I finally decided to take the plunge, and investigate Second Life. There are too many smart and influential people getting into it for me to keep avoiding it. So I signed up, choosing a surname from the rather curious selection on offer and downloading the client software. Then – very cheekily – came the bribe. They offer you cold, hard (er, virtual) cash to spread the word to some of your mates. This is before you’ve even fired up the software. And if you don’t take up their kind offer immediately, the cash incentive goes away. So this is how to build a community: make people evangelise a product they don’t even know yet.
Archive for June, 2006
Another new blog at the BBC – and this one has real potential. This time, it’s the editors from various parts of the newsroom. In its first few days of operation, we’ve had a piece from Peter Horrocks, head of TV news; and Helen Boaden, overall director of news. Nothing groundbreaking so far… and there’s a risk of it becoming a bit too Points Of View, but another positive step, nonetheless.
Just a quick note to say how much I’m enjoying some of the parallel media for this year’s World Cup. The Baddiel and Skinner podcast, backed by the Times, is good fun – as long as you aren’t averse to some poor banjo, guitar and singing impersonations. And the UKTV G2 spin on the live games is a wonderful antidote to the same old same-old over on the BBC. You wonder if ITV shouldn’t give the irreverent thing a try – they just don’t seem capable of beating the Beeb at traditional presentation. The official website‘s WAP version is proving a useful way to keep up with the live games you can’t watch in the office… it’s just a pity the Mobile Matchcast live match alert thing is available for so few phone models.
Something else I’ve spotted on the various BBC blogs… they’re starting to use Flickr.com to host photo galleries. (I say ‘starting’… I’ve only just noticed. Maybe it’s been going on for ages.) They’re trying out several different implementations – here, here and here.
Incidentally… I think I’m right in saying that the Beeb’s blogs are no longer being hosted at Typepad. Certainly a tracert on blogs.bbc.co.uk seems to take you to a BBC server… and the disclaimer about comments being held elsewhere seems to have been dropped from the page footers.
Where did Chris Huhne get the figure of £40,000 for the annual cost of David Miliband’s blog? I thought I’d email to ask him. And he replied. So full marks there.
It all comes from a parliamentary question, answered by DEFRA’s Barry Gardiner on 5 June:
The Secretary of State writes his own blog. Two staff in Defra’s Communications Directorate – at Grade 7 and Higher Executive Officer grades – have integrated the blog into Defra’s website, and continue to oversee operation. For the two weeks following the recent ministerial changes, approximately 30 to 40 per cent. of their time was spent on work in some way connected to the blog. This is expected to decrease. The blog promotes a new and more direct form of communication between the public and the Secretary of State.
Apparently his researcher ‘merely took the salaries of the grades specified to get the result.’ I can’t lay my hands on the DEFRA pay scales, but looking at other departments’ data (eg DfES), a Grade 7 salary is probably £40k to £45k per year, and an HEO salary around £25k.
So how do you turn those salary numbers into an annual total of £40,000? The best I can suggest is that they’re taking the total salary for those two people (let’s say £67,000), multiplying by the top end of the time estimate (ie 40%), and adding 50% to cover ‘overheads’. (That comes to just over £40,000. Try it.)
But let’s look at those figures another way. Two people spending ’30 to 40 per cent’ of a ten day period is a total of eight person-days. Even adding 50% for overheads, I make that a setup cost of just over £2,000 – after which it probably becomes normal website maintenance, and almost impossible to quantify separately.
As ever, your calculation is entirely dependent on your guesswork, your assumptions, your extrapolations… and given that this is Westminster, your party position. Always remember this is politics, not mathematics.
Many, many thanks to Chris for replying.
Update: I’ve had a subsequent email from the LibDems’ Daniel Wilson, confirming: ‘PCS civil service wage statistics show that the two civil servants who work on Miliband’s blog cost up to £61,457 p.a. (for the senior member) and £40,500 p.a. (for the more junior member). As they spend up to 40% of their time on the blog, this equates to £40,782.80 p.a. in staffing costs.’ So even if those PCS figures are valid – and they aren’t too far away from my ‘add 50% for overheads’ numbers, the calculation is based on maximum figures across the board. Politics not mathematics, as I said…
Update, 25 July: grateful to Guido Fawkes for referring the traffic to my humble blog… but I didn’t ever claim it ‘costs the taxpayer a pound a word’. If anything, I think I did a reasonable job of undermining Chris Huhne’s initial claim. And Miliband told the (Newcastle) Journal on 17 June: ‘We are trying to bed down the ongoing administration costs as we speak but we know that they are going to be less than 10% of an existing junior civil servant’s time.’ Even applying the ‘add 50% for overheads’ rule, you’re talking £3,750 pa.
‘Ever wondered what happens when Europe’s political leaders get together? Well Eddie Izzard did, so he set off for Brussels to find out. The popular comedian, who has a passion for European issues, tagged along with the PM’s party for a behind-the-scenes look at what happens at a Council meeting.’
Eddie Izzard continues his bid to become ‘Britain’s favourite europhile’, with this remarkable contribution to the Downing Street website. The inclusion of amateur photos of the trip – and I mean that in a positive sense – is a really nice touch. Well done for mimicking Flickr’s ‘photo set’ presentation, too.
The BBC’s Nick Robinson covers the ‘shock news’ on his own blog. But he’s wrong to call it ‘No10′s first podcast’. In fact, it’s arguable that Downing Street actually invented the podcast?!
Starting in February 2000, Downing Street went through a phase of producing regular MP3 ‘addresses to the nation’ by Tony Blair – trying, I suppose, to mimic the US President’s weekly radio broadcasts. It started out as a weekly thing, then inevitably became a bit more sporadic over the summer break, and never really recaptured its rhythm. Was it a podcast? Depends on your definition. To a purist, it isn’t a podcast unless it comes in an RSS feed. But these days, the term is seemingly applied to any posting of audio content. In which case, Blair was there right at the beginning.
Oh… and just to make this even madder… Tony Blair will be co-hosting Radio Five Live’s football phone-in tonight. I thought I’d heard someone on the radio say so this morning, but then my brain said it couldn’t possibly have been what they said, and made me get on with my breakfast. Best listener-submitted question so far: ‘Are you going to be supporting England at this world cup, or will you just support the USA regardless, like you normally do?’
I’m really surprised at the sudden backlash against David Miliband, secretary of state for the environment, and Britain’s first blogging minister. A piece in Friday’s Independent, based on ‘research by the Liberal Democrats’ urbane front bencher, Chris Huhne‘ estimated the cost of the initiative at ‘somewhere approaching £40,000 a year.’
First off, let’s remember that Chris Huhne isn’t an entirely neutral observer here. The LibDems see the environment as ‘their’ territory, so it’s no surprise to see them having a pop at anything DEFRA does. And of course, in his role as shadow Environment spokesman, it’s Huhne’s specific task to hassle David Miliband.
And whilst I’m sure there is some convoluted calculation which brings the total cost to £40,000, I’m not buying it. By the time you factor in every overhead, as I imagine Chris Huhne has done, you could probably inflate the cost of any task to five figures (or worse!).
The other criticisms, rounded up by Antony Mayfield, seem a bit petty. It may or may not be true that every word is written and typed by Miliband himself. It may or may not be ‘widely ridiculed for its dull content’ (as claimed in Monday’s Independent). But folks, this is government. This is how it works. Virtually nothing happens without going through several layers of sign-off (sadly). And a lot of day-to-day government business is not sexy. Just how exciting did you expect the work diary of Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to be?
As reported here a couple of weeks back, I’ve been involved in setting up a blog-esque site for the Department of Education and Skills. It uses a blogging engine, specifically Typepad. It uses blogging methods, like permalinks, RSS feeds, categories and chronological presentation. We could choose to allow comments and trackbacks – but we chose not to, because we didn’t feel we could commit the necessary resources to do a good job. And so far, the results are pleasing: we’re getting respectable traffic and good search engine placement.
These are baby steps. The only way we will build the confidence within government to do these things ‘properly’, is to show concrete examples which dispel the scare stories.
A very curious appearance by blogging legend Robert Scoble on BBC2′s Newsnight on Friday, to talk the announcement about Bill Gates’s departure. (Watch it here while you can.) I don’t think it was appropriate to caption him as ‘Strategist, Microsoft’… and I’m surprised there was no attempt to quiz Scoble on (a) corporate identity and (b) his own departure.
Gavin Esler’s interview was beautifully moderated, and didn’t once attempt to use Scoble as a ‘company spokesman’… so they clearly knew who he was. (Not a given, of course, when it comes to technology commentators at the BBC.) We often criticise ‘big media’ for making a dog’s breakfast of technology stories. So, credit where it’s due – Newsnight handled this very well, and Paul Mason‘s package was really well pitched.
Needless to say, there’s an inevitable flood of pro and anti feedback on Scoble’s blog.
On Sunday I wrote regarding Robert Scoble’s departure from Microsoft: ‘he isn’t the only person I know to be leaving a very cushy job at Microsoft just now’. How many of you deduced it was a tip-off for today’s big story?
Cards on the table straight away. I love RSS feeds. I read something recently which described RSS as the ‘third evolution’ of the internet (or something like that), after ‘browse’ and ‘search’… and it’s not a bad way to see it.
I subscribed to my first RSS feed about three years ago, and I haven’t looked back. So I’m delighted – finally! – to see some comment on RSS feeds from usability guru Jakob Nielsen, although I missed it initially: it’s hidden at the bottom of a piece headlined ‘Email Newsletters: Surviving Inbox Congestion‘. But I just can’t agree with his apparent conclusion that:
Feeds are a cold medium in comparison with email newsletters. Feeds do not form the same relationship between company and customers that a good newsletter can build.
No way. In fact, I have found myself building a stronger relationship with certain companies and individuals precisely because of the feeds… and precisely because they are a cold, or rather a neutral, medium. Email newsletters are invariably about marketing blitz and glitz. RSS feeds, and the content they generally derive from, are pure information. One word for you here: Scoble.
Yes, I scan RSS headlines ruthlessly. But that’s exactly the point. Sites which feed their content to me in its purest form (and it don’t get much purer than XML) are showing they respect me. They give me the control, both in terms of which stories I read, and how I subscribe or unsubscribe. I am grateful for that. And you know what? It builds a positive relationship between us.
Jakob, himself, is a case in point. I don’t subscribe to his email newsletter. And actually, I can only think of one email newsletter I’ve actively subscribed to in the last two years. Email has become my one-to-one communication channel, where the sender knows who I am, and sends something to me specifically. When I get an email, I know it is to me, and intended for me as an individual. There is most likely an action attached.
I have a different place for my one-to-many communications, where the sender puts something out to a mass of anonymous users – my RSS reader. The ‘sender’ doesn’t know who I am, and that doesn’t matter to either of us. There is no expectation of a response, or an action of any kind. I dip in and out, when I want, or when I can. I am in control, and I like that.
If Jakob offered an RSS feed, I would subscribe to it immediately. Instead I am reliant on an unofficial feed created by a scraping service (Feedfire). Says it all.