Viral Information

What exactly is happening when changes in behaviour happen on a large scale? This is what I was thinking while reading Malcolm Gladwells Tipping Point.

I found this book very easy to read and he backs up his theories about how ideas spread by using interesting examples from a range of different fields such as disease control, crime statistics and social behaviour experiments. While none of these are new (Stanley Milgrams small world experiments and the game, Six Degrees of Separation are staples of pop culture) and have been covered before in the field of information science (Grannovetters Strength of Weak Ties and social network theory) he does bring them together very well.

He argues that changes can often escalate because of three rules – the Law of the Few (80% of influence is created by 20% of people), Stickiness (what makes the message memorable) and the Power of Context (e.g. the zero tolerance approach to minor vandalism which impacted on major crime in New York). This has inspired marketers who are interested in growing earned media. However, there is still debate over whether the data actually backs up Gladwells theories. It is fluffy, but neither marketing or storytelling are what I would call exact sciences.

Tom Fishburne

Tom Fishburne

For example, Twitter is my main network and I can definitely pinpoint the connectors (those social butterflys that introduce people from different walks of life), the mavens (those who share information in a helpful way) and the salesmen (those who are good at persuading others) who populate it. Whether it is an idea, a product, a service or a viral video, these three influencers appear to be always at work somewhere in the mix. Even my own decision to read the book was influenced by the Law of the Few. The connector was Seth Godin who mentions the book quite a lot for digital marketing. The information was shared by Maria Grau Stenzel in a MOOC I am participating in about transmedia storytelling. I was finally persuaded to read it by watching a video of Gladwell on Ted Talks after his natural style sold it to me.

The question is can you identify those types and behaviours in your own network?


Story Craft

Like a lot of other information professionals I am involved in a MOOC, one about storytelling. While it will explore mostly digital storytelling, we did start off at the beginning, with our own experiences of stories. One of the highpoints of this for me was the sharing of stories from different cultures. Everything from their favourite movies to stories told to them around the campfire.

Storyteller Under Sunny Skies - Rose Pecos-Sun Rhodes

Storyteller Under Sunny Skies – Rose Pecos-Sun Rhodes

One of our first tasks was to think of a story. Any story. No, not just any story. You have to be able to remember it fully without using wikipedia. That complicated one which was amazing but which you just cannot remember fully, that doesn’t count. Now tell it.

In ancient Ireland there was a man called Finnegas. He was looking for a magical fish in the rivers. A salmon. This salmon contained all the knowledge in the world. Finnegas had a young boy as a helper. No more than twelve or thirteen. Eventually Finnegas caught the salmon of knowledge and he built a fire to cook it. He left the salmon on a spit and went off to get some herbs to eat with it. He warned the boy not to touch the fish, that it was very important. The boy was a good lad. He took care of the fish while his master was away. After a while, the salmon began to cook on one side and to burn. The boy went to turn it on the spit but the hot flesh burnt his thumb where he grabbed it. Without thinking, he stuck his thumb in his mouth to cool it down. Immediately, the knowledge was transmitted from the salmon to the boy. When Finnegas returned he saw that the boy was changed and that the salmon was now like any other. The boy’s name was Fionn MacCumhaill and he grew up to be the leader of the legendary Irish warriors, Na Fianna. In the future, whenever he need to know the answer to something he would just suck his thumb and the answer would come.
stamp salmon of knowledge
What fascinated me most about this story was that Fionn became a hero by accident. He did not want the knowledge and it was his efforts to save the fish for his master which changed the course of the story. I like that sort of twist. I also liked the fact that his superpower (Sorry, I read too many comics when I was young) involved him engaging in very un-macho behaviour. The other aspect of this story which made an impression on me was the fact that there was not much background to it. Like a lot of Irish stories, back story is neither here nor there. Finnegas and Fionn always appear in an Ireland that is empty of other characters. It is like history is waiting for them to appear and then all the fun starts. This could be just that this story is from the oral tradition. They tend to neglect the interesting details that we take for granted in written histories, such as who was king at the time, what sort of trade model they had and all that complicated stuff that makes up life. The location of the story is usually a generic ideal Ireland full of rivers and campfires and mystical druids fishing all day. Sounds very relaxing. Of course, this is based on the story that I learned in primary school. The original texts may have been very much more detailed and were probably changed to engage under 12s. My recollection of the story of the Salmon of Knowledge is probably reflected through years of looking at primary school drawings.
As an added bonus here is my updated version.
It was an interesting exercise to do, to recall a story fully like that. With the amount of media growing all the time, it can be hard to do without the aid of an external memory device. What would your story be?

Evolution of Web Analytics

If the field of Web Analytics was tracked over time using an imaginary analytics program it would show that it started out as one thing and ended up as another. If you did a report on the keywords used as search terms for web analytics it would probably show technical terms in the 90s and then marketing terms later on. If your package could track who was looking for web analytics, it would show you first the IT department and then the marketing department. This is because web analytics has changed from a data driven exercise to a people driven exercise (no offence IT people).

Log Files
The first web analytics were log files which were used by the IT department to help them do their job. The main priority of most IT departments was to keep the website up and running and deal with server problems. If someone requested a webpage, the web server sent all the information over. The server keeps a log of this and it is very useful for troubleshooting by admins. The log files tracked a range of actions so it could provide a limited analysis of visitors, pages, bandwidth usage, operating systems, browser, where you came from etc. This sort of data was not very useful for the IT department but it did interest the marketing department. Seeing an opportunity, vendors appeared selling analysis of log files. The problem was that this data often gave very little real insight.

Page Tagging
In the mid 90s, page tagging appeared. This is the use of javascript to track web pages. This does a better job than log files as it is designed to give more accurate measurements of the elements on a page by tracking if the person was a new or returning visitor. Page tagging also tracks more specific actions on pages such as when a video was paused or where a person exited and where they went to. This allowed marketers to capture interactions. This was useful as it came at a time when web pages began to be more complex and dynamic. They could now create reports that were completely separate to the IT department because they did not depend on server reports and they could start to tie the analytics in with business objectives such as sales, lead generation and brand awareness.

The use of page tagging came at a time when organisations had to start justifying their spend on their web presence. Measurement is key to that. Web analytics began to demonstrate competitive intelligence and use historical data for comparisons. As the programs and packages developed, marketers could ask more relevant questions, get answers, see trends and adapt their campaign through testing and more targeted experimentation.
The future?
Einstein said – “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Web analytics is the search for what counts.
Note – This is a copy of a blogpost that I had to do as part of my digital marketing course.

What the MOOC?

One of the interesting changes that has been happening in recent years in the world of information is the rise of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course). Heralded by many as a revolutionary and disruptive, they are like a lot of things on the internet, actually not that new. Online learning has been one of the drivers of the web since Tim Berners Lee first started creating networked webpages to share information. One of the great promises of the internet is education and increasing access to it and the MOOC seems to meet this demand.
A MOOC is essentially an online learning course created by teachers and amplified by social networks. Always fancied going to Harvard, but couldn’t afford the bus-fare from rural Ireland? Sign up to their MOOC, watch their top lecturers on video and discuss what they are talking about with your new classmate from down the road in India on a a forum or through twitter hashtags. Or don’t.

Based on ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ by José Bogado Creative Commons Licence.

Based on ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ by José Bogado Creative Commons Licence.

Online Education has traditionally been managed by Learning Management Systems such as Moodle or Blackboard. These are usually closed systems and they give the educator more control over the learning experience.

However, the rise of smart phones, video and web 2.0 tools has let the cat out of the bag. Education academics are arguing over the pedagogy involved and its impact on the future of universities. The high drop-out rate is a feature of MOOCs and so is the fact that those who do well are those who do well with self directed learning anyway. Are video lectures not just a high tech version of the teacher in Ferris Bueller droning on and on? There is also a  concern that some courses are just dumbed down general introductory modules for those who cannot afford university and that the end result will be a two tier education system. That has not been my experience so far, but it is a concern.

Business people are wondering who is going to pay for all this content. I am sure that it will not take them long to figure that out. Yes, MOOCs do increase access to education as long as you have access to technology so there is that ongoing struggle, but that is not new. Librarians are worried about copyright issues and how to manage the distribution of the content. Students are worrying about credits for their courses, but on the other hand that new module on Big Data in Archaeology looks like it could really add to my own specific learning needs and let us not forget the network that we are being introduced to (Big wave to all my virtual classmates) and how MOOCs contribute to lifelong learning.


Coursera is the leader in this field. It was set up by Stanford after they saw the success of their online lectures. They chop up their lectures and offer online quizzes for students to complete. Some of their courses have gained accreditation this year. However, they got a lot of negative publicity after one of their courses crashed due to technical problems, leaving 40,000 students without any course. Ironically the course was in Fundamentals of Online Course Design. A good learning experience for everyone.

Udacity was set up by another Stanford professor who could not go back to face to face teaching after his online lectures were so successful. It currently operates as a commercial enterprise.

EdX is a MOOC that was set up by Harvard and MIT at a cost of 60 million dollars. Along with video lectures, it has interactive virtual labs, etextbooks, and online discussions. It currently operates as a free service. offers hundreds of free courses, mostly in basic multimedia, office skills etc and it is used by a lot of US employers to upskill their employees. This is actually a growth area for online learning.

FutureLearn is a new initiative which has been set up between Open University and 23 universities in the UK, including Trinity College.

Google have already released a free open source course builder as an experiment. It allows courses to be created by webmasters using Python and Javascript code. They have partnered with Edx to create

WordPress have developed a plugin (Sensei) which creates courses with built-in lessons. You can put videos or pdfs in them and then run a quiz that people have to pass in order to advance to the next lesson. There is the option to tie this in with e-commerce plugins to facilitate paid courses.

Personally, I think MOOCs are great. I am a big fan of DS106 although they will probably argue that they are not a MOOC. I like that I can pop in and out of there at my own pace. I can see a lot of what other participants are doing and I never fail to get inspired to try out new things. For this sort of content (digital media), I like to take my time. I am also participating in a more traditional MOOC with weekly lectures and academic readings about storytelling. Both these two and the one that I dropped out of (metadata – sorry Coursera, it wasn’t you, it was me) were three areas that I wanted to learn more about.

What has been your experience of MOOCs?