How Unlikely Squared Became the Norm

Sunshine and Roses: Hampton Court gardens last week.

It’s almost 30 years since I left the UK, and for the past 3 weeks I have visited family, friends, old haunts and new places while two unlikely events happened simultaneously – a heat wave that lasted two months (and counting) and a strong run by the plucky young English football team in the World Cup.

I had to remind my fellow travellers that England rarely has weather like this. The last time was 1976. England had not seen rain since May and there’d been over a month of temperatures in the high 20s and early 30s, which seemed hotter due to the perpetual mugginess.

Arriving from Australia, where no rain for months is the norm, you had to pinch yourself that this was England, not Perth, WA. English houses are simply not built for this heat – as it is so unusual – and the nights were quite uncomfortable. We were relieved when the gauge dropped to the early to mid-20s in our final week so we could sleep easier. Opening the window was the only answer as homes do not have air conditioning, but when it’s a muggy 24 degrees all night long there is no respite.

As the sun was up til 9.30 at night, it meant the days grew hotter as the afternoon wore on, with relative cool mornings making way to searing evenings. Still, we were blessed. The parched parks and ovals were a reminder of the continual heat, and we could do anything and go anywhere. A T20 game, whose tickets we had purchased months earlier in a fit of positive pique, was one of the highlights and a run feast took place before our eyes in a small county ground rock solid and perfect for batting. Who’d be a bowler? The team batting first put up a reasonable total, but the home team knocked it off with consummate ease with 19 balls to spare. In any normal summer, it would have been an even bet that the match would be affected by rain, if not abandoned altogether. Once, back in the 1980s I organised 4 cricket matches in different parts of the country on consecutive days. Each one was rained off without a ball being bowled.

While this amazing weather was going on, and on, and on (we did not see a drop of rain, nay rarely a bank of clouds while we were there), the oft-maligned English football team had a strong run in the World Cup, which was being played in Russia.

By the time we landed in England, the team was in the knock out stages, and hadn’t won such a game in 12 years. Yet, they won two in a row, won their first ever penalty shoot-out, scored more goals than the 1966 winning team, with the captain scoring a hat trick in one game and securing the Golden Boot (scoring more goals than any other player in the tournament – one that included the likes of Neymar, Ronaldo and Messi).

The refreshing part was the team was one of the youngest and least experienced in the competition, and perennial defeats to the likes of Germany, Argentina or Brazil did not eventuate. In fact those teams did not make it past the group stages, round of 16 or quarter finals respectively. England got to the semis and the final 4. Not bad for the 12th rated team in the world, and one whose names few of us knew when we landed. When we took off a few weeks later, we could name the entire team.

Despite scoring first, they were knocked out by the latest goal they have conceded in a World Cup game in extra time. Their victors were a plucky, savvy and more experienced Croatia, itself a tiny nation of 4 million. A country that did not exist that last time England made the semis 28 years ago.

And so two unlikely events – a sustained heatwave and World Cup run – occurred together and book ended our visit. It made for a quite barmy – and balmy – visit.

The combination of both did something else too…

Amid all the Brexit shenanigans and political divisiveness, the country seemed to pull together. You could sense the pride of the country around their young football team. 28 million people, 84% of all those watching TV, tuned in to see the semi-final. As the knock out stages stretched on for almost two weeks, there was plenty of time to get excited and positive about what the team was doing. English flags flew in every town we visited and hung out of car windows as we passed. The good weather seemed to add to people’s smiles and refreshing positivism.

A mate of mine managed to buy a ticket to the quarter final, and took his teenage son. The game was a 5 hour flight east of Moscow, itself a 3 hour flight from London. It was quite a trek, yet he was there Saturday night and back at work Monday morning.

While driving to a work site that morning, he pulled over from the road and somehow secured semi-final tickets for the Wednesday semi. So he left for Moscow again the next day. Thousands of people like him, who’d never been to – or thought of visiting – Russia found themselves there twice in one week, on a whim and a crazy once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

As England scored goals in those knockout games, beers were thrown sky high in a swirling sea of crazed excitement at public screens across the land. Walking through towns and villages, through market stalls and pubs, there was only one topic of conversation. People were humming the perennial fan tune ‘It’s Coming Home’, and everyone was discussing the manager’s waistcoats and steely reserve, or the relative merits of Kane, Alli or Sterling.

It’s great that something as simple as a spell of great weather and some soccer victories can pull a divided nation together, yet it can, and it felt great to – by more luck than judgement – be there amidst it all. I wonder what it would take to make this can happen a little more often.

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Latest Internet Trends: Mary Meeker

Every year since the mid 1990s, Mary Meeker has presented the latest internet trends in the US and globally.

You can view her here delivering the latest trends for 2018 (she speaks for 33 minutes). In typical style, she speed clicks through no less than 294 slides at a rate of 1 every 6 seconds. Don’t blink, as it’s one of the most amazing presentations you see.

So what? Well, not only is the content good, but as I have mentioned before, the ‘Trend is your Friend‘.

If you’re running a tech business, or any business really, you need to know which way the world is going. It’s far easier than swimming against the tide…

  1. Internet growth is slowing – not surprising for something that has over 50% market share globally; there are now 3.6B people connected.
  2. Digital media use still growing – up to 5.9 hours a day.
  3. Devices are better, cheaper and faster – we’re doing more with our devices, with coin exchanges and digital payments exploding.
  4. Voice is lifting off – the tech is now there for voice, with products growing.
  5. Data vs Privacy – companies are using data to provide us with better experiences, but we’re giving them enormous amounts of our data. “While it’s crucial to manage to manage for unintended consequences, it’s irresponsible to stop innovation and progress.”
  6. US tech companies investing heavily in R&D – a ton of money is being invested in tech companies. The top 5 R&D companies are tech companies, and fastest growing: Amazon, Google, Intel, Apple & Microsoft (with Facebook 11th.) Tech companies are now 25% of total market cap.
  7. E-commerce growing strongly – a lot of it is driven by Amazon. Integrated payment and customer support systems are exploding. Shopify even has an online exchange where you can buy and sell online shops, from within its own platform.
  8. Search continues to dominate – people find products via Google, but also Facebook and Instagram. Google is adding a commerce platform, while Amazon is evolving its ad platform.
  9. CTRs and CPMs are rising on platforms – cost is rising more than reach, but both are rising.
  10. Spotify converting most of its users to paid – driven by a great user experience.
  11. Mobile shopping growing fast – especially using video and gaming. Shopping = entertainment.
  12. Alibaba is now the leading retail environment in China – e-commerce sales in China is 20%, #1 in the world.
  13. US Household and student debts rising – while personal savings are low; relative prices are falling, people spending less proportion of their incomes on food and entertainment.
  14. Rise of the gig economy and sharing – leading to rises in flexible gig economy jobs, renting out spare home space on AirBnB.
  15. Transportation spending flat – cars are lasting longer, Uber driving prices down.
  16. More spending on health care – but there are signs that tech can bring prices down: “Let’s hope so.
  17. While some jobs are displaced, others are created – service jobs have replace ag jobs, aircraft jobs have replaced locomotive jobs.
  18. US unemployment is low, consumer confidence high and rising – job openings at 17 year high.
  19. Most desired non monetary benefit is flexibility – tech and freelance work make this possible. 15M ‘on-demand jobs’ in the US, such as Uber, AirBnB and Etsy.
  20. Massive uptake in data makes data cheaper – also drives customer satisfaction and personalisation.
  21. AI emerging – “one of the most important things humanity is working on.”
  22. Cyber Security – a major sector.
  23. US vs China – China had 2 internet leaders 5 years ago (in Top 20); today China has 9. Rest are from US. Facebook and Google (US) dominate with ~2B users each, but Tencent and Alibaba (China) both have ~1B users each. AI growing in China, as are doctoral and first degree holders.
  24. Hunger for education – Coursera and Youtube learning courses/videos rising rapidly; lifelong learning & retraining.
  25. Change. Opportunity. Responsibility – “we’re living in an era of unprecedented change, and along with this come opportunity and responsibility.

~~

About Mary Meeker

Former Wall Street analyst and now VC, Mary worked at Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley (where she was lead manager for the Netscape float and later on the Google IPO.) She published her first internet report in 1995. She is partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Main Image: screenshot of Mary Meeker presenting at Code 2018 Conference.

The Tyranny of Digital – being human in the digital age

I attended a public lecture from Dr Paul Arthur last week, on the topic of ‘the Tyranny of Digital‘.

Dr Arthur, you may imagine from his lecture title, is not a fan of digital. Well, he kinda is, but he was there to warn us of the perils we are ‘sleep walking’ towards.

Talking Points

We are now living, as one writer puts it, a “liquid life” – which is disorientating our normal life practices.

Human knowledge is doubling every 14 months. In 1950s it was doubling every 50 years. In the future it could be doubling every day.

On an average day, humans generate trillion billion bytes of data. We’ve created a fertile environment of data for Google and others to trawl. For many years companies have been thinking ‘how can we collect as much data as possible, and work out later how to use it?’

We reach for our phone an average of 221 times a day; every 4.5 minutes. We’re device people now.

The Desktop PCs entered businesses and home in 1980s. They were not communication devices. This happened in 1990s, with the WWW and email.

Since 2010, computer power has been within reach of almost everyone. We’re constantly connected. We feel uncomfortable when devices are out of reach. 4B are now connected to the internet. 6B mobile phones are connected.

By 2025, most of world’s 8B population will be online. And this is already dwarfed by the 30B connected devices.

In April 2018, Facebook had 2.2B monthly active users (1/3rd world’s pop); Youtube & Whatsapp 1.5B each.

The recent #metoo movement has shown how a 2-way interactive group can create immense power over people who used to wield it.

The private has gone public. Every click or touch adds to it. We have a digital version of ourselves, separate from our true selves. ‘Everybody Lies’ – new book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz – details this phenomenon.

It’s not all bad. Online areas can be safe, and allow people to express themselves and get help. We are instantly in touch with information that hitherto was hard to acquire.

Our internet experience is unique to us, tailored to what we have done before. This can entrap us in an internet of our own making, in a ‘filter bubble’.

“We’re sleepwalking towards a world run by algorithms, and we should be very afraid.” (‘Homo Deus’ by Harari).

Mass connectivity that promised greater understanding, now allows us to get whatever information we want, and can amplify our prejudices.

The Dark Web is ~500 times the size of surface web. Accessible to those with specific codes, software and permissions, invisible content from Google.

Can we create a private space, where we are not watched? Do we want to?

My Thoughts

OK, I get that in the information age, information has exploded. We create and consume lots of it. But aren’t we all in control of what we put online, when we go online, what we consume? Mostly.

Could we stop tomorrow, or at least temper what we post? I reckon I have done the latter, especially on Facebook.

My feeling listening to the good Doctor was that the audience (mostly middle aged) tut-tutted their way through all his facts and figures, almost bemoaning a ‘simpler age’ we have well and truly left behind.

Yet this is the same generation of people who now totally rely on the internet, and willingly use its power, while wailing against the idiosyncrasies of a younger generation who have known nothing else.

Are the kids and twenty somethings really all that bothered by their devices? They are digital natives and these things come naturally to them. Yes, they need protection and perspective, but the power they can now wield is immense, which can be used for good as well as evil.

Teenagers may reach for Snapchat and communicate that way, rather than talking, but teenagers have always been poor at expressing themselves. Middle aged fogies have been wailing against that one since the Roman times, and no doubt before.

Despite the recent ruckus over Cambridge Analytica and our data, I reckon most of this tech power is used for good.

Connecting. Checking in. Saying hi. Feeling a part of a group. Organising trips and parties. Who is seeing who when. Investigating places and products before purchase. Research and understanding. Producing and publishing. Laughing and entertaining. Expanding one’s brain. Communicating.

We can still remain human. Do human things. Be human. We’re just a bit more connected to everything, and all knowledge. That’s a good thing right?

Why most new products fail

A better mousetrap does not necessarily sell. In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t.

If you build it, they will come.

Nonsense.

If they come, build it.

That’s pretty much the message I try to ram into new startups, imploring them to use the lean canvas, or some such method, to ‘just get out there’ and be nimble and responsive to customers’ needs, building up their business along the way.

These days, you can get a new startup going on credit card debt, build an MVP (minimum viable product), work with your first paying customers, get revenue coming in as soon as possible, laying the ground work for a possible scale up later on.

That way, you don’t risk piles of cash. Having less money also teaches you to work smart, fast and love your early clients to death. You’ll learn the fine art of on-boarding, and how small tweaks to your landing pages can make massive differences to your conversion rates and first revenues.

The fact is that most products fail.

Studies show that, depending on the category, 40% to 90% of new products don’t last. Every year in the US 30,000 new products are launched, but 70% to 90% of them are no longer sold after 12 months.

It’s also a myth that you have to be first to market. 47% of first movers don’t make it. Sometimes, even better products don’t cut through. Better, as in ones that have distinct advantages over incumbent offerings.

Why?

A classic Harvard Business Review paper (“Eager Sellers and Stony Buyers” by John Gourville) a dozen years ago laid out the reasons, yet we still see people ignoring the advice.

Gourville’s paper is a must read for anyone looking to develop and market a new product.

People are not always rational. I’m not talking about some crazy guy you see on a train or shuffling down the street. I mean all people, as a rule. Irrational.

For example: studies have shown that if you give people a 50% chance of winning $100 and the same risk of losing $100, most people won’t take the bet. In fact, you have to offer most folks a two to three times gain over a possible loss before they are swayed.

In other words, if they have 50% chance of winning $300 and 50% chance of losing $100 then more will go for it than not. But not if the 50:50 chance of winning was $100, or even $200.

The reason, says the theory, is that losses loom larger in our minds that wins. We may know what we have is not all that great, but the costs of switching means we are happier to stay with our current lot, than strike out and go for something potentially better. Unless the odds are stacked more heavily in its favour.

Put it another way, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

“Loss aversion”, says the paper, “leads people to value products they already possess more than those they don’t have.”

This bias is called the ‘endowment effect‘. And it is quite strong.

The implication is that if you are trying to get people to change their behaviour (use your bright shiny new object rather than the one they are used to), then your new product better have massive advantages, well communicated and understood, before your potential clients make the switch.

In 2007 and 2008, I was happy with my Blackberry. It had email, allowed me to surf the net (chunkily, but it kinda worked) and the keyboard was on the outside, much like the PC I was used to. It was way better than my old flip top Nokia phone.

Then came the iPhone. No keyboard. I heard rumours the batteries did not last. It took me til 1999 to make the move, but after I’d started using it, I never dreamt of going back to Blackberry. Nine years on, I still use iPhone.

Many millions did likewise. Blackberry subsided and never recovered. Apple went on to become the richest companies on the planet, and is inching its way to a trillion dollar valuation (it will be the first company to do so, if it gets there).

The fully electric car may seem like something fantastic (no more petrol pumps) but if you are not sure there will be charging stations, are you really going to switch to the Nissan Leaf?

The 9x Effect

Company executives tend to over emphasise the benefits of the new product (by a factor of 3) while the consumer tends to over emphasise the benefit of their existing product (also by a factor of 3).

This means that the new product actually needs to be better by a factor of NINE if it is to be viewed as equivalent to the incumbent.

Which is why you hear of innovators talk about the ’10x’ effect, which means their new product may have a chance.

I recently saw a new agtech service that would (at least) save the user 10 times the cost of the product itself. It should stand a chance. If they were going for 2 or 3 times uplift, little chance.

Easy Sells

The best new products are those that require little change for the consumers, while providing massive improvements on the existing product.

Maybe this is why hybrid cars have made a greater impact than fully electric ones. The consumer gets the benefit of better fuel consumption, but still has the knowledge that a petrol tank exists, which is something they’ve been used to all their lives. In time, perhaps the fully electric car will out, but for now, the hybrid serves a purpose.

Another implication is that you need patience. Patience is a virtue, as I tell my children at every occasion, much to their annoyance. Customer acceptance of a new way takes time. Google, Facebook & AirBnB all took several years to take hold.

It also means that you should strive for 10x improvement. Find believers, get them to be evangelical about the new product and spread the word.

But, whatever you do, do not believe that simply because your new mousetrap is better, it will sell. It will most likely fail.

The 3 drivers of digital marketing success, that most businesses don’t have

With Australian companies feeling the pressure of digital disruption – a ‘damburst‘ if you will – new research has found three key areas that companies successful at digital marketing have in common.

The research indicates that a clear strategy, team-wide digital literacy, and using data to shape narratives inside a company correlated strongly with the digital success of Australia’s highest-achieving brands.

According to the research…

  • 85% of Australian companies believe their organisation has been disrupted by digital;
  • 51% are “somewhat confident” in their ability to execute their digital marketing strategy;
  • Only 29% of companies were “highly confident” in their ability to execute their digital marketing strategy.

The most confident companies — labelled “Digital Achievers” in the report — are on average 59% more likely to have seen 20%+ revenue growth in the past 12 months, and 6.5 times less likely to have seen a headcount decline over the last 12 months.

Although the “Achievers” said they had more people and time to execute their strategy, there was no correlation with company size — meaning the key difference was that resources and time were being used more effectively.

As far as individual skills, the marketers surveyed feel the most confident in social media and email marketing and gave themselves the lowest marks in marketing automation and SEO.

The independent research was commissioned by the Australian-owned digital strategy agency, ntegrity, in partnership with McCrindle Research, as part of their annual research into the Australian digital marketing ecosystem. Researchers surveyed 319 Australian marketing professionals between January and April 2018.

It’s incredible isn’t it that the things that are most important to the success of an Australian business are the very factors that businesses are weak at. The tsunami of disruption that is coming down the pipe at all businesses is only growing in pace and veracity, yet people seem to be looking in the wrong direction. Heads in the sand.

Once the wave hits, as it will, and is, often you hear complaints from business sectors about how ‘unfair’ the competition is, or totally unrelated things are blamed, such as immigrants or trade deals or the number of seagulls on the pitch walking clockwise.

I suppose this breeds an industry of digital marketing agencies. Certainly, all those I know in this industry – who know what they are doing – are doing very well, thank you.

It’s going to be be interesting to see how this all pans out.

Tech that did not exist 20 years ago, and tech that will dominate the next 20

20+ years ago my wife and I moved to Perth, and, although the locals would still regard me as a b$#@ding Pom, we are well and truly settled. Perth’s been great to us. We love the place. We now have 2 Aussie kids, who are privileged to be able to grow up in paradise.

20 years has flown by, but looking back over the last two decades, it’s incredible to think what’s happened around the world and how all our lives have changed during that time.

For example, the following 25 tech businesses and services simply did not exist when we stepped off that plane in mid 1997 (the year each one started is shown):

  • 1997 – Netflix, Yahoo Mail
  • 1998 – Google, PayPal
  • 1999 – Alibaba, BlackBerry, Emojis
  • 2001- Xbox
  • 2002 – LinkedIn
  • 2003 – Android, Skype, Tesla, iTunes, WordPress
  • 2004 – Facebook
  • 2005 – Youtube
  • 2006 – Twitter, Spotify, BuzzFeed
  • 2007 – iPhone, Fitbit
  • 2008 – AirBnB
  • 2009 – Uber
  • 2010 – Instagram, iPad
  • 2011 – Snapchat

How many of these do we totally rely on every day? Imagine life without any of them. That was only 21 years ago.

The question now is: what emerging technologies will dominate the next decade or more?

Many analysts seem to think it will be the following…

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning
  • Internet of Things (Iot)
  • The Blockchain
  • 3D Printing
  • Mobile devices and mobile internet
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Robotics
  • Virtual and Augmented Realities (VR/AR)
  • Wireless power
  • Nanotechnology
  • Voice User Interfaces, Virtual Private Assistants
  • 5G

And of course, loads of other things that we have not even heard of yet. None of us had heard of the top list 20 years ago.

Leadership means leading, not turning a blind eye

A leader asks not commands, says ‘let’s go’ not ‘go’, develops people rather than orders people… a leader sets the tone, the culture, demonstrates the core values, which begets behaviour.

A leader can’t be everywhere, do everything. So it’s crucial that they communicate clearly what they want the organisation or team to do, what the goals are, how we are going to get there, while also listening and learning.

Perhaps their most important job is to select the best people and let them get on with it. Which does not mean you turn a blind eye to things, nor have no control. Quite the opposite.

Effective leaders know what’s going on, what’s happening, and how to judge and analyze. They walk around and listen. They engage. They are open and approachable. They ask good questions.

Bad culture

So when analyzing the recent failure of leadership among the Australian cricket team, one might ask how did it come to the point that they felt cheating was the answer?

When the “leadership group” (which seemed to be code for David Warner) decided to cheat, gets his young opening batsman colleague to cheat; when the captain asks ‘what are you two up to?’ (knowing its nefarious) and then says ‘I don’t wanna know’ then the culture has become one where winning (or the fear and perceived humiliation of losing) seems greater than the importance of playing the game within the rules.

There’s never any disgrace in playing hard and fair, and knowing you’ve done your best, yet always have things to improve on. Sometimes the opposition plays better as a team. You can’t win everything. No one does. Losing provides valuable lessons. Failure is knowing you could have performed better, and didn’t. That’s when you go away and put in the hard work.

Events like we have seen recently are not one off isolated incidents. It’s the result of a build up of an organizational and team culture. Many have argued that it stems from a humiliating defeat in Nov 2016 in Hobart against South Africa. Incidents and issues have grown since. The snarling and sledging have been on the rise.

Pushing the line between right and wrong, bending the rules as far as they can go, to get an edge, means that, unchecked, an event like this becomes inevitable.

When the leadership is so bereft of ideas that they resort to cheating to turn around a game, then the leadership has given up on leading.

Reap what you sow

And so the leaders and those directly involved have been stepped down. National disgrace has resulted. Tears of shame have been shed. The public humiliation has perhaps been far worse than losing a game of cricket. They have lost lucrative overseas contracts including the riches of the IPL. They will forever be known as cheats. It’s been a very public, global story.

Something tells me they are more ashamed of being caught out, than the actual things they did. This speaks volumes in itself.

Naturally, there’s been a backlash from supporters and those who cannot accept the sentences handed down. Or feel it’s a bit over the top. Mainly this has come from former players. QED.

No doubt, authorities wanted to stamp down on this and be seen to do so. They had to be seen to be doing something dramatic. A 12 month ban seems harsh, except there is little international cricket in the next 6 months anyway, and so all they miss is next summer’s home internationals. They will all be available for next year’s World Cup and Ashes in England. If they’d been made to miss that as well, then perhaps you could argue it was a strong punishment. But something tells me, Cricket Australia would like to be competitive in what are the two major prizes that only come around every 4 years – a world cup and winning the Ashes in England (the latter being something they’ve not done for what will be 18 years).

‘A little cheating’ is still cheating

While part of me sympathizes with the players involved, and the situation that drove them to take this action, I am someone who firmly believes that when you know you’ve edged the balled to the keeper, you walk. In the same way if you knocked the ball to any other fielder and they caught it, you’d walk.

I was stooped in the spirit of the game being as important as the laws of the game. HOW you played the game was the appeal, as much as winning or losing. Losing graciously, and winning graciously for that matter, was a life lesson.

I think everyone would agree that you’d look a bit stupid standing your ground if you smacked the ball directly to a fielder, who caught it, so why is a little nick (that you know happened) any different? Because you might get away with the latter, that’s why.

Exactly.

Push the boundaries between fairness, justice and law and you will then look to push them a little more, and a little more. The end result is sandpaper being taken onto the ground and being used to tamper with the ball to effect that damned illusive reverse swing, and who knows what else happened in the lead up to this that we don’t know about?

To me, not walking and ball tampering are both cheating, plain and simple. You are trying to get an illegal edge over the opposition, and cheat. It’s got nothing to do with how skillful you are with bat and ball.

A little cheating is still cheating. In the same way you can’t be ‘a little pregnant’ (you are either pregnant or not) it’s no defence to say it’s just a ‘little cheating’.

I also loathe sledging (repeated personal abuse of the opposition). Let the bat and ball do the talking. If you’re not winning with that, acknowledge the opposition played better. Shake their hand and have a beer with them after the game. Then go away and learn how to get better.

Aussie cricketing friends of mine cannot fathom my belief on walking (or sledging). They never walk, and if you do walk, you are weak. It’s part of the culture.

Precisely.

~~

“The Spirit of Cricket (from the MCC)

Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.

Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself.

The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains…”

(Emphasis added.)

The fake fake news debate

Rather than put up an informed debate, all you need now do is roar ‘fake news!’ at anything you don’t like. How has it come to this?

Right off the bat let’s be clear what ‘fake news‘ is. It’s pure fabrication, invention and lies dressed up as a news story. It is intended to deceive. Anyone doing rudimentary fact-checking could expose the lies fairly easily.

Two things fake news is NOT…

  1. It’s not a new phenomenon. There are examples stretching back to Roman times and before. It is said Mark Anthony killed himself due misinformation spread about him by his opponents.
  2. It’s not news you don’t like. News you don’t like may make you feel uncomfortable. That’s OK. That’s how you learn new things. But that don’t make it fake.

New vs Opinion

It’s also important to distinguish between news and opinion.

The mainstream media publishes news (well researched and balanced facts) as well as opinion pieces (the author’s viewpoint).

Basically put, anyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts.

Facts are facts.

Put it another way, opinions are cheap, facts are expensive. Facts need checking. The truth is not always obvious.

Thank goodness for real journalists. I have worked with them. I know one when I see one. I can also spot a charlatan, dressing up their opinions as facts.

When we employ journalists, we are not interested in their opinion. We are interested in consuming a well thought out, clear statement of fact. The story. The main headline, the actors involved, and how it might impact on us and others.

At the same time, we are entertained by opinion writers. We are interested in their views. They present facts, but line up an argument, usually one way or the other. We may disagree, we may be convinced, we may already concur. But we should be made to think.

In life, we need facts in order to make decisions: where and whether to buy or sell a property and what type, or whether to start or sell or invest in a certain type of business or even who to vote for… perhaps our most important act.

Fundamentally, we need to distinguish what is fact, and what is opinion. In order to trust our media organisations, on which we base these decisions, we need to be comfortable that they are telling us the truth, as best they see it.

If we are reading opinion, this needs to be clear. We need to know the difference between this and news.

Authors should also provide disclaimers if their ‘news’ story was paid for by an interest group. That makes it an advertisement, not a news story. Not even an opinion.

Writers should also declare a personal interest. If they are writing about Telstra, they should mention they own Telstra shares if they do.

Why publish fake news?

Due to the long standing ‘trust’ in our mainstream news organisations, and their behaviour hitherto (exposing lying politicians, or scandals in the Church, or whatever) we take information written about someone or some issue in an editorial context as being more powerful than advertising (that is known to be ‘paid-for’ communication).

News has the whiff of gravitas (‘it’s there in black and white‘). It has been considered considered, prudent, weighty. Certain laws exist to protect someone being libelled in the press, and news organisations are careful to check facts before committing to pushing the publish button.

So, if you can dress up biassed opinion – or even downright lies – as news, you might be able to persuade people. If a story says something bad about a politician you don’t like, it can confirm your opinion. If it’s about someone you don’t like, you may find a way to ignore it, or even attack the source.

What if that story was totally bogus? A few years ago, the self-defense mechanisms in our democracy may have corrected the situation. The media organisation could be sued, or challenged to print a retraction, or provide compensation.

Times have changed. Fundamentally, and possibly irrevocably.

Over the past decade or so, journalism has been under attack. The business model of the news media companies has been disrupted. Many editors, journalists, sub editors and photo journalists have lost their jobs. A whole industry has been run almost to ground.

Few media organisations have found “the way” forward.

Maybe NY Times (which has put on 1M+ new subscribers since the last election), Financial Times and, locally, Business News have found a way forward by persuading subscribers to pay for their news and data content through paywalls. In this way they have aligned their information with their readers.

It’s a brave path forward, but perhaps the only one if we are to protect good journalism. If people value it, they’ll pay, If they pay, the media businesses survive. Trust is paramount. If paying subscribers feel they are being dished rubbish, they’ll not pay.

By the same token, if we expect news to be free, then that’s what we’ll end up with –  opinionistas who tell us what we want to hear. I’m a blogger, after all – this is my opinion. It ain’t news!

Faced with depleting revenues, some ad-model news media have had to run sensationalist headlines to cut through and make money. It’s a race to the bottom. Clickbait. A mug’s game. They are failing. It’s not the way forward. (In my opinion!)

Meanwhile, people get their news in all kinds of ways, many of them highly dubious. Few of them are actual news organisations.

Taking advantage of the situation

Among all this maelstrom you have politicians who now seem to get away with telling lies, knowingly, for effect. (‘He/she tell sit like it is. Says what we’re thinking.‘) I’m not going to name them, but you can guess to whom this refers.

[By the way, since when should we only listen to people who tell us what we are thinking? What’s the blooming point of that?!!]

Debate has now been dumbed down to Twitter rants and trolling. Sound bytes. Pre-staged photo opps and ‘door stops’. Lies, exposed fairly quickly by an exasperated media, are ignored as the entertainment moves on to the next distraction. No one takes responsibility, and political discourse has been damaged.

Worse still, our democracy is weakened. For if the people cannot gauge easily what is fact and what is plainly made up, as it whizzes past them on their Facebook feed (which itself is manipulated based on what you already like to see) then those same people can’t make informed decisions. People get elected on lies. And worse, the worst people could get elected to high office.

How should we respond?

The media has to call lies out, shine the light and expose lies when they are there. It’s their job, in a democracy, to do so. They speak truth to power. They clarify and explain.

But that’s not enoogh. They also have do a better job of getting people to pay for news. To subscribe. To make the case for this. And we, the consumers, need to front up and pay. Yes, I know you can get free news anywhere, but in the same way you have to pay for your shoes, food, water and shelter, you need to pay for your news.

The alternative? We’re living it everyday.

I’d prefer ‘power to the people’. Which is literally what the Greek word ‘democracy’ means.

The most important skill? Perception switch.

You’re rushing to a city meeting. You hate being late. The traffic lining up to enter the freeway this morning is particularly heavy, and cars are inching their way, preserving their position, as you all shuffle forwards.

At a traffic light, on red, you all stop. To your left side is a petrol station, from which some people are trying to exit and join the queue cityward or cross our lane to travel in the other direction. You pull up allowing plenty of space in front for the line of cars to cross over your two lanes or to move in front. The car on your inside lane decides to jump forward and claim its position ahead, lest anyone get in front, presumably. This actually gets the car no closer in time, as the light is still on red. All it does is make it harder for the line of cars trying to get out of the garage. Some of them manage to sneak around carefully, and then out past you to the other side, and away. A few minutes later, you are on green, and you all move forward together.

After traversing the city and finding the last available nearby car park spot, you realise why it’s still free – two tradie vans on each side of the spot have parked near or over the white line, leaving a sliver of space for your car.

‘Can I get my car in there?‘ you ponder, as you size it up. ‘If I don’t take this one, I’ll be late for my meeting.‘ So you try very carefully to squeeze in, and make it. Getting out of the car is hard. The driver door just about opens enough to extricate yourself, and as you rush to the ticketing machine you glance back and wonder if it was such a good idea taking that spot in the first place.

‘Will one of those vans scratch my car getting out? What if they leave and then someone else comes along and presumes I’m the guilty party in the way I parked?’

The sun is shining off the grey ticket machine window making it really hard to read the instructions. You see that it’s $4/hour, and the meeting is going to be 2 hours. The maximum for the day is $13, so you flick the time forward to the end of the meeting, plus 10 minutes or so, and the reading shows $21. This does not make sense, the maximum should be $13. ‘Agh well‘, you think, ‘No time to argue with a machine’. You tap the credit card, get out of there and up to the meeting. You make it just in time. Next time, leave earlier!

A few minutes into the meeting you realise you must have paid til 10.40pm at night, not morning, and that’s probably why you’ve overpaid. In a rush, and with the sun glare, you’d not noticed the PM on the display. And anyway, you made the meeting on time. Next time, breathe.

The meeting is now in full swing. 15 minutes in, the doors open and a latecomer enters. With a mumbled apology and sympathetic smiles around the room, they sit down, and the meeting continues. A few people have laptops open, but can be seen reading the agenda or relevant papers on them. Our latecomer fires up their laptop, and with cursory acknowledgement of the meeting itself and those speaking, begins to tap loudly on the keyboard. Why the tapping? Surely they are not just replying to emails or scanning social media. This same person continues to interject, talk at every opportunity, too long in most cases, and certainly too often. When they are not talking, they are tapping away loudly. It’s as if they are the only important person in the room, and only their time is valuable.

Towards the end of the meeting, in which 20 or so are in attendance, this person has probably spoken for about 40% of total airtime. They are oblivious to the chair who is trying to give everyone a turn, or the few with their fingers up looking to talk next. The latecomer butts in whenever they like ignoring the hints and quiet reprimands over their ever growing answers. Everyone else is too nice or self controlled to behave like this, and endures it. In a 2-hour meeting, each person speaks once, or maybe twice. You know who has spoken about 20 times.

The meeting ends, and you escape back to your car and a busy day of catch up. The car is unscathed. You had paid til 10.40pm after all. ‘Stupid boy‘, you think. Smiling ruefully you drive away, amazed at some peoples’ lack of self awareness, and inability to put themselves into the shoes of others.

The trend is your friend

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932, and took eight years to build.

In 1926, you could see the large pillars on either side of the harbour, from which the famous steel arches would start to appear a few years later. By the end of 1928, the entry roads were clearly visible leading up to these pillars, but other than that there was no ‘bridge’ (yet), and ships and ferries could pass by through the opening as they had done for decades. [In fact, if you look at the photo above, you can see exactly that in 1930 and 1931.]

By 1931 most of the arch had been completed, and the future bridge could be imagined. A year later, in March 1932, the bridge was officially opened by the then Premier of NSW, Jack Lang.

In a film clip of the event, you can hear the cheers of the onlookers and the commentator saying “Can you hear those boats? Can you hear those sirens? What a great day this is…”

Not so merry for the ferry

Many Sydneysiders know the saying ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care‘. This slogan was coined by the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company in the 1920s to promote its ferries on the Manly run. Without a bridge, a ferry was the only way to get from one side of the harbour to the other.

Yet, once the bridge construction had been agreed on, and building commenced, you could literally see the thing being built above you and across the 1km+ span of the harbour.

Before the bridge was opened in March 1932, ferries took 30 million passengers a year. After, ferry patronage plummeted to 13 million.

I tell this story to remind all industries that disruption to their mainstay business is often dramatic, yet can be foreseen. But in this case, the disruption was clearly visible to the ferry companies as the bridge was literally being built above their heads!

Often disruption is not that visible. It’s slow and inexorable, eating away at your business like white ants under your floorboards. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. Putting one’s head in the sand does not protect you from its inevitability.

You may as well assume disruption is the norm. The more safe you feel, the more worried you should be. Check for white ants. Do your research. Think.

The good news is that you may have time on your side. Sydney’s harbour bridge took 9 years to build. Google took about that time to really take hold and make an impact on local advertising revenues. Same with Facebook.

It may have been that one day you looked around and suddenly Facebook and Google was all pervasive, but they took years ‘pushing the flywheel’ before they were so impregnable.

So, what are you doing in your business, in your industry, to prepare for your inevitable disruption? How are you positioning yourself so you can take advantage of the changes that are coming? Are you researching the possibilities of AI, bots, drones, AR, VR or the blockchain? All these, and more, are visible right now and making their creeping impacts.

Don’t be the ferryman, ignoring the inevitable while the seed of your destruction is being built around you. Get on a trend, because the trend is your friend.