Unintended consequences

I’m facinated by unintended consequences.

Tiny, or apparently unrelated acts, can hugely impact people’s lives.

The introduction of rabbits in Austalia is a good example. One expatriate British landowner wanted a little of his home country and so brought out 24 rabbits for hunting to Australia. Within ten years, millions of rabbits plagued Austalia, destroyed the top soil and led to widespread desertification.

Password complexity is another great example of a process which gets so lost in implementation that the original goal is lost. By insisting that passwords are changed monthly, aren’t re-used within 7 months, contain various sorts of characters etc, you are pretty much guaranteeing that users will write them down. They are unlikely, conversely to make them any more secure, chosing instead, a less memorable version of what they were going to have in the first place, i.e. ‘Password1234‘.

Or take the example of Russian car crime quoted in the Register. Concerned by increases in car thefts, Russians took to installing car alarms. The result was that thieves would lie in wait until the owner arrived, shoot them and take the keys.

The last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in what must surely be an example of ‘unintended consequence’ closer to home. And I think this is something with which probably an increasing number of people can identify.

Having had a pretty sketchy experience with both BT and Paypal, with different levels of unsatisfactory customer service, I mentioned my puzzlement on Twitter.

Now I’d never done this before, so I didn’t know what to expect. To be honest I didn’t really expect very much at all, perhaps a few of my pitifully small band of followers would say ‘yep, I’ve had problems with Paypal too’ or ‘BT are shit’ or whatever. Perhaps they’d even pick up on it themselves and offer to resolve it, but both organisations seemed unlikely to be this switched on.

BT customer service on twitter

So, imagine my suprise, when within the hour, both sevices were basically mugging me on Twitter. Ostensibly they were trying to help. Although, of course, help they did not.

Paypal were the calmer of the two, trying to switch almost immediately to a non twitter public channel and find out what had happened. Within a day I was escalated to ‘executive escalations’, who gave me a piece of advice I’d be very suprised to hear on Twitter – that I should charge goods back to Paypal, because their own policy didn’t cover the eventuality of the product I had bought with them not working. Very polite throughout, and frankly wise enough not to battle it out in public, although I continue to believe they mis-sell their buyer protection abilities substantially.

BT on the other hand were like a group of mad relatives. And mad relatives that don’t talk to each other.  I’d already had different advice from two different customer service reps about the issue (which was that I failed their credit check, despite being an existing customer and having passed it numerous times – this is something BT can do ‘nothing’ about!). They just kept firing @messages at me, as well as a few directs. They asked me to email them, to phone them (all of these done already) and seemed quite narky about the whole thing. It did nothing to resolve my issue and certainly nothing to make me think more highly of BT customer services.

This raises a couple of questions. Why pay people to sit and watch Twitter unless they stand a chance in hell of helping people. If they’re just there to say ‘phone customer services’ then what, frankly, is the point; except for an unwanted invasion into social media.

Secondly, and more importantly, is it possible that we are teaching customers that the best way to complain about a product or service is loudly and publicly. If I get screwed over again by either of these companies then I know that on Twitter I’ll get a faster response, a generally brighter respondent, and it also feels like – while it remains public – I’ve got a bit more chance of getting a result.

The moral here is – as often – beware oversimple advice from social media gurus. An excellent definition of unintended consequences is the failure of an attempt to model a complex problem with a simple solution.

If your consultants are telling you to be on Twitter to answer customer queries, then remember the prerequisites: am I providing the best possible customer service elsewhere?, and will the poor twits I’m hiring to track the conversation acutally be able to do anything other than produce hot twitter-flavoured air. If not, you’re likely to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. And, what you get for your ‘customer service’ investment may be a lot more flack you couldn’t deal with in the first place, but this time it’s there for ever and out in the open for customers to see your problems.

Catch it, kill it

Thinking about the behaviors of Habitat and Moonfruit over the last week begs the question about what we mean by SPAM. Clearly, inserting marketing messages into randomly trending topics is corrosive and shows no respect for the community. Doing that when the topics were the first voices of dissent from Iran was just plain dumb.

Swine flu advert

But what about creating a trending topic with an incentive? If giving away three laptops may get you millions of mentions, then you can certainly imagine why moonfruit might think they want to do it. But noise doesn’t mean interest or relevance, and is this the sort of noise you want anyway, entirely free of content or motivation?

We used to do this back in the day with ‘viral’ competitions – invite five of your friends to watch our video and you’ll get five times as many chances to win. It didn’t really work then either, although for a while, it was the only real idea in town.

There are two reasons that member-get-member died out as a method to spread messages:

  1. The message itself got lost in the mechanic. All anyone cared about was winning the laptop, they didn’t want to know about making their own website with moonfruit
  2. People’s propensity to forward this crap would decrease over time as they realized that they had become the SPAMers themselves, devaluing their personal reputation in their own networks. Remember how we all pitied our contacts that would send around out-of-date or hopelessly commercial messages.

Surely the same will happen with Twitter and the rest. Who amongst us wants to be seen as being tricked into doing a marketers job for them? Or for failing to spot what are commercial messages.

It’s a bit like swine flu. You don’t want to get it yourself and you certainly don’t want to be seen to be the one forwarding it on. Catch it, kill it, bin it.

And it becomes more complex too when we think about ‘personal brands’. Just as twitter – and all that – mark the rise of the citizen journalist, citizen marketer etc, they also seem to mark the rise of the citizen SPAMer. Where does the line lie? Let’s say I’ve got a room to rent out. If I mention it once on twitter or facebook, then I am being useful. How about if I ask friends to retweet it? That’s reasonable. What about if I keep mentioning it and asking friends to retweet slight variants of the message. Haven’t I then crossed the line? What about if I’m asking for attention for my blog posts? What about if I’m talking about an ad or campaign I made at work? Even with our friends, I think the level of tollerance is low.

But it’s a line a lot more of us are going to have to recognize. People like Hugh MacLeod, brilliant though he is, are flirting with this all the time. Needing to make sure the commercial-esque messages make up the right-proportion overall, staying useful, not trying to hide the commercial messages in the ‘editorial’ ones.

It’s a line which is about how closely you are connected to the network in which you are communicating, and how well you stay in touch with what they care about.

Can brands make these approaches work today? I’d say Habitat’s approach is a definite no, Moonfruit’s  a probable no, and certainly one with a limited shelf life.

Of course, this is not really new information. There is little substitute for actually doing the work of getting involved in the market as a collection of human beings:

‘Markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked. (Cluetrain, 1999)

Hierachy of feeds

I’ve gotten into a bad habbit. Recently, I’ve found myself only wanting to write about topics when I can think of a good headline. Which reminds me, a new high-watermark was set by a genius in the copy-editing team at the Sun this week. A front-page banner headline relating the Jacqui Smith expenses furore (over her husband claiming for some dodgy movies on a hotel bill) reads ‘The Porn Ultimatum’. The Sun has always had great headline writers (e.g. two previous corkers associated with the John Darwin story: ‘Canoe accompany us to the station’ and ‘The liar, the witch and the wardrobe’) but I thought this was real ‘stunna’.

Anyhow, I digress. And in fact, today’s headline is acutally more of a polish than an invention. The Innovations Diaries’ post is called ‘Hieracy of Tweets’, and it came along just as I was thinking about precisely the same issue: what have a 1940s psychologist and a 21 century microblogging service got in common?

What Innovation Diaries were talking about is the psychology of twittering.  If we look at the bizarre range of stuff that comes up on the trendy microblogging site, it maps across base human desires and needs – hunger, tiredness etc – through higher-order needs such as love and belonging to the grandly named ‘self-actualisation’, relating directly to the concepts to Maslow’s famous hierachy of needs.



This connection is a very interesting one, although I think there’s actually more juice to it than you might get from the examples given in the diagram or in the post.

At the base of it, the needs themselves are real. It is not enough to talk about eating cake – people must actually eat it. Twitter’s not a lot of use for that (although let’s not rule it out: ‘CAKEIFY: just twitter with #blackforrestgateaux…’), but it can be of help at the other end of the spectrum where we’re talking about morality, creativity and problem soliving. So we can think about how people can directly meet the ‘esteem’ need or the ‘self-actualisation’ need through twitter rather than just reflect upon it.

This is an approach to planning and design in digital which we’ve been talking about for a while now, and there are some good examples of it in the wild. In a very real sense, people who are generating content for places like YouTube, or doing work with mashups in technology are squarely exercising their right to self-actualise (and, isn’t that a charmless phrase).

It’s also worth noting (as Innovation Diaries do), that not all of the base instincts are strictly physical, psyiological needs.  We’ve talked here in the past about Intermittent Variable Reinforcement, the addictive property which comes from plugging yourself into a unpredicatable but constant stream of updates. Modern relationships are moving towards placing a hugely increased value on ‘ambient intimacy’ in the emotional rhomboid.

People like Forrester talk about a ‘ladder of participation‘ for social media Just like the government and parents think cannabis leads to harder drug use, the analysts believe that the internet people are weaned on a diet of commenting and rating, before eventually picking up blogging and twittering. Certainly we know from building sites and things that participation does seem to drop off in accordance with required sophistication and effort.

To mix metaphors, Twitter has arrived on the ladder at an odd time. Or perhaps blogs did. I’m certainly not saying that Twitter is low-brow, although it can be. But it requires a weird mix of low involvement and high sophistication. Twitter may be the new black, or the second coming of the messiah, but its use would appear ‘lower’ down our hierachy of needs than many more expressive and creative formats. If the conservative party weren’t so busy jumping on bandwagons, or the Daily Mail knew what it was, they’d both be criticizing it for ‘dumbing down’ social media.

A revolution that started with the highest of brows (endless blogs about politics, philosophy, (marketing) and (ahem) blogs) appears to be descending towards our more reptilian insticts.

I think the reason is that Twitter has no antecedant at all. Blogs are like articles, Facebook is like an address book (or facebook), Myspace is the teenager’s bedroom wall. But we’ve had nothing like twitter before.Were any of us taught at school to communicate in single thoughts?

Hopefully with mainstreaming of Twitter will come a rebirth of blogs and other, richer social media – a chance to get people thinking about more than one idea at time, and in more depth.

You can’t say that in 140 characters.

Just because you can


I’m not a twitter expert. This seems to put me in the minority. And it’s a great thing that so many people have a view on what the microblogging service is doing in communications and how people, and companies, should be interacting with it.

Over at e-consultancy there’s been a couple of recent interesting outbreaks of expertise. The first was the victim of poor research. John Gaffney went about a critique of Walmart and Best Buy’s social media strategy. His assertion was that the brands ought to be on Twitter and were not. I’m guessing the author was probably more suprised than anyone when the first comment came from the Best Buy community editor themselves and talking about the amazing work they are actually doing. Other commentors pointed out the author himself had only been on the service 1 month and had posted 14 times. The author apologized, the editor delivered a half-hearted apology, Ashely Friedlin jumped in with something more closely resembling attrition, and the post itself was updated to recognise the error.

So far, so much schadenfreude. I’m sure Gaffney will not repeat that mistake, and I’m sure e-consultancy will in general continue to be the broadly respectable rag for news, opinion and social media that it has been to date.

The post was then followed up by e-consultancy editor Chris Lake carrying out a sort of half-arsed audit of what the biggest agencies in the UK are doing about twitter. Essentially he had taken the NMA top 50 agencies (overall) and looked to see whether they had a twitter feed under their own name. I think it would be fair to describe the research in this case as brief, consisting of how many followers and posts each account has and so on.

Without wanting to repeat the debate which became lengthy, the point emerged fairly quickly that agencies (like mine which is in the list) have often started out with a company feed, only to move to individuals twittering under their own names fairly quickly. I think it’s also fair to say that the mere presence or absence of a twitter stream does not confirm or deny a reasonable approach to the medium – just as the presence of a brain does not imply brain activity.

I sort of pointed this out on the post (and to be fair, unlike the e-consultancy twitter feed, the author was all over the replies). It has taken me a couple of days to spot the gotcha in this part of the author’s response to me:

I’ve seen thought-leadership work wonders for agencies and Twitter enables that quite brilliantly. No longer do you have to release a white paper, or in-depth blog posts, but you can communicate at a micro level on a platform that is targeted to people’s interests.

I’m sorry it’s taken me a little while to realise what is was that was jarring in the author’s response but isn’t ‘thought leadership’ something that PR people invented in the late 90s. I don’t mean promoting yourself through good ideas. I mean the concept that a single thought-leading idea will be used in marketing or PR. Isn’t is an idea precisely oriented to single-track mass media of which Twitter is the antithesis?

For me, the benefit of Twitter in terms of promoting our agency is that people can see that there is a great deal of (leading) thought going on, and they can get involved in those thoughts and start a debate. But EMC Conchango as an entity doesn’t have a single view on anything. It’s got 400 views. Some are about technology, some about society, some about e-commerce, and on and on. We’re a pretty engaged bunch and we talk about stuff a lot, so we’re often broadly in agreement on certain points but the suggestion that there is an EMC Conchango view point on anything (or indeed an e-consultancy view on anything) seems wrong to me. That would be a denail of thought, and certainly wouldn’t be an indication of our leadership position. Unless we were following the North Korea model.

Of course,  one size will not fit all, and it will make sense for some organisations (especially one-man agencies – or two-man agencies where one man doesn’t have any opinions) to blog as an enttity. I for one am delighted to know that more big agencies are prefering to let staff think (and communicate) for themselves in such a personal new medium.

Status anxiety


I imagine I was not the only person struck by the media collision around the coverage of the death of Jade Goody. The last few weeks of her life were marked by a quite depressing co-dependency with a media at once uncomfortable with their proximity to the unfolding real-life anguish, and delighted by it. For everything else she was, Goody was a media phenomenon; a byproduct of an culture of instant fame and circular celebrity. Without media attention she ceased to exist and so her death, as her life, became dependent upon the publicity that made it – at times – distasteful. Like Schrödinger’s cat, the fact of her observation was thoroughly part of her entire being.

Equally, her death brought a simultaneous low point and high point for the role of things like twitter in the news media. The BBC’s official report, takes much of its content directly from Stephen Fry’s twitter feed, that many of us will have seen (as followers) many hours before. Perhaps the BBC cleared the comments for reuse. Perhaps he intended them for this very purpose, or perhaps they were idle ramblings as he tromps around the globe, but we have certainly moved away from the point where journalists would refuse to publish content which had appeared before. With over 300,000 followers, Fry practically is another media outlet in his own right.

Is Twitter itself a sea change in media?

Certainly its recent growth has been surprising. The influx of users is reminiscent of the period 18 months ago when everyone and their aunt joined up to Facebook.

It’s worth considering why it is really more than a glorified status.

First and foremost, Twitter takes more from blogging than it does from social network thinking. It is much more public. It is much more permanent (and it can be indexed by search engines). And it is being used to convey a much wider range of information. Each 140 character entry may be whimsical and often vacuous but it has the potential of being remembered and useful long after its posting.

Like blogging, Twitter is asymmetrical. Not all Twitterers are created equal. 12,000 people are following Hugh McLeod, as compared to the list he is following of just over a thousand. He may have two brains, but you have to wonder how Robert Scobble can possibly understand the stream of consciousness that comes from over 50,000 people he is following. And his audience is just as big. At this scale, Scobble’s twitter feed has at least as much influence as my local paper. And that’s just the first order influence. Twinfluence (twinfluence.com) looks at extended reach (1st and 2nd generation connections) to estimate that twitterers such as Apple evangelist and entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki can reach up to 18m people.

No wonder then that it was seized as a tool by the Obama campaign. And no wonder that so many brands are attempting to hitch themselves to the bandwagon. For both marketers and politicians the question is oddly simple: not ‘what message should I broadcast to the network?’ but ‘how can I get the network to follow me?’ – what can brands and individuals do to interest, entertain or provide utility in such a setting. For a cause like the American primary contest, this was simple (if not easy) – tapping into a huge latent demand. For manufacturers of mid-size family sedans, it will prove a little more difficult. Twitter is just another example of marketers needing to learn about the power and significance of networks. And we can certainly expect many of the same missteps. Brands will need to be prepared to listen and well as speak.

But the real question about brands in Twitter is one of personal identity formation. As Clay Shirky has noted, attention amongst (traditional) bloggers is anything but evenly spread. Rather there is a ‘power law’ distribution, with a small number of top bloggers receiving the vast majority of attention.

As a Twitter elite establishes itself, the site will continue to operate and grow dramatically on two distinct levels – as an efficient if limited social utility, and as the blogging platform of choice for fast ideas. Such thoughts may be half-cooked but they are much more accessible than multi-page blog entries (it is no coincidence that they are the right length for a single thought or link).  And we now know from experience than users will at times radically reconsider their use of technology if they find it interesting or useful enough.

Would Goody approve? I think she would.

The life of Riley

I know it’s a sort of liberal utopian wet dream and I keep going on about it, but a number of things today have pushed me towards the view that our future will move significantly away from mass media, and that the change will happen much faster than most people currently expect. Indeed, the speed of progress in this change is really starting to accelerate, to become wholly entwined in the daily life of our media, and a frame of reference with which even the latest to adopt are becoming very comfortable.

The first thing is the sad story of the death of Olive Riley, the web’s oldest blogger.


Here’s an extract from an early entry:

“You 21st century people live a different life than the one I lived as a youngster in the early 1900s. Take Washing Day, for instance. These days you just toss your dirty clothes into a washing machine, press a few switches, and it’s done.

I remember scratching around to find a few pieces of wood to fire the copper for Mum.


Some time later, when the fire had gone out, Mum would haul the clothes, dripping wet, out of the hot water with a strong wooden copperstick, and that was jolly hard work. The clothes weighed a lot more sopping wet than when they were dry.

Then she would feed the wet washing into a machine called a mangle. It had two large rollers with a narrow gap between them, and a big metal wheel that had to be turned by hand. That was my job – and it was real hard work for a small kid.


Thank you to all my good friends who have sent me interesting emails and loving hugs by commenting on my blob [sic]. Love to you all, and please keep writing those comments.”

The second thing is a small thing. And it’s not, in itself, anything remarkable, but somehow it struck me particularly today. For a brief period years ago, I worked alongside Amelia Torode, who has a well-known blog. Amelia’s always had interesting things to say and often novel viewpoints on the things I’m interested in, so I read her blog and follow her on Twitter. This evening I saw this in a twitter gadget:

google stupid

The link takes you to this post on her blog. It’s exactly the sort of thing Hugh Macleod does all the time, and Scrobble used to do right up until I deleted him from Twitter and Google reader because I was having an overload problem. The post itself is really interesting and I’m glad I followed the link. But it got me thinking: isn’t this cross promotion actually a bit like this:


And this:


I don’t know how many people read Amelia’s blog, or follow her Twitter, but they’re all pretty interested in what she says in those places. And so, it’s probably a  pretty successful advert.

In the same vein, several million twitters promoted the iPhone last weekend,. Could brands really think of any places they’d rather be promoted? Even including search.

The third thing is Twitter’s acquisition of Summize, a small search-engine technology. Why is that interesting? Well look here or here, or here. This is the technology which will make twitter content available to people who don’t know the contributor (strapline: See what the world is doing — right now.”).

What will I be telling my grand kids when I’m 108 (assuming medical science figures how to reconstruct brain cells in the next 70 years)? ‘Well Johnny, you wouldn’t believe what we had to do in the old days. We had to promote all our blog entries on Twitter manually.’

Feeding the disease

There’s seems to have been a massive surge in Facebook popularity, amongst my contacts at least. Can this new contender catch up with the mighty MySpace? Currently Facebook is trailing by 20m users to MySpace’s 180m and Live Space’s 120m.

If they can, it will be testament to their user-centred approach over MySpace’s feature loading. And what’s the feature that best matches a user-need? It must be matching users’ desire to feed the very noughties craving for continuous partial attention.

Facebook delivers twitter-like features to a new level, turning general user actions into usable community content snippets, displaying a constant feed of information not just about status but also in structured information. “John has added Amelie to his favourite films”, “X and Y are now friends”, “Z in now single” and transforming potentially dull information to a great mini soap opera.


Keep it up lads. And here’s another  great little tool which maps your network, showing the relatively popularity of your friends and how they all link together:
Bored of the book

This twitter is undergoing “planned maintenance”

Proving that despite their inability to cope with massive demand, Twitter still has a sense of humor (and following up from their page-not-found error), here’s twitter’s 500 (server error) page which has been available for all to see for much of the last 24 hours:

Twitter “planned maintenance”

Not a great advert for Ruby on Rails (on which the site is built) but convincing evidence that the site is indeed incredibly popular.

Axes of I-ville

 Map my name

Thanks to Nicola for spotting this great new  site that aims to map and count the internet’s users. The theory they’re working on is that if each person spreads the word to three friends and that the spreading process takes 1 day a time, they will have reached the internet’s entire population in under a month. They put up a brilliant bit of hokum science in their introductory video:

maths on map my name

As they explain, the “viral” maths is pretty straight-forward. This is a geometic series. So the user count is (3n+1-1)/2 where n is the number of days or iterations. 331/2 is more than 3.1 x 1014, that’s 310,000 billion or 3 with 14 zeros. The world’s population is estimated as under 7 billion (7 with 9 zeros). Of course the flaw in the plan is that the viral effect is not 100% efficient and not all invitee will be unique but it will be fascinating to see where they get to. 7 days in they’re at 5,000. They should be at 3,200 so they’re ahead of target.

What would be really great is if this could be combined with Twitter Vision (I know that’s already a mash up), and even better than that would be a blog sentiment overlay like www.wefeelfine.org! Presumably only a matter of time.