Friday, November 20, 2009

SideWiki Less Cool Than it First Appeared: Ten and a Half Reasons Why

In a recent posting I expressed my disagreement with an article published in the Guardian newspaper suggesting that Google Sidewiki could mean the end of PR as we know it (see )

At first I said that Sidewiki was cool, but simply that I did not think it was any threat to PR as we know it. Indeed I believe it creates more opportunities. Looking more closely, though, I now think that it is clever but I am not so sure that it is such a good idea. Here are ten and a half reasons why:

1. Users need to know it exists and website owners are not likely to put a button saying ”click here to see uninvited and possibly hostile comments on this site”

2. You need to install the toolbar to see it, at least for now.

3. You need to remember to turn the Sidewiki on.

4. Turning it on slows down page loading so you turn it off.

5. Controversial sites will block it.

6. Well managed sites will find ways to bury bad comments.

7. All other site Sidewikis will probably be a mixture of spam and insults.

8. Comments will not track changes in page content.

9. Moderated commenting spaces within site will be easier to use, more readable.

10. Privacy loving users will not like that Google sees everything that they see.

10.5. And it isn’t a wiki anyway because you can’t edit the content written by others. Use your own Google guys, and try searching "define:wiki"!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Internet Radio

Most people seriously underestimate the impact of cultural and social factors on innovation. Very often excited inventors roll out a product that is objectively “better” only to find that it bombs in the market for reasons that are perhaps obvious only to an anthropologist.

Take, for example, the stubborn resistance of European drivers to automatic transmission, which is an almost universal standard in the US and Asia. Most vehicles sold in Europe still have a manual stick shift and if you admit that you like automatics people look down on you. Your European friends will rationalize all sorts of explanations about safety, economy and performance, but the reality is that they are afraid to seem inadequate. Drivers of automatics are perceived as being incapable of driving properly and deep down they are considered unmanly, regardless of gender. Pretty much the same hostility slowed the introduction of footrests on saddles, wheels on luggage and countless other improvements.

Sometimes also people resist innovations because they do not “look right”, meaning that they prefer to follow the herd rather than use a more functional product. Back in the late 1970s Steinberger introduced a new style of electric guitar where the headstock is replaced by a tuning mechanism in the body. The result is a lighter, more compact instrument that most musicians would not be seen dead playing. Thirty years later rising young musicians like Orianthi Panagaris still use a traditional style guitar.

There are innovators who perhaps inadvertently find ways to address these issues. One well known case is the way sports equipment makers engage popular role models to use their products, making them socially acceptable. Tennis players all used laminated wood rackets until Jimmy Connors made metal rackets socially acceptable. Many companies use the same technique without, perhaps, being aware of the reason it works.

Other companies seem to ignore the problem completely and just hope it solves itself, and then there is Pandora Internet Radio, which seems to be in a class of its own.

Pandora Internet Radio is a web-based automatic “radio” website that first asks you to name some songs you like. Based on these inputs it prepares a playlist for you and streams you similar songs. As you listen you can give feedback on the choices so that it can refine its model of your tastes and predict more accurately the songs you will like. You can find out more at but the streamed music content is not available outside the US for copyright reasons.

Most other services of this type base their recommendations on algorithms that compare your choices with others. If you like the song “Alpha” then they check what other people who liked Alpha are listening to. If 98% of users who like Alpha also liked Beta then they recommend that to you. This algorithm thus embodies social factors because it is based on what people say they like and not on what they do like, so peer pressure is factored into the formula.

Pandora is different. They have paid musicologists to prepare a detailed technical description of every song in their database. If you say you like song “Charlie” they analyze the musical characteristics of that song in excruciating detail. Then they search the database for other songs with similar characteristics and recommend them, creating a virtual radio station just for you.

Predictably people get upset sometimes, just like they do when Amazon makes recommendations that they find socially unacceptable. People have written to complain when they have been recommended music by Celine Dion, because obviously in the circles they move this is not something you would ever admit, though in actual fact it might be true.

For this reason Pandora has been accused of ignoring the culture factor. Their geekish assumption is that if you can mathematically prove that I like Celine Dion I will buy her stuff, when in fact people take into account what their friends listen to. Maybe I feel better telling people I like Orianthi rather than Celine. This is reflected in the way traditional social media let you share your musical tastes so that you can find out what is acceptable in your group and learn to like it, or at least pretend to.

Pandora does this the other way around. First it analyzes clinically your musical tastes then it gives you more of the same. But here’s the twist: at the same time it lets you connect with people who have been demonstrated to have the same real tastes. So if you don’t really like the music of your friends, instead of just learning to like it you can get new friends. Whether this works or not I can’t really say but I am watching carefully. Their streaming radio service is hugely popular in the US but will it undermine the effect of social pressure on music choices? Perhaps this could be the start of a major new trend or maybe it is just another interesting case study for people like me who are fascinated by the impact of cultural and social factors on technology & innovations.

Monday, November 9, 2009

SideWiki is Cool, but Reports it Spells the End of PR As We Know It are Exaggerated

In a world where there is an exciting new web tool practically every day of the week, Google’s new “SideWiki” toolbar did not quite make the impact it deserved when it emerged about a month ago.

Effectively it answers all the people who have become so used to adding their comments on Facebook posts and newspaper articles that they feel frustrated when they read an old time one-way web page with no comment space. SideWiki adds a column on the left of any web page where users can write comments and read the comments of others. Though the idea is not entirely original it will be more successful than earlier attempts simply because Google is a strong brand and has a broad customer base.

When Sidewiki catches on it will be another useful way of interacting with websites, and I expect that it will soon become a standard browser feature, though there is likely to be a battle for control of this space because of the possibilities of generating revenues from ad space and paid links.

But some of the claims made for SideWiki are, perhaps, over inflated, especially the comment in today’s Guardian Newspaper “SideWiki changes everything. Google's SideWiki tool is the ultimate expression of people power” at

In this comment piece Mark Borkowski suggests that SideWiki will mean the end of PR as we know it. To quote his own words: “SideWiki will make it impossible to promote one message and not be held to account. Organisations that have traditionally engaged only in one-way conversations or broadcast models will struggle to survive in a SideWiki world.”

I am always dubious about claims like this. Remember when they said that Edison’s phonographs would spell the end of live music? When they said that TV would kill movies? Or that VCRs would kill TV? And I remember when media presented the newly invented steering wheel lock in the seventies with the prediction that it would spell the end of car theft.

Now I am the first to agree that web 2.0 tools have leveled the playing field and given consumers more opportunities to answer back, but I am not convinced that SideWiki will play a key role in this transition. Angry consumers can already strike back with their own “Product X Sucks” website, they can launch their campaigns through Facebook and organize opposition practically in real time through Twitter.

SideWiki, on the other hand does not actually give individuals the power they might expect. First of all there is the problem of comment ranking. A lone citizen voicing some concern is little likely to be visible when there are many comments by high credibility users. I am surely not the only person to see how this process could be manipulated by anyone with deep pockers; organizations faced with negative comments will soon master techniques for making them appear low down on the page. Secondly, the website viewer has to turn on these comments, and many will not bother to do so. And finally, you don’t need a doctorate in web site design to realize that there are simple ways to design a slippery website so that the comments can’t be attached to a page anyway. In other words it will be difficult to use SideWiki as a weapon against powerful enemies. It is more likely to become a threat to smaller companies and organizations and a tool in the hands of aggressive PR companies.

Long before computers were invented you could have organized a physical SideWiki service, placing a guy with a placard next to every outdoor ad, but for every placard you could afford Big Corporations could afford 100 ads. I fear that it will be the same in SideWiki. It can be a useful tool where the web page owner sees the comments as neutral to positive, but as soon as it becomes negative it will be neutralized. On the other hand there are plenty of other ways to engage with these corporations and savvy PR people have already adopted these. Perhaps there are a few dinosaurs out there who refuse to believe that Twitter is here to stay, but the asteroid has already hit their planet and they are on their way out.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Stockholm’s Rabbit-Fueled Heating: Why Some Things Are Just Not Good Ideas and How to Rescue “Hopeless” PR Cases

Competent PR professionals can deal with any emergency. It’s their job and it is why we have crisis plans. But there are some cases where even seasoned veterans must wish they had better customers. One that springs to mind is the use of real human cadavers as crash test dummies about a generation ago. Objectively most reasonable people could accept that this testing could make cars safer and benefit humanity. But the same reasonable people also think that it is perhaps a little too ruthless and you will need more than just careful spin to make it palatable.

Just recently the city of Stockholm, Sweden, found itself in exactly this kind of situation. News reports in local media revealed that rabbits culled in city parks were being burned to heat homes. Predictably the coverage in media worldwide was universally negative, especially when it was revealed that these were not wild rabbits but descendents of abandoned pets.

Twitterers, bloggers and journos across the planet pushed each other aside in the rush to express their outrage, and judging by the tone of their pieces they seem to imagine that this was the result of a calculated decision to put energy needs above animal rights. Nobody, it seems, read the original reports which explained clearly that these rabbits were burned not to warm homes but because of an EU directive requiring the city incinerate them instead of burying them. Since the city does not own any ceremonial rabbit incinerators the only option was to use the same waste burning facility that also provides heat for surrounding buildings.

I am not at all surprised that the incinerator operator did not make an effort to answer the negative coverage. Their business does not require much consumer goodwill, they normally operate out of the public eye and they almost certainly have limited PR resources. On the other hand the reputation of the city of Stockholm was more affected by the episode and I expected a little more from them.

When I mentioned this to friends in the city the consensus seems to be that there is nothing you can do about a situation like this, so why bother? On this point I have to disagree. You always have choices and there is always something you can do and I will sketch outlines of possible solutions, just to show that it can be done.

The first choice is, of course, purposeful inactivity. I say “purposeful” because there is a difference between doing nothing because you don’t know what to do and doing nothing because it is the right thing to do. Sometimes ignoring an issue does make it go away provided that there is not a sustained campaign to stop you doing that. If you do go for this option you need to have a Plan B in case it is not forgotten.

A second option is to present your side of the problem and in this situation this means getting out a message explaining the context and perhaps starting a debate about alternative solutions. Perhaps if the media were given more facts they would be better prepared to present a more balanced view of the situation. This is something you need to do quickly and respectfully before the story spirals out of control.

Finally, the third general option is for someone in a position of authority to simply apologize for the “lapse in judgment” and create a group including representatives from the community and animal rights organizations to explore alternative solutions for the future.

Some situations are more difficult than others, but I don’t believe that there is such a thing as an impossible PR case. There is always something that you can do and more importantly there is always something useful you can do without overstepping boundaries of ethical behavior.