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17 Jan 2013

Hold onto your assets!

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Now here’s a serious consideration for all the scavengers amongst us.

I was brought up respecting the mystery and romance of second-hand shops, the unwanted-treasure potential of jumble sales. And more recently I discovered the enduring hope associated with the thought of a good car boot sale.

What’s going to happen in the future with a dearth of second-hand books and music?

They’ll be humbly and invisibly residing on the dead hard-drives of the future or worse still floating in planet-killing cloud megaservers of corporate technology giants. A corner of the cloud which will be forever our imagination, but out of sight and out of mind.

I’m not sure who has the stats, but if you look at ownership of books and music in digital format (versus the actual items sitting on people’s bookshelves), now and compared to ten years ago, we can all guess the trend. Which is only going to speed up with tablets and e-readers ubiquitous…

More people, smaller spaces to live in. All the storage runs out quicker. We’re in the peak charity shop age now, and once we’ve given them away, they’re gone forever.

(Unless like me you are buying up everyone else’s junk – perhaps I’ll have that secondhand bookshop one day?)

Or… maybe the user-experience gods will bestow upon us fabulous serendipitous interfaces replicating not just the limitless choice which we have now but the joy and fear experienced in the junk shops and jumble sales of the past?

But just to keep in the negative vein, I think the inherent formula is shot. In the past the excitement was that you found a ‘physical’ bargain no-one else had. With digital replication, that’s gone as well.

I hope we keep sharing around the wonderfully packaged vinyl and dog-eared manuscripts for as long as we can. And if anyone has a dvd version of the movie Coup de Foudre (dir. Diane Kurys, 1983) please get in touch (not yet available on UK Netflix!).

Photo credit: 5th Dunstable Scouts Jumble Sale – 2 March 2013!

17 Jan 2013

Online Content versus Sarah Beeny

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Every article about the construction of online content recommends simplicity, clarity and brevity. Short sentences, pyramid structure, bullet points, lack of repetition. This is widely accepted and backed up by research. But why are we trained to believe in the short, impatient attention span of the average web browser, when we look at how the same audiences tolerate other media?

What would happen if all highly-trained web professionals started working in lifestyle TV production? You know the kind of programme, the one where they tell you what they are going to cover, say it or show it, then recap before saying it again, often with the same visual footage? They go on to say something else, repeat at length the same thing already summarized, then summarise right at the end, yet again. This has become such a mainstream (blatantly irritating) formula of lifestyle TV that it now happens across the board. Are we all turning over – or off? Perhaps this why we’re all desperate to multi-task with laptops and iPads where the content might get to the point more quickly.

Of course TV is a different, more linear medium, and we are clearly hypnotized by the same shots of bi-folding doors and minimalist kitchens, and of cosmopolitan street markets and aspirational products. But apparently we all have busy lives, so where has our short attention span gone? Maybe the TV creatives know we are all clicking and swiping away at the same time on our other devices, and need constant reminders to concentrate on the present viewing, like being prompted by some kind of angelically patient school teacher or lecturer?

Websites can entertain us much more efficiently and yet online content gets a fraction of the tolerance we give these shows. This could be understandable when we factor in the levels of discontent generated by the computer experience in the main – malfunctioning printers, broadband problems, general technical incompetence. It means that at least once you get to the page you expect the content to work – and quickly.

I would argue that TV is catching up with computer use in the frustration stakes. In the old days the TV experience was very simple – just press a couple of buttons on the remote then sit back. Now though, TV viewing (via Virgin Media packages at least) has all the levels of frustration previously assigned to using computers. Frozen menu pages, squeaking pixilated screens, and incomprehensible, incredibly poorly designed user interfaces. You have to select from hundreds of channels of ‘nothing TV’, ingratiatingly repetitive formulaic documentaries where the format itself screams unintelligent, even when covering seemingly interesting subject matter.

But where would we be if they changed the formula? I for one would miss playing ‘Sarah Beeny Jacket Bingo’, as she would only get to wear one stylishly short leather jacket per programme instead of ten different ones, presumably in a bid to trick us into thinking we haven’t heard the same thing just five minutes before.

Photo credit: Attractive bi-folding doors courtesy of The Green Window Company, Devon.

17 Jan 2013

Subverting the Social Graph

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I am not the only digital or technical professional out of the radar of ‘the social graph’ – meaning the level of influence I have online is pretty minimal. If you look for information about me, or published by me online there is currently very little. This after fifteen years working in digital media. Does this mean that I’m not dedicated, up-to-date, knowledgeable or opinionated about most aspects of digital communications? No.

I was simply too busy as a working mum and partner, to prioritise expanding my online profile. I did not value how often my name and thoughts might have been bandied around or recommended by others on the web. I believed more in improving myself, than in courting strangers’ opinions of me. And I still do!

Although I know my stuff and lead teams and projects confidently, I’m inherently more of a natural introvert and pretty shy ‘broadcasting’ to an anonymous audience. Coupled with being part of the Trumpet Winsock generation* and its natural reticence for blatant self-promotion, this has held me back from much social interaction online.

Now, establishing my own digital communications consultancy I’m aware of the irony that all this really has to change!

I had toyed with deliberately subverting the social graph and remaining a mysterious hidden figure – but clearly this would be a wee bit counterproductive. After all, why should people and prospective clients believe in me, unless I give them reason to – time to join in (even at this late date) the melee.

Cress Rolfe Profile on LinkedIn

(* Trumpet Winsock was what people connecting to the internet in 1997 used, when you fired this up and could hear the sweetly chuntering dial-up connection putting you in touch with the early web. Could be anyone born before 1985 really.)

17 Jan 2013

Old School Categories and Tagging

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When I worked at Penguin Books in the 1990s, I was fortunate to work with an inspirational person whose job it was (from a darkened office deep in London W8) to manage the publishers’ full fiction and non-fiction stocklists. These chunky A4 booklets were printed on a monthly basis and needed to take into account every single available title and its current price as well as available stockpacks and gift-sets.

Although Penguin had a robust in-house stock management IT system, the entire list of books published by Penguin, Puffin and partner publishers like Rough Guides, needed to be translated into meaningful sections and categories via the Penguin Stocklist. This allowed staff in bookshops over the world to find information about the book they needed, and to order it. This was well before you could just ‘look it up’ online. Amazon was still four or five years off its first online offerings.

This was pre-digital, the days of using Tippex for correcting typing mistakes, of relying on mammoth chuntering photocopiers to distribute information, and let’s be clear – golfball typewriters were only just being hauled out of office buildings to die peacefully and heavily somewhere (where did they all go?). Email was for early-adopters only, internal memos still rushing around buildings and to warehouses carried in mail trolleys and vans.

The point is that this one person had an encyclopedic knowledge of Penguin’s back catalogue, which was added to by maybe 150+ titles each month, and yet she knew by heart most of the author’s names and titles. I knew quite a few individual book numbers (ISBNs) myself but nothing could match the details held in Lorna’s head or the accuracy of each of these monthly stocklists. Mistakes were quite unheard of (and unlike today, would have been spotted by similarly obsessive and eagle-eyed book retailers).

The reams of available titles were made sense of by careful categorisation and rolling audits.

These days information management techniques such as this have changed beyond recognition. We expect to see in milliseconds every available image or text around a particular keyword or phrase. Categories went out of fashion when search wowed us.

But now we are shifting from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0, and with a great amount of information just useless noise, the curation of relevant content (‘people tagging things as they publish’) has become hot again via blogs and Twitter hashtags. Tagging helps us promote our stuff, and helps others find what they want, and parcels stuff off for ‘personalisation’ of content in the future.

Online content needs to be categorised to enable syndication, to ensure it is findable and can be connected with other similar content. There is geeky excitement over shared and open data whereby content ‘knows about itself’ for want of a better way of describing it – and can syndicate itself in more ways than originally envisaged. You can imagine lots of scenarios, many of which are happening already in comparison sites, one-stop travel shops etc.

Microformats* already help content editors indicate the type of information pages hold (such as address data or authorship data or event data), allowing the potential for mashups with data on other sites. You only have to look at content aggregated around maps for instance, or Google ‘at a glance’ section regarding local information, to see this kind of ‘machine-readable knowledge’ in action.

What do you use categories for? Anyone who has a blog will know about blog categories for sure. What about Twitter lists – do you create these to help with information overload?

I have lost touch with Lorna T. – the indefatigable Penguin Stocklist guru – but if you’re out there please get in touch if you find this post!

*From:http://microformats.org/wiki/introduction
“Microformats are a way of adding simple markup to human-readable data items such as events, contact details or locations, on web pages, so that the information in them can be extracted by software and indexed, searched for, saved, cross-referenced or combined.”

photo credit: Hello Typewriter blog http://hellotypewriter.tumblr.com/


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