6 May 2016

Can digital longform content talk to the Buzzfeed generation when under the social media influence?

By Brad Rees

Last week I realised the true value of being a follower when I discovered an amazing story by Hillsborough survivor, Adrian Tempany, after it was promoted in a tweet by sportswriter David Conn

It was 5,000 words long, which meant a lot of iPhone thumbscrolls on a Sunday afternoon when I should have been helping with the washing-up. But even the clear and present danger of a domestic bollocking couldn’t stop me from reading the whole piece, crying a bit, en-scroll.

In an offline format, if you were to include the usual print furniture of headlines, photos, captions, breakouts, adverts – the piece would have been a 7-8 page spread.

I’m a painfully slow reader so absorbing this body of content end to end probably took me the best part of 30 minutes or 1,800 seconds to imbibe.

In audience research parlance, I am what is known as a ‘hyper-engaged user’, a news-reading zealot who can be relied upon to deliver the big minutes that ad sales teams use in pitches to ensure the content vessel stays afloat.

According to the latest reading-habit research from the Pew Research Center, I index by 567% above the average time a mobile visitor in their cohort spends on 5,000+ word stories. But here’s the thing – not many of them ever get to the end of a longform article on a smartphone, however hyper-engaged.

Mister Tempany’s editorial odyssey of the collective grief shared by Merseyside friends and families over the unlawful killing of 96 of their loved ones at a football match inspired me to shoot the the link to a handful of mates with the imperative, ‘READ THIS’.

Random chats with these pals through the week elicited their feedback, which corroborated the Pew research; not one of them had finished the article, although they had all tried and read ‘quite lot of it’. This further corroborates the research which says that the more words an article has on a smartphone or tablet, the more invested the visitor will be in that content.

There were elements of the research which were uncorroborated, like the notion that reading habits depend on where the reader has come from, digitally speaking.

A content punter, they say, who starts a longform piece from an internal link, spends an average of 148 seconds, compared to the social media blow-ins who fritter a mere 111 seconds of their attention to the narrative.

My experience was much less cut and dried, if not diametrically opposed to the Institute’s insights. I was under the social media influence of a tweet from a writer not a media owner.

So when I read  …

… this awareness-raising tweet induced me to read the piece from start to finish, something I would not have done in my natural clickstream behaviour on the Guardian website.

In my more self-critical moments I ponder whether my lack of gravitas or credibility is the reason why my friendorsement of the same article lacked the same velocity.

There’s a powerful message to media owners and their protagonists around the value of online content and it being seriously diminished, if the author is ignored or taken for granted.

The Adrian Tempany piece is Ulyssean in its form and its content. In a data-driven, performance-centric media environment – it’s tempting to somehow bow to the wisdom of machines and metrics, not forgetting the incisive research from respected think-tanks like Pew – the risk is we prohibit the human who conveys the human to the human and that’s what advertisers really want, if you follow me.


Justice, finally: a Hillsborough survivor’s story By Adrian Tempany

Long-Form Reading Shows Signs of Life in Our Mobile News World By Pew Research

28 Apr 2016

Is Apple on the precipice of going Nokia-wards?

Tim Cook will have woken to the news that Facebook has tripled its advertising revenues.

The news has stunned Wall Street in much the same way that Apple’s revenue-drop news, 24 hours previously, had shocked the media world. The surprise came despite an apparent expectation management exercise, masterminded by mister Cook in January.

Apple soothsayers and naysayers are currently pondering the significance of recent fiscal reports which frame Apple’s fortunes by a 10-million unit drop in iPhone shipments.

In the first analysis it would seem absurd to liken the potentially emerging negative Apple trend to the dystopian destiny of, say Nokia – especially given the Cupertino giant’s cash mountain of $233bn – a little more than Finland’s total GDP.

The reason for the sales slump is widely attributed to the company grappling with the Chinese economy, where the mass market consumer can’t afford a £50 smartphone.

It’s all going to be fine though, according to mister Cook who proclaimed with an Old Testament-like zeal ‘This Too Shall Pass’ – after the company lost over $40 billion in its value.

Flashback to Nokia, it’s 2003 and a 14-strong Nokia account garrison march into a mobile phone operator sales meeting to reveal its worst kept secret, the 18-month product roadmap. It contained the usual kooky Finnish faves: phones that looked like spaceships, phones that aped miss-shaped boxes of chocolates and not one touchscreen phone among them.

When the Espoo troops were asked why they serially resisted the new touchscreen tendency that was showing up in all consumer research across demographics, cultures, ethnicity they dismissed it as a blip. Their research indicated the mobile phone market was still fundamentally about fashion i.e. colour, form, shape – the consumer wanted cameras not touchscreens!

Posturing and denials like this signposted the unravelling of the much-loved Nokia brand. Even though there were short-term heydays ahead, like the launch of the fantastically fast and powerful internet-friendly, N95, Nokia revenues started to decline irretrievably when Steve Jobs heralded the advent of the touchscreen in 2007.

Mediacells’ analysis of the revenue cycle peaks for both Nokia and Apple shows immense growth which, in Nokia’s case at least, culminated in terminal decline in a market where new competitors, like Apple, began to define a new mobile narrative.

Mobile was no longer about fashion and fancy, it was about lifestyle companionship and smartphone behaviours finally evolved to include constant app and internet usage.

The future of the iPhone is to some extent out of Tim Cook’s hands, the strong macro-economic headwinds blowing from the East are impossible for the West, let alone Apple to shield from. But Apple does need to come up with a radical new innovation programme rather than just the current incremental improvements to existing products.

There was a ‘Nokia moment’ when the roadmap rumour started circulating around the iPhone 7. It would include a redesigned home button, proprietary headphone port, and a dust and water-proof jacket. Is this enough for an iPhone 6s customer to upgrade – to change the fundamental way I navigate my iPhone and plug myself into my music even if it will survive a toilet dive?

There’s a step change missing in the Apple product roadmap, somewhere between underwhelming product launches, like the smartwatch, to the Wall Street whispers of life-changing future products, like electric cars and virtual reality hardware.

Facebook, Spotify and YouTube are already delivering content on what some tech pundits and twonks are calling the fourth, even fifth screen. It could be on the dashboard of a car, on a smartwatch, a cooker, a TV or even in a smart shower.

This internet of stuff can’t rely on a piece of hardware – that would make it far too emotional if it were ever to get lost, broken, infected or stolen. Quite literally, the key to our future everyday lives would need to be completely reset.

As Tim Cook promises a product pipeline with ‘amazing innovations in store’, expectations are perhaps being set instead of managed.


15 Apr 2016

Don’t be evil, try telling that to the robots!

It’s 1977. The Goblin Teasmade advert is on television screens, Punk is hitting the UK streets and Clifton Country Primary (CCP) are engaged in the dying embers of a grudge soccer match against arch pre-teen rivals, Mayfield. It’s nil-nil. 

CCP have just brought on a substitute, Steven Roundtree. He’s new to the team and it turns out new to the rules of English football but fresh legs are required. The diminutive Mayfield goalie takes several strides back in a studied run-up to the last goal kick of the game.

Insanely, Roundtree charges towards the spot and rockets the ball into the top right corner of the Mayfield net, before screaming back up the wing, fists pumping, anticipating the schoolboy pats, hugs, plaudits that never come.

I thought of Steven Roundtree when I read about the Racist Robot debacle, this week. If the story hasn’t somehow hit your Facebook-curated news algorithm, it centres around a Microsoft PR techno-wheeze which spectacularly backfired in the megacorp’s face.

The software leviathan was not to know that releasing a machine-learning program, known as ‘Tay’ into the internet wild to ‘improve customer service’ would have the equivalent effect of putting Attila the Hun in charge of the Brexit campaign.

Within hours, a bunch of horrible trolls got hold of the algorithm and poisoned the innocent Tay with nazi invective.

Within hours of letting the new-born bot loose on Twitter, teen-voiced Tay’s timeline was transformed from saccharine-sweet tweets like ‘humans are super cool’ to a more jackboot-stomping cadence, fuelled with anti-social juvenile vitriol such as ‘her’ now infamous tweet, ‘Hitler was right’.

All this on the same day that tech-beat BBC radio journeyman, Rory Cellan-Jones was allowed a segment on the highbrow Today Programme with Siri reading out the news to highlight some esoteric story about how ‘bots’ (wtf, asks Radio 4 listener Missus Lampeter of 1 Acacia Drive, Eastcote) are the new apps.

If the Beeb had waited a few hours, it could have had Tay vomiting out the news in a kind of techno-tourets.

The Meta story here is that most Internet of Things (IoT). No longer a geek boy plaything, IoT is now the cipher for how we will soon do everything, or rather, have everything done for us. It’s like the Goblin Teasmade of the digital age.

Soon, and we’re talking years, machines will undertake all of the drudgery of our daily lives at work and in the home as well as transcending the art of headline writing, language translation and forecasting natural disasters or avoiding terror attacks. Recently, Google’s machine learner Al beat the top player of the ancient and complex game, Go, at the DeepMind Challenge.

So how then, with this super-abundance of intelligence did Microsoft’s Tay get all ‘her’ social sums so wrong and what does this say about the future of a small thing called humanity?

As Steve Hawking says in Wired magazine, “A super intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”

Thought leaders and pioneers of machine learning are of the same voice as Dr Hawking. The prestigious MIT Media Lab appointed a Dalai Lama-grade monk to its Ethics panel, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, philosopher, philanthropist, polymath and all-round virtuous big brain. The artificial intelligence and governance initiative aims to examine ‘meaningfulness and moral purpose’ between individuals, organisations and societies.

The High-Church ‘don’t be evil’ Google aspiration will hopefully pass on its mantra to the internet of things. When neuroboffin Demis Hassabis’s company Deepmind was acquired by Google for $400 million, he reportedly asked the search giant to create an ethics board to oversee its AI research as a condition of its acquisition, which it did, autonomously.

Microsoft’s Tay marauded around the internet for 24 hours before being shut down. Steven Roundtree was allowed a few fist pumps before he was summarily sent to Coventry for throwing the 1977 Inter-Primary School Cup final for CCP. I wonder if he ever learned from that experience. I bet Tay has.


Steven Roundtree is not his real name.


17 Mar 2016

Machine-learner difficulties

Google’s Al might have stuffed the Go champ but youthful instagrammers are sticking it to the machine. Google’s Al beat the top player of the ancient and complex game, Go, at the DeepMind Challenge, recently. It didn’t so much beat the South Korean champion, Lee Sedol, as wipe the board with him 4 straight wins […]

9 Mar 2016

Is it ‘time to die’ for print?

Last week’s launch of a print-only newspaper excited journalists – but is it sustainable in a digitised consumer world? When I started my newspaper career in the late nineties ‘digital’ was called ‘the bloody internet’. “Forget about the bloody internet,” my ink-stained tabloid boss would argue, before resting his case on some surreal, qualitative Hollywood […]