Online is dead

Last month Ofcom published a survey in which it stated “people are spending twice as much time online compared to 10 years ago” and in one fell swoop revealed itself to be hopelessly out-of-touch. There followed a slew of news stories and blog posts echoing the report and its findings, all repeating the same moribund mantra of ‘time spent online.’

Going online was something we did in the last few years of the 20th Century and the earliest years of this one. You’d sit at your PC, typing in Word or doing ‘what-if’ analysis in Excel, then you’d fire up your modem, listen to the screeching of it connecting with the internet, so that you could go online. Once online, you’d send your email, or browse the internet, then you’d disconnect, and go back to what you were doing.

The world isn’t like that anymore. It hasn’t been like that for several years. It will never be like that again.

This is a bit of a man-in-the-pub anecdote, but I heard it just a few weeks before the Ofcom report was announced … a teacher asked his class of 16 year old students how many hours they spend online per day, and his class didn’t understand the question. Why? Were they particularly stupid? No. It’s because the world has moved on and the concept of online has been left behind.

One of the comments in Ofcom’s press release on the report was: “in 2010, 5% of adults used a tablet to go online. By 2014 that was 39%.”

It didn’t say what the other 61% are using their tablets for.

In a world where your thermostat is connected to the internet, your TV set-top box (or even just your TV), your games console, your phone, your watch, your fridge, even your car are all always connected to the internet, going online is just not a thing any more.

Go around asking people how often they’re online and all you’ll really achieve is letting people know you hail from a bygone era. And not in a cool hipstery way.

That same derelict way of thinking can also be seen in some of the things we try to teach young people at school and college. There are courses, a GCSE history module in particular, that seeks to join the dots between digital & social and magazines, newspapers, periodicals and even all the way back to the evolution of writing … look kids this is how come you got Facebook and WhatsApp, and all the other things that are so cool and useful.

You might as well have tried to teach kids in the 1980s that cavemen building fires were actually using the first ever microwave ovens. It’s just misguided.

ofcom
Look! An infographic. They’re cool.

 

 

PR is dead – long live PR

When I hear – as I’m sure we all have – that social media has irrevocably changed the way in which people communicate with each other, and will therefore change the way in which brands (and their intermediaries) attempt to communicate with people, I reserve the right to remain sensibly sceptical.

Back in 2002 or so, I encountered a question in almost every client meeting I had, whether with existing or prospective clients.

“Do you do online PR?” I was asked.

Frankly, this question threw me into a spin – no PR pun intended. I would return to my desk and sit there reflecting on this question, or more to the point on my complete lack of a coherent answer to it. I felt like a latter-day Rip van Winkle that had woken up after a long nap only to find there’d been an unexpected shift of paradigm. The (PR) world had moved on without me.

You see, the problem was I didn’t even know what online PR was. Admittedly I wasn’t, back then, the grey-haired PR aficionado I am now. But I was no newbie either. And I had been the news editor of the UK’s foremost online news site. So, I felt if anyone ought to know what online PR was, and be all over it, it should be me.

But I didn’t. And that troubled me.

One of the nice(r) things about being a little older though, is you start to notice when things heralded as new are, in fact, a rehash of something that has gone before.

This brings me back to the issue of why I didn’t understand what online PR was? Because it never existed. In much the same way that social media has not and will not change the way people communicate – except, of course, at a fairly mechanical level.

I don’t know which was invented first – the fork or the spoon. But I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those implements was heralded as changing people’s relationship with food by some visionary or other. Sure, you scoop with one and, err, fork with the other. But the fundamentals remain utterly unchanged. You are eating. Transporting food into your mouth. Chopsticks will also do the job.

Back to PR. This is only my view, admittedly, but surely PR is the art of story telling – stories can be fact or fiction; if you don’t agree with me, ask yourself why some documentaries are more compelling than others, why some biographies are more gripping.

Story telling only works if you have something interesting to say and someone who wants to hear it. You can sit round the campfire, you can put it on a CD, you can go on stage and use performance art, you can make a movie or a one-act play, you can write a novel or even make a documentary. It is still, at some level, a story – words and images crafted to convey information in an interesting way.

I don’t doubt there are better and more sophisticated PR practitioners that will knock holes in my viewpoint with effortless ease. But I stand by the principle that if you can’t get the basics right – what’s my story and who do I want to tell it to – it doesn’t matter which medium you select for telling it.

If the menopause doesn’t get me, the cancer surely will

This is the second of two pieces I wrote on 8 October 2011 on the subject of searching online for health-related information and coming face-to-face with the issue of trust. This was the first one: snake oil, bone-shakers and witch-doctors 2.0″

Spurred on by my recent search for food information and the number of hokey websites I found myself looking at, I decided to go one step further and investigate some online diagnosis sites.

Once again, it is nigh on impossible to tell the voice you can trust from the ones that ought to be denied access to the internet altogether. And of the majority, which sit between those two extreme points, there is no easy way of knowing who is well-intentioned but essentially wrong on too many counts, and who is being deliberately misleading in order to promote their own beliefs.

I decided to spend a little time filling in some online forms, answering questions about my health, so I could see for myself what kind of information might be presented to someone entering into this sort of activity genuinely.

With a mind to some everyday aches and pains (the kind I imagine we all suffer from occasionally) I answered all the questions accurately and honestly. Well, mostly – I lied about my gender on one site. We’ll come on to that shortly.

It might be worth pointing out that my family doctor, a charming and thorough man, recently insisted I had a full set of blood tests and an ECG. Everything came back normal, and his assessment was that I am in very good shape for a man of my age. In fact, my lung capacity and strength is that of someone 20 years my junior, he said. Perhaps that’s from all the practice I have of blowing my own trumpet.

So what of the time I spent with Doctor Interwebz? What was the diagnosis from that?

Well, I have always believed that when it comes to any form of self-diagnosis all roads lead to cancer. These beliefs were not shattered by this weekend’s activities. In three parts of my body I am – allegedly – exhibiting symptoms that could indicate cancer.

In addition to which, I learned I need an urgent medical assessment of my cardio-vascular functions.

But my favourite diagnosis by far was the one that told me I was experiencing symptoms that indicate the onset of the menopause.

It’s hard not to laugh, which is why I did indeed laugh. But there is a serious point buried in here.

When it comes to online information, the issue of trust – it seems to me – is as valid today as it has ever been.

In some ways, I take comfort from the fact that little really changes when it comes to human nature. Some folk like to be scared, while others are happy to lead you astray.

It’s a jungle out there people – stay safe.

And for goodness sake, if you really are concerned about your health don’t go anywhere near the internet. Go and see a real doctor.

 

A footnote: I decided against including links to any of the sites I visited. Trust me, it’s for your own good. Added to which I don’t think they deserve the traffic.

Snake oil, bone-shakers and witch-doctors 2.0

This is the first of two pieces on the subject of using the internet to find reliable information regarding things connected with health.

Over the weekend I was searching online for information about which foods are a good source of different kinds of vitamins and minerals. Not for myself, but for one of my kids.

It was, I thought initially, a pretty straightforward thing to look for online.

But what happened next enabled me to see the internet in all its naked glory.

My first encounter with the internet was 20 years ago and these days I am rarely offline, except when I am asleep – much to the occasional chagrin of those around me.

Consequently I consider myself to be pretty savvy when it comes to using the internet. A digital native, if you will. I am well versed in finding what I want online and quickly navigating my way through the many pools of information therein, some deep and some not so.

But the food search episode was quite the revelation. Pretty much all the results returned by Google (which has been my weapon of choice for searching since 1998 and is likely to remain as such for the foreseeable) were from websites that looked at best questionable as sources of information and at worst downright misleading.

How, I asked myself, am I supposed to be able to tell in whom I should place my trust?

I trawled through page after page, site after site, and came to the conclusion that I couldn’t figure that one out. So I ignored them all, preferring to remain in blissful ignorance.

This, I realised, is what it must be like to be unfamiliar with the internet and to trust in the validity of all the search results Google delivers you.

One of the most enduring changes the internet has brought about is the democratisation of publishing. Anyone with an opinion, a computer and an internet connection can publish those opinions and, potentially, gather around them an audience of believing readers.

This is a good thing.  And also a not-so-good thing.