“I blogged the news today, oh boy…”

In the week when eyewitness photos posted on social media helped to break the story of an Indonesian aeroplane that landed in the sea off Bali, we cannot ignore the potency of Netizen journalism  to create the news (even if we have concerns about accuracy and quality). And in the same week when “The Voice” returns to our TV screens for a 3-month season, we cannot ignore the potency of audience voting via SMS and social media to create new pop stars (even if we have concerns about accuracy and quality….).

As The Beatles might have sung, “I blogged the news today, oh boy…”

News and music are now confirmed as the key social network content for attracting audiences, if recent market activity is any indication of where the competition for eyeballs and eardrums is being played out.

  • Google’s decision to close down its popular Reader service simply drove customers into the arms of the competition. Unless Google rethinks the service closure, or has another product in development for Google+, Readers will be switching to alternative solutions. The community backlash has been significant, which suggests the audience for news aggregation is large, passionate and willing to be loyal to services that meet their needs. (For reviews on a range of Reader substitutes, see the links below.)*
  • Just a few days ago, LinkedIn announced it has acquired Pulse, a news-aggregation app, as part of a strategy to enhance its news content and build on LinkedIn Today’s curated news feed. Pulse is promoting itself heavily as a Reader replacement, so I am curious as to when LinkedIn settled the purchase price for Pulse – was it before or after Google’s March 13 announcement about the closure of Reader?
  • At the same time, Twitter has followed up its recent announcement to introduce better contextualization for trending news stories with the curious (but not surprising) decision to acquire We Are Hunted, a service that helps users discover new music, based on internet-sourced analysis of what other people are listening to. Expect to see millions of Justin Bieber fans tweeting his #music as a way to influence what Twitter pushes to its audience… and then wait for the feedback
  • Meanwhile, the other Justin has been working on the relaunch of Myspace as a “free” streaming music library (because no-one actually buys this stuff anymore, do they….?) Based on personal attempts to explore the new Myspace and upload my own music to this platform, it would be fair to say this relaunch is an “extended beta” version
  • Oh, and in case you missed the story, Yahoo! bought Summly, another news aggregation app, developed by someone younger than Justin Bieber…

* Here is a non-exhaustive and random selection of blogs offering reviews of Reader substitutes:

Life Hacker: Five Best Google Reader Alternatives

Extreme Tech: Google Reader Replacements

Edudemic: Google Reader Alternatives

Digital Trends: Best Google Reader Alternatives

CNET TV: Alternatives to Google Reader

 

“If it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen…”

I truly fear the day, probably some time in the very near future, when the phrase, “If it’s on Facebook, it must be true…” is used in open court as factual evidence. Not because I especially distrust this particular social networking platform, but because it would imply that social media has become a document of record. This would mean that content from Facebook and other social networks could be cited in court as evidence of information being true, of an event having occurred, or of a person (or object) actually existing.

Many commentators have explored this question of social media and “did it really happen” either in the context of existentialism (“I Instragram therefore I am”), or in respect to social media etiquette (“just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”). I am more concerned with what happens when we start to place inappropriate reliance upon content and information published via social media?

It took a number of years for faxes and e-signatures to be accepted in court as evidence of a document having been executed or a legally binding agreement having been created. E-mail is now admissible as evidence that a formal notice has been served between parties to a contract.

In some situations, e-mails and text messages are cited in court proceedings as evidence of a person’s promises, denials, deeds, opinions, state of mind or intent. “Smoking gun e-mails” are not uncommon in major court cases, and many organizations are required to archive e-mails and instant messaging for the very purpose of maintaining a “paper trail” in the event of future legal proceedings.

But I think we are far from ready to recognize social media as an official document of record, even though many users treat these platforms as a primary source of news and information.

Recently I was speaking to a Gen Y acquaintance who admitted that she got much of her daily news via a group of Facebook friends, who each post stories or news items as they hear or read about them on Facebook and the media. Given the immediacy of such “news bulletins”, the fact that this might be second-hand news does not seem to matter – “peer recommended” or “peer referred” information is often deemed to be just as reliable as the official or primary source, even if the content is selected on the basis of the number of “Likes” or how prominent it appears in search engine results.

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and their users are vulnerable to legal action if they propagate libelous or other offensive content; and as we know, this material can be used as evidence in criminal and other legal proceedings relating to cyber-bullying and hate speech, etc. That, I have no issue with.

Equally, I have no problem if social networks are used to announce births, deaths and marriages, or if companies want to communicate with their customers and suppliers via social media. If a customer seeks to rely upon the terms of an offer placed in a retailer’s Facebook page, that is no different to relying on a newspaper or broadcast advertisement. But let’s not equate publication on social media with our obligations to register or file certain events and official notices with the relevant authorities.

Social media allows each of us to be anonymous or hide behind assumed identities, and to publish what we want within the limits of free speech and other legally defined parameters.

But there is nothing to say that any of the stuff that we publish about ourselves has to be true or accurate, and I would be aghast if that was ever made a pre-condition for using social media. Social media is a wonderful platform for expressing opinions and exploring different aspects of our lives and our personalities, and it is precisely for this reason that social media is incapable of being regarded as a document of record.

“Everything on the Internet should be free…”

Last week I got into a very heated dinner-party debate with an artist, an academic and a publisher about the economic value of copyright protection in particular, and intellectual property rights in general.

It started with a discussion about file-sharing and illegal downloads, and led to an argument about patenting genomes. I can’t attribute directly, but the gist of the argument was as follows:

1 Copyright and patents do not encourage innovation – they stifle it

2 Intellectual property rights represent a modern phenomenon – ancient societies managed to exist without them

3 Everything on the Internet should be free – and not subject to copyright protection

Let’s agree that formal intellectual property laws are a relatively recent invention – the modern concept of patents emerged in 15th century Europe, and the first British copyright law was passed in 1710. These laws then grew in importance as technology introduced the printing press and the industrial revolution.

I would argue, however that all civilisations have placed a premium on knowledge, creativity and invention. Regardless of whether this knowledge is based on folklore, scientific experiment, geographical discovery or geological exploration – specific rights, actual economic benefits and certain legal protections have been afforded to those who establish ownership or control of these assets. Examples would include the right to copy ancient manuscripts held in monastic libraries; the monopolies and protection granted to members of craft guilds in plying their skills; the trading rights granted to merchants; and restricting the practice of certain tribal traditions to selected community elders.

Most of these knowledge-based activities involve a high degree of effort, ingenuity and risk-taking – so in return, it was acknowledged there needed to be financial and other rewards to act as incentives. In the case of science and technology, these incentives are often deemed essential to offset the huge capital costs of developing new products and processes. In the case of copyright, the rewards of author royalties and content licensing fees are desirable to encourage people to come up with new ideas and new concepts – even if the purpose is simply to amuse and entertain us.

Of course, the economic rewards need not simply be derived from patents or copyright – tax-breaks for R&D or public grants to fund academic research are some examples of alternative financial incentives for both inventors and people of ideas.

As for the concept that “everything on the Internet should be free”, I am reminded of what I once told a client, who could not understand why access to the on-line version of a printed reference work was costing him more than the “physical” cost of adding a new user log-in and password to our content publishing platform: “OK”, I replied, “you can have all the content for free, but we’re not going to index it, or structure it with headings and sub-headings; we won’t tag it, insert cross–references, or add hypertext links; we won’t even edit it; and finally, we won’t update it every time there is new material.” He soon got the point.

Why Francis Bacon would never be on Facebook

“Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends” is a dictum widely attributed to the  20th century artist Francis Bacon, although its origins have been traced to the  late 1800’s. Whatever its provenance, Bacon is known to have used the phrase frequently in the company of friends and hangers-on in the pubs and clubs of London’s Soho district. It was a sort of rallying cry when he was buying drinks for his companions – some of whom were close friends, others were mere acquaintances, associates, groupies and antagonists.

Bacon died in 1992, but even if he was alive today, I doubt he would have used Facebook. Not because he was out of touch with popular culture (the collection of source material from his studio attests to his artistic interest in photography, sport, film, magazines, advertising etc.). No, his antipathy to Facebook and other social media would be based on the inability to distinguish between “real” and  “sham” friends. Facebook may allow users to categorize “friends” as Close Friends, Family, Acquaintances, but this is mostly about levels of sharing and frequency of updates; it does not really allow for more subtle categorisation reflecting the different types and varied nature of relationships we have with our professional and personal contacts; nor does it allow us to distinguish between sub-categories (e.g., “friends I’m willing to have dinner with”, “cinema friends”, “family we visit for the holidays”, “Friday night drinks colleagues”, “clients to invite to the cricket” etc.)

The Internet in general (and social media in particular) is a great leveller, but has the capacity to reduce all our real-world relationships to a homogenous mass of digital contacts.