Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

Social Media is dead

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Let me count the ways.

First of all, social media these days is whatever most people do online. To someone like me, it was about blogging and social bookmarking, with upstarts like Facebook and Twitter playing a secondary role. To most people these are social media with an assortment of web apps that involve interactions and scale to high heaven. Where is the line between the web and social media for most people? Once they are on Facebook and/or Twitter, it blurs beyond definition.

Secondly, social media, whatever it means to different people, at its most fundamental level is the combination of the internet architecture (i.e. a distributed network) with technology that enables individuals to publish and distribute online without the need to code and without a prior permission from an institutional authority. This, in the long run, will be as impactful as the printing press. (That said, with the rise of the super-platforms, individuals online are herded into silos, their autonomy and privacy taking a beating. But that is a different rant.)

All this has little to do with media, advertising, marketing and PR. Other than undermining them. Watching people from these industries discuss and pontificate on how to ‘do’ – read use, abuse, benefit from, exploit etc – social media is like listening to producers of leather harness for horses, carriage drivers and stable owners talk about cars and how they are going to use them blasted machines. After all, it’s all about transport. Right?!

So once more, with feeling. Social Media is dead as a driver for change. It was killed by the very people it meant to change. Ironically, just like the barbarians at the gates of Rome, they didn’t mean to kill it, they just wanted to have a part of it. But without changing themselves.

The good news is that those people (and their business models) will, eventually, be extinct. It just won’t be Social Media that does it.

Nothing to see here, move along…

Note: This rant was ‘inspired’ by one too many social media event, namely Social Media Reality Check at LSE, organised by POLIS and PRNewswire. Yep, dear reader, PRNewswire. Should have been a sufficient warning!

The stories never told

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From a book I am reading*:

He did a new thing with a new set of people every day of his life. And that made him just as different from the people in the traffic jam as I was.
So I looked with fascination at those people in their [cars]**, and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organisations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be; it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant that something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Power That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them. People who couldn’t live without story had been driven [out]**. All others had to look somewhere outside of work for feeling that they were part of a story, which I guessed was why people were so concerned with sports, and with religion. How else could you see yourself as part of an adventure? Something with a beginning, middle, and end in which you played a significant part?

In other words, creating and living your own story means you have autonomy. And that is one thing that nobody working in a corporation, institution or another system has. And why in the New Year, it will be disruption management full blast for me…

*Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

**sci-fi terms replaced by their Earth equivalents.

Quote to remember

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I can’t understand why people are afraid of new ideas, I am frightened of the old ones.
- John Cage

Little Chef has travelled a long way

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Yesterday I succumbed to suggestion to eat at Little Chef. Normally, such an option wouldn’t be entertained and the occasion blogged but this was the Popham branch of Little Chef, which has received serious overhaul by the Big Chef Heston Blumenthal.

Before going into details, let me just say that the food was far better than average, I’d venture to say it was better than 80% of restaurants serving similar dishes anywhere, and definitely unique amongst the motorway services eateries. Alec, whose idea it was to stop there on the way to Southampton, has written about it on his blog.

The menu was a combination of old favourites with a few surprising dishes like spag bol, coq au vin or tikka masala. Most of the reviews of this Little Chef online mention braised ox cheeks as one of best and most interesting menu items. So we had to try it. At £9.97 the portion was on the small side. On the whole, I’d rather that smaller portions at smaller prices, so my quibble is not really with the size but the price – simply value for money. This is where the location/venue of the meal consumed is rather relevant. The same dish in a restaurant in, let’s say, Chelsea would be a bloody good deal, but a motorway services diner doesn’t have the same location, location, location advantage. As for the dish itself, the meat was tender and very well prepared. The red wine and mushroom sauce was on the heavy side, with rich ‘brown’ flavour and an earthy tang, most likely to shitake mushroom found within. A definite winter favourite, it seems out of place on a (bit boring) summer day.

I was tempted to have the burger – a good burger is a worthwhile meal – but my standards for burgers are rather high and didn’t want to be disappointed. Alec’s recollection of the burger didn’t inspire my confidence, he seemed more impressed with the bun in which the burger came than the burger itself, though he insists it was a decent one.

I love fish & chips but what with having fish three dinners in a row this week, in the end I chose the Hereford steak & ale pie with mushy peas gravy, baked in suet. It didn’t come with any side dish but things worked out – I appropriated Alec’s mashed potatoes that came with the ox cheeks, whilst he ordered extra chips.

We opted out for tea rather than cold drinks. It would have been fun to see decent milkshakes or smoothies on the menu as well as appropriate given the diner slant and good markup on such drinks. The tea was just ok – a smallish pot at £1.79 I’d expect something better. Not a big quibble though.

The steak & ale pie was delicious to a fault, big chunks of lovely meat, in very tasty sauce, which did not overwhelm the stuff inside the pie. A few chunks of carrots added sweetness. The suet was perfect, especially as I much prefer baked pies to steamed ones. The tastiest part of the dish was the mushy peas ‘gravy’, that came as a pool of (lovely) green underneath the pie. It was flavoursome and light, with a hint of mint, which added sophistication not usually found in pies. Alas, the gravy was definitely lukewarm, most likely having waited on a plate for the pie to cook too long. And though the pie was hot enough to eat without sending it back, it wasn’t piping hot. For what may have caused that, see below.

Now, the above might not give as good an impression as this Little Chef meal deserves. Because of Heston Blumenthal association, I find myself applying to this little motorway services diner standards I’d reserve for a restaurant in London. Not fair for sure, but even that is a mark of how far they have managed to come, making this experiment a success.

Last but not least was the service. I was very impressed by the ability of staff to handle a difficult customer, which was the mood I came in. :) The time it took for our food to arrive was definitely out of order but what with the unexpected surprise visit by the Big H with a film crew, I will let the chef off the hook on that one. I was also gratified by one of our waiters striking a conversation with us as we were leaving, asking us about our experience. He didn’t do this with a ‘customer feedback questionnaire’ in mind, it was his own initiative and desire to see happy customers. Very good indeed. We also learnt that Heston dropped in like this, unannouced to check the quality of ingredients being used and see if the Little Chef HQ have been cutting corners. His inspection was filmed so there will be a documentary in due course.

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In short, it was a more than decent meal, at decent but not ‘fantastic deal’ prices. I’ll definitely go back and if Little Chef rolls out the new menu to the rest of their restaurants, stopping at motorway services for a meal could become an experience worth planning.

VRM journey

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For those who follow my VRM escapades, I have tried to capture what VRM is about and why I am working on it. So here is my paper (and manifesto) A VRM journey.

Loosely speaking, apart from my consolidate position on VRM, this is what it’s about (as summed up by my friend Carrie):

  1. ‘Social media’ is limited and people are outgrowing it
  2. There is demand from growing number of people for more control over their online ’stuff’
  3. There are benefits to users and ‘vendors’ for re-working the current imbalanced relationship
  4. Some tools are being developed to make that a reality
  5. It will be a hard slog but there is a call to arms for users to even out the balance; the most open vendors will also benefit – bringing more certainty to their future in this uncertain economic climate

Here is the PDF version for those who prefer a non-web format.

My woes with Skype

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Another example of twitter being followed by companies and being used it as a source for customer service. A few nights ago I twittered, in my usual genteel manner, about my problems with Skype.

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This morning I got a nice enough email from Skype looking into my account, of course, which wasn’t the problem this time.

We are sorry to hear that you are having problems with our payment system. My name is Marilyn and I will be looking into this issue for you.

From your blog entry at https://twitter.com/adriana872/statuses/953166576 I understand that you are having trouble to redeem a voucher to top up your Skype credit.

As I meant to follow up my twitter with a blog post describing the Skype credit saga and I responded to Marylin with details, I will post my reply here.

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Dear Marilyn,

My twitter message is only a tip of the iceberg. I have long been underwhelmed with Skype’s controlling ways when it comes to managing my account. I don’t expect to be understood though – I have been using Skype since few months it was founded and it has changed beyond recognition in a way it treats its users… and not in a good way.

Regarding the voucher issue, you are looking at the wrong account – it’s not my account that I am worried about.

A few years back I have set up both my brother and my father with Skype. They both live abroad and it was great to be able to communicate with them and give them option to make cheap Skype calls. The usual story. My brother is a student and travels a lot and Skype credit enables him to make calls without breaking the bank. I also top up their credit regularly. Gift certificates/credit vouchers used to be the only way for me to refill their skype credit. My dad not only cannot buy stuff online, he wouldn’t necessarily know how to redeem a voucher in his account.

So I used to buy Skype credit vouchers for my acount, distribute the as me, then log on as my father and my brother and redeem those vouchers on their behalf logged on as them. And that’s all because I couldn’t use my credit card to pay for credit on their account – it used to be that only one card per account and I didn’t want to tie one of my cards to other account in case I will have to use another card for my Skype account in the future. A girl can only have so many credit cards…

As I was going to go through the tedious process a few nights ago I discovered that the vouchers were suspended and I had to go to Sainsbury’s(!) to buy them over the counter. So the Skype that I have known and loved as a tool that empowered people online is forcing me buy one of the ‘products’ offline! Go figure.

Buying the voucher was an adventure in itself, the checkout staff has no idea what I wanted and sent me rummaging through a pile of retail vouchers that have nothing to do with Skype vouchers, which are now issued at the till. Fortunately, the manager was around and I managed to get two £10 vouchers, one for each of my creditless family members.

I redeemed one under my father’s account, then found out that my brother is still ok for credit and so decided to top up my dad’s account again with the second voucher to save me all this trouble and give him plenty of money to spend on his calls. Alas, this message appeared:

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“We are sorry, you are currently not allowed to redeem skype credit voucher or prepaid cards because your account balance is over allowable limit. You have to spend some of Skype Credits before you can redeem more.”

This is what prompted my twitter.

My father’s account credit was 15 Euroes before I tried to redeem the second £10 voucher. Is that amount the allowable limit? Also, does this mean that if I had purchased one £20 voucher I wouldn’t have been able to redeem it for my dad’s account as it would put him over the ‘generous’ 15 euro allowable limit? And if yes, why on earth limit anyone to such a low amount? Frankly, why on earth limit anyone at all?! Whatever is going on here is definitely not convenient for me as a user.

I expect to be told that there are now many new and exciting payment options, from paypal to ukcash, or that I can automatically recharge an account or some such. I have tried to investigate the options (another inconvience as it’s hard to follow the various restrictions and conditions) but they either don’t suit my financial arrangements or I can’t actually do them on behalf of my father as my payment details are set up under my own accounts. And if there is a way and/or my credit card might be accepted for my dad’s account – I wasn’t going to find out the hard way and risk my card being rejected.

If I didn’t want to tax my father with getting used to another VoIP service, I’d definitely be switching. As it is, he’s captive to Skype. But I am not and will be investigating options out there that I so far ignored as a loyal Skype user. Perhaps my twitter network will provide some good suggestions…

So, in the great scheme of things is this a big deal or should it be for Skype? On one level, definitely not. Why? They have many a payment options, I am doing something that wasn’t intended by Skype – i.e. maintaining credit in two other accounts that don’t belong to me – and I am probably using a product and service they obviously don’t see as part of their model (see the suspended online purchase and the rarity of buying Skype vouchers). And I bet that lot of the constraints on users come from onslaught of fraud and people trying to milk the system. Finally, I am one grumpy user who doesn’t count when Skype is going for media world domination – phone is conquered and broadcast media is next!

But on the other hand, you have someone who joined Skype when it was a couple of months old, evangelised it for all those years, introduced hundreds of people to it, especially in the early days and spent a fair amount of money on their services, without bothering to research any alternatives. Stupid me, right?

And I am not even going to talk about Skype in China and other unsavoury places with surveillance even more intrustive than UK. At least not yet and not here. I’ll save that for Samizdata.

The bottom line as they say is I wanted to do Skype well. But since their acquisition by eBay, something has changed. They are trying to be all things to all people and for this person it ain’t working.

What I did last weekend

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Last Saturday I went to OpenTech in the afternoon to hear Ben Laurie, Bob Blakley and Alec Muffett pontificate on security. And a good pontification it was!

Then on Sunday, met up with Bob again, together with his frighteningly smart daughter and Alec for brunch in Covent Garden. The conversation was whirling around networks, identity, relationships but not exclusively so. (I will write about that in a separate post.)

Afterwards, Alec and I proceeded to Bloomsbury to meet with Marc Canter and a friend in the London Review Bookshop cafe. Another intense and fun conversation ensued and I have the drawings to prove it for the posterity. There is something else preserved from that afternoon and that is Marc signing opera for his lemonade (he doesn’t drink tea or coffee so Alec’s blog post headline is a bit of an artistic license :) ).

Even Marc’s voice couldn’t stop the cafe from closing and so we relocated to the nearest pub. Lovely time was had by all it seems and I am definitely up for a repeat performance. :)

House of Terror

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In one of the most beautiful avenues of Budapest, Andrássy Road, is a museum dedicated to the two 20th century horrors, Nazism and Communism. House of Terror (Terror Háza) does not differentiate between the two toxic ideologies. After all, they are the same thing with different packaging – one in black, the other in red. That they hate and fought each other is not evidence to the contrary, merely evidence of territorial in-fighting.

In winter of 1944, when the Hungarian Nazis came to power, hundreds of people were tortured in the basement of the house in 60 Andrássy street. In 1945 Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Army. One of the first tasks of the Hungarian communists arriving with the Soviet tanks was to take possession of the location. The building was occupied by their secret police, the PRO, which was later renamed ÁVO, subsequently ÁVH (names for political police). The entire country came to dread the terrorist organisation. The ÁVH officers serving at 60 Andrássy Road were the masters of life and death. Detainees were horribly tortured or killed. The walls of the cellars beneath the buildings were broken down and transformed into a prison.

After the end of communism in Hungary, 60 Andrássy Road has become a shrine, the effigy of terror and the victims’ memorial. At least in Hungary they recognised that the ‘past must be acknowledged’. The exhibition is a visual feast, both in the artefacts displayed and in the symbolism of their arrangement. The rooms have themes and objects in them are meant to create an atmosphere as well as communicate facts. Alas, the visual beauty conjures an image of a retro nightmare – distant and unreal it masks the brutality and dull reality of communist terror.

There is an exquisitely designed hall dedicated to Soviet forced-labour and slave camps. There are reminiscences, photographs and the display cases contain relics, the original paraphernalia used by the people detained by the Soviets and taken to gulags. And yet, it does not squeeze your heart and make you sick to your stomach. The muted light and the droning voice of the audio guide fail to convey the tragedy. By trying to describe the suffering of many thousands, they miss the opportunity to make us feel the suffering of one, to put ourselves in their place, imagine our lives being arbitrarily and brutally torn apart. And to remember that this did not happen in some kind of parallel universe, that this is history next door.

I wanted to know the people whose meagre possessions I was looking at in the display cases. Their names, stories, family, circumstances, fates. I believe that the best and only way to understand Communism and Nazism is through the lives of individuals who were affected by it not through a historical methodology or chronological exposition.

And so we need to be told about their neighbours reporting and spying on them, children betraying parents, we need to hear the tales of endurance, mercy and resistance that no historical narrative can capture. We document history in such impersonal terms and yet there is nothing more powerful then actions of a man. We look for overarching explanations but historical causality without human beings and their behaviour leaves the patterns of history indistinct, lacking in colour and texture.

Everyday life is as important to understanding of what happens as are historical milestones. It might help people realise how little it takes for the society to find itself in a grasp of a toxic ideology and how gradual the decline can be, how unnoticed the erosion of freedom, dignity and moral strength.

If I had the time and resources, I would gather the human details about communism, not just the historical facts, and create a place where others can ‘re-live’ the individual tales. I would try to explain what it took to survive and resist. I would address the connection between totalitarianism and bureaucracy – why is it that an already unhinged and all powerful regime is so obsessed with record-taking, papers and stamps, correct documentation…? I would point at the need inherent in any totalitarian ideology for an external enemy, and by extension its internal allies. I would expose the mundane and ridiculous reasons for which people were sent to prison, torture and death. I would throw light on the ‘little helpers’ without whom no authoritarian regime can succeed – the nosy neighbour, ambitious boss, jealous colleague, petty family member… and at the ’silent majority’ who by ‘minding their business’ and ‘just getting on with their lives’ lend credence to the ravings of the power-mad ruling class. I would examine propaganda, not through the posters, broadcasts and mass demonstrations but through the eyes of children growing up under the barrage of idiotic but effective brainwashing.

And finally, I would bring up the horrors of arrest, detention, interrogations, beatings and torture, imprisonment and executions, hiding in history’s basement and cellars. Both the victims and the interrogators. Who were the people who carried out the daily atrocities? What and how did they believe? Where are they now? Did they go back home to their families at the end of the day, having broken a few more bodies and spirits? Did they do this out of fear? Or were they merely sadists gravitating to the communism sanctioned violence towards their fellow human beings? I would name them and publicly decry their deeds, spell out their participation. The Nazis got that treatment but when will such judgement be upon the Communists? Why is the hammer and sickle not abhorred the same way the swastika is? After all, it has brought evil to many more people…

Failing that, here are the pictures from the House of Terror in Budapest. The museum is an excellent reminder of what happened in just one dreaded house. And to think that there were many more.

House of Terror

The photos were taken despite the ban on photography in the museum. I did play along and kept my camera away until I came across a quote that sums up the deranged mindset of a communist ideologue. I wanted to make a note of it to look it up later and the fastest way was taking a photo. After the first furtive but successful attempt, it was impossible to resist taking more pictures.

Here is the quote* that goes to the heart of implementation of communism – and any other totalitarian ideology. It eradicated any notion of individual responsibility and therefore freedom, autonomy, rights and justice. And that is the essence of terror.

We do not look for evidence, we do not attempt to uncover acts or agitation against the Soviets. The first question we ask is: where are you from, how were you raised, what was your profession? These questions determine the fate of the defendant. This is the essence of the red terror. – MJ. Lacisz, Chief ÁVO, Hungarian political police.

*Note: Credit for translation goes to Zoltán Módly. The Hungarian version: “Nem keresünk bizonyítékokat, tanúkat, nem akarunk szovjetellenes tetteket vagy agitációt leleplezni. Az első kérdés, ami minket érdekel: honnan származol, milyen volt a neveltetésed, mi volt a foglalkozásod? Ezek a kérdések döntenek a vádlott sorsáról. Ez a vörös terror lényege.”

Back to VRM basics

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Tonight I went to the Beers & Innovation event about VRM – many thanks to Ian Delaney for putting together a splendid meeting. The conversations were worthwhile, good questions were asked, some, I hope, might even have been answered! I trust that people present had a sense that this is something that not only makes sense to them but something they can be part of themselves. Which is kind of the whole point.

On the way home, I stopped at a local corner shop. It has been run by a lovely Indian family since times immemorial, it stays open very late and being in Chelsea’s King’s Road it stocks some unusually posh and varied stuff for a corner shop. Obviously know their customers and their needs.

I only recently returned from the US and haven’t yet used my UK wallet. I got some sunflower and rye bread (£1.99) convinced I had enough change to cover that. As I came to pay for it, I realised that was not the case. All I had was a rather large note. Not good. As I fumble in my wallet, the shop assistant says.

It’s ok, tomorrow.
I say: Sorry? What do you mean?
He says: It’s ok, you can pay tomorrow.

I thank him profusely, assuring him that I live round the corner and will definitely be back tomorrow.

He says: I know you, it’s ok.

To put this into context – there was an ATM in the shop, so he could easily have suggested I get a smaller note out. Or he could have made me buy something more to add to the amount. He didn’t, instead he made things easy for me, he risked not being paid at all and showed me the kind of trust that is thought extinct in places like London.

Now, I am not sure this is VRM but I am sure as hell it is a relationship! After an evening of fruitful but rather complex and far fetched pontifications, it was good to get to (VRM) basics.

After the storm

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I recently returned from my travels. I always have my camera with me in case I see something worthwhile. I love this picture I took last week in Moravia, on a walk after a storm.

After the storm

This one is striking and symbolic for me in more ways than one… a road out of town.

Road out of town

Happy New Year!

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To friends, readers and fellow web addicts – may the coming year be connected, networked and as much fun online as it used to be in the early days…

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All the best for 2008!

Yesterday’s blues

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Another remembrance day…

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