Cyber attack – why don’t people update their computers?

Why do people avoid securing their computers? Millions of computers are unprotected from hacking and viruses? Why?

have you been hacked photo

The global cyber attack of the past few days has grown again, with many more systems compromised. Russia is blaming America. America is blaming Eastern Europe. Microsoft is blaming the US Government. Newspapers are blaming Jeremy Hunt. Who knows? No-one.

I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll find this havoc has been caused by a pimply youth who was experimenting to see what could be done with code. The chances of an organised group, or a state-sponsored gang, producing what is, frankly, a rather amateurish attack is low. Those high-level cybercriminals are much more sophisticated. Besides which, even though this worldwide hacking attempt has affected tens of thousands of systems in half the world’s countries, it has, so far, only amassed $42,000. Not much for a gang attack – and certainly not enough to ensure they can run away to a new life. One day we’ll probably discover who was behind this and I suspect everyone will go, “really…?”

In the meantime, though, there is the issue of clearing up the mess. Technology teams have been working non-stop to try to restore affected systems. Many of them appear to have been using old operating systems, unpatched with updates. Plus, many don’t appear to have invested in Internet security software, or if they have they don’t really update it. I heard one company on the radio complaining that they had been affected and they don’t understand because they “update the antivirus program every week”. Whoops…! That’s the problem; you need to be updating your security software hourly; patches are provided throughout each day, often several times a day. If you only update once a week, you leave yourself open to all the possible exploits that would otherwise have been fixed.

Security quotation

At least, though, that company was trying. Others don’t even have security software. It is estimated that a third of the world’s computers connected to the Internet are doing so without security programs. That means no matter how hard you try to protect yourself, others are allowing the Internet to become a criminal’s playground. It’s a bit like you locking all the doors of your house, but one of your neighbours have the same set of keys which they leave under a flower pot.

The psychology of risk

One of the main reasons that people do not protect themselves is due to their risk perception. Consider the people who smoke cigarettes. They know that smoking kills. The packets tell them in no uncertain terms that cigarette smoking is highly dangerous. But they believe that the damage is done to other people. “It will never happen to me,” they think.

Similarly, when drivers are told that speed kills, they still drive their cars fast, assuming that accidents only happen to other people.

Human beings are really rubbish at assessing risk. We tend to reduce the level of risk in something which is high and we tend to increase the level of risk in something that is low risk. We are constantly trying to “normalise” risks because that makes it easy to understand them. We think aeroplane travel is dangerous when it is the safest form of transport (other than being an astronaut, which by miles per person is much safer). Yet we downplay the risks of overeating and getting fat, assuming that the risk is worse for other people. Yet, you are far more likely to die from overeating than you are from flying in a plane. Our brain wants to equate risks to make it easy to understand them.

What this means is that many computer users around the world tend to downplay the risks of infection – they think “Why would anyone be interested in my computer? They’ll only want to attack people with something interesting on their machines.” This is the classic, “it won’t happen to me, it will happen to somebody else” stance.

Of course, people thinking this way will try to justify their decision. The NHS managers who think like this will be talking about budgets, a lack of resources and other factors that influenced their decision not to update computers. Yet, if they had perceived the risk accurately and not downplayed it, they would have found the money to tackle the problem.

What are the chances of infection?

There are 200,000 organisations around the world who thought that the likelihood of their computers being attacked was low. They were wrong, of course. They downplayed the risk as part of this psychological normalisation. The result is a lack of protection as it would be deemed unnecessary or too costly.

However, viruses and attacks like the one we have seen in the past few days do not discriminate. If a computer is connected to a network, it can be infected. The risk of being attacked in some way for your computer system is 100%. That’s because your computer is connected to machines that have no protection on a global network that can transmit nasties within seconds. You cannot avoid being attacked online these days. You have a 100% chance of someone or something (often they are bots, not people) trying to break into your computer.

When people realise that the risk is 100%, the normalisation aspect kicks in trying to reduce that figure to make it all the more understandable and to protect us from the inevitable. That means we do not take steps to protect ourselves as we are perceiving the risk lower than it is in reality.

The reason so many computers in the world are unprotected – putting us all at risk – is because people have thought the risks are lower than is actually the case. However, it is not “if” your computer will be attacked, but “when”.

For 200,000 organisations the “when” has already happened, this weekend. But it could be your computer tomorrow.

The answer to dealing with the cyber attackers is to assume the risk of being attacked is 100%. That will make people do something and the number of outdated and unprotected systems will fall. And as that happens the attackers will lose interest as they will be unable to wreak havoc. It’s a bit like house burglars. When everyone in the street gets their property fitted with an alarm, the criminals move on to another area where they think their pickings will be easier. So it is online – except every “house” needs an “alarm” (Internet security software). Do that and the cyber attackers have nowhere to go. But the only way this will happen is if every computer user in the world properly understands the risks. And what do you think are the chances of that happening? Well whatever you thought, the real chance is different. How do I know that? Because humans are rubbish at working such things out.

Three facts that Internet businesses can learn from UK politics

The UK is gripped by politics at the moment with local elections across the country and an impending general election. Take note, online businesses…!

Downing Street road sign

The Prime Minister of the UK, the Rt Hon Theresa May MP, wants the British people to allow her to carry on living at 10 Downing Street. The starting gun for the General Election was fired on Wednesday when Mrs May went to see the Queen to formally dissolve Parliament.

The next day, though, the UK fell strangely silent in terms of political discussion This was because there were elections up and down the country for councils and mayors. And on polling day it is illegal to discuss politics in the media.

Today, of course, it is different. Pundits are poring over the results from last nights counts of voting and suggesting what it all means for Theresa May and her desire to be back in No 10 next month, on 9th June, the day after we all go to the polls, again.

The results suggest she is not going to have to ring up a removal company anytime soon. It looks like she is assured of being in Downing Street for a further five years or so.

However, the election results also reveal three other interesting factors. Firstly, in spite of being the largest political party in Europe with more than 600,000 members, Labour is losing votes. Secondly, people who previously voted UKIP appear to be happy to switch allegiance and move to the Tories or even to Labour. The third interesting feature about the local elections is how few people voted; in the election for a Mayor for the West of England, seven out of every ten people did not bother to vote.

These three facts might give political pundits plenty of stuff to chew over, but they reveal three important issues for anyone running an online business.

Follower numbers are irrelevant

The Labour Party is constantly saying we’ll all be surprised in elections because they are the largest party with the biggest membership of any political grouping in Europe. That is true. With more than 600,000 members they have a huge following. But followers are irrelevant to politicians. What counts are votes.

It is the same situation with thousands of online businesses. They boast of millions of Twitter followers, hundreds of thousands of Facebook “likes” and fans on every social platform you care to mention. But their bank balance? Yes, you guessed correctly, these companies have loads of followers but pitifully few customers. Indeed, I know of businesses with thousands of followers on Twitter, who seemingly have a vibrant business, yet secretly they are almost bankrupt.

Social media encourages you down the Labour Party line – the “mine is bigger than yours” approach. Badges on websites showing the number of likes or how many Twitter followers you have may appeal to your ego, but they frequently make little difference to profits. Today, we find the Labour Party focusing their commentary on the number of members they have, whilst appearing to ignore the number of votes (at least in public). Online businesses make the same mistake; they focus on the number of followers, rather than the profit in the bank. Plus, we already know that social media is less help to business than we might think.

People are no longer loyal

The local elections have seen people switch their votes from UKIP to both Labour and Conservative. It also appears that some have gone from Labour or Tory towards Liberal Democrat. One of the reasons that political pollsters have problems in predicting results is that these days people are prepared to move from party to party, changing their allegiance at a moment’s notice.

The same is true in business. Research shows that customers are much less loyal to brands than they used to be. Furthermore, Internet users are fed up with all the “shouting” by brands. The power relationship has changed in the business world. Before the Internet, a company was “in charge” as they were the only ones with the facts and information to help customers make a buying decision. Now, all of that has altered. Customers can check the latest information on any product or service and can find the cheapest deal or the best item for their specific needs. Loyalty has disappeared. We see that in today’s election results. And you see it online too; people switch from supplier to supplier without a care. Companies are not realising fast enough that loyalty is a thing of the past. What matters now is serving specific needs and therefore having a deeper understanding of what your potential clients really want. That’s also the missing link for many political parties; they know what their “fans” want, but haven’t much of a clue as to what the rest of the country desires.

Customers don’t care

The local elections have seen a dismal turnout. Most people who could have voted didn’t bother. When this happens, politicians often blame the weather, saying people don’t like going out in the rain. But yesterday for most of the country the weather was fine. So it is not the weather. For many, it might have been they felt their vote was wasted as the result was a foregone conclusion. Alternatively, people might simply not be interested. Who would have thought? The Great British public has more interesting things to do than getting involved in driving to a dingy hall to use a pencil on a string to put an X in a box against someone’s name they don’t even recognise. In other words, people are more interested in themselves and their own lives than they are in the world of politics.

The same is true in business. Customers don’t care about your products or services. They couldn’t give a monkey’s about your latest news. They have no desire to find out about your “top offers”. All they care about is themselves. Politicians make the mistake of thinking that people care about what is going on. But frankly, most people don’t. They just want to “get on with their lives”. Similarly, your customers don’t care about what is happening in your business; they just want to “get on with their lives”. So your latest news, your constant desire to increase web traffic and your company’s burning need to get more newsletter subscribers? It’s all of little consequence.

What’s to be done?

Politicians will carry on over the next month running up to the General Election thinking that everyone is interested in what happens, that their fans represent what most people want and that their numbers of followers will translate into votes. Most politicians will wake up on 9th June somewhat surprised that vast numbers didn’t vote, that people switched parties and that their fan-base didn’t translate into wider popularity.

Don’t let your business be thinking the same. Followers on Twitter are nice to have, but the statistic to focus on each month is profit, pure and simple. Similarly, even if you have millions of adoring fans, stop thinking they represent your customers. They don’t; they are a subset. What they tell you is not what most of your customers think, so put in place measures to find out what your “non-fans” consider important. Finally, be prepared for people to be disloyal. That means you need to avoid complacency; plan for the fact that people will leave you and move to the competition. And, in turn, that requires you to understand more about the competition so you can reduce their impact on your customers.

Social media good for your business – in context. Fans are important for your company – but take what they say with that proverbial pinch of salt. And loyalty is a scarce commodity – which means you have to always be on the lookout for triggers of disloyalty to prevent it from happening.

You may not have participated in the local and regional elections in the UK. You may not even be voting in the General Election on 8th June. But one thing is for sure. If you run an online business you can learn from politicians. Well, at least you can learn what NOT to do..!

What does the Trump presidency mean for the Internet?

Donald J. Trump will change the Internet as well as America. His presidency could mean changes in the way people behave online.

Donald Trump Whitehouse composite image
Picture from Kaz Vorpal via Flickr.

 

So, Donald J. Trump is President. You are either saying “oh no” or “hurray”; there is no middle-ground with Mr Trump. Doubtless, there will be headlines in the newspapers about the “world being shaken”, about a “political earthquake” or say things like “markets plummet”.  But after all the brouhaha has settled down we’ll just have to get on with things for the next four years. Regardless of who is in the Whitehouse, the world will still turn; business will still operate, and people will still go about their daily life, just like they did yesterday before the Trump presidency became a reality.

However, the Internet may well change, and we are going to have to get used to it.

Donald J. Trump’s election could have given permission for those who want it to be misogynistic, to express racial hatred and to be vulgar. If the man at the top can be all these things, some will think, why can’t we?

The amount of vitriol online could well increase. So too could the number of trolls. Their “leader” has been elected, and that provides the psychological permission to be like him. If you thought Twitter was a bad place, just wait.

And that may well be bad news for Twitter. The company is already beset with financial issues, is laying off staff, and the rumours about potential buyers have died down, suggesting it ain’t happening anytime soon. On top of this, growth in usage has flattened. With only 310m active users, Twitter has about a quarter of the number of people using Facebook each day. And Twitter is the older brother.

With flatlining usage and financial issues, finding a buyer is tough. But now add into the mix that Twitter could become even more full of vile and bile and why would anyone want to buy it? Trump’s presidency could be the beginning of the end for Twitter. If your Twitter stream becomes too frequently populated with misogynism, racism or bullying, you’ll stop using it; so too will millions of others. The angry people of America who voted in Mr Trump could be a further problem for Twitter if this election result fires them up with enthusiasm for spouting nonsense online.

Of course, most of the people who voted for Mr Trump are not misogynists, racists or sexual molesters. But they are angry. They are cross with a system that has seen their incomes fall, their costs rise and their towns being forgotten. Mr Trump’s victory has given them permission to be more vocal too. You might not witness more abuse on Twitter, but you could see more anger because the election of Mr Trump is “social proof” that these people are right.

Twitter is in a harder position than other social media. Facebook has far too many people elsewhere in the world, plus its finances are in a much stronger position.

But what if Facebook wants to employ some Mexicans or Muslims? That’s going to be a problem now. The same will be true for other US-based tech companies. They will be thinking hard about who they employ. Much of the talent these companies want comes from the Far East or from Spanish speakers. They could, of course, move their international HQs to the country which has the most significant level of e-commerce anywhere in the world, which is the UK. But that’s a problem for them too because Brexit will inevitably mean lack of movement of labour. Internet companies in America could find themselves boxed into a corner where they cannot employ the people they want within the USA and they cannot move to the next most obvious country, all because of anti-immigrant feelings whooped up by politicians like Mr Trump and his UK supporter-in-chief, Nigel Farage. The Trump presidency could see the US-bias of the Internet change, as companies move operations to Asia, for instance.

Ok, I admit, none of this might happen. My theories may be borne out of waking up to a shock result. There are two things we can be sure of in the coming years ahead, though. Firstly, you will have to carry on running your business, regardless. Secondly, change is inevitable. We just have to accept those two things, live with them, and move on.

What has the EU done for the Internet? Remain or Leave?

The EU has achieved several things for the Internet and put in place several barriers too.

Brexit anyone?With little more than 24 hours to go before the end of voting in the UK’s Referendum on Europe, you might like a few more facts to help you make your decision.

The EU has been at the forefront of changes which have both helped and hindered the Internet. So, what have they done good and bad?

The positives for the Internet

One of the biggest changes the EU pioneered, way back in the early days of the web, was the ending of proscribed browsers from computer manufacturers. In those days you were forced to use one browser or another. Now, computer manufacturers have to make choices available or allow you to install whatever you like.

Another long-time campaign from the EU is in its battle against search engines, particularly Google, introducing rules which help prevent them from dominating things and reducing competitiveness. It hasn’t always worked, but at least the EU is “on the case”.

Roaming charges for mobile device users is another area in which the EU has led the way – albeit slowly. It will cost you the same to access online data in other EU nations as it will in the UK.

The negatives for the Internet

One particular issue that the EU concerns itself with is privacy. That sounds good until you look at the bureaucratic solutions it produces. The EU Cookie Directive is a real problem. Even today, it is essentially illegal for any website in Europe to be visible until a visitor has first agreed to each cookie that will be set. The EU Cookie Directive – if fully implemented – would essentially switch off the Internet for most people.

A year ago, the EU introduced new rules about digital downloads. This either means that small businesses have to register for VAT in each nation of the EU and do VAT returns in each country. Or it means that firms have to register for “MOSS”, which is a centralised system to sort out the inter-border VAT on digital downloads. Either way, it means more work and more cost for businesses. Even the simplest arrangement requires additional accounting and two VAT returns.

Recently, the EU decided on controls on hate speech online. That is an obviously positive move. Apart from the fact that the restrictions are deemed by many to be so great that they will prevent much free speech online. Furthermore, even  though social media companies have agreed to the controls, frankly, they cannot make them work. The rules require companies to monitor their networks for hate speech and remove such items in less than 24 hours and prevent access to their systems to the perpetrators. With billions of items being added to these networks every day, there is no hope they can track everything or even locate the individuals and deal with them. A nice idea from the EU, but rather like the Cookie Directive, the solution is unworkable.

Now, we hear that the EU is planning that every citizen will require a Government ID to access the Internet. The plan is that you will not be able to go online unless you have applied for and received an ID number which you will use to access the Internet. Do you want that?

Leave or Remain?

There is no doubt that the EU has achieved a great deal for the Internet. But it has also created some significant problems for users and businesses.

The decision is yours.

Based on what the EU does for the Internet, there is only one conclusion I have been able to make over several years of following what they do; the EU does not understand the Internet. And if they don’t understand it, can they really legislate on it? But if they don’t legislate on it, who will? Is the EU making ill-informed decisions better than no decisions being made and the Internet being left to run-riot as a result?

This referendum lark isn’t plain black and white – yet that is precisely what you are being asked to decide upon.

Psychological hint for deciding…

The referendum requires you to make a decision between two things – remain or leave the EU. Psychological research shows that when we have to make decisions we end up with “decision paralysis” when we are faced with either too few choices or too many. For instance, if you wanted to buy a new car and there were 50 different ones to choose from, you would struggle. Similarly, if there were only two to choose from you would also struggle.

Much psychological research shows that we find it really easy to choose between three things. So, if the referendum had a third choice it then becomes easier for us to focus on choosing between the remaining two. One way you can therefore work out what to do – remain or leave – is to add your own third choice. Your choices could be “remain”, “leave”, “don’t decide today, give me another year”. With that third choice you’ll then find it much easier to make a decision.

Nigel Farage teaches you how to do Internet Marketing

Nigel Farage of UKIP celebrates electoral victories demonstrating at the same time what politicians and online businesses fail to do well.

Nigel FarageLet me get this straight right at the beginning. I believe that Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, frequently talks nonsense. His party’s policies seem to be made up on the spot and his relentless focus on immigration is a divisive force sending Britain backwards not forwards. As you may gather, I do not sympathise with his views one bit.

Yet, here in the UK, the local council elections yesterday showed that many people do believe in him and UKIP. Indeed, the party has gained 89 seats throughout England, where the coalition government parties, so far, have lost 200 seats between them. Clearly, many people prefer UKIP to the Government.

The majority of people, of course, do not support Nigel Farage. The vast bulk of the voters did not support UKIP; three-quarters of people voted for other parties.

Yet, whatever you think of him and his policies, you have to admit he is causing something of a disturbance. But why?

Discussions on radio and TV and in newspaper columns have revealed a common thread when talking to the public. You cannot misunderstand what Nigel Farage thinks. He is clear and passionate about his policies. He relentlessly bashes home his view and like it or not, you know what it is.

But interviews with voters have also revealed what they think of other politicians. They are unsure what they actually stand for and even though they support the party, they wish the leaders would spend more time saying what they really believe in and less time preparing “spin” and saying what they think the public wants to hear. Indeed, this was a point picked up by Liberal Democrat minister, Lynne Featherstone, when she told the BBC that politicians need to be “more human”.

When you think of politicians you understand – even though you may not support their views – you probably think of people like Boris Johnson, Ann Widdicombe, or Tony Benn. You could not mistake their beliefs, or their passion and towing the party-line is clearly not for them.

Yet, most of our politicians these days are career politicians, often with a degree in politics and with no experience outside politics. They live in a political bubble, unfettered by real-world knowledge.

And that too is the problem for many businesses. At a dinner with some leading fashion experts the other night, the conversation got round to the woes of M&S, which recently reported its third year of losses. The industry leaders I was with were unanimous in one thing: M&S is in a bubble, disconnected from its customers. Even though the company has reported a significant rise in online sales, a major rise of something small in comparison to other retailers is still something small.

Whenever you find a business in some kind of trouble, you can generally find that they had lost sight of what their customers wanted. Instead, they delivered what they thought their customers wanted and tried pandering to these theoretical positions. Meanwhile, you can usually find people from these troubled firms who come clean after a while and say what they actually believe, rather than “PR spin”. Indeed, research on trust and credibility of business leaders shows consistently that we prefer those who speak from the heart and not from the head. We like them to be honest, to say what they feel – and not say what they have been told to say by some wet-behind-the-ears graduate of PR.

Internet marketers fall into the same trap. They say what they think we want to hear – “here’s how you can live like me, working from the beach just one hour a week”. But the Internet Marketers, like Pat Flynn, who are completely honest about their online earnings and the way they do business, get a huge following.

So what does all this tell us? It shows that when your online marketing is focused on what you think people want to hear, not saying what you believe, you lose trust and credibility. When you operate like a “business” and not like a human being, you create distance and lack of connection.

Nigel Farage may be someone whose policies and activities I dislike intensely, but you have to hand it to him that he has demonstrated that if you say what you believe, rather than what you think people want to hear, you start connecting. Online it is just the same; understand your customers, sure, but they also need to understand you and if you hide away behind some PR veneer, they cannot “get” what it is your business stands for.

Web Links to Be Banned by EU

EU proposals published on April 1st are derided by FOOL

A person draws a series of links connecting in a network of referrals, representing a well search engine optimized website or an organization of connected peopleShocking news has reached me this morning from a friend who works at the EU. He tells me they are drawing up plans to ban all links on the web. Within a year from today it will be illegal to include links on any web pages or blogs you produce without prior permission from the owner of the links.

It follows on from the EU ban on cookies, which has led millions of web pages asking you to click on a pop-up item confirming you agree to links. It is part of the EU clamp-down on privacy. The legislators in Brussels have argued that linking to someone else’s website is a similar invasion of privacy and therefore no links should be included in web pages without the prior permission of the owner of that link.

The initiative, drawn up secretly over the past year, is known as the Actual Permissions Required In Linking (APRIL). According to my friend in the know, an announcement was due to be made yesterday, but the press release had not been signed off in time. So the announcement has been delayed until today.

However, because I had been told in advance I contacted the Federation for Online Open Linking (FOOL) to find out what they thought. They told me: “This is a disaster. It undermines the entire purpose of the Internet. We may as well close it down and go back to pen and paper.”

Looking at the EU’s plans, though, I suspect that is not going to happen. Rather like the EU Cookie Directive which effectively means that every website currently shown in the EU is illegal, the APRIL directive is unlikely to have any significant impact.

I suspect, though, it will lead to a major new industry in gaining link permissions, which could rival the entire SEO industry in terms of size and importance. Perhaps I will be able to report on that in exactly one year from today.

See other stories which I published on 1st April:

For more information on this story please click here.

UK Government misunderstands web porn

The UK Government has missed the point about online child pornography, once again, showing a lack of understanding and care

????????????????????????????????????????????Yesterday the Government took to the broadcast airwaves and David Cameron has taken to Twitter to say how fantastic it is that they have “forced” the Internet giants to block child porn online. But don’t be fooled. The Government is making you think that they have achieved something, when in reality they have probably made things worse.

This is not the first time the Government has fooled the public into believing it is doing something about online dangers. Earlier this year it suggested that service providers would make all kinds of pornography blockable, thereby filtering out potentially dangerous material for children in particular. As I wrote at the time, this is patent nonsense showing a complete lack of understanding of the way the Internet works and the way people use the web.

This time, the Government has shown yet more misunderstanding. It seems to believe that people interested in child pornography go to Google to find it. Fact: they do not. They share it using “torrent” style sites, peer-to-peer networks and in the inner recesses of what is known as the “dark” web. Indeed, there is little benefit in them trying to search on Google anyway because existing filters would have blocked much of the vile content anyway.

Google and Microsoft have tightened up their existing filters and added in some additional boosts to their software so that illegal material will be flagged. That’s a great addition for the innocent finding of child porn by people looking for something else but where their search term unearthed dubious content.

However, none of this is going to have any significant impact on the production and sharing of child pornography and it is hardly going to impact upon the harm and abuse happening to children.

The Government is making people think that their initiative is brilliant and that it will have an effect. The Government and David Cameron are making the public think something is being done, when in reality what they are doing is making the situation worse. The reason is that by making people think something is being done, the politicians will be under less public pressure to do anything about the issue. It is a smokescreen.

Apart from the fact that this latest “initiative” shows, once again, a fundamental misunderstanding of how people use the Internet, it also implies that the Government is involved in a cynical move aimed more at attracting votes than actually doing anything about the problem.

The real issue is that CEOP, now part of the National Crime Agency, has had budget cuts and has a really small number of staff in comparison to what it needs. There is serious under resourcing in dealing with online crime of all kinds, in particular in terms of child abuse.

This week’s initiative from the Government which David Cameron appears to be proud of, is actually virtually useless. Indeed, it is likely to be making the situation worse, because rather like the move in the summer to block porn at source it lulls people into a false sense of security, making people think something has at last been done, when in reality the child abusers will be rubbing their hands in glee that the Government has missed the point – AGAIN…!

Why don’t old people use the Internet?

Older people aged over 65 are statistically much less likely to use the web than younger people. But it has nothing to do with their age.

Old man and young women using computerYoung people below the age of 24 have grown up with the Internet; they have no knowledge or memory of the world before the web. To them it has always been there. It is no wonder that they are amongst the most highly represented group of people online. Indeed, according to Pew Internet, 98% of people under the age of 29 use the Internet.

However, they are statistically much more likely to be online than their grandparents. In the over 65 age group, Internet usage plummets to 56%. Now there is a margin of error in these research figures, so it basically means that nine out of ten young people use the web, whereas only six out of ten pensioners do so.

That’s still the majority of course, but it means the Internet is much more popular in youngsters than oldies.

But look at the figures again. How much of this difference is actually due to age?

More significant are two other factors – education and income. The Internet is a rich person’s world and highly educated rich people at that. Those aged 65 and over had fewer educational opportunities when they were young. Going to university was rare, now it is the norm. Poverty is also significantly more frequent in the over 65s than it is in younger generations.

Having enough money to pay for web access and then having the educational attainment to understand the online world and be able to use it are the real limiting factors. They probably also explain why not everyone under the age of 65 uses the web.

This concept is known as the “digital divide” where the online world favours the rich and well educated. But there appears to be a growing new kind of digital divide – the social skills divide.

New research shows that people who have lots of “friends” and do lots of mobile phone activity report MORE loneliness than those who have fewer friends and use their mobiles less. The “social deficit” theory suggests that people are more lonely when they have less face-to-face contact. This research did indeed find in favour of that theory.

Unexpectedly, though, it found that people with lots of contacts also felt lonely. The chances are these people are spending less time in face-to-face and more time in electronic communication.

Maybe that old-young person digital divide has nothing to do with age, finances or education after all. Maybe it is that the over 65s have realised the value of face-to-face. They know that being offline is better for them psychologically. Perhaps we should be encouraging those rich college kids to stop using the Internet so much. We could be creating a whole new kind of digital divide.

Parents are being duped about online safety by the UK Government

David Cameron launched new online safety measures designed to reassure parents. The problem is the reassurance is false.

David CameronDavid Cameron did the rounds of the media studios yesterday promoting the Government’s new initiative for online safety for children. If it had not been for the stupidity of the idea, it would have been brilliant.

The UK Government is proposing two changes – a filtering system run by Internet Service Providers to restrict access to online pornography and the banning of certain search phrases which could reveal real nasty stuff.

On the face of it, that sounds a great idea. To the uninitiated it sounds as though the Government is at last doing something about the horrors of the web. To the cynical it sounds merely like something designed to gain the votes of the ignoramt.

There are two main issues with the system put in place by the Prime Minister.

Firstly, filtering can be circumvented. Any teenager can easily find out how to get round filters. It doesn’t take a genius to search for software that gets round filters, to find there are plenty of free options as well as a ton of advice on how to do this easily – without parents knowing…! So when an ISP has filters switched on, Mum and Dad will be reassured that their children will be protected. But those youngsters could well be going around those filters, seeing things which may be psychologically damaging to them. But Mum and Dad won’t know – they won’t even bother to talk about online safety because that nice Mr Cameron has solved it for them. Far from making the Internet safer for children, the filter move has the potential to make it more dangeorous as parents will relax their existing controls blissfully unaware that their children are visiting porn.

The second issue about banning search terms is patent nonsense. Each MONTH around 50% of the phrases searched for on the web have NEVER been used before. Novel combinations of words and phrases are the very lifeblood of search and one reason why Google has to constantly update its index. To ban a word or phrase from revealing search results would be a never-ending and unsuccessful chase. As one phrase is banned, people would search for another one. A ban on search terms simply would not work – even before you consider the civil liberty implications or the problems it might cause when the banned phrases could impact legitimate search terms too.

Here is what the Government ought to be doing. Instead of worrying about whether or not Google pays any tax, they should set up an educational programme both for children and for parents that receives significantly more funding than any previous initiatives. That funding should be in the tens of millions of pounds region and should come directly from Google. Call it a “contribution to society”. The money would provide leaflets, booklets, evening classes, online lessons, Facebook pages and a one-to-one phone advice shop for parents and children. The whole thing will be geared to educating parents in particular as to what they can do to help their children use the Internet safely and what to do if they stumble across anything nasty.

The reason this is needed is simple. One set of parents may have their filters switched on and think their child is protected. But their youngster visits their friend’s house where the filters are switched off and they can see anything. With education those children potentially seeing anything will know how to avoid the nasty stuff, what to do if it is mistakenly viewed and that they should discuss their feelings and reactions to it with their parents. With a massive education campaign these things can happen. With the Government’s filters in place all that will happen is that the danger to children is INCREASED.

Far from helping online safety, these changes have made things worse. As a parent, David Cameron should be ashamed.

Women know less about politics than men – and that is important if you want to build a great web business

Women know less about politics than men, which provides an important lesson for website owners.

Depiction of gender gapIt’s not good to start with an apology, but I am sorry that my women readers may be somewhat upset by my suggestion that they know less than men about politics. But, ladies, stick with me – the gentlemen might not be so smug by the time they get to the end of the article….!

New research conducted at the University of London, but looking at several different countries worldwide, has found that everywhere you look around the world, women have less political knowledge than men. Even in countries with high levels of equality, such as Norway, the difference in political knowledge between the genders is the same as in nations that have far less gender equality, like South Korea. Across the world, women know less about politics than men.

Interestingly, this new research comes at the same time as another study in America which looked at the portrayal of politicians in the media. That study found that stories about male politicians focus on issues, whereas stories about female politicians focus on their personality.

Is it any wonder that women don’t engage with politics as much as they might and therefore don’t know as much. The studies confirm that media coverage of politics is dominated by men. More male politicians appear on TV an radio talking about politics than women. Similarly, the newspapers are filled with men talking politics, only giving scant attention to women doing the same.

Women are surrounded by middle aged men talking politics and – almost certainly – being very “alpha male” about it, discussing things competitively, rather than cooperatively.

The reason women know less about politics than men is because the men don’t bother to make it relevant to them – and neither do the men writing and editing newspapers and broadcasts. Women just can’t be that bothered to watch or read much about politics because it does not reflect them and their world. It simply lacks relevance.

So rather than suggesting that women should learn more about politics, these studies suggest that men should learn how to make themselves relevant and interesting.

And that is the lesson for your web business. The vast majority of websites are invisible. They are ignored by the masses. Even relatively popular websites, those in the top 10% of the rankings only get a trickle of traffic compared with the top handful in each sector. Why? Because only the top sites have made themselves truly relevant to their audience. Far too many website owners have no idea as to what their audience wants and therefore do not know how to make themselves relevant.

If these studies on women and politics tell us anything it is the fact that relevance matters. So the question remains – how relevant is your website to your audience? Do you know? Have you really checked? Or are you like those male politicians, producing loads of stuff that gets talked about but missing a great big slice of your target audience?

Lady Thatcher gave you the Internet

Lady ThatcherBaroness Margaret Thatcher will be remembered in totally different ways. Some people believe she was tremendous and delivered the massive change this country needed. Others believe she led to division and the smashing up of industries and associated communities. If you have been watching the myriad of TV tributes over the past day, you will also see that some people say she really was an Iron Lady, whereas others say her public image was not the woman they knew who was somewhat softer and more gentle. One thing is clear; Maggie was a Marmite Mum. You either loved her or hated her.

My own reminiscences of Lady Thatcher also show this division. On one occasion I was due to attend a conference where she was the opening speaker. Indeed, the conference was her idea and involved several European heads of state. Security was very tight indeed, but somehow I lost my way and went up the wrong lift at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London’s Westminster, opposite the Houses of Parliament. I arrived at the relevant meeting room, on the dot of 11am as the conference was due to begin. I walked in through the door, expecting to be in some ante-room being told I could not go in. But I was not. Instead, I entered the room at the back, immediately behind Maggie as she was at the podium beginning her speech. Security…? What security? I walked past her and sat down next to a colleague I spotted who simply said “Nice entrance Graham”. This is a story I often tell in talks I give because it highlights several issues – one of which is the fact that even though as Prime Minister she could well have been threatened by some unexpected visitor walking in behind her, she carried on as though nothing had happened. Determination.

To me, that’s a good thing – being un-phased by things going on around you, simply determined to reach your own goals. However, I also have a negative story about Mrs T.  In 1987 the former British spy, Peter Wright, published his autobiography, Spycatcher. But Mrs Thatcher led the decision to ban the book from publication. Indeed, for a year the book was indeed banned in England and Wales before the Government lost an appeal. However, so much publicity about the book was generated by her determination to get it banned that I thought it must be a terrifically revealing book. So, on my arrival for a speaking gig in Copenhagen I was quick to pounce on the massive pile of copies of Spycatcher which were in the airport bookshop. I decided it would make a brilliant read for the return flight home. How wrong I was. It is the most boring book I have ever had the misfortune to start reading. It was impenetrable and I could not make past the first 20 pages. Indeed, it was so bad that I had to resort to re-reading the in-flight magazine, High Life for the umpteenth time.  I blame Maggie Thatcher for introducing me to Spycatcher…!

Like me, you may well have personal recollections of Lady Thatcher. But perhaps we should reflect for a moment where we would be online if it were not for Margaret Thatcher.

Prior to her election win there was only one state-run telecomms supplier. If you wanted a phone line, you had to wait a minimum of six weeks. If you needed an answering machine you could have one – the only one available, a single model from the state supplier.  And it is surprising to recall that if you wanted a holiday you would almost certainly book with Thomas Cook – which was state-owned until 1972. Britain was obsessed with state ownership.

Can you imagine the Internet under state ownership? One broadband supplier? One router? One heck of a wait? True, some countries do have state-run Internet – but they tend to invest considerable amounts in their technology. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is not short of a bob or two.

The fact that Mrs Thatcher spearheaded an entrepreneurial economy which set the path for individuals to earn money on their own account, rather than working under some set of rules cobbled together by trade union leaders and poor managers. It is this spirit which has helped the UK develop many leading Internet businesses and to be at the forefront of the mobile sector.

But there is one other thing we should thank her for. Prior to becoming Education Secretary and then Prime Minister, Lady Thatcher was the UK Science Minister and was instrumental in supporting the funding and work going on in Switzerland at the CERN laboratories. The very laboratories where the World Wide Web was invented. You have to wonder, if she had not been so supportive, if she had not sign-off on the funding Britain provided, would the web have arisen? OK, I admit, probably it would have – but you cannot deny that in the web of politics, funding, science, research and striving for new things, Maggie was there, in the mix. She may not have been fundamental, but she certainly played a role. The Internet in the UK may not be the kind of thing we love today without her involvement.

Leveson has wasted his time

Leveson inquiry report ignores new media and shows how the political world is focused on the wrong issues, just like many business owners

Leveson Inquiry ReportThe long-awaited Leveson Inquiry Report is out, but it looks like it was not worth the wait. Indeed its is an example of a psychological phenomenon which is sweeping the political and corporate world at the moment – distraction. People appear to be focusing their attentional resources on the wrong thing.

The Leveson Report, for instance, has 2,000 pages in four volumes, summarised in a 49-page “Executive Summary” of which only one single sentence mentions blogging and social media. And that sentence on page 6 is merely pointing out the obvious, that newspapers face competition from online media. I am not sure we needed an inquiry to tell us that.

The latest study of news consumption shows a massive growth in online news with a further dramatic fall in newspaper usage. Newspaper owners cannot ignore that trend. Though print is unlikely to die completely, if the trend continues print newspapers will become a minor part of the activity of news organisations, rather than the main focus. Indeed, many people might argue that this is already the case with The Times having its paid-for online versions and The Daily Mail website bringing it 30% more readers per day than individuals who see its print version.

Meanwhile in the Westminster bubble politicians are debating what can be done about the ethics of print journalists and how they can get them into line without heavy handed legislation which would hamper a free press. Well first I’d suggest they read McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists which will show them that the current laws covering news gathering and reporting are significant. The press in the UK is already tightly controlled. We have libel laws which are the most stringent in the developed world, for instance, and the law governing inquiries and tribunals, such as the Leveson Inquiry, means that such “public” inquiries can actually be held “in camera” meaning the press are not admitted and cannot report on them. And according to McNae there are 800,000 Inquires in the UK each year…!

Remember too that the whole “phone hacking” scandal came about because the police failed to investigate what is an illegal act. The newspapers and journalists that did this were not just acting unethically, they were acting illegally. There was no need for an inquiry into this issue – people should have been prosecuted. Indeed, several cases are already being prepared and charges have already been made – albeit, some would argue, several years too late.

So Lord Justice Leveson spent months hearing evidence and no-doubt burned the midnight oil to produce his massive report, all focused on the regulation of the print media. Meanwhile, bloggers, Twitter users and those who write on publications which are solely produced online can carry on regardless it seems. So if you were a savvy media owner who wants to behave unethically and without fear of regulation the solution is easy. You simply focus your activities online – where most of your audience is going to be anyway – and your printed version is produced by a company established in a foreign country outside the jurisdiction of the UK regulatory scheme. True you would still have to abide by the laws governing publication, but hey-ho you could get away with all sorts…!

The political debate will drag on for several more months yet, the print media owners will fall into line with the Leveson proposals and meanwhile the rest of us will continue to ignore print pubilcations in favour of online news, where untrained writers can produce all sorts of nonsense without knowledge or training in media law and where unethical and immoral writing happens already on a daily basis. In a couple of years’  time the politicians will no-doubt demand an Inquiry into online writing to try and get it regulated. The Leveson Inquiry is a wasted opportunity because it could have dealt with that issue now, but didn’t.

Politicians still seem to believe in the power of the press; they don’t seem to have noticed the Internet. They are much like many business owners who focus on old-fashioned, real-world ways of gaining business without seeming to realise that the majority of purchasing decisions already start online. Too many people are paying attention to the wrong things it seems.

No doubt Leveson will change the ethical approach of many newspapers and we’ll all think that the regulation is a good idea when it finally arrives. But meanwhile the bulk of us will face unethical reporting and immoral writing in the place where most of us get our news these days, the Internet. Missing that out in the Leveson Inquiry was a major flaw. Just like missing out prosecuting illegal acts of so-called journalists was a major flaw by the police.

Lack of Internet “off switch” means business will change permanently

If you cannot turn off the Internet, it means you cannot turn off change, nor can businesses control their staff or customers any more

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, spoke at a conference in London yesterday where he warned Governments that there is “no off-switch” for the Internet. His comments came on the same day as Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was giving evidence to a British Select Committee on Government plans to allow increased “snooping” of our use of the Internet. Needless to say really, but he is vehemently opposed to such plans – so much so that Wikipedia will create a system to get round the proposals.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Several Governments around the world actually detest the Internet. The “problem” as they see it is lack of control; once you allow people to gain access to more information they could pretty soon discover their politicians are liars or self-centred individuals whose authoritarian rule is harmful. Not surprising then that the World Wide Web Foundation yesterday put Zimbabwe near the bottom of the list of countries in terms of the way the Internet is used by a nation.

Even though the UK and the USA fare well in this analysis, recent legislative attempts show that the politicians are scared. They are so worried about the impact of the Internet on their ability to control us that they are coming up with nonsensical proposals – such as the UK’s current idea that all kinds of Government and Local Government staff need access to every single online activity of each individual in the UK.  Apparently it is to protect us from terrorism – except one thing, terrorists are very good at covering their online tracks and no amount of such snooping is likely to uncover them. Besides, they only need to use high-level encryption once the legislation is in place and no-one could locate them. The only thing that would become possible would be that some local authority staff member could find out what websites you visited.

Meanwhile, over in the USA the Stop Online Piracy Act was touted as a system to prevent copyright theft, but in reality it was about controlling what websites Americans could view. Ultimately, the bill collapsed but not before massive widespread opposition pointing out that it was impractical to achieve the aims of the proposals.

Whether you consider politicians in the USA or the UK or authoritarian regimes trying to ban or control access to the Internet you can only come to one conclusion: politicians simply do not understand the Internet or how it works. Yesterday, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was trying to educate them, pointing out that the only way to control the Internet and our use of it was for every nation to come to an agreement about access. And considering they can’t even come to an agreement about how to deal with atrocities like Syria, then the chances of the world’s nations getting to some kind of global control of the web is fanciful.

In other words, even if nations attempt to control or block the Internet, users can circumvent them. Indeed, hundreds of millions of Internet users in China get round the “great firewall” which is supposed to stop Western ideas infiltrating the nation.

Essentially the “control cat is out of the bag” thanks to the way the Internet works. No longer can Governments control their people – witness the Arab Spring, for instance. It may take longer to achieve, but the Internet will be be part of the reason why we see things like a Chinese Spring before too long.

And if the Internet cannot be switched off, if it means that Governments cannot control their people any more, it means that businesses are in the same position. No longer will business leaders be able to control what their staff do or say about their company. No longer will business owners be able to control what people know about their firm. No longer will businesses be able to control their customers.

If you think you are in control of your business, think again – the Internet is; and what’s more you cannot turn off that control.

Businesses beware – the Corporate Spring is upon us

Banning social media is only going to make anger at business worse. New research reveals you need to encourage social networks.

We have had the Arab Spring, which is still going on throughout much of the Middle-East of course.  The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales has predicted a Chinese Spring. Now, the bosses at Barclays Bank find they are being hounded out of office by a public clamouring for blood on the carpet in The City. No-one seems to be sorry that Mr Diamond has had to give up his £20m a year job, except his daughter who was busy Tweeting away in support of her Dad yesterday.

But the banks are not alone in the growing public outcry about the seeming lack of integrity in the business boardroom. That great media giant, NewsCorp is about to be split up following an international outcry against the phone hacking and the less than nice behaviour of the company as a whole.

More than ever these days we are finding that business leaders are having to say sorry – but often we think the “real sorry” is that they are sorry they have been “found out”.

Fake leadership
Business leaders have not been found out, they have been found wanting. In many instances their leadership is fake; real leaders are people of integrity, honesty and caring for the people they lead. Many business leaders these days could not care less, it seems.

Rather like the leaders of some Arab nations, we could be forgiven for thinking that some business leaders are more interested in themselves than the people they lead or their customers. Gosh does that remind you of politicians too? Where do we put them in the league table of trust these days?

As recently as 15 years or so ago, business leaders were respected. Indeed, your local bank manager was a pillar of the community. When I was a child, politicians were always called “Mister” or “Madam”, never by their first name like our Prime Minister, Dave. And Olympic Sports stars were respected for their amateur dedication to winning, whereas many now are merely married to their big business sponsors.

At the heart of all these changes is a perceived move in integrity. Can we really trust what a sports star says in the post match press conference, or are they more interested in displaying their sponsor’s logo? Can we really trust what politicians say, or are they merely interested in getting the right headlines in the Daily Mail?  Can we really  trust what business leaders say, or are they more interested in lining their own pockets than serving us?

Decreased trust
The spread of a decreased lack of trust in many of the leaders around us has been accelerated by social media, of course. If a few of your friends had found out about the lack of leadership in a British bank you may have chatted about it over dinner, but it may not have gone any further. Now, you probably say so on Twitter, on Facebook or on your own blog and soon millions of people see it and repeat it.

One way out of this problem for our leaders is to ban social media. So, in countries run by despotic leaders they often switch off social networks. In Syria, for instance, large swathes of the Internet are not legally accessible, such as Facebook. And in nations where you have more liberal regimes, you still find politicians attempting to control social media because they see it as a threat to their power. Here in the UK the Government is planning to have access to every email you send, know every web page you have ever visited and be able to see inside your social media accounts. They dress it up as dealing with terrorism, but really it is about control.

Social media censorship fans the flames
However, new research shows they are on to a losing battle. This study looked at the use of social media in the Arab Spring and in the riots in the UK last year. What the researchers found was that banning or censoring social media actually had the reverse effect to what he leaders wanted. Censoring social media actually INCREASED unrest and violence. The leaders switched off access to social media to reduce the organisation of protests, but what happens is this just makes things worse.

Within this, there is an important lesson for corporate boardrooms. Banning social media works against you. Many businesses switch off access to Facebook or Twitter, even YouTube, on the grounds of “security”. Really it is about control, ensuring the staff do not become unproductive and carry on doing the work they are being paid to to, rather than chatting with their mates online.  The banning of social media within most businesses is ultimately the same reason it is banned in some nations – the leaders want to retain control.

But this new study shows that when leaders do that, they lose even more points in the integrity game. The more business leaders try to censor social media, the more likely they make it that a Corporate Spring will happen. It is almost with us already with the banks in the firing line. Don’t think your business will be excluded. The people have the blue touch paper in their hands already.

You need to be like Martin McGuinness

Third-party comments and promotion of your work is more effective than doing it yourself.

In Northern Ireland today history will be made when The Queen shakes hands with former IRA Commander Martin McGuinness. When he was busy trying to gain support for a united Ireland, The Queen was grieving the death of her husband’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten. The Roman Catholic and former republican terrorist will shake hands with the Head of the Church of England who is also the Head of the British Armed Forces who fought against Mr McGuinness. When he was engaged in commanding attacks on Protestants he probably could never have imagined such a day.

Martin McGuinness and The Queen

But if Mr McGuinness were to say that he had changed, that he had realised that peaceful ways were the way forward we would be less likely to believe him. After all he would say that wouldn’t he? The fact that for the past 15 years Mr McGuinness has been a peaceful politician working hard on a peace process that, for the most part, has endured is something we might forget when confronted with the fact that he was regarded by the British Government as a terrorist.

However, by shaking hands with the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, The Queen is publicly saying that The State now accepts Mr McGuinness; she is doing his publicity for him. The mere fact that The Queen is shaking the hand of Mr McGuinness gives him additional credibility. No matter which side of the argument about Northern Ireland you may be on, this handshake changes thinking.

It is the “third party” nature of the credibility provided for Mr McGuinness which is so important. One of the principles of persuasion and influence is called “social proof”; when other people are seen to be doing something we are more likely to want to do it ourselves – especially (as in the case of The Queen) if they are an authority figure. Today’s handshake therefore makes it more likely people will be persuaded of the reform of Mr McGuinness.

The handshake also coincides with interesting research on the political progress of the candidates for election to the post of the President of the United States. Researchers have looked at the impact of advertising on how the public support for each candidate has changed. In particular, the study looked at the value of “attack” advertising, where one candidate was negative about the other. The researchers found that such advertising had considerably more impact when it was produced by independent groups, rather than by candidates themselves. In other words, candidates who said nasty things about the opposition had much less effect than independent organisations saying the same things.

It is another example of the “third party” effect. When you say your business is brilliant, people say “yeah, great, I knew you would say that”. But when someone else says your business is great the reaction is “really, that’s interesting, thanks for recommending them to me”.

Ultimately, it means you need to be like Martin McGuinness, riding on the coat tails of a third party doing your publicity for you. Not only do you gain credibility, you also get the “social proof” effect and you don’t suffer the “you would say that” reaction.

Does the UK Government understand the Internet?

Email surveillance or snooping is being planned in the UK because the British Government wants to tackle terrorism. But will the plans work?

Email SnoopingThe simple answer is a straight “no”. Indeed, their latest daft idea to allow GCHQ to monitor the fact that you are reading this blog post is about as much sense as getting Eric Pickles to run the 100m against Usain Bolt at the Olympics. The Government argues that they need to monitor our every move online because it is the only way of really keeping up-to-date with terrorist activities. Whilst combating terror is clearly vital, the Government appears to think that the evil amongst us is in every home of the land.

Perhaps Government ministers need to know some things about the Internet. For a start, if terrorists are using email to help create their plots there is a chance they will be using high level encryption. And to crack that would take the computers at GCHQ combined with the might of every other computer in the world about 1,000 years or more. And if they can’t afford to use encryption technologies, once the Government starts snooping, all the terrorists will do is go back to old technologies, such as the postal service. So you can expect the Government to want every letter we send opened.

Perhaps Government ministers need better advisers. After all, the promise of a complete “e-government” has yet to be fulfilled, where we can do more than just get a passport or a new driving licence online. Many departments are making services available, but there is widespread variation in techniques and methods, only serving to confuse. Whatever advice the Government is getting, it isn’t producing the promises made.

Perhaps Government ministers need to spend more of their time online. Many of those apparently Tweeting and blogging are doing so using interns and constituency volunteers. Instead of doing the work themselves, a number of politicians have “outsourced” it (no doubt “on expenses”) and therefore have no real direct experience of the web themselves anyway.

Actually, what the Government needs is what every self-respecting business owner should be doing about the Internet: get the facts, get the best advice and get active online. Far too many business leaders make assumptions, get cheap advice and don’t take an active part in the online world.

The Internet unites people separately

Does the web unite or divide?The dream of Sir Tim Berners-Lee is to have a World Wide Web that is “free and open” and which extends its “benefits to all people on the planet”. It is a dream which means everyone benefits from being connected, learning from each other and sharing in that new-found knowledge. A natural extension of such a dream is that we all live in closer harmony as we understand more about each other. Indeed, that is often touted as one of the benefits of social networks and the wider web. But new research suggests this might be a forlorn hope.

It seems the Internet could be driving us further apart, or at least not bringing about the social change we think it is. The Arab Spring is a good example. Apparently it is the Internet and social networks like Facebook and Twitter which have enabled oppressed people to rise up against their rulers. True, that may be the case – but the chances are those oppressed people always knew they were oppressed. And the oppressors still think they should be. In other words, the two opposing viewpoints have always existed and still do – the Internet has not changed the views, just enabled one to become more powerful than the other.

If you are a football fan you no-doubt love your team and simply detest that “local Derby” opposition. It has always been the way ever since your club was founded probably. Having fan-based web sites, seeing all those Tweets from each other has done nothing to bring together old rivalries and for the likes of Manchester City fans to say that those folks from Old Trafford are actually a really nice bunch of people. The divisions are the same as always, in spite of the increased sharing of news, views and information via the Internet.

So the question which needs to be asked is whether or not the Internet divides or unites? New research suggests it is increasing division, rather then reducing tensions. Indeed, this study of Twitter suggests that divisions are being emphasised, rather than eroded. That’s because it seems we tend to follow those people whose views we agree with. We then see more of those viewpoints, which helps underscore that our view is the correct one. Twitter following is “clustered” – we surround ourselves with the people who share our own views and prejudices, thereby confirming our own position on things. We tend not to see the opposing views and learn from them.

For anyone running an online business this has a significant impact. If people think your customer service is rubbish they will follow people, connect with individuals and read more about that notion. All this does is simply confirm they were right all along and that your business sucks. You can, of course, put out loads of examples of people who are really happy with what you do, you can try and demonstrate you really are fantastic, but the people who are surrounded by the “rubbish” position are unlikely to hear.

Similarly, if your competitors are busy using social media to get clusters of potential customers who all think that they products and services are brilliant, they’ll never really hear that your alternatives are much better. If your competition has loads of adoring fans, breaking into that cluster is nigh-on impossible.

So, what can you do? Firstly, make sure you have loads of adoring fans by creating first-rate products and services. Secondly, avoid negative clusters surrounding your business by ensuring that everything you do and your customer service is simple exemplary. In other words, even though it appears you cannot unite people with differing viewpoints after all, you can ensure that everyone shares the same view by establishing a business and products and services which are top notch. Your online success is not really down to how well you use Google, how well you create SEO tricks, but largely down to how well you run your business as a whole. Concentrate on that and the online success will follow.

Be proud of the rubbish and the nastiness you see on the internet

Remembrance sunday poppyEverywhere you look online you will be reminded of nastiness, crime and downright evil. Whether it is a simple as a spam email, as complex as identity theft or as horrible as Internet trolling, you can’t avoid the negative aspects of the online world. There are rumours on Twitter, nasty postings on Facebook and websites dedicated to terrorism. On top of all this, your children can be preyed upon by people wishing to “groom them” and your email address can be hijacked to send out porn to all your friends. It’s a mean and nasty place this Internet.

But we should be proud of that fact. You and I are unlikely to condone any of this disgusting, sickening and criminal behaviour. But, the fact is, such behaviour is possible because we are free. Without the freedoms our society has you would not hear about online nastiness. It would be banned, filtered out and we would be living in a clinical online world; just ask many people in China. And why would there be no online criminals or nasty people? Well, the authorities would have executed them.

The fact that there is much nastiness online is actually a testament to the free society in which we live – a society for which millions of service men and women have given their lives. Today of all days we should remember that our freedom to post whatever we want online was fought for. We should remember that our freedom to download whatever we want, is something people died for. And we should remember that our freedom to campaign against the nastiness online was something that was hard won.

As you surf your way around the Internet today, spare a thought for the men and women whose selfless actions allowed you to do so. Without them, we would not have the Internet as it is today – warts and all.

If you wish to support the people who have allowed you to use the web freely, please visit The Royal British Legion.

Can we learn from Hackergate?

The Prime Minister David Cameron is busy today answering questions from politicians trying to score points against him. His problem is he employed Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World – the newspaper which illegally hacked into phones, paid the police for information and brought the reputation of three major institutions (press, police and politics) into utter disgrace. Yesterday, of course, we had the spectacle of the Murdoch family fending off questions about the scandal. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? This story runs and runs with amazing new revelations every day.

The thing is, if you were Prime Minister and someone said “we’ve got this chap, ex-newspaper editor, and we reckon he’d make a good PR adviser for you”. You might think “sounds a good idea”. But you might remember that the newspaper had been involved in a phone hacking scandal. You might then say “Mmm, possibly but it doesn’t smell right to me”.

Imagine too that you are the most senior police officer in Britain and someone offers you a stay in a health spa, the value of which is £12,000. You might think, “sounds lovely, but doesn’t smell it’s the right thing to do”.

Possibly too you are the leader of a global business employing 52,000 people when you hear that several of them are involved in paying police officers or listening to other people’s voicemails. You too might think “that doesn’t smell right”.

Co-incidentally, last night I received a phone call from a friend who was asking for advice about a web site he was visiting. It offered him rooms in Chelsea apartments for a mere £40 a night. He wanted to know if there was a way of checking out the web company to see if they were genuine.

But, considering Chelsea is the millionaires’ hangout in London, does £40 a night seem right? I asked my friend “does it smell right?” He admitted it didn’t – and as I pointed out, that’s all you need to make an online decision. If it doesn’t “smell right”, if it appears to be too good to be true, if your “gut feeling” is negative, the chances are it is something to avoid.

We don’t need fancy online checking systems to ascertain whether a website is worthwhile. We just need our gut instinct or a keen nose for whether or not it “smells right”.

Which begs two questions – firstly, does your website smell right to other people? And secondly, how come the “gut instinct” of politicians, senior police officers and those in charge of multinational companies is so weak?

Prince Philip reminds us of the internet

Prince Philip, the Duke Of Edinburgh is 90 today – Happy Birthday old chap. In a much-publicised interview with the BBC’s Fiona Bruce he was brusque, pompous and downright rude. He won’t care I said that because, as he admitted in the interview he simply does not care what we think about him. His Royal Highness is well-known for his forthright views and his devotion to his wife, The Queen. But there is little doubt he represents an elite. Perhaps his views about the media, about us and about society in general all stem from the fact that almost all of his life has been spent living in a rather different world to the one the rest of inhabit.

HRH Prince Philip Duke of Edniburgh 90 Today: By Flickr user Steve Punter derivative work: Andibrunt via Wikimedia CommonsAnd recent research shows that almost everything you read online is like that too – from a world that most people do not inhabit. According to sociologists from the University of California almost all of the online content we are faced with is produced by the elite – the powerful, highly educated and the rich are the people who produce almost all of the web’s content. The rest of us don’t get much of a look-in.

According to Jen Schradie, who conducted the research: “Conventional wisdom tells us that the Internet is levelling the playing field and broadening the diversity of voices being heard. But my findings show the Internet is actually reinforcing the socio-economic divisions that already exist, and may even heighten them, which has all sorts of implications as more of civic and economic life moves online.”

The study showed that in spite of the plethora of blogs, the burgeoning use of social media and the vast number of domain names being registered each day, only around 10% of people who use the Internet are contributors. Most are simply consumers of the content. The billions of web pages that now exist are actually produced by the minority. And that minority is mostly highly educated and rich. Not quote the universal free system that Sir Tim Berners Lee imagined.

So what should be done about it? Well, making your website more interactive, enabling more people to contribute and getting as many people involved as possible with your web presence would help. It means taking a business from being “controlling” to being interactive. Interestingly, new academic research on lecturing university students shows that this kind of approach works.

In this study students were split up mid-course and put into two groups matched for exam results. One group continued to receive their normal lectures from a highly-rated lecturer. The others received no lectures at all for the remainder of their course but were taking part in interactive group sessions with non-experienced lecture staff. The final exam results were better in this second group than the group who continued with normal lectures. Not only that, all other measures of success – including lesson attendance were also better. Indeed, attendance at the group sessions went UP as the course progressed.

What the study showed was that participation works. It demonstrated that not having an expert to “teach” was not a problem – indeed, the group without expert input did best in the  study. It is yet more data that shows us the old way of “chalk and talk” should be killed off, in just the same way as the old way of Internet “broadcasting” has also had its day. Instead, interactivity is being revealed as the superior way of engagement. The elite don’t like interaction; with it, their elevated position gets reduced. Hence you’ll find all sorts of reasoning online as to why interaction cannot work – especially from many business leaders. Tosh.

Perhaps it also explains Prince Philip’s behaviour; his opportunities for meaningful interaction with “real people” are limited. Which means he hasn’t had the opportunity to learn from us that actually we are mostly OK. And if he did check on the Internet, he still wouldn’t know because like him, the bulk of the Internet is an elite. Which begs the question – what kind of online world do you wish your business to be associated with?