at Friendfeed picked up a link from Chris Brogan: entitled ‘Is this the future of search?’ Given that I’m currently scratching my head a lot and figuring out how best to pull together searches across social media, this sounded interesting. It pointed to this Techcrunch post featuring a video of a new feature that enables you to tailor how your Google results come in.

Essentially you can vote on results in a very Digg-like way. You can add comments to results, and link to your Google profile so people know who voted, how and why. To my mind, this is going to be incredibly powerful.

Google is the ultimate machine-based search, pointing you towards pages that are likely to be what you’re after, not necessarily because that page talks about it, but because other pages reference it. The more pages point to a page, the more likely it is to be relevant. At base, it’s crude, but you can’t deny Google works well enough.

This new ‘voting mode’ points the way to human-based search. It pretty much is actually going around and asking people what they think, to get the best result. It replaces the machine algorithm with sentiment – the ‘human algorithm’ if you like. In so doing, the new Google Search mode turns every node into a social object. It enables people to comment and vote on a result that they care enough about to do so.

Comments on Todd’s Friendfeed has been interesting. Most agree it’s highly significant, but some feel that it’s in some way scary – it’s ‘mob rule’, ‘it leaves quality content as the mercy of conventional wisdom’, ‘monumentally stupid idea’, ‘I don’t want marketers telling me the best search result’.

My take on it is that if – as I assume to be the case – you can switch between these two modes, then you can compare and contrast. It just depends on what you value, or how you want to search.  I don’t see why this is so scary – it offers the best of both worlds, both the machine-based election for what you’re searching on, and the human-based.

And would it be so easy to game? Can you really game Google? As in, something that large? And if so, how does that make it lesser than Digg – assuming that is also gameable – or indeed current Google? (note: these comments, including mine, have been copied directly from Chris’s Friendfeed comments).

OK, so sites like Digg, del.icio.us etc already do this. The real difference, as far as I can see, is that, if you ask people in the street about Digg or del.icio.us or Wangwack or Biffo or whatever’s coming along next, you’ll more likely than not get a blank look. But almost everyone knows about Google. Heck, even my parents have heard of Google. Even the cat looks up when I mention it.

So look out for this emerging from Google Labs at some point. It’s going to be intriguing to say the least.