Monday, October 14, 2013

in search of a labour red-top

I crave certain things in my political landscape. A commitment to social progress and suitable support for all parts of society, of course. This is actually pretty widespread in all colours (although the shape this support and progress takes can be very different) and particularly at the local levels, where politicians are hard put to avoid their population. However, I also crave political balance and opposition, at all levels, and this is harder to find. 

The popular voice is overwhelmingly conservative, with socialism confined to embattled, closed populations. This popular narrative of conservative values (including its insidious variations, for example that everyone believes socialism, pretends liberalism and actually acts conservative) is open to all.  But when everything belongs to everyone, the most "reality-based" attitude set wins for everyone who cannot afford the luxury of belief or pretence. And thus the socialism of the people is lost in the new honesty of the reality TV generation. 

I wondered if my position was hiding the narrative of popular socialism from me, so I went looking for a Socialist tabloid, but I couldn't really find a successful one. I wonder if the problem is that little about the concerns of socialism lends itself to feel-good, group-bonding, slap-em-out, shout-em-down headlines. We have The Star, The Mirror (and their local variations) but they are struggling. I had this idea about ordering and reading it, but... when the Star reports that over 100 people recently applied for a £13,000-a-year job to be a refuse collection operative in Wrexham, what can I do with this information? Only feel worse about the world.

Monday, October 07, 2013

the robots are at the door

I'm bringing the casual cover up to speed during a gap in the regular web editor's continuity.  Like all web systems, ours has its little quirks, and though I did a couple of intensive sessions on the way in there are always the odd bits that come out in dribs and drabs as the days go by. 

This morning I caught myself typing the words, "the robots are drawn to the more popular pages or those that have comments on them already, especially if those comments include images or links" by way of explanation following a more than usually unfortunate alert message dropping into the approval box. I adjusted the comprehensibility of the message while handing out disapproval to this comment (and another, considerably less offensive, message selling - a first for me - a gas-powered outdoor heater) reflecting on the sad truth of the matter.

Our CAPTCHAs are quite good. They're probably not robots.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

will no-one save me from this clip art hell

I am downloading clip-art daily. I have been driven into this dismal corner (bright with the indefinably awful smiles of the determinedly generic) by the strong-arm package bundling of a prominent clip-art sales site. I delegated the purchase decision to a staff member who was briefly passing through. He left me this. The site is extensive, but most of it is very badly tagged. A depressing number of pages toss away their descriptive space on misspellings and waste words like handsome, beautiful, fresh, sexy, pretty, etc. I go back to chasing search terms through a maze of the scrubbed and filtered, trying to find the word for what I'm looking for. It's a perfect tidy-up job for the Mechanical  Turk, but why would they bother? Forced constant overpayment has me doing the work.

Later, I am trying to show the new staff member Google Analytics. But there is a clip art woman who is stopping me getting to Google Analytics. She smiles gently while I wrestle with my log-in. The browser crashes, like a floundering brontosaur. She doesn't even bother making a snide comment about the paucity of my updates or the make and antiquity of my browser. She just stands there, smiling, using most of my screen, while I stab at the log-in button (now hidden in a tiny ribbon at the top of the screen).

Eventually I get in. Everything's been redesigned, again, in that "you can use me on an i-pad!" look, all shiny, rounded, tasteful and empty like a flagship store no-one can afford to visit. I grind my teeth and get to re-navigating the menus.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

leave me alone with your frivolous segmentation

Two events recently have focused my annoyance on the phenomenon of market segmentation.The first involved an email from a popular mailing list service provider. They'd sent me an urgent email explaining how updates to their system involved changing how certain aspects of their segmentation worked. It's a service that adopts a chummy, familiar tone, which does actually generally work in reducing the colossal annoyance of composing, analysing and maintaining mailing lists. But in this case, the chirpy apology for using the marketing jargon caused a wearying explosion of annoyance. "If you don't understand, please pass it to the person on your team who does deal with such things," oh ho ho. There's a sort of self obsession here which probably makes perfect sense from their perspective; after all, I'm sure they do have a department which deals in segmentation. But for those using their service, is this always the case? Is it not vastly more likely that their customers are juggling not just segmentation, not just this product, but the entire concept of online marketing with a host of other responsibilities and duties? Tread gently when you mock our ignorance of your specialisms; lest you discover where priorities truly lie.

And speaking of lying, the other vast explosion of annoyance at segmentation occurred as a mailing list I had been previously signed up to split into some fifteen-odd sub-lists, most of which I still needed to read. A sweary run through repeated triple-verified sign-up processes ensued as I tried to follow their reasoning (and the lack of a "just send me everything" tick box. Leave me alone with your frivolous market segmentation; mostly if I have signed up to it, I'm interested in it; and if something does fall a touch flat for me, hey, I really do have a nice handy right-there delete button.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

the arrogant assumption of dedicated time

Great news! A popular online service tells me. You can now achieve [a list of a variety of things] with all the brand news features in our product and analysis tools. Learn all about it in our new webinar series! Hmm. Let me consult the vast wasteland of my diary. Let me consider all those afternoons that would stretch out in bleak silence, washed with bored and lonely tears.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a vast fan of progress. I love the fact that every item, service and product, no matter how small or slight, has or would benefit from having the careful focussed attention of intelligent individuals improving it. What I resent is the assumption from some larger services that there will be teams of dedicated and specialist people looking after their product. There is simply too much to do for any one service to command such attention, particularly as the gains in using these services are light, and that they cannot be delivered in isolation by anyone attempting to reach a universal audience.

You will get some attention, but frankly anything that requires a webinar series to learn is unlikely to be adopted by any but the most overstaffed and obsessive. Put it in a to-do list please. We'll get to it when we need it; and not before.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

developing backwards

At the moment I'm typing this while flicking back and forth to the tab containing emusic, where I'm previewing a random pile of notes, recommendations and more. I have to keep flicking back and forth because unless you have their overly needy tab at the front, the volume of their preview player reduces to an irritating whisper. So, in order to multitask, I have to keep on flipping back to it, each click-back accompanied by a little stab of complex disappointment, which ranges from irritation at how dark and gloomy the site is since the redesign, to musings on how bugs get sold to site owners as features, to a slight sadness at how this is a literal performance of the myth of multitasking. I'm  very fond of emusic (and frequently recommend it -- their long tail is very long, and they have a great selection of rarities, and most labels remember to put their singles up on it, but if you are signing up be aware that their album releases run a little later than other providers and there's typically no album discounts) but...

Music sites in particular seem to be prone to developing backwards. As legitimacy and commercial interest catch up with the bleeding edge the sites get more strewn with logos and disclaimers, the supply of downloads dries up, and sweet deals (that are perhaps more sweet for the owners than the customers) begin to clutter the original offer.

I'm currently wavering over RCRDLBL, for example, originally a hot daily download that has mutated over a few years, sometimes offering more, sometimes less (the buggy Bing-branded music player a particular nadir) but often the place to find sweet remixes that for some reason were not making commercial release. They've shaken off Bing, but recently it's gone a bit streamy (enabled by Spotify and Soudcloud) and expanded their recommendations. But other people's lists of things they like are not that much more exciting than your own, and the more third-party systems involved and the longer the list, the bigger the administrative task. On the other hand, they have lead me to treasures and precious jewels in the past, and still do with a bit of careful trawling - if I ever find the time.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

your brand says spam to me

In common with many other webmasters I got back from my Christmas break to find a Bad Thing. Someone had hacked a server somewhere and for three days over Christmas it had fired off a steady stream of commentspam into my filters before one of my counterparts toiling on the dataface came back from their Christmas break to discover their Bad Thing, and fix it. In the meantime, I set to clearing the gakk from my filters, speculating the while on why people spam. Mostly it ends up in filters, not marketing to anyone other than the person who has the aggravating task of clearing out the comments, for whom it is largely a negative experience. Although, in line with old-school attack, a proportion of the comments also had wordsalad subject lines, some of which were quite beautiful:
  • vault owllike whiterump minginess
  • indiscriminate negotiation dirtying pumple
  • outstandingly semiprofessional flirting ellipse
(As an aside, I am not interested in advice about how to stop this problem (either my problem, or the site whose server got hacked) from happening using technical means. If you are interested in this as a technical problem, user maintained social networking sites like Livejournal and Dreamwidth are great places to try out your ideas and meet other people interested in solving the same problems.)

Although as a - what's the Yougov term? Dissatisfied Customer - of the aforementioned Livejournal, I do delete commentspam on a pretty regular basis, this was the first time in a while it had been a big enough job to include reflection on how the spam environment has changed in recent years. Wind back a year or two, and the Canadian Pharmacy crowd with their exotic lists of drugs were leading the field. In 2012, although there is a smattering of viagra, cialis, tramadol, tylenol, ativan and their ilk, the overwhelming majority is brandspam. Working through the comment pile for anything I needed to reply to or report, I realised I was using brand names to identify comments as spam. In fact, there were some brand names that I already associated with spam. Ugg? Spam. Christian Laboutin? Spam. Louis Vuitton? Spam, beyond a doubt.

Why does this happen? Is it popularity? The intensity with which a brand is ripped off and faked? Or is it just chance, that brand caught up in the roll of the black-marketing dice? Is it damaging for them, or do they feel (as some celebrities do) that all publicity is good publicity? Is there complicity?

Whatever the truth of the matter, I'd been given a snapshot. The state of spam, Christmas 2012. And here are the brands under the spammer's Christmas tree:
  • Christmas Top of the Pops: Uggs, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Laboutin, Lasix, Tom's Clogs, Mulberry, Michael Kors, Chanel, Pandora Charms, Dr Dre Beats, GHD hair straighteners
  • Christmas classics: Viagra, Canadian Pharmacy, Cialis, Ativan, Zoloft, Flomax, Tylenol, iPod, Ativan, Clomol, Flagyl, Nike
  • Contemporary Christmas Gifts:  Chilliwack, Tiffany's, North Face,  Canada Goose, G-Star, Thomas Sabo, Hunter Wellies, Zithromax, Adirondack
Thanks all, for the unexpected Christmas gifts in spam filters and inboxes across the world. Thanks for the thought, and the lack of thought. Thanks for the endlessly sapping process of overengineering and upgrading filtering systems and the sites down and broken and the information pollution and all of the Christmas messages lost in the seasonal spamfall. It's nice to know exactly how much you care.