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From celibacy (my last post) to dating. I hear a lot, in pastoral conversations, about how difficult it can be for single people to meet others; or, having met them, how hard it is to take the relationship to a deeper and more committed level. But the extra difficulty today, it seems, is that many people don’t even know what they are looking for in a relationship; and if they do, they are psychologically hard-wired – because of mobile phones and social media – to undermine the very relationship they want.

Rebecca Holman moves from examining her own relationships to some more general points about why dating is so difficult today.

I have called myself single for the past decade. Strange then, I realised recently, that I have rarely been properly on my own. I haven’t lived with a boyfriend, introduced anyone to my parents, or been on a mini-break. Yet even without an official ‘boyfriend’ there are normally several text conversations with potential beaus buzzing away on my phone.

I also tend to have a few guys on a low-level stalk on Facebook, and there’s always that frisson of excitement when an attractive man retweets one of my ‘LOLz-ier’ status updates. I might be missing out on love, but I’m never short of intrigue, and right now intrigue seems more fun.

Some of this intrigue even becomes actual, real-life, human interaction and perhaps… more. But mostly I’ve found myself in a perpetual state of limbo – stuck somewhere between first encounter, a hook-up and a full-blown relationship. It’s thanks in part to social media. Twitter, Facebook and Google have turned the dating world upside-down, changing how we meet people, what we know about them before we do – and introducing a new layer of ambiguity into single life that generations before us never had to contend with.

I am not in a relationship – or in what someone 20 years older than me would consider a relationship – yet rarely am I definitively single. There is not quite a word for what I am. Our vocabulary is straining as much as we are to encompass the world of modern dating.

What’s going on historically/psychologically here? It’s partly the fear of commitment, the need to endlessly keep one’s options open, and the mismatch between unrealistic fantasy and reality. Holman explains:

If, like me, you’re a ‘millennial’ (born between 1983 and 2000) you will have never known adulthood – or adult relationships – without a mobile phone. Like me, you are probably so used to keeping your options open – and not deciding what you’re doing on a Friday night until about 6.59pm that evening – that the idea of ‘dating’ seems pretty foreign. Actually phone someone up to ask them out and agree on a date at some point in the future and put it in my diary? Unthinkable. What if I get a better offer? Instead, millennials like to keep it vague. Instead of dating (an American term anyway) we might be ‘seeing someone’, ‘having a thing’, ‘hooking up’. Increasingly, we ‘hang out’ – and not necessarily as a twosome.

Ours is a generation of contradictions. We bravely (recklessly?) let the rest of the world into our online world with gay abandon: you’d like to see 50 pictures of me on a bikini on the beach? Go ahead! Want to know how I’m feeling at this exact moment? Here you are! But in the world of endless options, where nothing seems permanent, and you never have to interact with anyone face to face if you don’t want to, me actually picking up the phone, telling someone how I feel about them, or even asking them out for dinner seems like too big a risk. Why make a phone-call or suggest a date when you can send a non-committal text that merely dangles the possibility of meeting? If they’re keen, you’ll see each other; if not, they’ll plead prior plans. No one’s feelings get hurt.

But at least one of you can end up feeling confused. The social psychologist Ben Voyer warns that while texting and online messaging are perceived to be easier than face-to-face contact or a telephone conversation, in the medium to long term they can make things more difficult. (Was last Friday a ‘date’? Your guess is as good as mine.)

‘Face-to-face contact is much richer. We have more visual and audio cues to help us form an impression of someone.’ Of course endless texting will never offer the same insight into someone’s personality as even a single face-to-face conversation. The I-don’t-know-what-is-going-on phase of a proto-relationship can continue far longer now. You can become vastly experienced in the heady yet confusing dance of Early Days – I have had years of it, and know all the steps – yet remain an ignoramus about the mysterious state of proper Girlfriend and Boyfriend.

Yet it’s so easy to get carried away with texting or instant messaging. Having just counselled a friend through an ambiguous ‘relationship’ characterised by furious text conversations and the occasional meet-up, I then found myself helping another friend decide what to wear when she met up with a man whose activities she’d been obsessively following on Facebook for months. So, how did it go? ‘It wasn’t as thrilling as I’d hoped it would be…’ admitted my friend afterwards. ‘I think he was a little tired.’

Such disappointment shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Emma Weighill-Baskerville, a psychotherapist and relationship specialist. ‘The person may not fulfil the fantasy created through literary communication alone – this is only one piece of an individual. With texts, you are allowing a large space for fantasy to take over.’

The common business of ‘researching’ potential dates on Facebook, Twitter and Google can lead to similar disappointment – especially for a generation like mine, who curate their Facebook pages to PR-worthy standards. One friend furiously edits her Facebook page when a man she likes accepts her friend request. ‘I don’t bother to use Facebook the rest of the time, but when someone interesting pops up I’m all over it, uploading flattering pictures, subjecting my friends to a barrage of witty status updates.’

As Voyer explains, ‘People are increasingly constructing two identities – their online identity, and their offline identity.’ He points to Twitter in particular, saying that ‘new ways of interacting have widened the gap between our actual selves – who we actually are – and our “ought” selves – who we think other people want us to be.’

So, proper, honest, face-to-face communication is key. Unfortunately, for a generation practically weaned on telecommunication devices, person-to-person communication is not exactly our strong suit…

You can read the whole article here – which has some extra paragraphs about how technology can actually help a relationship as well as hinder it.

What do you think – all you single people out there? (And all the non-single people who have been dating recently…)

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I was using this book a lot in a recent talk I gave: Brandon Vogt’s The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activitsts, and Bishops who Tweet.

Vogt himself writes a helpful introduction (about the way the Church has used different media at the service of the gospel over many centuries) and conclusion (about where it’s all going: some of the possibilities, and some of the dangers).

But most of the book consists of short articles and reflections by cutting-edge practitioners, people who have taken the plunge and got stuck in – perhaps making many mistakes along the way, but learning to see the huge value of using the new media.

There are four main sections that deal with evangelisation, Christian formation, building community, and serving the common good. So it’s not a narrow discussion about blogging and tweeting, but a rich and broad presentation of the multifarious ways that people are using new media to good effect.

There are huge and well-known projects that have already had an international influence, like Fr Robert Barron’s Word on Fire and Shaun Carney’s online pro-life work. But there are also lots of stories about how ordinary parishes can improve their use of digital media by getting involved in social networking or simply learning to connect with their parishioners better through websites and texting. So there are small and practical tips for ordinary Christians as well as big flashes of inspiration for those sensing a call to step out as evangelists.

Lots of information for the uninformed; lots of ideas for those who feel they should be doing something. It’s well worth getting a copy.

See Vogt’s website here. Which has this blurb - full of links if you have nothing else to do for the next hour!

The Church finds herself in the midst of a technological revolution, the biggest communication shift since the advent of the printing press.

The printing press created an information explosion, allowing people to absorb tremendous amounts of knowledge. But this modern, digital revolution brings a new type of communication. It pairs content with dialogue, discussion, and relationship, moving beyond a one-way flow of information.

New tools have burst onto the scene to provide this dual-offering of knowledge and community. Nicknamed “New Media”, these tools include social media, blogs, podcasts, video-casts, mobile media, and interactive websites.

Finding herself in a world that has dramatically embraced these tools, the Church is at a crossroad. If her missions of evangelization, formation, community-building, and social-justice are to continue in future generations, she must harness these tools and utilize them now. Thankfully, many Catholics are doing just that.

The Church and New Media brings together innovators, visionaries, and experts on the relationship between faith and technology, packaging their wisdom into the definitive book on New Media and the Church. It shows not only how the Church can exist in the digital age, but how she can effectively proclaim the Gospel today.

In addition to profiling many New Media innovators and relevant Church teachings, the book features chapters by the following New Media experts:

Foreword
*Cardinal Seán O’Malley*

Introduction / The Digital Continent
*Brandon Vogt*

Part One / Put Out Into the Deep: New Media & Evangelization
Chapter One / The Virtual Areopagus: Digital Dialogue with the Unchurched
*Fr. Robert Barron*
Chapter Two / Into the Light: Sharing the Spiritual Journey
*Jennifer Fulwiler*
Chapter Three / Speaking Their Language: Connecting with Young Adults
*Marcel LeJeune*

Part Two / That the World May Know: New Media & Formation
Chapter Four / Modern Epistles: Blogging the Faith
*Mark Shea*
Chapter Five / New Wineskins: Fresh Presentations of Ancient Tradition
*Taylor Marshall*
Chapter Six / Digital Discourse: The New Apologetics
*Fr. Dwight Longenecker*

Part Three / Fostering the Flock: New Media & Community
Chapter Seven / Innovative Shepherding: New Media in the Diocese
*Scot Landry*
Chapter Eight / High-Tech Community: New Media in the Parish
*Matthew Warner*
Chapter Nine / That They May Be One: Cultivating Online Community
*Lisa Hendey*

Part Four / To the Ends of the Earth: New Media & Mission
Chapter Ten / Changing the World: New Media Activism
*Thomas Peters*
Chapter Eleven / Moving Mountains: Building a Digital Movement
*Shawn Carney (40 Days for Life)*

Conclusion / To Infinity and Beyond: The Future of the Church and New Media
*Brandon Vogt*

Afterword
*Archbishop Timothy Dolan*

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I don’t use Twitter much, although WordPress tweets my blog posts automatically. But I’m aware of the changes taking place in people’s views about what is socially acceptable. Many people, today, would answer a call mid-conversation, or check a text, or text back – all without interrupting the flow of the discussion, or with a half-acknowledged pressing of the pause button.

The desire to tweet not just later but while you are still within the experience is part of the nature of Twitter. It’s about sharing the ‘now’ and not just the ‘yesterday’ or ‘a few minutes ago’.

But how does this affect, socially, those experiences that are traditionally meant to be uninterrupted – like going to the theatre? Is it just rude?

And at a more philosophical level, am I changing the nature of the experience, distancing myself from it, and perhaps distorting it, if I’m already sharing the experience with others and providing my own commentary even before it has finished?

There is something to do with quantum physics and the uncertainty principle and waves collapsing into particles and dead cats here – but I don’t have the time to get my creative thoughts straight.

David Lister writes about the morality of tweeting in the theatre:

Which brings me to Twitter. For here the etiquette of polite concentration in the auditorium is being challenged. People have been tweeting at the theatre. In a cinema, a light from a mobile phone is also irritating, but it does happen, and to no great protest. However the thought of it at a live performance is rather more disturbing.

It turns out that theatre tweeters are not chatting aimlessly on Twitter, but trying to be the first to post a reaction to the performance they are seeing. And this seems to mean getting it posted before the curtain comes down. It was reported at a performance of the current run of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and raised in a Q and A after the performance. And I have seen it happening, not always that discreetly, in London’s West End.

There’s little doubt that it disturbs other audience members, and probably even cast members. And, of course, one hopes that people are too busy concentrating on the action to fish their mobile out of their pocket or bag. On the other hand, they are engaged enough to want a post a review.

Is the answer, I wonder, a relatively recent American phenomenon, the tweet seats? This started at a theatre in Los Angeles and has spread to a number of other big cities, with at least one theatre on Broadway now threatening to get in on the act. A section of seating on the side of the auditorium (so that the lights from the phones – in theory – don’t disturb the rest of the audience) is reserved as tweet seats.

The first instinct of any regular theatre-goer is to foam at the mouth. But perhaps we should acknowledge the inevitable. OK, I’d be much more inclined to put them in the balcony, as the side of the stalls feels a little too visible. Why not make a small part of the balcony a silent tweeting zone for those who want it?

A few decades ago it would have been near unthinkable to take drinks into the auditorium. Now it’s commonplace. I suspect that in less than a decade tweet seats will be commonplace too.

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Bridges and Tangents is on the shortlist for the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ (!!) at the Christian New Media Awards.

Why not take a look at the other nominees in the various categories below. I know that many of the readers of this blog are Catholic, so it might interest people to see the fascinating things that go on in the largely non-Catholic (I think) new media world represented by these awards.

People’s Choice

- Free Bible Images
- The Light Project
- Christian Medical Comment
- Busbridge and Hambledon Church
- CSW – Take Action

Best Christian Blog

- Emma Scrivener
- Missing Generation
- Threads
- What You Think Matters
- God and Politics in the UK
- EpilogueTV

Best Christian Blog by someone under 25

- Dean Roberts
- Miriam’s Fusion Blog
- Blogging with Tom
- Arianne Winslow
- Becca is Learning

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

- benleney
- Learning and Growing
- Biblical Preaching
- Bridges and Tangents
- Rev’d Matthew Porter

Best Newcomer Blog

- Flame Creative Children’s Ministry
- Believer’s Brain
- Ed’s Slipper
- Blogging with Tom
- God and Politics in the UK

Micro-Blogger of the Year

- OneVoice
- Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove
- Restored
- Richard Littledale
- The Church Mouse

Best Christian Organisation Website

- Sunday Night Live
- Wazala
- SGM Lifewords
- Relationship Central
- Green Pastures Housing

I hope to go to the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards on 20 Oct 2012, and try to do some serious (and fun) thinking about faith and the new media. It looks as though it will be a good day. Details copied here:

The Christian New Media Conference 2012

Date: 20th October 2012
Time: 9.15am Registration, 10am Start and 5.20pm Finish
Venue: King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Stamford Street, London SE1 8WA Directions
Tickets:   £30   Book Now!

If you want to make a greater impact in the digital world, to get to grips with new media technologies, or simply tweet, pin and post better, then the Christian New Media Conference 2012 is the place to be. It will inspire you, equip you and connect you with like-minded people – whatever your level of experience.

Now in its third year, the conference has moved to a new venue with more space, four new seminar streams and 25 expert speakers ready to give practical help and an opportunity to delve deeper.

Whether you come as an individual, a church, charity or business, you’ll be spoilt for choice with 20 breakout sessions available.

The Theme for 2012

The digital revolution has transformed the art of story-telling, bringing it once more to the fore. If you think about it, much of what we are engaged with online is story-telling. We might be telling our story, our church or organisation’s story – but ultimately, as Christians, we are telling God’s story. This will be the theme of the main sessions this year and will have a dedicated seminar stream.

This year’s Theology stream will look at the concept of ‘Depixelating God’ – exploring how we as Christians can help make the image of God clearer to people in the online space.

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Those of you who are not on Facebook can ignore this post and luxuriate in your non-dysfunctional psychological maturity and in your general being-at-ease-with-yourself-and-your-neighbour-and-your-world-ness.

For the rest of us, the hard question is: how often do we fiddle around on our Facebook page, not through an uncomplicated desire to share and communicate, but because we are subconsciously desperate to put ourselves at the centre of everyone else’s attention, to receive some kind of social networking version of approval, to be liked, and if not at least to be noticed?

Put more simply: is Facebook making us more narcissistic? Or – because we don’t know what is the cause and what is the effect – is our increasing narcissism finding a ready-made outlet in Facebook and other forms of social media?

Narcissus falling in love with his own image. Detail from a painting by John Waterhouse.

Damien Pearse writes about some recent research on the links between narcissism and social networking.

Researchers have established a direct link between the number of friends you have on Facebook and the degree to which you are a “socially disruptive” narcissist, confirming the conclusions of many social media sceptics.

People who score highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory questionnaire had more friends on Facebook, tagged themselves more often and updated their newsfeeds more regularly.

The research comes amid increasing evidence that young people are becoming increasingly narcissistic, and obsessed with self-image and shallow friendships.

The latest study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, also found that narcissists responded more aggressively to derogatory comments made about them on the social networking site’s public walls and changed their profile pictures more often.

Researchers concentrated on the two socially disruptive forms of narcissism: ‘grandiose exhibitionism’ (self-absorption, vanity, superiority, exhibitionistic tendencies, a need to be constantly at the centre of attention), and ‘entitlement/exploitativeness’ (which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”).

Carol Craig, a social scientist and chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being, said young people in Britain were becoming increasingly narcissistic and Facebook provided a platform for the disorder.

“The way that children are being educated is focussing more and more on the importance of self esteem – on how you are seen in the eyes of others. This method of teaching has been imported from the US and is ‘all about me’.

“Facebook provides a platform for people to self-promote by changing profile pictures and showing how many hundreds of friends you have. I know of some who have more than 1,000.”

Dr Viv Vignoles, senior lecturer in social psychology at Sussex University, said there was “clear evidence” from studies in America that college students were becoming increasingly narcissistic.

But he added: “Whether the same is true of non-college students or of young people in other countries, such as the UK, remains an open question, as far as I know.

“Without understanding the causes underlying the historical change in US college students, we do not know whether these causes are factors that are relatively specific to American culture, such as the political focus on increasing self-esteem in the late 80s and early 90s or whether they are factors that are more general, for example new technologies such as mobile phones and Facebook.”

What is cause and what is effect?

Vignoles said the correlational nature of the latest study meant it was difficult to be certain whether individual differences in narcissism led to certain patterns of Facebook behaviour, whether patterns of Facebook behaviour led to individual differences in narcissism, or a bit of both.

But don’t worry – it’s not all negative. This is just one study, and the researchers are not denying that there are real benefits of social networking.

Christopher Carpenter, who ran the study, said: “In general, the ‘dark side’ of Facebook requires more research in order to better understand Facebook’s socially beneficial and harmful aspects in order to enhance the former and curtail the latter.

“If Facebook is to be a place where people go to repair their damaged ego and seek social support, it is vitally important to discover the potentially negative communication one might find on Facebook and the kinds of people likely to engage in them. Ideally, people will engage in pro-social Facebooking rather than anti-social me-booking.”

I suppose the most narcissistic response to this article would be to terminate your Facebook account in a blaze of online soul-searching and self-publicity, a final fire-storm of frantic pre-termination reflections, posts, de-tagging and emotional farewells. But that leaves you with a problem: what will you do to feed the narcissism tomorrow?

(And do you notice how silent I am on the links between Facebook narcissism and blogging narcissism! Perhaps that needs another post…)

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There are lots of these videos floating around that show some aspect of faith or the Christian story through the lens of social media. This is one of my favourites, from Igniter Media. Called ‘Follow’, it shows very simply and very powerfully how the events of Jesus’s life might have been communicated if there had been Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. The immediacy of the messages brought to life for me not just the story itself, but the ordinary humanity of the people involved – people I treat too often as just characters in a book.

It’s not specifically a Christmas video. But anyway: Happy Christmas!

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Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

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This is a late plug for Oliver Burkeman’s new year resolutions, which include (with copious references to the scientific research behind the advice): stop looking for your soulmate; reject positive thinking; make something and work with your hands; befriend your friends’ friends; and get a standing desk!

Here is his suggestion for all you internet and social networking addicts:

We’ve been worrying about information overload for millennia. “The abundance of books is distraction,” complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it’s swings and roundabouts). But it’s been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet’s defenders fight back.

Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we’ve been talking in misleading generalities. “Technology” isn’t good or bad for us, per se; neither is “the web”. Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children’s literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we’re consuming online. The medium isn’t the only message.

The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn’t to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a “reward” in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you’re most addicted to.

Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn’t the amount of time, but who’s calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it’s a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.

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We’ve gone from the 24 hour news cycle to the 24 second news cycle. Which means that as soon as you do something amusing, clever, original, annoying, embarrassing, or just plain stupid, then everyone knows about it.

 

Businesses know this, which is why they try to infiltrate the social media and generate good noise for their products. It’s also why clever businesses have their people scanning the same media to see when a bad story is spreading and to respond to it as soon as possible.

Stephanie Marcus has a very helpful analysis of how three companies reacted to viral negativity in the social media. One mistake is all it takes for the crowd to turn against you. The important question is how quickly and how well you react.

When director Kevin Smith was kicked off a Southwest Airlines flight for being too large for a single seat, he tweeted his indignation. He happened to have 1.6 million followers on Twitter, which was not good for Southwest.

What amazed me, however, is that Southwest responded with their own tweet offering an apology only 16 minutes later. They noticed it, realised its significance, had some kind of crisis management meeting, made a decision to act, wrote the apology, and tweeted it – all within 16 minutes. Fantastic! They still got a lot of flack, but many people proved to be sympathetic because they had reacted quickly, honestly, and generously:

@ThatKevinSmith hey Kevin! I’m so sorry for your experience tonight! Hopefully we can make things right, please follow so we may DM!

Marcus analyses the Pretzel Crisp/anorexia controversy. And here is a straightforward but very instructive example of how one company responded to customer complaints:

This past July, LOFT, a brand owned by Ann Taylor Inc., posted photos on its Facebook page of a tall, blonde model wearing LOFT’s new silk cargo pants, with a click-to-buy link in the captions.

What happened next is a perfect example of how social media can suddenly turn on you, even when you’ve done nothing “wrong,” or seemingly out of the ordinary. Fans of the brand complained that while the pants looked good on the model, they weren’t so flattering on anyone who wasn’t 5’10 and stick thin.

Fans requested that LOFT prove their pants could look good on “real women.” And they did. The following day, the company posted photos to Facebook again, this time with their own staff posing in the pants. The “real women” came from different company departments and ranged from a size 2 to size 12, and in height from 5’3″ to 5’10″.

This is a perfect example of how to turn a possible threat via social media into an opportunity. Ann Taylor had the good sense to stop the attack before it escalated. Here customers had a direct and valid complaint about a product and how it was featured. The company did the best thing possible, they stayed calm and listened to the comments. They took the comments into consideration and came up with a constructive resolution.

By responding to Fan requests to post photos of women of different sizes wearing the pants, the company proved that they really do listen and care about their customer concerns, and they were able to back up the product. It’s a double win for Ann Taylor as they actually gained customer support, while avoiding a potential disaster.

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Be honest. Keep a tally of how many minutes of TV you watch each day. Add it up. What’s the weekly total? And the more interesting question: Has this figure gone up or down over the last few years?

Chicken watching TV or TV watching chicken?

Everyone thought that the internet and social media would kill television, just as they thought that cinemas would become extinct with the arrival of the video recorder. But it hasn’t happened.

British viewers watched an average of three hours and 45 minutes of television a day in 2009, 3% more than in 2004, according to research published by the media regulator Ofcom. Here are some thoughts from John Plunkett:

TV continues to take centre stage in people’s evenings, boosted by the popularity of shows such as The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Doctor Who.

Television’s popularity has also been boosted by digital video recorders (DVRs), now in 37% of households – and the introduction of high definition television, now in more than 5 million UK homes.

“Television still has a central role in our lives. We are watching more TV than at any time in the last five years,” said James Thickett, director of market research and market intelligence at Ofcom.

New technology offered viewers an enhanced, easy-to-use viewing experience, with 15% of all viewing time spent watching programmes recorded on to a DVR, he said.

“Unlike VHS, which was such a hassle to set up and record a programme that only a very small proportion of viewing was on video, DVRs give viewers the chance to watch the programmes they really want to watch. It is bringing people back into the living room.”

The UK’s ageing population has also pushed up the figures. Older people are likely to watch more television, with the average 65-year-old watching five hours and 14 minutes a day. And it’s to do with the increasing number of channels too:

Digital television passed the 90% threshold for the first time last year, with 92.1% of homes having digital TV by the first quarter of 2010. The average weekly reach of multichannel television exceeded that of the five main TV channels – BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – also for the first time in 2009.

“More people are getting access to a greater number of channels and that’s translating into greater number of viewing hours per person,” said Richard Broughton, a senior analyst at the audiovisual research company Screen Digest.

“Various people have predicted that the internet would kill off television but we have always said that TV would be here for a long time to come. It’s much harder for broadcasters and production companies to monetise content online, and there are all sorts of things that broadcast can do that online can’t, such as high definition.”

Broughton said viewers were using Facebook and Twitter while watching the television, rather than switching it off altogether. “In many cases television is complemented [by social media platforms] and not necessarily a direct competitor,” he added.

I was about to write that the beauty of cinema is that you are forced to give your attention to one image, and that you have to leave all your other digital distractions behind. But then I remembered a recent visit to the cinema when the guy in front of me was texting even after the film had begun. It breaks your heart…

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I’m not using Twitter much. My blog posts get tweeted automatically from my account, just as they get sent to my Facebook feed. But for those of you who are still hooked on Twitter, there is now an easy tweet button at the bottom of each of my posts, so that you can re-tweet from your account, and increase the digital cacophony.

Here are the details from WordPress:

For those of you who have been dreaming of an easier way for your readers to share your posts on Twitter, that day has come. We’re pleased to announce that we’ve added an official Tweet Button as an option for all WordPress.com blogs.

How it works: When one of your readers hits the Tweet Button, they will be shown a popup that includes a shortened link to your post. Readers can add in a quick message, and then hit “Tweet” to send the post to their Twitter feed as a tweet — all without leaving your blog.

Additionally, each time a reader tweets your post, you’ll know it: The tool keeps a live tally of tweets, so you’re never in the dark about how your blog posts are performing in the Twittersphere.

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The title says it all: social network giant Facebook has just registered its 500 millionth member.

You can see some graphs here about the relative growth and decline of various social networking sites. (Facebook, Twitter, Orkut and Linkedin are growing; MySpace, Flickr, Bebo and Friends Reunited are in decline.)

Matt Warman gives this report:

Yesterday Facebook announced that it now has half a billion users worldwide – if it were a country, it would have the third largest population in the world. One in 14 people around the globe is on the site. It’s as big as the US and Brazil combined, and only India and China – two markets the web has yet to reach en masse – are larger.

Jeff Mann, a vice-president at analysts Gartner, points out that there are “a small number of people who get really angry about the privacy issues – but they’re off. They’ve left. The vast majority continues to stick with it and to find it very useful.”

All of this is a long way from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, where Facebook began. And the strapline for the forthcoming movie about Facebook, called The Social Network, is telling: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”. In the six years since Facebook has been active, there have been numerous lawsuits, concerns about its use to paedophiles, arguments about its potential to compromise its users’ privacy and – perhaps most crucially – doubts about its value, financial and practical.

After all, to those not on Facebook, it’s hard to see the value. The site invites users to create profiles, write regular updates about what they’re doing and then connect their profiles to those of their friends. But our friends are the people we all know already – where’s the utility in discovering what they had for breakfast?

The answer, in the words of the company’s head of European Policy, Richard Allan, is that Facebook has enabled a whole “new depth” to how we connect with people. It encourages all of us to show people photographs of our weekends, to see who likes what. So when a meeting in real life takes place, it’s arguably Facebook that means 500 million people don’t have to bother with silly small talk.

“In real life,” says Allan, “you have enough time to maintain regularly going out with 20 to 30 people. Facebook typically extends your social circle by another 100 people. So you feel connected, in real time, to that wedding of a family member you haven’t seen for a while. But it typically remains an online way of sharing information about real events.”

There’s a darker side to the social network, however: the recent controversy about a number of tribute pages to murderer Raoul Moat; an only recently concluded debacle about how young people using the site should be protected from adults who might seek to groom them; and a series of self-inflicted crises brought about by Facebook’s repeated decisions to tinker with privacy settings which left some people feeling uncomfortably exposed.

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I don’t use Twitter much, but my marvellous WordPress blogging platform automatically tweets my new posts as soon as they are published. It’s been working for a few weeks now but I keep forgetting to publicise it. So, if it’s easier for you to follow this blog via Twitter, you can click here to sign up.

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A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins changed the way the bulletin-board on his website functioned. He was shocked by the reactions left in the comment boxes, which were often abusive, angry, and even hysterical.

“Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial,” he wrote. “Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people?” There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it”.

Why is the internet a breeding ground for such venom? It’s not just the anonymity afforded to those who respond, or the speed with which the responses can be posted. It’s also the feedback mechanism that allows members of internet groups to reinforce for each other both their best convictions and their worst prejudices.

lights and crowds by gaspi *your guide.

James Harkin describes the process:

 The paradox of the “wisdom of online crowds” is that it only works in clubbable, relatively small groups of like-thinking minds. The reason why the richest and most productive audiences online are for the most arcane subjects – on the relationship between economics and law, for example, or how to care for cats – is because everyone involved feels part of an exclusive club dedicated to finding out more about the same thing.

However, it’s for exactly the same reason that many of these clubs can become breeding grounds for vicious tribalism. The brevity required for communication on Twitter does not lend itself to decorous etiquette, but neither is it the soul of wit to circulate snide, snarky tweets to an enthusiastic group of followers.

Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them.

When everyone is reinforcing everyone else’s opinion in an online echo-chamber, there’s little need to state a case or debate one’s opponent. It’s easier – like the schoolyard bully – just to abuse them. The other problem with online “communities” is that decisions about quality often become snagged in a highly conservative and self-reinforcing feedback loop in which everyone queues up to follow the leader. 

So it’s hard to keep a website or blog running that will genuinely be a place of dialogue and discussion, rather than just a tribal meeting point.

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