The filter bubble, the ethics of data and the EU

I drafted this back in June but just didn’t publish it for some reason. A good deal of the content is based on a comment I posted in reply to Prof George Brock’s post ‘The filter bubble and public reason’.

Do users of the web really have a world of information at their fingertips? Or do recent innovations in search algorithms – in pursuit of ever increasing personal relevancy of results – simply yield an ever decreasing pool of information from which an individual is able to fish for their perspective on the world? And, if so, should we be worried about it?

Eli Pariser has been asking questions like this in recent months and, while Mr Pariser’s name may not be immediately familiar to you, I’d be surprised if the label that he’s used to describe the dilemma hadn’t registered on your radar: the filter bubble.

Continue reading “The filter bubble, the ethics of data and the EU”

Facebook’s ventures into brand diplomacy

Former Guardian technology writer, Jack Schofield, shared an intriguing link to a news item in the Silicon Valley Mercury Newsearlier this week.

It intrigued me for two reasons: first, that Facebook had decided to establish a network of 70 international representatives to establish a quasi-diplomatic service in key regions of the world and, second, that Google had already establish as similar operation in 2006.

The Google information was news to me. It’s not unusual for brands to employ corporate communications teams whose role is to maintain positive relations with both state and non-state actors both nationally and globally. It remains to be seen if the nature of the team that Facebook intends to establish veers away from this traditional role.

However, reading between the lines, the focus of the announcement suggests that Facebook is acknowledging a need to insulate its operation from unwanted legal and regulatory intrusion in the future – or an outright ban of its technology altogether – in nations where the nature of its operating model runs counter to prevailing political philosophy.

The story in the Silicon Valley Mercury News ran:

Facebook’s new global policy team will monitor the local political landscape and act as multilingual, TV-friendly communicators in countries and for cultures that, in many cases, have very different values and laws about privacy and personal communications than the U.S. Facebook is confronting its emergence as a global organization whose membership is much larger than the population of most countries, and whose technology can antagonize both Middle Eastern dictators and European democracies fretful about privacy. The international directors of policy, as Facebook calls them, will grapple with those challenges.

Privacy and collective attention deficit disorder

It is a tragic irony that, under the hastily erected canopy of ‘media freedom’, the clamour to expose the identity of a Premier League footballer may only serve to degrade the personal freedoms enjoyed by the very people who chipped away at its edifice tweet by tweet by tweet.

But, really, was this about democracy, freedom and rights?

Or was it simply the market for voyeuristic satisfaction, tawdry self-publicity and self-aggrandisement in motion?

The mob doesn’t think
I’m sure I won’t be the only person wheeling out the line of Joe Wilson – played by Spencer Tracy – in Fritz Lang’s Fury: ‘The mob doesn’t think. It has no mind of its own.’ but that’s because there’s precious little evidence that it did.

I won’t dwell on the legal aspects of the case; I couldn’t ever claim to do justice to it (forgive the pun) having read this post by blogger @loveandgarbage yesterday.

But what I will say is that, while people may have thought they were – in some way – championing the cause of a right to know, I’d argue that they were actually engaged in the polar opposite: cannibalising their own right to privacy.

That aside, there is another societal aspect to this episode which is deeply worrying.

It disturbs me that the advent of real-time technologies, like Twitter, are leading to episodes of a kind-of collective attention deficit disorder.

In our haste to express our perspective, often complex circumstances are whittled down to a 140 characters; quite literally, belittling a topic or issue or event.

For example, does it occur to us that the Arab Spring is symptomatic of the clash of liberal capitalist models of democracy with theocratic Islamic thinking? Is that worth a tweet? Or do we simply say ‘Yea! Go for it #egypt’?

Do we take a moment to read and consider the way in which Mr Justice Eady’s judgment sought to balance the competing demands of Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act before upholding the decision to apply an injunction protecting the privacy of a footballer?

Or am I alone in thinking that, as individuals, we are simply paying insufficient attention to the details and background of an issue to form an informed opinion, and bleating our half-cocked views, which suit our prejudices, anyway?

Is our desire for attention the source of self-centred or smart-alec tweets in pursuit of an rise in our mentions and retweet equity – with its potential to boost our PeerIndex or Klout, or even follower count?

And, crucially, is this desire beginning to erode values that, prior to the advent of the social web, we seemed to pay more attention to? Like respect for other people’s privacy, for instance?

Quantities versus qualities
I wonder if, in this clamour for the quantities of life, are we losing our grip on its qualitiesand compromising our ability to aspire to qualities that are socially desirable as a consequence of it?

Because it strikes me that the law doesn’t exist solely to protect us from harm and disorder; it also exists to protect us from ourselves.

The desire to demolish another individual’s rights to a private family life – a right which is specifically catered for in the UK’s Human Rights Act and European Convention – seems not only to show contempt for the law but also to other people’s fundamental right to privacy.

Far from being social, that is little more than anti-social isn’t it?

Our rights may be fundamental but they are not absolute. They depend on the attention and respect we pay to each other’s right to dignity and privacy. The moment we seek to deny an individual of their rights – regardless of popular opinion – we leave our own dignity and respect open to abuse.

The argument that, simply because technology has the capacity to achieve an outcome, can never be an adequate justification for its abuse. In fact it’s an abdication of responsibility that’s tantamount to claiming that it’s the trigger, and not the person holding it, that fires the bullet.

Regardless of technology’s potential, it is always an individual – or groups comprising individuals – that bring its potential to life.

If it wasn’t for my, generally, positive experience of encountering other individuals on Twitter, I would have deleted my account this morning.

As it is, the jury’s now out for me.

Joseph Nye on the future of power

I’m a bit of a sucker for the complimentary programme of public lectures that are staged at the London home of the RSA (that’s the Royal Society of the Arts, Science and Manufactures) which is why I’m sat in the Great Room waiting to listen to Professor Joseph Nye.

Prof Nye is the chap who coined the phrase ‘soft power’; an idea that was popular within the Clinton administration in the 1990s and – despite the hawkish interlude of the George W Bush presidency – has retained favour under Obama’s administration too.

He’s an influential policy thinker who, as well as enjoying a distinguished academic career, has also served as Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs in the Clinton Whitehouse (and was tipped to have become John Kerry’s choice for National Security Adviser had the Democrats successfully secured the Presidency in 2004).

So he knows his international relations onions, and he’s been thinking about the future of power and the dynamics that will affect it in the 21st century and beyond. In a 30 minute précis of his latest contribution to the debate, ‘The Future of Power’, Prof Nye talks about two significant trends affecting governmental power in the future: ‘power transition’ and ‘power diffusion’.

Power transition

Power transition, Prof Nye suggests, is historically familiar: the ebb and flow of the power relations between nation states, blocs and empires founded – historically at least – on the back of relative military and technological superiority and, more recently, though the deployment of ‘soft power’ (the degree to which values, culture, policies and institutions are employed to attain the outcomes which nations seek).

While Prof Nye accepts that the emergence of Asian global powers – i.e. China and India – will be a significant feature of the narrative of post-21st century historical analysis, he doesn’t readily subscribe to idea of an ‘absolute decline’ of US power as result. Instead, he sees a relative decline in US power in the face of these emerging powers and relative decline, he argues, does not amount to the same thing as absolute dominance of China.

Power diffusion

Now this idea really interests me because it is already confounding traditional models of international power relations and diplomacy.

Diffused power characterises the way in which individuals and non-governmental organisations can more easily gain access to technology and therefore consume, contribute and influence the global flow of information.

By harnessing access to ever cheaper means of communication – like mobile networks, networking tools like Facebook and Twitter, and media platforms like YouTube – geographically or socially dispersed individuals are able to congregate around ideas and events fomenting movements that acquire global influence and power.

The application of diffused power is diverse; its spectrum encompasses terror networks like Al Qaeda, hackers like Anonymous, freedom of information evangelists like WikiLeaks, activists like The Tea Party and globally networked business corporations.

The Arab Spring, Prof Nye argues, is an example of how near-universal access to communications technology helps transform a flashpoint event into an apparent social and political movement in a region of the World.

And this access, he suggests, has created an additional dimension in international power relations – a fluid, unpredictable and chaotic strata of non-governmental actors whose emerging influence on domestic and international relations is likely to perplex governments in the years to come.

Three deserving Webby nominees and a bit of Brave New Talent

Not only were the nominations for the online world’s equivalent of the Oscars – The Webby Awards – published yesterday but, by happy coincidence, The Telegraph’s Tech Start-Up 100 awards were held in London yesterday too.

On the face of it, these are unrelated events, but four of the nominations in both the Webbys and the Start-Up 100 lists featured in our 12 Links of Christmas 2010. These are the links that we con­sid­ered to be enjoy­able, enlight­en­ing or just plain inter­est­ing last year and published in December 2010. (Here’s the 2009 12 Links too.)

Coincidentally, the RSA Animate talk by Dan Pink, which we featured in our ‘Are you motivated by what you think motivates you?’ post, also received a Webbys nod, whereas our 12 Links preference was for the RSAnimate version of David Harvey’s talk on The Crises of Cap­i­tal­ism. Either way, RSAnimate is a deserving Webby Award nominee as far as we’re concerned.

The great thing about the Webbys is that there are two gongs available per category: one awarded by a judging panel and one based on a public vote.

And with the voting site now live for The People’s Choice awards, we thought we’d do our bit to gently nudge you in the direction of clicking in favour of the nominees featured in our 12 Links of Christmas 2010.

So here’s the nominees that caught our eye last year, why we picked them and – therefore – why we’ll be voting for them:

1st link of Christmas: Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown (here’s the video)
8th link of Christmas: Sam O’Hare’s tilt-shift film The Sandpit (video at the top of this post)
12th link of Christmas: OK! Go’s This Too Shall Pass (here’s the video)

Sticking with the 12 Links, but away from the Webbys, social recruiting platform Brave New Talent was last night named as runner-up in the education and recruitment category of The Telegraph’s Tech Start-Up 100.

We first posted about this remarkable project back in July 2010 after listening to the founder, Lucian Tarnowski, speak about the idea at a tweet-up in London.

It’s a genuinely innovative idea which, as we posted at the time, is ‘effect­ing a change in the way in which busi­nesses, and a gen­er­a­tion of tal­ent emerg­ing from the nation’s schools, col­leges and higher edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions, can connect.’ That’s why it made our 12 Links.

Finally, this post also gives us a chance to namecheck Pete Matthew, founder of video-based financial education site Meaningful Money which, in February, picked up the Professional Adviser Financial Education Award for 2011. Meangingful Money was our 7th Link of Christmas and here’s why we included it among our 12 Links.

You can see the full list of nominees for the 2011 Webby Awards here and vote for The People’s Choice here.

The difference between brand and branding: Part Three

I like fountain pens.

I’ve always preferred to write in real ink and I’ve tried out plenty of makes and models.

For many years I settled with a Lamy Safari but, even though the Lamy is an exquisite writer, I was in the market for a family heirloom to hand down to one of my sons.

Lamy’s top-of-the-range pens didn’t strike me as sufficiently ‘heirloomy’ and, having tried out a Montblanc Meisterstück (picture, right, by Freimut) once or twice, I’d set my heart on it.

The trouble is that Montblanc pens are expensive, so I waited and waited and squirreled away money until I could justify the expense.

Meanwhile, whenever I found myself close by a jewellers which stocked Montblanc, I would take a couple of minutes to gaze wistfully at the distinctive Meisterstück’s black resin and platinum shell oozing gravitas while it twinkled away behind the glass in a pristine window display.

By now, I was investing more than simply money in this writing instrument: I was lapping up all the visual and written communication cues conveyed by the branding, and assigning the object with a kind of significance and meaning that Montblanc could only dream of.

(But, then, what else should I expect from an object that’s been ‘hand-crafted in the European tradition’ and is ‘meticulously crafted from the finest materials. Every single part is subjected to scrupulous inspections. Montblanc guarantees the quality of materials, faultless workmanship and flawless operation’?)

The day finally came when I’d saved up enough to part with a good deal of cash for my very own Meisterstück.

But, within a matter of hours of purchasing it (and following years of patiently waiting of course), I was irretrievably disappointed with my investment.

The nib wasn’t as responsive as the Lamy Safari and, either because the flow of ink was erratic or the nib actually leaked, my fingers were smothered with ink. (I even have ink on my fingers from writing those three lines that appear in the image at the top of this post.)

Knowing that nibs can take a while to adapt to the writer, I gave the pen a few weeks.

Still no joy.

So I followed all the suggested methods offered in the exquisitely produced Montblanc booklet, which came with the pen, and sought advice from the people in the shop where I bought it. But nothing seemed to work.

Of course, it would be entirely reasonable for you to point out to me at this stage that, more likely than not, I was simply unlucky. The pen I bought had slipped through the net. I could send it back to Montblanc to be repaired. Or get a refund.

And you’d be right.

What’s more, Montblanc do promise to remedy any problems with their pens at no charge at all within the first couple of years of purchase.

But an antipathy towards Montblanc has kicked in; all the trust and goodwill I placed in the brand in order to buy the pen in the first place has evaporated.

Both you and I know that, sooner or later, I’ll send the pen off to be fixed because:

a) I still don’t possess what I set out to obtain: an object worthy of the stature of heirloom; and
b) I realise that I’ve just been unlucky and feel sure that Montblanc will be able to remedy the problem.

But, at the moment, I’m too disappointed with my experience of the brand to seek another encounter with them anytime soon.

It’s not the branding that’ll kill you

I’ll admit that Montblanc are unlucky to be the subject of this post but my purpose is to illustrate the distinction between brand and branding, and not to vent frustration at Montblanc.

I’ve used it as an example because it helps to demonstrate that, no matter how expensive a brand’s product or service may be, each of us invests more than just cash in the veracity of a brand’s claims; we place enormous trust in them.

For instance, you trust a brand to ensure that the ingredients in its baked beans contain ingredients that are good for you and not harmful, you trust a car manufacturer to build a vehicle that’s mechanically safe to drive on the roads, you trust an electrician’s knowledge, experience and expertise about wiring to avoid the risk of electrocution the moment that you flick a light switch on and you trust water companies to refine sewage so that it’s fit to drink again.

In the case of a fountain pen, I trust Montblanc to know how to manufacture a pen that works.

Once a brand’s got over that utility hurdle, its branding has to help me reach a transactional point by persuading me to spend money on their brand of product or service rather than a competitor’s.

In Montblanc’s case, the consequence of using a pen is the same whether you’re using a Bic biro or a Montblanc. But, since a Bic biro isn’t much of a family heirloom, this is where Montblanc’s beautifully executed approach to branding kicks in; without question Montblanc’s brand communication helps convey ideas of a hand-crafted, meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation.

Montblanc’s branding persuasively conveys the idea that each pen is lavished with the personal attention of craftspeople at each stage in the process of its manufacture.

The videos detailing the stages of production at Montblanc’s site, for instance, seek to underline the ideas of meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation. The video production values themselves even suggest this: big close up shots of the process conveying the idea of meticulous attention, the flawless elegance of the fading in and out of frames; the fact that each frame bathed in soft-focused golds, silvers and black.

So Montblanc’s branding is brilliant (in fact, it’s a meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation). It plays an essential role in the brand’s architecture of persuasion; it carries implicit promises that are intended to support the explicitly stated claims made by a business. It helps mould perception and serves to set expectations.

It’s just that – well – my pen doesn’t work properly.

Brand = (Perception + Expectation) – Experience

In the second post in this series, I argued that part of the confusion between the distinction between brand and branding probably lay in the fact that businesses lean so heavily on branding to do the legwork.

But the problem is that branding is a passive element of brand experience: it performs a functional role and helps convey ideas but it can’t answer back. Most of the the other elements, on the other hand, are active; they involve people or interaction.

So, while a brand’s visual identity and branding can contribute to a positive brand experience, it can neither fulfil the promises that it conveys or moderate the expectations that consumers set for its goods or services. Only the active elements of the brand – the bits in which people and products play a role – can do that.

And, wherever people are involved, there’s a risk to the equilibrium between your expectations of a brand and your experience of it (which is why, in general, creating a great service brand experience is arguably a good deal tougher than a product one).

That’s because branding is simply a component of one of the four elements that comprise a brand – its communication. And only alongside what the brand offers (its product), how it enables you to obtain it (its environment) and the way you go about doing what you do (its culture) can a business successfully convey a core idea which makes its brand’s goods and services distinct from another brand’s.

I’ve illustrated the dynamics affecting Montblanc’s brand reputation as a Venn diagram below.

So it’s not that Montblanc’s branding is intentionally misleading because it isn’t. The brand’s problem is that its branding conveys a promise of meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless operation. That brand idea can’t be sustained by branding and communications alone; it must be consistently expressed within the manufacturing of it products, within its retail presence and by the people representing its brand.

In other words, every facet of its operation must be meticulous, scrupulous, faultless and flawless if it is to match the expectations conveyed by its branding.

Those are dizzyingly high standards for any kind of business operation, especially when you consider that most Montblanc pens are probably not sold by Montblanc people. The brand operates a number of its own retail outlets but most of its retail distribution is through authorised retailers over whom Montblanc has no direct control.

But, as a consumer, none of that matters to me.

No matter how many hands my pen passed through, it was faulty.

In my case, Montblanc’s branding made promises that its brand was unable to fulfil.

And that’s the difference between brand and branding.

Are brands assuming the mantle of quasi nation states?

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve become fascinated by the apparent parallels between the dynamics of nation state building and statecraft, and the transnational behaviour and attributes of global and networked brands; in particular, the Google v China skirmish and the more recent tensions between the US State Department and Attorney General and WikiLeaks piqued my interest.

Even though Marx warned of the globalising effects of capitalism, something else appears to be going on here because it’s not just economic capital that is transcending geographic borders; it’s ideas and movements too.

Somehow, populations of people – and not just business brands – are emerging as brands too; often their apparent power is unrelated to their scale.

This necessarily means that the nature and governance of brands as global actors, and their relationship and alliances both within and beyond the boundaries of nation states, are of real significance to future global political, social and economic stability.

You’ll have seen from those blog posts at NewTradition’s site that these episodes revived distant memories of my university days; specifically, of the ideas that were dealt with in Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’.

So I re-read Anderson’s book and, once I’d done that, I dug into Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘Nations and Nationalism’ and collection of essays on ‘Globalisation, democracy and terrorism’. (To be frank, I’ve read more academic texts in the past year or so than I did throughout my University career.)

And I’m left with the nagging concern that the revolution in communications technology – and it’s worth bearing in mind that Anderson considers the ownership and mechanics of media to have been vital to successful nation building – is creating the conditions in which a new kind of nation state can be conceived: ‘brand nation states’.

Whether there is such a thing as a brandnationstate, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure if brands can genuinely transcend geographic borders and deploy the kind of diplomatic muscle that nation states are able – and, just as often, are unable – to.

I’m not sure if dispersed populations of people, who congregate under the auspices of a brand, really do wield the kind of power and authority that nation states – with their military, legal and governmental instruments of enforcement – do.

I’m just interested to test the ideas. So I’l be digging a bit deeper into the topic.