Thursday, 28 June 2012

8 Reasons Why People Love Numbered Blog Posts

the count

There's something about Top 10 Lists or Top Insert-Your-Own-Number Lists that seem to never fail to captivate. We all love lists, and from David Letterman's Top Tens to the never-ending music-related top tens in the famous 2000 music-geek dramatic comedy High Fidelity, Top-Whatever lists seem to be hardwired into our DNA.

In the blogging world, numbered posts are known as 'link bait' as they seem to unerringly draw traffic. It has become a universal format across the blogosphere, employed by blogs ranging from Foreign Policy Magazine online to Unlike Letterman and John Cusack's melancholy vinyl peddler, numbered blogs more often than not don't stick to the Top Ten format (to me ten seems a bit contrived and inherently less credible), but any number in the Top X format seems to do the trick just fine. In my own experience, these posts always draw the most traffic.

Why is this? Here is my own highly speculative and unscientific explanation.

1) People like small tidbits of information.

The average netizen has the attention span of a goldfish. Moreover, as people read twice as slow on a screen as they do on a printed page, this small chunk-like paragraph format works very well. Dive into the page, gobble up a few tidbits, and then head off somewhere else - that's how the Internet rolls.

2) People don't like to commit to reading an entire article.

Did I mention that people on the Internet are decidedly lacking in attention span? Reading an article with a daunting title like 'After The Wave - The Communications Lessons of 3.11' seems like a tall order after a long day at the office, and with an essayistic piece like that you feel committed to reading it in its entirety. With a list, you feel free to read a few and then leave - or keep reading if you're feeling sufficiently intrigued.

3) Lists are inherently suspenseful.

While the opt-out option of a Top-Whatever list is a definitely psychological draw, human beings tend to want to know how things end. If it's a well-written list, chances are your reader is in fact going to stick around to the end - unless they have to run off somewhere.

4) The list format is hardwired into our culture.

Thanks to Letterman, Cracked, High Fidelity and pop culture in general, lists are an integral part of how we interpret the world. And this is not new - this format dates back at least as far as Moses, who really owned the Top Ten format like nobody else in history, and the US Constitution, which modernized the format in the Enlightenment era.

5) It's appealingly irreverent.

Taking a serious topic and distilling it through the Top-Whatever format is appealingly disarming. Former Discovery magazine editor Stephen Petranek exemplifies this in his 2002 TED talk on 'the 10 most likely ways that life on the Earth could end'. It's a disarming way of tackling a serious topic that grabs your attention - and then holds on to it.

6) It's a natural lightning rod for debate.

If it's an interesting topic, people are bound to have their own opinions on what should be on said list, and people are going to want to compare and contrast with their own Top-Whatever. And people love to fill you in on all your egregious omissions.

7) It's a friendly and approachable format.

We all make lists. We've been making lists since the dawn of time. And blog posts in the form of a list feel real, genuine, not-at-all haughty. Had Fyodor Dostoyevsky rewritten Crime and Punishment as 'Top 20 Occasions When Cold-Blooded Murder Is Probably Beneficial to Society', he invariably would have had a far greater readership.

8) I guess people just like to count.

And we can all thank own favourite arithmomaniacal ex-pat Transylvanian muppet for that.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Yahwehpedia - The Bible as Precursor to Wikipedia

One of my most memorable undergrad courses was an introductory Old Testament/Hebrew Bible course I took as an extra credit course. The instructor - who introduced himself as a 'recovered fundamentalist' - introduced the topic thusly. He entered the classroom with a tape recorder, placed it on his desk and asked for a show of hands from the students assembled.

"How many of you believe in the Bible literally?" he asked. There was a peppering of hands. He then responded, "Okay, here it is." He pressed play and on came Genesis, Chapter One, Verse One - in the original Ancient Hebrew. He let it play for approximately 30 seconds and then paused the tape. "How many of you understood that?" he inquired. Not surprisingly nobody raised their hand. "Well, in that case I guess you can't take the Bible literally. And that's why you're in my class."

For those reading this post who do not adhere to literalist views of the Old and New Testament (and I'm guessing that's most of you), your response to this anecdote is probably one of "Duh, no kidding!" But it does beg the question of how one is supposed to grapple with what is indisputably the single most influential written work in the history of humanity. If not as literal truth, which it could not possibly be, how is one to approach the Bible? As a heavily sensationalized and politically biased history tome? As a work of historical fiction centred on a capricious, volatile-tempered supreme being? A chaotic amalgam of texts assembled by committee? None of these approaches seems quite satisfying.

A better analogy for the Bible, in my opinion, is the modern-day Wiki. In my previous post on children's fable, I refer to Jonathan Salem Baskin's wonderful book Histories of Social Media: 2,000 Years of Do's and Don'ts, in which he likens Wikis to premodern oral narratives, created by way of layer upon layer of input on the part of the storyteller. I would further argue that the Wiki concept applies perfectly to the creation of the Bible. This is particularly true of the oldest books in the Old Testament, which comprise the Jewish Torah, which are comprised of four distinct narrative layers - the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deutoronomist and the Priestly strands - which together span three centuries of user contribution.

The Bible is of course not alone in this format. Most if not all major religious doctrines were created in this manner, through a layering of narratives over the course of centuries. But the Bible, as a result of its size and magnitude, must be considered the mother of all premodern Wikis - and therefore the Wikipedia of the ancient world. Consider that the Old and New Testament were created by multiple authors for the purpose of creating a one-stop compendium of everything these authors knew and believed to be true at that time. It covers a vast swath of topic areas, from law and order to farming techniques to poetry to pure adventure stories, centred of course on the primary focal point of the civilization in question - belief in Yahweh.

The New Testament retains the same format, focusing instead on one very big topic - the persona of Jesus of Nazareth. By this point, you basically only have four contributors left, although each may have been a committee of writers and editors under a single name. But still, there seems to be no shortage of competing views? Was Jesus actually the Son of God, as the Gospel of John clearly states, or is the Son of Man - whatever that means - a more accurate characterization, as the Gospel of Mark states. Was he the stern lawgiver as portrayed by Matthew or the gentle healer of Luke - or a combination of both? Unfortunately we have no real way of knowing because, unlike with Wikipedia, Christ's disciples weren't required to provide footnotes.

And then it all came to an end. Fearing that disputes within the new Christian faith would undermine the stability of the Roman Empire, the Christianized Roman Emperor Constantine summoned the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. for the purpose of nailing down the Biblical canon once and for all. A decision was finally reached in 397 in Carthage, a full sixty years after Constantine's death. This brought to an end the open-source nature of the Bible in what would be the modern-day equivalent of shutting down Wikipedia from any further constribution and treating it as an online authority not to be tampered with.

Of course not everybody went along with this, and four centuries later Yahwehpedia 2.0 (also known as the Qur'an) was launched. While the Qur'an itself was not open-source, the innumerable Hadiths and other religious texts followed that very same Wiki-type format for several centuries thereafter and in a different form persists to this day in the form of the various fatwas issued by Islamic scholars throughout the Muslim world.

What does this mean? The Wikipedia model is, to my mind, a useful lens for examining the world's most important and controversial tome. Written over the course of centuries by a plethora of authors, each with their own particular slant but all striving for what they perceived to be accurate, the Bible is exactly what an ancient Middle Eastern version of Wikipedia would have looked like, grounded in contemporary understandings of how the world worked. Yes, much of it seems ridiculous to 21st century secular readers, but then again much of our present-day Wikipedia content will invariably look hopelessly ill-informed two millenia from now - should our species still be around at that time.

As for whether any or all of it was 'divinely inspired', I'll leave that hornet's nest alone. I will say, though, that if I were of a more religious disposition, I would be the first to champion the creation of a true open-source, democratic holy book for the 21st century built along the lines of Wikipedia. In sum, a true non-prophet organization.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

8 Digital Media Rules As Told By Children's Fables

Social media - is it a truly revolutionary development that is reshaping our world in a radically new fashion, or is it simply a digital recasting of ancient social patterns?

Digital media scholar and consultant Jonathan Salem Baskin maintains that there's more truth in the latter than the former. In his recent book Histories of Social Media: 2,000 Years of Do's and Don'ts, Baskin contends that while the technologies used in social media are new, the types of connections that it facilitates can be traced back many centuries, and in many ways bears a closer resemblance to medieval villages than our modern day social groupings.

The book analyzes the forms and functions of social media one by one and in all cases finds historical antecedents. Crowdsourcing? The author alleges that villagers in medieval Europe used it to learn about treatments for the Black Plague. Engagement? 19th century industrial unions planned activism in ways that make 'friending' a product or service little more than a joke. Conversation? The Roman Senate used it to run an empire while the perpetrators of the French Terror used it to commit mass murder. Debate? People have jousted and dueled for centuries. Wikis? Oral narratives were the product of waves of user contributions, as was, for that matter, the Old Testament.

In today's world, many parents and teachers worry about letting their children loose in the dangerous digital jungle of the information age, with all of its many monsters and menaces. How did their counterparts in the ancient and medieval world safeguard their kids? Thanks to Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and other social media educators of yesteryear, there has long existed an enormous body of cautionary tales about how to navigate this often dangerous terrain. And as it turns out, many of these fables apply just as well to today's social media as they did to the social and cultural landscapes that gave birth to them.

1. The Town Musicians of Bremen

Lesson: State your mission and objectives clearly when launching an online campaign.

The Musicians Of Bremen Uprising Clip ArtThe Brothers Grimm's famous folktale about four disgruntled barnyard animals who abandon their abusive keepers and set off for the town of Bremen to become town musicians is a powerful tale of emancipation from mistreatment as well as a polemic against ageism (all four are 'past their prime' in terms of their usefulness). But it's also a lesson in the power of a clearly stated goal and purpose. Had the donkey simply said, "Hey guys, we're gonna hang out, maybe play some tunes and stuff..." it's unlikely that the four beasties would have banded together so closely. As it happened, they never ended up going to Bremen but the power of their strategic plan was enough to see them through every obstacle in their path.

2. The Ugly Duckling

Lesson: Don't stick with an online tool that doesn't fit your organization.

Most if not all digital media afficionados can relate to Hans Christian Andersen's melancholy cygnet who is ostracized by his adopted duck siblings before eventually finding a welcoming community of fellow swans. Most of us were nerds and misfits of one sort or another. But the tale of the Ugly Duckling is also a lesson in compatibility and the futility of sticking with tools that don't work. Just because people or organizations closely associated with you are using a certain type of digital tool doesn't mean it will necessarily work for you. Analyze your communications needs, scout out all the available tools and choose the best match.

3. The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Lesson: Transmitting excessive irrelevant information undermines your status as a credible source.

Regrettably, social media networks are full of people who behave like the irresponsible shepherd boy in Aesop's famous tale about the perils of dishonesty. However, one doesn't even mean to be flat-out mendacious in order to suffer the same fate as the shepherd boy in today's social media world. The Boy Who Cried Wolf serves as an allegory for online reputation management, in which steady bombardment of useless information transmitted for its own sake means that genuine calls to action go unheeded. Decide what is - and isn't - worth communicating based on whether or not it meshes with your mission and stick with it.

4. The Tortoise and the Hare

Lesson: Slow and steady communication trumps sudden bursts of activity.

The story of the greatest athletic upset in all of fiction serves as a powerful allegory for social media - and for Twitter in particular. In the Twittersphere, the only way to establish yourself as an influencer is through slow and steady daily output. Short, fleeting bursts of output followed by lengthy absences will completely undermine your effectiveness. The same also applies to blogging, where short but regular posts will galvanize your status while impressive flurries of activity followed by silence will get you nowhere in the blogosphere

5. Little Red Riding Hood

Lesson: Take every measure to protect your online privacy.

This one is really a no-brainer. The character of the wolf in Charles Perrault's iconic fairy tale can be used to represent any number of online villains: hackers, identity thieves, Trojans, online name it. Having successfully gained access to Grandma's IP address, password information and various other choice bits of information, the wolf successfully commandeers her entire system and had it not been for the Deus ex machina intervention of the woodcutter-cum-IT troubleshooter, all would have been lost. At least Grandma thought to back up her system.

6. The Three Little Pigs

Lesson: Spend the money and build it properly from the beginning.

File:Three little pigs.jpgThree little companies set out on their own to build their own websites and establish solid online presences. In this case, the 'wolf' isn't a single identifiable menace but rather the cumulative effect of social and economic shifts, changing demands, the forces of competition and adversity as a whole. The third little pig invested in a first-rate website with a flexible content management system, a stable and user-friendly CRM and an intranet so as to facilitate good internal communication. The other two companies threw together something cheaper and faster - and suffered the huffing and puffing of a volatile marketplace and changing demands.

7. The Emperor's New Clothes

Lesson: Make sure you consult internally before embarking on a new tech development.

The Emeror's New ClothesHere's a fable we've all heard before. A CEO decides it's high time to embark on a stunning new digital media campaign. He hires a team of slick IT consultants who entrance him with various exotic-sounding tools, and poof - he's sold. Unfortunately, he fails to consult with his staff, his business partners and other stakeholders and winds up with a website or array of digital tools that end up being completely ill-suited for the company's activities, while the consultants walk away with a fat cheque. In the end it's a bratty intern who opines that the new system frankly sucks ass. Moral? Get a second, third, fourth opinion before you drink the Kool Aid.

8. The Shoemaker and the Elves

Lesson: Take advantage of your people and let your online community do the work.

There's something very refreshing about the Brothers Grimm's tale of the destitute shoemaker whose fortunes are dramatically reversed thanks to an enterprising team of diminutive cobblers. While a great many children's fables champion grunt work and thankless industriousness, the tale of the shoemaker and the elves tells a very different lesson - take full advantage of the help that's offered, whatever shape it may take. And nowhere is this lesson more applicable than in today's social media, where the only route to success is creating conditions where your stakeholders take over the means of communication and communicate your messages for you. Give your people the materials (information and key messages) and let them do their thing while you monitor it. And you will reap the rewards.

Got any other examples of children's fables that are allegorical to today's social media? I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Tyrants, Terrorists and the PR Firms Who Love Them

What do Adolf Hitler, Bashar al-Assad, Teodoro Obiang, Saddam Hussein, Mobutu Sese Seko and Hizbullah have in common? Apart of course from their murderous rap sheets, they all at one point or another have enlisted the services of public relations firms based in western countries.

In previous posts, I've alluded to the PR profession's very own PR problem. Public relations professionals are more often than not portrayed in films and on TV as gleefully amoral reprobates along the lines of Nick Naylor in the 2005 black comedy Thank You For Smoking and Washington 'spin doctor' Stanley Motss, played so memorably by Robert De Niro in the 1997 film Wag The Dog. Either that or they're portrayed as self-centred opportunists like Eli Gold in The Good Wife or Samantha Jones in Sex and the City or as tortured would-be altruists like fictional White House Communications Director Tony Ziegler in The West Wing.

Why the bad reputation? As with most bad reputations, it's a relatively small group of individuals who end up painting their entire community in a negative light. In the case of public relations, there indeed are practitioners who advocate on behalf of less-than-salubrious causes. And in the most extreme cases, there are indeed well-heeled PR firms in the UK, the US and elsewhere whose client lists have included the world's most appalling human rights abusers.

The dream PR client?
The role of western PR firms in propping up murderous regimes was recently highlighted in the aftermath of the suppressed anti-government revolt in the Kingdom of Bahrain, the wealthy but deeply repressive island nation in the Persian Gulf. Not long after protests broke out in the capital of Manama, it was revealed that the Bahraini government had enlisted the services of reputation management experts from Washington, DC PR firms Qorvis Communications and the Potomac Square Group, as well as the London-based Pelham Bell Pottinger.

While Bahraini forces were imprisoning and torturing protestors, these firms helped the regime denounce its most prominent critics as extremists and fifth-columnists for the Iranian regime through ominously titled divisions like Qorvis' Geo-Political Solutions branch. This campaign included fake tweeting, fake blogging (known as 'flogging') and other forms of online manipulation aimed squarely at activists like Maryam al-Khawaja, the current acting head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who continues to receive death threats while her father remains in captivity following the revolt.

Regrettably, the Bahrain case is far from unusual. The Monitor Group, a British PR firm with 29 worldwide offices, ran a PR campaign on behalf of the Qaddafi regime in Libya between 2006 and 2008 to the tune of about $3 million. In addition to helping prop up the Bahraini dictatorship, Qorvis was also for a time being paid some $60,000 a month by the repressive and obscenely corrupt regime of Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, while its colleagues at the Washington Group were in the pay of now deposed Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Of course, the relationship between PR firms and despotic regimes is nothing new. American PR pioneer Ivy Ledbetter Lee, considered by many as the father of modern public relations, is today largely remembered for his relations with the Nazi regime through the controversial German chemical industry conglomerate IG Farben. Meanwhile, his one-time rival Edward Bernays - also considered by many as the 'father of PR' - helped engineer the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 on behalf of his blue-chip client United Fruit.

All this begs the question: are there any cases in which taking on a dictatorial regime as a PR client is morally fathomable? David Wynne Morgan, the chairman and CEO of Pelham Bell Pottinger (one of the firms linked to the Bahraini regime), argues that there are good reasons to take such clients on. In an RT interview, Morgan alleges that "A country frequently will modify its actions and its policies in order to achieve perhaps what is the greater ambition of having better relations with the people they're seeking to influence, so it's a balance." All fine and good in theory, David, but I have yet to see any compelling evidence of this, least of all in Manama.

It goes without saying, of course, that the vast majority of people in the PR profession will never have anything directly to do with propping up dictatorships, terrorist organizations or other clients with prodigious body counts. But even the best-intentioned communications professionals can find themselves in thorny ethical territory. In my previous capacity as a copy editor and translator for a Tokyo translation company, I was on more than once obliged to do work for Japan's largest cigarette manufacturer, Japan Tobacco. Should I have refused to do it? Perhaps I should have, but at the time I feared it would have jeopardized my job if I did, so I did what I was asked to do.

I like to think of myself as a morally and ethically principled human being. And as a public relations practitioner, I like to think I know where my line is as regards ethically indefensible work. As much as I enjoyed Thank You For Smoking, I would never, for example, knowingly and willingly go to work for the tobacco industry. Nor would I do the same for any other industries I personally find objectionable, such as firearms, genetically modified foods or the diet industry. I have mixed feelings about oil and gas (and not just because I live in Alberta). It's a problematic industry but a necessary one, and certain companies are far more laudable in their practices than others.

While I indeed find it horrifying that there are PR professionals like me out there working to burnish the reputations of the world's most vicious and corrupt regimes, I stop short of condemning individuals within said firms. I have yet to meet anybody in the profession who is motivated solely by money and a desire of edgy and exciting clients along the lines of Muammar Qaddafi, but it's easy to see how a person in the field could end up in a situation with a firm where it would be very difficult to extricate themselves from such a situation. Establishing a firm ethical stance early, finding employers whose values align with your own and remaining alert to ethically compromising situations is probably the only answer.

Meanwhile, I will continue to savour in the guilty pleasure of movies and TV shows about nefarious, morally pliant PR people. Because they're fun.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

7 Tips For Writing Destination Articles On Places You've Never Visited

I used to do a lot of travel writing. When I lived in Tokyo, I had an assortment of semi-regular clients for whom I would write 'destination pieces' pertaining to Japan. While I don't get many of these at present (Edmonton isn't quite the blue-chip destination that Tokyo is), I do get the occasional one from old clients. This week I was approached by the editor of SilverKris, Singapore Airlines' in-flight magazine, about an article on Toronto. I, of course, don't live in Toronto and actually haven't really spent that much time there, but given my prior relationship with the magazine, my passing familiarity with Canada's 'Centre of the Universe' and the fact that I have numerous friends and colleagues there, I took the job on.

While I am somewhat familiar with Toronto, having visited the city several times, there have been instances - and this is my dirty little secret as a writer - where I've written articles on places I've never actually been to. Is this dishonest? I don't really think so. After all, I've never misrepresented my own travel experience to get a gig and in cases like this I've been upfront that I a) haven't been to the location the editor wants the scoop on, and b) won't be able to unless they pay me a enough that I am able to take the time off work, go to said location, write about it and still make money on the whole deal. That hasn't happened yet. Perhaps I'm writing for the wrong people.

While there are no doubt editors out there who would choke on my commentary here (and I'm hoping I don't lose clients by writing this), my stance is that there is nothing wrong with writing travel pieces on destinations that you personally have never visited as long as you're honest about it and you really do your research. Having said that, you do have to be careful, and there have certainly been cases in the past where I've decided that I was in no way qualified to write a particular destination piece and have turned the offer down. When it comes to making a decision on whether to take on an assignment I have my own personal guidelines. Here are my seven rules. I would be interested in hear what any other writers have to say on the subject.

Nope, haven't been here.
1) Don't go too far out of your depth.

There's only been one case where I've written a destination piece on a country I'd never visited. It was an article written for Air New Zealand for Tokyo Weekender where I was asked to profile the city of Auckland. I've never been to New Zealand and I was upfront about it, but for whatever reason they still wanted me to do it. But apart from this one case, I've only ever written about destinations I've never visited when I was already very familiar with the country and region in question and could draw at least somewhat on my own experience. You could probably write about Jasper National Park without going there if you've been to Banff or Waterton and have a grasp of Canada's Rocky Mountain Parks in general. Writing about Jammu and Kashmir without having been anywhere in northern India - that's a different story.

2) Talk to at least two different people who know it well.

This also applies to writing about a place you kind of know but haven't spent a great deal of time in. Get a second opinion. And especially if you've never been there, get a second and a third opinion, lest you be stuck with a singular viewpoint that you can't actually back up. My advice would be to find two people of different backgrounds who know a place - perhaps one native-born resident and one ex-pat. Possibly both a male and female view of the place. Get creative. If you don't know anyone from somewhere, call a local travel bureau and find someone to talk to.

3) Do your homework.

It goes without saying that you need to do your research for any travel destination piece, even one that you know intimately. Ownerships change, restaurants go out of business, people change phone numbers, new train and bus services are added - you need to stay current. This applies all the more when you're writing about a place you don't know very well - or don't know at all. Get to know the history of the place. Get to know its character. Familiarize yourself with every facet of the place that you can - everything short of physically going there. And wherever possible, immerse yourself in photographs of the place, which will help you flesh your writing out with physical description of things.

4) Use quotes from famous locals, noted authors etc.

Don't have any personal anecdotes about a place? Use other people's. I once wrote an article about famous ryokans (traditional inns) in Japan and wasn't able to get to all of them in person, but it proved to be not too difficult to dig into their histories and find out what famous people had visited them, and what certain poets of yesteryear had written about the surrounding region. Fill your writing with as much local colour as you can and say something like, "Don't take my word for it; the poet Basho thought this place was the BOMB!"

5) Profile things that don't required first-hand, on-site knowledge.

Haven't been here either.
Are there any big travel promotions on that pertain to the place you're writing about? Any new air connections, train services, tourist campaigns etc.? In the absence of a wealth of first-hand knowledge, go with information that your reader is going to want but that don't require in-depth knowledge. Remember that if your reader is engrossed in the article, they're likely actually interested in going to the place in question, which means they're going to want to know how to get there, how to get around, how can I economize while I'm there and are there any special events I need to check out. And for all of these, you can provide extensive information without having to go there yourself.

And if there aren't any special events or anything noteworthy going on, it's worth asking yourself if this particular destination is worth covering at all.

6) Check your facts after you're done.

Again, this really should go without saying. By this point, you should have established good working relations with your field sources. Run your draft by them and make sure what you're saying makes sense and actually applies. And again, if possible, get a second and possibly a third opinion.

7) If at all possible, do actually go there - even if only for a couple of hours.

To be fair, this is often impossible, but when I lived in Tokyo it was sometimes feasible to make a very quick trip someplace, get off the train, have a quick look around, find two or three interesting and/or quirky things to write about, grab a handful of brochures and go straight back to the big smoke. There were times where I didn't even leave the vicinity of the main railway station and was still able to get a quick sense of the vibe of a place - before grabbing a few brochures, talking to a few people in the local tourist office and then leaving. That's not going to be possible everywhere (namely in Canada), but wherever possible you should find a way to actually go somewhere, even if it's for a split-second in travel terms. If nothing else, it'll make the assignment easier.

For your reading pleasure, here's the article I wrote on Japan's historic ryokan back in the summer of 2008. Hint: of the six inns profiled in the article, I was only actually able to visit three of them. I would be curious to know if you can guess which ones they were.