Massively un-orchestrated


The last seven days have been a proud period for Twitter in the UK.

First up, the power of networks blew apart an arguably unconstitutional and malignant “super-injunction” that prevented a newspaper reporting on Parliament.

Next, a community of interest formed around a grim, homophobic column in the Daily Mail about a pop star who had recently died. Within hours advertisers had withdrawn their spots from the web page, the paper had to issue a statement and in the following days more complaints were made to the Press Complaints Commission than in the previous five years put together.

As Jan Moir – the columnist who maligned and snarked the  pop star – and the Daily Mail recomposed themselves this week some predictable phrases emerged about liberal “echo chambers” and an “orchestrated campaign” on the internet.

Both phrases are problematic, but the latter caught my attention most. Both the Trafigura injunction and Jan Moir column incidents were anything but orchestrated.

Let’s take a look at the kind of orchestrated she was thinking about…

The classic tactic of the American New Right and their Christian fundamentalist fellow travelers around the world from the 1980s onward was the phone tree. Networks were organised through churches and religious/political publications so that if something appeared on a TV show that was offensive to their morality they phoned the TV station to complain and, say, five other activists who may not have been watching the show (or perhaps were watching it and hadn’t realised that they should have been offended). Those activists would then call the station and then five other members of the tree.

As TV stations (and elected politicians, media watchdogs) tended to extrapolate public opinion from the number of letters or calls they got (one letter equals, says, 100 angry viewers) this tactic was used to disproportionately represent the opinions of what Nixon called “the moral majority”.

That’s not to give a value judgement, to say that they were better or more pure as spontaneous, mass network campaigns. It’s just that online networks like the ones that were using Twitter, don’t need to be “massively orchestrated” or premeditated.

As hours pass, I would argue that orchestration emerges in these situations. Petitions are created, hashtags get ordered, sites and tools emerge to help people take action or spread the word.

For more: There is an excellent discussion on this subject between Emily Bell and Stephen Brook on this week’s Media Guardian podcast.

API and they know it: Guardian distributes *everything* online

Image: Help yourself (to the Guardian's data
Image: Help yourself (to the Guardian's data)

* Updated *

I’ve also written about Best Buy setting its catalogue content free at the iCrossing Connect blog…

Jeff Jarvis has an excellent post headed APIs: The New Distribution about The Guardian’s decision to distribute everything online.

If you’re even slightly non-technical you may not know what an API is. Basically it’s a way of letting anyone who wants to take Guardian content (headlines, copy, images, video) as it is published and do something different with it.

It makes its content more portable, more shareable, more distributable.

It means The Guardian has taken the limits off of its own content, the limits of what it can think to do with it, and of what can happen on its own site. Feeds from its content will be fed into the most groundbreaking, gamechanging ideas of the next few years (and some duff ones too).

One of Jeff Jarvis’s colleagues describes the move as putting its content “into the fabric of the internet.”

This is a bold move, but one that shows the web literacy of the Guardian Media Group: it understands thefundamentals of being a brand in networks, that it is best served by being in the networks, making itself as useful as possible. It’s just taken the logical next… leap.

This comes at the same time as the BBC is freeing up its news videos to be embedded in other websites.

All well and good – neither organisation is beholden to a quarterly P&L. The Guardian’s a trust and the BBC is a publicly funded (and generously so) corporation. Makes you think that maybe companies that aren’t for profit are the ones who stand the best chance of surviving the gear crunch of adapting to the web. Maybe traditional commercial models aren’t going to be as good at  surviving when it comes to media?

Apart from trusts and public money, the other players in the media mix are the brands. They used to fund the media through advertising mostly, but now will be direct players. How many of them would win in the attention markets by releasing data through APIs like this? Insurance companies have giga-wotsits of useful information. So do publishers, so do pharma companies, so do most people.

If you could, what data from your organisation would put out through an API tomorrow?

Useful advertising: Atheist bus ads

Image: An atheist bus advert (credit: Lorissa)
Image: An atheist bus advert (credit: Lorissa)

You’ll doubtless have heard the story of the journalist and comedian, Ariane Sherine, who was irritated by a Christian ad campaign on buses declaring that non-believers  “will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell … Jesus spoke about this as a lake of fire prepared for the devil”.

Writing a series of articles on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website, she suggested that atheists club together to pay for a some ads with a more reassuring atheist messsage (“There’s probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life”) the campaign gathered momentum and raised far more money than was needed. It also became a meme that spread around the world.

Sometimes it’s more about the journey than the ad. The ads, or the process of getting them there, became a social object.

The effect of the advertising itself is almost peripheral to the effect of the debate, the bringing together of atheists – a group usually less adept at organising itself than anarchists – with the focus of getting these ads made and the space on the buses bought.

So, some online debate plus a donation website (with a fund that is still growing) and there you have it… a potent piece of activism.

: : Finally, as a riposte to the inevitable complaints to the ASA, Richard Dawkins, a devise proponent of atheism gives a choice quote in this video:  “They have to take offence – it’s the only weapon they’ve got.” Got to remember that one, right?