The Social Media Bubble Bursts: social network usage stabilises

Oxford Internet InstituteIn times of need we used to have religion, we now have the internet. It most certainly has all the answers and you never need to ask for forgiveness. Whether you enjoy stalking friends of friends on Facebook or just like looking at peoples’ dinners – the internet has a wide range of uses.

You could read books, watch films, play games, conduct academic research, publish to the world, hold events… The internet is a passive entertainment medium or an active tool. Just how does society use the internet in 2013 though? The answers have arrived in the newly published Oxford Internet Survey 2013 Report with the one statement swaying particular weight:

“One small increase is especially noteworthy: after years of rapid growth, social network site use may have stabilised.”

In fact, the report appears to show that most forms of social content creation have either stabilised or seen decline; from blogging to founding a new website. This could very well mean that the internet has left its hormonal teenage years, with 2014 looking to see stable usage of all aspects of the internet.

Before self-obsessed social media gurus start job searching and big wig FTSE bosses moan “I told you so”; society still spends hours daily on social networks. It was inevitable that a precipice was to be reached, at least until the next big digital revolution. Still, this new data does raise a lot of questions around Twitter’s upcoming IPO. Surely leveling social media registration demand only spells disaster for long-term commercial opportunities? You have to be very brave to promise big advertising bucks when audience levels look to remain stable.

Where the internet still excels, and ultimately where its foundations lie, is when searching for information. Unsurprisingly the internet is the first port of call when questions need to be asked; information online is expected to be reliable. Yet, search engine usage is down overall. The phrase ‘to Google’  still means search, except our internet habits seem to be becoming more ingrained. If we want Wikipedia then we’ll go straight to Wikipedia, this same behavior applies for each social network. We’re still searching online but are choosing to search on specific social media sites.

It was unfortunate that I was unable to attend the official launch of the report in London. How the internet is affecting society as a whole should be a primary concern to everyone who works in the media. Knowing the latest tools helps but knowing your audience trumps all. Oxford’s report has settled me that social networks still engulf much of society’s time but has got me pondering over two important developments.

  1. Does the stabilisation of social networks mark a significant trend in the years to come?
  2. Are we beginning to see a shift away from global search engines to instead specific ones (vertical search)?

 

 

Is Google’s personalised search shrinking our searchable internet?

Thanks to ZDNet’s recent SEO article (my rebuttal here); the SEO rocket has firmly been put placed up the PR industry’s bottom. Some seem people seem to suggest that SEO stands separately from PR, I believe SEO fits under PR. It’s unavoidable that we work in communications, and online search is a big part of that. In fact, you may as well omit ‘digital’ from PR – it’s all one recipe.

Unlike PR, there is no dispute when you come to search. Google is the most advanced search engine on the market. With regular algorithm updates, a new-ish strategy focused on author credibility and a whole load of search operators; it should be fast and easy to find the content you’re looking for.

Google Server Centre
Google’s server centres are beautiful

Except, despite the power of Google and the beauty of their server centres, their search process is not perfect. Where Google fails massively is in the realms of personalised search. Google knows my IP address, user account details, search history and all sorts of other wizardry – they build a personal profile. This profile allows them to deliver results most likely to be of use to me.

Although, as a PR working across a vast array of clients, what I search for rarely holds a true personal interest. One day I could be researching for bird watching, the technicalities of offshore data centres or even financial trading. All of these topics become part of my personal search profile. Eventually my searches start to lose subjective ‘accuracy’. For instance, Google Now regularly delivers me football result – it’s a mess.

Feel familiar? Then check out some of the below search engine alternatives. The internet is a lot bigger than you think it is.

Decentralised search
YaCy is a peer to peer search engine that is completely decentralised. This means all users of the network are equal, search requests remain anonymous and the shared index remains uncensored. It is the internet without walls and is only limited by the number of users who use it. Celebrate freedom of information and try it out.

Vertical search
This is when you use a search engine to search across one specific website, multiple selected websites or one particular topic. Using some Boolean terms, you can perform a vertical search in Google (try searching in Google… Michael White site:nonsuchpr.com). This very blog has a vertical search function built into it. Some people think Google’s reign is threatened by vertical search. Our search behaviors are changing, we’re aware of our favourite websites and regularly run searches across them. You might be surprised what information legacy pages contain – Google tends to de-rank these.

Semantic search
If you want to enjoy some in-depth reading, pop over to the Internet Consortium’s W3C Semantic Web. At the moment our online data is owned by a range of different software systems, hyperlinked together, which we call the internet. Semantic searching is all about getting computers to understand the language of content, then having the intelligence to create relationships between different datasets. Think of it as one step further than hyperlinking webpages together. It is a method of searching through the internet which is connected together by relationships. Do read W3C Semantic Web’s site as they can explain their goals far more lucidly than me.

 

London: lost in a digital haze?

Have you ever wondered what life would be like without the internet? I’ve decided that it would be a place of communication breakdown, economic collapse and possible cannibalism. However, turns out I may have been wrong as last week I met an island girl who lives a life without digital distractions.

She lives on the remote island of St Helena (a Keene Comms client) which has a total population of just over 4000 people, no mobile network setup and a slow satellite internet connection. It is an untouched paradise and I’m not just saying that because they are a client – it’s true. If you wanted to feel close to untouched natural beauty then tick St Helena on your travel bucket list.

Saint Helena Jacobs Ladder

I was fortunate enough to speak with our visitor from St Helena, to hear what island life is like. Being a massive technology addict and bore, I was fascinated to hear how she could live without the internet. More importantly, I wanted to understand her first impressions of an extremely digitally switched on London and how this compared to her island life.

The contrast between digital and non-digital was eye opening.

Here we take our constantly data connected smartphones and tablets for granted. If someone sends us a tweet, we expect to be notified immediately. Same applies for emails, if we want to send an image then it should just send. In busy London, money means more speed, speed saves more time, saving time means getting to the next place; rush, rush, rush.

Stop!

Have we, in digitally switched on London, become lost in a digital haze? Try commuting into work without looking at a screen or listening to music – the experiencing is sobering. You become far more aware of the sounds around you, the expressions on people’s faces and just how much of life we miss.

How can I complain though? I have found myself working in an industry which heavily relies upon people to be digitally connected all of the time. My advice? Stay connected but don’t forget to live your life too.

Pot Kettle Black? Oh yes.

The Case Against Richard O’Dwyer is Ridiculous

When Richard O’Dwyer was 19 years old he set up TVShack.net. An online directory which linked to hundreds of websites who provided popular films and TV series for online streaming. The website was a huge success, he began accepting advertising and then the US Justice Department seized the domain June 2010 for “violations of Federal criminal copyright infringement laws”.

What came to follow was a series of heavy handed events which included police visits, IT equipment being seized and then finally a request for Richard to be extradited to the US under the Extradition Act 2003. Today TVShack.net exists as a US Justice Department warning, followed by a rather ethically muddled video attempting to explain copyright infringement ethics.

The path of Richard O’Dwyer isn’t that of a criminal, he isn’t a “data pirate”, instead he is simply an undergraduate student. It is common for many IT literate students to spend time on various website projects (I’ve had around eight different ones). This is a student who has never visited the US, owned a website which did not host any copyright content but is being processed for extradition by the UK government.

Why?

Not only has he not committed a US crime but the crime wasn’t even committed in the US! Essentially Richard O’Dwyer has become a scapegoat for those industries who have been suffering in the digital era. Not because online file sharing exist but because they have not yet perfected a business model that can cope with the technicalities of online sharing.

Although I don’t wish for my reasons against Richard O’Dwyer to be miss construed. He is not a file sharer. TVShack.net existed to hyperlink copyrighted material but based on other websites. Thus fulfilling the same function (but less sophisticated) as Google, Yahoo and Bing. Search engines all link to copyright material but are we seeing these giants in court?

No.

Instead Richard O’Dwyer is fast becoming another causality in the “war against piracy”. A confused notion, commonly voiced by those who have little understanding of the digital age.

You can petition against the extradition of Richard O’Dwyer by adding your signature to change.org. So far 219,517 have shown their support. Despite this the UK Home Office has openly suggested to ignore the petition and bend over for America.

Defining Loyalties: Now a member of Pirate Party UK

When it comes to political allegiances I’ve never been swift to the forefront. To me character matters more than the policy as character will inevitable supersede any written policy. A man could have the best policy in the world but if he is a howling liar then the policy, no matter how good, is clatter. However, this time policy supersedes all as I have decided to become a member of Pirate Party UK.

They are a democratic party with no right or left wing agenda which is set out to stand for our digital rights. The party aims to ensure everyone has real freedom of speech, can participate by sharing with one another and is totally transparent with its communication.

Now that the internet has turned into a global village organisations are attempting to adapt as more of their information and products are shared digitally. If you own a CD then you have the right to copy it onto your .MP3 player, websites should not be blocked and the government must have a better understanding of intellectual copyright.

The Pirate Party UK manifesto sets out extremely clearly some of the key areas they are working on. A snippet of these views include:

  • The Pirate Party wants a fair and balanced copyright law that is suitable for the 21st century. Copyright should give artists the first chance to make money from their work, however that needs to be balanced with the rights of society as a whole.
  • We believe that patents exist to reward the inventors of truly outstanding ideas, not to allow big businesses to stifle competition with an ever-growing tide of trivial, incomprehensible, overreaching patents.
  • We feel that citizens’ right to private and confidential communication is vital and is not being respected; therefore we will forbid third parties from intercepting or monitoring communication traffic (i.e. telephone calls, post, Internet traffic, emails), and require specific warrants to be issued by a court before the police are allowed to monitor traffic.
  • We will introduce laws on the acceptable use of CCTV. While we recognise some arguments for CCTV, it should not be considered a replacement for police officers on the beat, and it must not be used as an excuse for unrestricted spying on the public.
  • We pledge increased government transparency and accountability.
  • We pledge that we will not allow censorship of the Internet for anything except for in the most extreme circumstances (such as in the case of military secrets or images of child abuse).

It strikes me that everything in their manifesto is founded upon an excellent knowledge of how the internet has changed society. At this stage I am only a party member but I have offered to provide advice on certain issues when available. A more intensive role, considering I have just started work in the PR industry, is not possible.

 

Technology should be embraced, not feared.

 

Review of Microsoft’s new social network ‘so.cl’

After years of being beaten by the competitors Microsoft have finally decided to join in with the social networking revolution with the release of their network so.cl (so cool… get it?). The network is meant to target young people as a ‘sort of’ academic resource. Users on so.cl share stories with each other which sees Microsoft’s social network become an amalgamation of Digg, Twitter and Google+.

Logging into so.cl is a quick process as you activate your account with either a Facebook or Windows Live login. Once you have done this your profile is active and you are able to start posting content straight away. Once logged in users are able to search for stories, each search then publicly displays on each users’ profile. This isn’t an invasion of privacy but instead underpins the purpose of so.cl, to search and share with other users.

Every social network allows search, sharing and contribution. These are the values behind the web 2.0 era but simply describe function. A social network is not born to create money but instead fulfil a purpose and attract users by being unique. In terms of so.cl none of features are innovative. Posting status updates, adding comments and sharing media files are common place on every social network.

Therefore so.cl seems like a weak attempt by Microsoft to enter the social networking revolution, seven years after the horse has bolted. Like the network was created in a poorly equipped lap which built a clean but poorly functioned network. Just why did Microsoft bother creating so.cl? I’m not sure they even know as the market positioning is confusing at best.

It is separate to Windows Live, doesn’t integrate Microsoft services and its functions can be found across other well established networks. You can connect your so.cl account with Facebook (which makes the idea of so.cl being a ‘Facebook killer’ impossible) or connect with Windows Live (which has seen huge declines in activity over the last four years). The only social network so.cl threatens is Quora but even the hype around Quora has recently died to a timid hush.

Microsoft has yet again arrived late to the party but in reality so.cl is not their first social network. Windows Live has been around for donkey’s years but over the last few it has seen a rapid decline in activity and account registrations. People simply do not use Windows Live like they used to – better choices now exist on the market. Without a doubt Microsoft’s most popular social network is Xbox Live, yes, it is a social network. In Live subscriptions alone Microsoft rakes in over $1bn – insane!

What Microsoft may be attempting with so.cl is a new era of search. A time when people don’t ask search engines for answers but instead each other. However this already happens across every social network which makes so.cl seem pointless. The work Google is already doing with semantic search blows this tiny so.cl project by Microsoft clean out of the water.

Don’t take this pessimistic article about so.cl as truth though. Try it out yourself, you can even follow me.

Will I use so.cl regularly? Unlikely. It already seems very dated.

Considering PRSA’s Definition of PR

On the 1st March the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) announced the result of a vote which resulted in their modern definition of PR. They now state that:

“Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

Defining this complex industry defined by relationships, constantly evolving and understanding its various ethical pickles is tough. To do that in a sentence is even tougher. In a class last week I was challenged with writing my own definition in 5 minutes. I concluded with:

“Public Relations is a form of social psychology that recognises the values of different publics in order to create relationships to improve reputation and profit.”

It isn’t perfect but it states an important opinion of mine – PR is no longer just concerned with reputation. The online advertising industry makes their money from direct (or in-direct in terms of re-messaging campaigns) sales. The very same metrics the online advertising industry utilises can also be used by digital PR. So why aren’t we using them?!

Yes, I understand that digital PR tracking sales online questions its classical definition but this is exactly what the PR industry needs. It must adapt or die. So whilst the PRSA claim their definition is shiny and modern… it just isn’t. It has failed to understand the nature of digital public relations.

For the UK digital PR will see an ever growing importance, especially as the UK boasts the largest internet economy in G20. That is an 8.3% share of the UK economy! Let’s not hand over all of this juicy money over to online advertising. Digital public relations can provide equally effective results.

This is partly why I am writing a digital PR dissertation on online metrics. There are a variety of books available concerning online measurement but PR can go a step further. Using the fundamental principles of recognising the values between various stakeholder groups it is possible to target in a far more accurate way compared to, the rather ridged structure, endorsed by the online advertising industry.

I will only say it once again on this blog but Latent Semantic Analytics really offers a whole host of benefits to the digital PR industry. We just have to build a suitable system first!

That’s it. End of blog post before things get really geeky…

Discovering the Semantic Web

Over the last few weeks I have found myself on a journey learning about a new concept on the internet; the semantic web. The writer and inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, began writing about the concept in 1999, much progress has been made since.

The term ‘semantics’ is one of the three branches of ‘semiotics’ which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the study of signs and symbols in various fields”. Semantics is concerned with the study of meaning; the semantic web is about discovering the meaning behind words and phrases.

In the focus of this post I shall be reviewing what the semantic web means for the public relations industry. To begin with I shall provide a short explanation of what the semantic web is.

What is the Semantic Web?

The internet exists today as a vast collection of data which is all connected through the use of hyperlinks. This is a network of data which has been built from the foundational technologies of HTML, HTTP and URIs. Over the last 6 years we have seen the exponential growth of social networks which has re-invented our relationship with finding information.

  • Past – the relevancy of information was provided through a one-way communication model. Content can only be viewed, interpreted introspectively and not openly discussed.
  • Present – social networks have provided a way for information to be associated with individuals, brands and events. Content is viewed in context of conversation and information can be openly discussed.

The problem with social networks is their internal design. Any content submitted by users through symmetrical communication is under ownership of the organisation whose network it is. Information submitted to Facebook is theirs, information submitted to Twitter is theirs, so on…

The semantic web is therefore an evolution, a possible amalgamation, between the web of information and the web of social interactivity. It is the concept that the web of information will evolve around a collection of human knowledge. People will be able to add additional information to web content which includes related articles and authors.

  • Hyperlinks create links between data.
  • The semantic web creates relationships between data.

In turn this will mean that information on the internet will be able to exist as a database. With added meaning applied to data relation databases can be built to show a web of information but linked together through particular semantic terms. In doing so semantic search engines can be built for finding data by being created to understand the syntax behind languages.

The semantic web for the Public Relations industry will mean:

  • Understanding key terms behind stakeholder groups
  • Discovering the affected parties of stakeholder groups
  • Learning the terms associated with unique individuals and brands
  • Categorising media releases under particular terms

Perhaps it was optimistic to begin writing what the semantic web will mean for public relations. The list is endless. The semantic web will redefine public relations.

The reason I am interested in the semantic web is due to semantic analytics. I believe this will be a key area for the public relations industry to track ROI. Public relations can only show its value through proving ROI to clients. The semantic web will change everything.

I will write more about the semantic web soon.

 

Further Reading: http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/