Building Effective Information Systems using Social Tools

Social media systems, tools which enable us to emit little nuggets of information whenever we like, run the risk of being analogous to using a fine-mist spray to fill a water glass at 50 feet. It’s not a terribly good way to get a drink. The trouble is, we all play two roles in the analogy: we are both the spray head and the glass. We emit nuggets of information, we also consume information which other people have emitted. It’s all a bit haphazard and directionless: it needs control in order to be effective.

Let me move away from the analogy and back to social media proper. As a Google+ user, I often send out updates – usually links to blog posts of my own, or to news articles or posts which I’ve found on the Internet which are either interesting in of themselves or else worthy of comment. These sorts of updates go out publicly, and I like to think that there might be a few people out there who would find them useful. If they could find them. And that’s the problem I am trying to highlight in this post: building social media tools which don’t just allow us to emit information, but allow information to find us. Read more of this post



Information. Content. Stuff. There’s a lot of it about.

The challenge in our information-rich society is to try to get information into our brains which adds to our world view – brings us, as individuals or business people, actual value – whilst wasting as little time as possible on valueless or value-poor information.

Traditional information sources are newspapers, magazines, books and TV – as well as verbal interactions with friends and colleagues. These all have different pros and cons. Let’s take newspapers, for example. They are a great way to find out about ‘stuff’ currently going on in the world (or a locality), or at least they seem to be. Actually what they are are curated feeds of, usually, subjective information. You can choose how much subjectivity you want in your “news” by choosing a newspaper which tries to deliver more or less of it. But with the best will in the world, the news you receive in a newspaper will only ever be the news which someone else thinks you want. The stuff that they think that you’ll pay for. Read more of this post

Employment change begins at home

Since the industrial revolution, we’ve seen massive changes in the way our society organises itself around work. The industrial revolution brought intensive, factory-based employment to the masses who previously might have laboured in fields, mines or at home. But there’s since been a gradual decline in factory employment and a remarkable shift, in this country at least, to office-based work. Whilst Britain still manufactures much more “stuff” than we generally admit, manufacturing in the UK is highly automated and labour density therefore very low.

Office work is where it’s at, so it’s hardly a surprise to see large statistics around it. This country (the UK) has around 10 million office workers, according to one source. They take up around 200 million square metres of office space.

That’s a lot.

I have a simple message in this post, and it’s this: lets divorce ourselves from this love-affair with offices. Lets stop making the daily journeys from home to office, wasting our own time and consuming resources we cannot afford to consume. Green campaigners suggest we should ditch our cars and opt for public transport, implicitly supporting the case that offices are needed. But, for many of us, the practical reality is that if our commute is to be as painless as possible there is only one option: a car.

But with my “zero office” option there’s no longer any need to commute. There’s no office to commute to.

Is this radical suggestion pure idiocy? OK, I won’t deny it: getting rid of offices entirely is not likely to happen, now or in the future. People need to get together, physically get together, in order to bond well and create a social atmosphere conducive to maximising effectiveness. But are offices a good place to successfully bond individuals into effective groups? If they are, then why do companies invest money in team-building events, away-days, “off-sites” etc?

I would argue that offices are not generally very conducive either to work or to social engagement. Pubs, restaurants, sports fields, and the great outdoors are excellent for social engagement, but not very conducive to work. A quiet desk at home is extremely conducive to work, but not very socially engaging.

So here’s the plan. Ditch the offices, as far as possible – keep some for people to get together for specific purposes (meetings!). Axe the commute, travel only for specific purposes. Promote home-working, by which I mean government grants for renovations or extensions, company money for home office equipment, clarification and removal of tax rules for home offices.

This will work because we no longer live in the 20th century. The 21st century is a world of communications, a world where people can interact highly effectively even when they are not co-located. Sitting at home, with an effective set of communications tools, you can engage with customers, suppliers and colleagues just as well as you can from an office. You can see people, using video. You can collaborate on documents and presentations, using tools such as Google Apps. You can of course talk to people, instantly, using instant messaging, email and the audio device that simple telephones have evolved into. You can see what people are doing, whether they’re busy, and where they are. Build the right communications environment, and you can save massively on office space costs (rent/purchase, heating, lighting, maintenance) and on commuting costs (massively reducing fuel usage but, perhaps even more importantly, maybe also reducing the car count).

You don’t have to believe in the impact of humanity on our climate to see the sense in saving some of our precious time and resources by getting rid of the daily commute. If we use less fossil fuel then the supply will last longer. Abandoned office space can be re-claimed as housing, which we’re seriously lacking, and the ugliest, leakiest, unwanted offices can be removal entirely.

When we do need to get together, to iron out particular issues as a team or simply to get to know each other better, there are plenty of ways to do that – including in meeting rooms preserved from office buildings.

I really believe that our reliance on an office culture no longer makes sense in our modern world and, worse, contributes massively to costs, financial and environmental, which we simply cannot afford.

Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom

Or does it?

This recent study, by the Institute of Eduction at the University of London, on the face of it is simple: in a study, kids who read for pleasure do better at maths. The study is based upon an ongoing study and data collection exercise for what is known as the “1970 cohort” – a large set of children born in 1970.

But I would argue that the study was not proper research. It’s very interesting: it would, for instance, have been fascinating to learn that those who did not read at all, or did not like to read, were better at maths. That would imply that an ability in mathematics was, for some reason, not compatible with a love of books. That would be worthy of further study: are there certain kinds of books which would lead to better maths scores? Would it be better to restrict children’s maths activities in order to encourage reading?

But, actually, what the study shows is what we would expect: that bright, inquisitive kids like to read, like to explore there world and, in consequence, understand things better. This therefore comes out in their maths abilities.

What the study doesn’t show, yet newspapers up and down the country now appear to be suggesting, is that reading more will make you better at maths. Those who read for pleasure are more likely to be good at maths. Those who do not read for pleasure are more likely to be poorer at maths. Those statements are supported by the facts, but the statement: “Those who do not read for pleasure will do better at maths if they read more” is not.

It might be true, but the study doesn’t show it.

To make any headway on this one, then, needs further study – for instance, taking a group of kids who do not read much for pleasure and trying to encourage them to do so whilst leaving a second group alone. This begs the question: can you actually encourage kids to read for pleasure – or indeed encourage anyone to do anything for pleasure? Or is it a self-driven thing.

Anyway, my point is that this study really tells us nothing useful although it could lead to further useful work. It certainly doesn’t give us a panacea to low maths scores, as the popular press seem to wish us to believe. No doubt Michael Gove’s next policy will be increased reading activity in the national curriculum…

Privacy, secrecy, and you

We’ve all heard a hell of a lot in the media recently about our sudden lack of privacy. Comedian David Mitchell suggested on “10 O’Clock Live” that the internet has basically made spying too easy: when spies had to really work hard to cover a lot of ground, we were relatively protected from being spied on through sheer numbers (assuming you, dear reader, are not a known terrorist. I’m sure you’re not). This is no longer the case, as computers can crunch an awful lot of messages awfully quickly.

It’s a fair point.

So why do we fear being spied upon by our governments (or, perhaps, “their” governments)? And what can we do to keep our communications more private?

Well, to answer the second question first I have a radical proposal: get rid of anonymity. Yes, I know everyone is going on about how we need services which protect our anonymity but, really, do we? A greater threat to our embryonic online social scene than any foreign government is people who, feeling secure in their anonymity, behave anti-socially. And we’ve seen enough examples of just how anti-social people can get on the internet to realise that the time has come to do something about it. It’s just not acceptable to allow people to be hounded on Twitter, Facebook or anyone else by hate-filled vitriol; even death threats. We can end this quite simply: by removing anonymity.

These public services are not intended to be used anonymously. Facebook’s #1 rule under Registration and Account Security is: “You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook”. Twitter’s policy is somewhat less specific, but does clearly state that: “You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others.”

The trouble is, there is no real way for Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other provider to know for sure whether you are who you say you are. You could be using a made-up persona, or you could be impersonating someone else: either way you’re able to post anonymously.

So my radical suggestion is this: that we extend the systems we already have which give people legal identity – passports, most usually – and use them as a source for online identity. So, just like if I want to sign up for online tax returns I need to prove my identity with an official source, so too should I have to do this when I sign up to Facebook, Twitter or any of the others.

There is still scope for anonymous systems, but they serve a different purpose. Try this thought experiment. If there were two versions of Twitter, identical in every way except that one allowed anonymity and the other enforced “official” identity, which would you use? The anonymous one, because you fear government snoops? Or the regulated one? I suggest that you choose the regulated one because 1) you will know that the tweet from your favourite footballer really did come from your favourite footballer; 2) you will know that your message to your favourite footballer will be going to him; 3) you will be unlikely to receive really offensive or threatening messages because nobody wants to do time in prison; 4) your favourite footballer may actually read messages you send to him, because he won’t be using the system in send-only mode (which everyone in the public eye does, currently, much of the time, in order to avoid having to read hate-filled vitriol).

The world would be a happier place all round. Let those who wish to remain anonymous remain anonymous… but on other systems.

Does this keep our conversations more private? I’d argue yes, it does. Governments would have no need to routinely monitor messages if they knew that the proper, legal avenue – a court order – would work.

How about the other question: why do we fear being spied upon by governments? My honest view? I’m really not sure that we do. But hell, it sells papers.

No, Social Media is not dead

I’ve not posted for quite a while but, like our old friend Social Media, I am not dead. Unlike Social Media, I’ve been doing other things (writing a book no less: “An Infinite Number of Monkeys: A Guide to Effective Business Communications”,; travelling around Scotland with my family on an extended break). Social Media hasn’t gone anywhere.

We get this cycle with all “next big things”: people keep saying “is Unified Communications dead”, for instance. The truth is, marketeers like grabbing hold of concepts and warping them to their own advantage – and it is marketeers who create the buzz, even now in our socially-enabled world. Because, despite the hype (ironically), most of the information we consume comes from traditional sources – although we may be accessing them in a different form. But that’s beside the point.

We’ve gone through the first few years of buzzworthiness, and Social Media is now firmly entrenched. That means that it does not so effectively differentiate products: everything even vaguely in the space has a social moniker. The marketeers, thankfully, can now move on to abuse other things.

What remains is a core of tools which have, in many ways, been around for a long time but which are made more effective by always-on networking, impressive computing power in the home, and mobile devices approaching Star Trek cool.

The basic tools, though, are really simple: text exchange, video exchange, directories, tagging, rating, following and sharing.

A social media product (I’ll drop the capital letters now, you’ll be pleased to hear) allows people to post ideas, videos or activities (I guess this is the “media” part. I’ve never really found the term very descriptive), and allows others to share them, rate them, and discuss them. And, although it’s a far cry from your old address book, in order to share there’s a directory of contacts in the background – some of them are contacts who have added themselves (your followers). Different systems present all this in different ways but the fundamentals are the same.

A few years ago, when the internet was young, I was an active member of Fidonet. Never heard of Fidonet? Fidonet consisted of private computers which dialled each other up at night in order to exchange messages which people wrote. Those computers ran Bulletin Board System (BBS) software which provided the users with their interface. They dialled up too (yes, this was all done over the normal phone network using modems). Some were messages to each other (netmail: basically email, but not quite so swift) and others were messages in forums (echomail: like Yahoo Groups but, that’s right, not so swift). If you started an echomail group (I can’t even remember the proper term for it, it’s been a long 25 years) other people could choose to read it – but only if their chosen BBS had subscribed to it.

See? Subscribing, message exchange, social interaction: that is where all this started.

Fidonet, by the way, really is dead. The internet preserves it’s state at, but as far as I can see from that there’s nobody home. Nor should there be… analogue modems and dial up BBSs? This is 2013. (wikipedia seems to disagree with me: maybe the dog is just resting?).

Social media built on these early beginnings by making the atoms of information smaller: we don’t have to subscribe to a whole echomail group, or indeed to a whole RSS stream, we can subscribe to see updates of/from a specific person, product, or “thing”. It’s actually still pretty granular: I have to subscribe to all of Stephen Fry’s wittering on Twitter, or none of it – there’s nothing in Twitter’s own system which will pull out just the gems for me.

So social media isn’t a new thing, it just reached a point a few years ago where technologies were ripe and ready to provide a step-change in user experience. Social media isn’t new, but it’s changing as it’s getting better all the time… and acquiring new buzzwords as the marketeers get involved. Will we give it a different name at some point? I expect the marketeers will see to that, but even when the name is buried alongside long lamented Fidonet

So next we will be seeing new names for subtle variations on the same things. That’s OK, but just remember: social media is not dead, it’s just being absorbed into the big toolbox of spanners which collectively forms our communications toolkit.

The Christmas Mouse

Here’s a story I wrote this Christmas for my boys. I claim copyright on it, so please do not circulate it without my permission for profit or otherwise, but feel free to read it to your own kids if you like it. In fact, if you’re artistic and would like to collaborate on creating some artwork for it then please get in touch!

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