Category Archives: social media

Weil’s disease – or ‘the internet is eating my brain’

When I was in Australia, I ended up with a smartphone (the handset was as cheap as the cheapest non-smart model, so I thought ‘why not?’).  There were two consequences

a) I met up with someone who I’d have otherwise missed because I was able to check email on the move

b) I freaked the wife out by emailing her from a coach between Melbourne and Adelaide (I only got a mobile a few years back, and she knows I am a luddite).

Actually, there was a third consequence, which I spotted early on and was the reason I haven’t used the smart phone since getting back to Blight(ed)y – that if I had a few ‘idle’ minutes I’d surf the web/trivia instead of read a few pages of a book.  And that is a baaaad habit to get into, and one that I knew I would if I didn’t remove the handset from my grubby paw.

All this sprang (well, slouched) to mind when I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s screed/jeremiad/argument about the (negative) impact of technologies.  This bit is pretty good…

Simone Weil wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.

Simone Weil? Frog philosopher, whom I first heard about from #thefirstonethatgotaway

I’ve just read that wikipedia page.  Holy fucking shit, is all I have to say.

See also: My poem!  ‘Does your device suffice

Sexism and social movements….

‘Sexism isn’t the problem: anyone can talk when they want to,” declared one man. “It’s just that some of us have had more experience and can talk more easily in groups.”

“We all support women’s liberation,” chimed in another man.

Around the room, reactions spanned a wide range: resentment, distraction, passive interest, eagerness and anxiousness.

At last week’s meeting, one woman confronted the men with her frustration at their domination of the group. A couple of people had supported her, but most seemed unaware or remained passive. Defensive anger had surfaced in several of the men, despite their best intentions.

The woman who spoke out last week is absent tonight. The group has been dwindling in size since shortly after its founding last year. Many excited newcomers have attended one or two meetings and never returned. Others stuck it out for months before fading away. The group of some 30 members has shrunk to half of that; of the original 15 women, five remain.


A hypothetical situation – but a real problem, and all too familiar to those of us who have participated in progressive organizations.

And this quote is from  the first version of ‘Overcoming masculine Oppression in Mixed Groups’ by Bill Moyer, Bruce Kokopeli, Alan Tuttle, and George Lakey.  Published in… 1977. Oh, how very very far we have come.  Not.

Simians Cyborgs and Shell: on corporate propaganda and fallback positions

 The oil major Shell has a blisteringly slick and seductive new advert that extols the virtues of gas as a ‘transition fuel’ (which it isn’t).  As a piece of propaganda, it would make Donna Haraway guffaw with delight.

It’s 80 seconds of ‘Jenna and Cory’ who live together extolling the virtues of hybridity.  They are ‘alternative’ (dyed hair, tattoes, piercings, vegan), living in a twee rural setting, and techno-geeky (there’s drone porn) who are trying to make a “hybrid house” – one of them is “super-nerdy, she takes everything apart”.

They think “in a few decades they might be able to rely solely on solar and wind energy, but we can’t do that right now” (we’ll come back to this). Instead they advocate natural (love that word) gas, because it’s the most “sustainable way to fuel your life”.  The words “climate change” do not, of course, appear.

This is a straightforward reverse-McCarthy, an “innocence by association” gambit, aiming for a halo effect from all the nice crunchy granola things it’s putting on the screen. Readers with long memories might recall the applauding dolphins and sea lions from 1991, when they heard that another oil major, Conoco, was going to use double-hulled oil tankers.

In 80 seconds it ticks a huge number of boxes – woman-as-nature, ecological modernisation and corporate citizenship.  It really renews the  “whole earth catalogue” (Stewart) brand  for the 21st century and appropriating the (false ) notion of “hybrid vigour”.  The ad agency most definitely deserves its fee.

These adverts, in which nature is redeemer and advocate are not new –  Esso had a ‘Tiger in the Tank’ and SSE has a soleful looking orang-utan shilling for it. The use of feminism/female empowerment to sell products goes back (at least) as far as the notorious “march” of actorvists called “Torches of Freedom”  in 1929, organised by Edward Bernays for “Lucky Strike” cigarettes, tying smoking to women’s liberation. We should be taught how to deconstruct advertising in school, of course.  But Berger (1972), Williamson (1978), Goldman and Papson (1996) are not, to our shame and loss, on the primary school curriculum…

Meanwhile, back in 2015, Shell are so confident of the righteousness of their message and  the value of dialogue that….comments on the video are disabled. Perhaps they are learning from the ‘bashtag’ experiences that other corporations have weathered of late. Still, it’s had more thumbs down than thumbs up…


Shell and other companies’ history

Shell is justifiably proud of its advertising prowess, which dates back to the 1920s and especially the 1930s. As its own website says –

“But the decade saw many advances: great progress in fuel and chemicals research and an explosion of brilliant advertising with themes of power, purity, [emphasis added] reliability, modernity and getting away from it all. Many designs have become classics.” [And some are even National Trust-worthy]

Sadly at the same time Shell supremo Henri Deterling was palling around with Adolph Hitler – the latter speaking at his funeral in 1939.After the war, Shell’s mojo (briefly) deserted it- there’s an hilarious advert of a salad covered in oil.

If crimes against aesthetics were all that it was up to, you’d be forgiven for laughing. But as Andy Rowell writes

“In the post-war years, Shell manufactured pesticides and herbicides on a site previously used by the US military to make nerve gas at Rocky Mountain near Denver. By 1960 a game warden from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game had documented abnormal behaviour in the local wildlife, and took his concerns to Shell, who replied: “That’s just the cost of doing business if we are killing a few birds out there. As far as we are concerned, this situation is all right.”

But the truth was different. “By 1956 Shell knew it had a major problem on its hands,” recalled Adam Raphael in the Observer in 1993. “It was the company’s policy to collect all duck and animal carcasses in order to hide them before scheduled visits by inspectors from the Colorado Department of Fish and Game.” “

The 1990s were a particularly bleak time for Shell’s PR folks. They lost the Brent Spar battle, and the execution of 9 Nigerian activists, including author Ken Saro-wiwa presented them with real PR problems  They started talking about sustainable development (Livesey, 2002) and also re-jigged their advertising, and were happy with the results (Victor, 2005).

Renewable outrage

However, Shell’s recent attempt to drill in the Arctic been catastrophic, both financially and in terms of its reputation. Greenpeace has them bricking it – Lego have ended a tie-in deal, and the combination of American kayakers, a giant polar bear stalking their HQ and Emma Thompson are giving them new headaches.

It’s in this context that this advert, advocating natural gas as a transition fuel, must be read. It’s a classic ‘you may not like us, but you need us’ statement.  Further, the claim that renewables might be viable in a few decades is particularly interesting (and audacious).  Costs of renewables are plummeting, and ‘grid parity’ (dangerous term) is approaching.

Shell, and other oil majors, might be wise to be nervous.  And according to the excellent journalist Arthur Neslen, Shell  has been lobbying the EU to undermine its next renewables target. As Goldman and  Papson (1996: 200) observe –

“…in a sense, the advertising provides covering fire so the lobbyists can quietly do their work. The battles are often won in the lobbying trenches, but they cannot be won if public opinion, or more importantly, public opinion amplified by the television media, keeps attention focused on images of environmental degradation.”


Thanks to Guy Diercks for bringing this advert to my attention.  While I retain any kudos for this analysis, all libel writs and threatening letters should be directed to him.

Further Reading
Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin

Robert Goldman and  Stephen Papson (1996) Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising New York ; London : Guilford Press

Greenberg, J., Kngiht, G. and Westersund, E. (2011) Spinning climate change: Corporate and NGO public relations strategies in Canada and the United States. International Communication Gazette 73, (1-2), pp. 65-82.

Levy, D. Reinecke, J. and Manning, S. (2015) The Political Dynamics of Sustainable Coffee: Contested Value Regimes and the Transformation of Sustainability Journal of Management Studies

Livesey, S. ( 2002) The Discourse of the Middle Ground: Citizen Shell Commits to Sustainable Development Management Communication Quarterly vol. 15 no. 3 313-349.

In this study, Foucauldian theory is used to interpret a corporate social report published by the Royal Dutch/Shell Group to reveal the contours of an emerging corporate discourse of sustainability and the knowledge-power dynamics entailed by social reporting. The report could be read simply as a corporate attempt to re-establish discursive regularity and hegemonic control in the wake of challenges by environmentalists and human rights activists. However, the author interprets it in the context of the larger socio-political discursive struggle over environment and social justice and finds that Shell’s “embrace” of the concept of sustainable development has transforming effects on the company and on the notion of sustainability itself. This contradictory and ambiguous result is characteristic of discursive struggle, which is where, according to Foucault, power is played out and social change occurs.

Pulver, S. (2007)  Making Sense of Corporate Environmentalism: An Environmental Contestation Approach to Analyzing the Causes and Consequences of the Climate Change Policy Split in the Oil Industry Organization and Environment 20 (1) pp. 44-83.

Verity, J. (2005) Shell: an advertising success story. Strategic Direction Vol 21 (9), pp. 15-17.

Judith Williamson (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. London: Boyars.

Terrible meetings? Here’s a nesta reasonable ideas…

According to the American humourist Dave BarryMeetings are an addictive, highly self-indulgent activity that corporations and other large organizations habitually engage in only because they cannot masturbate.” (As in, meetings aren’t just ego-potlaches, they’re also for the recycling of anxiety and responsibility).
While meetings might be full of wankers, they’re surprisingly joyless experiences. “Nesta”, a UK think tank, thinks it has some ideas on “Meaningful meetings: how can meetings be made better?

meetingslonelyThey sort of do, but the paper, as it states is “part of a larger research programme” and couldn’t/is not intended to stand on its own.
The author, Geoff “Connexity” Mulgan explains that we have “old formats and new tools”, ponders on “why so many meetings?” and then offers advice on “linking meeting format and purposes” (see Barry above) and gives some recommendations;

  • The ends and means of meetings need to be visible
  • Meetings need active facilitation and orchestration
  • The best meetings are often multi-platform, and use visualisation as well as talk and paper

Good meetings make the most of their participants – and rein in the extroverts, and the most opinionated and powerful

“one recent psychology study found that three factors were significantly correlated with the collective intelligence of a group: the average social perceptiveness of the group members (using a test also used to measure autism, that involves judging feelings from photographs of people’s eyes); relatively equal turn taking in conversation; and the percentage of women in a group (which partly reflects their greater social perceptiveness).” [Woolley, A. W., et al. (2010) Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. ‘Science.’ 330(6004): 686-688.]

    • Good meetings begin and end with a deliberate division of labour
    • Good meetings benefit from a conducive physical environment that heightens attention
    • Good meetings apply ‘Meeting Maths’: balancing time, scale, knowledge and breadth
    • Good meetings are cumulative – part of a longer process
    • Some of the best meetings don’t happen (or why you shouldn’t hold unnecessary meetings)

Mulgan then goes on to give succinct explanations of flipped conferences (send in youtubes of your presentations first, then turn up and engage), world cafe , dynamic facilitation, open space technology, the revolutionary thinking method (no, I am not making this up) , De Bono Six Thinking Hats, Sytegrity (see above for RTM), buurtzorg, holocracy governance meetings and agile.
As he drily observes
“There is relatively little evidence about when these work and when these don’t, and an odd feature of innovation in this field is that new models quickly crystallise as highly prescriptive methods, with little feedback to help them improve, or create hybrids, and very little formal testing or evidence.”

So, this is definitely worth a read, and perhaps thrusting into the hand of the stale activocrats who run stale meetings (for all the good it will do). As to what’s missing-
Parkinsons Law of triviality
Any sense that the radicalism of the “open space” will be captured, co-opted and used as a marketing gimmick, or just done so cack-handedly that it will empty the terms of meaning (Instead of ‘how not to be bossy‘)
The psychological needs of both the bosses (to be in charge) and the attendees (to be infantilised)

“The rest of us, with less responsibility in our day-to-day lives, are able to regress merely to being a school-child, sat in rows, listening to the Clever Parent at the front. No jobs, no direct-reports, no kids to look after, we can, for the length of the event, just be the docile/obedient Child.
Attempts to turn us into Adults in this setting will be resisted, both by those who wish to be Parents, and by those who want to be Children. Efforts at de-ego-fodderification are, thus, futile.”

I think there is a glancing reference to Jung [can’t find it now], but nothing on the fantastic psycho-analytically informed work of Rosemary Randall – “Collective and Community Group Dynamics… or your meetings needn’t be so appalling”- which someone has helpfully scanned and uploaded onto the interwebs

Other concepts worth exploring

Attack of the Bots!! Twitter and its fake accounts problem

Just read a fascinating article;

“The Influence and Deception of Twitter: The Authenticity of the Narrative and Slacktivism in the Australian Electoral Process”
by the following people
Benjamin Waugh, Maldini Abdipanah, Omid Hashemi, Shaquille A. Rahman and David M. Cook, all from Edith Cowan University,

While I would quibble with their definition of slacktivism, I have to say hats off to them for the work, which is about the fake accounts/buying followers scam. Their particular focus was on how it might be used to help win elections…

“Twitter estimated that at the end of September 2013 there were approximately 10.75 million fake users (D’Yonfro, 2013) in the form of fake accounts, or accounts belonging to people with multiple personas (USSEC, 2013; Yarow, 2013).”

Well, just in the last hour I have had three follows from improbably good looking women who have rather wide interests and tweet a lot of spam. Gee, d’yathink they are bots?!


bot two