Monthly Archives: May 2013

Becoming Immortal – the digital tattoo/scar!

In this blog post I want explore a theme that I have touched on before and that a lot of other people in the industry are covering as well – the idea of our own digital presence. Recently I watched a very good TED talk by Juan Enriquez, where he briefly looks at the idea that our digital presence, the information that exists about us on the internet, is like a tattoo. This is an interesting (and very relevant) idea for two reasons; firstly that the perception of tattoos is varied and in many cases negative, and secondly tattoos are largely (although not entirely) permanent and therefore the choice to have one is something that the person then has to live with.

Juan Enriquez uses an example whereby using face recognition technology it would be possible to instantly download data about that person from all manner of sites (Facebook, Twitter, Blog sites, GPS, SMS, etc. etc.) before you had so much as said hello to that person. As he says, there is an instant commercial application to this; a shop could find out all the information about a customer and alert a sales person to then promote a special offer that they know meets the persons interests and needs. You could see this approach as either negative and intrusive or positive and convenient, but there is a very interesting comparison here to the “Cookie Law” issues that arose in the last couple of years. The problem that many people will see with this is that assumptions are being made about you that are not based on getting to know you personally, and you are being treated differently because of that. But the opposite could also be argued – that they are getting to know you so that they make your experience more relevant.

The biggest issue, as Enriquez correctly identifies, is that like a tattoo our digital presence in this case is built up of data about ourselves that is fixed. It is possible to change that data over time but because it is in ‘the cloud’ whatever data they see about us is what they will use to decide how to engage with us at that moment. Unlike a tattoo though, which a person decides upon (hopefully with great thought), the data about us is more than likely to be more than just what we decide it will be. It will be made up of data from all sorts of sources, some of which will not be controlled by us and may be misleading. Take a situation where someone goes for a job interview and the company uses this same technique to perform a covert assessment of attitudes and aptitude before talking to them. Their name may have been mentioned, with or without their knowledge, on a forum involving a debate about a hot political issue. The company may then use this information to make a judgement about the candidate without knowing the context of the forum or even if that person is aware of their link to it.

Another point that Juan makes, which is very relevant, is that tattoos are permanent and when it comes to digital tattoos this is important both now and after we have gone. There are plenty of cases where people have lost their jobs because they have been foolish enough to write something derogatory, confidential or abusive on a social media site. That foolishness is in the cloud and being syndicated to potentially lots of other sites, so deleting it from the original one won’t necessarily help. This mistake may stop that person getting a similar job in the future as well. Mud sticks!

This is only going to get more and more important to bear in mind. If our digital presence is going to be used to research us then we need to be sure that what appears in their is something that we are happy with. We will never be able to completely control it, but making sure that we don’t assume anonymity because we are sat at a computer is pivotal. A couple of years ago I experienced an embryonic version of this in a job interview. I has listed on my LinkedIn profile that I am a freelance photographer, because I saw LinkedIn as a place to show my varying skills as well as my current job role. In the interview I was subjected to the Spanish Inquisition over this decision and they used it as a basis for concern about my long term viability, on the assumption that I would want to eventually become a full time photographer. Unfortunately they made this assumption without first asking my view on this, so they didn’t understand how I was using LinkedIn and what my intentions were.

So what about the good side of a digital tattoo. Well there are some very real advantages and the near future, let alone the distant future, will rely on these more and more. We already have near field communication (NFC) technology that allows us to pay for things using our phone, without taking our phone out of our pocket. And the phone we carry around now is already a portable persona for ourselves. As we store more and more information on these devices they will start to be used more and more as a way of us passing our information seamlessly to the environment around us, allowing us to suppress things we are not interested in and engage with things that we are interested in. The idea of being able to personalise not just the online world, but also the physical world, by effectively putting our digital key into the lock means that we will be able to engage with things in a whole new way. Whether this is the dashboard of our car personalising the layout to us when we get in it, or it is checking in for a flight by simply walking through the airport doors.

When I got a tattoo I surprised quite a lot of people. Some made negative comments, some were very surprised. One particularly stuck in my mind, a comment put on Facebook that said “Well, you’ve scared yourself for life now sunshine”. Whether tongue in cheek or not, that is a very interesting way of looking at it, and relevant to this subject. There is a saying in IT, “you put rubbish in, you get rubbish out”, I think it is a better way of looking at it. My tattoo, which is on my back, took a long time to design and has a lot of personal meaning to me. I am proud of it and it is anything but a scar – but it is permanent and it says a lot about me. But a lot of people have tattoos that are not very well thought through and do become scars. They also say a lot about that person, not necessarily now but certainly at the time when they got the tattoo in the first place.

We need to think about our digital presence – our record – in the same way. Will it be a permanent symbol of what you are, or will it be a scar that comes back to haunt you? The world is only going to get more complex and data more entwined. My advice is make sure you don’t do anything stupid that might mean your digital tattoo is more of a scar than a symbol.

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Evolution, in any medium, is key to success

For my sins, I am a life long Manchester United fan. I follow my father and my grandfather in this. With the recent news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as manager of the club, after 1,500 games in charge and winning countless trophies, there was an outpouring of support and praise from both his professional peers and fans and a media frenzy to acknowledge his achievements and impact on the sport. It began to get me thinking about what we can learn from his time at the top of the sport and why the values he has instilled in Manchester United are actually values that we can learn and apply to our own industry.

Watching other managers talk about Sir Alex, there are a couple of significant things that came up. First, and foremost they talk with such admiration for his ability to evolve over time, reacting to the changes in football and constantly building and evolving his squad to cope. It is undeniable that without this ability Manchester United would not have been able to continue to win consistently for the best part of 25 years. Where other managers have come and gone, unable to keep pace with the changing style of play, Sir Alex has kept abreast and ahead of this and molded squad after squad to not only be competitive but to dominate European football.

This isn’t something that is unique to football. In Digital there are countless examples of companies and people who have failed to evolve with the times. Be it a developer who can’t be bothered to learn the latest language, or an agency who doesn’t acknowledge newer technologies and ways of thinking.

Another area of Sir Alex Ferguson’s work that came up a lot in the praise for him was the time he gave to other manager’s, particularly those who were less experienced than him. Many other managers have spoken of their gratitude for the advice and support he gave them early in their careers, or through the League Managers Association.

So how does this compare to our digital world? Our industry is quite good at sharing new ideas, be it through blogs, publications such as .NET and e-consultancy or through events and seminars. But often these discuss new ideas but don’t actually share learnings and ideas about practical applications. It would be nice to think that agency’s would feel confident enough to share advice and teaching with each other, even if it is through experienced professionals being given more time to get involved in lectures. The problem unfortunately for our industry is that doing this removes some of an agency’s talent and unique sales ability and so is unlikely to happen any time soon.

But one thing we are good at in this industry is individuals sharing ideas and if we can learn one thing from Sir Alex it is that encouraging others and offering advice is a good thing. For me, taking this approach in our work is important because it establishes our competence. Our work needs to speak for itself, as Alex’s does in football. We have to be confident in our own abilities, so much so that we can offer advice and guidance to others trying to achieve the same things. We also need to evolve in order to stay fresh and continue to compete with the best.

The third of Sir Alex Ferguson’s traits that I want to focus on, is in my opinion the most important. Above all other things, what he managed to do at Manchester United for nearly 30 years is to maintain a drive, ambition and determination to be the best. This is at the heart of what he achieved and should also be at the heart of what we do in Digital. Whether we are marketeers commissioning a new website, designers or developers creating new assets or owners guiding our companies own strategy, the one thing we should always be doing is aiming to be the best we can be. We should be driving forward and striving to improve and we should be evolving to make sure our websites, apps and user experiences are not only current, but forward thinking. In my role it is about making sure this agency is looking to the future. We are currently developing a new CMS and the model we are designing is one that we hope will be a game changer. My vision for the business is to work with new, interesting and creative clients and our staff our enjoying working with cutting edge coding approaches that deliver exciting things.

When we lose the ambition and the excitement for our work, we are stagnant. What I take from the life of Sir Alex Ferguson is that if you want to succeed then you have to continue to drive yourself forward, rather than slipping into the doldrums and becoming directionless. The 3 points I have pulled out here; evolve, share and drive forward are the key points by which we should all strive to live and work:

  • Evolution – keeps us fresh, keeps our work current and helps our business stay at the leading edge of its sector.
  • Sharing and Learning – builds our own skills and creates competition that drives us to better ourselves. It also instills confidence about your abilities and makes your business a natural “go to” when someone needs services.
  • Drive – pushes us to continually achieve. When the drive is gone then that is the time to ask yourself if you should still be doing what you do.

Of course there are many lessons we can learn from people like Sir Alex Ferguson, but for me it is these transferable skills that are the key to anyone who wants to be successful. More so, these are what we should all be applying if we are serious about our work and want to strive to be the best.