The trouble with best practices is that they worked yesterday.
(via Valdis Krebs)
Update: Since posting this this morning, I have had two people contact me from the Guardian – one in a comment to this post and one by email. As a result, I am reassured that what I experienced was a bug they are keen to fix rather than indifference to the context in which Guardian material might find itself. The email response suggested that the most recent version of the plugin – 0.3 – already fixed the problem. I am not sure that’s quite right, so continue to advise extreme caution – but the intention is clearly there to make the plugin work as I argued it should.
I am removing the Guardian wordpress plugin which I wrote about a couple of days ago. It has a couple of major flaws, and I would discourage anyone from using it until they are fixed.
The Guardian is perfectly entitled to manage the presentation of its own material. The terms and conditions for the use of its data leave no scope for doubt of their absolutely fixed intention of keeping that control (even if the language of those terms and conditions feels slightly at odds with the concept of an open platform). Nowhere in those extensive conditions though does it state that the Guardian claims the right to extend that control to the host blog. But that is what the plugin does.
As I noted before, embedding a Guardian article brings with it a title for the blog post of which the article forms a part – but only a part – tags and an excerpt. None of those were what I wanted for the post I wanted to write, so I deleted them all. Not ideal from my point of view, but it was, I presumed, an attempt to be helpful. Having set them to what I wanted them to be, I now discover that Guardian plugin has taken it upon itself to change them all back again. I don’t find that acceptable.
It gets worse. My next act was to deactivate the plugin. That caused it to remove the Guardian article – which is fair enough. It’s not hard to identify the text which belongs to the Guardian. It begins:
<!– GUARDIAN WATERMARK –>
<!– END GUARDIAN WATERMARK –>
It could hardly be much clearer – but the plugin takes no notice of that, and instead completely deletes the entire post, including all that I had written.
It’s not that the Guardian doesn’t expect bloggers to put their own context and commentary round articles: their own documentation makes clear that that is exactly what they expect. And the use case of doing nothing more than republishing articles strikes me as an odd and unlikely one. But regardless of that, the entire text is swept away.
I hope there is nothing more here than carelessness either in design or in testing, but I am going back to the old fashioned way of quoting and linking, following the advice in one of the comments on the Guardian page about the plugin:
I really fail to see the point of this plug-in. If I want to post excerpts from Grauniad articles on my wordpress blog, I copy and paste. I can change anything I like; Idon’t need an effing key; I don’t have to put up with any ‘…ads and performance tracking…’; and I decide what gets deleted, not you…
Here’s a small cautionary tale of unintended consequences. It explains why the particularly eagle eyed will have seen a post on the blog this morning which quickly disappeared – though not quite quickly enough to stop it propagating round the web.
Over the weekend, I installed the new Guardian wordpress plugin, more out of curiosity than because I thought I had much use for it. But then I came across an article about repurposing and representing text. The temptation to repurpose and represent it was irresistible, so I wrote a couple of introductory paragraphs and thought no more of it. Then on the bus to work this morning, I remembered that I hadn’t actually posted it, and used my phone to change its status. So far, so good.
Then I checked on the published version of the post. There it was, on the mobile version of the site (which uses the WPtouch theme) – but although the title was right, the words were not mine – in fact I did not recognise them at all. They referred to the Guardian article, but did not come from it. I couldn’t work out what had happened and my bus stop was approaching, so I unpublished the post and went to work. But although the post had been live for no more than a minute or two, that was time enough for the RSS feed to have been picked up by the Google Reader account which drives Public Sector Blogs, which generates a tweet which tells the world (or that rather small corner of it which takes an interest in such things).
The strange words turn out not to be quite so mysterious after all. The version of the article on the Guardian website has an introductory sentence which does not appear in the body text – the words above the byline in the screenshot. It turns out that the Guardian plugin uses that text to populate the ‘Excerpt’ field – and since that field is one I never use and is collapsed in my normal view of the wordpress dashboard, I had no idea it was there. The WPtouch plugin uses that short excerpt to populate the home page view of the blog on a small mobile screen. All perfectly sensible, no harm done, a very minor storm in a very small tea cup.
But there is – I think – something interesting which comes from all of this. It is that my understanding of what the Guardian is trying to do with its plugin is radically different from their understanding.
From the point of view of the Guardian, I assume, they are seeing a new way of syndicating their articles. For them, perhaps, the article and thus its metadata are what really matters. It makes perfect sense to force extract text, tags and a title on to the blog post in which their article is embedded, because the post is essentially the article. And it makes sense not because they are bullies, but because they are trying to be as helpful as they possibly can be.
From my point of view, I know, I am seeing a new way of illustrating my blog posts. For me, it is my blog post which really matters – not because of any intrinsic superiority, but because if all I wanted to do was point to articles on the Guardian’s website, pointing to them is all I would do. So the chances of the preamble to the article being the most appropriate excerpt for the post as a whole are vanishingly small, and the idea that the Guardian has the right to pre-empt my chosen title suggests that they see themselves as rather more important than I do.
The Guardian also requires their article to appear in full, with links, copyright notice, tracking codes and adverts left intact and uninterrupted – in effect to require the blog owner to cede control over the space in which their article is reproduced. I don’t have a problem with that requirement, and for anyone who does, the simple solution is of course to link to articles rather than reproducing them.
But I would like to see the same respect and lack of interference with my content from them as they expect from me. It’s early days, the version number of the plugin has climbed from 0.1 to 0.3 over the last 48 hours, there is plenty of opportunity – and I don’t doubt plenty of willingness – to tweak and improve.
All of this in the context of being strongly sympathetic to the Guardian Open Platform, partly because it is fascinating watching a newspaper trying to reinvent itself in real time, but even more because, as I wrote last month, the approaches the Guardian is pioneering have much wider implications, not least for public service providers. Some of these same issues about the syndication of content interests of the different parties involved were behind some of the discussion today at NESTA’s digital disrupters event, for example.
Normal service will now be resumed, with the post which caused all the trouble this morning appearing shortly after this one.
The final version of the Power of Information Taskforce report is out, with recommendations in six main areas:
- enhancing Digital Britons’ online experience by providing expert help from the public sector online where people seek it;
- creating a capability for the UK public sector to work with both internal and external innovators;
- improving the way government consults with the public;
- freeing up the UK’s mapping and address data for use in new services;
- ensuring that public sector information is made as simple as possible for people to find and use;
- building capacity in the UK public sector to take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital technologies.
No chance to read it yet, let alone compare it with the original draft (which is still available with all the comments on it), so I am still at the level of first impressions – which of course matter a lot, not least for all those who will never read the whole thing. On the substance, it looks first rate: it has a clear and coherent set of recommendations, each of which is cogently and succinctly argued.
The one apparent weakness is the executive summary. It harks back to a distant time when a summary was exactly that, with none of this 'executive' nonsense tagged on the front: if you read it, you have a sense of what is in the report. But it isn't written as a hook to pull in somebody who doesn't already know why they should be interested. There's an argument for not scaring the horses too much: the full implementation of all the taskforce recommendations would add up to a radical change in the way government does business. But the recommendations won't get implemented without communicating a sense of excitement and a sense of why these changes are unavoidably the right things to be doing.
Maybe that needs to be a separate and slightly different document – but I am pretty sure that it is a necessary part of the marketing drive which is needed to make all this work. As I observed on the draft in a different context, there's a need to get the reading right as well as the writing.
The Power of Information Taskforce has published its report. Or rather it has published a beta version of its report, in a format which not only allows but strongly encourages comments to be made on the draft over the next couple of weeks before it is is formally submitted to Cabinet Office ministers.
That’s a fairly radical approach, and one which is worth a bit of reflection in its own right. As a way of encouraging engagement it is clearly working: the comments are building up, questioning everything from the punctuation to the fundamental principles. More interestingly still, some of the comments are starting to build on one another, creating an engagement which is different in structure to conventional consultation responses as well as in medium. All of that is made to work through a very finely crafted wordpress theme which makes the process painless and transparent.
All in all, this is a splendid and positive step forward, illustrating how a little bit of imagination coupled with a little bit of ingenuity can create new possibilities. But there is always room to be better still, and I have a doubt, a reflection, and a couple of niggles.
The writer already knows what he or she is trying to communicate. The only way to judge writing, and thereby improve it, is to learn from people who are confused by it, who draw the wrong conclusion. You don’t assume that they failed, quite the opposite, you try to learn how you failed. And then you incorporate that learning into your process.
From Dave Winer
In the spirit of paying attention to what I am paying attention to, I can’t help noticing that emails are still feeling oppressive.
To all employees:
Beginning August 1st, you will no longer be able to send an e-mail to another employee of our organization. After some study, we have concluded that such e-mails are almost never the most efficient or effective way to obtain, provide or exchange information. In fact, we estimate that as much as 20% of our employees’ time is wasted reading, writing and answering e-mails, beyond the time that it would take to communicate the same information using more appropriate means.
Instead of email, the hapless troops are enjoined to use:
Each in its proper place, each being used for what it can do best. But all of those come after the still simpler and more powerful idea that it is a central part of every employee’s obligations to make themselves available for helpful conversations with everybody else.
Read the whole thing, then reflect on the creative energy to be unleashed by implementing it. The self assessment is then less about the extent to which email is used inappropriately, much more about what other possibilities the organisation affords, both technically and culturally. As with any other change, there being another way which is clearly better is a prerequisite, but having the tools won’t create the change. At least that’s what I would assume. For the moment, I would settle for having some of the tools, so that sending an email doesn’t always have to be the answer, regardless of the question.
Two weeks away, one week back at work. What have I achieved?
In two weeks away, some reflection, some reading, some thinking – or doing a part of my job which I enjoy (enough to relax by doing it), which I think is important, and which I do far too little of while I am actually at work. In one week back, I have more or less wrestled my pile of emails into submission, had some useful conversations and had the very rewarding sensation of my team getting on with doing great things without me – but have not done any of a list of more substantial tasks which are less urgent but perhaps more important.
As ever, Seth Godin is pithy and pertinent:
When you’re done with your email queue, are you done?
Do you spend your day responding and reacting to incoming all day… until the list is empty? … and then you’re done.
I’m noticing that it’s easier than ever to have that sort of day. Online tools are arranging interactions in a line, allowing you to feel satisfied with a constant stream of incoming alerts and pings.
Years ago, I got my mail (the old fashioned kind) once a day. It took twenty minutes to process and I was forced to spend the rest of the day initiating, reaching out, inventing and designing. Today, it’s easy to spend the whole day hitting ‘reply’.
Carving out time to initiate is more important than ever.
In a slightly different context, Scott Rosenberg recalls advice he attributes to Howard Rheingold – to “Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.” Scott’s interest is in how he is spending his ‘media time’, but I think the advice is better and broader than that. Being alert about what is influencing your thinking and perception is always useful. For those of us working in large organisations, that’s particularly important, not least as a way of reducing the risk of group think, of doing things this way because this is how we do things. It’s also important as a way of measuring where we are in the constant tension between urgency (or at least expressed urgency) and importance – and as with so many things, measurement is necessary, though far from sufficient, if there is to be control.
One technique I have found useful is to think in terms of time budgeting. How much time am I prepared to spend working. Within that, what’s the most important thing I need to do, and how much time should I commit to doing it. Iterate until time is accounted for. Of course in the real world that needs to take account of other people’s needs and preferences – but it also leads pretty forcibly to the conclusion that responding to every clamour for attention from emails and meetings is a rapid route to perdition. The analysis is one thing. Putting it into practice is quite another. But this is a useful reminder to have another go.
Michael Wesch, who produced the Information R/evolution featured in the last post, first came to widespread fame (well, four million views on YouTube, which isn’t far short of the same thing) with The Machine is Us/ing Us.
This one does Web 2.0 in under five minutes. Some of the examples assume a basic knowledge of geekness, but the rollercoaster ride gets across some important messages.