How To Use Tech To Connect With Nature

Monday night, eight pm. Ten strangers sit in a basement room in Bloomsbury, transfixed by a four-minute home video recorded on a mobile phone. But this is no splashy viral. It is the record of an unspectacular event that happens every dusk across London throughout summer and autumn, across elegant gardens and scrubby backyards alike: the opening of oenothera biennis, or the common evening primrose.

Of course, it is spectacular, as our riveted attention attests. We’re half way through a workshop on How To Connect With Nature at Alain de Botton’s foundation for curious grown-ups, The School of Life, but although there’s a tableful of snacks and our phones are incandescent with alerts, the arrhythmic unfurling of those pale yellow petals suddenly seems more important and nourishing than any glass of red or long-awaited email.

Nature is not a remote idyll we escape to but a web we live within, from Hackney to the Highlands. And rather than railing against the things we see as alienating us from the natural world – our vitamin-D-deficient work schedules, our industrialised landscapes and, most of all, our tech – we should find ways to use them to bring us closer to it.

“On the one hand I live too much of my life in my various digital screens,” says workshop leader Cathy Haynes, a London-based artist, writer and curator who recently acted as the Chisenhale Gallery’s artist in residence in Victoria Park. “I therefore tend to neglect too often the fascinating, vivifying, exuberant life around me. I have to remind myself to stop filtering everything through my tech.

“On the other, wonder abounds on the internet and I use it to find out about the natural world. I had a pretty minimal science education, but now I can research the glorious things I missed out on, from axolotls to exoplanets.

“I can find out what to watch for in the phases of the moon and learn what’s in the deepest ocean. I can get this from print media too, of course, but the range of formats, media and instant data online means I can find out more about the thing I’m looking at while standing in a field. And that deeper understanding can help me feel more connected.”

From National Geographic to the Natural History Museum, the web is a trove of instant, accurate and accessible nature knowledge. But there are also several practical apps that make it easier for busy Londoners to stay connected to nature throughout the day.

We might start the morning with Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day podcast, which features a recording of a birdcall or song, followed by an ornithological story inspired by the sound.

Come lunchtime, we could use the London Parks & Gardens app to find the green spaces on our urban doorstep, including “myriad smaller and lesser known gardens, squares, secret green boltholes, cemeteries, commons, and urban farms” – the majority of which are free.

To prevent our brains from circulating to-do lists while our bodies stride through the grass, we can download Leafsnap UK. Developed by the Natural History Museum in association with Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution in the US, the app applies facial recognition technology to leaves, helping users to identify 156 tree species across the UK.

Or how about iBird UK & Irleand? Its illustrations and photographs, plus identification, behaviour, habitat and ecology information will help us tune our ears to different kinds of tweets.

Even if we’re stuck behind a desk all afternoon, we can find ways to keep nature front of mind.

Mountain Bluebird male

New Chrome plugin Momentum creates a clean personal dashboard with an inspirational fullscreen nature image crowdsourced from Creative Commons. Join The Woodland Trust’s Facebook page for a regular stream of stunning forest-themed photography amongst all the Huff Post crap. And I couldn’t live without my RainyMood app, a customisable white-noise audio stream with – wait for it – more than 100 unique thunder claps.

Finally, on the way home from work, we can restore some perspective by pausing to parse the sky with the help of The Lunar Ephemeris, a Twitter feed that broadcasts the phase of the moon.

All technology originates from and is inspired by nature, from bird-inspired unmanned aircraft to Qmonos, a next-gen fabric based on spiders’ silk.

Whether they like it or not, technologists are naturalists; so what could and should they be learning right now from the natural world?

“How to cut waste and destruction from productive processes, so that all parts of a system support each other,” Haynes says. “The World Wildlife Fund reports that Earth has lost 40% of its wildlife during my lifetime. The issue couldn’t be more urgent.”

In other words, if we relegate nature to remote moors and craggy cliffs, we don’t just shrink our relationship with her. We shirk our responsibilities.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

Please, Tech Wizards, Pimp My Flight

shutterstock_97381709 Last weekend I travelled to Portugal for the annual digital marketing conference Upload Lisboa.

The event was great but the usual delayed trudge to and from Heathrow left me longing for London’s tech entrepreneurs to stop inventing ways to help me borrow a dog (if I see one more winsome cocker spaniel on Facebook…) and start inventing ways to improve air travel.

Although my carbon footprint has by now no doubt stamped a polar bear or two into icy oblivion, I still haven’t lost the sense of awe I felt on my first flight, aged six, to Gambia. From the dawn drive to Gatwick to the blue giraffe in the BA goody bag, every detail of the trip sparkled with strange magic.

Nowadays, when I hear a fellow passenger bitching about the onboard internet I can’t help but think of Louis CK’s brilliant “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” rant.

Nonetheless, the air travel user experience undoubtedly sucks.

In any industry where even the service providers have minimal influence over most of the factors that determine their success – weather, fuel prices, terrorists, politicians, ebola – the customers are bound to feel agonisingly disempowered, particularly when they’ve become so used to being wooed.

Once we step through those sliding doors, whether we’re precessing barefoot along a security queue or being herded through the Kafaesque convolutions of duty free, we keenly feel our transformation from valued data-jewel into raw economic meat.

The upside for startups is that, in this atmosphere, any tool that gives us the smallest illusion of control becomes a treasured talisman.

Apple’s Passbook is little more than a fancy oyster card, but every time I march past the masses fiddling with boarding cards and scan my phone I feel like a futuristic pioneer.

I’ve dabbled with TripIt, an all-in-one journey planner; its sync-with-email function may have seriously dubious privacy implications but its autofilled itineraries complete with real-time flight alerts and crowdsourced local recommendations are very nifty.

Two apps. Two apps which are essentially just ever-so-slightly less frustrating versions of the old paper-and-human system. Is this really the best you wizards can do?

Believe me, I’ve searched around. I have used the ugly and slow Priority Pass to find lounges, but it often takes so long for the ancient card machines to process my booking that I barely have time to swipe a complimentary snooty magazine before boarding starts. I’ve tried the airports’ and airlines’ own apps but they are both unreliable and aesthetically criminal.

Social media can help a bit; many times I’ve found airline and airport service teams to be better informed and more responsive on Twitter than in person, and KLM in particular are famously good at making their customers feel loved.

Unfortunately, such activity is hard to sustain at scale, so you’re unlikely to get a response unless your Klout score is high; and frankly, a world that rewards the sort of people who have high Klout scores is a world of pain.

There are a few more ambitious ideas out there, such as ‘social seating’, which allows fliers to view other passengers’ Facebook or LinkedIn profile details to help them choose their seat. KLM has pioneered this with its Meet and Seat scheme, and company Seat ID has a couple of case studies.

But it is hard to see what problem this ‘solution’ solves. Who wishes they were obliged to talk to the random in the next seat? Who wants to flirt for seven hours over rubbery chicken? Who thinks it is a good idea to connect with a potential client, then dribble on their shoulder?

Certain that I must be missing a trick, I talked to Kevin May, Co-founder and Editor of travel tech empire Tnooz. He agreed that there is more hype than help in this space, and says that most airports need to get their basics down pat before they can even think of anything more exciting.

“I am still amazed at the complete inability of airports to realise that wifi shouldn’t be treated as some kind of luxury item, for only a few passengers who can either a afford it or have lounge access,” he explained. “Mobile boarding passes are an obvious evolution and travellers are beginning to manage their itineraries and mobile payments in new ways. But although sexy tech like Google Glass is lovely for nerds and hipsters, it’s pointless for your every-day traveller.”

What about the future? “Airports such as London City are embracing the so-called Internet Of Things in a major way, using cutting-edge technology to manage passenger flow around the terminals and just generally make the traveller experience a better one. Although this is nowhere near the scale required for a facility such as London Heathrow, the understanding that travellers are always connected in some way is an important step and one from which other airports should learn.”

When we’re in an airport, our location is defined, our emotions high, our actions predictable, our movements trackable; and our expectations rock-bottom. You’d think it would be an innovator’s and a marketer’s dream.

Could we be ripe for an air travel hackathon? Over to you…

This article originally appeared on TCN.

7 Ways To Keep Your Social Media Balance

Social-media-addiction What didn’t you do this summer?

As a schoolgirl, I used to dread the annual what-I-did-on-holiday French essay, mainly because my vocabulary reliably reduced three magical months of adventure into a series of visits to and from train stations. A girl never forgets la gare.

However, this year I feel that asking myself (a tweaked version of) the new-term staple could be genuinely educational, because this summer I didn’t do a lot of really good things.

I didn’t have insomnia. I didn’t buy anything online. I didn’t feel the need to express opinions about subjects on which I know nothing. I didn’t care what I looked like, who I was with or what I was doing next. I didn’t think somewhere else was better than here. I didn’t run out of time.

In short, I didn’t do social media (okay, okay, so I liked a couple of photos of sunsets on Facebook and had a brief Twitter back-and-forth with an author whose novel I was reading, but nobody’s perfect).

Boy, did I feel like a nest of thrashing snakes had been plucked out of my mind. And boy, did it take no more than forty seconds after touchdown at Gatwick – the time my phone needed to boot up and find signal – for those snakes to slither back in.

Of course, you might be one of those people who spent your holiday taking, cropping, filtering and uploading photos, tracking your boat trips with navigation tools, making time-lapse videos with romantic soundtracks and chatting to your friends back in London on WhatsApp. To you, I have nothing to say.

Nor do I address those of you who believe social media is a total waste of time, who don’t rely on it for news, ideas and inspiration, who have never used it to find a lifelong friend, develop a career, or forge a collaboration. Or squee at baby foxes. You are also dead to me.

But to those of you who find social media both hugely valuable and regularly maddening; for those of you who long to strike a sustainable everyday balance between overload and off-grid; to you, I would like to humbly suggest seven small snake-handling strategies that might help you retain a little of your holiday zen this autumn.

Vive la revolution.

1. Keep a social media diary. 

The first step towards change is self-awareness. I dare you, just for one day, to keep the social media equivalent of a dieter’s food diary.

Make a note every time you check a social network: time, length of visit and your emotional state. In his new book Happiness By Design, behavioural scientist Paul Dolan argues that our attention is a limited resource, so we have to design our time to get more of the activities that genuinely enhance our life – and less of the filler.

Chances are, you’ll be shocked not just by the frequency of your social shoot-ups but how hollow and aimless they make you feel. Acknowledging this dissatisfaction will boost your motivation to change.

2. Revise your social media goals

Sure, you don’t want to turn friendships into project plans, but jotting down the reasons why you use each platform reminds you that they’re tools, not ends in themselves.

Are you really using Facebook to stay in touch or are you falling prey to click bait? Would you be better off substituting some daily Wall action for a weekly Skype call or, God forbid, a face to face coffee? Have you read any of those articles saved to Pocket? How many of those sexy Pinterest recipes have you made?

Daydreaming is great, but make sure you’re dayliving, too.

3. Do a cull

There are two ways you need to cut back. First, unsubscribe from all those sites you signed up to in a flush of FOMO (fear of missing out) but hardly ever use. When was the last time you checked in with Foursquare? Are you really going to create your own Vine? Next, tighten up your networks.

Use justunfollow.com to get rid of Twitter bots and zombies, then organise followers into lists that give you easy access to relevant conversations. Ditch all those frenemies on Facebook. Disconnect from random conference attendees on LinkedIn. Feel authenticity creep in.

4. Turn off push notifications

This is one of the most simple but effective methods I have found to break out of the Pavlovian update-checking cycle.

Multitasking is a myth; don’t waste brain juice, and don’t kid yourself that casually checking who has repinned your photo won’t turn into a full-blown sweaty-palmed twenty minute shoe-porn-surfing session.

5. Designate anti-social devices Keep your ereader’s wifi turned off, unless you’re downloading books. Put your tablet in airplane mode when you’re reading a magazine. Delete all the social media bookmarks on your laptop.

Confine social activity to one device – your phone is the most obvious – so that your brain can shift into more in-depth or insular modes when other sorts of creativity or content consumption are required.

6. Set a curfew Get your partner or housemates involved and turn off your router at 8pm. Your family and friends can manage with texts; if you want to watch Netflix, you have to put your devices in drawers. Stop pretending it’s acceptable to check your phone at dinner; it’s not.

And get a proper alarm clock – the Lumie Bodyclock with dawn simulation is pleasingly nerdy – rather than using your phone. Not only will you sleep better, you might start your day seeing your lover’s face or the trees through the window rather than a stranger’s breakfast on Instagram.

7. State your intentions Announce your curfews and weekend blackouts on your social channels. Everyone will admire you, it will manage expectations about when you’ll be playing in the sandpit and, most importantly, it will hold you accountable.

Once you’ve posted your chirpy ‘over and out’ Friday evening tweet, you’ll be exposed for the dirty addict you are if you cave within the hour.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

Fashion And Social Media Aren't Always A Good Fit

Phone-model-fashion It is hard to believe that, little over a decade ago, London Fashion Week was still a privileged trade show.

Produced for select roomfuls of buyers and editors, the collections only reached the public on a twenty-four hour delay via the lenses of accredited photographers and glossy supplements.

The clothes would take weeks to reach the designers’ own shops, and it would be months before the trends trickled down to the high street.

All hail the revolution.

For every po-faced fashion editor sitting in this year’s FROW, there will be millions watching the shows remotely from across the globe on the British Fashion Council’s livestream. Bloggers and celebrities will upload Vines of the best looks the second they appear while the models provide a catwalk-eye’s-view via Google Glass or HD micro-cameras fitted onto their clothes.

We will be able to buy direct from the catwalk; we may have even have helped design some of the clothes or crowdsourced the show. And the likes of Cara Delevingne (1.8M Twitter followers, 6.7M on Instagram) and Karlie Kloss (447K;1.2M) will sneak us all backstage.

It’s exhilarating. It’s addictive. It’s ‘the democratisation of fashion’ in action.

And part of me – Digital Editor of a fashion magazine, lifelong porer over September issues, teenage cutter-outer of coveted outfits and hoarder of designer interviews – hates it.

The super-social, access-all-areas approach works brilliantly for fast fashion brands such as Asos and Topshop, where the USP is quick turnover of ephemeral trends and the aesthetic is sweet shop meets jumble sale.

But for many of the fashion labels who I have spoken to over recent years, from established designers to young graduates trying to establish their name, the perception that they should be building a social media empire has become a constant anxiety.

They are struggling to reconcile the commercial imperative to be always-on content-machines with the time, focus and care required to create wearable art.

This isn’t just about protecting the fragile flower of genius; it taps into a wider clash between social marketing and luxury brands.

In a world where consumers can find (often brilliant) cheap knock-offs of almost any product online, and with a wobbly economy still keeping purse strings tight, luxury must feel more special than ever before.

The reputations of British names such as Alexander McQueen, Aquascutum and Mulberry – not to mention other luxury brands such as hotel groups, car manufacturers and restaurants – are based on the principles of scarcity, exclusivity and craftsmanship; principles that are hard to reflect in the emotionally incontinent, throwaway content that tends to perform well on social channels.

In other words, it’s hard to be timeless in real time.

Burberry is so successful in this space precisely because it doesn’t play by the normal social media rules. Its presences are a stream of polished product shots, celebrity collaborations and slick on-brand broadcasts – the sort of PR-retrofitted-to-Twitter stuff that would turn any community manager worth their salt green. Burberry doesn’t do social marketing so much as digital marketing played out through social channels, not to mention the very best tech that a £2.33bn company can buy.

But the distance is the point. The moment Christopher Bailey replies to one of my tweets is the moment I start to doubt that his Sandringham Mid-Length Heritage Trench Coat is worth a grand. We want our luxury brands to be the superior cool kids we gaze at across the school playground, not our bezzy mates.

Word of mouth is not the same as social media. Luxury brands would do well to question whether they would be better off creating extraordinarily conversational products and experiences for their customers rather than mouthing off themselves. Apple is proof that you don’t need social content to drive conversation; its carefully – some might say anally – controlled flow of information is absolutely key to the cult.

Of course, some designers were made for social, and their brand is inextricable from their extrovert, magpie personality; see Marc Jacobs or Diane von Furstenberg.

But others, especially those without the time or resources to truly compete with the big boys, might be better off becoming less noisy – and dare I say it, more low tech – then ever before.

For Spring 2012 Tom Ford banned photographers from his catwalk show. Hedi Slimane insisted that only bone fide buyers were invited to his YSL debut. The result? A storm of press and speculation, with invites reaching nineties gold-dust status.

To consumers who increasingly mediate their every moment through a device, the ultimate luxury is a real-world experience that is understated, sensuous, actively exclusive and only recorded in the collective memory of the participants. And the ultimate act of superiority and brand balls is silence.

To survive, luxury businesses need to be seen as taste leaders. Being a leader involves holding true to your brand as much as it means increasing your follower count.

This article originally appeared in TCN.

Customer Service In The Data Economy

mark-zuckerberg Tech customer service attained a whole new level of weird over the past couple of weeks.

As Facebook rolled out its Android Messenger app, users realised that they needed to grant over 30 security permissions to access their inbox, including access to audio recordings, photos, videos, phone numbers, text messages and contacts. They responded with hyperventilating blog posts, how-to-uninstall guides and lists of alternative messaging apps. 611,815 people have so far signed an online petition commanding Zuckerberg to desist.

According to the Google Play store, the app has now been downloaded over 500 million times.

Barely a month goes by without Facebook’s users biting the hand that feeds them. See the furore over its ‘emotional contagion’ experiment back in June, or the perennial accusations of shadowy security-setting tweaks. Of course, none of those outraged users ditched the network either. How else would they share the next petition?

Facebook’s standard response is to release a terse Help Center (sic) blog - at a push, one of their team might defend themselves in a public post - and then wait for the fuss to die down and forge on oblivious with their next move. They’re not alone. Customer service in the data economy is notoriously poor. It may look promising to begin with - Hey, they’re so quirky on Twitter! We can see pictures of their puppy crèche on Instagram! - but if you have a practical problem or a serious concern, they're all impenetrable FAQs and links to all-purpose online forms. Suddenly, the ‘one big collaborative community’ branding feels a little thin.

When it comes to free tech, we’re not customers. Money is still considered the quid pro quo for customer service, so willingness to be data-farmed doesn’t automatically bring us consumer rights. But this isn’t just about money; it’s goes much deeper, to the essential way that these businesses perceive us and how we perceive ourselves in relation to them. In this space, we’re no longer even consumers. We're users — and our new status brings a host of implications in terms of privacy, reciprocity, loyalty and power.

Customer-Service

The more consumers consume, the less they have. The more users use, the more they have. Sounds brilliant, right? We are more powerful than traditional, commercial consumers, because we generate our own value; it is our content, connections and interactions that drive our satisfying experience.

However, it is also a dangerously easy way for companies to justify poor design, frustrating 'upgrades' and unwelcome features. Can a service provider be blamed if our life and behaviour just isn’t awesome enough to put flesh on their framework’s bones?

The user is the end product in the data economy. We are what we make of ourselves through these networks and apps, whether they’re helping us collate our perfect wardrobe from online boutiques or fulfilling our potential by parking more efficiently. We are, we keep being told, ‘at the centre of the experience’ like never before.

This means that it’s always personal. Consumers are not always the end users of what they buy and they can share and compare the same product or service, like for like. But in a world of customisation, algorithms and plugged-in personal graphs, each of us is isolated in our own bubble of experience. By becoming data-trading users, we not only abandon our consumer rights but our benchmarks and our solidarity.

And yet, ironically, users are often more sensitive and vocal about their perceived rights. Social media is the natural home of the customer whinge. We have never felt the power of our voice more keenly but the sensation of power is very different from the real thing.

If we don’t like a paid product or service, we don’t buy it. But, locked in by the network effect and high on the drug of self-representation, we just can't bring ourselves to pull our profiles.

So can we really blame platforms if they are both opaque and fundamentally unbothered by our grievances? There is no such thing as a free Pinterest lunch recipe. The problem lies in our naive expectations and hypocritical soapboxing as much as their ethics.

Complaint is, at the end of the day, just more content for the mill.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

Prepare For The Rebranding Of Money

Burning-Money For most people, myself included, both money and technology sit in the mental category of ‘functional magic’.

The details of how these things work are a little hazy although we’re damn glad they do, despite the inkling that they’ve snared us, ignorant and insatiate, in some nefarious spell. We’re vociferous about their failings, but we hesitate to dabble in the dark arts ourselves. We might have to sell our soul to the devil. We might have to do maths.

So I was relieved when yesterday’s Activate London summit from the Guardian - which, being focused on the predatory-sounding world of #fintech, promised to serve up a double shot of jargon and hype - proved to be both accessible and relevant. Beneath the “inspiring case studies” (read: pitches) and the failed attempts to explain what in Jobs’s good earth is Bitcoin, the speakers slowly gravitated towards three elemental questions.

What is money? What is the problem with money? And what do we need to do to make it better?

Billy Alvarado, the founder of the hugely successful cross-platform payment system Stripe, got to the heart of the issue when he reminded us that that money is not a single blunt instrument but a keen multi-function tool: a token of barter; a storage unit; a facilitator of personal ambition; a means to understand your own worth within your society; a method for comparing the value of countries across the world.

One of the problems with Bitcoin, he suggested, is that we expect its genuinely innovative but still very raw protocol to serve purposes - such as offering a stable method for mainstream consumer exchange - that it simply isn’t well-designed for.

The result is a proliferation of platforms, apps and systems which must define as well as answer the problem they perceive to be limiting our economic ecosystem the most.

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Jemima Kiss in conversation with Billy Alvarado. Photograph: Anna Gordon

One camp of innovators considers that money should be a enabler of collaboration. Their scripture declares that our drive to ownership will make us extinct, but that the technology of a sharing economy will save our souls.

“Money is not a thing,” declared Jem Bendell, Director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability. “It's a way of keeping score between people doing useful things for each other.”

Benita Matofska of Compare and Share, a centralised marketplace for peer-to-peer accommodation and travel, and Aurore Hochard of Taskhub, a platform which connects people to the indie businesses and service providers in their area, sang along.

For others the ownership economy is still the main game, but dogged by clunky tech and cross-border friction; hence startups such as Mobino, OpenMarket, GoCardless and TransferWise, which aim to make the mobile payment experience as easy and global as possible.

Yet others focus on money as a wealth generation tool. Many believe that the barrier to sustainable growth is an opaque and unethical banking system. Positive Money’s Ben Dyson explained how his team are attempting to wrest control from high street banks, creating debt-free new money that can be channelled into the real economy rather than property bubbles.

The CEO of Nutmeg, Nick Hungerford, described how his company’s emphasis on liquidity, transparency around performance and clear communication aims to game-change a sector built on the principle that “we take something really simple, make it complicated, and charge you to translate it back again.”

For those more concerned with the inaccessibility of investment opportunities, there were FundersClub and Funding Circle, evangelising how their platforms provide a low-cost, user-friendly way in.

Then there are the innovators who believe that money should benefit the individual and their society at the same time.

Fundrise, a startup that allows people to invest in local real estate projects for as little as $200, is already making waves in the States. Toby Eccles of Social Finance wowed the audience with his Social Impact Bonds, outcomes-based contracts in which public sector commissioners commit to pay for social outcomes (such as a reduction in offending rates) - effectively allowing people grow their personal pot and fund real change simultaneously.

Activate London 17/7/14 St Luke's Old Street  Toby Eccles, Social Finance

Toby Eccles. Photograph: Anna Gordon

But the single theme that united all these disparate tech visions was the importance of trust and the power of branding. For all their disruptive potential, alternative financial models will only convert the mainstream when they offer the consumer a sense of equal, or greater, security than state-endorsed systems and currencies - at least, in the west.

As Index Ventures’ Ophelia Brown pointed out, emerging markets with mistrusted and domineering governments will remain at the forefront of financial innovation, because they have much less to lose - it is unsurprising that China has seen more Bitcoin downloads than any other country in the past year, around 20 percent.

The winners in the fintech race won’t just be the ones with the best solutions but with the strongest and most authoritative brands, and when Jean-François Groff of Mobino suggested the Bank of Coca-Cola as a decent candidate, he sounded like he was only half joking.

Overall, Activate was a little heavy on the PR (the ‘fireside chats’ with founders were bland at best, sycophantic at worst) and a little light on challenging insight.

The most obvious and pressing problem in finance - endemic inequality - was the one that was least well explored, and rhe best question of the day - which saw Big Invest’s Nigel Kershaw challenge the collaborative consumption panel to name technologies focused on shifting large-scale poverty rather than generating bigger margins - emerged three minutes before the bell and got swallowed by the rush to the wine.

But the event did convey a distinct sense that we devolve responsibility for understanding and experimenting with these models, however flawed and nascent they may be, at our peril.

Crowdtilt cofounder James Beshara’s parallel between today’s crowdfunding platforms and the early noughties’ Wordpress sites felt particularly apposite. If a web log can evolve from midwestern cat ladies to CNN.com in a decade, where might fintech be in 2024?

Certainly, it’s time for more of us to get out our wands.

This article originally appeared in TCN.

The Children Of The Digital Revolution

The moment I stepped into Digital Revolution, “an immersive exhibition of art, design, film, music and videogames" which opened at the Barbican this week, I got an eerie foretaste of the experience to come. As I entered the first of six dark and cacophonous rooms - chunks of Elastoplast-coloured hardware splayed in cabinets before me like archaeological relics from a pre-Ive era, the Linn LM-1 baseline of Don’t You Want Me Baby thumping deep in my bones - my hands started to pixellate and flash.

A projection of The Game of Life swept over my body, its glowing squares swarming over my skin. Predating and creating in a ruthless cycle of algorithmic evolution, these cells are the protagonists of a zero-player game invented by British mathematician John Horton Conway in 1970, and they represent one of our earliest examples of a self-perpetuating and self-organising computer system.

The moment was a neat microcosm of a theme that emerged to link Pac-Man to music videos, Twitter miniskirts to CGI: the tension between tech as liberator, and tech as engulfing force.

Unlike its agricultural and industrial predecessors, the digital revolution has always been driven from the bottom up. The Barbican's show tells a story that belongs to ostracised artists, frustrated teenagers and misunderstood misfits; from Matthew Smith, the British game designer who at the age of seventeen inserted penguins, eggs and toilets into the outstandingly successful Manic Miner, to Markus Persson, the Swedish founder of Minecraft whose high-school careers advisor told him that making a living out of computer games simply wasn’t on.

Even the most commercial installations, such as will.i.am and Yuri Suzuki’s “rhythmic and sonic robotic experiment” Pyramidi (2014), which features golden robotic instruments in octahedron-shaped cases playing along to a newly commissioned song beneath a 3D Systems sculpture of the musician’s head, have a whiff of anarchic silliness beneath the shine.

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As I flapped my arms in front of Chris Milk’s extraordinary piece of digital shadow theatre The Treachery of Sanctuary (2012) and saw my silhouetted arms whoosh into wings, or watched Tim Schafer, the creator of the Kickstarter-funded point-and-click adventure Broken Age (2014) talk about his nostalgia for the emotional storytelling and wit of 1980s games, I came to realise that tech has always offered its underdog supplicants (myself included) the chance to articulate what they feel they have lost in the physical world, or indeed what they never had.

Power; epic purpose; community. Wholeness.

This is most movingly reflected in the section Our Digital Futures, which focuses on wearable tech. A pair of thick-rimmed glasses with sensors taped onto the side might look cobbled together, but the accompanying video unveils them as a hack by The Not Impossible Foundation that allowed LA graffiti artist TemptOne to paint for the first time since being paralysed by a neuromuscular disease. The man with headphones clamped on beside me had tears in his eyes.

But amongst all the exhilarating innovation, these makers retain a palpable need to remind us of the essential disconnect between the digital and the real worlds. The arrival of the Internet saw a proliferation of digital art works such as wwwwwwwww.jodi.org (1994) and Form Art (1997), which frustrate as much as they inspire, highlighting the illusory nature of user control and exposing the contrast between slick UIs and the messy, secretive and sometimes dangerous underbelly of the Web.

Similarly, although this shadowy, noisy exhibition offers womb-like anonymity, it also demands that we engage our physical bodies with the exhibits, often collaboratively, whether that involves grabbing Game & Watch controls for a bout of two-player Boxing or gyrating in front of Les Metamorphoses de Mr Kalia, the Kinect-powered installation that won the first Google-Barbican sponsored prize for DevArt.

Those who complain that tech makes people into anti-social robots should compare it with the lines of passive, po-faced automatons whispering their way through the average London 'culture' show. For once, an exhibition justifies the adjective “immersive”; as a site for both transcendence, and embodiment.

This is a beautifully curated and accessible exhibition, aptly held in what is London’s most solid yet magical space (the Barbican Centre may be a massive block of concrete but it somehow manages to disappear, with Platform 9 3/4 coyness, every time you try to navigate your way there). It will be a great shame if it is only frequented by gaming and sci-fi fanboys; Digital Revolution isn’t about machines so much as the humans that harness them; fragile, funny, flawed anti-heroes who deserve a mainstream spotlight.

 Digital Revolution is open until 14 Sep 2014 at the Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS. 

This article originally appeared in TCN.

How Publishing Can Disrupt Technology

  What is the most exciting technology currently disrupting the publishing industry?

bookThat was the question I found myself pondering last weekend as I sat amongst a bunch of aspiring and established authors, traditional and indie publishers, founders of literary startups, agents, editors, technologists and a few fellow hybrids of the above at The Literary Consultancy’s annual Writing In A Digital Age conference.

(That and: where can I find a velvet housecoat like the one Dorian Grey wears in Penny Dreadful? But that’s a whole other article.)

Ask the average bibliophile on the street, and they’d probably namecheck their Kindle. But although e-readers have forever changed the way we consume our books - in the opening panel, Steve Bohme from Nielsen BookData revealed that in 2013 Brits bought 10% fewer print books and 20% more ebooks than the year before - new and exciting they are not. 

The basic ability to transport thousands of tomes on one device is indisputably amazing, but the software and hardware still have a way to go. Formatting remains dodgy, ‘communal highlights’ irritate and exporting notes is a chore. A reading-specific device means yet another bit of tech in your bag, but having your novel interrupted by Twitter alerts feels deeply wrong. My compromise is an iPad Mini bristling with multi-format apps, but the lack of heft, give and texture of even the prettiest electronic slab inevitably degrades the reading experience.

There are rumours that Sony and Kobo are collaborating on a snazzy new reader using e Ink Mobius on a six inch display, but until I actually see devices that deliver on both functionality and tactility, I won’t be giving them my vote.

Self-publishing platforms, on the other hand, are a much more solid candidate. Established services such as Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and Completely Novel have not only liberated authors from risk-averse, glacier-slow commercial gatekeepers and connected them directly to their readers, they’ve given designers and editors a whole new freelance marketplace. According to Bohme, self-publishing's share of the UK market grew by 79% in 2013, amounting to the purchase of 18m books.

But, although a long-tail of startups such as Softcover and Archer continue to diversify the space, self-publishing frustrates as often as it inspires. The unscrupulous exploitation of Digital Rights Management by the big boys (kicking off the conference, Cory Doctorow< delivered a rousing anti-DRM keynote) and dodgy deals offered by author-assisted services (Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, exhorted writers to read the small print) persist. Moreover, self-publishing platforms are only as exciting as the content they host, and it can be all too tempting to birth a self-published book before it has reached creative full term. There is a lot of chaff out there, and too few tools with creative rather than commercial agendas to help us harvest the wheat.

What about social media? It certainly deserves an honourable mention for services to literary word of mouth, and for providing a playground where indie collaborators, authors and readers can meet. But it is the people on the platforms, not the platforms themselves, that disrupt. The best book blogs and forums favour the simplest designs, and eight-year-old Twitter remains the most popular writers’ space. Unbound, the crowd-funding site for books, offers uniquely rewarding collaborations between the Unbound team and its authors, and those authors and their readerships; but it's pretty much a social media dinosaur by now, having been founded in 2010. 

Finally, you could make a case that digital production tools, which are facilitating the creation of transmedia storytelling projects such as Sherlock: The Network or The Live Writing Series, have game-changed our idea of what reading and writing can be. But they are still the preserve of a minority of both makers and audiences, and feel more like the emergence of a new genre than a disruption of the existing market.

So, as I sat there with my seventh cup of coffee cooling in my hands, I decided that I needed to reframe the question. 

The most exciting technology in publishing has remained consistent for centuries. It’s called the human brain. Brilliant stories - whether served up across on and offline platforms in fragmented bites or slurped in a single sitting from between the sweet-smelling covers of a hardback - have the potential to shape our world in the way that no piece of code can match. They give us the words, images and analogies that allow us to build visions of the future in our heads before we ever translate them to the dev lab.

From TS Eliot to George R R Martin, Arthur C Clarke to Hilary Mantel, authors - and the people who help nurture, polish, distribute and sell their stories - have always shaped our collective imaginations, and our collective future, as powerfully as they’ve been shaped by it.

The ancient and inherently anti-social discipline of reading a mono-media, full-length novel has more potential to disrupt the tech industry than the tech industry has to disrupt the book. An eclectic and healthy appetite for fiction should be considered a seriously desirable, if not compulsory, entry on every tech founder, CEO, VC, creative and developer's LinkedIn. 

The shorter our attention spans and the more data-led our insights, the more vital it is that we build tech companies, products and services that are steeped in humanity, empathy, real-life social wisdom and the unexpected neural connections that great stories create.

Close your browser. Go read made-up stuff.

This article originally appeared on TCN.

 

Resisting The Lure Of Social Media Singularity

In times of stress, I get monolithic. Shades of grey skitter to the edges of my mind like iron filings, exposing a chilly monochrome cave. As adrenaline dissolves ambiguity, decisions get stuck. I dont want one thing or another, I want one thing: one definitively right thing, because then I know what Im dealing with. Then, I might be able to control it - and control myself.

Collectively, weve been stressed about social media ever since it stopped being the amorphous, happily contradictory diaspora where you could publish fan fiction and chat with strangers, and became Social Media, the slick city where couture-clad teenagers forge careers and brands hang out in the bus stop, proffering bags of sweets.

Early on, we succeeded in turning the plural noun into a singular concept, but still we vacillated about the nature of the beast. Should we file it under personal or professional? Celebrate it as empowering or despise it as soul-sucking? Palm it off on the techies or condemn it to the marketing team or force it upon the CEO?

As the scrappy self-made GeoCities pages of 1994 gave way to the identity-by-tick-box homogeneity of Facebook 2014, we began to grope for the whatof social media, rather than the what if.

The social media industry has reflected this stress - and pandered to our craving for singularity - in several ways.

One involves the proliferation of aggregation tools such as HootSuite, Flavors.me and RebelMouse, which offer both organisations and individuals a hub where they can view, manage and share their content across multiple networks in one place. Another involves the expansion of established platforms, which continually develop new features (the now-defunct Twitter #Music, LinkedIns recent foray into blogging) and incorporate disruptive upstarts (Facebook buying Instagram, YouTubes move to acquire Twitch) in an attempt to keep their users snug in their sandpit.

Both of these approaches, like most human beings under pressure, have an inherent element of weird.

Undoubtedly, aggregation tools can benefit busy community managers when used with sensitivity and context, but on the whole they have become inefficient and irritating content-creation machines. We have a dispersed long-tail of social networks precisely because each one offers a unique experience, fulfils a unique need and adheres to a unique style of communication and content. If you dont have the time, budget or inclination to dive into each of them on their own terms, would it not be better to focus on participating brilliantly on the one or two that you truly understand, value and enjoy?

But the shortcomings of social automation are nothing compared to the dystopian dream of the one platform to rule them all. A couple of years ago, it looked like our eclectic early pantheon of networks had indeed boiled down to five big deities: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Then, as VCs turned fairy godmother and the app economy discovered fire, the likes of Vine, Instagram and Snapchat pushed forward; but were, all too quickly, swallowed up.

In his flawed but brilliant manifesto You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier asserts that first-order expression is when someone presents a whole, a work that integrates its own worldview and aesthetic. It is something genuinely new in the world. Second-order expression is made of fragmentary reactions to first-order expression.

The individual, not the network, is the first-order expression. Social tools are there to serve our granular needs, ideas and whims rather than force them into the homogenous, pre-ordained structure of one grand ur-platform.

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And there are promising signs that were fighting our instincts to align. Take VSCO Grid, the minimalist mobile image-sharing community that has quietly reached cult status over the past fifteen months. In the Grid, you cant leave comments on photos; you cant even likethem. You can follow other users, but recommendations get served by the VSCO team themselves, not an algorithm. The emphasis is on curating quality content, not playing status games; there are no trashy memes or wobbly selfies, and founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze claim that the platform will never focus on numbers or adopt the bolt-ons of a traditional social network. VSCO Grid feels like a return to the authentic spirit of early social networks, with all that weve learned since about user experience and mobile design layered on top.

Of course, we all have to make a living, but I sincerely hope that more startups continue to carve out their own, independent piece of quirky social real estate. And I hope that we, as users, continue to search for and embrace them.

Multiplicity is scary. So is change. If only social tools would stop emerging and imploding, fracturing and fragmenting, brands could devise immutable, eternally effective strategies, and the rest of us could settle into SauronBook, safe from content overload and FOMO. But when it works best, social is like nature, bewildering, absorbing and beautiful; not art, not science, but a mixture of both, with the inherent mutability of life thrown in.

Sure, Im as stressed as the next first-world worrier, but Im going to try to stay curious; to move away from certainty and back towards nascent communities and exciting outliers.

Assuming, that is, I can remember all my bloody passwords.

This article originally appeared in Tech City News

Counting Farts: In Pursuit Of The Quantified Self

Every time I see someone running down the street with a sexy little Jawbone strapped to their wrist, I can’t help but think of farts.

In Samuel Beckett’s 1951 novel Molloy, the eponymous hero - a former vagrant now living with his mother - recalls the day when, wrapped in copies of The Times Literary Supplement, he decided to count his farts.“Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours” Molly relates, “or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it's not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It's nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It's unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I find the dream of the fully ‘quantified self’ as compelling as it is eerie. I am the kind of kale-eating, therapy-jargon-spouting narcissist for whom wearable tech was made. A keen sponsor of the $11 billion self-help industry, I am fascinated by the life-pimping potential of our new breed of navel-gazing tech. From SuperBetter, the latest site from crusading game designer Jane McGonigal which aims to gamily our personal health goals, to Dream: ON, the app from British psychologist Richard Wiseman which allows us to track, share and even influence the content of our dreams, I spend far too much time browsing body-hacking porn.

The application of big data to our most mundane bodily functions provides a thrill that larger and more abstract projects, however worthy, cannot match. Sure, we understand the importance of businesses harnessing big data to transform their sustainability or governments manipulating it to better manage public transport. But much like our craving to reduce the mystery of the universe to a beardy bloke in Birkenstocks, most of us can only learn to love technology when it is turned into story about us. Craft that story from the syllables of our heartbeat, the imagery of our dreams and the commas of our breath, and you’ve got an instant bestseller; Fifty Shades of Decay?

Yet although I continually dissect and tweak my social media persona like the finest Facebook Frankenstein, I still can’t quite bring myself to fork out a couple of hundred quid for a Fitbit or a Gruve. At the moment I can still, after an hour spent on Twitter, force myself to disconnect; to walk unmediated into the city streets, get a coffee with a friend and re-establish the boundary - however fuzzy - between my curated and experiencing self. I’m afraid of what would happen to that boundary if I bought a device that would turn that sweet, dark shot of Colombian and that tearful heart-to-heart into a graphable dataset. Frankly, I’m afraid of how much I might like it.

Of course, self-tracking might well be a powerful tool in helping people chart, acknowledge and change their behaviour. But I suspect, like most technology, it is mostly used by those who need it the least, the wealthy worried well; and in this context, it seems to combine the worst sort of female self-objectification with the worst sort of male autistic obsessiveness. Again, I can understand the urge; when you’ve lost the knack of living inside your body, ‘getting the measure of it’ seems next best. But isn’t self-consciousness the one skill that Gen Y has already nailed? Might we be better off honing our sensitivity to our environment and community rather than our own resting heart rate?

Last year Zeo, one of the early quantified-self pioneers, quietly folded. Last month, Nike announced that it was no longer investing in the development of newFuelBand hardware. Of course, there are a host of startups jostling to take their place, and perhaps the iWatch will redefine the genre; God knows, Apple have game-changed industries before.

But I can’t help but wonder, once we’ve cannibalised every experience and logged every twitch of our skin: will we will know ourselves better, or worse?

 

This article originally appeared in Tech City News.

7 Things Every Twenty-First Century Writer Should Do

Writing can be a lonely business, and the fragmentation of the publishing industry can leave aspiring authors feeling unsure as to whether they’re got more or less opportunity of getting their work read than ever before.

Last weekend’s Writing In The Digital Age conference – an event organised by leading manuscript assessment service The Literary Consultancy – was a rare opportunity for the UK’s leading publishers, editors, agents, writers and digital innovators to gather in an atmosphere of honesty and openness to swap experiences, perspectives and practical advice.

TLC Conference 2014 by © Elixabete Lopez Photography-1

From a blistering keynote by journalist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow to a panel about what book reviewing means in the twenty-first century, it was a rollercoaster ride through the opportunities and challenges on offer for those of us mad enough to cobble together careers based on words.

If you fall into that category, here are seven things you need to know.

1. Take control of your own career.

Whether you choose to self-publish or pursue the traditional route, it is no longer viable to shut yourself in a garret and expect the royalty cheques to come. Orna Ross, founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors, got it in one when she said that “every writer should be an indie [independent].” Define why you want to write, what sort of things you want to write, how much money you want to make, and the lifestyle you want to live while you’re doing it. Make it into a proper business plan, with a timeline, marketing strategy and KPIs. Then go out and find the tools and partners that are the best fit.

2. Self-publish, at least once.

Ross also insisted that even trade published writers should experiment with self-publishing at some point. It’ll give you a much better understanding of the full range of publishing services and tools out there, and will encourage you to get over the mental barrier of sharing your work. Beware of making anything public too early – you still want to thoroughly polish before you slap an ebook onto Amazon – but genre novels, specialist non-fiction, short stories and experimental formats might get more traction on niche platforms than in the traditional marketplace. You won’t learn until you start producing, and there’s real value in overcoming your ego and learning how to ‘ship.’

3. Turn one manuscript into multiple streams of income.

Marketing guru and novelist Joanna Penn explained how she makes a living as an “entrepreneurial author” by turning her projects into print books, ebooks, audio books and public speaking opportunities - not to mention ensuring everything is translated and spread across the globe – so that she gets every bit of a juice out of every piece of work.

4. Think beyond books and experiment with multimedia storytelling.

David Varela is a transmedia storyteller who applies his writing skills to everything from digital games (Sherlock: The Network) to fitness apps (Zombies, Run!). Screenwriter and director JJ Abrams collaborated with writer Doug Dorst to createS, an incredible romantic-novel-cum-library-book. As Francis Bickmore, Publishing Director at Canongate put it, “Stories are spells. You need to find immersive ways to draw your audience in.” Don’t constrain yourself to words on a page; and if you don’t have the skills to bring your hybrid to life, use social networks to find someone who can.

5. Get creative with funding.

Unbound is a brilliant website that offers crowd-funding for books; writers pitch ideas and readers pledge money to make them happen. Everything is transparent, with Unbound and the author splitting the net profits 50/50, and authors offer all sorts of enhanced treats – an insider view of their writing process, tickets to launch parties, goodie bags, lunches – to draw their supporters in. Don’t forget that there are more conventional sources of funding, too. If you think your book could have the potential to push creative or digital boundaries, it’s worth checking out the grants and bursaries on offer from the likes of Arts Council England.

6. Don’t sacrifice editing for marketing.

Piers Alexander, who won last year’s PEN Factor competition for promising debut writers and is about to self-publish his first novel The Bitter Trade, delivered a brilliant keynote discussing the fine balance that writers need to strike between reaching out to readers and producing good art. While it can be incredibly helpful to spend time building a social media community, designing your perfect cover or refining your sexy elevator pitch, you need to make sure the majority of your effort is being ploughed into making your book the best it can be. Without that, it’s all so much turd-gilding.

7. Never give away your DRM.

DRM, or digital rights management, is a set of technologies that was ostensibly established to prevent people from illegally copying online content. However, while it has proved pretty useless when it comes to piracy, it has proved an excellent tool for unscrupulous publishing corporations to control authors’ works – and income. Cory Doctorow is on a mission to make authors realise that opting into DRM is tantamount to putting yourself in chains. Educate yourself on the issue, sign up to the Open Rights Group – and think very carefully before you tick that box.

This article originally appeared in PHOENIX

Shaping A Satisfying Writing Life

If there was one statement that summarised last weekend's Writing In the Digital Age conference, the annual event produced at Farringdon's Free Word Centre by the Literary Consultancy, it was that voiced by Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, during a self-publishing panel called "The Writer In the Machine". "Nowadays, every writer should be an indie, whether they are traditionally published or self-published," Ross declared. "They have to take control of their writing careers."

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Cory Doctorow

This rallying cry for individual responsibility, and its concomitant positioning of the publishing industry as a set of complementary tools rather than a feudal bestower of success, echoed throughout #TLC14's three intense days, uniting agent and editor, author and publisher, print fetishist and digital innovator alike. The message was as challenging as it was inspiring, but always underpinned by one basic acknowledgment: the ivory tower has been bombed. The garrets are dust. So if you want to stay around you'd better stop cowering under shaky lintels, pick up some rubble, and start thinking like an architect.

However, the ivory tower in question is not "trade publishing", "print book production" or "pre-Amazon retailing". It is our tenacious yet spurious illusion that making a living as a writer was ever anything other than frustrating, confusing, expensive and exhausting; full of things you don't want to do; and inextricably linked to the grubby, fleshy, non-fictional world of other people and commerce.

In an early session exploring the relationship between authors and traditional publishers, writer Rebecca Abrams admitted that she was a "thwarted monogamist", having had a different publisher for every book and four editors for her latest novel alone; in other words, she reminded us that a deal with a big-name house does not insulate a writer from insecurity and flux.

Alexandra Pringle, Group Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury, described her own struggle to balance the needs of her writers with the commercial imperatives of the company, and the agony of having to "abandon" previous clients for her own dream job. These challenges may have been intensified by the new digital landscape, but they have always been inherent in publishing.

When Robert McCrum's article "From bestseller to bust" appeared in the Guardian this March, profiling once-prestigious authors who are struggling to make ends meet, I was amazed by the storm of comment it provoked. Was this really news? Wouldn't it be rather more extraordinary if literary awards proved to be some sort of credit crunch kryptonite? I'd certainly have been more shocked by "From bestseller to sustainable career: how authors other than JK Rowling have managed to feed their kids without taking shit part-time jobs or netting a high-earning spouse."

Yes, it's damn hard to build a writing career nowadays; but hasn't it always been thus?

Just as the old ways of publishing were never as solid as we like to imagine, the new ways are less disruptive than we might assume. Take Unbound, the crowdfunding-for-books site launched in 2010 that gives readers the chance directly to fund the books they want to read and writers the chance to publish work that would otherwise slip through the commercial cracks. As co-founder John Mitchinson pointed out in a panel dubbed "The Age of Possibility", Unbound is at heart a hybrid of the patronage and subscription publishing models that have been writers' main route to market for centuries, only with transparency, creative playfulness and equitable profits thrown in.

Another good example of this was provided by Mitchinson's co-panelist, transmedia writer David Varela. By applying his word skills to everything from interactive digital games (Sherlock: The Network) and fitness apps (Zombies, Run!) to public improvisation (the Live Writing series), Varela looks to have developed an unprecedented and uncategorisable portfolio career. But his cocktail of freelance storytelling is as reminiscent of roving Shakespearean poet-singer-actor-playwrights as it is typical of Gen Y.

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Jon Slack, Max Porter, David Varela, John Mitchinson

In short, digital disruption has done us a huge favour, by both exposing the insecurity inherent in the act of publishing and surfacing a host of anciently innovative models that can help drive an author-centric writing life. But what exactly does that life look like?

Well, whether your idea of being a writer is getting arts funding to pen epic poetry in a remote Scottish cottage or using your weekends to crowdsource a real-time thriller on Twitter, it needs one thing in common: a business plan. As the conference transitioned from reflective debate to practical advice, Ross begged writers to be honest about why and for whom they write.

In the self-publishing panel, indie author Rachel Abbot described how she really became happy with her writing life only when she applied what she had learned from her previous career as an MD, creating a timeline and a marketing strategy complete with KPIs. In a later session on book reviewing, the popular review blogger Lynne Hatwell (Dovegreyreader) declared that she would never monetise her blog, accept advertising or write for a newspaper, as her creative freedom was priceless. Their paths are very different, but defined by a similar sense of self-awareness and educated choice.

Writers must also be painfully honest with themselves about the skills, time, money and services required to achieve their chosen vision of success. Speaking alongside Abbott and Ross, the effervescent self-published marketing guru Joanna Penn outlined the multiple streams of income she pursued as "an entrepreneurial author". From fiction to non-fiction, audiobooks to ebooks, speaking gigs to podcasts, Penn made it clear that "becoming a money-making machine" required both full-time commitment and a willingness to turn yourself into a personal brand.

And writers can no longer abdicate responsibility for their rights. In his opening keynote, the journalist and science fiction author Cory Doctorow delivered a brilliant polemic about the evils of DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the companies that promote it, declaring that he would rather give up his right to tell stories than publish using a system that threatens freedom of speech.

Later, Ross sounded a warning note about unscrupulous agent-assisted self-publishing services, and when Polly Courtney talked about her defection from HarperCollins for insisting on branding her novels as chick-lit, the point was reiterated: whether operating in print or digital, trade or indie, authors need to educate themselves about the credentials of their collaborators and develop their own ethical codes. In the words of Granta's Senior Editor, Max Porter: "Read the way you want to read, write the way you want to write, and weatherproof your value system."

Finally, Gemma Seltzer from Arts Council England emphasised that writers need to remain focused on their core creative mission. If your novel is an unconventional genre piece, are you really doing it justice by submitting to traditional publishers, rather than considering multimedia content marketing online? If it's a quiet literary novel, might you have to accept that you'll need to keep the day job for the next couple of years while the trade publishing process plays out?

In her opening comments, conference organiser Rebecca Swift explained that she had founded TLC because she "hated to see creative energy wasted". The subsequent three days were, in their way, a plea for writers to stop wasting energy - on maintaining unhelpful illusions around both trade and indie publishing, and on mismatching their creative aims and approaches.

It's all too easy to blame publishers for being slow to innovate, social media for being crowded, and readers for reaching for the lowest hanging fruit. Instead, more writers need to take responsibility for shaping the nature of the book-world in which they want to take part.

This article originally appeared in Bookbrunch.

What Makes A Good Social Strategy?

What does a good social strategy look like? As one of the judges of the Warc Prize for Social Strategy, which has just named AMV BBDO's 'Doritos Mariachi' Facebook campaign 'the world's best social strategy', you'd think I might have my answer down pat. But after four months spent arguing the merits, or otherwise, of 40-odd case studies with a brilliant global group of strategists, planners, researchers, analysts and creatives, I have never been more aware of how subjective success can be in the social marketing world.

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Wary of my own prejudices, I employed the process to articulate the criteria I use to define social success. It turns out I have four.

Does this strategy use social channels in a uniquely appropriate and/or innovative way?

Does it spring from an idea that is inherently conversational?

Does it generate enough emotional advocacy to achieve behaviour change?

And is it the product of a company that 'is' social, rather than one that 'does' social to try to win awards?

Let's examine the first. I have to admit that, when one entrant explained that they 'started a relationship with bloggers', I scribbled a weary 'woohoo' over the submission form. Putting slick images up on Facebook or sending freebies to semi-celeb bloggers seemed fresh in 2008. They can still form useful components of a wider strategy, but they're mostly tired old tactics from print or PR squashed to fit a new space.

How about harnessing geolocation, augmented reality, wearable tech? How about looking beyond Facebook or Twitter to engage with exciting emerging communities on Findery, FightMe or VSCO?

Saatchi & Saatchi's ASB 'Like Loan' campaign, which won a Gold Award in the Warc Prize, used the power of group-buying to create the world's first home loan rate powered by likes. It's a great example of a brand using a uniquely social technology to game-change a risk-averse industry. Making an expensive video and slapping it on YouTube – a common tactic for weaker entries – is not.

And what about the small matter of an inherently social idea? What we're looking for here is a concept that makes people talk, a spark that builds relationships, a story that inspires others to tell their own.

A strong example of this is the Silver Award-winning 'Animal Strike' campaign by DDB Group New Zealand for Paw Justice, which gave animal lovers a series of tools to help their pets 'strike' on the internet in protest against new chemical testing laws. The 'black paw' symbol, whether plastered over a deactivated YouTube video or printed onto signs outside empty zoo enclosures provided a bold, simple message that people could customise to disrupt their own networks and convey their own sentiments.

The opposite of this is a brand pumping out a smorgasbord of content – Facebook posts, Twitter Q&As, blogger outreach, hashtags – at great volume but without a single coherent, emotional centre that will turn a marketing drive into a movement that others want to own and share.

Thirdly, behaviour change. It's no coincidence that the Doritos case study scooped both the Grand Prix and the Special Award for Analytics. With its mix of metrics encompassing reach, engagement, sentiment, intent to purchase, shift in demographics of Facebook followers and, yes, sales figures, it was a refreshingly sophisticated definition of social value in an industry that remains over-reliant on views, follows and likes.

The fact is, if you want massive exposure, you might as well just pay for a Facebook ad or put up a billboard. The superpower of social media is not exposure: it's influence. Did your audience do anything more taxing than clicking on a button or typing a smiley face? Did they create their own content and translate the spirit of your campaign into their own lives and words? Tracking emotional impact and consumer action is an essential indicator of social success.

Finally, a great campaign should be just one manifestation of a brand's commitment to a lifelong relationship with its consumers (not to mention partners, stakeholders and staff). Running shoe brand Mizuno deservedly won Warc's Special Award for Social Business with its Mezamashii Run Project, in which it collaborated with runners to rigorously test its product. The approach stemmed from a deep respect for existing online running communities and involved the company being publicly honest about its challenges and mistakes, resulting in an ongoing conversation between equals rather than a short-lived marketing stunt.

That's my take. You probably have four – or 40 – more. Tell me why they're better with a tweet to @mollyflatt.

This article originally appeared in Admap.

How Social Media Is Coming Full Circle

Last month, I took seven days' holiday, in a remote cottage on the Suffolk coast. There was no phone signal. I switched off the WiFi. I cooked some locally caught fish. Then I sat in front of the log burner and read The Circle, Dave Eggers' controversial Google satire. 12192913926_e8b9deb5b3_b

Eggers is a star of contemporary American fiction and, like his equally talented peer Jonathan Franzen, a deep sceptic of 'technoconsumerism'. His novel is a bit clunky, but it makes brilliant, albeit painfully resonant, reading for anyone who works in social media. As his heroine, Mae Holland, becomes indoctrinated by her new employer, a slick, data-hungry internet corporation called The Circle, she reduces her identity to a thousand tick-box surveys and comes to believe that sharing every moment of her life is not just a liberating choice, but a moral imperative.

The novel takes a rather dim view of humankind, and Eggers ignores how empowering social media can be when used with purpose and perspective. But his somewhat clunky challenge is both timely and important. It is all too easy to let your sense of purpose and perspective slide, especially when you start to feel that opting out of online sharing amounts to professional suicide.

In your personal sphere, you might find yourself starting to gag at the calculated cool of your tweets, or cringe at the one-upmanship on Facebook. As a marketer enslaved to the idol of content, you may start to suspect that the digital white noise you churn out on behalf of your brand is as hollow as the feeling in the pit of your stomach. Increasingly, you wonder whether you are feeding ego-trolls rather than strengthening relationships, and you secretly believe that the endpoint of social media marketing is A Billion Brain-Numbing Branded Buzzfeed Lists, with their guarantee of easy likes, shares and click-throughs.

Our sense of disillusionment is very real, and we need to listen closely to what it is telling us, but we would be unwise to underestimate the self-correcting power of the internet. As established platforms become over-commercialised and clogged with crap, a new generation of apps and platforms are aiming to reinstate something of the serendipity and yes, even anonymity, of the early social media landscape.

Take VSCO Cam, a photography app that stormed onto the scene in 2012, securing over a million downloads in its first week. VSCO (short for Visual Supply Co.) started out as an in-house editing tool, amassing a cult following for its outstanding 'presets' (filters to you and me). In 2013, the company took a dip into social networking by introducing the 'Grid', a minimalistic image-sharing stream that opens automatically when you run the VSCO Cam app.

It may look like a sleek Instagram, but VSCO Grid is a very different beast. You can't leave comments on photos; you can't even 'like' them. You can follow other users, but recommendations get served by the VSCO team themselves, not an algorithm. The emphasis is on curating quality content, not playing status games; there are no trashy memes or wobbly selfies, and VSCO founders Joel Flory and Greg Lutze claim that the platform will never focus on numbers or adopt the bolt-ons of a traditional social network.

Any brand with great visuals or a design-based offering would be mad not to pay attention to a community where quality of content and depth of emotion reign supreme. Of course, the price of authenticity is a tricky measurement, and any brand with a heavy hand will be quickly ostracised. But VSCO has recently collaborated with Levi's to create a bespoke LV1 preset, which denim fans are using to share images of their jean-clad commute on the Levi's® x VSCO Commuter Grid. It's one example of how both brands and individuals are reclaiming meaning in a crowded space.

Another can be found in Sgrouples, a free platform that lets users 'privately communicate with friends, families and groups' by creating invite-only conversations, free from trolls, frenemies and data thieves. Sgrouples allows users to pick which ads they want to see and which brands they want to interact with, including the option to see no ads at all. No profiling, tracking or media buying is allowed, so if brands want users to subscribe to their feeds, they must raise their game with increasingly useful and delightful content.

We may not have reached the apocalyptic meltdown of The Circle quite yet, and we hopefully never will. But to future-proof the value of social media we must make our sharing matter: less, better, more helpful and on our customers' terms.

This article originally appeared in AdMap.

The Gnarly Art Of The Social Brief

What is the single common thing that drives every social media strategy? A belief in the power of word of mouth? People? Measurable objectives? Facebook? Nope. It's the brief. Whether created by a planner or a marketer, whether served to an agency or an internal team, the brief is the genesis of any social media activity, whether that's a short-term campaign or ongoing community management. And if you're not achieving your anticipated results, the culprit – underneath all the cultural resistance, resource issues and problematic metrics – is probably that original brief.

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There's a great meme currently doing the rounds on Twitter, called 'client brief vs. client budget'. It consists of two images. The first, labelled 'client brief,' shows a still from the movie The Life Of Pi, with Pi standing defiantly on the prow of his boat while the CGI tiger Richard Parker roars in the foreground. The second, labelled 'client budget', shows a scruffy Indian boy in a makeshift costume posing behind a grumpy ginger cat. It has provoked glee – and homemade spin-offs – from thousands of creatives around the world. It has also, no doubt, secretly enraged thousands of planners too.

Every business in the world has more ambition than resource. Surely it's the job of a creative team to turn constraints into opportunities? Surely the culprit of social media is the response to the brief and its subsequent execution, not the brief itself? Inevitably, it's a bit of both; but too many campaigns are doomed, in full knowledge, from the start. Client and agency alike are all too used to accepting that every potential cash cow must be turned into a camel; designed by committee, but likely to spit out the basic metrics required to keep us all afloat. How do we stop settling for 'close enough?'

Let's take ourselves back to exam time at school. What makes a good exam question? Geared towards getting the best out of its students, it is driven by hope, not cynicism. It is specific enough so that students understand what they are being tested on, but not so prescriptive so that it precludes individuality or originality of thought. It is crystal clear on practical constraints – word count, time limit, format, number of examples – but, as to the spirit and technicalities of the solution, the examiner is open to being surprised. In fact, the examiner, 50 camels on, is desperate to be surprised. But the examiner also knows what good feels like. Even if the topic sits outside their specialist subject area, they have the experience and confidence to distinguish esoteric bullshit from left-field brilliance.

What makes a good answer? We all know that the first commandment of exams is to interrogate the question. The question, you see, is not the question. The question simply points to a whole host of more real and complex questions buried beneath those words on the page.

Here are some of the most common 'iceberg questions' buried beneath social media briefs. How will this answer stop me from losing my job? How can we convince the CEO that this isn't a waste of time? How can we make our service better so that people don't talk so negatively? Why should anyone be enthusiastic about this product when none of us even like it?

By interrogating the question, you also interrogate objectives and assumptions. Does your team value this enough to put in the necessary resource? Is your CEO willing for everyone else to have a public opinion? Will 20,000 Facebook fans really make any difference to your bottom line?

When you've surfaced the real questions, it's time to find some answers. At their core, you need one big, over-arching emotional idea: a story based on what your target audience really wants. This is your argument. Around this core argument you then create a number of more practical answers, known as tactics; these should be specific, surprising and scalable, offering a number of different entry points. And don't forget to show your workings; explain the insights that led you to your conclusion.

Finally, add something bold and disruptive. The thing you'd love to do, even though they probably won't. Stretch the muscle of their minds so that even if they reject the idea, they're that bit more loosened up.

Whether you're creating a brief or responding to one, I'd encourage you to spend twice as long as you normally do exploring those words on the page. You might not end up with a tiger, but you'll have so much more than a grumpy cat.

This article originally appeared in AdMap.

The Power Of Strangers

The image shows a young man leaning against a marble bannister in Grand Central. He is wearing a beanie and a straggly beard, with a skateboard in one hand and a bottle in the other. He looks half-hopeful, half-resigned. The caption above reads: "I told her that if she wanted to start over, to meet where we first kissed. She was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago." The Facebook post has 107,490 likes, 4,020 shares and 4,719 comments. If you aren’t already a fan of Humans Of New York, you’re missing a powerful daily hit of social media zeitgeist. Founded as a humble blog in 2010 by photographer Brandon Stanton, HONY “now provides a worldwide audience with glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City” via its three million collective followers on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, and a No.1 New York Times bestselling book.

Why are strangers’ lives so compelling? Most of us have imagined the stories behind the faces we spot in the street, or experienced the unexpected empathy of a brief encounter on a train or in a hospital ward. In fact, encounters with strangers often provoke stronger emotions than exchanges with people we already love or hate. If I receive a compliment from a stranger on my shoes, it will probably mean more to me than one from someone I know, even if that someone is a stylist.

I don’t mistrust the acquaintance, of course but I know that there are probably a host of other social nuances driving her comment: a wish to let me know she loves me, say, or even a need to perform a subtle piece of one-upmanship. With the stranger – unless they’re coming onto me – it’s more likely to be a pure expression of admiration for those gorgeous boots. Moreover, because the stranger has had to take the risk that they will be thought weird or sleazy, their opinion feels all the more potent.

A 2010 study into how people choose a mate from Indiana University found that we are not only greatly influenced by what our friends think of our potential partner, but also by the opinions of complete strangers.  "If you walk into a party and don't know anyone, you might think, 'Why do I care what anyone here thinks?'” explains Skyler Place, a researcher in IU's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “In reality, we're paying close attention to what others in our social environment are thinking and doing."

The influence of strangers has been central to the rise of social media. Back in the early days of Live Journal blogs, AOL chat rooms and niche passion-based forums, the joy of the social web lay in the opportunity to reach out to likeminded strangers, beyond the restricted circle of your geographical or genetic community. If you were an early adopter dabbling in these emerging platforms, chances were that your friends and family simply didn’t have the dial-up capability or plain geeky interest to be present in those spaces. For the first time, you could pick the brains of people across the world who didn’t have the same background or biases as your real life social circle. As a consequence, their recommendations for brands or products – from a brilliant book to a stain-remover – held special weight.

Brands’ obsession with Facebook – to the exclusion of blogs, forums and topic-based communities on Twitter - can lead them to forget the importance of helping strangers to bond around their brand. Many of our lasting friendships develop circumstantially, through school or work, so our Facebook friends’ passions and preferences may diverge wildly from our own. Focusing on spreading recommendations within personal networks may not be as influential as brands think. Facebook itself seem to be clocking on to the need to reincorporate serendipity into the mix; Paper, its beautiful new US iPhone app, allows users to view their newsfeeds via topic, so that they can surface relevant popular updates from people outside their own friendship group.

It’s important to keep this in mind with offline engagement, too. Creating opportunities for strangers to connect around your product or brand – in a retail store, or an airport, or in the middle of the street – is highly emotive, and drives plentiful, highly charged content. It’s why stunts such as the interactive vending machines Coca-Cola created for the film Skyfall, or the car-sized gift boxes Mini seeded around Amsterdam streets on Boxing Day, are so effective.

When it comes to social influence, it’s not just who you know, but who you don’t know that counts.

 

Social Media Needs Strong Brands

Hands up if you hate the term ‘brand’. Yep. I thought so. The word originally comes from the Old Norse ‘brandr’ – the practice of stamping hot metal symbols on livestock – and the etymological whiff of brutality still lingers. Brands stink of globalized uniformity, of slick corporate coercion cloaked in a shiny logo and an uplifting tagline. And we hate them even more now we’re all supposed to be one, with our precious, unique, hydra-headed identities boiled down to a Klout score and a sexy one-line Twitter bio.

But the old-school principles of branding have never been more important. The organisations that are proving successful and resilient in the age of social media are those that have a strong sense of what their ‘brand’ means. Having worked with conglomerates and independents, blue-chips and charities, from Beirut to Birmingham, I have come to the conclusion that most social media problems are in fact branding problems instead. Teaching a marketing department how to use a #FollowFriday hashtag is not the issue. The issue, in the words of the great social media dissenter Jaron Lanier, is that “you have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”

Robert Bean has thirty years’ experience rebranding companies such as BMW, Honda, BT and Yo!Sushi . In his book Winning In Your Own Way, he explains that organizations must find the intersection between their culture, their product or service, and their reputation: what he calls their ‘single organizing principle.’ And listening to him talk at an event in London, I realised that social media terrifies many leaders exactly because it highlights the holes in their organisation’s SOP. Social media demands transparency, so if the truth under their tagline ain’t pretty, it’s quickly going to show.

One story Bean recounted involved a visit to a regional BMW dealership with the company’s CEO. Finding that the toilet was a little grubby, the CEO summoned the manager, pointed to the loo, and mused, ‘the ultimate driving machine?’ He didn’t need to say another word. The manager rushed off to solve the problem; he knew exactly what his boss meant.

It’s the equivalent of being able to point to Facebook, say ‘the ultimate driving machine,’ and trust your staff all over the world to understand exactly why and how they should connect with customers online. When it comes to social media – and indeed most things in life – a glut of rules, safeguards and processes is usually an indication of insecurity. Engaging in consumer conversation requires organisations to traduce boundaries: between departments, between on and offline spaces and between personal and professional selves. Having a simple SOP ensures consistency yet allows each individual to interpret that collective spirit in a way that suits their role, their personality and the conversation they currently need to have.

I may come from the box fresh end of the marketing discipline, but I spend well over half of my time running my own version of Robert’s branding process. Although teaching teams the technical stuff – platform best practice, content calendars, tools and tricks, timings and process – is important, it’s useless if they don’t understand the essence of exactly what it is they are representing when they engage online.

No-one following your Pinterest board? It’ll usually be because your images have nothing to distinguish them, no unique style or provocative purpose. That’s a problem with your visual identity, not a problem with your inability to ‘be social.’ What if your team has posted some inappropriate tweets? That’s a culture issue, not a ‘social media mistake.’ Or what if the quality of your Facebook pages varies wildly across different markets? You won’t solve it by trying to get every region to imitate brilliant Bulgaria, or by crafting a ten-page policy for them all to translate. Only once each one of those owners has understood and internalized your SOP, can they start to interpret it for their communities in a fluid and meaningful way.

The challenge is not just to define your SOP, but to make it spread both wide and deep, from the CMO to the intern. Leaders must show they are committed, but granular, practical action is also key. Start by building it into your rewards and incentives programme. You can throw up a thousand pretty wall vinyls, but an SOP will only really flourish once daily behaviours are being judged and reinforced accordingly.

If you’re struggling with social media, you probably need to dig deeper than you think. Make-up will only give you so much social sex appeal. You need to start with good DNA.

 

This article originally appeared on 12ahead.com.

Scarlett Johansson Gets Under The Skin

skin3 Velcro books. You probably have a few: those quiet, quirky novels that you relentlessly recommend. They’re not blockbusters; you most likely stumbled across them by chance. And although you find it difficult to describe precisely why you find them so compelling, you just want other people to have a go. To hear what they think.

Michel Faber’s novel Under The Skin has long been one of mine. Although it was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Award, it didn’t seem to make much of a blip on the popular radar, possibly because of its genre-bending nature. Ostensibly sci-fi, the novel follows the story of an alien called Isserley, who prowls northern Scotland harvesting the flesh of hitchhikers for her extraterrestrial employers, but the prose is as tautly opaque as the finest literary text. Part crime thriller, part psychological drama, it riffs on themes of corporate ethics, environmental destruction, factory farming, identity and class. See? It sounds rubbish. It’s not.

So when I found out that it was being made into a film directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Guinness ads) and starring Scarlett Johansson, I was worried that my odd little gem was going to become a big, reductive blockbuster. I was reassured when its premiere at the Venice Film Festival sharply divided critics, however, and it turns out to have all the strange and subtle anyone could want. Perhaps too much.

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There are many memorably good things about this film. Johansson, renamed Laura as the alien, is a marvel. Every movie Johansson stars in features obsessive, salacious camera shots, and Under The Skin takes this fascination with her face and flesh to the extreme, both revelling in and satirising the objectification. Laura’s discomfort in her human body, and her slow journey towards finding acceptance and even pleasure in the ordinary stuff of human life, is mesmerising. Glazer is not afraid to let a single scene of Johansson driving, or looking in a mirror, or walking, play out for several minutes, until we too become defamiliarised from those familiar shapes and textures of fat and bone and skin. It’s deeply eerie, slightly disgusting, and utterly beautiful.

This is enhanced by one of the best soundscapes I’ve ever heard in a film. The minute crackles, pops, crunches and scuffs of a human moving through their environment are magnified so that we feel like our senses have been flayed, raw to the air. Much of the horror of the scenes where we see Laura’s victims disappear into a sea of black goo, only to have their insides sucked into a conveyor belt of gore and their skin deflate into a twist of parachute silk, is aural. Every slow, terrified eye blink and glacial finger movement has the opaque intensity you get from ducking your head under the bath.

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The extraordinary ordinariness of Glasgow and its residents – many of whom were picked up by Johansson, cruising in her van, without realising they were part of a film – is deeply moving. From a cocky young clubber to a young man with a bone deformity making his way to Tesco’s in the dark, we see the full humour, heroism and vulnerability of people who could not be further from Hollywood. And later in the story, as Laura hides out with a reclusive man whose undemanding tenderness starts to crack her chill, her exploration of the surrounding wilderness – majestic snow-frosted mountains, forests, lochs – provides an exhilarating contrast.

As a mood piece, it’s an utter triumph. Aesthetically, the horror and the beauty are stunningly intertwined. And yet, and yet. You don’t have to be a soulless popcorn-munching pleb to long for the tiniest bit of structure or dynamism. As viewers, we are willing to wait a long time for the anticipated moment of reversal or development, because we’re so immersed. When it never comes, we are left with a slightly greasy taste in our mouth. Johansson gropes towards change and discovery but never quite gets there – meaning that when she literally climbs out of her burning skin in the putative climax, it doesn’t have the moment of impact the film so badly needs. Like her ash, we just kind of drift.

Like the book, it’s hard to say what the film is about, or even what really happens. The opening images – a series of circular surfaces, reflections and halos of light moving into and out of each other, evoking, in turn, hospital scanners and eyeballs – perfectly set the atmospheric scene. This is a film that lives in the boundaries between things, the silence beneath dialogue, the spaces where one body ends and another begins.

It’s a gorgeous ride to nowhere. Love it or hate it, it’ll velcro itself to your brain.

This review originally appeared on PHOENIX Magazine

Are You A Junk News Addict?

NEWS It’s Sunday morning, and in an uninspiring lecture hall somewhere in the boondocks of Bloomsbury, bestselling popular philosopher Alain de Botton is teaching us how to read a newspaper. He brings up a slide showing a photograph of a glacier crumbling into the sea, then flicks to a photograph of Taylor Swift in a pair of shorts walking along a sunny LA street. One is news, the other is not. But why? And how, as a society, can we rise above our Twitter-fuelled deluge of real-time ephemera and use the news to become better people, and think deeply about the issues that really matter?

De Botton has a new book to flog, and it makes sense that he should flog it at one of the School of Life’s brilliant Secular Sermons, a monthly gathering – complete with Lady Gaga hymns and themed biscuits – at which earnest young hipsters and earnest mid-life self-developers listen to the likes of David Baddeil on Fame or Mary Anne Hobbs on Love and Loyalty. De Botton founded the School, which gives people “a place to step back and think intelligently about central emotional concerns” via lectures, workshops, books and products, in 2008, and The News: A User’s Manual is exactly the kind of lightly controversial, culturally zeitgesity fare that regular attendees adore.

If you bookend your day with compulsive glimpses at the BBC News app or spend guilty lunch-hours bingeing on the Mail Online’s Sidebar of Shame, de Botton’s manual makes uncomfortably acute reading. Promising “to bring calm, understanding and a measure of sanity to our daily (perhaps even hourly) interactions with the news machine”, he analyses 25 classic news stories to prove that most ‘breaking exclusives’ are in fact the same old archetypes served up in different wrappers. Envy is fed; fears are resurfaced; relief washes through us when we witness that it is someone else’s turn for disaster today.“Yet there is a particular kind of pleasure at stake here too,” writes de Botton.

The news, however dire it may be and perhaps especially when it is at its worst, can come as a relief from the claustrophobic burden of living with ourselves, of forever trying to do justice to our own potential and of struggling to persuade a few people in our limited orbit to take our ideas and needs seriously. To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity. It can be an escape from our preoccupations to locate issues that are so much graver and more compelling than those we have been uniquely allotted, and to allow these larger concerns to drown out our own self-focussed apprehensions and doubts. A famine, a flooded town, a serial killer on the loose, the resignation of a government, an economist’s prediction of breadlines by next year; such outer turmoil is precisely what we might need in order to usher in a sense of inner calm.

In other words, news addiction serves a very real purpose, and we should not feel ashamed. We should, however, reflect on the feelings that that interview with Natalie Massenet evokes in us, and try to use them to make us healthier and happier, rather than just stewing in envy. For example, a more rewarding approach might:

  • Seek out more complex, historic stories such as climate change, or the culture of Iraq, and find ways to make them part of everyday conversation
  • Use art, from paintings to theatre, to direct us to deeper more stimulating spiritual, cultural and emotional ‘news’ that is always relevant to humankind; and use art to make difficult subjects sexier and more palatable
  • Consider issues through the lens of a number of different biases – say, imagining what Miley Cyrus twerking would mean as part of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path
  • Rather than feeling guilt about our obsessions with celebrities, accept that role models are important – but understand which of their qualities we would really wish to emulate
  • Seek out good news so we get a better balance with the bad

The book is far from perfect. It has stirred up a hearty ripple of controversy in the news organisations it both implicitly and explicitly criticises – surely one of de Botton’s intentions. Reviewers have condemned it as “simplistic” for swapping probing research in favour of obvious platitudes; The Sunday Times‘ Dominic Lawson complains that “de Botton talks about the entire industry as if it were homogenous. It is extraordinarily diverse, more so than ever.” Indeed, such a short volume cannot hope to fully address the nuances of the questions the author raises, and his failure to acknowledge many of the positive practices and innovations being used by organisations such as the BBC is galling to a generation of journalists and broadcasters who have deep integrity in their work, and who are already being squeezed on all sides.

But de Botton’s writing is witty and lucid, his examples eclectic, and his focus refreshingly practical. And his accompanying website, The Philosophers Mail, which rewrites real-time tabloid headlines to give us a glimpse of what a more theraputic model of reporting might look like, is a work of disruptive genius.

This is an important book. Love it or hate it, has the capacity to stimulate some touching conversations about your own hopes and…oh, wait. I’ve just seen that Opening Ceremony is trending on #NYFW. Better go.

If you’d like to receive an elegant signed bookplate especially designed to fit into de Botton’s new book, email your retail receipt together with your address to siobhan@senecaproductions.com using the subject header ‘Bookplate’. 

This article originally featured on PHOENIX

Time For A Social Media Detox

slide8-blender You'd better accept it now: your January detox is bound to fail. The British Liver Trust has described short-term New Year abstinence as 'medically futile', but we don't need scientists to tell us that attempting to embrace salads and spinning classes at what is possibly the darkest, coldest and most anticlimactic time of year is dumb. Instead, I recommend you stock the boardroom with biscuits and motivate your team to shed some flabby social media habits in time for spring.

Marketers are always being told what to do in social media, but they're rarely told what to cut loose. So here are three toxic behaviours that commonly clog brands' communication colons, with ideas for how to cut them out.

Old habit # 1: Monitoring without listening. The importance of social media listening has become such a well-worn truism that it can be hard to remember what it really means. It does not mean paying for the most basic Sysmos service, slapping a bunch of graphs into PowerPoint, then sending them round in a monthly email that no-one reads. It does mean drilling down into specific conversations, so that you can understand the motivations and advocates. It does mean listening for what isn't there – such as finding the places where your competitors are being talked about but you are not, and asking why. And it does mean making sure that everyone in the company takes ownership of celebrating, stimulating and learning from your word of mouth.

New habit # 1: Qualitative weekly alerts. In practice, specific human stories inspire colleagues far more than impressive-looking quantitative reports. Assign a different member of your team to create a company-wide, super-short, super-visual social listening alert each week (use Email Monks to make it look easily digestible and appealing). This should contain one concrete example of conversation about your brand, competitors or category; one insight that piece of content demonstrates; and one suggestion for what the company might do in response.

Old habit #2: Relying on vanity metrics. The bullshit triumvirate of likes, followers and fans might look good on paper, but chasing empty social actions leads to meaningless content strategies. Frankly, the most valuable word of mouth – the personal recommendations that spread beyond your control and out of your sight, offline as well as on – will always be the hardest to capture. Nevertheless, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) is currently corralling a heavyweight panel of academics, brands and agencies in an attempt to develop a rigorous model in language marketers understand. Until then, remember that you need to weight your social metrics according to their level of emotional engagement (a passionate blog post matters more than a neutral tweet; a Facebook share with an added recommendation matters more than one without). That way, you know you're starting to measure advocacy.

New habit #2: Integrate conversation metrics with business metrics. Set business (not social) objectives and KPIs, and value your social media activity accordingly. Try to run pilot projects that solely use word of mouth as a marketing tool, so you can compare the results to other programmes. Benchmark your presences and volume of conversation against competitors. Ask advocates what effect their relationship with the brand has had on their purchasing and recommending behaviour. And employ trackable tactics (such as discount codes) to isolate WOM-driven sales and footfall.

Old habit #3: Obsessing over Facebook and Twitter. Social networking, opinion-forming and recommendation-sharing happens everywhere – on photo-sharing sites, in football team forums, at school gates. If your social media strategy is confined to consumer-facing tweets, you've kind of missed the point. Colleagues, partners, suppliers and clients are all potential advocates, and most online sharing is sparked by disruptive, emotional experiences that occur in real life.

New habit #3: Make your out-of-office messages conversational. It's amazing how strongly emotions are roused, and word is spread, when you apply a conversational approach to the least obvious areas of your business. Brainstorm ways in which you can add a touch of personality, wit or unexpected functionality to your invoices, post-meeting takeaways or delivery boxes, for example.

Of course, you shouldn't stop at three. Use this month to examine your social media assumptions, oust unspoken constraints and raise difficult issues around budgets, ethics and skills. You might not yet have all the answers, but even just framing the questions will set you up for a more purposeful and productive year.