Thursday, 17 November 2011

New Guardian Facebook App is a Godsend for Gen Y-Pay

Recently, my Facebook thread has revealed an extra layer of information about what my mainly student-age ‘friends’ have been up to. There’s now something to add to the usual photographic evidence of fun-being-had, the wry social observations and the occasional toddler-related update from school colleagues who’ve embraced parenthood. Now I can see what news they’re all reading, as well.

This extra feature comes courtesy of the new Facebook applications launched by The Guardian and The Independent in September. Now, every time someone I’m connected to reads an article, I’m conveniently informed of the fact and of course, encouraged to click the link and read it myself.

It’s no surprise that these two newspapers seem to be leading the way in establishing a presence on Facebook. The social network is something of a digital homeland for their demographic of politically aware students and young adults. They’ve astutely realised that the separation between ‘serious’ news and ‘fun’ online activity such as social networking is largely false.

After all, think back to the big news stories of this year: Gaddafi’s death, the Osama Bin Laden raid, and the London Riots, to name a few. The chances are, you will have heard of at least one from a contact’s comments on a social network, rather than a more traditional news source.

I do think this is a great way for newspapers to spread content and encourage debate and engagement. However, I am unsure that it can lead directly to any increase in subscription revenues. If anything, the increasing proliferation of free content is conditioning an already freebie-oriented demographic to simply settle for whatever happens to be free; migrating when it’s time to pay up.

Case in point: I have plenty of friends who are willing to start watching a free online film from Megavideo until the time limit expires, then go and do something else until the requisite 72 minutes have passed and they can watch the rest for free.

There is, of course, the option to pay up and get unlimited content, but this would be considered madder than adding your lecturer on Facebook. Personally, I’m happy to pay a monthly fee for LoveFilm delivery, but I think this makes me a bit of a freak among Generation Y-Pay.

In terms of brand-building and presence, the Facebook newspaper applications seem an excellent tool. Conversion will be more problematic, given the bountiful availability of free online news content and the traditional financial constipation of the student population. The Guardian and The Independent might have to resign to a ‘Sharing is Caring,’ philosophy for now. For students and young adults, it seems the best things in life are definitely free.

This blog post also appears on the website for Willoughby PR's digital division. Visit the site here

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

10 Things FRIENDS Taught Our Generation

As E4 ditches our oldest Friends, here's a look at the impact they had on our collective outlook:

1.  Cheating still counts if you’re ‘on a break’ (probably)

It was the Cold War that made Russia and America’s ancient feud look like a silly playground spat. Ross and Rachel were almost never the same after he did the dirty with the ‘Xerox girl’ on the premise that they weren’t officially together. Don't risk it!

2.  Coffee can be sexy

Back in the early 90s, to most Brits a coffee was a Nescafe Gold Blend or a Maxwell House. You got the granules from a jar and you drank it in the morning to get you going. Then FRIENDS came along and suddenly, coffee was cool. Central Perk lookalikes sprang up across the country, cappucino and latte sales boomed, and a new dating concept was born: “You wanna go get a coffee?”

3.  Everyone lies to their friends

What would FRIENDS have been without a few secrets? For example, Chandler and Monica’s hidden relationship, which Joey struggled to keep under his hat as the two managed to get to know each other away from prying eyes and judging tones. And the greatest lie of all? Everyone pretended to love Phoebe’s music.

4.  Mothers and daughters don’t get on

Despite the fact that many mothers and daughters are great friends, US sitcoms invariably peddle the myth that they all have poor relationships. FRIENDS was no exception; Monica’s mother is portrayed as a judgmental harridan with no faith in her daughter, while Rachel’s is sweet but self-indulgent and a mild embarrassment.

5.  Lasagne and cheesecake are the food of the gods

The show promoted New York specialties like Joey’s favourite, lasagne, and the clandestine cheesecake that famously tempted Rachel and Chandler into serial theft. Other odd cravings you might have got over the years include meatloaf, jello and Thanksgiving turkey.

6.  The backpacking story

Has anyone tried this? This is the story that’s supposedly guaranteed to charm your romantic interest straight into a horizontal position. But does it work?? Answers on a postcard (from Western Europe...)

7.  It’s alright to be gay

FRIENDS was one of the first popular programmes to deal openly with homosexuality. The lesbian relationship between Carol and Susan, while providing some comic value at poor Ross’s expense, is portrayed sensitively; they are real characters rather than caricatures. All this tapped into the increasing openness about sexuality in the 90s.

8.  How to speak American

Like, everyone totally talks like this a little bit, right? And even if you think you don’t, you so do. Next time your voice goes up at the end of a statement, so it sounds like you’re asking a question?; next time you go into Starbucks and ask, "Can I get a latte?;"  next time you decide to "go take a look" (*go AND HAVE a look!) at something – you’ll be speaking American.

9.  The power of bromance

Not for the FRIENDS-watching generation the distant nods and awkward backpats between male friends of their fathers' day. Joey, Chandler and Ross ushered in a new era of bear hugs, brotherly heart-to-hearts and even the occasional platonic nap on the sofa. "Blokes of Britain," the show declared, "It's ok to love your mates."

10.  Always choose your friends over your lovers

If there’s one enduring lesson from this iconic sitcom, it’s the power of friendship. Not everyone will put up with your philandering, obsessive cleaning, fortune telling, Discovery Channel quoting, bad joke cracking and constant dithering over men, so don’t let go of those who love you for all your quirks.

And if you end up saying a friend’s name at the altar instead of your betrothed's, just go with it and call off the wedding immediately. It’ll save you a lot of time in the long run.

Read E4's parting message, and the heartbroken comments from diehard FRIENDS fans, here.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Why do people riot? Trying to make sense of senseless behaviour

The year 2011 is likely to go down in history as a year of turmoil. As the world’s crippled economy lurches dangerously close to a second precipice, scenes of social unrest have been played out again and again on our television screens. Political establishments in the Middle East are battling against civilian uprisings, and the debt crisis in Greece prompted waves of violent public protest.

And now the British public has been gripped by a series of shocking events taking place right in our own back yards. The shooting of one man on Thursday seems to have triggered an unforeseen outbreak of vandalism and mass theft that is frightening for two reasons. Firstly, the scale of people involved and secondly, the absence of any single obvious grievance or cause.

Can the London riots be blamed on society?

It’s impossible to discount the problems of social exclusion and deprivation that have been offered by various commentators as explanations for the rioting and looting that spread from London to Birmingham and other major cities including Liverpool and Bristol.

Writing for The Independent, youth charities founder Camila Batmangelidjh claims that, “Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.”

The argument is that these acts, including arson and looting, are perpetrated by people who reap no personal benefit from being a part of society, and so feel no compunction in rebelling against its rules.

Are the authorities just not tough enough?

Many commentators have called for more decisive action to be taken by the police. Increasingly, people are questioning the traditional unwillingness – expressed by Home Secretary Teresa May – to militarise proceedings by deploying non-lethal weapons, or calling in the armed forces. Conservative blogger Melanie Phillips argues that “hiring an outsider untainted by this culture [to lead the Metropolitan Police] would seem to be essential.”

Personally, I would be uncomfortable with a militarised police force, but it seems to me that the criminals are taking advantage of this softly-softly approach. After three days of chaos, I don’t believe many would blame the authorities for temporarily taking a harder line now in order to restore order to the streets.

Blame the recession?

It’s certainly no surprise that these events come at a time of deep financial uncertainty and large scale unemployment. While we hear much about the ‘squeezed middle’ – average earners struggling to stay afloat – less attention is paid to those who have already sunk under. Clearly, the chance to stick a finger up at authority, join a collective movement and get their hands on some money and merchandise proved too great a temptation for hundreds of unemployed, inner city youths.

Is it human nature?

Much has been written about mob mentality and the tendency of humans to rebellion. In an environment where group anarchy has taken hold, it is terrifying how quickly people will disregard the laws they normally follow. Reports of men and women casually loading their handbags, backpacks and cars with goods from shop shelves perfectly illustrate this easy transition to lawlessness.

What can we do?

In the short term, it seems that a security crackdown, even a curfew if necessary, is the only way to put an end to the criminal mayhem which the BBC, in typical tentative fashion, initially termed ‘a disturbance.’

The more difficult part will be to tackle the issues at the root of this round of civil unrest. As history shows, riots break out in times of inequality and economic hardship. Society needs to properly address the lack of prospects faced by many young people in our cities, and invest in long-term solutions to unemployment and lack of education. Unfortunately, the virtually penniless state of the public sector means that all this is far more easily said than done.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

L'Affaire DSK: Was Europe guilty of turning a collective blind eye?

In one of 2011's biggest scandals, the most powerful man in world finance stands accused of forcing himself on a hotel domestic. Broken in New York following his arrest, the news came as a shock to the world, but perhaps not to his inner circle. In France, it seems even the media subscribes to a culture of turning a blind eye to these little ‘adventures,’ and word only later emerged of previous indiscretions, including the accusation of sexual assault on a female writer by Dominique Strauss-Kahn (aka DSK). Why is it that influential men on the Continent still seem to get away with less than a healthy respect for the so-called fairer sex?

Whether or not DSK ends up swapping pinstripes for jailstripes, the political scene in Europe continues to bubble with a whole cauldron of sex scandals and sordid affairs. But while the British Press is only too ecstatic to reveal any intimate details uncovered to a public that delights in being scandalised, many of our neigbours’ media outlets take a more cautious approach to revealing their politicians’ escapades. One only has to look at the case of Silvio Berlusconi, a man whose political power, combined with his control of the largest broadcaster in Italy, has saved him until recently from too much unwelcome exposure.

See no bunga, hear no bunga

Signor Berlusconi’s infamous parties are now common knowledge. For anyone keeping abreast of current affairs, the phrase bunga bunga should conjure up images of raucous swimming pools, Moroccan beauties of questionably legal age and levels of decadence Nero himself might be proud of. Hard to imagine Nick Clegg or David Cameron ever attempting such a thing without getting caught. Yet Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi got away with his rampant indiscretions for years. And not just because he did his best to hush it all up.

The fact is that while the UK has made leaps and bounds in sexual equality, many countries in Europe lag far behind. The cultural contrast is often stark, and it's no surprise that DSK was apprehended in the USA and not his native France, where his presidential aspirations have been promising until now. What a Briton or American might regard as scandal, fails to ruffle many a Continental feather. I spoke recently to an Italian doctor, clearly an educated man, and asked what he thought of the aforementioned Berlusconi. His response was simply: ‘I admire him.’ Of course I pressed him on the issue of the premier's irresponsible behaviour (not to mention his harsh line on immigration and alleged corruption), but he waved this away. That was his personal life, nothing to do with his work.

No sex please, we’re British?

So are our rumour-mongering journalists simply guilty of an Anglo-Saxon prudery? Perhaps. But I prefer to think of it as an enlightened approach to equality. I’m certainly not extolling the British and American media as some blessed champion of fairness and egalitarianism; a cursory flick through the Daily Mail, or thirty seconds of Fox News would shatter any such illusions. But I do believe that the dogged determination to uncover unpleasant truths reflects a public that not only loves to see a scandal, but also feels a satisfaction that even the most powerful among us are not beyond reproach. L'affaire DSK, as the French are calling it, makes this principle painfully clear.

For an eye-opening look at why the French public is struggling to grasp what all the American fuss is about, click here

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Sex, Lies and Super-injunctions: The Freedom vs Privacy debate shifts into top gear

What do Max Mosley, William and Kate, Jeremima (yes, that’s what I’m calling the alleged union of Jeremy Clarkson and Jemima Khan) and The Guardian have in common? A spate of super-injunctions, one naughty Twitter account and a European court case are once again forcing us to ask: should the Press be free to publish what it likes, or should individual privacy reign supreme?

When celebs cry ‘Leave us alone!’ we all too often yell back: ‘You brought it on yourself!’ After all, if the likes of Kerry Katona and Katie Price were really interested in a quiet life, ITV2 would have folded long ago. But are we being too harsh on these distraught divas? Should the choice to make a living from being a famous face really be taken as a surrendering of all right to privacy? While never having watched a Price documentary, I’m assuming there are moments even Jordan would rather her viewers weren’t privy to. Even if they show the Brazilian waxes, surely they cut to commercials when she goes for a Hollywood?

The Royal Honeymoon destination is no longer a secret...

This is to say nothing of famous people with a more genuine interest in staying out of the limelight. Along with half of the world I was glued to the screen on April 29th when two rather privileged young people tied the knot (and one sister-of-the-bride set the Twittersphere a-flutter). But I wasn’t exactly pleased to find out that their honeymoon destination had been leaked by a member of the evidently PR-hungry Seychelles tourism board. My first instinct was: ‘Oh leave them alone.’ A couple normally under such scrutiny deserve to escape the attentions of the paparazzi for a few days at least. And spare a thought for poor Max Mosley. Surely the right to privately hold allegedly Nazi-themed co-ed gatherings is intrinsic to our British freedoms? Hmmm.....

Does Max Mosley have a point?

Max Mosley just lost his latest case at the European Court of Human Rights. Speaking to a more than usually sardonic Paxman on Newsnight, he explained that he had wanted the Press to warn the subjects of a revelation before making it. Perhaps this could be taken as a reasonable courtesy. The footballer about to have his away goals made public, could endeavour to steal his fiancée’s Sun the next day, and the Lib Dem MP with a penchant for male escorts might contrive some way of distracting his wife’s attention from her morning perusal of The Independent. Or they might even use the advanced notification to plead domestic forgiveness. Either way, it’s not a fear of missing out on news of infidelities and improprieties that worry me about the rise of the super-injunction.

Super-injunctions, Big Business and the hyper-injunction

The judge at the European Court of Human Rights feared a ‘chilling effect’ on the freedom of the press, if the gagging went ahead. While the world is hardly a better place for the Jeremima rumours, sometimes spilling the beans is the right thing to do. For example in 2006, when oil company Trafigura dumped over 500 tonnes of toxic waste into the sea near Abidjan, Ivory Coast, causing illness to thousands of local residents. The company later tried to silence The Guardian from reporting discussion of the affair in Parliament.

The fact is that large corporations can get super-injunctions just as easily as B-list celebrities. And the news they want to cover up may have real and potentially global significance. And it gets worse. Injunctions outlaw discussion of a topic; super-injunctions ban discussion of both the topic and the fact that an injunction has been passed. As if that weren’t enough, the hyper-injunction goes a step further by banning discussion even with MPs, lawyers and journalists. Is it just me, or does all this judicial shrouding of silence with silence seem sinister and menacing?

It's not just the economy that looks like 1984

At times like these, Orwellian allusions are clichéd but indispensable. I can’t help but be reminded of the government’s cunning plan, in 1984, of doing away with opposition by removing the vocabulary with which people express it. Being rendered incapable not only of talking about something, but also of talking about the fact that we can’t talk about it, seems a little too Big Brotherly for my liking. That’s why I’m grateful for the Twitter account that threatened to make a ‘mockery’ of super-injunctions. What we need now is some clear legislation on the issue, and a continued respect for freedom of the Press.

In the meantime, check out this hilarious list of the world’s top five superinjunctions.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Only Way is Engagement

Social media has changed TV for good. Definitelayyy.

I’m sure we all agree that last night’s series two premiere of The Only Way is Essex provided fascinating *clears throat* documentary insight into the vajazzling world of cheeky cheating chappies and the winning WAG wannabes who wilfully play up to them. I, for one, certainly don’t pretend to rise above the entertaining goings-on in what spray-tan queen Amy has dubbed ‘the new LA.’ And anyone who watched the last series will know that it’s a distinct possibility she actually believes Essex to be located on the West Coast of the USA. (This is the girl who once asked a date, ‘Where’s North London?’) But I digress.

My point is that last night’s well-received premiere was a great example of how TV has changed for good. Even the humble box hasn’t escaped the clamouring calls for consumer engagement. And ITV2, always one to please the masses, went in for audience participation big-style. The hashtags #towie (The Only Way is Essex, of course) and #essex were trending like crazy, along with #NannyPat, dedicated maker of toad-in-the-hole and the real star of the show, if you ask me.

During both the show itself, and the ad breaks, on-screen messages urged viewers to ‘Join the Conversation’ on Twitter, which they did in their droves. @ITV2 kindly treated us to a selection of audience tweets just before each ad break, giving voice on a national platform to the views of ‘Nancy from Liverpool’ (e.g.) in the same breath as those of Alan Carr, a TV celebrity who needs no introduction.

So what’s the big deyull? I hear you ask. Well to me all this is great because it gives new meaning to the hackneyed phrase, ‘Everyone’s a critic.’ We’re no longer content to simply sit on the sofa and receive information, commenting to our significant other, or waiting to get into the office the next morning and discuss it when we should be working. Instead, I and thousands like me became communications control rooms, receiving hilarious input from the television, processing the data for anything of interest, and retransmitting it via Twitter, Facebook and text message.

Not only that, but from a consumer feedback point of view, our compulsion (and technological capacity) to shout back is a godsend for the TV networks. Who needs to wait for the ratings figures to come in, when a simple search on Twitter yields such a wealth of valuable insight? From finding out what viewers think of the new characters (‘xsweetcheeks24x #towie tht new chloe bird is rough as toast far too much surgery’) to identifying gaps in their marketing strategy (‘KendraMcCartney: is #towie an english program? never heard of it haha’), ITV2 received endless research results without spending a penny.

Throw in the surprisingly large response generated by the live online chat with character Lydia, proud owner of the peeing pig, and it’s not hard to see how a social media circus was created with very little effort from the promoter, ITV2. In fact, you might say that TOWIE fans have all willingly embraced the role of voluntary promo people for the glittering ‘reality’ series.

Ten years ago, Big Brother ushered in the Reality TV era, and the nation succumbed to a decade-long addiction to sitting on the sofa and watching ordinary people do ordinary things on television. Now a new era is well and truly upon us: Augmented Reality TV. Heightened emotions, hyper-real situations ‘created for entertainment purposes,’ and – most importantly – an audience that doesn’t just sit and watch, but joins right in with gusto. A change for the better? ‘Definitelayyy.’

And in the spirit of audience engagement, what do you think?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

A million channels, and nothing’s going on

Is new media just providing us with ever more hi-tech ways to be bored?

I remember when Diamond Cable fist arrived on my street. Back when the newest thing in media was Channel 5, the man who came to install the primitive black boxes with the orange-buttoned remote appeared as something of a modern messiah to the grateful cul-de-sac. Fast forward a few years and Sky was the new kid on the block, hotly followed by its sexier and more flexible sister, Sky+. But the proliferation of channels, from 5 to 500+, never quite managed to rid us of the age-old problem: ‘There’s nothing on TV.’

The channels of communication we all plug into today defy counting. Half of us in the UK have a Facebook page, three or more email accounts are increasingly standard, we have our personalised YouTube, our Twitter, not to mention the slightly more esoteric social networks like Bebo, FourSquare, MySpace... The list rolls on. Better yet, our smartphones act as portable communications hubs, giving us instant access to all of these platforms. And if we get bored of connecting with our hundreds of ‘friends,’ we can log into Chat Roulette and converse (etc.) with total strangers.

So why has Sunday night boredom survived this cataclysmic media explosion??

It seems that while the world of communications technology has mutated exponentially, we human beings (or maybe it’s just me?) still haven’t evolved immunity to the deadly bores. A few seconds with my beloved HTC is now all it takes to verify that no, I haven’t got any new notifications. And no, no direct messages on Twitter since yesterday. No texts and nobody on Facebook chat to whom I would actually ever chat in real life.

Thank Zuckerberg for the new culture that allows us to air our grievances to 800 of our closest friends. Because everybody cares what’s going through our minds at any one moment. (And even if they don’t, Facebook allows us to pretend they do.)The social universe responded to my 'bored' status through one friend's ever so slightly sarcastic answer: ‘Blog about it.’

And so I did.