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discussing the news on the Daily Mail and BBC websites

By on Oct 28, 2005 in BBC, online community | 1 comment

One of the cool features of typepad and most other blogging services is that they give blog owners the ability to see where their traffic is coming from. Today I’ve had quite a few visits from users of the Daily Mail website. At first I was a bit worried that I’d accidently done something that the Mail thought they should bring to the attention of it’s readers in their typical “shock horror the internet is responsible for…” way. It turns out that the reason they visited was that today Dave, the community manager at the Mail (who I happen to know) announced the closure of the news and sport message boards on the site. The Mail Online’s explanation is that only 6% of the users were taking up 60+% of the moderation time. Well, that’s about what happens at the BBC too. In the community spaces I’m involved in, around 2-5% of messages are removed for violating the house rules and the vast majority of those come from a small, but known, group of users who consistently post and consistently break the rules. Regardless, it seems odd that the Daily Mail would disengage from news discussions at a time when BBC News Online has invested in a new system for it’s have your say debates and an “issue led” message board system with topic tagging for English Regions. I’ve been involved in the BBC News Online launch, primarily as an editorial advisor, as well as leading the BBC English Regions migration to new message boards. Both have been interesting experiences that I hope I can get permission to write more about here. For News Online, the whole ethos has had to shift from “publish only the stuff you can’t afford not to because it’s so good” to “publish everything unless it breaks the house rules”. Previously the Have Your Say team would publish a few dozen, perhaps 50 or 100 comments, but now they are publishing thousands. The interesting thing is that quality hasn’t suffered at all. The England message board is also exciting in that it brings together location based use of a discussion space with user topic tagging of discussions. Launched in beta, it’s going to get a whole lot more exciting in the coming weeks. I’m also helping the BBC World Service train their host teams and, in the coming months, you’ll see some exciting developments on the World Service websites as well. I can’t say anymore until the projects I’m involved in move on a bit but I’m certainly keen to hear what you...

online gamers and their avatars

By on Oct 27, 2005 in BBC | 1 comment

Ever wondered what the people behind different online gaming avatars look like? Photojournalist Robbie Cooper’s photos on BBC News Online let you view into the offline lives of gamers. The artwork’s not bad either…

Robert Putnam: after the talk

By on Oct 21, 2005 in BBC, conferences/events | 3 comments

The talk was interesting. Putnam used all sorts of data as evidence that social capital is in decline. Church attendance is down, fewer people participate in Parent Teacher Organisations, few people go to public meetings. My argument is that most of these things are old fashioned views of how society should be, a sort of nostalgic view that all was wholesome and good in 1950’s America. I had the opportunity to quiz Putnam on this point. I pointed out that he spoke of a "loss" that occurs as fewer people go to church yet, for many people, organised religion was a repressive or oppressive force in their lives. He ignored this, stating only that, in America, various social movements "wouldn’t have happened" had it not been for the church. I still don’t get it. Why must formal church attendance be viewed as inherently better than non-attendance, particularly where there may very well be positive aspects of NOT participating in organised religion? Putnam claims that he doesn’t have a nostalgic view of the America of the 50’s yet, for all his evidence, he looks at the past as a baseline and, when the numbers go down, it’s suddenly evidence of a "loss". Use of the word loss is inherently negative so I find myself struggling to understand why he can’t simply use the word change. Last week, in addition to getting married, going on a brief honeymoon and preparing to launch two very big new services as part of my day job, I also sent emails (via writetothem.com) to each of my elected local and national representatives voicing my opposition to a planned local development. In Putnams World, I didn’t attend a public meeting so my actions are off his civic participation radar. Yet I got replies from two county councillors, one city councillor, my MP, and the opposition Parliamentary candidate of another party – within days. I didn’t have the time to attend a public meeting, even if there had been one, I just used a different avenue to engage with government. Things may have changed, and certainly Putnam’s evidence shows this, but it’s not necessarily a gain or a loss. The cup isn’t half empty or half full, it’s just sitting there being topped up with something else everytime someone takes a drink. If only I could have convinced...

Putnam: bowling alone or just bowling differently?

By on Oct 21, 2005 in academic studies, BBC, conferences/events |

I’m sitting here at 2am reading and thinking about the work of Robert Putnam who is giving one of those inspirational internal lunchtime lectures at work tomorrow. Robert Putnam is a Harvard professor and author of Bowling Alone, a book about the supposed “decline in social capital” that, he says, has taken place in America over the past few decades. His argument is, essentially, that social capital in America has declined to the point that Americans are more likely to find themselves bowling alone rather than doing things face to face or getting involved in politics or various groups. Yep, yet another social theorist whose full of nostalgia for an idealised 1950’s America that probably never existed. On the Bowling Alone website, he lists 14 indicators of the “social capital index” (here). This include things like the following, my comments on each beneath them: Agree that “I spend a lot of time visiting friends” What on earth is “a lot of time”? I wouldn’t want to sound excessive in responding to this, nor am I sure if it’s about visiting friends in their home or visiting with friends. Does having a pint count? Is having 3 or 4 pints over an evening count? Agree that “Most people are honest” Let’s not be naive here mate! Most people are honest most of the time but to deny dishonesty in society is just plane stupid. And, in what respect, are we talking about honesty? Honesty when we get extra change after making a purchase? Honesty not to break into someone’s home? Honesty not to tell the tax man about supplementary income? Attendance at any public meeting on town or school affairs in last year (percent) I’ve never been to a public meeting. I have, however, submitted comments on development applications electronically and by post. It saved me having to trudge to the meeting. Average number of club meetings attended in last year I’m not a member of any clubs. However, I’m the owner of a couple of Flickr groups, participate actively in at least 3 different online communities, and go to the ocassional talk or digital art type event. Clubs are naff, people move from group to group more freely now than they used to and, I think, it’s liberating in comparison. Average number of group memberships See above. Average number of times volunteered in last year When someone asks me if I’ve volunteered in the last year, I think about going and building houses and Africa and things like that. Sure, that’s really worthy and it’s wonderful people do things like that. But I also volunteer less formally – giving a talk for a group of charities and not asking for payment, speaking at a university, offering advice in an email discussion, rebuilding a message board for a mate, etc. Average number of times entertained at home in last year Not a whole lot, but then most of my friends are scattered around the country and the World. It’s just not practical and, anyway, it’s often more interesting to meet with friends outside of the home, particularly in England where my fairly typical 2 up 2 down Victorian workers cottage can’t seat more than about 6 in the largest room anyway. Average number of times worked on community project in last year All the time, non-stop, but not in a “get your wellies and anorak on and help pick up the litter” kind of way. I do it online. I don’t like rain much. end My point? If you measure “social capital” using criteria that, let’s face it, is outdated and oldfashioned, of course you’re going to come up with numbers that make it look like people simply don’t engage with each other in meaningful ways anymore. But that’s simply not true. Much of the social network activity of old is now mediated electronically. We also have a lot more choice, not just in how we will communicate, but in which communities we will become involved in – geography, whilst important, is far less limiting now than it once was. The social revolutions of the 60’s and 70’s happened, in part, as a reaction of the baby boomers who grew up in the ’50’s against the repression of that era. Yet, if you’re going to try to measure social capital in the way Putnam does, you have to view declines in formal membership in religious and social organisations as a bad thing. I disagree. Kids today are more likely to meet up in one of their homes to play a video game, or meeting in the local shopping mall to hang out, than they are likely to be a member of some boring group like the Boy Scouts where they have to wear a uniform and tie nots. Young adults are more likely to discuss the pros and cons of organised religion whilst smoking a spliff in the park than to discuss it as part of a Sunday prayer group. Parents aren’t going to join the PTO and sit through hideously long meetings when they can fling an email to the school head teacher or chat with other parents whilst collecting their children from football practice. The world has changed, our way of communicating and building social networks has changed. Local is still more important to must of us than the global but or involvement in “groups” is less formal...

online communities “good for your health”

By on Oct 20, 2005 in academic studies, BBC, online community | 1 comment

According to a University College London review of 24 patient studies, patient participation in online discussions can have health benefits. BBC News Online reports that the researchers looked at "people’s use of interactive computer websites and programmes, which contained information services plus online support groups, chatrooms, or tailored advice based on a person’s details, affected people with such chronic diseases."