Monday, December 21, 2009

tales from the e-safety conferences

It's in the air; it's in the news. If there's been a 2009 buzzword for me, it's been e-safety, to the tune of two conferences, a consultation event, and multiple smaller exchanges both online and in the real world.

But, I must confess, the entire concept irritates me. A bit like being told by a policeman that I shouldn't walk the streets at night, on my own, I feel annoyed and disenfranchised by the e-safety barriers, the nannyware and the shock-and-scare ads about the scary people on the other end of the IM chat-line. I feel like my entire online experience is being knocked out of joint for the sake of a few nasty individuals and/or accidents.

That said, bad things do happen online. I can pull out ten or twelve scary stories, but you'll probably have heard all of them already. Many make the news. People end up distressed, abused, dead. But all of these things can and do happen without the mediation of computers.

So instead of the bad stories, let's have a few good ones I've heard at these conferences:

"The internet has been an absolute godsend. She goes to a special school, and all her friends are scattered all over the county, plus, with her disabilities it's a major campaign to get out and about. But she can go on the computer and chat to her friends after school, she doesn't even need to hold a phone to her ear (which is difficult for her) she can just wear the headset. She's just so much more connected than she would have been."

"My daughter and her friend were on [a popular networking site] and someone started making friends with them and trying to get them to meet up. They thought this was a bit weird and called me over. I learnt over the screen and told them what to ask and he was obviously some creep. He disappeared right away once they started asking searching questions and then we blocked and banned him."

"My son has a bit of a problem with using [a popular social networking site] after he's supposed to have gone to bed. So my mum -- his gran -- logs on and tells him to go to sleep! I was worried he'd be embarrassed by me turning up online, although I made friends with him of course. But it's important to allow them their space."

The notes below were from an e-safety conference notable for having a dearth of positive stories in the presentations. Even the story where a bunch of young teenage girls had spotted a slightly creepy presenece hanging around their social networks, taken their concerns to an adult, had the police act on these concerns, and the individual had been stopped before anything untoward had happened, had been presented as negative and scary.

At this event, as at others, I ended up sat with a few people quietly sharing positive stories of long-distance friendships, homework help, games, good times and online romance. We hear too much about the bad things, and any sharing of the goodthings is greeted by an instant barrage of yeah-buts. Don't believe me? When I mentioned homework help above, did you not instantly think of plagiarism?

It's difficult to use any tool well if you're afraid of it. Empower people to be happy, confident users and the vulnerabilities that let in the scammers, abusers and other losers close and heal.


Monday, November 09, 2009

cleaning off the spam

Every morning begins with me checking my spam bins. Tedious but true. People who get in touch with my website aren't email experts, and those messages which aren't one-line, misspelt and sent from an unlikely-sounding hotmail address are probably going to be in multi-coloured html and sent to a slightly random address. I exaggerate, but so do my spam filters, and if I don't check the filters, things get lost.

As a person who's written poems and comics about spam, as someone who finds delight in the random collision of words, and has had (over the years) a series of favourite spambots from Nanaimo to Hello/Hi, I'm probably one of the better selections for such a job. But still, the endless run of viagra, violence, fraud, diet, porn and phish grinds me down. It's like taking a dip in humanity's effluent, every morning.

But while I'm fishing the spam sewer for legitimate communication, I take snapshots of the weirder freaks in the stream. Most of them get filed in online communities with names like "spampoetry", but the ones with a side-helping of doodle (like this one) end up in my blogs.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

will anybody use a ning?

I went to chat to a young volunteer who was keen to support a local youth council/forum group to make a website yesterday. They'd done some layouts in word, and wanted to know about "what was possible"?

It's very much one of those "how long is a piece of string?" questions. If you want to buy a web address, get some web space, and knock together something using the free templates provided, you just can, assuming you've got no problem with shelling out a few dollars, know a bit of html and are prepared to fiddle with the settings a bit. Setting up a blog and sorting out some photo hosting and tying it into a Facebook Group is even easier and completely free.

In fact, it's so easy, that the world is littered with built-and-abandoned websites, blogs, streams profiles and forums. So I asked them a few questions:

  • What do you need the website for?
  • What are the expectations of the young people?
  • How will you maintain it?

They're going back to the group to ask about the first two (they'd already considered the third, well done!). I've also suggested that they ask around the group to find out:

  • Which social networking site is most widely used and would they like a group set up?
  • Is there a young person with experience of creating websites who could make them a website?
  • Here's what I can do for you, is it what you want?

They were, however, disappointed. They wanted me to recommend a short training course that would teach the young volunteer how to make a website, ideally one run by the volunteer's manager's employer. Then she would make the website.

Maybe I should be running one. I'm sure I wrote one, a few years ago.

But, instead, I suggested that they set up a Ning. I'm in three or four, and I think they ought to fit the needs of a group of young people who want something to be:

  • Separate from the main social networking sites
  • Serious in appearance and use, but easily cutomisable and flexible
  • Friendly to multimedia content
  • Closed, only accessible to a particular group

I don't know if they'll go for it yet, but the last two groups I suggested it to did not, and I'm still not quite sure why not -- or why I don't use my Nings as much as I should, for that matter.

Although it might have something to do with the comment notification, which irritates me every time it turns up; it says there's a comment, but not what it says. It has that in common with Fiends Reunited; it won't tell you what's going on until you're actually on the site. And frankly, that's not very social.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

risking the wrists

I'm breaking up the office at the moment, in anticipation of the upcoming office move, and in a pile of recycling I came across this doodle drawn at a conference. It's a good reminder, this one; don't stress, the stress makes the wrists worse.


I've had my brushes with RSI in the past of course; there's hardly a webmonkey from the turn of the century who didn't get it, one way or the other. I didn't get it bad; just some problems in my wrists and shoulders, a bit of pins and needles in a forefinger and thumb. But it's chilling when you get it; I remember being in absolute panic that the only way I knew to earn a living was being chopped off, removed, placed beyond my reach. Of course, the panic makes the pain worse, part of the trick is learning to approach your work in a way which makes it less stressful.

Therefore, I'm trying to take it easy, for this office move. Breath deeply and let it happen. Who knows, maybe it will all go well...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

consultation and information

I'm clearing my office prior to an upcoming move and I keep on finding bits and bobs from all over the place. This is from the Oxfordshire County Council Consultation Team. It's introducing the the Oxfordshire County Council Consultation Tracker which allows the public to keep in touch with ongoing consultations.

The function of the snakes should I hope be fairly clear: they're reminding you that every consultation needs to have a clear, defined format, purpose, timescale, location, method and audience. Below the snakes I've added three notes:
  • demonstrate and report effects of consultation
  • management of the empowered - empowerment of the powerless
  • increased communications is a normal outcome
The first note is very important for communicators: it's not enough just to listen and make changes based on what you've heard, these changes must then be feed back to the consulted body. The second is a reminder that the groups being consulted are going to have different levels of personal empowerment and expectations, and that these must be managed. In particular, those who feel marginalised and disempowered will need encouragement to participate. The third point is a warning; that a dialogue, once started, is likely to continue.consultation system

Monday, June 15, 2009

how many social networking sites can you think of?

Attended a talk about young people, social networking and contraceptive health, by Barbara Hastings-Asatourian, inventor of Contraception, the Board Game. Lots of interesting stuff, both from her presentation and the reaction from the workers.

One of the things she asked us was how many social networking sites we were aware of. For me, this was a question than ran and ran, throughout the presentation, and I eventually ended up with the list below:

contraception,young people,social networking,meeting notes

Pretty scary stuff. In a world with so many social networks, how can messages like safer sex penetrate successfully?

This second page has some of my ideas, but I probably have to interpret:

social networking,young people,contraception

Not sure of the significance of the woman on wheels? Let me elucidate:
  1. Select a few big services and link up your service/message across them. Who's on the page? Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace -- Bebo should be there, too.
  2. Use these services to network and make connections with other people working in the same area (either geographically or a topic area).
  3. Join groups, post links, create stuff and generally use your social networks socially.
  4. Targeted advertising on Facebook -- probably worth a try.
  5. Don't put large amounts of resources into one thing; the internet is fickle.
During the session, Barbara encouraged staff to share their anxieties about social networking, always useful, and a lot of the regular anxieties you always see turned up; privacy, timewasting, social/work blurring, alienation, potential for abuse.

There was also a staff member who was more forthright about the value of social networking and online communication in general (including email!) "People aren't socialising properly, they're not learning the skills to talk face to face any more, they're just talking online and that's not real communication, it's all happening in their head. They're just sitting behind screens, tapping away, what's that doing to them, mentally and physically?"

An interesting question. I didn't answer during the session, though I had to bite my tongue hard not to; I remember my first time, on telnet, talking to people in America. It was amazing, and it didn't replace offline communication, it enabled it. It made it better, and broader and less parochial. For the first time I felt like a world citizen, even if only in a small way, in a small out-of-the-way part of the world. But, OK, what has it done to me?
  1. Enabled regular contact with a broader and larger group of people
  2. Created social contacts outside my immediate geographic and social area
  3. Allowed me to hold onto friends I would otherwise have fallen out of touch with
  4. Enabled me to sample broader sets of information and advice
  5. Made it possible for me to revisit/rediscover/run away from friendships from the past
  6. Made me a more flexible and thoughtful friend
  7. Let me find out about far more things than I would have done otherwise
  8. Added a new dimension to existing friendships
  9. Helped me keep in touch with family members
  10. Taught me new and interesting ways of socialising
Physically? I'm average.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

twitter promoted to standard list

There are a bunch of websites I talk about to people who are running things like local youth projects, clubs, young people's centres, and so on. It's not a long list, because all these people are very busy either running work with young people IRL, or in the back room doing admin.

But is a useful list, because a Social Networking presence is both a point of contact and a way of promoting your work; engagement and participation, if you're lucky. It's less work and more fun than running your own website, and young people are often already there, on the look out for new contacts and things to do.

These websites used to be as follows:
  • Myspace - the choice for young people's music projects, art, creative
  • Facebook - for youth parliament, volunteering, young campaigners and sport (seniors)
  • Bebo - good for health and social groups and sport (juniors)
These aren't hard and fast divisions, of course. There are some big campaigns on Bebo like It doesn't have to happen (knife crime), and there are lots of major, minor and local health providers on Facebook (like the Oxford Chlamydia Screening Project), and there's plenty more than music on myspace (the British Youth Council, for example). All the social networks have the tools to post tunes, picture, updates and so on, and all allow graded privacy, so you can let some people in, but not others. Often the only really key question is what do you use, and what do your young people use?

Which led me to someone coming in for this chat, and starting by saying, "What about Twitter?" Received wisdom says Twitter is not popular with the right age group, not a good way of forming groups, and not a good way of disseminating information (as the updates are too short). Or had everything changed again? I went off to check.

Short answer; it's changed a bit. The age distribution has crawled down a little, and the emerging conventions for linking and topic threading have made it a more useful communications channel. And I've made myself a work Twitter in anticipation of it changing some more, and so I can demonstrate Twitter safely to colleagues.

However, as far as advising workers goes, I'll be sticking with saying (much as I do for blogs, in fact) , don't do it unless it's something you would do anyway. At the moment there's just not enough value added -- or enough of your local young people there to reach out to.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

chasing accessibility

Part of the redesign work at the moment is improving accessibility. Not in the sense of making things sound comprehensible to as screen-reader or having adjustable type size; although that sort of thing is certainly on the cards, I'm expecting that to come in through design. My concern is mostly with content, and with making it more accessible to all.

To this end, I had a meeting with a specialist who helps young people with delayed language or learning difficulties access information. Very interesting. I was expecting that she would be producing translated materials, may even have some I could adapt. That wasn't the case, as the group of young people she supports has issues so diverse that each one needs an individual approach.

However, she explained, there are concepts which everyone can use, to make information more accessible to all:
  • Cut up information into single concepts
  • Step through each concept bit by bit
  • Use subheadings to divide up information
  • Highlight key words
  • Use one sentence to say one thing
  • Use active sentences and short, unambiguous words
  • Use explanatory images, not decorative images
  • Keep things clean and clear, without additional, distracting content
  • Use CAPTIONED video
... a very useful starting point -- one that suggests perhaps a "simple view" style sheet? We'll have to see.

In the meantime, I obviously went off researching websites which provided good free information resources. for young people with LDD. Mostly, I just found people selling packs, but I did turn up this: Songs for Your Body presents Personal, Social and Health Education for Young People with Learning Disabilities through the medium of catchy songs!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

writing for the web

While I was off work I had time to think about my skills. How are they doing? Are they still set to web 1.0? I decided a course was in order. I did a bit of research, then asked friends if anyone had experience of the various courses I'd identified. Learning Tree's course, Writing for the web, seemed absolutely appropriate and the company got the thumbs up from a friend who'd done their Technical Writing course.

The course was good stuff; informative, practical and focussed. At the end, we were asked to identify the three things we'd be taking back to the workplace. Here were mine:

learning tree learning

Let's quickly reproduce that:

- Learning some sales techniques which may be used to sell/reposition services which are met with resistance
- Checklists for readability and accessibility which can be shared with authors who are not primarily writers, to explain necessary changes
- Formalised process for creating imaginary users, with research examples and background reading to back it up/add authority

There's a lot of writing coming up soon, as the website I'm editing increases in content by approximately a third. Obviously, I won't be producing all of this material, but I expect to need to a do a lot of rewriting, one way or another. It's often very hard to explain rewriting to people without things getting fraught. This course was full of good, non-judgemental ways to talk to people about improving writing and content.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

twittering from the hospital

Had one of those nasty accidents on the way into work in late January. You know, the sort where you ask the Doctor if you'll be OK to make your meetings that afternoon, and he just gives a bit of a hollow laugh and says oh, I don't think so.

In the end I was taking painkillers in the hospital for three days, while the swelling around my wrist came down, with only a mobile phone (and various visitors) as my lifeline to the outside world. So I naturally twittered my way through hospital, and Loudtwitter, which at this point in time was shipping my tweets to my livejournal daily, propagated my twitters to my blog, keeping my friends up to date. Without my having to painfully call them all.

Unfortunately, I hadn't factored into my consideration the twitter-haters, my friends, the twitter haters. Not all of my friends, of course, but a significant minority of them, who loath twitter and enthusiastically share this fact with depressing frequency. A few weeks later, reading the umpteenth comment box rant pile-on about how stupid twitter is, I regretfully closed off my use of Loudtwitter. Lifeline it may have been, but it was not an elegant solution to the problem. Some people had liked it, but other people -- as had been the case when I first tried blogging by text message -- found it bewildering and infuriating. These are people who have chosen to communicate within a blog/journal environment, who do not appreciate communication by fragment, who do not enjoy the tiny bites of information that twitter delivers. It's not their mode. Forcing my twitters out of their native environment and into one that is journal-focussed was creating a jar, a communication difficulty.

So no more Loudtwitter for now. I'll have to come up with a new solution. And until then, not end up unexpectedly in hospital.

it comes off tomorrow

Thursday, January 08, 2009

dealing with negative comments in blogs

How do you respond gracefully, factually and transparently to negative blogging without looking like you're overreacting, missing the point or being hopelessly heavy handed? Relying on your natural poise, grace and politeness isn't going to cut it in a formal situation (e.g. if someone's saying rude, inflammatory or inaccurate things about your service), and it certainly won't help in a situation where someone's being deliberately provocative. Like many information workers, I find inaccurate reporting, or personal prejudice being passed off as fact quite irritating. On occasion, in fact, it leaves me boiling with anger, hardly in the right frame of mind to put together a reasoned response.

This is where good procedures can really help, and I absolutely love this Air Force Blog Assessment Flow-chart, which steps you through the process, tells you what to consider in your response, and how to be graceful about correcting facts, take the opportunity to make positive contact, and know when to step away. Via Jeremiah and lots of other places.

... and here is the flow-chart in full. More details, including fully legible text, on the click-through!