Tuesday, 25 December 2012

The Anti-Social Network

Well I may as well start this post by wishing everyone who celebrates it a happy Christmas!

Christmas is a time of joy for the majority of us whether it be a religious or commercially induced occasion. It is however, also a time of stress for some. In the UK it is a long holiday for the majority of us where we get to spend more time than we are used to with our immediate and extended families. Combine this with the financial pressure of gifts and plenty of alcohol and you start to understand why the festive season is also a time where families are more likely to argue and fight.

For me, it seems a very good time to share my opinions on some of the social problems that are caused or at least exaggerated by the Facebook platform. Then I also want to explore whether social networking actually make us more social.

So there are over 1 billion Facebook user accounts now and seeing as the majority are the Christmas celebrating audience I just described, I’m not surprised to see the good advice alert from Facebook suggesting you ‘take some time and review who can see your stuff’.  If not setup correctly Facebook’s privacy settings are one of the many issues that facilitates social issues.

Most technology is created out of need and it normally exists to solve some sort of problem. When we implement more and more progressive technology into our lives, our lives change, hopefully for the better. In the short-term these are in simple ways with a one-to-one relationship between the technology and the human beneficiary. In the longer term it may change the way a collective community behaves. Facebook has changed the entire social construct of a lot of the world in a very short space of time.

I’m not going to spend much time at all telling you of the benefits to your social life of using Facebook. For me it’s simple. I get the option to share my life in a quick and simple way with almost everyone I’ve ever known. I get the benefits of receiving updates on what my friends are doing without the need to put aside an hour a day to catch up on the phone and love that as someone that rarely ever takes pictures, my friends tag me in photos and help complete a picture of my social life.

To help form the basis to my rant I want to use an analogy. After recent tragic events in Connecticut I’ve seen the old bullshit NRA saying going around on twitter ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people’. The statement, although fact, is totally ridiculous. The point is a shooter is unlikely to kill any or many without a gun. Now, I don’t want to in anyway compare the taking of life to social issues, I just want to use this statement and apply the same misguided logic to social media.

‘Facebook doesn’t damage relationships, people damage relationships.’

I strongly believe Facebook can act as a communicative catalyst to relationships. You could argue that this means it’s doing its job well, accentuating the reality of our relationships. For example people often know of someone that first discovered their partner was having an affair through Facebook. If you look at it in a simple way then these cases may help in ending a doomed relationship quicker, saving precious time and heartache. That said, some of the affairs may have been with re-united friends that would never have come back into each other’s lives if it weren’t for Facebook.

We are human. It is highly likely that with a lover we will hit some difficult times. It’s a fallacy to think an old-couple walking hand-in-hand at a park have always had it easy. Quite often if you actually asked them they’d say the secret was to work bloody hard at it and they are shocked at how quickly us youngers walk away from each-other when having the slightest of issues. The grass is always greener on the other side so I’m sure some of this modern ‘walk away’ culture is because it’s so easy for us to access a new relationship using Facebook….and not always a better one at that!

This ease to re-unite with ‘old flames’ and new potential partners in such a public way is also the direct cause of jealousy. Some may believe jealousy is a healthy part of a relationship but that really is not my opinion. Even if it doesn’t break up a couple; it is the cause of arguments. I have literally known quite normal people to become paranoid obsessive about using Facebook to check their partner and friend’s activity.

Pulling back to just friendships, are all x hundred of your friends really friends? I once heard someone morbidly suggest you can define it by those that would come to your funeral. The actual definition of the word friend is changing, particular with those whose experience of social networking has started online. My 21 year old sister uses the term ‘Friends’ as a loose statement to mean ‘anyone she’s ever met’. Only I know who my real friends are and how important they are to me. They cannot be classified into groups of friends and acquaintances. Although I can create custom groups in Facebook to share communication with, this isn’t and we wouldn’t want it to be public. Doesn’t it devalue a strong friendship with an individual to have them knocking about with 500 other so-called friends?

Most Facebook users do not put the time into establishing their custom groups and privacy settings. They just want to plug-and-play and never get around to doing it, which is why Facebook realises that to sort out this issue they need to do a better job of promoting it. Although the Facebook privacy issue is a hot topic at the moment this is more related to the company’s ownership of your profile details and not your personal settings. In my personal experience I have noticed a correlation between age and the privacy settings. It’s a lot more likely that those under 20 have their profiles in full public view than say a 40 year old. Seeing as this younger audience should be more technically savvy, I’m assuming this is because the younger audience is happier for their lives to be public…..but why? Maybe its because they just don’t know any different.

A 23-year-old friend of mine decided to delete her Facebook profile as an experiment after being a user for her entire adult life. At first she said she didn’t know what to expect and was feeling worried about offending her friends and found it odd to be loosing a documented legacy of her life so far. After, she said she felt like a new person, describing her feelings with words like empowered, unique, liberated and more human…….more human! Is this because we are entrusting part of our social make-up to a non-human entity?

Surely relationships with your friends are more meaningful when you decide who hears what you have to say, not a mathematical algorithm that chooses our news feed content.

I’ve always thought that nature has a way of controlling our real social networks. Throughout our lives we make friends, loose friends and then make some more. If we need more friends, we feel lonely and are more incentivised to meet new people. If we feel overwhelmed with friends we loose those that aren’t so important to us. It’s a search, addition and loss cycle we go through constantly that manageably controls our social lives in a unique per person way with the output being some very good friend matches (obviously can't do this with your family). I continually make an effort with friends that are important to me and I loose touch with friends that aren’t so important to me. Facebook causes issues from the start with this. If an old friend sends me a friend request I immediately feel rude not accepting them and it gets even worse at the point you feel like having a Facebook friend cull.

Over the last week I've noticed that some of my friends have posted on Facebook that their new years resolution is to delete their profile….the pinnacle of irony if you ask me! People are starting to see the problems that Facebook can create and this is a typical reaction. I can guarantee anyone that feels the need to post their leaving will be back re-recruiting friends again soon....and so starts another, less natural cycle whilst pissing people off along the way. I know quite a few of my friends that have deleted and re-instated their profiles on a personal journey to try and understand how this technology can benefit them. 

The trouble is nobody teaches us how to use Facebook. The platform itself could be used well as a productivity tool for a real successful social life. It might sound ridiculous but maybe its something that should be discussed in school. If the focus of education is about preparing kids for the real world and their social lives are primarily controlled on a single platform shouldn’t it be a necessity, particularly when so much of youth social issues such as bullying also prevail on the platform. Also, unlike a lot of us oldies, the new generation of users could have their entire lives documented on a public space so shouldn’t the state be responsible for this. If the state, which normally looks after the public’s interest, owned the site there would be public outcry. So why are we all so calm about where this is heading when owned by a company that wants to make money and satisfy shareholders?

Whether you like it or not, Facebook is where everybody is and its therefore going to stay. What else is someone to do? Use a phone and speak? Actually show printed photos? Damn! We’ll have the kids playing outside and climbing trees soon!!

So I suppose this brings me onto the point about Facebook being social. Does social networking make us more social? I think it’s a yes and no answer! If Facebook is used as either a substitute or alternative to real social networking, ‘No’. If it facilitates or adds value to our real social networking, it’s a yes. It all depends on 1. What your definition of social need is, 2. What your social needs are and 3. If you are using Facebook in the right way.

Its hard to remember not everyone has the same social needs as each other. Some people have anxiety in real social experiences whilst others drive themselves crazy when they are alone. I almost imagine it like the EA game the Sims, with a kind of social bar we must fill, each individual having a different level in order to be happy and fulfilled. That said I don’t think anyone would argue that the person going out all the time was less mentally healthy than the person locked in a room communicating on a digital space. There is a different type of feeling gained from real-life communication to a wholly digital one.

Also, if social networking and Facebook in particular is the way forward for our social lives, what happens to all those that are excluded...do they suddenly sit in a separate social class. There's been many an event that I've been to that has accidentally excluded people because of the assumption that we are all Facebook users. Even when my friends have remembered their non-Facebook counterparts, there are often laughable degrading comments made in the event such as  "We'd better phone Dave....He's not of Facebook!"

I think too many people are using Facebook as a substitute for the real thing. We tend to always take the easiest option given to us. We just all need to pull our fingers out of our arses and remember that the results of making the effort with our true friends in the real world pays so much more. It's the difference between sending a real christmas card or an e-card.

To all a good Christmas and to Facebook, Bah! Humbug!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Re-introducing Nostalgic Entertainment Brands

It’s said that there’s nothing quite like the good ol’ days and this is most evident in the re-introduction of entertainment brands into both its previously sentimental audience or a totally new younger audience yet to experience the wonders of our past. Whether it is old rocker bands making a comeback, a new film that has been replicated from an original or a mobile App based on our old childhood toys we all seem to have a longing for previously happy personal associations.

Last week I was listening to a short debate on BBC Radio 4 about Channel 4’s sequel to Raymond Briggs' iconic UK animation ‘The Snowman’. The new film ‘The Snowman and the Snowdog’ is to be aired on TV this Christmas, 30 years after the original was released. The debate centered around whether bringing back nostalgic entertainment was a good or a bad thing. It was concluded after much discussion that although nostalgia gave audiences a personal feel-good-factor it also put a halt to the innovation and creativity of new content. I found this to be a very shortsighted way of looking at it.

I find it easier to make sense of the phenomenon by separating the content from the brand. The brand doesn’t exist until the first content is produced. After the audience experiences the content (or other associated content) they build up a picture of that brand that includes a good or bad personal association with it. When a new piece of content is then created many years later, there will be two types of potential audience; those that experienced the brand/content and those that didn’t and therefore have no knowledge of it.

An audience that knows of a nostalgic brand will carry their emotive connections onto any new content. This sets certain expectations for any new content that includes some consistency and a similar level of quality to the original. Although the producers of this content will have an easier job selling to this audience they also have more of a challenge to appease their expectations. The content therefore needs to be at least as good as their expectations in order for value to be retained or added to the brand.

An audience that does not know of a nostalgic brand will either be seeing the content for the first time with no expectations or be introduced to it by someone that does. If the audience has never heard of the brand then the process restarts with the content determining an individual’s brand perception. If they are introduced to a brand from an advocate they then inherit the introducers expectations.

Either way, the re-introduction of a positive nostalgic brand does not relieve any pressure from the content being innovative or creative. There is simply good, relevant content and bad, irrelevant content.

The majority of nostalgic entertainment brands carry a positive association because the original content was good. Assuming that the content producers follow the formula that made the original content a success and then also make it relevant to a modern audience, its likely they will produce more good content that is successful.

From the viewpoint of the industry you also have to consider that valued brands have well...value. Producing content under a nostalgic brand maximises that value financially whilst minimising the risk of failure. This is primarily because the content has already been tried and tested and has an existing advocate audience. It makes it even more attractive for nostalgic brand owners to re-release content these days because the majority of us are on social media. Social media + brand advocates = free positive awareness. Cadbury's re-launced Wispa chocolate bar is a great example of how this works.

The best example of a successful nostalgic entertainment brand is Lego. For Lego nostalgia equals sales. From generation to generation parents buy Lego for their children based on their own positive associations of play as a child. The company is careful to keep the fundamentals of identity the same whilst also keeping the content (the Lego bricks) relevant to a new audience. This cycle goes on and on with the brand continuing to grow stronger.

In the past 10 years Lego have intelligently kept relevant by associating new Lego product sets with other successful, current youth brands such as Star Wars and Harry Potter. They can now simply recycle these associative brands to keep their image up-to-date and relevant. It’s arguable whether the youth of today, surrounded by modern media, would still play with the ‘old-school’ Lego sets. Sure, the parents would still buy them but the sales cycle would slow and the brand would be devalued.

Going back to the Radio 4 debate, I don’t believe the re-introduction of nostalgic entertainment brands is slowing the introduction of new content. These days there is more content generated in a day than can be consumed in a lifetime. There is therefore plenty of space in the market and enough talented content creators to do both. The other important point is that modern generations may not find original versions of the content relevant to them so either never experience them or try to with dislike. I've felt this first hand when I tried watching the original 1932 version of my favourite film Scarface (1983) and also the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica series.

The original Snowman animation has set very high expectations to a lot of us. The experience of watching it today still makes me feel euphoric, which for me is a combination of the speechless narrative, the illustration, the animation style and perfectly placed Aled Jones song. The Snowman and the Snowdog has been created by some of the original team that includes the writer-director Hilary Audus, a wonderfully experienced and creative lady I was fortunate enough to have co-judged awards with this year. She told me that although she was following a similar formula to the original she wanted to put her own spin on things and had the intention of re-making it for both the exisiting audience as well as a new one.The animation is mostly hand drawn, follows a very similar look and feel to the original and has been endorsed by Raymond Briggs himself. I’d therefore put my money on it being a great piece of content that is just as successful.

The 26-minute animation premiered on the 9th December in London and I’ve heard that the children attending found it magical and some of the older audience were moved to tears.

Personally I’d rather live in a world that was saturated in good re-introduced content than one in which there was a lot of new shit. It’s often the reason we all find ourselves saying ‘They just don’t make things like they used to.’

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Welcome to my new blog!

I just wanted to kick it off by telling you more about myself, how I got interested in the digital world, why I've decided to start a blog and the things that currently interest me.

Arguably, I should have been blogging years ago as I've been in digital for a quite a long time now and those that know me have always said I had a lot to say about the industry, the work we do and the changes it makes to the world we live in. That said, most of the experience, understanding and opinions that I have formed over the past 16 years have been absorbed during the running of my own digital agency and I've therefore had little time outside the insular environment of running a small business to do anything about it.

I'm now at the point where my desire to share my knowledge and learn from others outweighs my desire to relax on a day off so I will, where possible, post something up each week (probably a Sunday).

As a youngster I had always been fascinated by technology, media and digital art and remember having a talent for it. Like most kids, I wanted to feel appreciated for something... talent gets praise and praise enthuses you with an even higher interest in the subject you are good at. The first point at which this happened to me was in school during a competition to create a computer designed poster. I was only 12 at the time and despite my output being relatively shoddy by todays standards, I won.

I was always one of those inquisitive kids that wanted to understand how things work and much to my parents annoyance I'd take apart all of my mechanical and electrical toys to see 'behind the scenes'. This carried on until my teenage years, evolving from toys, into the hardware and software of the computers my father would bring home from work. It started with a green screen Amstrad and went on till I left home with the earliest of Windows PC's.

My real passion as a kid was in gaming. I was lucky to be in the generation of kids to first experience the 8-bit consoles such as Sega’s Master System and Nintendo’s NES. Growing up with gaming really made a difference to my understanding of gameplay, narrative and emotional user experience. I also witnessed the introduction of the first mass-market PC’s aimed at general consumers; the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. As technology developed and Christmas and birthday’s arrived I’d get the new up-to-date hardware and spend a lot of my free time playing around with them.

After school I started off my college education studying business and economics at Cambridge and then went to Plymouth for a degree in Business Information Management Systems (BIMS). I took the business route primarily because of my father, whom I found inspiring in that he had set-up his own successful business from nothing.

During my second year of BIMS at Plymouth I lived with housemates that were studying one of the first and most respected digital media degrees in the UK; Media Lab Arts (MLA). I was fascinated by Macromedia and Adobe’s suites of software and how they empowered a user to make content. I immediately applied to change courses, making up a makeshift portfolio of work and was accepted. It was during the work placement year on MLA that I decided to set-up my first agency.

Still running now, stickee started in 2001 and has worked with some of the worlds most respected brands. It helps them with digital strategy, creative and production. Like a lot of the start-ups of the time, we’ve been through our financial ups and downs but we always remained small, agile and creative; making good work for good clients.

During its life the company has picked up some nice awards which include production awards such as the ‘FWA’, business awards such as the ‘Seeda’s High Growth’ award and industry recognition such as New MediaAge’s ‘Ones to watch’.

Personally, my views and opinions have featured in the trade press, I've guest lectured in the subject of ‘Media Industry’, have done a variety of subject talks at industry events and have been a judge on some of the major industry awards including the BAFTA's and BIMA's. I am currently the chair of judges for the ‘Media Innovation Awards’.

Running a small business has kept me open to all the areas within a digital business so I’ve become a jack-of-all-trades, which includes accounting, HR, business systems, new business, client handing, project management, digital creative and digital production. I think 5 years ago Jack was perceived as a bad, useless waste of space but these days people are realising more and more that he has an important role in top-level understanding. It is really all these combined skills that have helped me to become more of a specialist in digital strategy...the bit I really enjoy.

The future within the digital space really excites me. The effect that technological and software developments have on human culture fascinates me. Whether we like change or not, new generations are now reliant on technology as a means to function in their everyday lives whether that be assisting in our working practice, learning about the world we live in, the buying of goods and services or communicating with others. 

The digital space is now so vast that keeping up-to-date with developments across the entire space is extremely difficult. It is essential for digital practitioners to engage with the external world but at the same time requires a balancing of time between the external and then also being insular and creating. After all, there wont be any progress unless some of us have our heads down getting the work done. Which brings me back to my own balance...

I really want to change my previously insular behavior in communicating with others within the industry. As well as producing this blog I’m on twitter, facebook, google plus, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Flickr and email. I always welcome peoples opinions, banter and rants and would encourage anyone thats interested in chatting to just get in touch with me.