Some initial thoughts about Google+

Google+, for those of you who have missed it, is the latest attempt by Google to create their own social network. Google+ places itself more-or-less directly between the already established Facebook and Twitter.

Brief summary

It aims to solve some of the privacy concerns that have been voiced by Facebook users through its ‘Circles’ feature and it also aims to replicate the open/conversational nature of Twitter by allowing you to ‘follow’ (not their terminology) anyone who has a profile on Google+. The Circles feature essentially allows you to define groups of users and then choose what content/activity you share with those groups. I started writing a longer explanation but on reflection Google+ as a platform (as with lots of Google’s products) works far better through experience rather than explanation.

Brief moan/warning about social networks

One thing that has struck me of late is the amount of time people invest in some of these platforms (Facebook in particular), using them as address books/photos albums/diaries – which is fine, BUT in almost every case the platform/network provider will claim partial (or complete) ownership of everything you do/say/upload on their network, it’s worrying how many people either don’t realise this or don’t seem to care…or perhaps I just worry too much?

This paragraph from the Guardian’s ‘1 month review‘ struck me as particularly worrying:

“I’m also disappointed by what I’ve learned about the service’s security. Although communications are encrypted, Google’s responses to my questions about government spying on users were not encouraging. The company does not deny that: a) it can record users’ text and video conversations even when they are, in theory, shared by only two people; and b) it will give government agencies the ability to tap these conversations as well. Google has to abide by the law, and it has a track record of resisting overweening government efforts to spy on US citizens”

Anyway, this debate deserves its own post really, the issue of online privacy and ownership of content is huge (in my opinion). Social networks are still such a new concept that we still don’t seem to have decided what is and isn’t acceptable regarding terms of service etc.

Brief thoughts

Google+ works.

Although I’m probably never going to use Hangouts on a day to day basis I can see this feature potentially (maybe) rivalling Skype for easy, free video communication.

Circles is a great feature, much easier than creating a list on Twitter or a Friends Group on Facebook – although it is a little arduous dragging and dropping contacts one-by-one into one or more Circles. It’s very intuitive and a great way to choose how to share content in a more nuanced way than on the other big social networks.

Sparks has great potential but at the moment I think it’s a little too clunky, I’d like to be able to see all my Sparks content in the one place (as you can with contacts in the Stream view) as well as being able to view it by individual category.

Ultimately, for me, I use social networks as a place to have conversations and access content recommended/shared by people I trust/admire/find interesting. I don’t feel comfortable uploading huge collections of photos or video, so those elements of Google+ have absolutely no interest for me and I haven’t looked at them. Google+ seems to make conversations quite easy without the constraints (140 characters) of Twitter. At the moment though there just simply aren’t enough people on Google+ to consider swapping away from Twitter. I also do like Twitter’s brevity – making it ideal to communicate whilst on the move via the many, many (many) mobile apps. Although apparently the Google+ mobile app is also very good, so maybe there is more of a crossover than I’m seeing at the moment.

It’ll also be interesting to see how Google approaches bringing brands/organisations onto the platform, they have already said that they are rushing through development of that aspect of things. I’d also like to see an API opened up to developers, as we have seen with Twitter and Facebook with great success.

So, those are my thoughts, I think as a social network Google+ does have some new and interesting ways of doing things, if the userbase continues to grow at the ridiculous pace we’ve seen since it launched a month ago (20 million users and counting) then it’ll be interesting to see who it starts taking market share from, or whether it’s seen as another complimentary platform that can sit alongside the already established big players.

Content is king

I have pulled this post out from the archives of my personal blog, I originally wrote it towards the end of 2009 (I think), I believe it still holds true:

“‘Content is king’, how many times have you heard that? Well when it comes to the web, in my experience, it is pretty much a universal truth. The worrying thing is how few businesses seem to realise this, and even if they claim to, how many of them act on it?

This follows on, in some respect, from my earlier post about “design for design’s sake“. There I mused about the appropriateness of design vs what the client/designer ‘thought was best’. The idea of having good, strong, useful and appropriate content follows on from that. Too many businesses seem to think that their web presence starts and ends with simply having a web site or twitter account or facebook page or blog. But this simply isn’t enough, in fact I’d go so far as to argue that having a presence on these platforms (or indeed any presence on the web) and then not using them is worse, and more damaging to your brand, that not having one at all.

People need to realise that having any one of the presences i’ve mentioned above (and all the others I haven’t) requires a commitment in time and thought. Simply registering a facebook fan page for your company, filling it with little or useless information, inviting all your friends to become a fan and then promptly never updating it displays a lack of understanding of the medium and has little or no positive outcome. Content is king, and never updating your content renders it useful to practically no-one.

I’ve encountered this a couple of times recently, with clients enthusiastically asking for bespoke blogging solutions and help with their facebook presence. I am all in favour of this, if done right. Whenever a client asks me about social media I provide them with a bit of a ‘how-to’ guide for each of the main channels/platforms, this outlines the type of content that would be appropriate (and some examples), how much time the particular platform requires (e.g. twitter=at least daily), how these platforms can be managed, examples of the types of interactions that can take place and an idea of the likely outcomes for their business.

All too often you see people painfully trying to shoehorn completely unsuitable content into an equally unsuitable platform. You need to, as mentioned in the post linked to above, consider your audience, consider what they want to find out and why they came to you via whatever platform you’re addressing them on. You must produce useful, regular, engaging content or quite simply – don’t bother”

White label app development

Someone sent me a link to the Royal Opera House’s app the other day (http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/royal-opera-house/id449056230?mt=8), interesting – does all the things an app should do i.e. presents content, listings, allows you to buy tickets (to a degree).

I then did a bit of research into the app developer, CloudTix, it would seem they have developed very similar (the same) app for a number of arts organisations. Further research confirmed my hunch that this is a white-label product, specifically for organisations using the Tessitura ticketing system – details here http://cloudtix.com/.

This chimed with a thought I had the other day (quite possibly whilst at the AMA Conference). Why can’t this approach by picked up more widely? Ultimately the requirements for many arts organisations are, when it comes to an app, whilst not identical, very similar in function at least e.g. sell a ticket, display event listings, deliver content, allow user to share/engage. When it comes to the slightly more complex issue of selling a ticket there are only a certain number of ticketing systems that are widely used – develop something that does the basics well, can connect with the ‘main’ ticketing systems and is developed for platforms other than just bloody Apple devices (Android’s market share is almost 39% at the last check compared to 18% for the iPhone).

Surely a project like this, funded by the Arts Council, would remove a lot of the fear-factor for arts organisations when it comes to developments such as this. Apps are expensive, they are easy to get wrong and to do them properly you need to develop for multiple platforms (i would say at least Android and iOS). A properly, carefully developed white-label solution could be relatively easily rolled out throughout the sector and allow organisations to properly consider, or at least start to consider, the explosion in the mobile web. Even better – make it a true open source project, properly engage with the digital community and get something that starts by doing the basics well and gets better and better without turning into a black hole for funding.

I still don’t believe that apps are the be all and end all, it’s just as (probably more) important to consider how your digital offering (i.e. website) is delivered to mobile devices. There needs to be a recognition that you cannot just deliver the same site to a desktop size screen as you do to a smartphone, the same content – sure – but not the same design and probably not with the same information hierarchy. My preferred route is carefully considered responsive design.

Thoughts, as ever, welcomed.

QR codes

People in the UK seem to be getting more and more excited about QR codes. When I say ‘people’ I really mean ‘companies and brands’, I’m convinced that for ‘people’ the use of QR codes at present is either baffling, goes unnoticed or is mildly irritating.

If you do want to mess around with QR codes a really (REALLY) easy way to generate them for specific urls can be found by simply following this url: http://chart.apis.google.com/chart?chs=200×200&cht=qr&chl=XXXX where I’ve put the XXXX you simply need to type the url you want to create a QR code for.

Anyway, back to why I’m unconvinced by the way QR codes are currently used.

History

To start, here is a brief (probably inaccurate) history of the QR code, they were first used widely in Japan in the early 90’s where I’m lead to believe that they are now fairly ubiquitous and widely used in campaigns, they spread to South Korea and (apparently) the only inroads they’ve made into Europe has been in the Netherlands. QR (Quick Response) codes are basically a form of barcode, capable of representing up to 4,000(ish) alphanumeric characters or about 3,000(ish) bytes of binary data. Typically the information represented will be a specific URL or small pieces of information – a message or similar.

Apparently they were first used to track parts in vehicle manufacture (thanks Wikipedia!).

When done well, they work

When they’re used creatively they can be an interesting and engaging way to connect physical materials with a digital facet of a campaign, e.g. http://mashable.com/2011/07/23/creative-qr-codes/ but more often than not they are simply plonked on a brochure or leaflet instead of an explicit url. When used in this way I can see absolutely no reason for using QR codes instead of a url. QR codes are not human-readable, urls are.

Seb Chan demonstrated a number of properly integrated ways of using QR codes in his keynote at the AMA Conference last week, specifically use in exhibitions as a way to access more, related content to extend the museum experience. He showed that when the displaying of QR codes is considered as a part of the exhibition design then the codes can fit in without looking like weird, ugly stickers. He also emphasised that they did have to explicitly say how to engage with the codes.

When done badly, they suck…a lot

However, the application of QR codes in this sort of careful, considered and integrated way is rare (in my experience). Too often you see a code incongruously placed at the bottom of an advert or on a billboard with absolutely no explanation as to how to use the code or what it’s going to show you. Although this technology is commonplace in some parts of the world in the UK most people have absolutely no idea what they are or how to use them. They aren’t going to automatically understand that they need to scan the code and they will then be shown something relevant or interesting on the device they’ve scanned the code with, in fact most of them probably don’t even know that they can scan the codes with their phone.

And that brings me onto another point, phones. The vast, vast majority of people who do scan your QR codes will do so via a mobile device (i.e. their phone), have you considered that when designing where the code will take them or what it’ll show them? Are you trying to take them to a the url of a page that hasn’t been designed with mobiles in mind or are you trying to show them some content that just isn’t suitable to be delivered to a phone?

Be careful and considerate and it might just work

However, although as ever I’m sure I sound slightly grumpy about the whole thing, I do think that QR codes can be useful. If you consider how and where you’re going to display them, how you are going to encourage people to engage with them (and explain what they are) and carefully consider how and why you’re using QR codes to connect the audience with a specific part of your digital activity then I think that they are probably the best tool for the job.

Where can I see them being used effectively? Programmes/brochures/exhibitions – any situation when you can sensibly enhance the users experience by connecting them to the digital world – if it isn’t going to benefit the user then don’t do it, if it’s just going to link them from an advert to yet more advertising then forget it, you’re not doing anyone any favours.

Tips

If you want your QR code to be as readable as possible for a specific url then use a url shortener (e.g. bit.ly or tinyurl.com) as this will result less characters to represent which equals bigger ‘blocks’ in the code which means that whatever reader you’re using will ‘lock’ to the code more quickly. Also in print the code needs to be a certain size to be readable, below about 15mmx15mm some readers have trouble ‘locking on’ to a code, on posters the code needs to be much larger than this (hopefully this is obvious!). I’d recommend you test, test and test again.

Think about where you’re sending them (I can’t stress this enough) – e.g. if you’re sending the user to a video, is it accessible to devices that don’t support Flash, is it HD video – if so then most people probably won’t thank you for using their entire month’s worth of data allowance. If you’re sending them to a site then how does this look/work on a mobile device? What’s the user experience like?

Also, last but by no means least – think about when people will be seeing the QR code. On the tube? Yeah, they will have no signal then. On a plane? Yep, no phones will be turned on there either.

As always it’d be great to hear your thoughts, do you love/hate QR codes, have you seen any amazing/awful examples of their use? I’m really interested in how people respond to them, the vast majority of my (fairly tech-literate) friends either hate them or don’t understand them.

On to the next stupid idea

After the ride this year I really want to do something similar next year, after a good deal of the last 3 weeks spent watching the tour de france I have decided to do a ride from the Atlantic coast (roughly near Biarritz) to somewhere just south of Perpignon on the Med. In doing so I plan to take in quite a few of the larger mountains in the Pyrenees.

The route profile will look something like this http://www.pyractif.com/cycling-packages/road-c2c-classic.html

And the incredibly detailed routemap currently looks like this:
I think next year I'm going to try and cycle in the Pyre... on Twitpic

AMA Conference and “the digital question” (part 1 of ?)

I’ve been working at Opera North since November 2011. My job, Digital Communications Manager, is a new role within the company which means there is a hell of a lot to do but also that I am allowed to have mildly ridiculous ideas on a semi-regular basis and attempt to see them through.

I am a techie, or a developer, or maybe a ‘digital creative’ (hideous term) albeit with a fair amount of ‘traditional’ marketing experience. I am not, I wouldn’t say, an ‘arts marketer’. However, I gladly ignored this fact and made my way up to Glasgow for the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) Conference this week.

I like conferences, the breakout sessions are usually crap and the keynotes are complete bullshit peddlers but it’s always good to get away from the daily grind and talk to other people similarly revelling in being away from the daily grind in whatever industry it is you’re in (plus there is usually at least 1 good speaker that makes your brain think new things). Also it’s a good chance to see new places, e.g. I’d never been to Glasgow before, now I have.

I didn’t have huge hopes that my breakout experience was going to be hugely challenged, I’d only got at all excited by one session (from a list of about 30) – on Open Data – and the prospect of one of the keynotes talking about ‘digital success’ made my heart sink. Now would probably be a good point to try and excuse, or at least explain, my cynicism. I don’t come from an arts background (lots of my immediate family do, but that’s another story), I have worked for agencies, as a freelancer and for a university in recent years so moving into the arts sector has been a bit of a weird and wonderful experience. I love the atmosphere in arts organisations, the people are great and there is always something interesting or odd going on, however I despair whenever I am dragged into a conversation with anyone with what I’ve come to recognise as ‘digital pretensions (or,often, more accurately, delusions)’.

The arts sector (and I’ve mentioned this before) is almost scarily lagging behind ‘the curve’ when it comes to embracing digital developments (which in this context usually means “stuff that’s happening with the internet”), I think this is relatively easily explained when you look at the problem. Who would be best placed to recognise, understand, explain and apply the latest technological advancements? Technologists, developers etc…essentially digital people. These people are almost entirely absent from the arts sector. They simply don’t exist in a sector that has never really needed them before. Most arts and cultural organisations’ dealings with this type of people are through short-term, project-specific agency relationships where, more often than not, the arts organisation tries to explain what they want (or think they want), hands over some money and sometime later receives what they paid for. These relationships were never intended to build understanding, capacity, knowledge or any of those other intangible but essential and sustainable things – why would they be? The agencies were never going to want to put themselves out of business and the arts organisations really didn’t have the time, money or inclination to even think about things in these terms.

BUT, then digital became important, it became fundamental to the way that people communicate, understand, consume and create. So the arts organisations suddenly had to understand, or at least seem like they were trying to understand. The way in which this process took place to me seems incredibly strange. It seems (and I have only my own perceptions to go on for this, as I say I have no history of working in the arts sector until last year so have very little in the way of facts to go on) that instead of going and trying to find people with the skills to help them make the huge leaps required in the ways that organisations understood, used and worked with technology (and really, change the way that these organisations worked in a fundamental way) they instead established a list of arbitrary ‘must-haves’ (e.g. a website, an e-newsletter, some sort of social media presence, maybe some multimedia content – essentially marketing assets in digital form) – found a bunch of people already working in the arts sector and put them in charge of making these things happen. As a result the management of digital strategy, digital activity and digital development in the arts has been driven and carried out by a group of people who, whilst incredibly enthusiastic, don’t have the fundamental understanding of what they’re doing or the technology they’re working with. For me, and I may be in a minority of 1 on this, to properly use something you simply have to understand it, ESPECIALLY with a vast, unwieldy and complicated field of development such as web-based technological developments (wow, that’s a clunky way of describing things).

I could continue to waffle on about this but I don’t think that’d be very interesting for anyone, I simply wanted to explain why sometimes I seem like a cynical bastard when people in the arts claim to have struck upon some revolutionary digital concept as more often than not when trying to explain themselves they make so many factual errors that it makes the gods of the internet cry big, wet, binary tears of woe. I wanted to get that out there because I think it’s an important bit of context for my views on almost everything to do with the application of ‘digital’ in the arts. Although I do realise that it does make me seem like a bit of a nob (probably).

Oh and I’ll actually write some actual things about the actual conference (and Glasgow, and the weird Dutch, Japanese-concept hotel we stayed in) some time next week.

P.s. I am also aware that I don’t have all the answers, I probably don’t even have one of the answers. I understand that arts organisations are (sometimes) slow, weird, idiosyncratic, stubborn places and that even with the best will in the world perhaps some types of change are almost impossible to accomplish at the pace required, or maybe even at all. I do however think that there are several elephants in the room that need to be roundly pointed at in as loud a way as possible, and that’s what i’m trying, in a small way, to do.