In defence of Twitter

Top debunker Andrew Orlowski put the boot into Twitter and to poor old Rory Cellan-Jones in a very entertaining way in the tech Private Eye The Register the other day. Orlowski’s kind of militant scepticism is useful. Everything new and especially fancy should be tested against an Orlowski figure (if you’ve got one handy).

And where an actual Orlowski isn’t available you should try to maintain a tiny internal Orlowski against which to test your more self-obsessed ideas (I have a tiny internal Julie Burchill who regularly comes to my aid if I drift off into hyperbole or solipsism. She’s been there since about 1979 and she usually tells me “that’s a load of wank isn’t it Steve?”).

But in this case Orlowski is actually wrong (my Burchill is quite often wrong too). Twitter is self-evidently home to a million Pooters: eager nobodies telling the world about their lovely sandwiches or their new sandals or their slight colds but they’re not important.

Twitter’s important because it at least suggests a genuinely new mode of communication and it has characteristics that are going to be important for all the other forms of communication so we should make sure we study it carefully before we trash it:

  • It’s cyberspace. Honestly, it is. I’ve written about this before but switching on Twitter in the morning is the closest to jacking in that I’ve yet seen. As you come online you become present to tens or hundreds of people (thousands if you’re super-popular) and the people you follow likewise become present to you. The minute-to-minute experiences, feelings, knowledge and opinions of all those people become available to you for the duration of your session but all those other people don’t press in on you or aggravate you (it’s not like The Matrix, there’s no actual risk to life). In fact, unless you’re paying attention you won’t know they’re there at all (and it’s a lot less painful than getting a jack-plug fitted).
  • It’s access to human knowledge. Regular Twitterers will confirm that Google is the best place to find out the name of Salman Rushdie’s new book but that Twitter is the best place to find out if it’s any good. Likewise, if you need to decide which laptop or what kind of birthday cake to buy or even what to do when your business can’t get a loan or your dog throws up, Twitter is the place. Fast access to willing minds. Every Twitterer will provide a dozen examples of last minute advice sought and got, tech tips and recipes dispensed. It’s an awesome repository of group knowledge.
  • It’s asynchronous (but not very). On the spectrum that’s got writing a letter at one end and sending an IM at the other, Twitter is close to IM but not right next to it. Responses are quick but not so quick as to make it a pain in the neck. Lots of users are now substituting Twitter (and especially Twitter direct messages which are seen only by the recipient) for email.
  • It’s low pressure. I’ve never got on with IM. Too much pressure: a message comes in and you’ve got to bloody reply to it right there and then. Twitter’s totally different. Messages flow by, addressed only approximately (to a group of followers) and replying is 100% optional. In fact, I’d say that Twitter is close to the optimal contemporary comms platform, shaped to fit modern life perfectly.
  • It’s entertaining. I follow two kinds of Twitterers: funny ones and interesting ones. I laugh out loud half a dozen times per day. I select Twitterers who amuse me and drop the ones who don’t. And people make an effort: being funny is a critical faculty.

Rory wrote his own blog entry about this here.

Magazine masterclass

Right, I’ve been very busy with my new thing: I’m blogger in residence at the BBC. Honestly. It’s really cool. Follow my comings- and-goings at the special blog I’ve set up for the purpose at (the feed’s here). More about the whole thing here later…

In the meantime, I just want to share with you a small masterclass in how to run a web site and talk to your customers if you’re a magazine publisher. Mark Ellen and his team over at Word Magazine are in a tough market up against some pretty big-and-ugly competitors and their web site is full of lessons on how to make that work to your advantage.

Check out this brilliant forum thread about subscription prices, in which senior staff, including publisher David Hepworth, make funny and honest contributions that must have influenced the opinions of the complainers who started the thread and probably even sold a few subs. It’s the kind of thing that would almost certainly have been supressed or ignored by an EMAP or a NatMags but which the tiny, independent Word turns to its advantage. Perfect. 10 out of 10. Go to the top of the class.

I also really like the very simple video promo for the current issue that’s on the home page at the moment. One take, no edits, shot in the office, hosted on YouTube—brilliant. (declaration: I write the odd bit for Word, including this piece about memory and the Internet and an earlier one about Wikipedia and I’ve got a piece about why futurology’s rubbish in the current issue—so I’m probably a bit partial).

Radio twittering

Be my Twitter friend if you want to know what I’m listening to on the radio.

I know I’m always going on about BBC Radio 4 here: ‘jewel in the crown’, ‘best speech radio in the world’, ‘liberal education in a box’ and all that. Forgive me but here I go again. The network is 40 years old this year but really much older. Radio 4 replaced The Home Service which itself replaced a bunch of earlier national and regional stations, one of which was 2LO, the first proper British radio station, launched by the fledgling BBC in 1922. So, when you tune into Radio 4 you’re really listening to 80-odd years of continuous British radio history – there are even several shows on the network that have been running for longer than 50 years.

Radio 4 and the BBC in general are funded from a licence fee, a gloriously anachronistic compulsory levy on every household with a TV that really annoys libertarians and free market ultras but seems, somehow, to make perfect sense to the British public. So we – those of us with TVs anyway – pay directly for the corporation’s output and that gives us certain rights over it. It’s ours. This is why I quite often rip a Real Media stream from and stick it up on my server without worrying about the tap on the door in the dawn. Although I probably shouldn’t, nobody’s going to stop me.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do, though, is find a way of reviewing and linking to radio progs in a slightly more spontaneous way than blogging them, which is a bit of a pain at the best of times. So now I’ve found it. I’m going to use Twitter – the brilliant hybrid of messaging and publishing that’s got the geeks’ thumbs twitching. I’ve been enjoying Twitter for a couple of weeks already – one of those genuinely fertile consumer tech innovations whose various parts have existed here and there for years but which really makes sense now that they’re all joined together.

I’ve created a Twitter account called LWB (Listen With Bowbrick) which I’m going to use exclusively for micro-reviews and, where available, links to Real Streams or web sites for radio shows I really enjoy. If you want to know what I’m listening to on the radio you just need to add me as a friend. Click here to do so (you’ll obviously need a free Twitter account).

The reason I like Twitter for this job is because, like I said, it’s spontaneous and you can do it from your mobile but also because it’s ephemeral. If I tell you that I’m listening to The World Tonight (which I am) then I can provide a link to the stream without worrying about the fact that it will overwritten by the next one in seven days (which is why I hoovered up all those Real streams in the first place).

I’m going to try, where I provide links, to make sure they go to stable pages in the BBC’s nifty programme directory – they look like this one and have a unique ID at the end of the URL. From there you should be able to learn about the show while getting to a Real Stream if it still exists. I’m kind of assuming that the go-ahead geeks at the Beeb will want to offer some kind of slightly more formal Beeb/Twitter mashup soon enough – like something, for instance, that will allow you to embed a short URL automatically or something that would work from a mobile (wouldn’t it be entirely cool if you could receive a tweet referencing a Radio 4 show on your mobile and then click to listen to it?).

Categorized as radio

Podcasting saves radio?

If podcasting is going to yield a real business model for the media owners and broadcasters it probably won’t involve stations centrally creating podcasts and giving them away or selling them.

It’ll more likely involve building (or badging) a big rights-cleared library of music and other content and then making it available with some funky creation and distribution tools to the wannabe DJs out there. They’ll use it to create twenty-first century mix-tapes for their friends and – if they’re good at it – for larger audiences – true ‘long tail’ stuff.

Take Astrid. She’s got a terrific music podcast over at Switchpod. I’m pretty sure that a healthy proportion of the world’s music fans would rather listen to stuff like this than to the seamless, playlist-driven stuff provided by local radio or the Beeb. Switchpod doesn’t offer anything in the way of rights-clearance but it surely can’t be long before services like this start to kick back a percentage of their no-doubt booming revenue to the rights groups in return for allowing their users to thrash around in the archive without penalty.

In fact, the next wave of downloading services would be well-advised to add a rights-cleared roll-your-own radio toolkit as a basic service on launch. Fans obviously still want to listen to music radio. It’s just that they’d quite like to be making their own too. The good news is that – at least in Britain – the rights owners already have a legal framework for this stuff.

They’ve just spent some time coming up with a new legal concept they’re calling the Value Recognition Right (VRR) whose purpose is to stretch the threadbare rights envelope to cover currently unrecognised intermediaries like P2P networks and (let’s say) podcasting rights aggregators. My advice: get on and ratify the VRR and get your comprehensive rights-cleared content databases out there now. You never know, the podcasters might just save your business.

While I’ve been away…

I’m sorry, I’ve not been concentrating properly lately. Also, I’m not 100% sure you can even see these entries since I got Robin to upgrade me to MT 3.2 the other day. From my house I can’t see anything more recent than the Eurovision Song Contest. Anyway, here are some great things: Elvis Costello’s collaboration with Allen Toussaint. Juliet hates Costello so I’m winding her up something rotten by leaving the album playing in the car whenever I switch off. It’s quite awesome. About ten absolutely brilliant songs that I can’t stop singing (the kids shout at me to shut up on the school run – I have become an embarrassing Dad). Toussaint and Costello are men in their prime: driving, soulful, humane, er… tromboney (also, this year’s best lyric: “What happened to that Liberty Bell I heard so much about?/Did it really ding dong?/It must have dinged wrong/It didn’t ding long.”).

Obviously I’m a regular listener to ‘On Your Farm’, the BBC’s weekly farming show that goes out at the crack of dawn on a Sunday. Last week it came from a dairy farm in Somerset run by a friendly sounding geezer called Michael Eavis (of course, no one at the Beeb thinks it worthwhile keeping stuff like this available for longer than a week so here’s an MP3).

It’s sort of rambling and not, perhaps, the toughest critique the author will see but I am an absolute junkie for Freeman Dyson in any context and his review of Daniel Dennett’s anti-religion book in the NYRB is readable and clever and full of good anecdotes (my own view is that scientists don’t serve the scientific cause as well as they think they do when they wade in to demolish religion. In fact, I think they almost always wind up making a series of category errors that make them look obsessive and pedantic and not lofty and disinterested as they no doubt intend).

Excellent business radio

Peter Day’s excellent In Business is back on Radio 4 – and, now that they’ve got a podcast, I don’t need to steal the episodes any more. The first in the new series is about Britain’s stubbornly low rate of productivity. Some fascinating and surprising conclusions… Like, for instance, one way to increase our effective productivity rate would be to fire a couple of million people to get our unemployment rate up to French and German levels. In those countries they achieve higher levels of productivity by keeping unskilled and unproductive people out of the workforce and on the dole.

Categorized as radio

Google on Radio 4

Jonathan Freedland’s excellent The Long View maintains no archive and isn’t part of the Beeb’s podcasting trial so here’s the latest episode – a terrific parallel reading of 21st Google and 19th Century Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, with The Economist’s Tom Standage in attendance.

Categorized as radio

Radio Fun

Heather Peyton in the Shop Talk studio, 5 January 2006
Went to the Beeb to talk about Web 2.0 on Heather Peyton’s estimable Radio 4 business programme called Shop Talk. Four of us in the studio plus three other contributors in various parts of the world, including Joe Krauss, Excite founder and now the man behind Jotspot. The last time I saw Joe was at Belgo in Covent Garden in 94 or 95. I think he still owes me dinner.

Also in the studio was Graham Hobson whose PhotoBox picture sharing and printing service has a million customers and £5M in turnover. I’d never tried PhotoBox but I checked it out last night and it’s a thing of beauty. Emphasis on printing with dozens of options and a superb UI. The Java uploader works and works really fast (I uploaded three files, one of which was over 12Mb, and barely noticed the upload). Ordering a panoramic print was a piece of cake – and you can pay with Paypal. Hope the print’s nice.

(The show goes out Tuesday 10 January at 1600. Here’s an MP3 and here are some more pics).

Update: the print arrived less than 48 hours after my order (ordered late Thursday evening, arrived Saturday morning) and is absolutely lovely.

Categorized as radio

Radio comedy genius

One word: Ed Reardon (OK, two words). The best radio comedy in years. A suffering artist at the end of his tether. Beautifully observed, nicely judged comic pathos. Nothing cute or redemptive. A twenty-first century Hancock. Brilliant.

Categorized as radio