Special Google Buzz rant edition

Google Buzz came to my Gmail account yesterday.

I am beyond angry with Google right now, as well as with the other developers of social networks who seem obsessed with recreating their own smug worlds of urban white male 20somethings geotagging their coffee bars.

Vaguely coherent reasons for hatred:

1. Appalling usability – options and their effects are completely unclear; the actual interface is not intuitive; and when I logged on this morning, I found that Buzz updates arrive in my Gmail inbox as well as the Buzz one. That’s not going to fly.

2. An apparent inability to consider privacy issues. Others have been far more lucid on this one, but in particular whatever you put in your left-for-dead Google Profile will now bite you in the bum, because your default ‘followers list’ may well be publicly visible until you edit it.

3. By putting a social network in email, Google Buzz crashes the barriers that many of us put up between public and private, work and personal, and indeed private and private.   My social and business worlds consist of many overlapping circles.  People in one circle may have very little in common with those in another.  Right now, I’m happy to manage this network-by-network.  I’m broadly aware of my audience on WordPress, Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.  I don’t want a mixed-up audience: even if it works, it tends to result in blandness rather than increased connection, for one thing.

4. Geotagging is the Devil’s minibar (Mobile Buzz only)

Seriously.  I don’t care how much you all bloody love it, it’s horrible, it’s completely sodding creepy and it is BEYOND DULL.  YES FOURSQUARE USERS I AM LOOKING AT YOU.

‘Oooh, look at me I am in a bar in Chicago and I’m wondering which happening new club to go to next, perhaps the internet can help me?’


NB You may attribute this to the bitterness of a mother-of-two who Doesn’t Get Out much, but still. Rawrrrr.

(No, it’s still creepy. Maybe – maybe if you are very young and you want to know where all your friends are RIGHT NOW this instant on the way to the cool bar, but even then I can see this advantage fading rapidly.  And anyway, can anything really beat the sheer user experience  the simplicity and joy –  of standing around in the cold barking into your mobile ‘I’m outside Holborn tube! Where are you?’)

4a. Thing is, I adore the Internet. But I would love for developers to stop spending their entires lives devising crap stuff to market to people just like themThe future is in figuring out what people not like you might conceivably want.   Facebook, for all its myriad faults, actually turns out to be one of those things.

5. I would occasionally like to get some f%&cking work done.

No, really.  There is only so much Social I can really take, and I’m at the limit here.   I may not be alone.  See all those Twitter updates which cross-post to Facebook? People are cheating on you.

I love my friends, my acquaintances and indeed many of those I work with; but I don’t especially want to talk to them any more than I already do.  Too. much. information.


Are you ready to deal with enragement as well as engagement?

A quick follow-on from Friday’s post on climate science and the need to engage the public.   Science’s vision of ‘the public’ is typically a bunch of  respectful yet unfortunately undereducated folk.  In reality, there are many publics,  including the respectful and the occasionally hostile.

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried an interview with Professor Phil Jones, the head of  UEA’s climate science unit, and as such at the centre of the furore over leaked emails from the unit that appear to suggest scientists suppressing Freedom of Information requests.

In the interview, Phil Jones talks about receiving death threats and even having briefly contemplated suicide.  He also talks about the level of requests for information and how he and his colleagues had to come to see them as mischievous attempts to derail the work of his unit.

Jones, 57, said he was unprepared for the scandal: “I am just a scientist. I have no training in PR or dealing with crises.”

Engaging with the public is one skill that many scientists seek to develop, whether they work in obscure fields or TV-friendly areas; however, in many of the sensitive subjects that have blown up in recent years, there has been a passionate base of opposed and activist people.    Quite honestly, if someone is constantly dealing with passionate opposition, it’s not a case of whether a PR crisis will occur, but when and where.

Three points:

1) Engaging with activism is quite different from everyday science communication

It takes a huge amount of energy, as Phil Jones’ interview makes clear.  It requires enormous sensitivity, for people do not adopt passionate viewpoints lightly.  However, the content of activist debate can also distract scientists from addressing more general issues and concerns that passing members of the public might have.   Sustained mutual hostility can also lead to shut-down, as one group feels persecuted by the other and seeks to withdraw from the debate.

2) One-off crisis management is not the answer, especially where scientists are working in networked groups.

I do believe that research funders should be doing all they can to support scientists working in contested areas; and I strongly suspect that scientists are likely to be better prepared to deal with real crises if they are experienced in communicating their science more generally.

The online community specialists Freshnetworks published a nice piece today from an amateur blogger who took up sports blogging and in so doing, encountered ‘engaged’ fans and ‘enraged’ ones.  Dealing politely with the enraged group was a learning curve in itself.

3) Sadly, ‘I’m just a scientist’ probably doesn’t cut it any more.

Ten years ago, I remember talking to confused molecular biologists who held the same views. Some of them felt that the fancy arguments really ought to be held by other people (government, policy experts, PR bods), not by ordinary working scientists like them.  The  sad truth is that few of these others can really advocate effectively.   The scientists themselves need to keep talking, however difficult that conversation might be.

Climate science and the need for engagement

(I don’t talk much here about my science communication research, but here are some personal observations on climate change reporting.  I worked for an organisation involved in crop science back in the late 90s, so I saw that particular debate from very close up.)

Climate science reporting is increasingly beginning to resemble the debates on MMR vaccine and genetically modified crops – in other words, any rational discussion of the underlying science becomes totally sunk beneath polarised media coverage and divergent political standpoints.

The furore over leaked emails from the University of East Anglia and errors about the estimated decline of Himalayan glaciers is finally enabling the British press to ‘personalise’ the climate change debate in a way that the public will understand – unfortunately, in this case, by talking about lies, leaks and cover-ups.

From reading coverage of the leaked emails, one thing is clear: climate scientists are a beleaguered lot, who are moving in constant lockstep with bitterly  combative sceptics.    Organised dissent is exhausting to deal with, and it frequently leads to bad decision-making, as everyone’s horizons shrink to the current focus of dissent rather than the wider context.

There is no obvious bogey to focus on here: MMR and GM both had ‘Big Pharma’  (well, Medium Agrochemical in the case of GM and Monsanto) as likely profiteers.  With no obvious enemy in sight, the story seems to have  become Stuffy Convention (Big Science?) versus the Maverick.  Or, Scientists Are Like Everyone Else (= out for what they can get).

The danger for those working in this area is such a debate becomes an excuse for political inertia.  Arguably, inertia hasn’t mattered in the GM crop debate, because we could all get on with growing and breeding crops conventionally.  There is no such luxury of time with climate change.  I’m still haunted by the stories of the bushfires from friends in Australia last year.

I think it’s time for climate scientists to really start talking to the public, and that’s challenging.   ‘Everyone Dead By Teatime’ (to quote the Daily Mash) is all very well, but there’s a limited appetite for apocalypse talk.   I suspect even now, climate scientists are hoping the government will do the  talking for them, but I think it’s much better if scientists find the way themselves.

Geneticists and their funders and regulators in the UK have worked very hard to understand non-expert views and engage with the public.  The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, for example, took steps to understand the opinions of patients and the general public in what had become a highly emotive area.    General science bloggers (like Ed Yong) and ‘Bad science’ groups are also playing a part in encouraging scientists to come out and engage.   It is probably happening in climate science, but my guess is that much energy is going into warding off the denialists rather than talking to the average confused punter.

In conclusion: get out there.   You never know what people think until you start asking.

Show and tell: finding lovely communities

After Christmas, I got a bit weighed down by the Twitter-created business blogosphere – often wonderful but increasingly like a giant webring where you know you will eventually come back to Seth Godin.   This web-fatigue is part of the cycle, I think, because I see it in other online settings.

My overwhelm got to the point where I couldn’t summon up the will to comment.   I don’t like that.  So I stopped reading-for-work, and just played around for a bit; and in so doing I found blogs, message boards and websites which are still entirely packed with comments. It’s fun going back to being a participant again.

Here are my top 3.  I’ve added some thoughts on the drivers and barriers to active reader participation that I noticed along the way.

Belgian Waffle

Belgian Waffle is a beautifully written personal blog written by an English woman living in Brussels.  It’s a classic of the confessional style, enlivened by the Waffle’s glorious eccentricity – her launch of rude biscuits, for example, and last year’s online village fete.  I have never commented to Belgian Waffle – the commenters feel like too much of an in-group – and I bet the numbers of comments don’t reflect the numbers reading.

The Fluent Self

This is the business website of Havi Brooks, who is a business coach to start-ups.   She is an interesting mixture of New Age and down-to-earth; she writes the longest, strangest blog posts you will ever see, yet I always look foward to an update.   She is also part of a small-scale revolution in online business-to-business communication, where hard sell is replaced by something altogether different.

I don’t comment to Havi, either, but I probably will soon.  Her comment design is terrific:  the software not only links your website, but provides a link to the last blog post you wrote.  It’s a great way of discovering people, and it also encourages commenters to play nicely.

Havi also controls comments, by having a ‘Comment Zen’ policy setting out what she does and doesn’t want in comments.  I can’t imagine that working in many settings, but it works extremely well for this site.

BBC Being Human

At the time of writing, this is a quite brilliant example of the best in communication between production team and fans.   The blog has extra content and prequels to the show and  the production team host a live blog when the episode airs. It’s also Season 2, and it’s interesting to see how a minority of fans are already getting quite shirty about the direction being taken by the show.   However, it’s a long way from the fist-fights and vitriol that can be seen in a Doctor Who forum. *cough*

I lurk on Being Human and I probably always will: the BBC has one of those exhausting comment ID setups that’s a bit like buying a hifi, and I’m not sufficiently motivated to join in.

Plus bonus 4th:

Oh! Fransson

This one is a splendid example of the craft blog, in this case a blog about modern quilt-making.  I don’t have a reason to read this one regularly, but when I do, Elizabeth Hartman’s beautiful step-by-step photography always brings tears to my eyes.  As with many craft blogs, there is a mixture of good citizenship and sound business sense: you can buy her patterns in her Etsy shop.

The Fluent Self and Oh!Fransson are also examples of a new style of small business on the internet.   They showcase work and promote community, while at the same time developing new businesses models.  Belgian Waffle – well, I’m guessing that the Waffle is a writer and if she doesn’t have a book deal soon I will have to buy some of her Mean Magnets.

I have more but I’m hugging them to my chest.  What  sites are you loving at the moment?