March 2010


As a comms professional I’m loving the sparring that’s taking place between the Labour and Conservative parties over the issue of cutting the budget deficit.

You have to take your hat off to the Labour comms team for turning a Tory strength  – less Government spending – into a weakness in the minds of the voter, a strategy that has seen the opposition’s double digit lead cut to less than three points in some polls.

Today we’ve seen the Labour team do a political 180 on the messaging front in response to the Tory promise to partially overturn the rise in National Insurance set to come into force in 2011. They’ve gone from warning over Tory cuts damaging the economic recovery to trying to convince the public that the Tory’s are promising tax cuts that will divert funds away from cutting the deficit.

Personally, I feel this goes back somewhat on what’s been very successful anti-Tory message and allows the Tories to get their ‘tax less, spend less’ creed back onto the media agenda. However, it goes to show how agile the parties have become in reacting quickly to policy changes from either side of the house.

At Edelman’s recent Budget 2010 Breakfast Briefing, the Executive Editor of The Times Daniel Finkelstein, gave a great overview of how Labour managed to get cut through with the general public by making them worried about what they could lose due to the Tory’s proposed cost cutting strategy. I dare say Tory HQ is working on a way to get voters to appreciate what they could save under the same set of policies. It’s all fascinating stuff.

I wonder what lessons, if any, PR professionals can take from this issue and apply to their day to day work? A big takeaway for me is that nothing is sacred.I think It was a bold move for Labour to focus on de-constructing such a core pillar of Conservative messaging – and one that has served the party well even over the last 13 years in opposition, yet it’s clearly paid off. Perhaps Election 2010 will provide a case study in how to win the messaging battle around a modern election? Whatever the result, you can safely say that the comms teams will have had a major role in deciding who’s in No.10 Downing Street this Summer.

So, after months of deliberating and speculation, Murdoch has today come out and announced that access to The Times and Sunday Times’ online content will be charged as of June – with daily access for £1 and weekly for £2.

New websites will be launched in May for each title – replacing the existing timesonline portal – and it sounds like there’ll be limited free access to entice readers once the paid content sites launch.

That a major publication has come out with a paywall is hardly a surprise, but it is certainly high risk. The reception has been mixed – certainly if you simply consider the newspaper content on its own, it seems slightly extravagant to charge for what is currently free; that idea’s not going to get very far in the Dragon’s Den

However, the Times has quietly upped the ante with its acquisition of digital partners and content providers and it could be these added ’membership’ style benefits which could tip the balance between simply paying for news content, and being part of an entertainment hub – the Times is certainly already associated with quality culture and cultural insight.

The major issue this development throws up however is that Murdoch, despite being something of a publishing leviathan, doesn’t own everything online, and if other newspaper publishers go down the same route, the market will become incredibly siloed headlessand surely disenfranchise the customer. (We’ll not mention the problems having multiple access / subs to every newspaper would throw up for a PR Agency).

If key sites have to be individually paid for, it’s going to get very expensive very quickly for a consumer – and micro-payments will only work if there’s a unified platform to base the content on, (rather like a pre-paid Oyster card network for news), which of course doesn’t exist.

We’ve seen the problems similar approaches have encountered in the mobile space with the walled garden approach – surely content owners will have learnt its lessons here?

The internet has democratised information and made knowledge ‘free’ to an extent – does it really need to be boxed back up again?

@wonky_donky

In 2006, group of academics from the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) and MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), announced an ambitious plan to launch a new branch of science – Web Science.

These were no ordinary academics.  Among the elite group were Sir Tim Berners Lee (the creator or the World Wide Web), Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Nigel Shadbolt of ECS.

This group perceived a need to better understand the nature of the Web and to engineer its future and ensure its social benefit.  The rationale was that the Web is a construct unrivaled in human history and the scale of its impact and the rate of its adoption are unparalleled.  

They recognised a great opportunity to study the Web through a new academic discipline, as well as an obligation to do so.

Web Science came into being in October 2006 with the launch of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), which was later to be renamed the Web Science Trust (WST). Edelman was proud to assist in launch of WSRI, which achieved widespread international media coverage at the time.

Such a huge undertaking as establishing a new branch of science was bound to take some time, but the WST has been hard at work these past few years, putting the concept of Web Science on the academic map, developing curriculum, establishing partnerships, growing a support base and engaging in initial research projects.

Two weeks ago, I attended an event at the Royal Society in London, designed to explain Web Science to prospective students and at an undergraduate level.  It was quite exciting to see just how far Web Science has come in a few short years.  The auditorium was full and it was clear there was a real interest in the subject, with a lively discussion following presentations from academics and industry representatives.

Unlike Computer Science, Web Science will have an interdisciplinary approach.  To this end, participation from students with an interest in humanitarian disciplines such as psychology and anthropology will be as important as more apparently aligned areas such as mathematics and physics. 

Yesterday, the evolution of Web Science took a great leap forward with the formation of the Institute for Web Science, which was announced by Prime Minister Gordon Brown during a speech in London. Significantly, it will be backed with £30 million funding from the UK Government.

The Institute for Web Science will be led by Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt and will be jointly run by the University of Southampton and Oxford University.

According to a statement issued by the University of Southampton, the Institute for Web Science will be designed to make the UK the hub of international research into the next generation of web and internet technologies and their commercialisation.

Web innovation is viewed as an important issue by the government at present and they have also been consulting with Sir Tim Berners Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt on the issue of unlocking government data. 

Recently, the government launched a new site called data.gov.uk.  The site is a refuse of government data and seeks to provide access to interested companies, organisations and developers for with the aim of encouraging the development of new businesses.  It is hoped this will generate tax revenue greater than could have been realised by selling that data for commercial use.

In my opinion, both the funding of the Institute for Web Science and the launch of data.gov.uk are outstanding ideas and that could put the UK at the centre of the Web innovation. At a time when government funding cuts are a central theme from both sides of politics, it’s good to see that a long-term view is also being taken.

@andyrobertson

 

The dotcom turns 25 today.  It’s hard to imagine it’s been around that long, and it’s amazing to think that it predates the advent of HTML and the World Wide Web.  I can’t help thinking that dotcom is another example of how innovation in the tech sector can sometimes generate success far beyond the dreams of its creators.

In 1985, when .com was created, the Internet was in its infancy and the was largely administered by the U.S. Government – or the Department of Defence (DoD) to be precise.  Later, in 1991, the National Science Foundation (NSF) assumed responsibility for its administration. 

Dotcom was designated as an Internet domain for non-military purposes and both the DoD and the NSF contracted it’s operation to a third party – Network Solutions.

Monetisation of the .com commenced in 1995 – a full ten years after its creation – when Network Solutions was granted  permission to charge an annual renewal fee for dotcom domains.

Later, Network solutions was acquired by VeriSign,  at a time that roughly coincided with creation of the World Wide Web and the mass uptake of Internet by businesses and private citizens, so it was them  who really hit the jackpot.

According to a BBC report today, .com registrations grew from a handful at the outset, to one million in 1997 and finally to the present level of 668,000 monthly registrations.  That’s a nice little earner for VeriSign.

Today the domain name system is overseen by ICANN of course.  In 2005, a new contract between ICANN and VeriSign was signed, under which VeriSign was granted the right of presumptive renewal.  In essence, this means VeriSign has an almost automatic right of renewal on the contract in any future review, virtually guaranteeing its cash cow.  This was quite a contentious issue at the time, with rival registry operators vying for a piece of the action.

Dotcom will no doubt remain the most prominent domain for some time to come.  However, changes are on the way that will result in competition and possibly lower registrations.

ICANN is currently administering the introduction of new generic Top Level  Domains via a protracted process that should conclude towards the end of the year.  When that happens, there will be more consumer choice, which may over time dilute the dominance of dotcom.

Another factor that is set to have an impact on the development of the DNS in coming years is the introduction of Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs).  Until recently, it wasn’t possible to interact fully with the DNS in a non-Latin based language.  That finally changed this year with the introduction of the first IDNs.

From a commercial perspective, the real power and potential of IDNs may be realised when they are combined with new gTLDs in markets where dotcom doesn’t necessarily dominate, such as Asia and the Middle East.  In those regions, we may see the emergence of .com equivalents that generate significant income for the operators and limit VeriSign’s potential for growth outside the English speaking world.

http://twitter.com/andyrobertson

A wonderful video by @tomscott is currently doing the rounds following his excellent presentation at Ignite London 2 – follow the link below, it’s about five minutes long so watch while you chow down your lunch as it’s absolutely superb.

Mob (a near-future science fiction story) by Tom Scott from hurryonhome on Vimeo.

Having recently finished reading the mind bendingly brilliant ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ by Neil Postman this seems an aptly Huxleyan sci-fi story, taking much of Postman’s thoughts on the impact of TV and entertainment on society to a new social media level…

A brilliant story – and unerringly feasible too.

@wonky_donky

It used to be said that an Englishman’s castle is his home and certainly it was from a privacy point of view.

A great deal has been written on the nature of privacy in the social media age recently but the scale of the change was brought home to me by the tragedy of Ashleigh Hall, who was murdered after meeting up with a ‘friend’ she had met through her Facebook account.

The Facebook page showed Peter Chapman as a teenager when in reality he was a 35 year old registered sex offender.  As the Daily Mail headline across half the front page asked  ‘Who’s Your Child Talking to on Facebook Tonight?”.

The sheer openness of social media is at stake.  As stated a home used to be castle in the late 20th century: electronic family life took place within closed channels; the telephone was fixed and family regulated; television was a joint activity involving parental guidance; and if anything the most social form of content was music.

The level of interaction with the outside world introduced by the world wide web was unimaginable.  Today, as the web celebrates its sixteenth birthday, we don’t appear to have developed a full understanding of what this new form of privacy means.

It is easy to dismiss the Daily Mail and threats from a new order of privacy that is being ushered in by the widespread adoption of social media, but it’s impact is profound.  One reaction may be to see if we can re-engineer the old world of privacy.

Yet this is an option that could be self defeating, as clearly the need to educate and create new behaviours is at the heart of safe behaviour in a social media society.  To ignore this and pretend children are not going to access social media and networking sites would be to deny them this protection.   Yet with all the education in the world mistakes can happen.

So, should society regulate to create greater protection, should it be illegal to present an image of oneself that is patently false?

A truly adequate response requires an understanding of what privacy means in this new world, and the creation of social systems that help prepare and guide people from many aspects.

The social media industry itself must face this challenge head on and in conjunction with government, education and consumer groups otherwise the arguments for regulation take root.

@Naked_Pheasant

NOTE: interesting that since this was drafted, further developments have meant the Mail has had to come out and apologise for the Facebook accusations (brilliantly summarised by @ruskin147 here)

A month or so ago I attended a really interesting session in the hallowed halls of Westminster. Hosted by Tom Watson MP, Taking Games Seriously sought to prompt a discussion “on the place of video games and virtual worlds in modern society – the lessons we might learn from them, their dangers, and why the public debate needs to move beyond breathless accusations about violent, screen-addicted young people.”

There was an element of preaching to the choir about the event. The panel and audience were wholeheartedly pro-gaming. It was more Middle Earth than Middle England. No one was there to condemn games as a modern curse that will blind the youth of today. So it wasn’t exactly a balanced debate around the perceptions of an industry that now outsells Hollywood. However, it did get me thinking…

Both Tom Chatfield and Sam Leith raised interesting points around the language of video games. Tom spoke about the need for a new vocabulary. Games, as he put it, have had existing terms re-appropriated to them; games are routinely referred to and reviewed with the same standards as a movie – but this does the unique dynamic of a game a severe injustice. We simply can’t talk about the plot of the latest Cohen Brothers film with the same words that we’d describe the fragmented, multi-layered, individual experience of three hours spent in WoW (World of Warcraft for the less-geeky of you). Sam then touched on the need to have a formal conversation about genre, in his view WoW is more akin to the architecture of a medieval cathedral, than any other cultural artefact. But Little Big Planet, again, couldn’t be described using the same words.

So. Interesting stuff. It struck me that when talking about games, we also need to address what ‘playing’ can mean. You play a boardgame, but no one expects Sunday Times Culture to write about Scrabble. Alex Fleetwood and Hide and Seek have created some incredible real-world experiences that are literally play-full. So if playing is so much fun, then why is there a need for games to be taken so seriously? Well, being a paid up member of the pro-games choir, I’d say it’s because not only is there real artistry involved in the development of a game, but that games are changing how we interact online and in the real world. They are having a societal effect. They’re also changing our perceptions of narrative – influencing the wider arts world in terms of multi-faceted story telling. For those reasons alone we should be talking about games seriously.

As PRs we can learn something from games – how to build multi-layered campaigns that talk to many people on many levels, for example. But as PRs talking about Digital Entertainment and the promotion of games, perhaps we also need to build stories that directly challenge perceptions rather than rely on old, traditional tactics. This is easier said than done of course. Many years ago I tried to pitch a feature looking at how World in Conflict, a game that sees Russia invade America and kick start a Nuclear War, resonated with contemporary Anglo-Russian relations (it was just after Litvinenko). Obviously this pitch fell on deaf ears. But as the media becomes more accustomed to games in the mainstream, so must we embrace new, serious, conversations around them.

As I was sat in Westminster, talking about games, my mind wandered up the river to the National Theatre. Drama is another form of play, of course. So what distinguishes King Lear from Lemmings? Again genre can play a role in terms of perception. For every Oedipus there is a pantomime dame (though arguably if Oedipus was attracted to a man in drag it could have ended very differently). Some plays are taken more seriously than others and the same can be said of video games. However, unlike video games – whether we’re talking about Widow Twanky or Mistress Quickly – all forms of theatre have the power to hold a mirror up to society. In Panto it is pop culture, in Shakespeare it is politics. It’s this fundamental difference that I think prevents video games being embraced by the cultural elite.

Not enough games (if any – though I’d happily be proved wrong) directly comment or offer a new perspective on society. Though the recent Chime – the first game from OneBigGame (a Live Aid for Video Games) – does show that gaming can engage in real world issues, even if only indirectly. [DISCLAIMER: Xbox is a JCPR Edelman client]. So perhaps at the end of the day games won’t be taken seriously, until they start saying something serious. Tom Watson joked that the Houses of Parliament would be an appropriate setting for an MMO – coteries of players, machinations and deceit framed within a Gothic landscape. With a disenfranchised electorate and an election looming it’s not such a bad idea.

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