Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Voting begins in our 'Britain's Best MP' Campaign

by Keith

At the beginning of December, we started our 'Britain's Best MP' Campaign. The thinking behind it was to highlight that, despite all the negative press surrounding politics, there are MPs out there who genuinely do a good job for the UK.

We asked users of our website to send in their nominations for Best MP and to send us the questions they would like to put to the nominees. All eight nominated MPs agreed to answer and you can compare what they said on our home page now and cast your vote in our Poll, which will be ‘live’ until the 31st December.

These are the MPs you nominated.

Douglas Carswell (Con Harwich), Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dem Hornsey and Wood Green), Tom Harris (Lab Glasgow South), David Howarth (Lib Dem Cambridge) Chris Mullin (Lab Sunderland South) Bob Russell (Lib Dem Colchester), Gisela Stuart (Lab Birmingham Edgbaston), and Jo Swinson (Lib Dem East Dunbartonshire).

And below is one of the questions which threw up some interesting answers:

'How do you think Uk democracy could be improved?'

Tom Harris has a pessimistic view that just changing the electoral system won’t engage more people in  democracy because, as he says, the ‘democratic process isn’t of interest to most people.’ Is this the case though, or is it just that nobody has yet found a way to present the democratic process in an appealing way?

This is what we are trying to do – make politics a bit more fun and engage more people. We let our users choose the questions which will be asked, have introduced voting, we try and keep answers short and publish them in an easy to view format and then we allow feedback on the answers.

We are not the only ones either, with ideas to liven up the political arena, with Simon Cowell possibly getting involved next year. Until he does though, and telephone voting becomes the norm in political debates, please nip over to our website and take part in our old-fashioned online poll and cast your vote for ‘Best MP.’

Thursday, 26 November 2009

MPs R Us: visiting Parliament reveals a very human mix of personalities and behaviours

We’ve seen the headlines, read the comment threads, heard the conversations in the pubs and over the dinner table: MPs are not like us, they are not good people.

A quick Google search for the phrase ‘MPs are Scum’ gives 137,000 results.

A similar search using the word ‘Vermin’ returns 40,900, the C-word gets 25,000 and ‘MPs are Bastards’ tops them all with 183,000. Admittedly, sometimes it is the odd MP calling other people scum but most of the time the abuse is aimed firmly their way.

Here’s one that stands out: http://raedwald.blogspot.com/2009/05/lets-trash-these-troughing-scum.html

“These MPs are scum. They are thieves. Their avarice, their grasping mendacious filthy peculation of public funds, their troughing porcine deception, their self-serving self-righteous....”

There’s more but you get the picture.

Intrigued, as we all are by evil and nastiness, this week I ventured into the Commons to meet five of these ‘troughing scum’ and here’s what I found:

-An MP who was obviously so tired he was struggling to keep his eyes open but who still managed to chair a meeting and to ask some intelligent questions .

-A genuinely warm and open young MP who was quieter than usual and who seemed pre-occupied at the meeting. She later tweeted that she was ‘ a bit miffed at being dropped from the BBC Question Time panel at 48hrs notice-because of the Iraq enquiry’. I’d be disappointed too.

-An MP who talked about locking himself in his house and drawing the curtains in the face of a barrage of press attention, and of the effects of all this on his family. This MP is very respected by a great many entrepreneurs and innovators for his willingness to listen to their problems.

-A down to earth and deeply committed woman who breaks all the stereotypes of how a typical MP looks, talks and behaves. If it wasn’t for all women shortlists, she almost certainly wouldn’t even be an MP.

-An ‘old school’ MP who is incredibly knowledgeable about China and Vietnam and who clearly wants to see the UK act as a force for good in those countries. What struck me was that he didn’t have a computer anywhere in his office , so no fancy gadgetry for him on expenses.

All these people were very different in personality, behaviour and politics but they all seemed to share a commitment to serving the public and their country. They have one other thing in common: they are not scum.

Are most of MPs flawed? Certainly. But then, aren’t we all? Help us find Britain’s best MP by interviewing them with your questions- find out how by clicking here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

The Yoosk Leadership Contest: help us find the country's best MPs

By Tim

Britain’s Best MP

‘UK Politics is broken’ is the all too common refrain we hear from the media. ‘Something must be done.’ Very often though, that ‘something’ is to sit back and highlight the negative rather than focus on the positive and the best way to ‘fix’ things.

Have some MPs abused the expenses system? Yes. Are all MPs bad? No. Many are hard working people, trying to do their best for their constituents.

We at Yoosk want everyone interested in politics to help us find the MP's who are the best examples of what a good MP is and does.. Then, in conjunction with The Independent newspaper we are going to interview them and find out what makes them tick. What are the experiences that shaped them, what values drive them, how do they behave and what makes them different?

Here's what we want you to do and how it will work:

1. Send us your nomination and a brief reason why you have nominated this person by clicking here or you can twit your nomination to #bestMP or add your nomination in a comment at the end of this post. Or you can just visit the site to see who has been nominated and add your vote.

2. Nominations close on the 27th November.

3. You will then have an opportunity to question the top 10 nominated MP's. Yoosk and the Independent will get the answers and publish them here and on Yoosk. You will have the opportunity to rate answers and the MP's performance via the yoosk website..

4. The winning MP will be the person who finishes at the top of the Yoosk Performance League Table which you can see on the top right of the Yoosk Home page on the closing day 17th December.

We are not looking for what makes a good party leader or how politicians rise to the top of factions or cliques. We think those are different qualities. We are looking for your ideas on the MP's who really stand out as strong, independent and principled voices, who can act with a degree of selflessness and who in doing so, show us a better way.

Yoosk offers a very open forum where both question and answer have a dynamic and an immediacy. ....... and I believe it is important (particularly in these times when we politicians are somewhat unloved) to be out there to show everyone that we do care and care passionately -  which is the reason that I am sure we all got into politics in the first place!' 
Lynne Feathjerstone MP

Why are we doing this?

When it comes to politics and the connections we the public have with the MP's and Councillors who represent us, Yoosk is very much about individuals rather than parties. We like Lynne Featherstone (LibDem), Deirdre Alden (Conservative prospective parliamnetary candidate) and David miliband (Labour) because of what we have personally witnessed: an obvious commitment to listening and engaging with the people they represent.

We want to do our part in making sure we get the best individuals in the next Parliament, irrespective of which party forms a government.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful..

By Keith

Trying to get Public Figures to answer questions from our users can often be a difficult task - we still haven't succeeded in getting any answers from Gordon Brown for example.

Whenever we get some answers, we see it as an achievement, but occasionally there is extra cause for satisfaction such as when the answers are particularly thoughtful or insightful as were these answers from Mathew Taylor, or when we manage to obtain answers for people who would not normally have a chance to get their voices heard. See this question (the asker of the question is no relation btw) posted to James Purnell and these questions posted from Jordanian citizens and answered by David Miliband.

In the interview which Jonathan Walker conducted with Siôn Simon last week (blogged here earlier) one of the questions came from Alison Smith aka Pesky People who is an ardent campaigner for the rights of disabled and deaf people to have full access to the Web, and after having her question answered, Alison told us this:

'Asking this question means that we are on Siôn's radar and he has been in touch to meet with us. This will enable us to influence, campaign, demand and highlight the digital injustice and discrimination we face. Digital Britain doesn't include Disabled or Deaf people and the discussion of digital inclusion is very tokenistic.'

Having met Alison, I know that she is a determined person and am sure that her persistence is the main reason that she has secured this meeting with Siôn but it's good to know that maybe Yoosk has helped in a small way.

If you would like to know more about Alison's campaign, you can visit her blog here. Nobody could argue against the justice of her cause.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

New Features and a New Look on Yoosk .

by Tim

We've just made some quite significant updates to the Yoosk platform and we would like your feedback.

First a quick explanation of how the changes fit into the scheme of things. This is really only an interim upgrade which we wanted to do before we get started on a thorough overhaul of Yoosk, which we plan to complete by early 2010. This rebuild will happen in stages and will include the implementation of the development work funded by 4IP, which was announced here.

What you see at the moment is not related to this forthcoming rebuild but is rather an interim fix to address some quite pressing priorities we have identified over the last 6 months.

1. League Table and widget.

This aggregates all the positive scores that public figures receive when they answer. It has been widgetised and can be easily embedded on blogs. Each Yoosk channel (Parliament, Birmingham, FCO etc) has its own league table, so as we grow the number of local Yoosks and Yoosk channels for different organisations, the public figures who appear there will be able to keep track of how users rate their interview performance.

We know that this is a challenging proposition to sell to some public figures and we welcome feedback on how best to position this.

2. Key Page redesign

You'll see we have tried to make a clearer user journey- we have some way to go yet we know, but we hope you'll agree that it is an improvement. Above all, we've attempted to make it more obvious what Yoosk is for and how users can get involved.

Examples of this are:
-embed code for the two widgets up there on the front page
-Clearer links to Yoosk channels
-A simpler question box making it obvious that users must ask a named individual

3. Learn More site guide.

In order to give greater clarity on exactly how Yoosk can be used by different individuals and organisations, we have created a Learn More section.

We look forward to getting your feedback and hope you enjoy the new site.

Friday, 2 October 2009

You the Interviewer.

By Keith

Last week marked something of a 'first' for Yoosk. Birmingham Post journalist Jonathan Walker arranged an interview with the Minister for Creative Industries, Siôn Simon and used the Yoosk platform to gather the questions from the general public which he would ask in the interview.

It worked like this. First Jonathan was registered as a 'reporter' on Yoosk which allowed him limited access to the Yoosk CMS, he then wrote an article in the Birmingham Post explaining that he was going to interview Siôn Simon and inviting questions from his readers and directing them to post the questions on Siôn's page on Yoosk.

Jonathan caught up with Siôn at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton and, camera in hand, asked him the questions gathered from Yoosk.He uploaded the answers to his personal Youtube channel and published them in the Post and also on Yoosk.

This is not the first occasion when journalists have used the Yoosk platform, (City University students have conducted several 'Yoosk' interviews) but it was the first occasion when the complete process from gathering the questions to posting the answers on the Yoosk site had been managed by an independent journalist.

The exercise went without a hitch which was good from a technical viewpoint, and seven questions were posted for, and answered by Siôn. Many Thanks are due to Jonathan, Siôn and our 'question posters' for their cooperation and support.

If you would like to conduct your own Yoosk interview (you don't need to be a recognised journalist), contact us via our 'Contact' page, and we will be happy to work with you on your idea.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Is a proposal for a government of national unity for ten years such a bizarre idea?

By Tim

The UK has some pretty serious problems. But surely the idea of a government of national unity-conjuring up images of wartime as it does- is going a bit too far? Isn’t it all a bit overly dramatic and apocalyptic sounding? And anyway, what’s wrong with PR? I’m going to go out on a limb and say I don’t think it is an over- reaction and that in the short term it is actually preferable and more do-able than PR. It has been mentioned already by the journalist and blogger Xan Philips and even Guardian columnist Michael White, although I'm going to employ slightly different arguments for it.

Here’s why I think the circumstances are so special that we can’t afford ten years or two terms of politics as usual. If all went well, we’d be able to return to that later, in 2020, if we really wanted to.

1. Global capitalism -while not inherently bad- has become too complex, too quickly, for any one political party to be believed when they say they know how to manage the profound implications it has for our economy and for our way of life. It will take ten years to properly understand it and get to grips with the challenges it presents (including the current crisis), by which time our economy may be in irrevocable decline.

2. In parallel, rapid changes in consumerism, media , technology and the cultural, sexual and ethnic mix of our cities have transformed our lives so utterly, that there is now an unprecedented gap between the life experiences of one generation and the next.

Approaches to managing these social revolutions fall far beyond the usual Labour-Conservative divide. In fact it is responses to these problems that are most emotive and create the most bad blood within the parties themselves. The gap between Conservatives who are both economically and socially liberal on the one hand, and economically liberal but socially conservative on the other, is probably wider and more rife with personal animosity than the gap between socially liberal Labour and Tory supporters.

3. We have a short space of time in which to prevent catastrophic climate change which would severely degrade the lifestyles of our grandchildren when they grow up and possibly lead to mass death being inflicted on their grandchildren a few decades later. We either take steps now or it’ll all be over within two terms of office.

And those steps are political dynamite.

The carbon emission cuts required mean that we will need to succeed in the biggest transformation in our economy and lifestyles since the industrial revolution, all in a matter of ten years- two terms. Government will have to persuade or compel voters to spend thousands a year on things they don’t want (such as insulation) and which may seem to offer them no gratification in their lifetime, as well as to change the way they shop and holiday. Where is this kind of measure written about in the books that have always informed Labour and Conservative ideology? And how exactly are parties going to resist the temptation to make political capital out of this, thereby endangering the entire process?

4. The free movement of populations the world over, combined with sometimes valid post colonial resentment and unprecedented free access to technology, mean that we have a tiny number of religious fanatics living here legally who are intent on, and potentially capable of, causing catastrophic damage to our cities. A larger number are able to move freely to plot and support these attacks either in failed states or-in countries such as Pakistan- in provinces where functioning states do not have control. There is no precedent in the UK for this kind of threat to be dealt with because it simply wasn’t a threat until very recently. No one really knows what to do about it.

5. Finally, a vast trading bloc taking in most of our export markets has developed on our door step, and the countries within it- including us-are being driven to ever closer political union. It wasn’t the brainchild of either of our main parties and in truth, we still don’t know what to do about it and we will never be able to control it. Only, a small minority on either side want either to pull out of the EU or to see it expand its powers further.

These five problems are an order of magnitude greater than those faced in normal times in traditional policy areas such as health, education, crime and economic policy- where elections are generally fought on the basis of opposing ideologies.

To tackle them, we need a government that is able to operate with cross-part support and thereby avoid the destructive propensity for opposition parties to score cheap points by questioning a government’s competence. Only a government of national unity with collective responsibility for these key areas can do this.

I’ve always been a supporter of PR but this seems to be a more viable short term proposal at this point in time. Why?

It’s the party conference season and I have been spending too long reading the political commentariat-both professionals and amateurs. What stands out more than ever is the blanket low esteem in which we hold all our politicians and the lack of belief that any one party have the answers. This seems to be genuinely pervasive, more than I can ever remember in the past.

The idea that all our politicians are not up to the job of governing, as many seem to suggest, is plainly nonsense. There are probably well over a hundred good MPs and many more hundreds of potentially good MPs who’ll be elected in the next election. However, the idea that those people are disproportionately banded together in one of three organisations –the main parties- who will receive a mandate for their ideas from the electorate accordingly, does not seem credible. Yet that is the implication of our system of government. It’s this belief that drives my preference for PR, as well as the obvious argument that it is more just.

But will PR be any better in the short term in addressing these five problems? I don’t think so- it will take too long to bed down. The main parties might fragment, new parties will form. Who is to say that a coalition might not get held to ransom by a smaller party who deny climate change or unduly influence policy on any one of the other crucial challenges above? PR does not automatically equate with consensus and that is what we need more of now.

Here’s an alternative. Commit to forming a government of national unity for the next ten years-with a Cabinet formed by the winner of the first past the post system but with cross-party cabinet level teams to deal with the five themes of Globalisation, Social Change, Climate Change, Defence and the EU.

Once we understand these problems better and have taken the potentially unpopular actions which might be necessary to address them, then let’s go for PR.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Social media and cultural relations: some reflections from a practitioner . Part three.

Part three: twenty recommendations for an organisation to think about…

Some time ago, a leading cultural relations agency asked me to conduct a consultancy to identify best practice in cultural relations online. Here is a summary of the practical recommendations that came out of that report.

Cultural Relations Report Summary

Social media and cultural relations: some reflections from a practitioner . Part two.

Four case studies of how social media can be used for cultural relations

In the first part of this post, I talked about the necessity and the difficulties of cultural relations practitioners getting to grips with social media. Now by taking you through four case studies I have personally been involved in, I will try to show exactly how social media can be used to build new partnerships, enable the participation of fresh voices and make an unambiguous statement about a culture’s openness and desire for dialogue.

First a bit about Yoosk (which is derived from ‘you ask’). Yoosk gathers questions from the public for named political, business and civil society leaders, arranges for the interviews to be conducted by a member of the target community and then publishes the answers. We use a set of web tools and associated methodology to help clients conduct domestic and international engagement exercises and this latter activity falls into the sphere of cultural relations.

Yoosk FCO: public diplomacy through direct conversations with political leaders

The website www.yoosk.com/fco has been used to gather questions from the UK’s Muslim community and from the Jordanian public around visits by the UK’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. The fact that the questions are unmoderated and openly displayed so that the public can vote on which they most want answered makes a clear statement that the UK are open for transparent dialogue. Furthermore, these questions are then delivered by people that the target audience recognise as not being part of the establishment, bringing fresh voices to media content that would normally be the preserve of established reporters. In Jordan, the questions were put by a young Jordanian female blogger and elsewhere on Yoosk interviews are conducted by community leaders, campaigners and even respected celebrities.

An extract from David Miliband’s interview in Jordan

The UK’s Ambassador to Vietnam talks about his job on Yoosk

A full case study of Yoosk FCO can be seen here.

Yoosk London Summit: open conversations with leaders around major themes

There can be no more global an issue and no problem more in need of a cross-cutting response from government than the current worldwide financial crisis. In the lead up to the G20 London Summit, the FCO and Cabinet Office commissioned Yoosk to build a platform dedicated to allowing people from all over the world to put questions directly to a wide variety of leaders from government, business and civil society.

Questions came from all over the world and the UK. Visitors can see open debate and dialogue in action and the exercise itself makes a statement about the UK’s values. But beyond that, it is a convenient place for overseas visitors to observe the plurality of views in the UK and perhaps might help them separate the attitudes and behaviours of the UK government from those of its wider population.

Highlights of the interviews are below and a full case study can be found here.

Yoosk Vietnam: cultural dialogue as media content

Yoosk Vietnam involved ten conversations between leading UK cultural, sporting, business and political leaders and the Vietnamese public. The project was run on behalf of the Embassy in cooperation with a leading Vietnamese news publication, Vietnam Net and involved an editorial team working in both the UK and Hanoi. This partnership was essential to the success of the project.

The online conversations that took place using social media did not just contribute to the FCO’s strategic themes, it made a statement in itself- that the UK and its leaders are open to talking to the public. As a media activity, it generated a lot of press attention about different aspects of UK culture that wouldn’t normally attract coverage.

A further outcome is that the openness demonstrated by the UK has raised interest among partners in Vietnam and Yoosk are now working with the National Assembly on an FCO funded citizen engagement project.

This demonstrates the value of innovation and openness, which are the hallmarks of social media. The fact that a government institution traditionally seen as being inaccessible to the public is so enthusiastically showcasing digital innovation, will I believe, have an effect beyond the already valuable benefits social media brings to cultural relations.

A full case study of how it worked can be seen here.

Managing difficult dialogue: Yoosk’s feature on Muslims in the UK

Bringing together a right wing Daily Mail commentator and the spokesperson for the radical Islamist Hizb ut Tarir organisation and offering the public the chance to put questions to them would not normally be an easy task. Yoosk’s Question Time-type panel interviews make this possible. This is just one example of how social media can push the boundaries of intercultural debate-in this case showing clearly that neither holds views as extreme as they are often represented to be. To see the feature, click here.

In conclusion

I hope these case studies will help clarify the important point that social media is not a technical issue and can lead to outcomes that are very much part of a traditional cultural relations manager’s stock-in-trade: increased trust and understanding gained through subtle processes that combine media with social interaction.

In other words, it’s a continuation of our job by new means and well worth the time needed to develop the understanding and knowledge required to do it well.

Social media and cultural relations: some reflections from a practitioner. Part one

A senior manager in cultural relations? Some thoughts on getting to grips with social media.

Even if so far you have resisted the temptation to create a naff user name and input an instantly forgotten password to a website that you suspect you’ll never visit again, there’s no getting away from this one fact: you’re going to have to get to grips with social media at some stage between now and retirement. I hope that what follows might help you to confirm in your own mind why this is worth doing.
First of all, I should say that this is not a blog post, rather it is more of a short lecture delivered electronically in three parts. That is another way of saying that it is long, I suppose, but it is also an attempt to challenge the already well-entrenched misconceptions of what social media is. Getting beyond these is an important part of the process in understanding its potential.
I’m going to talk about why social media is important for cultural relations organisations, why it is difficult but can’t be ignored and I’ll finish by looking at how its value lies beyond a simple numbers game.

‘Media’ and ‘Social’ were always part of cultural relations

Here’s what cultural relations activity involves and always has done:

Media: We bring our target audiences together to watch films, listen to music or to people talking about ideas and events, they read articles and fiction, look at photographs, appreciate design, painting and sculpture, they might attend our exhibitions, conferences, classes and workshops or even play sport or video games together.

Social: Then they talk to each other about it, give opinions, disagree, agree, argue, reach conclusions and finally, arrange to speak again (or not), and if we are successful, keep in touch and even collaborate.

It’s difficult to conceive of any cultural relations strategy that doesn’t make use of media to convey messages about the achievements and values of the groups involved and rely on social interaction to build close personal ties. In fact the combination of socialising- face to face networking- and the use of media -press releases, films, music, publications, exhibitions- have been a staple of cultural relations for years and have often taken place at the same time and been mutually supporting.

Doing this online is surely a logical next step.

Social media: high barriers to entry for the organisation

So why then has there been reluctance from some practitioners to embrace online social media as a key component of their cultural relations work?

Perhaps it is because they don’t really see it in these terms. Sadly, the labels internet, website and ICT are too often used to confusingly describe social media activity. These are loaded words, implying as they do to some people, a complex undertaking that is beyond the skills of anyone except those with a certain degree of technical literacy.

But the truth is that not investing in social media, not taking the time to understand and not participating is like turning down invitation and after invitation to cultural events. It is the equivalent of staying at your desk and then going home at the end of the working day rather than attending conferences, seminars, receptions, openings, and parties.

That might seem an exaggeration- after all, not everyone is online and certainly most of the older influencers and decision makers in society are not regular users of social media tools. This is true perhaps. But the emerging generation of decision makers and influencers most definitely are using social media - so online socialising and the use of online content among this successor group are taking place right now. By the time you retire, they will be well on their way to forming a new generation of leaders heavily influenced by online content and interaction along the way.
Sorry to say this but part of the problem with cultural relations organisations making effective use of social media lies in seniority and organisational hierarchy. In every country where large cultural relations agencies operate, the 20 to 30-something future leaders of that country are socially active online and increasingly consuming media online. But the senior managers of the cultural relations agencies are not of that generation-they either don’t see these conversations or they are not able or inclined to fully participate. And in a hierarchical organisation, delegating very significant and meaningful activity like this to younger staff does not come naturally.

Another problem is perceived cost and tangible benefits. If the latter are measured in the short term as a set of numbers- traffic is the most convenient way to evaluate social media- then it is often easy to discount the impact of projects where social media is involved. Getting those fabled millions of hits is actually a very difficult and expensive process.
I could go on but the point is that doing social media well, as many organisations have discovered, is not easy. Organisations are just not set up for it and the barriers to effective entry are actually quite high.

Cultural relations: low barriers to entry for new organisations

If it is difficult for established organisations to use social media, paradoxically, social media has made it an increasingly simple matter for others to enter the cultural relations industry. Thanks to the ease with which online communities can be set up and are able to connect with each other, organisations, groups and individuals are now quite capable of participating in cultural relations independently of government agencies.

It’s true that friendship societies and twinning associations thrived without the involvement of cultural relations agencies long before the internet was created, but there’s no doubt that it is now far easier to find like-minded communities and share content and interact with them online. In theory, any civil society group can locate and build links with its analogues overseas.
Media companies too, are hosting intercultural dialogue. This occurs as an inevitable part of the commenting that goes on around their content- You Tube and the Guardian are just two examples of places where you can easily find people of different cultures communicating, although with often questionable outcomes.

The opportunities for established cultural relations players

This brings me to the opportunities for the established players in cultural relations: despite the problems they face in fully embracing the potential of social media, there is clearly a role for them to play in raising the bar when it comes to online interaction between different cultures.

Exactly how this can be done is a little complex to go into here and needs to be the subject of another post (sorry, mini-lecture), but broadly it can be summarised as follows:

1. How they can integrate their own social media activity into their existing work
2. How they can use other people’s social media activity to add value to their own work.
3. How they can use their physical presence and in-country networks to add value to the social media work of others.

In delivering these three objectives, established cultural relations agencies have two great strengths (and others, I’m sure). The first is their long experience in managing intercultural dialogue and mediating between peoples of different cultures. The second is the physical, boots-on-the-ground infrastructure, which uniquely positions them to fulfil the aspirations that people who engage online often have: to meet face to face.

A bewildering array of new partners, tools and communities

The landscape comprising potential partners, the tools to create and manage dialogue, and the communities who are ready to participate, are still a foreign country to many cultural relations practitioners. Sadly, a lot of senior managers who understand the potential of social media still find themselves in a position akin to arriving in a country with no induction, unable to speak the language and with no one available to show them around the new city. Knowledge is needed in addition to understanding. This has significant implications for the development of senior staff.

Inevitably, false expectations arise: it is assumed that all social media will go viral and reach millions, that it needs to take place on Facebook, You Tube or similar. Actually, a lot of social media work will make use of well known websites and communities but a lot of it will also involve specialist tools that bring more subtle outcomes that can’t be measured simply by hits and page impressions.

In the next post, we'll look at how one such specialist tool, Yoosk, can bring some quite distinct outcomes through innovative approaches to online dialogue.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Lord Mandelson on illegal file sharing: ‘it’s wrong and it is that simple’. Well yes, but...

By Tim

Overall, I think Lord Mandelson’s article in the Sunday Times today is encouraging for those of us who fear the intentions of big business, who in the words of Tom Watson (in a reply on his blog):

...want the government to enforce scarcity on the Internet where it simply can’t be enforced.

It’s good to read Lord Mandelson saying:

The age of flogging a CD in HMV for £20 is well and truly over

And his stated aims sound entirely reasonable:

Provide customers with a good quality, cheap, safe and efficient experience, and they will ditch illegal downloading. If the threat of temporary account suspension and its implementation in a small number of cases helps to build a market to make this happen, then I believe it is worth our serious consideration.

However, he must understand that to many, it looks as if the lobbying power of the big content owners is getting them preferential treatment and there is also some irony attached to one or two of Mandelson’s statements.

‘Wrong’ is a fact of business life

“First, taking something for nothing, without permission, and with no compensation for the person who created and owns it, is wrong.”

Yes it is. But lots of things are wrong. Here are some well known examples:

-Bankers accepting large sums of public money and then awarding themselves unreasonably large bonuses in the face of public and government condemnation is wrong.

-Using UK taxpayers money to bail out established businesses in the car industry, which are owned by highly profitable foreign companies is wrong.

-It is wrong that the perpetrator of the UK’s biggest mass murder, someone who left hundreds of people bereaved, returned to Libya to a hero’s welcome. If UK trade with Libya suddenly increases as a result, that is wrong too.

Hard choices in the face of overwhelming social, financial and political forces have to be made by Government all the time. Lord Mandelson says it is wrong, he says ‘it’s that simple’. Well, like the examples above, Lord Mandelson knows full well it is not that simple, governing is almost never about simple choices between right and wrong.

One rule for banking?

“I was shocked to hear that as much as half of all internet traffic in the UK is for the carriage of unlawful content.”

Yes, it is shocking. But most of us were shocked when we realised banks were too big to fail and saw just how irresponsibly they were behaving.

“If technical solutions can discourage piracy, then as a Government we are obliged to consider them.”

So if very serious regulatory frameworks for banks are required, then the Government are obliged to consider those too? In fact, consider them they did, and then discounted them because even though it is the right thing to do ethically and in terms of short term public opinion, it is not practically possible and may damage the UK’s interests even more in the long term.

Unintended consequences

Lord Mandelson continues:

“Our creative businesses drive much of our economy... we should create a regulatory environment where they can operate without having to deal with illegal competition.”

This is going to be very complex and too tight a regulatory framework might have unintended consequences, the least of which is criminalising six million internet users. For example, I am just about to buy a DVD of the comedians Mitchell and Webb’s last TV series. I didn’t realise they were so good until I saw a number of clips on YouTube which were forwarded to me by a friend. I’m also about to buy a Sky+ box, and if there is another series, I’ll record the lot legally and won’t bother with the DVD next time.

Tom Watson finishes by listing six individuals and organisations that officials would do well to consult. It will be very interesting to see if Lord Mandelson follows up on Tom’s suggestions and if so, what kind of face time they get with him.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Social media: what are we asking of our politicians? Too much maybe?

By Tim

We will shortly be launching a beta version of the Yoosk Performance Index and it has got me thinking about not only how useful it will be, but also how sensitively we will need to approach its launch.

The YPI is a league table that aggregates the ratings given by Yooks users, after they have viewed answers to their questions given by public figures. It then ranks the public figures in a league table accordingly. At the top of this post is an idea of what it will look like- the 'See how they compare' table on the right hand side.

The Internet presents a massive challenge to MPs and leaders who find themselves under constant scrutiny. It’s no secret that Yoosk believes our MPs should be more accessible and accountable and use social media to achieve this.

But sometimes I think we expect a little too much because the new kinds of dialogue that are happening on social media channels are in some ways contradictory to certain aspects of human nature.

True, humans like showing off, we like eavesdropping, we like chat and gossip and there is plenty of all of this online. I suspect these behaviours are hard-wired. At the same time, we also value our privacy and our reputation, which I think are also probably hard-wired, and the web can be quite a threat to both.

So here’s where the openness of the web runs crash bang into the reality of human nature- and it presents a new problem to those who put themselves forward as leaders. They are on new ground: tempted on the one hand by the opportunities to raise their profile and be seen as a living breathing human being, but on the other threatened with having their basic human frailty and proneness to error held up and ruthlessly dissected.

People in high risk jobs thrive on support. They develop very close and closed networks. Fraternities, formal and informal, are as old as civilization itself. And they are by their very nature, secretive, self-supporting and self regulating. These become learnt behaviours for those in power, because they work and because everyone around them is behaving in the same way.

Leaders who go on the web are leaving this comfortable world and entering one where they will quickly become the subject of gossip, unfounded criticism and open speculation. At the same time, they will be expected to sacrifice a significant amount of privacy, to give up a lot of the protection of their closed network and take some significant risks with their reputation.

Let’s be clear of how much we are expecting of politicians when we ask them to engage on social media.

It’s a big ask. Communicating online effectively requires time, discipline, creativity and courage. Not everyone can replicate Obama- the point about him is that he is a remarkable communicator. It is instructive that those who do engage online regularly and in a full spirit of openness, are still a minority.

So we the public need to help them. We need to understand that it is reasonable to expect them to manage these conversations, at least to a degree. We should encourage them to be open by not lambasting them for their mistakes when they admit to them, but by applauding their honesty.

Let’s see how they react to the Yoosk Performance Index.

Two and half years on: what I have learnt as an entrepreneur

By Tim

Two and a half years ago Keith and I started Yoosk, a participative media platform which exists to make open and constructive conversations with our leaders a part of everyday life. Why on earth I did, I often wonder but I think I have an idea and I’ll write about it soon.

We are still going and starting to thrive. The number of start ups that make it through the two year barrier is, I believe, about 10%. So the odds have been stacked against us as a business.

The odds against Yoosk’s success as a product have been even greater: we were the first dedicated platform for holding large scale Q and As between our leaders and the public. How could a tiny two man team get a good number of senior ministers and scores of MPs and other public figures to agree to hold direct online conversations with the public? Persistence, luck and love.

There are broadly two types of entrepreneur: those who have funds they can afford to lose and those who don’t.

Truly innovative ideas often need a long time to get in the air and well funded entrepreneurs clearly have the advantages of more thrust and a longer runway. But there are certain things an underfunded entrepreneur can do to keep laying runway in front of them while they are waiting for the revenue or funding tanker in the distance to arrive. Too often of course, the tanker stays a far off speck and then it is time to call it a day. Knowing when is the trick.

When I’m asked how we have managed to get to where we are now, I usually give the answer: persistence, luck and my wife’s salary and love. Sorry if that sounds corny but they are probably the most concrete facts I can give.

But on top of these, I think there are five other factors that are essential to the success of an underfunded entrepreneur. In brackets below, I have added their close cousins: bullshitting, narcissm, ligging, incompetence and denial.

There's a thin line separating the two and about once a week, I wake up at 4am in the morning and spend the next few hours convinced I am a bullshitting narcissist, desperately ligging around town in a state of utter denial without a real clue as to what I am doing.....

1. The ability to build credibility (bullshitting)

If you don’t have an existing reputation within your market (your potential customers) or your industry (your competitors and potential investors), then do not underestimate the size of the mountain you have to climb in earning one.

The low barriers to entry in digital media especially, mean that entrepreneurs with no background in their chosen market or industry are able to innovate and deploy products which while they might be great ideas, do not have easy access to buyers or investors. That was us to a certain extent: we had limited background in government communications or IT (our market) and no real news industry experience when we first started .

It doesn’t necessarily mean that we don’t have the talent or insight of people who do come from those backgrounds. It doesn’t mean we haven’t been able to learn quickly about a new area (which frankly, no one quite yet understands anyway). It does mean that we couldn’t readily prove we have the knowledge and talent: we had no track record. Now we do, two years of runway later.

Mistake: not trading equity for a credible team member at an earlier stage.

Success: building a knowledge base and track record in a new and growing industry, finally attracting credible advisers.

2. The ability to build visibility (narcissism)

Here’s where well funded entrepreneurs have a key advantage, even if they do not have a significant reputation in their chosen market or industry. They can splurge on the promotion of their new product at an early stage and attain visibility. Underfunded entrepreneurs who have credibility can usually leverage this to attain a degree of early visibility too. The media understandably like experts, they like track records. For those who are both unfunded and without credibility, attaining visibility is very difficult.

Why is visibility good? It might bring you a user base at an early stage but there are many examples of early growth in traffic that never materialise into a sustainable model. The main initial gain to be made from visibility is connectedness, plus a bit of credibility.

So how to get visibility? Here are the options I’ve identified, although there may be more:

1. Splurge and be damned. The results never seem worth the money but PR people have the contacts and are more likely to get coverage than you are, no matter how good you might be at writing press releases. Avoid press release services that write a release for you and send out to a database with no follow up like the plague.

2. Write to the journalists and bloggers yourself. Very few will answer, you will probably get branded a spammer and you could waste huge amounts of time and morale better spent writing to customers. You’ll get a couple of articles though- how you take advantage of that coverage is important.

3. Self-publish and network like there’s no tomorrow. Use Twitter, blog about your market and industry. This too can take an enormous amount of time away from contacting customers. You’ll get noticed in time but will it be worth it?

4. Cultivate a handful of friendly journalists. Treat them as customers for new angles they can sell to their editor. They are not duty bound to buy your story not matter how ‘new’ and groundbreaking you think it is.

5. Get a really good publicist interested in your business and give them equity

Mistake: we haven’t really focused on any of the above, or found the right combination. We’ve wasted a lot of time and still haven’t cracked it.

Success: only the fact that I now understand the above options a little more clearly after two years. We’ve got some coverage but nothing game changing.

3. The ability to build connectedness (ligging)

To steal a bit from Nick Hornby...Some people have a natural disposition for networking: they are just plain nice, energetic and good to be with and to know. People who brood on ideas, who have a rage inside them strong enough to risk their livelihoods shoving those ideas down the throats are others, are not generally of this disposition. I am not of this disposition. A very small number of entrepreneurs are and you can now watch them with envy doing their stuff on Twitter every day. Don’t get envious like me, just watch and learn.

Mistakes: Not learning more quickly the value of strong networks and how they work.

Success: I’m getting better as I become more credible in the eyes of those I seek to network with.

4. Learning (incompetence)

It’s difficult to say anything about this without stating the obvious. Or getting lost in clichés: but here are two anyway:

1. The success of any start up depends on you being able to fall forwards continually and learn every time.

2. It is the mistakes that you don’t know you are making, that are the biggest danger: Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns or Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Black Swans.

Mistake: the same depressing mistake of recruiting people who couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver.

Success: after some howlers, we’ve found a convincing business model and are getting better at recruitment.

5. Stamina (denial)

It’s a long haul. It is only persistence which will enable you to find the very precious few openings or the handful of wonderful open-minded people willing to give you a chance. There must be any number of start ups that have given up when success was around the corner. But these will always be outnumbered by the hapless entrepreneurs who lost far more time and money than they needed to on businesses that were never going to work.

This is what keeps me awake at 4am for the other six nights a week: that I might be one of the 'hapless' .

Mistake: getting my family into this mess

Success: keeping them in it

Four reactions when a business faces inevitable change

By Tim

I'm following Editor Marc Reeve's consultation exercise on the future of the Birmingham Post with a mixture of fascination, frustration and hope, as well as admiration for the way Marc is handling it. Marc's appeal for views on how the Post needs to change has so far received 39 comments on his blog and I suspect there are many more private views in his inbox.

Below, I've tried to analyse and make sense of the comments sent in by Post readers but first, here is one clip from a longer interview with Marc answering Yoosk users' questions on the decline of print media:

Looking at the responses to Marc's appeal in detail, there were a variety of suggestions or comments which fell into four braod categories:

1. A daily edition of the Birmingham Post is nothing that can’t be fixed with the right management, ownership or customer loyalty

-Strategy of aggressive growth, going after new audiences with innovative products and content

-Invest in quality and web presence, do the same but better

-Take voluntarily submitted content: become a curator of quality user generated content

-Expand geographic and demographic coverage, gain new readers with new content

-Focus entirely on business, up circulation figures within that core sector, add supplements

-Rely on business readers to rally round, increase sales by 10,000, increase the cover price

2. It’s possible to achieve ultimate success as a viable business but in a very different form

-Less is more, consolidate, adopt the weekly model and focus on quality

-Adopt an FT-like online subscription model, with daily web publication and a weekly print edition

-Merge with the Mail, rationalise, concentrate on the online business brand

-Concentrate more on local communities and key target groups, introducing supplements and an expanded web presence

-Leverage the brand in the areas of business information, analysis and networking and explore other revenues beyond cover price and advertising, such as events etc.

3. The model is broken, news will live on but not newspapers like the Post, that’s just the way of things

-12,000 readers is small and irrelevant figure, it’s all over, there’s no point in bidding back the tide

-Going weekly is equivalent to death by a thousand cuts, doing irreparable damage to the brand and the precursor of inevitable closure

4. It’s too important to be left as a business decision, it’s a political issue

-Return to local ownership, either through selling to a philanthropist or by community buy-out or syndicate of local business

-The Post is an advertising vehicle for the region and its businesses, it is a civic good which if lost, may signal the decline of Birmingham towards a parochial backwater

-Confront the council head on, on ethical and business grounds, especially about their advertising spend on jobs. The public sector is competing unfairly with private business.

Four predictable responses?

I'd say yes: these very positive and well intentioned suggestions all seem depressingly familiar. The West Midlands has seen the decline of many of its flagship industries and companies in the last 40 years (and some in the last year) and these are the traditional positions adopted whenever a large, well established company falls on hard times:

1. “It’s the fault of the owners and managers, there’s nothing wrong that can’t be fixed by doing things better. Management haven’t invested enough, or in the right equipment, the right factories, they aren’t marketing the product well enough. We can find new markets and recover with different managers and owners.”

2. “This came from nowhere and while serious, can be fixed. We can still succeed, we just need to restructure, redesign our products, consolidate and focus.”

3. “We are the subject of market, technological and social forces beyond our control, no one can be profitable in this environment, it’s time for everyone associated with this to take their money, labour and skills elsewhere.”

4. “This is too big to be left to market forces: at stake are the fundamental wellbeing of the region, the community and the people who live within it. Public money must be used and political forces mobilised to solve the problem.”

Lenin said the only real questions that matter are, “who?” and “to whom?” Who exercises power and over whom do they exercise it? In these situations, this can be rephrased as:

Whose responsibility is it? Who stays? Who goes?

For the four basic views described above, the answers are:

1. Managers’ fault, workers stay, managers go.

2. No one’s fault, (some) managers stay, (some) workers go.

3. No one’s fault, no one stays, workers and managers go.

4. Everyone’s fault, everyone stays, no one goes.

What do I think?

I'm firmly in the number two camp.

I think I support Marc's plan to go for the weekly edition, supported by increased investment in a daily site- but it's clear it'll have to be accompanied by a painful reduction in overheads. My sympathies got out to the staff who'll inevitably lose their jobs.

At the same time, I have huge personal sympathy for the challenge Marc and his fellow senior managers face- I've been there and soon I'll write about what happened and what I learnt. I have only met Marc briefly once but it is clear to me that he cares deeply about the Post and the people who work there.

Yoosk Birmingham Case Study

By Tim

Yoosk recently completed a public engagement exercise for Birmingham councillors and MPs, run in partnership with the Birmingham Post and Mail. Here's the case study...

Yoosk Birmingham case study

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Visualising data.

By Keith

Many Thanks to yoosklondonsummit user PatNInterrupt for highlighting the site Many Eyes for us. Many Eyes allows people to make visualisations of either text streams or data sets. Very useful for highlighting key information and also for comparing. Just for fun, I did a quick Wordle exercise with the Inaugural speeches of JFK, GWB Jnr and Obama, results below:

Bush Jnr:
66929220-3fad-11de-a99b-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

F52d54da-3fac-11de-be5c-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

55634d42-3fac-11de-83cf-000255111976 Blog_this_caption
This is just a quick example of what can be done - the potential is there for much more interesting visualisations to be made and I'm looking forward to trying this out with a few Gordon Brown and David Cameron speeches.