OpenTech 2010

13 September 2010

This year’s OpenTech was, as usual, full of interesting and inspiring talks. It’s interesting seeing how it’s come on from its roots in NTK’s Festival of Inappropriate Technology and NotCon. It’s a bit tidier and shinier than its predecessors – no more loyalty card swapping or best carrier bag competitions, and the infamous iPod Shuffle Shuffle was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it’s a sign of how the UK tech scene has grown up, just a little, as this year’s OpenTech was more serious and down to business, but nevertheless as earnest and excited as ever. Unlike other years I’m not going to cover what happened in painstaking detail (not when you can just follow the hashtag on Twitter) but I have scribbled down some random thoughts spilling off my brain…

The political subtext of government data
One of the reasons we can be more serious these days is that the years of relentless campaigning have paid off, and we are now getting more and more open data from the government, and other sources, to mash up, with a variety of results such as traffic injury maps, finding postboxes or visualising spending cuts.

This is, by and large, fab – getting the full potential out of the data that has been gathered by the government at public expense by letting the public explore it. It’s even possible to envision how this data can be used to disrupt or even disprove party political beliefs and theories by exposing them to cold, hard data. But a deluge of data does not mean the end of theory (as Chris Anderson has expounded). Data is not some cut-and-dried artefact free of politics or prejudices.

Hadley Beeman‘s talk on the challenges facing those playing with such data. She explained often there are things such as reference numbers, acronyms – a whole unspoken culture behind the data – which can get stripped out when presented to the wider public. And this got me thinking about subtext behind datasets; what are the unspoken assumptions being made in their collection, or the process behind the design of the system that has collected them?

For example, lets take performance data from schools; usually visualised as a league table, they become the focus of obsession by parents. The league tables have however become the focus of much ire from within the education profession, BERG have attempted to make more of the data with their Schooloscope project – which looks lovely and more user-friendly than columns of figures in newspapers, but misses the point – the league tables aren’t demonised because of their format, but because they may not accurately represent the performance of a school – they may ignore social disadvantages a school’s intake may suffer from, ignore extra-curricular activity or that “soft” subjects are given the same prominence as “hard” subjects. Which of these factors you think really matters will largely be down to your political beliefs, and conversely, the decisions that led to this data being recorded and the way it was assessed, broken down and analysed will also be politically influenced.

There is a feedback loop as well – recording this data in a particular way can end up affecting the very thing we’re trying to assess. After years of being incentivised to perform better in league tables, schools are now accused by some of being little more than coaching centres for children to pass exams than providing them with a full and rich education to prepare them for life. This is not a universally-agreed fact either, but an opinion shaped and refracted by the critic’s political beliefs; even if you agree it’s happening, you may disagree on whether it’s a good or bad thing. In short, the whole process of collecting data – supposedly simple, neutral and objective – opens a can of political worms and can create polarised debate. Simply opening up data and casting many eyes over it is not going to make the controversies about these data go away. And in fact, by doing so without questioning the subtext, we can end up unwittingly complying with the social and political aims of those who collect it.

This might sound a bit paranoid, and wanky, and so I’ll stress that this should not dampen enthusiasm for doing more with out data. The data being opened up (not just by the government, but by the BBC, the Guardian and many other providers) has so many potential uses and ways of enriching us socially. But at the same time we should always be questioning the provenance of data, think about the decisions that had to be made in structuring that data, and asking not just about the data we have got, but what useful data might be missing.

Context, failure and hindsight
Another thing that Hadley mentioned, and worth considering is that occasionally civil servants make mistakes collating data. At the moment this can be difficult to annotate, to explain where a mistake has happened and how it was made – and this is something we need to encourage, for else how will organisations learn? But to demand this we also need to possess a degree of tolerance ourselves. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to apportion blame quickly (especially in a post-Twitter age of instant reaction), but doing so may end up being counterproductive. Indeed, a culture of fear may already encouraging civil servants and politicians to stop recording controversial meetings or opinions for fear of being found out later with an FoI request (as anecdotes from Ireland have hinted at). Less apoplectic rage and a greater tolerance of sharing stories of failure are needed if we want free thought and debate inside our governments – indeed, that’s a lesson that has lots of applications outside of government data as well.

Futureproofing and archiving
Bill Thompson gave a stirring talk on the need for archiving our analogue past digitally, before we become so detached from analogue that we don’t think any of it is worth saving. Bill took the pessimistic view that our kids might not archive our analogue stuff, which I think is a little unfair on them, but if that warning spurs us on to get it done then the ends justify the means, I guess.

The obsession with archiving now has struck me as somewhat odd – we live in era where storage space is near-infinitely abundant and yet we are more worried about losing our culture than any other age in history. Did the scribes of the Lindisfarne Gospels factor in the possibility their work would still be around 1,300 years in the future? Even once a cultural artefact has become deemed a classic, preservation has often not been on the minds of those in charge of them – Michelangelo’s David was left outside exposed to the elements for centuries. Even attempts to preserve works, such as with Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or Stonehenge, can involve damaging or radically altering the original so it is no longer the same as what it was, leaving us potentially with a Ship of Theseus rather than a “genuine” cultural artefact. Then again, in an age where people make money selling fake versions of forgeries, maybe that doesn’t matter so much?

As information has become less scarce (we now apparently produce more bits in two days than we did in all human history up to 2003), paradoxically we’ve become increasingly obsessed with preserving it. Maybe it has something to do with the volatility of our storage – all it takes is your hard disk to be corrupted and you could lose years of your work. Or the effect of the internet on giving us information at our fingertips means we’re now capable of knowing what we would lose if these archives disappeared. Or maybe it’s just hindsight and a selective memory – we lament all those thoughtlessly-wiped episodes of Doctor Who, and are now much more sensitive to data loss, but we’re not so fussed about all the editions of The Cliff Richard Show that got deleted too.

Or maybe it’s because digital archiving implies, with the limitless copying it allows, perfection and immortality. Once a cultural artefact is scanned, ripped and uploaded, then we can make as many copies of the digital version as we like, and that digital version will be perfect – so we don’t have to worry about losing or mutilating the original. But then that relies on an awful lot of assumptions. How long will the hard drives or DVDs we store them on stay true, and will we always have device drivers for them? Will the HTTP protocol, or the JPEG compression algorithm exist in 100 years time? Will we even think of computer data as something stored on machines as 1s and 0s by then?

There is a warning from the not-too-distant past. The BBC Domesday Project of 1986 was an attempt to digitally record Britain on laserdisc, like the original Domesday Book of 1086, yet within 15 years the discs were almost unreadable due to a lack of suitable equipment (thankfully, geeks have now made sure the format lives on). A working group I once attended at Cambridge discussed points like this when talking about approaches to digitising the university’s library; the magnitude of time one person was talking about was in the tens of thousands of years. It was exciting stuff – rarely do we ever consider our future as long as that – but also sobering.

Fortunately, the BBC are more forward-thinking than some other organisations, and the lessons of Domesday were learned a long time ago; judging from their posts about archiving, futureproofing digital formats is foremost in their thinking. Digital doesn’t necessarily entail persistent. As an aside, this can act as a reassurance to those worried that youthful digital transgressions could ruin their future lives. Most of the stuff I’ve created online up until 2003 (when I started this blog and properly archived stuff) has now disappeared into the aether, maybe only accessible through dipping into archive.org; whatever youthful transgressions there may have been are now gone. A lot of data can and does get lost over time.

So yes, let’s archive as much of our analogue past while we still can, we will be the richer for it culturally, but let’s not think it necessarily means it will live forever. And while we’re at it, we should become more comfortable with the notion that it’s okay if we lose some stuff from time to time – it’s a fact of life, and if we get too obsessed with preserving everything, we’ll never have time to make anything new.

Excellent stuff to look out for
In short: Ben Goldacre‘s launching a project to keep track of abandoned or never-published medical trials. Keep also an eye out for Rob McKinnon’s Whoslobbying.com as well. The guys at Young Rewired State showed that despite the relatively poor provision of teaching code in schools, there are some great young talented enthusiastic hackers coming up and making things like this. I missed the talk about Frontline SMS but really like the idea – not everyone has a fancy smartphone after all (see also Terence’s excellent talk on designing for all phones). Finally, I will probably be playing a bit with Scraperwiki and the datasets on data.gov.uk, amongst other things…


Cooking at Nom Nom Nom

18 July 2010

A bit late, this – thought I published this before I went on holiday to Scotland – I get back and find I scheduled it a month later than I should have (doh). Anyway – a different post from the usual as I talk about another one of things I like doing, a lot, which is food.

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Last week I took part in one of the most fun and interesting blogger events I’ve ever been invited to. Nom Nom Nom, or “The Bloggers’ Masterchef’, is a cook-off organised in aid of Action Against Hunger by the ever-enthusiastic and energetic Annie Mole (of Going Underground fame), held at the fantastic Cookery School on Little Portland Street in central London.

I felt a bit daunted before the event kicked off. I’m not a food blogger – I write about tech and politics and take the piss out of the Daily Mail; I’m someone who very much enjoys their cooking, but to be in the kitchen with “proper” food bloggers? I was intimidated. Luckily, my cooking partner (and flatmate) Tom (aka @flashboy) has done one of these before, and my nerves were (just about) calmed when he said it wasn’t as competitive as I feared.

Like all good geeks, I made sure I read up and practiced beforehand, eventually settling on three dishes that were summery. Tagliata, seared Italian beef with rocket & tarragon to start; sea bass baked on vine tomatoes with spinach, pine nuts and raisins for the main, and an English summer berry trifle as our dessert (and also our compulsory cold dish). We can’t claim originality – the starter & main came from Tom Norrington-Davies’ Eagle Cookbook, the trifle from Nigel Slater’s Appetite.

The blessing with nearly all of what we cooked is that we could get UK-based ingredients in season – the beef English, the sea bass from Anglesey, the fruit & vegetables from local farmers’ market – it was only the small things like the olive oil and raisins that would have to come from further afield. Furthermore, all the dishes were relatively easy to make and not too daunting, especially in a high-pressure environment.

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The tagliata went like a dream – a really nice cut of Hereford sirloin, seared on grillpan and then thinly sliced. Tarragon is an odd choice of herb to go with beef, but there was something about the aniseediness which works well with the rocket. The recipe we had also called for new potatoes – in retrospect though they were probably a distraction from the dish and didn’t add much.

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The fish was perhaps the simplest of the three dishes to cook, just season well, slash the flesh open to help it cook a bit quicker, and lay down on a bed of juicy sweet tomatoes & sliced garlic. I might have overdone it with sloshing the white wine on, which ended up making the toms being a bit soggy, but it still tasted fantastic. You might worry sea bass is a bit delicate to be overburdened by tomatoes, but it actually works out fine.

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Tom took charge of the dessert – alas in order to conform with the no cooking rule we had to use ready-made custard. A chance encounter in the newsagents led us to find some sherbert flying saucers, so he adorned each of the sundae glasses of trifle with them, which ended up as a really nice quirky little touch.

The upside of all of our dishes was that they didn’t require that much preparation. The downside is that they didn’t take much time to cook either, so after a lull in the middle after all the prep, the final few minutes were a real stress. We didn’t have a big enough pan for the spinach, so we had to do it in batches, without ruining by burning the pine nuts (something I was very careful not to do). By the time it came to plating up I was in a rush, so it wasn’t as neat as it could have been.

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We weren’t expecting to win, yet… well it turned out we were right, ‘cos we didn’t. But I was happy with what we cooked – especially when it was clear there were some genuinely talented cooks in the competition. Nevertheless we did get some lovely plaudits about our sea bass, and the trifle, including from the winners, which I’m going to to take as a top-grade compliment. Best of all, it was a real pleasure working in a proper kitchen, and with proper staff – the Cookery School’s staff were absolute angels from start to finish, tirelessly helping us with our every whim, and not minding when pressure meant there was no time for “please” and “thank you”.

It was also really good getting to know other bloggers, and indeed getting to know my own flatmate better – Tom tends to downplay his own culinary skills but at the cookup, but after that I now know he is a perfectly good kitchen lackey assistant chef in his own right as well.

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Many thanks go to the Cookery School (whose kitchen really is excellent), and the many people who made it happen, including Rosalind, Annie and Chris Osburn (who took all the pictures above, and I’m very grateful for him doing so, as I had no time to take proper pics). The event’s not quite over yet – the sponsors have donated prizes to a charity raffle in aid of Action Against Hungergo buy a ticket now to help make a difference.

Update: The Viewer’s Choice award is now up and running over at the Nom Nom Nom website – if you liked the look of what Tom & I cooked, or you just like us anyway, then place a vote for our team, Nom Nom Nom De Plume. Vote early, and vote often – you can vote once a day ;)


“Your Freedom” is a failure. How to make it better

1 July 2010

Today the Government launched a new website called “Your Freedom” – designed for members of the public to suggest repeals or modifications of laws they find restrictive or bureaucratic. The name’s a little misguided from the start – after all, laws can be used to guarantee and enforce freedoms as well as restrict them, so merely repealing a law does not necessarily entail “freedom”. But let’s let that pass.

This could have been a nice idea; crowdsourcing opinions from ordinary citizens and the wider public away from the professional lobbyists or niche activists and giving them a more coherent and representative voice. It could be used to take a hard look at some of the laws that people have found restrictive over the years, whether they be anti-terror laws, anti-smoking or anti-foxhunting (for the sake of this analysis, I’m deliberately being neutral on what I think of these respective matters). Instead, it’s so vague and generalised that it’s become “a massive dickhead magnet” (© Justin) within hours of opening.

The submission form (login required) doesn’t ask for specifics on which laws or regulations should be looked at, but rather “ideas”, which renders it near-pointless. The questions for the form fields are so vague – “What is your idea?” and “Why is your idea important?” that you could literally put anything there. The moderation policy implies they operate post-moderation – i.e. no moderation – with little or no prescreening at all.

The result is that any old shit can get in, and it does. Even if those ideas are proposing adding more new laws, rather than taking them away – such as Restrict Immigration which turns into a rambling stream of barely-consciousness:

… Schools cannot cope with the amount of children who speak different languages and it is holding back our children’s education. The same with gypsies. If this is a life style they choose, fine. Contribute to the tax pot or do not expect use of public services. Why should taxpayers provide taxis for their children to attend schools etc. Ridiculous.

The ideas look like something that’s fallen off the back of Have Your Say. In fact actually if you look at the relevant HYS page you’ll see exactly that – people spelling out just how they want the government to enforce their own petty prejudices rather than reform what we have. Let’s look at the comments beneath:

Prison meant to be for punishment, but the so called Human Rightists…

Ok enough. Next…

My proposal would be for a new law…

Oh, fuck off.

So, what can we learn from this? First off, design your site better. If you want people to propose changes to laws, then make the users think about those laws when submitting. There should be a mandatory field asking them to specify which acts or regulations they would want to change – e.g. “Terrorism Act 2000″. Anyone who just writes “laws about immigrunts“, or doesn’t put a proper name for the law, or the year, filter it out.

(This has a beneficial side-effect – with a bit of fuzzy parsing, we could include a link to the relevant law on OPSI in the proposal so we can look up the more relevant section, and it also makes finding related proposals on the same law easy, a sort of auto-tagging).

Secondly, pre-moderate. If a proposed change is totally incompatible with our international obligations, say if some idiot wants to get rid of all human rights legislation or leave the EU or scrap the NHS, the moderation team should have the sanity and bravery to filter it out. Anything badly spelt, in all caps, copy & pasted from The Chap or proposing repealing murder, bin it. This is not an issue of denying freedom of speech – the green ink brigade are free to write wherever they like – but of keeping the site a proper and sensible civic space. If you want to get the most out of an online community, you have to keep it in good order.

Thirdly, delete duplicates and employ an algorithm to suggest duplicates to a user before they post – look at the number of duplicates for repealing the Digital Economy Act (though you’d think geeks especially would check for dupes before posting). Having five posts all call for the same thing dilutes the popularity of all of them, and leads to incoherent arguments for their repeal, weakening it further.

The shame is that here and there on the site there are constructively-argued ideas to help fix parts of our legislation that are inefficient or restrictive – for example CRB checks, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act or financial risk for small entrepreneurs (not that I agree with any of these, just that these were examples that look properly thought-out and considered at the very least).

As it stands, the site will end up as a total mess – in fact it’s well on the way there already. When it comes to closing the site down, I bet the politicians will take one look at all the “ban human rights act it give free school meals for wearing a burka” posts, shrug their shoulders and say that “the citizens have spoken, but it’s utter rubbish – they had their chance and they blew it”. No, the government who have blown it – they had their chance to make a valuable public resource, but we’ve instead got another poorly-designed, poorly-maintained failure.


The greatest show on earth (till the next one)

7 June 2010

The 2010 World Cup is almost upon us – so here’s a quick housekeeping message. Like when I watch Arsenal matches, I’m moving most of the footy Tweeting over to @gnnr to save annoying everybody else. And after mulling the idea for years, I’ve finally set up a football blog – called @qwghlm #wc2010 for the moment, it’ll be a Tumblelog of photos, videos, links, quotes and other things (Tumblr seemed a better fit than WordPress for the job). Check it out, and I hope you enjoy it!


One day, all news will look like this

7 June 2010

Six months ago, during the Tiger Woods sex scandal non-story that gripped America, a curiosity cropped up from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily News. There had been no footage of the incident that sparked it all off – Woods crashing his car – and traditionally this might have been covered by either a still graphic or just describing the incident verbally. Thanks to computer technology, the Apple Daily had a much more inspired solution: if there isn’t any footage of the incident, no problem! Just make up your own instead:

The videos went viral in a sort of curious “let’s laugh at the cultural differences” way, similar to how Engrish gets covered in patronising Western media. And to be fair, the animation’s a bit wonky, and the Tiger Woods avatar doesn’t look very much like him at all to be honest. But nevertheless, it showed how far we have come. It’s now possible to turn around, within the time demands of 24 hour rolling news, a simulation of an incident if we’re unable to get actual coverage of it. The company behing it’s called Next Media Animation and they showcase their news simulation extensively on their website.

The Woods video was comical, but more worrying is when the events depicted within the simulation don’t necessarily have to be true. When allegations of Gordon Brown’s temper in the workplace broke a couple of months later, Apple Daily were quick to the mark, with an animated Gordon Brown causing trouble with his animated underlings:

Note the simulation of him physically striking an aide in the face at about 0:45. Though Brown’s temper and verbal transgressions are well known, he vigorously denied ever physically striking any of his subordinates, and no substantial claim of physical violence has been placed against him. It’s now possible to create simulations of events that don’t happen, and pass them off as being real. Apple Daily’s presence in Hong Kong and Taiwan rather than the UK (thus making legal redress more difficult), plus the inevitable language barrier, probably gives them more licence with the story; indeed, the English version of the video omits the simulated striking.

Perhaps as a defence, you can say it doesn’t look much like Gordon Brown (to me he’s more like a greying Ed Balls) and the animation still has a slightly unrealistic, wonky look to it. But some of the videos are more realistic than others. Two examples: firstly, coverage of the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March:

Secondly, and I’m not going to embed this one as it really is far too graphic, is a simulation, gunshots and all, of Derrick Bird’s massacre of 12 people in Cumbria last week. The link is here, but be warned it’s full-on.

In both cases the animation is more realistic for several reasons. One, the protagonists were not publicly recognisable people before the news story broke, so the constraints of facial simulation are not such a problem and more artistic licence can be taken. Secondly – and particularly in the Cumbria shootings – the elements of the story are very much like the animated action in some video games (as betrayed by the numerous tasteless GTA jokes in the comments beneath the video), something which 3D animators are more likely to be adept with.

Inevitably though, the technology will get better – particularly once TV news outlets in the West pick up on the idea and realise it’s a cheaper and quicker alternative to real journalism. The quality may never match reality, but it doesn’t need to – our visual recollection of news events is fuzzy and not an exact copy of what we see. For example, recently Slate performed a survey of people’s reactions and recollections of images from faked news events, such as Barack Obama purportedly shaking Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hand (the two men have never even met). Even though these images were Photoshopped and did not happen, many survey respondents still “remembered” the events as having happened and recalled their “feelings” at the time.

The old adage was that newspapers are the first draft of history. This technology looks like being the zeroth draft of history – a way of representing something before we get actual coverage of it, and we run the risk of it becoming our default interpretation of events. Somewhere in poststructuralist limbo, Baudrillard is laughing at us, saying “I told you so”.

Thanks & a hat tip to @rhodri on Twitter for Tweeting about the Derrick Bird video, which is what sparked this post.


Looking at The Times’ new paywall

4 June 2010

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to The Times’ preview of their new website – which as virtually everyone knows, they plan to put behind a paywall at the end of this month. Rupert Murdoch’s edict is clear: he’s going to make people do what they’ve not done for a long time before, and that is pay for online news, and deny the search engines their share of what he sees as his pie.

With the new paywall comes a new look and a new structure. The URLs are much better for starters – thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk rather than the tautological timesonline.co.uk. And the designs are quite gorgeous, for a newspaper website; as one of the the Times editorial staff mentioned – the design of most other UK broadsheets tend to blur into each other. This layout employs larger photos and a more flexible page layout, mimicing paper news as well:

The paywall has afforded the Times and Sunday Times a few additional luxuries that free news misses out on; there’s no clutch of Twitter and Digg icons that clutter other news sites are no longer there, but of course the really big change is the reduction in advertisements. Without them, the site is so much cleaner, although it is not totally bereft of them – but to be honest, it wouldn’t look like a newspaper if it didn’t have any ads at all, would it? And the increased premium on those ads should mean an end to garish Flash animations, rollover, popunders, lightboxes and the rest.

Sadly for the Times’ designers, in order to pull off such a beautiful website that looks so much like a real newspaper, the controls have had to take a back seat. The menubars at the top rely on rollovers, and navigation buttons are small and fiddly; as an example, the pagination controls on the Sunday Times’ carousels are absolutely tiny:

All are fine for those of us on large monitors and point & click devices. But it comes at the same time as the iPad’s launch in the UK, and everyone’s talking about tablets as the future. A new iPhone is expected in the summer and the design paradigm of touchscreen smartphones is here to stay. Controls built for point and click, tiny icons and buttons and all, simply don’t work with stubby fingers on smeared screens.

The Times’ developers aren’t of course that stupid, and the same week the new site launched, an iPad app came out as well; Times and Sunday Times iPhone apps have also been released, although oddly the UI consists of zooming & navigating a PDF of the newspaper which then clicks through to fairly rudimentary mobile-friendly renderings of articles. A sign, perhaps, that things are a little rushed. Thinking isn’t also joined up across the pricing; accessing the Times & Sunday Times website and iPhone apps, the same subscription applies, but the iPad app is a separate subscripion of £10 a month instead. As a consequence, I fear a lot of time and effort is being duplicated over satistfying so many different platforms and pricing models.

Ah yes, pricing models. £2 a week for subscription is about £9 a month, but for £10 a month I can get all the music in the world on Spotify, or £12 a month I can get four TV channels, a shedload of radio, and a news website from the BBC.1 The price of just one newspaper2 a week doesn’t quite match up. £1 for a single day’s newspaper is even odder, in a digital market where a music track or iPhone game costs less, and last a lot longer – there is nothing tangible to keep or line the cat litter tray with at the end.

But then maybe Rupert need not worry. If News International starts bundling Times subscriptions with Sky packages, or other marketing tie-ins with partners, then all of a sudden that £9 a month looks a little less expensive, standalone, and more of a complete whole. So the Times will make money. With a little clever marketing they’ll probably make enough to justify the initial expense and loss of revenue from adverts.

Interestingly, it also raises some interesting possibilities. I’ve discussed here before about the tragedy of comments on news and how it devalues news websites so. But by fencing off the Times all of a sudden now becomes an interesting social experiment; as a further step they will be insisting on real names. It could be the start of a morecivil, closely-knit, vibrant community without the trolls and drive-by snarking (I hope). Conversely, now that commenters have paid up their subscriptions, their expectations about the website’s content will rise accordingly, and now the community management team there have a sizeable task on their hands.

So exciting Times. But at what other cost? Search, for one. The typical user journey for a non-subscriber is via the front page. Click on a link and an overlay will come up asking you to log in or sign up. Straightforward for a human, but that applies to the search engines just as well. When I pressed with a question about it, it was confirmed that unless a Times story was on the front page of the site, then not even the headline will appear in Google’s index for that URL. Sure, Rupert hates Google, but even they have found how to balance comprehensive search indexing with respecting paywalls – just look at how Google Scholar works.

It’s not just search engine robots that will be bemused by the paywall. Any bookmarking service that spiders the site you’re bookmarking – Digg, Reddit or perhaps most crucially, Facebook – checks ahead for the title and an excerpt (and photo thumbnail). The Times however, by refusing any sort of robot-friendly preview URL, ends up looking quite lost – for example, this it what happened when I bookmarked an article in Facebook:

To some extent, search and sharing don’t matter so much now you don’t depend on eyeballs. But nevertheless, the user experience still needs to be great to retain paying customers. For example, I for one rarely use my browser history to find a page I want to revisit that I last read a few days ago; with a rough recollection of its source and topic, I can probably find that page quicker in Google. If I were a Times paid subscriber, I’d be unable to do this with any Times pages I visited, and this might prove to be an annoying quirk at the very least.

But the bookmarking bug would irk me more. If there’s a great article that is worth parting with a quid for (overpriced though I think that is), then any sharing on Facebook, Twitter or Delicious, helps me let my friends and others readers know. Publishing socially-important metadata such as the headline and a one-line precis, while keeping the rest of the content behind the paywall, does nothing to devalue the content but is a quick win in extending its possible reach. With word of mouth so important for news consumption in the modern era, optimising for sharing should be as important as optimising for search – and it’s not about ramming endless Web 2.0 buttons down the user’s throat either.3

The Times’ paywall won’t be a dismal failure, as it comes at a time whe we’re finally getting mature about paying for digital content – whether it’s games and tracks off iTunes or subscription to Spotify. But the vast majority of its reportage is going to pretty similar to its free rivals elsewhere, so they face a battle for every single pound that comes their way. And to win that battle, they need to get everything else absolutely bang-on – search, social bookmarking, accessibility – to make it really work. Unfortunately for them, right now they’re not quite there – not yet anyway.

1 Actually I pay less than that, as I share a flat, something else which isn’t factored into the paywall – shouldn’t it be per-household like newspapers are typically consumed, rather than per-person?
2 Well, yes, two newspapers, but they don’t publish on the same days so perhaps they shouldn’t be counted. That said the Sunday Times is of distinctly different format and they intend to publish during the week, so maybe they should just do away with the temporal slicing.
3 Yeah, I know this blog post has a big icon top right to Tweet, but I’m not a national newspaper… ;)


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