honestlyreal

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About me, but not of me?

Silhouette of boy in sea

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Bear with me here.

Lots of agitation at the moment about the prospect of our health records being flogged to the highest bidder and scattered to the four winds in the interests of progress and profit.

So here’s a thought to chew on: how are we so sure they are actually our records?

What are these records, anyway? A gathering of facts – of some very personal facts for sure – my weight, my addictions, my phobias, my illnesses. But it’s also a record of my transactions, medical interventions, successes and failures.

And that latter aspect takes us, in this contorted line of reasoning, to a more complex place than merely a collection of details about me.

For transactions have two sides. Givers and receivers. Ministers and ministered. To choke off the supply of feedback on interventions is to poke a stick in the eye of rationality and science, surely?

There’s a ready assumption that it’s “my record this” and “my record that” – but what if we were to reframe this? What if we were to accept (after a huge public thrashing-out that has shown no sign of taking place so far) that by receiving we also have to give? That the quid pro quo of that new medication is the giving up of that transaction, of its success or failure, so that others may learn, and that we all may benefit? Thus science would march onwards with its boots reinforced by the tough leather of real-world evidence.

Of course those two constructs I mentioned above: facts about us, and about our transactions, can’t be neatly separated like that. To make sense of my intervention you have to know about my underlying condition. Evidence of interaction may not have much meaning without a historical context. So while it may be more palatable to argue for the sharing of intervention experiences for the greater good, pieces of the “us” stuff will inevitably be attached.

But pause for a moment – consider what the debate about personal data would look like were we to acknowledge that just because something is about me, it isn’t necessarily of me.

Insistence on opt-outs from data collection would start to look like an act of selfish resistance, a dogmatic adherence to an ideology of paranoia, a one-way street in terms of the flow of benefits. Yeah, give me the treatments, but don’t expect to be able to learn anything based on the outcomes.

Deanonymisation (the jigsaw rebuilding of supposedly laundered data to reidentify personal records) would start to look less like an absolute evil, and more an equivocal risk to be weighed against benefits. See those benefits of sharing as benefits to us all, and the harsh black and white of much of the debate around rights and records melds to a rather more nuanced sea of greys.

This is hardly a popular line of thought. But I think it merits a bit more of an airing. Where else would you expect to preserve such transactional asymmetry? What is so sacrosanct about our physical existence that makes it right to fight against information sharing when this may act against the rational interests of our collective societal body?

Having set your stall out against data sharing or anonymisation, or in favour of informed consent to share, are you still so sure of the moral rock on which you’ve built it?

High speeeed data

2012-12-08 13.17.00

A few quick notes after my first month-and-a-bit as a field-triallist* for EE of their 4G mobile data service.

After Andrew Grill had a rough experience trying to be a 4G early adopter, he worked with EE to try and make something constructive from the experience. His original blog post about it had got a lot of attention, so he proposed giving five ‘advocates‘ the chance to use the service, and write honestly about it. I am one of those users, and my mobile data needs are pretty demanding.

As a photographer, I’m uploading content every day. Lots of it. I also need to look at a fair few images, but it’s the upward speed that would make a real difference to me. When I can’t get hold of decent, fast, reliable wifi – so that includes most events – I turn to my Three all-you-can-eat data plan.

That’s pretty good, and I’ve had speeds around 11/3 (up/down in Mbps) with a general expectation of about 6/2 and a regular 8/1.5 at home. (Yes, at home. Broadband here delivers a measly 2/0.4, and often bogs down completely.)

So how has EE been working? Well, sadly I live just outside the 4G coverage, near the M25, but the H+ service is still a bit faster than Three’s (at 10/1.6). Though it does seem to drop out for no apparent reason about once an hour, requiring a handset restart and relinking to its wifi to pick back up again. So I’ve found myself tending to use Three instead, as that remains uninterrupted for as long as needed.

In 4G territory though, it’s devastatingly fast. The best I’ve seen (in Shoreditch) was 26/12, but I’d say in London generally 18/5 is more representative. Still incredibly fast, though. Twice I’ve seen uploads at 20Mbps when testing.

But it’s not about the numbers, really. Has this made me more effective in my work? The picture is still a little mixed so far. The first reason for this is that at speeds that fast, the 8GB package that we’re on (that’s the maximum being offered to the market at the moment by EE although I’ve had two arguments with people now who swear they know someone who’s on a bigger limit) gets eaten up very quickly. After four days of usage (and not that heavy, I think) I saw I’d churned through 5.6GB, so had to back off a lot for the rest of the month. Not that I was worried about getting hit with a surcharge, I think they’ll let me off that, but because I really wanted to see what happened in trying to living within the confines of the tariff.

As a result, I didn’t hit the sweet spot of combined a) poor wifi, b) a fat 4G signal, c) a pressing need and d) confidence that I had the headroom left in my allowance for another month. Which is an interesting first finding, I think.

The second cause for pause is that a couple of times I’ve had tests showing me a 6-10Mbps upstream connection, but Dropbox synchronisation has remained stubbornly slow. Flickr and Dropbox are my two big uploading destinations. Yet when I switch to Three, I get a much faster upload. I will test this further, controlling as far as possible for different factors, and report.

But yesterday, at an event in Westminster, it all came together. I got Flickr uploads with amazing speed and consistency, the purple bar racing across the screen as fast as I’ve ever seen it (with the one notable exception of Google’s Victoria office, where it actually warmed the screen a little as it moved.) So it really will work. More testing required.

[The image at the top of the post is very unfair. But it made me smile. In a remote Derbyshire village it was amusing to see a signal so low it barely registered.]

—-

UPDATE2 8pm, 24 Jan

Might be helpful to show the 4G service performing through the laptop:

4g test

vs the in-house offering:

qeii test

But more importantly, mine actually performed consistently faster for actual uploading, and was stable. And mine. Etc. (How that changes as the 4G network comes under greater load, time will tell.)

—-

UPDATE1 4pm, 22 Jan
As luck would have it, a few hours after I wrote this EE announced a big increase in the maximum allowance available and price cuts.

*Best shorthand I can think of, really. I’m not a formal tester, or reviewer, and certainly not a company stooge for EE. This small group is using the service to see how it performs in reality, and writing about it occasionally. The service has been provided for free for a year but no other fee comes with it.

#uksnow – one of a kind?

I still get a buzz out of seeing this:

Snow Map

The seed of the idea appeared in the same room that I’m writing this post in today, almost four years ago. I wrote about it conceptually at the time, before any mapping had been done. And yet, after all this time, is there anything that’s come close to sharing its characteristics of simplicity, popularity and usefulness?

Why did it work? Because it was, and is:

accessible: Anyone could contribute if they could send a tweet. Even if they had no snow (I’ve seen lots of 0/10s).

fast: Instant gratification, really. Nobody had to moderate or process anything. Even before Ben Marsh created his map (and others had a go, too) the hashtag let you see what was going on immediately (spammers notwithstanding).

minimal: Two tiny character sequences are all you need. Part of a postcode, and your opinion on snowiness. Other services look after all the rest, pulling information together and mapping it. No fancy abbreviations or protocols to adhere to. Clever Ben also made it very flexible, so that placenames could be interpreted and the order of information within the tweet didn’t matter.

safe: An information standard that only revealed the first part of your postcode would probably not see you inundated with stalkers.

sporadic: We get this a handful of times a year. If we had the opportunity to do this every day, I think we’d quickly tire of it. I can’t see it catching on in Canada.

disruptive: Lots of us do different things when it snows. We might have extra time on disrupted journeys, or be unable to get to work at all. And we want that to be a shared experience.

inherently fascinating: Brits love weather. End of.

useful: Is the snow coming towards me? How bad is it where I’m planning to go? Who needs a metereologist’s projection when you can just gaze down as if from your own satellite, at what’s happening right now?

not owned: Nobody’s “in charge”. Nobody claims it’s “their system” – although there was one notable attempt. It is genuinely owned by the people, for the people. Ben has made a cheap IOS app for those who want that experience, and good luck to him. But you can see it on the website he’s built for nothing.

traditional: After three years in a row, any quirky British behaviour qualifies as a tradition. Nobody has to blow a whistle to indicate “ok, we’re starting some snow-mapping now,” or go on a training course to learn how to do it. It just happens.

What else could work like this? I hate to say it, but I fear the answer might be: not much. This is a unique combination of characteristics, when you think about it.

For whom the bell trolls

We’re almost twenty years on from the publication of one of the internet’s defining artworks. Turning from the screen of his desktop PC, one dog faces another, with the immortal line: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

The Internet may have had a capital letter back then, but that underlying message hasn’t changed.

Remember Leo Traynor? The Irish blogger, political consultant and writer who was all over your screens in late September with his amazing story of tribulation and forgiveness.

You missed it? In brief: Leo started getting a whole bunch of online abuse – progressing to real-world threats, parcels of hate delivered to his house, and lots of really nasty stuff. The police weren’t interested, so he enlisted a friendly IT whizz to use vague (but legal) means to track down his assailant. Turned out to be the teenage son of someone he knew, so Leo sets up this Agatha Christie-style face-to-face dénouement, only to deliver a lovingly-crafted message of absolution to the weeping youth.

For this act, he was almost canonised by Giles Fraser, and the Guardian was not the only publication to amplify his message with scarcely a glance towards the issues of its authenticity.

Thing is, there were a few odd features to that original story. Three big ones, to my mind.

Firstly, Leo had a penchant for enabling his persecutor’s chosen channel of abuse – the Twitter Direct Message – by continuing to follow new, anonymous accounts that approached him. Wouldn’t you know it, he’d do that, they’d unleash a tide of venom, he’d block, and then he’d do it all over again. “Sometimes two or three times a day,” Leo writes.

Secondly, the inaction of the police in response to reports of serious anti-Semitism and death threats. Given that these were backed up with physical things he’d been sent in the post, this gets creakier as a storyline the more you think about it.

And thirdly, the unmasking – from online traces to the perpetrator’s precise house – was very strange. Yes, one can construct tenuously coherent theories involving the cross-referencing of IP addresses with social network information, Wi-Fi logs and other geolocation, perhaps aided by the geography of sparsely-populated areas. But it read strangely; as if the details had been massaged or redacted in some way.

None of these three things are by themselves impossible, or unexplainable. There’s a line of defence for Leo that says any subsequent weird behaviour on his part can be put down to a wish to protect the anonymity of the child of a friend.

But the conjunction of all these points in the same story – a story pressing all the classic emotional buttons of conflict, tragedy, mystery and resolution – certainly got my alarm bells ringing. And you know what? The story’s out there now. Massively so. And that brings with it other pressures for authenticity and verification that compete directly with that wish to protect anonymity, however laudably founded.

We’ve had the Syrian lesbian blogger. We’ve just had Dave on Wheels. That people with fantastic stories on the internet may turn out to be, quite literally, fantastic themselves should be no surprise to anyone.

A few skeptical voices were raised in Leo’s direction. From systematic interrogation, to more gentle questioning. And then there was this strange business of an eerily similar unmasking only a few weeks earlier, bringing with it a big-P political angle. (If you search, you’ll find another site which has much to say on Mr Traynor, but I am not linking to it for reasons which will be obvious if you explore the site more widely.)

Leo himself went quiet, protected his Twitter account, and blocked me and a few others. A little strange, given I’m pretty sure I’d not tweeted to him directly at any point. But some rallied round. Of course Leo exists! Everyone knows Leo! I’ve met him myself (a while back mind you), said others, in some instances with the simmering anger that naturally accompanies challenge.

Harder questions started being asked: Can the Gardaí confirm he actually reported the abuse to them? Can he be found in the Rathmines phone book? (Or any other directory, phone or otherwise, for that matter.) Given he claims to have a D.Phil, where’s his thesis? Why has no one come forward to offer any independently verifiable biographical detail which might categorically identify Leo as a real person?

Is this what identity really means then? The external verification of biographical details? Well, largely it does, as I’ve dwelled on previously.

But all we see are blanks. At every turn.

So, does Leo even exist?

There seems to be no available evidence. Not for someone going by that name, anyway.

Because for a man who’d apparently been so influential, there are no published articles, no records of speaking appearances, no “political consultancy” reports or client references. Nothing. Just a mostly-wiped blogging history, some social network profiles and contributions to comment threads here and there. Social vapour, really. But tangible footprint? Not so much.

But what does all that actually mean? Is an existence that’s only defined in social media terms any different from, well, from any other definition of a “real person”?

These are questions for the epistemologists and existentialists, of course. I’ve no axe to grind, nor a wish to somehow polarise the world into Leo-apologists and Leo-deniers. (Leo-pards vs Leo-tards?)

So why do I care? This could just be someone who does a bit of blogging under an assumed name. Possibly someone who has perhaps met a few people in real life for a coffee while in the guise of their online persona. For whom the definition of “political consultant” might be “someone who tweets at politicians”, and “writer” equating to “person who sits on the internet all day commenting on blogs”. The name could even be real, but that would suggest certain other embellishments had been made. (Still want to know about that D.Phil, Leo. And maybe more about that extensive education and all that travel. It’s extraordinary that one can get around so much but leave no traces online, isn’t it?)

That’s no big deal. Hardly unique. He wasn’t after money or malice, it would seem. A few minutes of fame as a storyteller that suddenly got wildly and magnificently out of hand, is my reading of it.

Well, it didn’t matter while it was just one man and his blog. But when the tale becomes part of the canon of internet legends, all the while omitting a tiny little detail like the author’s pseudonymity, then its other oddities are cast in a harsher, less forgiving light. If even the existence of the author can’t be verified, what else about the story can be?

Leo’s fable, with its quirks and flaws, has consequences: that people are going to believe misleading things about their privacy or findability. That they might be discouraged from reporting serious crime to an apparently indifferent police force. And that they’re being set an example of behaviour that may prolong their exposure to harm.

Real-world, real-impact consequences. That’s why I’m writing this.

A serious point: probing questioning towards those who write about abuse more often than not turns out to be a Very Bad Thing. Many of the commenters on that Skepchick post point this out. And they are right. But how many strange facets does a story have to have before it does become fair game for deeper investigation? True skeptics should be very careful to avoid placing certain topics beyond question, whatever the surrounding evidence.

Whatever the answer, I think this one has enough to cross that line.

Be a dog all you like. Be whoever you want to be online. But risk harming others through misleading them and you can expect to be called out on it. And if that’s “trolling”, I’m a Dutchman.

Well, I might be. You never know. Proost!

The root of the problem

Spent a hugely enjoyable day today in Cardiff in the company of Learning Pool and their customers. I’ve got a lot of time for the way this bunch have built their business, and – for once a word neither hijacked nor misplaced – their community.

As with the event I went to in London a fortnight ago, any suggestion of post-lunch torpor was shattered by the charismatic Donald Clark, something of an Antichrist of E-Learning. (I trust he’d enjoy that description. He’ll no doubt let me know if not).

Donald likes to shake it up a bit, and did some pretty efficient demolition of many of the cargo cult behaviours of learning and development. He’s not an easy listen for some of the professionals in this field, which is probably why he makes such an excellent choice as a speaker.

But then… he turned his beady eye to content.

“How many of you,” he boomed, “…can remember the formula for solving a quadratic equation?”

Silence. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.)

I couldn’t hold back, and did a sort of ten-year-old’s squeak and arm-raise from the very back of the room.

“One. Right.” Point proven, clearly. “There’s no value in all these things we ‘learn’. You’re never going to need that formula. You don’t remember it.”

And so, dear blog-clicker, I was prompted to write these few words in defence of this humble equation.

Along with Pythagoras on triangles, Newton on force, and a couple of (slightly rusty if I’m honest) ones about speed and velocity, it’s pretty much the only tone poem featuring a, b, x, y and their friends that I can still effortlessly recall.

(Once upon a time I could reel off the Kutta-Joukowski equation and other fancy rhythms. Sadly most of those are now long, long gone.)

And here it is:

Do I actually use it? Well, yes, I have done. Quite recently, in fact. I wanted to remind myself of the precise derivation of the golden ratio, in some thinking I was doing around graphic composition. Constructing the equation is ridiculously easy, but solving it is a little less obvious.

To be able to achieve this solution of an equation of a higher order (where one of the terms is multiplied by itself), using this very simple bit of maths, was in itself very pleasing.

And more than just giving me the solution, it also satisfied me to know that more basic algebra wasn’t going to do the job – that it had to be this particular formula in order to unlock the secret.

The quadratic equation also did something else for me when I first met it; something that persists today. It broadened my mind to the idea that a problem could have more than one solution. And beyond this, to the corollary that mathematical processes might be asymmetric. Or even irreversible. That really helped when I later came across public key cryptography.

Thank you for all that too, little equation.

I suppose, to generalise even further, that even if I had never used it again, it had done a job in my mind. Planted a seed. Given a concrete foundation to the idea that problems can be solved with tools. Find the right tool, and great power can be yours.

So, all in all, I was quite fond of it.

And yet, in this room of prosperous professionals, not one other person was prepared to admit they remembered it.

Actually, two other people did subsequently come out to me in the corridor, saying they did know, but they didn’t really want to say so in front of everyone.

And that, dear reader, is a problem for me.

To begin, as our speaker did, by rubbishing “traditional things that are taught” sets us on a precarious slope. It’s the same slope that excludes the nerd, that silences the swot, that rewards mediocrity, the low-brow and the trivial.

Do too much of that and you’ll engender a fear of the complex and an avoidance of more far-reaching lessons of abstraction, extrapolation and generalisation. You really don’t want to do that.

I’m not going to go all Gove about this, but, well, if you’ve read this far, you know what I mean.

So go to bed tonight chanting softly, x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared…

zzzzzzz

What a lot of shite

This post has been almost written dozens of times over the last few years.

I nearly wrote it after this.

And this.

But today I’ve seen this, and I can hold back no longer.

Whether the message is about mobile phones, bank notes or our hands, the underlying story’s always the same: we’re a grubby bunch, there’s all shit on everything we touch, and this is very bad news.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Because this coverage is spectacularly unhelpful in telling us what the real risk actually is.

To do that, it’s completely beside the point to offer us statistics of contamination, bacterial density, or any other big numbers in the way that these reports present them.

What we need to know is: does this matter?

And to do that, the research needs to focus on different questions. Try these:

1) are the levels high enough to cause some of us harm? …and if so,

2) who is at risk, of what, and by how much?

3) are these levels significantly higher than in comparable societies?

4) is there evidence of a progressive trend, whether for better or worse?

That’s the meaningful stuff.

The fact is that we’re pretty tolerant of these bugs. Think of some of the places – extraordinary places – that your mouth might have been. You know what I’m talking about. And you didn’t get ill, did you?

The claim that kitchen chopping boards have about 200% more bacteria on them than toilet seats? (I will skip over the omission of a base unit of measurement, and the old favourite of whether 200% really means “three times” but written more scarily.) Evidence, surely, that the best place to chop carrots is the loo?

We’re not all collapsing just because we prepared the veg in the kitchen, are we? Or boaking furiously after every phone call?

A little more sense is required, in the writing and the reading about this topic. Numbers by themselves mean nothing.

Look for the outcomes and the trends. That’s where the meaning lies.

You can quote me on that

“Truth is delivered in yellow boxes.”

That was my first thought when I saw this popular little graphic posted last week. Then I saw it a few more times, and had a few more thoughts.

Guilt, at first, if I’m honest. You mean that the grumpy morning voice enquiring as to how the school shoes can possibly have disappeared overnight, AGAIN, will end up providing the timbre for Jimmy’s inner monologue for the next eighty years?

Ouch.

It’s a hugely resonant thought. Any parents, or indeed anyone who’s ever had parents can identify with it. And the way it was expressed in this quote… so clear, so stark. The voice. That’s where the sound comes from. Must be true. Says so on the internet. Has a zillion Likes.

It’s not a bad thought, of course. Nothing malicious about it. It carries some truth, I’m sure. Parental influence shapes one’s inner life, along with stories, games, teachers, friends, wider society, religion and all the rest. Of course the sound of one’s parents plays a part. Of course the act of treating our kids with greater consideration, mindful of being That Voice In Their Heads For Evah, is for the good.

So nothing wrong here?

Except, except, except… It just didn’t resonate with me in terms of actually applying to me. I could see it plausibly applying to everyone else, but did my inner voice sound like either of my parents? Actually sound like? Or even use similar speech patterns? Not so much. I asked a (very small) sample of others. Same.

Time to look at where it came from. To look for the evidence behind the claim. And that became a bit tricky. When you have a hugely popular soundbite like that, searching for a source only brings back references to the quote itself, over and over again.

The site referenced at the bottom of the quote, TheSilverPen, were only responsible for the formatting of the typeset graphic, and of course sharing the version that I spotted. But when I contacted Hollye there, she didn’t know where it originated. “I wish I could tell you where I found the quote, but I have absolutely no idea. I collect quotes from books, magazines, newspapers and online… then convert them into graphics and off I go,” she wrote.

So I wrote to Peggy O’Mara herself. Peggy is publisher, editor and owner of Mothering magazine, a long-standing US publication. She happily provided the original source, an editorial from Mothering Issue #128, Jan-Feb 2005.

Here it is, with a little more context:

When I think of a mothers’ movement, I don’t think of only one organizing group or one cause. I think of a vast array of networks, a web of organizations working to increase awareness and to influence social change. All parts of the web are important, just as all kinds of social action are important. A mothers’ movement is really about finding and expressing your voice as a mother. Here are some actions you can take to feel part of a mothers’ movement. Some take only a little time, but their results are long-lasting. Others are easier to accomplish when children are older. All are valuable. You can perform them in sequence or just pick and choose.
See your mothering as a political act. The way you talk to your child becomes his or her inner voice. The way you model acceptance of your own body becomes the way your daughter learns to accept hers. The way you model the distribution of chores in the household provides a blueprint for your children’s marriages. Bringing consciousness and awareness to the small acts of your life with your family can change the world. Your mothering is enough.

The wording of the quote in question was later tidied up a bit, and it probably gained its standalone popularity after inclusion in the 2009 Mothering calendar, when images were paired with a quote for each month of the year.

So that’s what it is. Part of a series of assertions and opinions. They’re coherent, but they’re not robust research findings. Neither do they pretend to be. Peggy isn’t, and makes no claim to be, a development psychologist or any other type of scientist.

But on the internet, any sufficiently resonant claim can be picked up, turned into a graphic, and accelerated to the point where it not only swamps a search result around the topic in question, but is very likely to be assumed into popular thinking as a “fact”.

“Hey, Sue, you know when you talk to your kids, that’s the voice they’ll have in their heads for the rest of their lives” – “Oh, really??” – “Yeah, google it if you don’t believe me.”

So whenever you see any startling insight that makes you stop and think, use the “stop” bit to question it in a little more detail before just merrily sending it on to all your friends.

Here are a couple more of those quotes as handy reminders. Go on, share them why don’t you?

And this one, which is probably the most valid of them all:

You can quote me on that.

Side-tracking

The West Coast main line procurement has fallen apart in spectacular fashion. Investigations are under way and three civil servants have been suspended. No doubt this is intended as an early sign of how seriously this will all be taken.

Or is it something else as well – an early indicator of misdirection? Note the interesting words of the Transport Secretary that the “fault lies wholly and squarely” with the department.

Of course the department bears that accountability. In fact, it’s clearly traceable right up to a minister. That’s how these things work.

But there’s more to it than this. Others are involved in complex programmes of this nature. Many others. I know. I used to be one of them.

The procurement has legal advisers, financial modellers, benefits realisers, analysts, budget planners, investment appraisers, change consultants and many, many more. Some from external professional services firms, some as “independent” contractors, and all paid a vast amount for their expertise.

The kaleidoscopic language is one reason, in my view, why simply releasing single line “open” information that X project cost £Y can never truly convey a sense of what’s going on. But I digress.

When these things go wrong, there seems to be a frantic scurrying for cover for anyone whose brand is anywhere near the failure.

It’s amusing (in a sad way) to compare this description of one project with the rather more pertinent analysis from Campaign4Change. A little more searching around the subject suggests there’s been some distinct brandwashing going on.

I mean, here’s a peculiar search result, wouldn’t you say?

In the FiReControl/PA case, Tony Collins was bang on the money. But should it be left to journalists and campaigners to ask these hard questions long after all the official reports? Those who have the politicians in their studios right now should be doing it as well. From the start.

Who was involved? How much were they paid?

And will they be allowed to scuttle away with both their money and their reputation intact?

Plain weird

Seen in a sweet shop, Strand, 2 October.

Who put it there?

Who are people likely, at a glance, to think put it there? I mean, it’s got website addresses at the bottom, and everything.

It’s just promoting a consultation, isn’t it?

Oh, wait…is that a suggested answer there on the left?

Is that even what a “real” plain-pack box looks like?

Did the shop owner get paid to put it there? Why else would he be interested?

So who looks at this sort of thing? The Advertising Standards Authority? (But what is it even advertising?)

Hmm.

Blue light? Red light.

Yesterday afternoon this tweet [screengrab above, in case it gets deleted] popped into my stream, as a result of a RT from a friend. This friend has thousands of followers, and tends to pick content with care, so it caught my eye.

I’ve been interested in this type of message for a long time now. I wrote a piece over three years ago about the consequences of asking people, en masse, to amplify a lost person message – along with some suggestions on safeguards that might help us hang to some of the benefits but minimise wasted time and miscommunication.

I took a closer look at the account behind this tweet, @policeuk, because of its name. UK policing is one of those sectors that has its own .uk domain (like nhs.uk, mod.uk etc). In the case of the police, the website Police.UK has a highly distinctive branding as a primary source of official crime and policing information online.

So, not unreasonably, I concluded that @policeuk was so similar to the “official” brand as to be of genuine concern.

What is the @policeuk account? It claims to be a “Breaking news” feed – amplifying stories related to policing. Nothing wrong with that by itself. There are tons of accounts doing similar things. Good luck to them. But the weight given by “RT @policeuk…” seems to be a pretty powerful accelerant. That tweet’s currently had over 1,200 RTs.

Sadly, in this case, it was all too late. A body had been found, but no update or clarification had followed. That’s bad. Perhaps worse, a few hours before this tweet was sent, the real police had issued a press release asking the public not to get involved in search activity, adding to the irresponsibility of this tweet. (Yes, that’s right, that link 404s. Humberside have clearly adopted the Argyll & Bute school of media handling. For their full press release archive, try here. Oh, wait…)

Anyway, the RTing continued uncontrollably…

Back to the @policeuk account. Its output is pretty odd. There are links to random news stories which may or may not be “police”-related. (Most news stories, are of course, in one way of another). But there’s also some weird stuff asking followers to comment on The Sun and Those Nude Harry Pics. [Update 28 Aug: this tweet has since been deleted]

And perhaps oddest of all is the account bio: #AntiWinsorNetwork we are not associated with the police in any way shape or form. tweets by @gonzomedia [NB. that disassociation statement was added after I started making noises about the account yesterday]

AntiWinsorNetwork? Wossat then? As far as I’ve established, it’s a grass roots policing community campaigning brand that arose at the time of the Winsor review into police pay and conditions.

Read that bio again: “we use the tag of a policing-related campaign, but have no connection…” er, m’kay…

And who are @gonzomedia? A self-proclaimed media organisation – with a website that doesn’t work. Hmm. They’re not this GonzoMedia, anyway.

So is this really worth making a fuss about? Some worthless content gets RTd a lot? Lots of people waste lots of time on the internet? That’s hardly news. And it’s not going to be stopped by a few whiny tweets and a blog post.

Except this one really is a problem. There’s a definite quality-by-association issue. This is the gem of a “retraction” that was finally published:

And is it beyond the realms of possibility that @policeuk could become recognised as a twitter brand that people start to turn to for help, or to report Serious Things? I think it’s highly possible. And that would be criminal.

If the GonzoMedia(.co.uk) people really want to build their brand using like this, I suggest:

  • change the account name to avoid the “PoliceUK” formulation
  • put something along the lines of NewsFeed into the account name
  • take the word “Police” off the account profile picture (and preferably the pseudo-emergency-services design)
  • either lose the hashtag or the claim that the account isn’t police-related from the bio – both together are incoherent
  • [optional] have some sort of content strategy, and quality control
  • And if they don’t do these things, I fully expect the Home Office, ACPO, NPIA, or any of a number of other relevant organisations (who are all now aware of this issue) to have it taken down sharpish. I haven’t got going on the Facebook page, but it’s going to need similar scrutiny.

    It’s not a question of free speech.

    It’s much more important than that. [pace Shankly]

    ——–

    Update 28 Aug, 8am

    I see that during the night @policeuk/Breaking News (Police) announced its demise*. Well, not quite. It announced on Twitter that it wasn’t tweeting any more, because of my post. And on Facebook it did the same, but went a bit further and invited its contacts to give their opinions on whether it should stay or not. (The comments make fascinating reading.)

    Personally, I’m saddened. I had no idea they’d suffered “5 days of constant abuse and campaigns” by trolls. After all, I only spotted the account about 5pm on Sunday afternoon. Whoever gave them the other 3½ days of grief should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves!

    Read this slowly, Facebook visitors and other newcomers: there is no trolling. There is no abuse. There is a bit of gentle piss-taking, because this is the internet.

    And there is a challenge to its branding, based solely on the way the word “police” is being used, with some clear suggestions on what it could do to fix this and carry on exactly as it has been. I also suggest that if it chooses not to, it’s very likely to attract official interest. Pointing those things out is not “trolling“.

    Oh, I’ve just noticed the Facebook URL. facebook.com/policeuk? No, I don’t think so. That should go too. I’m sure NPIA have an eye on this one too now.

    If you are now desperately missing real police output, can I suggest you go and find your local force page? They look like this. Or a Twitter account like this? The latter all have, or should have, a blue tick indicating they are genuine. Or go and get your newsy fix from, well, a real news organisation. There are plenty about. They have (mostly) responsible approaches to reporting, fact-checking, timely coverage and that sort of stuff. And if you want to bellyache about coppers with like-minded people, you’ll find a space.

    (Interestingly, having seen some references in those comments, it seems the same outfit is responsible for Breaking News Teesside. Fine. No problems with that. It seems hugely popular. It’s giving people a space to talk [cough] about local Newsy things. It’s another thing that the internet is there for. So it’s not like they don’t know how to do this.)

    And if all those are too official, or propaganda-ish, do please set up your own bear-pit online space. Just don’t put “police” in the name.

    All clear?

    *if visiting from a Facebook link, this means “end”.

    ——–

    A final update: 29 Aug, 11am

    Well, there we are. After a whole 24 hours** of flouncing and muting, they’re back. Not sure who these “haters” are, to be honest. Critics, well, that’s a different matter.

    Now, is this my problem? Nah. I suspect there are quite a few within the policing community who are now taking a good look at the branding issues involved. Over to them. I will await with interest what happens, and will post any updates here.

    I guess there are some for whom an issue like this could become an overwhelming, illiberal, ranting crusade. But I’m not one of them.

    **though in the compressed timescales of the guy behind these, he probably thinks he put his toys down for at least a month.

    ——–

    Really, really final update: 11pm

    Fascinating link from February 2012, from the Mirror. Read it for yourselves. But note that even a national newspaper (ok, not the brightest, but hey) said: “they wormed their way into a police Twitter account…” Well. That looks like form, as they say. And perhaps a piece of evidence to support what the case set out above. They were hacked, they say. Yeah, yeah, tell that to the judge.