So last week I asked readers to take a view on what I might blog, swinging off an idea of Andrew Gelman‘s. The post was here. The lucky winners got a piece on Ukraine, the proliferation of SIGINT technology, and Ed Snowden, and a joint review of two books about Russia, plus a lot of other stuff in response to events (Osborne, Heartbleed) or else out of sheer self indulgence (music).
OK so. Basically everyone searches the Web. A lot of people who consume news get it from search-driven sources like Google News. Typically something like 99 per cent plus of search traffic goes to the first results page, and 90 per cent of that to the top three hits. So placing your message there is valuable. A whole spam industry exists to this end.
Search engines in general, and Google in particular, war endlessly against this practice. The most recent example of this was when the Google basically hit Demand Media, the folk who brought you “How to cough up mucus” and “one weird trick”, with the Internet death sentence.
This is important because Demand Media’s business model was basically to fill the Web with crap that matched a lot of keywords, so as to occupy that space on the results page and sell ads. (Hilariously, they discovered that relevant content was actually bad for business, because people read it rather than clicking on ads. It’s like the opposite of this blog.)
I think a lot of astroturfing is basically the same idea – trying to inject your propaganda into search results, and specifically news search results. This is where TPM comes in. Getting your crap onto a page in the domain talkingpointsmemo.com immediately gets it googlejuice, and also defeats the filtering. If Marshall means any of his excuses, he’ll set a robots.txt line to exclude the advertorial from search.
As this would basically render it worthless, I’m not holding my breath, although I will be checking in on http://s3.amazonaws.com/static.talkingpointsmemo.com/sitemaps/sitemap.xml.gz now and then. And I do think Google should treat advertorial as content-farming for the purposes of search integrity if it wants to be at all consistent. Yes, this is a political decision, but then zapping Demand Media and ignoring the Chamber of Commerce is also a political decision.
Ho hum. “I saw the finest minds of my generation trying to make you click on ads. That sucks”, indeed. How’s that Color app doing?
Update: If you want to monitor this:
curl http://s3.amazonaws.com/static.talkingpointsmemo.com/sitemaps/sitemap.xml.gz | zgrep idealab-impact
So Francis Irving wants to read blogs again:
@yorksranter I never *completely* stopped! omg, yours is still a valid politics blog, partying like it was 2004! any other good ones?
— Francis Irving (@frabcus) March 17, 2014
I was tempted to say that, hey, you hosted the blog all those years, but then the retort is obvious. Actually, traffic has risen gradually ever since the end of bifurcation and the beginning of the self-hosted era, and it’s gone up again quite a bit since the move to Bytemark in November; it seems to be driven by Twitter followers getting hooked on the blog.
So here are some recommendations. I’ve tried to pick relatively recent starts, mostly politics, and ones Francis probably doesn’t read. I’ve also confined myself to English language blogs as I don’t know which languages he reads.
Absolutely heroic reportage from the Mexican drug wars:
Intelligent group blog on the US Navy, China, and maritime strategy:
BT whistleblower on the failure of Broadband Delivery UK:
Punchy left-of-Labour politics straight out of Stoke-on-Trent:
Yorkshire, Bollywood, and the immigrant experience:
My school friend Lola Okolosie’s double hard feminist teacher blog:
David Hencke, ex-Guardian reporter now with more time to devote to journalism. Leveson, kiddy fiddlers, corruption:
Spotlight on Abuse, a blog collating historic child abuse cases. Very much “thank God someone else is writing this blog so I don’t have to”, but while this is a theme in public life we need it:
Thinkdefence, spun off from Richard North’s blog but don’t hold that against them:
Freedom from Command & Control, a Stafford Beer-informed blog about public services and management:
The Royal African Society’s superb blog on African politics:
JW Mason’s heterodox economics blog:
The history of social housing in the UK:
Unlearning Economics, does what it says on the tin:
Frances Coppola, veteran operations/transactions banker, blogs about the boring important bits of banking:
Brown Moses, legendary blog on the Syrian Civil War and also on Met Police corruption:
Red Brick, the London Labour Housing Group’s blog:
Watching A4e, a forensic examination of welfare reform and a blog you absolutely must read before going near a jobcentre:
The current top adverts served to my GMail account are:
- Ladies’ Coats and Jackets – Plus Size 12 to 32
- Navy Nightdresses – Amazing Choice of Comfy Nightwear From Cute Cotton to Sensual Satin!
- Need a New Bank Account?
- Need No-Win No-Fee Legal Advice
- 1000 Leaflets Only £15!
Google thinks I’m a curvy, litigious woman who needs to print flyers. (This was served next to XOYO’s mailout, so possibly a musician?)
Twitter thinks I should follow:
- a couple of northern soul DJs
- Verso Books
- Handley-Page Victor XL231
- Adam Kotsko
I think Twitter may have stolen a march on Google somehow. Update: I just asked Soizick about this and GMail serves her NO ADS. She controls the horizontal and the vertical, and all your bases are belong to her.
I started a blog. Alternative title: I gave my youth to this project and all I got was this lousy Tory government.
When I started hearing about a blogger called Brown Moses, who collated Syrian rebel videos and identified unexploded ordnance, and regularly posted remarkably sharp depth pieces on the Leveson inquiry, I assumed this person was some retired six-letter agency type with their SAS badge on the mantelpiece, in the formaldehyde jar, stuck through Jimmy Savile’s real nose.
“If EastEnders isn’t on I get straight on the laptop. On a good night when nothing much has been posted, it will take me an hour and a half, but I’ve been looking more closely recently.”
Oh, but you will…
Speaking of the Simple Plan, I am assured that the Liberal Conspiracy piece is coming Real Soon Now. Meanwhile, I’m seriously considering offering it to Conservative Home.
Other stuff from Netroots UK.
Having chugged through my official Brown Bag Lunch (which actually included Ribena, in a disturbingly infantilising touch), I went to the open space group on the Leveson inquiry. This ended up merging with the one on the LIBOR scandal. I was able to contribute by knowing how the LIBOR panel was meant to work, although we couldn’t get away from the point that separating investment and retail/commercial banking wouldn’t have helped because BarCap was big enough in its own right to be on the panel.
One point which everyone thought would resonate was that the scandal represented an attack on an institution that had relied on its members’ fair dealing. Exactly what to do with it, though, was harder. Could this support the Co-operative’s claim to buy the branches demerged out of Lloyds? Or a Leveson inquiry, but with banks? Of course there have already been inquiries, but then, the original ideal type of this kind of inquiry, the Pecora Committee, wasn’t the first inquiry or even the second into Wall Street in the 1920s.
What else? I went to one of the more tech-centric workshops, run by Blue State Digital. This was pretty good; I liked the point that Facebook advertising was usually a “hopeless waste of £2.50″, but it did have its uses. Those weren’t anything Facebook would want, though. Specifically, the ad-targeting tool lets you get a quick estimate of the size of a potential audience – input the demographics, locations, and search strings you’re interested in, and it spits out an estimate of your audience.
The other one was using it to bait your enemies. If you had a reasonable amount of information, you could place an ad that your target would have to read every time they logged in. This amused me more than a little.
Everyone, but everyone, loves ScraperWiki.
What else? WhoFundsYou scored thinktanks by the degree to which they are forthcoming about their funding. Astonishingly enough, Respublica, the “Not the Other” TaxPayers’ Alliance, and the Adam Smith Institute (no less) got an E. The very, very serious Centre for Policy Studies and Institute for Economic Affairs, and the somewhat less serious but certainly influential Policy Exchange and Centre for Social Justice got a D. You could have mistaken the score-card for a left-right political spectrum, as IPPR, Progress, Resolution Foundation, NEF, SMF, and Compass all got As, while Demos, Reform, the Fabians, and Policy Network got Bs. CentreForum was, superbly, right in the centre with Civitas and the Smith Institute.
It is telling that the distinction between wanktanks like Respublica and TPA and the Very, Very Serious ASI disappears on this scale.
Owen Jones has a lot of good laugh lines. The BSD people are good but self-satisfied. Clifford Singer is funny. I really regret missing the workshop on shooting better video on smartphones as I have zero video skills (even if their live demo was the traditional fiasco). You can’t hear anyone speaking anywhere in Congress House without using a loud hailer.
Here’s a role for a blogger that I don’t think anyone covers. The Whitehall blog. It’s a truism about British journalism, going back to Anthony Sampson if memory serves, that the newspapers cover Westminster politics obsessively but they hardly cover Whitehall at all. When they do, their service is even more conventionalised and less penetrating than usual. Partly, this is because the civil service is better at discretion than the politicians. But it’s not exactly unknown for officials to brief the papers, now is it?
For example, I have an impression that there is a shift of power and influence going on. David Cameron and Francis Maude’s biggest personnel decision so far has been not replacing Gus O’Donnell with another civil servant in the same role. O’Donnell combined the roles of Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, as most of the postwar top officials did. He was the heir to the apostolic succession of the popes of bureaucracy.
Cameron and Maude decided to split up the job, separating the top job in the Cabinet Office, which controls the central government’s policy-making secretariat and also the Joint Intelligence Committee machinery, the role of Head of the Home Civil Service, which acts as the senior pro for civil servants, and the role of the official responsible for the prime minister’s personal staff. Taking forward a trend that was already going on in the Blair/Brown years, this job was cut out of whole cloth, creating a Prime Minister’s Office with the new domain name pmo.gov.uk and a Permanent Secretary for the PMO to lead it. This job was entrusted to O’Donnell’s heir apparent, Jeremy Heywood.
You guess that one of the reasons for this was to dilute the power and influence of the top civil service. All politicians are suspicious of it, and Tories especially. Why did the civil servants go along with it? Well, a big New Labour obsession was the idea that the traditional divide between policy-making and operational civil servants was pathological. Rather than a strict, and class-associated, divide, they wanted the top civil service to be closely concerned with “delivery”. The institution didn’t like it, and having a long memory is its business.
That leaves a couple of questions. The first is “Did it work?” The second is “Who of the three won?” The answers seem to be “No” and “Heywood”, as far as I can make out. I get the impression that the civil service has regained some influence in killing off the sillier ideas, and I think Steve Hilton’s sudden exit from Downing Street is pretty much entirely down to them. Hilton’s title had been upgraded from director of strategy to director of implementation, pretty clearly suggesting that he would be pissing in Sir Humphrey’s pool. That was before his brilliant idea to sack everyone they couldn’t fit in Somerset House (he may or may not know that half of it is King’s College law school and quite a bit more is an art gallery these days). And Heywood was personally insistent on getting rid of Hilton, something I think we can all “shudder a grateful amen” to. Generally, he seems to be on the rise, suggesting that not only has the system seen off the minister, but also that closeness to No.10 beats institutional bulk and headcount.
Now, what I want is this kind of stuff but with more links and goats and stuff, every week. All right? The traditional answer to this is that someone tried, back in the 1970s, but the pushback was dreadful. Well, that’s another way of saying that it’s the sort of thing that only dirty hippies would do, and that’s precisely what blogging is for.