Civicboom on The Next Web!

An article has been written about Civicboom by Paul Sawyers from The Next Web!! Great news, and perfect timing before next week’s UKTI Entrepreneur’s Festival that we have been invited to attend! Follow the link here.

Paul Sawyer on Twitter – @TGW_Paul
The Next Web on Twitter – @TNW

EDIT: Original Guest Post for GLA – now being completely re-edited before resubmission.

EDIT: Please note that this blog post has not been posted on the GLA. That article will be rewritten, and submitted over the weekend. Keep your eyes peeled!

There has always been a fundamental need to ask questions and get responses. Traditionally, In small communities this was possible by face-to-face communication, but as society has grown it has become impractical for one person to communicate with everyone, everyday. Newspapers and printed media entered the scene, offering news and insight to a broader crowd. Then came the digital age.

With modern-day communication tools it is possible to search for and locate the information that is relevant to you and your interests. Technology consistently refines this ability, and now the potential of the Internet is better known with the advent of the smart phone, this information is available to everyone, anywhere at all times.

However, there remains a significant flaw in one vital area: contributing your personal opinions. Responding with information is too removed from those whose job it is to engage with and interpret the audience. Technologies like Twitter allow the community to respond publicly and directly, but do not facilitate deeper, more detailed responses nor incorporate the contribution of rich media.

Civicboom is a new open-community engagement platform. It provides a suite of tools to facilitate and manage specific requests for rich media content. In effect it is a customisable channel between audience-facing organisations, and the members of the audience itself. This is achieved through the use of web-widgets, to encourage engagement from web-visitors, and a native mobile application, which allows individuals to respond to content requests with geolocated media . Equally, content can be suggested to specific organisations unprompted.

Rather than having opinions interpreted by potentially biased media organisations, increasingly without the resources to meaningfully canvas opinion effectively, the community is given a voice of its own. By providing the tools to request for and suggest content, we hope that local communities, governments and organisations can be encouraged to collaborate. We believe that the provision of such tools will invigorate democracy, inform decision making and stimulate the fourth estate.

We are an open platform, therefore the entire data-set of requests and responses are available through a public API [Application Programing Interface]. Independent developers and organisations are able to integrate our technology with their own systems, or use it to create new mobile applications, graphs, video display walls, news feeds and more. The data is open for the public to see, use and interact with.

It is ironic that the advent of the Internet should have caused a such dislocation of direct community engagement. Although it should not be the case, people are somehow insulated from meaningful and direct interactions by technology. We believe that open-data and open-source projects, such as the London Datastore, accessed in conjunction with civic open platforms, like Civicboom, are the answer to this

Our team of developers are renowned for their abilities to generate innovative ways of making public data-sets more meaningful. They competed and won in the ‘best developers’ category at the 2011 Guardian [h]activate event, and regularly contribute to Rewired State events. Only this weekend the team attended the Rewired State Stories of Democracy hack event. They successfully managed to build Parlimentary – a tool to process Hansard data and browse what MPs are talking about in an accessible way. Civicboom is committed to building better ways to communicate meaning, and we strive to bring this level of innovation to the public.

The public has a voice, and it must be heard. Rather than isolating people, technology should allow them to feel closer to their community. We are building the Civicboom platform to allow communities to re-engage.

The future is now. Let’s get involved.

Welcome back!!

Ladies and gentlemen…@Civicboom. Is. Back.

What an extremely busy summer it’s been… As an internet startup entering it’s second year in existence we are now aware [thanks to the immeasurably helpful designers of the startup 'Benchmarking' tool - The Startup Genome] that we are in the midst of our ‘Validation’ stage – the most perilous of them all. What a ride this is turning out be!

The Startup Genome Project [@startupgenome] over in Silicone Valley [led by some big brains from the universities at Stanford and Berkeley amongst others] is attempting to: “map, model and analyze what makes startups tick, what helps them succeed and why many of them fail.” In effect, they are attempting to discover whether building a successful startup can be turned into a science. Naturally we decided to give them a go…

Their most recent study, based on a study of 3200 startups, has determined the following four stages [to be increased to 6 following feedback]:

1. Discovery
2. Validation
3. Efficiency
4. Scale

We at Civicboom have assessed ourselves to be late on in the ‘Validation’ stage. Meaning that we “are looking to get early validation that people are interested in [our] product through the exchange of money or attention.”

In effect, we want to know that people like our concept enough to commit to using us. The short and simple answer to this is a resounding “YES!”.

Since we last posted, we’ve been meeting with a large number of leading news agencies, publishers and organisations – demonstrating Civicboom everywhere, all summer. For example, only last week we visited Thomson Reuters in their Canary Wharf offices… As we said – LEADING companies!

In each instance we’ve found that there’s a ‘Penny Drop’ moment – when the idea clicks, and the possibilities start rushing in. We know now that there are inefficient processes at work, in a number of different industries, that we can solve – and they know it too.

So, we’ve been building ‘Feedback Relationships’ and working out procedures to collect any suggestions that are delivered back to us. We’re also knee-deep in research; learning industry workflows and working out where we can fit in – devouring feedback and responding with solutions. Very exciting stuff!

Unfortunately, it’s all been at the sacrifice of our blogging duties… But fear not, because once again we’re here to share our journey with you.

Contact us with your thoughts by e-mail at feedback@civicboom.com

What Civicboom has taught us.

1. Caffeine is serious business. No matter how much you love your job or how passionate you are about your goals, you’re still going to get tired and you’re still going to feel low. A good cup of tea or coffee is a faithful friend: always there to pick you up. In the last month we’ve invested in 2 teapots, a cafetierre, 3 boxes of coffee, 2 boxes of masala chai, 2 shiny new strainers, 40 tea sacks, a milk steamer and a dainty little china teacup. Now that’s commitment.

2. Just because you think that your idea is gold doesn’t meant secretaries at VC firms will agree. You’re going to get a lot of “not interested”, “not investing” or just outright rejections. That shouldn’t stop you. Let’s look at the Apprentice for a moment (yes it’s relevant). Helen was the ideal candidate, won almost all the tasks, broke all the records and yet she lost. Why? Well, her idea was a bit naff but there was also a moment, a moment where Tom rose out of mediocrity and grasped for the crown. He was ingenious, he was crafty, he found the front entrance locked so he conjured a side door out of nothing.  If you’re not getting the names you need through traditional means you need to be creative and you need to persevere. If the company doesn’t list the contact details of the team reponsible for sourcing investment, then find another way to get in touch. See if one of them has a blog, see if you connected via linked in, do whatever it takes; they’ll often appreciate the ends you’ve gone to just to speak to them.

3. Every button is a work of art. Click a button and it will do something: turn your pc on, open a lock, play that video . You just slap it on whatever you want, fiddle with some wires for a few minutes and everything is dandy right? Wrong. So so wrong. If that button isn’t connected to the right elements it might do nothing at all, or worse it might wipe your computer rather than turning it on. Every button, every link, every aspect of a site is a painstaking combination of underlying functions tied together nicely with a simple visual aid on the top. Under the hood, the complexity of coding is mind boggling.

4. Bosses are often bossy. Who would have thought it

5. There’s never enough time. Ever. It will drag when you’re utterly stuck over the simplest of points and fly by when you’re on a roll. It will start slowly: you’ll just note that time has gone quickly today. Then it will happen again. And again. Pretty soon you’ll be devising meticulous schedules to best manage your time and setting stopclocks to keep yourself on track. That won’t work. A little worried, you’ll start wearing a second watch, just in case the first one is wrong or it breaks. Then comes the detailed plans designed to help you think ideas through in advance and thrash out difficult concepts quickly. The problem is that you never seem to have time to do both so you’ll have a whole string of half baked ideas on the go and because of your lack of time, they’ll all be jostling for attention and getting muddled up. You’ll end up abandoning the concept of time entirely, simply stating that this is “wording change day” or “design day”. Traditional weekdays just can’t cope with your busy schedule. You might have a bit of a problem actually, and we really think you should seek help

6. Nothing is ever finished. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of things get “done” but although that beautiful front page that took hours of coding and design is done but it’s not finished, at some point it will inevitably be modified/cannibalised/completely disregarded. Evolution is a damn clever thing and every step makes us stronger but it’s not always kind.

7. Despite how it might look, the experience is a spiral not a circle. What the hell does that even mean? Well, you never do the same thing twice (not when you’re a young go-getter working at Civicboom anyway). Sometimes it will feel like you’re treading the same path over and over again but if you look carefully you’ll see that, though you may be writing the same thing yet again (damn you ‘About’ page!), the focus has shifted since last time, certain aspects have faded and others have become more prominent. Revisiting thing and reworking them over and over until they’re just right is part of the process and every time you do it, you get a little bit higher up the spiral and a bit closer to where you want to be.

8. The sun is cruelIt’s never sunny at the weekends but glorious on week days. The start of the day is inevitably gloomy until you’re a few minutes away from the office at which point nature decides it wants to bask the world in its glory. Sadly, it’s a bit less spectacular when you’re staring longingly from behind some glass in a room bathed in the harsh glow of artificial light. It’s all ok though because after you finish work, there’s always the glorious sunset to look forward to. Except it only really bursts into life when you work late, if you finish early (gasp) you can bet that the sun will sink into the clouds without a trace of beauty. Gah.

9. The devil is in the details. Just because you understand everything about your idea (shocker) doesn’t mean other people will have a clue what you’re rambling on about. You have to be clear. You have to be concise. Some crazy so and sos even say that you should try and help your consumer understand and utilise your product! Whilst that is, of course, madness it’s probably a good idea to explain everything to your user rather than throwing them head first into the madness. What is this, Dwarf Fortress?

10. The only way to succeed is with talent and a whole load of perseverance. That or a bucket of cash… then again even that’s no guarantee, just look at the legend that is Boo… You think you can’t compete with the industry giants, but you can and will. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to building a world beater in your shed but through sheer talent and determination you can create something outstanding. Luckily for us, we have an outstanding development teama Chinese take away on speed dial and a whole lot of caffeine. We call it liquid determination. 


Bruised, used and abused: maybe it’s time for the article to get the respect it deserves.

Journalism is in the midst of not one but two revolutions: the rise of the reader and the birth of a new medium. The two are closely intertwined as serial provocateur and social media enthusiast Jeff Jarvis was keen to point out. He caused wide scale controversy recently when he claimed that he think of articles “not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a by-product of the process.”

That statement is a bold one and, luckily for Jarvis, it is one that he moderates considerably in his explanation. He is not, as Frederic Filloux believes, attempting to reduce the article to a mere accessory of news, an antiquated trapping that has no place in the modern newsroom. Instead he is proposing that articles are a “luxury” means of communication, rather than the primary one.

 Jarvis’ alternative is certainly controversial. It is based around two central tenets: that the ‘burst format’ of Twitter and other social media sites is a worthy medium for news; that this format is ideal to utilise the power of citizen journalism. In essence, Jarvis proposes that certain news events be covered by continuous bursts of information from a journalism, supplemented with responses from the people that are closely involved in the story.

 The fact that even the most hostile responses to “The article as luxury or byproduct” fail to fully rebut this argument really is indicative of the way that journalism is changing. Online news is acting as though it was printed on some sort of digital paper: the entire thing is rather reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Daily Prophet, a newspaper like our own just with moving pictures. That is what online news feels like: the same old thing with a little splash of magic thrown in. We are far too content to stick with our established method when we should be exploring the potential of the digital world.

 A great example of this is the amount of space that is wasted on background material, included just in case the reader is not aware of what has been happening with that story. The idea of using links to establish context is a brilliant one. News is moving to a different medium so why waste time rehashing information when we can just provide a link. This isn’t a new idea; the use of explanatory footnotes and references in academia has long fulfilled that niche and food magazines often group recipes in an appendix at the end of the publication in order to save space and maintain focus.

 It’s vital to get people engaged in the news from their community. This is one of the most misunderstood concepts around and it leaves a lot of journalists looking terrified. Why? Because there is a huge misapprehension about the nature of citizen journalism. It will not replace skilled writers, it will not put good journalists out of a job. The idea that an editor will fire the majority of his staff, invest in a crowd sourcing platform and fill his paper with community content is implausible at best. Community content can instead be used a source for a story, or a way to enrich what has already been written with reader’s thoughts, photos or accounts. You still need journalists at the top though and that’s a point that really hit me back in December.

When I wanted to get an account of the student protests on Westminster Bridge, I could have use the traditional model- gone there myself, tried to get some accounts and then taken it all home to weave into an article. Instead, I used their content to supplement my own: my coverage was a great mixture of analysis, photos, video and eyewitness accounts.

If I wasn’t curating the information and sifting out the content of value- if my blog was simply a live feed from the community- then it would be over whelming and largely useless. News cannot simply become a mish mash of tweets with a few contextual links. If this became the norm, there would be no way to preserve journalistic integrity, the slightest pretence of objectivity or professional standards. There has to be a curator for all the information coming in.

Contrary to what many people think, this is journalism. Being able to determine the reliability of a source, organise information and collate the strands of news together into a single thread are key journalistic skills. That does not mean that the other craft of journalism, writing with precision and flair, is under threat. Articles are by no means obsolete, as Jarvis says they are simply not necessary in every instance. They are not so much being replaced as being supplemented. As the Guardian has proved by mingling analysis with unfolding sources, the two can often work side by side. The much maligned social media and the ‘burst format’ will not kill journalism, if anything they will revive it.

 

Today we have seen fiction pose as fact. No one seems any the wiser.


If you’ve been reading online recently you have probably discover that George Osborne has decided to gamble the fate of the entire nation on his reforms, and has no ‘Plan B.’

Hopefully you would be savvy enough to try and find the statement from which that quote is cherry-picked but you often just won‘t have time and you’ll have to take the piece at its word so to speak. From there you might go on to grumble about that to a friend who would repeat the process with another and so on and so forth until swathes of people question the chancellor’s competency. If you were to find the original piece you would realise that there is an implied notion of confidence rather than desperation, and he’s actually saying that he is convinced that the plans will work rather than that he literally have no contingency whatsoever.

If the great revolution of social and civic media continues, you will have to get used to this sort of thing. In theory at least, the reputation of the institution for which a journalist works currently keeps them from bending the truth by selectively trimming quotations to misconstrue the sentiment of the original statement. When everyone is able to write, be published and be heard independently there is a rather large risk that facts and figures will be abused like this a lot more often because of the lack of any moderating body. When one peers into the murky depths of the blogosphere it is all too easy to see a grim future for journalism: a world where superficial fact is used as the mask of opinion. In this hellish vision, data becomes the misshapen slave put to work justifying whatever the writer wants to present as the truth.

Worst still, the general preconceptions of the medium of the blog is that of an autobiographical account. This tends to lend them an aura of validity when in fact they are pure subjective opinion, and in many cases, simply tools to serve a greater agenda. MP Nadine Dorries has recently told the MP standards watchdog that her blog is: “70% fiction.” Whilst it’s debatable whether or not Ms Dorries is simply backpedalling to avoid reprimands, the case demonstrates the problem with social media outlets being used primarily as a source of spin: a property that is in direct confliction with the idea of social media bringing truth to the forefront.

If we are to avoid  these situations, then the general public need to have a greater access to data so that they can interpret and contextualise a situation themselves. An example of why this is so necessary is the so called “Climate-Gate” situation that emerged when a series of emails, suggesting that scientists had been manipulating facts to fit their hypothesis, were leaked to the public.  An independent review by Sir Muir Russell cleared the Climatic Research Unit of any misconstruing facts but noted “reasonable requests for information” were often denied to those outside the scientific community.

Whilst the team themselves didn’t manipulate figures to fit their argument, the Internet went mad and did the very think they were appalled to see the CRU ‘do’: make enough baseless assumptions and interpret evidence to suit themselves. Suddenly everyone was analysing these revelatory emails to expose the hidden sin and corruption of the scientific community, with responses ranging from accusations that Al Gore was on it all and lying to cover everything up to a demand for Phil Jones (head of the CRU) to be prosecuted for: “supplying data with altered and/or missing information and raw data to ‘annoy’ the requesters.”

In the end it turned that the requests were granted for the majority of requests within the academic community, and that the administration team – who had far less of a vested interest in fudging the figures – were responsible for the bulk of the mistakes.

Whilst this kind of blunder is hardly the death knell for social and civic media it does highlight two large issues that need to change.

Firstly, the mindset of the blogger and the social media writer. There is often a distinct lack of contact with the primary source of fact, and many writers are taking a lazier, almost parasitic approach to journalism. If the individual is to rise, then it needs to accept responsibility for its opinions and take the time to interact with the core material in order to appreciate the nuances whose exclusion leads to the baseless sensationalism seen in Climate-Gate. If the civic journalist is to become a credible force in the world they need to adopt the strategy that a professional would ideally adhere to and create an interpretation based on the relatively unbiased facts, rather than feeding of that which is already written. This is not to say that they must exclude the opinions and interpretations of others, but instead they need to hold these other views in dynamic suspension as secondary sources; entities that can shape one’s opinion but not act as the basis for it.

This awareness of this subjectivity at the very heart of interpretations means that one must develop a critical view. A natural benefit of the multiplicity of civic media is increased expressive liberty and, as mentioned in a previous article, the growth of one’s perception of validity of their opinion. The emerging modern reader seeks a variety of sources then draws an opinion based on those sources held at arm’s length rather than taking a singular point of view as it is presented to them.   As people begin to write more and engage with primary sources as opposed to secondary interpretations they will have to learn to extract the relevant information for themselves which encourages them to reflect upon the issue in greater detail. Hopefully, this will debunk the mystique of the journalist because people are engaging in the act of investigation and interpretation themselves. By doing so, they are likely to realise that writing is often engendered with perspective and spin rather than being an unbiased account of events.

The second thing that needs to change is the way information is made available to the public. Yes, the blogosphere misinterpreted those emails but they did so because they didn’t have the full scope of facts. If the CRU had been open with its data in the first place then there wouldn’t have been a problem; it was their refusal to give information to the public in a transparent manner that brought attention and scandal upon the institution for rather dubious reasons. Trying to maintain a closed community of peers is an increasingly futile effort nowadays and one must ask why it is even necessary at all. By all means let your peers review the data as their opinion and collaboration is vital in maintaining accurate and relevant detail but don’t hide that data from the public. The more  information that is available, the more quizzical, critical and intellectually aware the community will become.

The greatest tool one can develop is a sense of scepticism and an inquisitive state of mind.  The individual must realise that many forms of communication are not merely informative but also persuasive, and they desire to lead his opinion. Realising that texts often bear hidden agendas and motivations is the  first step to  freeing oneself from a dogmatic tendency to follow the mandate of the few and embracing the value of one’s own thoughts.

Iluvsheeps, October 24, 2010

I’m undecided on whether it is in fact a good thing that we’ve all become so critical, untrusting and pessimistic or not. I shall have to have a think. The sunnier parts of my disposition would like for articles of this sort to not have to be written, but ultimately I think it needs to be and it’s a good one too.

NedB-H, October 25, 2010

Good article – a very sensible analysis of the CRU farce, and blogs like Guido Fawkes are already showing the impact that the democratisation of news is having on current affairs. Just one point of disagreement – the mainstream news media seem to be let off rather lightly.
“The reputation of the institution for which a journalist works currently keeps them from bending the truth”. Whilst this might be true on the level of an individual’s bias, the reputation of the likes of The Daily Express and The Daily Mail is hardly for straightforward fact-telling. A columnist on either paper isn’t likely to get an article past the editors which uses misleading figures to support a left-wing view. But on the other hand, the same columnist might not have a job for long if they don’t use the same underhand methods to promote the right-wing editorial view. Look at Fox News in America for the extreme example of how supposedly responsible media giants mix opinion and fact, then claim the mixture to be “news”.

 


Press play to see a visualisation of the code development of Civicboom platform and API

Social networks and reform: revolution or red herring?

You have a problem. The world has been struck a savage blow by the wave of economic collapse. Dour ministers are announcing cuts to benefits, housing and culture. Your local town green is being sold off for housing. What do you do?
Well you could go round door to door, petition in hand and hope you get enough signatures. Of course to do so you’d need vast amounts of free time or a really dedicated team of volunteers. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem such a good idea to wander blindly into this.

You decide that getting the word around is the best course of action and so you write to the local paper. That will drum up some support but you still lack the numbers you need to have any hope of forcing the council to reconsider. In a moment of brilliance you create a Facebook group, send out all invites to all your friends asking them to do the same and let the message branch out to virtually everyone in the town.

Huzzah! You’ve saved the green so beloved by the locals from the council’s avarice. You send out a message to your many members: “We’ll be manning the conference room of the town hall all day tomorrow with the petition so be sure to come and sign!” The day comes around; around half the people in your group let you down and it looks like those houses will be going up after all.

Though this anecdote is more than a tad melodramatic, it brings up a serious point. A problem arises when one tries to convert the realms of the digital into something tangible. Malcolm Gladwell concludes in his recent, rather scathing article that this is because the network system that is typical of social media activism is defined by its ‘weak ties’.

By comparison, real life activists are often strongly involved in the matter for which they are protesting, which creates ‘strong ties’. Gladwell argues that: ‘activism that changes the status quo- that attacks the deeply rooted problems- is not for the faint of heart’ due to the higher risk factors involved.

The problem with this criticism is that it implies that physical action is a requisite of change. In actuality, the largest effect of most demonstrations is to attract publicity and draw attention to the cause in the hope that it will cause the public to reflect upon the issues. Social networks can generate the very same buzz that causes change and can arguably do so in a far more effective manner because of their interactive nature which allows anyone to be involved in the issue.

Gladwell admonishes the social networking community for wanting to only be e-activists but never actually establishes why anything more is needed. In the increasingly politicised and opinionated world that the internet is playing a large part in forming, the catalyst of change is public opinion.
The MP expenses scandal in Britain is a prime example of how public outrage is enough to cause reform. There was no great march or sit in, but the sheer fury of the everyday people-stirred on by various discussion and protest groups on social networks- demanded change.

The same can be said for proposed road taxes which were torn to shreds by a large petition on the Downing Street website. It proved that an e-petition is a very effective expression of public feeling and last year an impressive 15% of Internet users signed one.

Before one gets carried away in a fervor of social media hype, it’s important to acknowledge the other factors at work. It is arguable that the British media played the large roles in both these examples however, as the Daily Telegraph brought the issue to light before running issue after issue of damning figures and comments from appalled citizens and numerous papers brought petition into the public eye by featuring it.

This raises a key question: are social networks themselves, like most physical protest groups, not enough to bring about change on their own; do they need a centralised force to lead them, coordinate their feelings in a unified form and then stir up interest in the public?

Gladwell posits that though social networks are able to publicise their own beliefs very effectively through blogging and tweeting, they are ineffectual at creating the cohesion needed to build  momentum on a scale that is wide enough to force reflection. This is due to the democratic nature of their being, which often means that they will always remain a loosely affiliated group of individuals rather than a collective mass, and as such will be vulnerable to fractitious forms of protest; their protest will take the form of a number of insignificant projects rather than a single effective one.

This argument is flawed in two main ways. Firstly, it assumes that a singular drive is most effective at drawing attention to itself and making an impact on the public mind. This is not necessarily true, after all a multifaceted approach which involves people of several levels is surely at least equal to one which is focussed on one method because it is engaging on a variety of fronts.

For example, if one were to want to protest the recent proposal to give tax breaks to married couples, would a single, large march invoke more public thought than a number of localised protests? The modern world is a rather homogenising place and, as advertisers have keenly picked up on, people like to targeted individually because it gives them a feeling of unique worth. If a campaigner feels that their contribution is important then they are often motivated to try harder and put  more effort in because they can see the correlation between their action and the general results. At the very least, a localised approach seems to be of as much merit as a centralised one.

Secondly, it rather underestimates the work that individuals can do when given a focal point by one of their peers. A certain internet group by the name of Anonymous begs to disagree with this. They have carried out multiple, highly effective campaigns against organisations they believe to be idiotic or morally wrong such as the infamous Denial of Service on the Australian government in Feburary 2010 as a protest against stringent new Internet laws.

Whilst anonymous often indulge in illegal activity, they are an amazing example of how efficient online communities can be when they care about a cause.

They didn’t need a leader to have 4chan’s creator ‘moot’ voted as the world’s most influential person of 2008 in an internet poll conducted by Time magazine, nor to frustrate moderators at online game Habbo Hotel- where there is a well documented history of admins deleting black characters for no reason other than their race- by launching crippling raids on the game’s servers.

The idea that centralised power is necessary to mould a community into an effective force is an antiquated one; an echo from the top down system of organization that dominated the past. As discussed in the preceding piece, the legitimacy and influence of such systems is declining, especially when one’s personal opinion and freedoms are becoming more and more important.

Bickering and infighting will still naturally occur in groups within a singular leader, and of course there will splinter factions and rebellious members who will do things their own way. However, this does not mean that the group isn’t raising awareness of the issues and taking action, it simply means they are doing so through a different way.

Next time you want to start a protest don’t force people back into the physical  with paper petitions and town-hall meetings. Embrace your peers’ right to participate however they want and simply provide a place where they can conjugate and give them the information they need to form the foundations of their own opinions.

The way to overcome the inherent ‘weak ties’ of social networks is to form an interactive community united under a general banner rather than a group thoroughly defined by prescribed views.  Write an article, make an e-petition or start a discussion to stir up their passions and then unleash them as a pack of individuals. They will fight their own battles, make their own arguments, and therefore establish a strong personal tie to the issue. By doing so they are combining the passion of the involved with the tools of the interested, and it is from this fusion that the strength of the modern voice emerges. ‘Viva la revolución’ indeed…

Bridging the Pro-Am gap?

The world is changing, that much is undeniable. In a modern society built upon the principles of exploration and investigation, how can things possibly stay the same? In every lab, under every microscope, in every new gadget gizmo or fad a thousand futures are waiting for the spark of conception to rouse them from just beneath the surface.

It’s strange then, that one of the most startling changes can be seen in plain view on another starlit Hollywood evening. The grandeur and sleek presentation are for the most part the work of a company quite content to milk their cash cow for everything it’s worth, but behind that there are the stirrings of a message from another source entirely.

The voice of the people is manifest here, in the thousand camera flashes, the banners and poster-boards waved with fanatical vigour, the screams and chants of a hysterical crowd; a chaos rushed to boiling point by the click of a Mercedes’ door. No this isn’t a extremist rally, though for the jilted literati it may as well be.

This is the premier of the third film adaptation of the Twilight “saga”. It lazily deals with a single generation of a single family, and vaguely details a few generations of another which apparently is enough to make it a saga by today’s standards.

Some would say they’re using the archaic genre to make their movies seem different and edgy, chicly aloof from the series and trilogies of their time. Not me though. No, for me, it’s far more desperate than that. Invoking a classic style seems like a plea to the upper echelons of Literature, a desperate cry for approval. It’s puzzling why Stephanie Mayer and her colleagues feel that they must pander to the world of the critic when it is the Twilight saga that highlights the increasing irrelevance of the authorative accolade.

The people that once revered every word of a review enshrined within the respectability of an established paper or magazine  have experienced a new freedom and realise that perhaps it’s time to banish these haughty spectres. For too long they’ve sat on their pedestals, casting contemptuous glares at anything that doesn’t meet their exacting rubric. They are stiff and inflexible, too accustomed to the easy life of being better to see what is happening. Piece by piece they are coming apart, their words falling on ears that are not so much deaf as uncaring.

In the past, literature was the domain of the rich, the powerful, the elite. The first step towards the masses was the widespread success of the printing press, which helped to bring around a swing in momentum. Suddenly a whole new market opened up: the market of the people. Books were designed specifically for the masses rather being the exclusive pleasure of the privileged few and as such their content and purpose changed dramatically.

One cannot but be caught up in the fervor and excitement of the new generation but I honestly believe that this may be the beginning of something just as gamechanging, and it won’t be long before the flood gates open and wash away the old avatars of privilege and exclusion. The catalyst for this change is the Internet. If the printing press allowed the public to become intrigued by text, it is the internet that encourages them to create it. From the community run message boards to the sprawling myriad of blogs to the mundaneity of 95% of your friends’ Tweets, there is a surge of people reading, and more importantly, contributing.

Anyone and everyone has the platform to be heard if they wish, and it is this chatter of a million voices that cry out for the end of the singular critic. They find themselves in a world where the air around them is no longer so thin, so insubstantial. Every particle is another voice, every one provides resistance to another’s words: contradicting opinions drawn from a broader scope of context. Those establishments that fail to adapt face a swift decline and the cynic amongst us might take great pleasure in the irony that the demise of the critic comes because he or she is just one voice. Review websites that poll hundred of people’s opinions on everything from a restaurant to an electric strimmer, are now the first reference point for consumers because they are not so isolated.

In short they are the voice of the whole community, not just the upper strata. In this brave new world  the authoritative voice of the critic could be diminished to such an extent that they are no longer in a superior position; their isolation as a source of well informed opinion could be their greatest weakness.

Some  lack the dynamism which is defining internet relations and their one way relationship with their audience is doomed unless they realise the importance that the readers themselves play. The reader is the force that adds vivacity and life to those cold streams of data, the one that discusses, that argues, that forms their own opinion and creates a fascinating level of depth simply by adding their own thoughts.  They allow the subject of the critic to attain the same level of collaboration and challenge as the fields of science, mathematics and philosophy. Simply put, they turn a static, unresponsive entity into something organic and mutable; a discussion.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of social media. Twitter dispels the hype around stars, whose every actions are sensationalized by celebrity culture; it reminds the public that their idols are just ordinary people, that they are human. Facebook and the multitude of forums are acting not just as a way of keeping touch but also as a way of communication and debate. In the past, most people have been limited in their potential to contribute to a debate by three main issues: the people they knew, their schedules and their own interests. The only way to get beyond the first was to either to write to the newspapers and respond to other people’s comments or join a society. Although writing to the comments page was a great starting point for getting people involved in issues, it is all too often mind numbingly slow and laborious for those that really want to interact with their subject with passion and enthusiasm.

As for joining a society, what if you wish to debate other things or discuss issues with more than a handful of people? Now, you can join a Facebook group or forum and discuss the issue to their hearts content with a far larger pool of contributors. The very medium of the internet solves the second problem completely; even if one works awkward hours, is busy for most of the time or cannot attend a physical discussion for any reason they can still be just as involved as anyone else without inconvenience.

The final issue of one’s interests not being very exciting to friends is remedied by the sheer diversity of such sites. There is a group and a forum for almost anything. Yesterday I joined a forum about emetophobia, a facebook group discussing the contents of a perfect breakfast and renewed my membership at a site that specializes in poetry critiques. Whilst this mind boggling array of societies may have existed before, many of them- particularly the most obscure and fantastic- had no way to publicise themselves and make people aware of their existence. With Facebook and any good forum, it simply takes a click of the search bar and suddenly you’re surrounded by people who want to engage with you, who value your opinion.

The concept of using social media to find people to discuss with combines the best parts of letters and live debate. There is no need to wait days on end for a reply but at the same time one has the time to mull the issue over and develop a far more thoughtful response than they would be able to in a real life conversation, where sitting in silence for fifteen minutes before replying isn’t especially polite.

This interaction between the people and the ‘experts’ is arguably transcending the realms of journalism and spreading to all facets of life. The wisest politicians, critics and fashionistas are recognising their role as the figureheads of opinion, rather than the ones than define it. The highly respected film critic Roger Ebert recently refused to rate a film because he acknowledged that he could not attach a summative rating to it when he was not a fan of the culture and genre in which it sits. Rather than trying to inflict his own tastes upon the masses by judging it to be “good” or “bad”, he simply asks: ‘is a film true to its genre and does it deliver what its audiences presumably expect?’

Every factor is begging for the people not just to comment on the works of the professional media, but to start actively contributing themselves. Their value,their relevance, is on the rise in a climate where one’s opinion and insight can be heard without having to pass through the censor of profitability or conform to institutional belief. It seems foolish to sit idly by and deny the importance of your voice when such exciting opportunities are beckoning. The world is changing, that much is undeniable. The question is: “will you be a part of the revolution?”