‘If it’s free, you’re the product’ – and what that means for Facebook

A few days ago I belatedly joined approximately 1.2 billion other people – more than one in seven of the world’s entire population – on Facebook.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

OK, can anybody guess what I am ACTUALLY a fan of from the ‘metadata’ on the sign around me? Or will I just get barraged with ads for stupid artisan stuff?

I’ve had reasons to be laggard. Only one is time.  I set up a Facebook placeholder do-nothing page in 2013, to protect my name – but my main leeriness with actively engaging has been their reported attitude to users. There are reports of Facebook allegedly reading private messages and selling the information. Just last month, account holders were unknowingly used for mass psychology experiments. Facebook has also been reported tracking your clicks – including (by cookie) when you’re logged off your account. In short, they know what you do. They have your profile. And a month ago, they openly announced that they’re going to track your browsing.

Most social media does this, and of course the big ones get the highest profile flak. To me, it’s one result of a web-world where users look for ‘free’. How is the service funded? Online providers have turned themselves, as they’ve grown, into advertising companies – in which user conduct, as apparent clue to user preference and want, is the prime commodity.

To me it’s a fairly obvious general outcome of the collision between the human condition, the way that condition has been shaped by history (especially the last few centuries in the west) and technology. This had led to all sorts of specific characteristics of the modern world. One of those is the way data about you – which you can’t control and don’t necessarily know, has been collected. As a friend of mine put it, if it’s free – you’re the product. 

He’s right. The Guardian called the mechanism ‘surveillance as a business model‘. And it is – the issue being not advertising you can ignore, but what might happen if somebody with different intent and value judgement has that data. Particularly when the context of your thoughts, intentions or other motives isn’t part of the data-set. This is classic 2 + 2 = 486,593. Armand Jean du Plessis – Cardinal Richieleu – summed it up in 1641: Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre. “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

As I’ve always said, the tragedy of history is that the stories change – but human nature doesn’t. Think about it.

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place...

Me, loitering a bit in the ideal writing place…so sell me books? Actually, this is me being a science geek inside the Carter Observatory, Wellington NZ.

The other issue is that social media makes derp easy – derp that’s yours. Forever. And sure, it’s cool to publish some pic that means something to you and friends after you’ve pranked the boss. Gives you bragging rights for a day or two. Does it mean anything to anybody else?

We all derp, in various ways. It’s called being human. But do you want that pic of you with a rifle and a dead gazelle to be found 28 milliseconds after you landed a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal? Whether you shot it or not? It’s not new. French revolutionary leader Maxmilien Robespierre summed up the way societies respond to alleged conduct over 200 years ago: “Peoples do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts…” And he thought it was as valid, as a mechanism for condemnation, as a court. Sound familiar today? As I say, the tragedy of history (etc etc)…

Rule of thumb? Everything you put into the internet is PERMANENTLY PUBLISHED. Everything? Everything. And assume anybody can see it. Don’t rely on privacy settings. The judgement is straight-forward. Imagine it’s on the front page of the paper. Do you want your name attached? That’s especially so if you’re also trying to build brand and author profile. Basic media management – which pre-dates the internet – applies. How does that sit with genuinely connecting to people – and building an author platform? There are answers. More in due course.

On the other hand, Facebook is expected. Me? For now, a personal page. I might do an author page later. Maybe.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Refurbishing with colour and deco

I’ve refurbished my blog this week – added a new header, new background and changed some of the colours.

Here's the original image - also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

Here’s the original image – also check out the close-up on my Google+ homepage.

The header’s from a photo essay I took in late February in Napier, New Zealand.  It features the upper parts of the 1932 Masonic Hotel building on the right, in early streamline style, and the 1936 T & G building, now called (rather unimaginatively) The Dome, on the left – partly obscured by deco-style foliage.

Napier is set apart by its stunning 1930s architectural heritage. And by its climate, which matches Santa Barbara. It was around 100 degrees F on that scorching late summer day. The camera got hot too, and the photos that came out of it glowed – even the shadows were fully lit, by reflection. The photo at bottom shows what I mean. It was taken facing the opposite direction from the blog header.

What do you think of the new blog look?

Unlikely to have actually driven in 1930s Napier...but who cares?

This is the exact image that came out of the camera – editing was restricted to scaling down for the blog, and adding the copyright notice. It was taken with full polarisation. Note the flared highlights, and how the shadow side of the car is illuminated by sunlight reflected off the footpath. Same phenomenon is why Apollo astronauts appeared to be side-lit on the Moon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Don’t forget to watch TV this Sunday

The first episode of the four-part history documentary Making New Zealand, for which I was interviewed, will be screening nationally on Prime TV in New Zealand this Sunday, 18 May, at 8.30 pm.

The remaining three parts are showing at the same time next week, the week after and so forth. I don’t know how much of the interview I did will be shown, but we’ll see.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

How I ended up on national TV without noticing

The night before last, and all day yesterday, people were telling me I’d been on TV.

MJWright2011They didn’t mean last week’s interview slot on TV3’s breakfast show. This was something else. Apparently I was part of a programme promo. Which, inevitably, I missed, because I don’t actually watch TV. I mean, I really don’t. It’s taken me a decade to discover the Battlestar Galactica re-boot.

The cover of Big IdeasStill, the surprise promo means only one thing. About fifteen months ago I was interviewed, fairly extensively, for a four-part series on New Zealand’s engineering history. I’ve written books on it, one of which - Big Ideas (Random House, 2009) hit the New Zealand best seller charts and stayed there for several months.

I always thought I’d missed the series – after all, as I say, I don’t watch TV. But a few days ago I was advised it’s coming, and now it seems a clip from the interview is part of the national promo.

I really should make a point of watching this one.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Welcome to 2014 in M J Wright blog-o-land

It’s 2014 – and I’m rolling into the new year and new blog posts. I’ve got a full programme lined up for you kind folks this next few months.

MJWright2011There’s ‘Essential Writing Skills’ – a regular weekly series outlining what writers need. It’s backed by my 30 years in the business as a published author, publisher and journalist. You’ll discover what writers need to write well, effectively – and get results. Everything from editing to proofing to writing to content to viewing the projects as a business to approaching publishers and agents – and more.

There’s ‘Write It Now’ – musings on writing, books and the industry, including where it’s going, why it’s going there, and what we can do about it.

I’ve got more weekly science and sci-fi geekery, spiced with history and other cool stuff. And more fun stuff – humour, commentaries, thoughts and more. Why? Because life needs to be fun.

For the next few months, the schedule is:

Mondays NZT (Sunday EST) – Write It Now
Tuesday or Wednesday NZT (Monday or Tuesday EST) – Fun science or fun history. Or something similar.
Saturday NZT (Friday EST) – Essential Writing Skills

Watch out for surprise stuff on other days.

Needless to say I wouldn’t be doing this blog without you – it’s thanks to you kind folks that I keep posting. And that means the blog’s really about you – about interaction, it’s about having a conversation. About cool stuff. About fun stuff. About serious stuff.

And if there’s something you’d like me to blog about – ask!

Let’s get talking.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: See above… ☺

A career by the numbers

I did some counting the other day. It’s coming up thirty years since I was hired to write my first book, as what amounted to a (paid) intern with the New Zealand Forest Service.

Wright_SydneyNov2011It’s 29 years since it was published. When I checked in a local public library, earlier this year, a copy was still on circulation. How dog-eared, battered and otherwise disintegrated it is, I can only imagine.

Since then, apart from academic papers, freelance articles, book reviews and so forth, I’ve written another 50 books – total 51 to date. More in process.

Of those, contracts for 33 were held by Penguin Random House. Were? I’ve been withdrawing the licenses for my out-of-print titles; 17 in total so far.

I’ve had books on the top five best seller lists in New Zealand on four occasions, two of them for several months.

The net total published output is something over two million words. More, if you add this blog. I probably wrote another million during the learning process.

What does all this add up to? A lot of hard work. But the main word is fun.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now: celebrity book signing sessions

Over the years I’ve done a fair few book signings. You sit in a bookshop or public venue with a pile of books, while people you don’t know – who often put you on a pedestal – queue up to meet…you. And get you to sign a book for them.

Wright_Illustrated History of New Zealand 2Most people I’ve met at these events are friendly, chatty, and welcoming.  Engaging, and I’ve spoken to some interesting and kind people along the way, all of whom have had wonderful stories of their own. I recall one delightful experience, particularly, in which I got chatting with one couple who were very enthusiastic about art deco (as, indeed, am I).

Some authors are cautious about the number of books they sign. I’m not. It’s a personal touch – and that’s great. Sometimes I’ll drop into the local bookstore and sign their stock – which adds sales potential. Signing the book also, I suspect, makes it less likely the store will return it to the publisher under ‘sale or return’ arrangements.

Still, for me these are always nerve-racking moments. Partly because I don’t regard anything I do as special, or that I should be important because of it.

But it’s nerve-racking mainly because I sometimes get asked to inscribe my books, and  I can’t hand-write. Not legibly, anyway.

It’s like this. As a kid, I was left handed, which was why I wrote backwards and upside down in a sea of spattered ink. Alas, despite heroic efforts with every tool at their disposal – humiliation, class ridicule and many ingenious punishments – the teachers were unable to get me to write with the Proper Hand. Thus proving, apparently, what a stupid and worthless child I was. Of course, it could have been that the New Zealand school system was run as a barbaric exercise in conformity, enforced by weak and sadistic bullies who got their personal jollies out of punishing children entrusted to their care. But I digress.

The upshot was that I left primary school with worse hand-writing than I’d gone into it with, and I’ve never bothered trying to fix it. I can read the stuff. But it gets awkward when I fill out forms – assuming I don’t misread the form in the first place. And so when somebody buys one of my books and asks me to inscribe it, I’ll happily sign my name, but I don’t want to mess up their purchase with hand writing.

I remember one time a reader persisted – would I please, please, inscribe a particular phrase. I didn’t want to let them down, I did my best…but there’s no backspace with pen and ink. Sigh.

I did think of getting  a rubber stamp made, but it wouldn’t be the same.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips, humour, science posts and – well, you’ll see. Watch this space.