It’s always a relief to me when Christmas is over. Following all the over-eating, excitable families, pressure to spend, emotional blackmail to eat more, stay longer and be energetic, happy beings, in spite of any work-related year-end exhaustion, I find myself in desperate need of escape. Forget peace on earth and goodwill to men. Few people seem to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Take last Christmas, for instance, when Israel was wreaking havoc in Gaza. There was nothing peaceful about that. Extremist factions around the world favour Christmas as a great time to try to blow things up, and on Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami swept through southern Asia, killing over 200,000 people in 13 countries, so forgive me if peace is the last thing I relate with Christmas these days.
On reflection, 2008 was turbulent. A memorable year for all the wrong reasons, it had been a rollercoaster ride from start to finish and not in a good way; it was more akin to Expedition Ge Force than It’s a Small World. So, to recharge, Monsieur and I booked an end-of-year trip to Sicily (once we’d fulfilled all family obligations and celebrated Christmas not once, not twice, but three times over).
I hadn’t set foot on the island off ‘The Boot’ since I was a student in quite a different life. On that first trip, many of our group had been suffering from a nasty virus and I therefore coughed and sniffed my way around Sicily in a somewhat depleted state. This time I was determined to squeeze the most into and out of our New Year’s adventure, especially as Sicily was unbroken ground for my compadre, Monsieur.
The departure routine was the same as for most of our travels: washing and packing like laundry obsessives, to bed later than hoped, waking in the dark, groaning our way into readiness and repeatedly checking our bags for passport and ticket reference numbers in Frequent Traveller’s O.C.D.
For these and other travel prep reasons, I find it’s a blessed relief to reach the air-side part of any airport terminal, especially as you never know whether security will ask you to remove boots, shoes, belt, jacket or hat (I always wear a little Phillip Treacy fascinator for travel, daaahling), or whether they’ll confiscate your perfume or evian from carry-on luggage, lest you turn it into an incendiary device and blow up the plane. (It would seem the instructions for making such things are on the internet somewhere – God bless Google.) Whilst we’re on the subject of confiscated items, have you ever wondered where those clear plastic bags of illegal on-board items end up? I imagine the guards split the take at the end of the day “there you go, Bob, you said you needed a new deodorant. Eileen, you like Number 5, right? Who needs toothpaste? Full tube, whitening… Old Spice anyone?”
On the particular morning that we set off for Sicily, Monsieur and I were both in need of books, so we found a bookshop, stood in front of shelves of what’s deemed as good holiday reading and yawned. Chick lit… murder mystery… murder mystery… Danielle Steele… more chick lit… footballer ‘auto’-biography. It seemed we’d read all the decent titles and neither of us was in the mood for tales of unrequited office crushes or dismembered bodies floating in the Thames. Dismembered bodies in Sicily, however, were another matter entirely.
And so, with that in mind I walked towards the plane with the sort of book I never, ever buy, wondering if I’d just thrown a handful of (devaluing) pounds down the Drain of Mistaken Purchases. As I burned my mouth on too-hot coffee in the departures lounge, out of the hand-luggage it came: The Last Godfathers, by John Follain. At the very least, the book had pictures. That was a start. Turning to the black and white collection of images, I looked hard into the faces of the men who’ve tortured, maimed, murdered and terrorised so many good Sicilian folk. They could have been anyone; there was nothing remarkable or particularly violent-looking about any of them. Food for thought. In the name of better understanding our destination, it was time to find out what this whole Sicilian Mafia thing was about, so I started to read. By the time we reached Sicily, via Milan, I was hooked. Little did Monsieur know that his one-time peace-loving fiancée would soon be recounting tales of disappearances and body disposal, peppered with details of why you have to be strong to garrotte someone and what sort of acid is best for dissolving human bodies. Needless to say, many of these revelations took place at mealtimes for maximum effect.
Wherever we went in Sicily, we saw people and situations that smacked of a Sopranos-on-location episode: grey-haired men with cashmere coats slung across their shoulders, flanked by ginormous muscle-men in suits with mirrored glasses as they ambled about in the New Year sun… there were plenty of such stereotypes about, looking like they’d just walked off the set for The Godfather Part 7, but perhaps Monsieur and I possess over-active imaginations and we were just observing double-glazing magnates enjoying a stroll with their beloved nephews. I leave it to you to decide.
One thing did take my breath away, however. As I sat watching Italian breakfast news one morning, I learned that one of the most notorious of Corleone’s godfathers, a man named Salvatore Riina, had not one but several Facebook sites in his name and other godfathers were being ‘honoured’ (if you can call it that) in the same social networking fashion. The pages were apparently set up by fans (Fans? These people have fans?) eliciting support for the release of Riina and his cohorts from prison where they’re serving life sentences for inconceivable crimes in both method and number. The Italian outcry had begun and soon spread to Facebook’s headquarters, where it caused great argument because Facebook says it doesn’t want to be responsible for censorship. The victims of such men do not agree. They view this stance as support of evil in our midst. Will we next see the godfathers blogging from their cells? Or should such rights be denied prisoners? The questions, the questions. Out of interest, if you stumbled across a Mafioso blog, would you dare post a comment? If so, what ever would you say? Well, I don’t know about you, but suddenly, I find myself in the grip of blogger’s block, quite, quite at a loss for words.
As for visiting Mafiosi on Facebook, well, what do you do to get a godfather’s attention, exactly? Poke him? Somehow that seems wrong. What are my chances of making it to the next birthday if I throw a sheep, instead? Or send tropical fish for the Don’s aquarium, or a round of pangalactic gargleblasters? Pass to all. I think I’ll just play the Facebook app called Mafia Wars, where I’m known as Don Epicurienne. Far safer.
Here’s another Blog08 post, originally written for Londonbloggers.net
Pete Cashmore, the famed creator of Mashable, the social networking news site, was the first speaker at Blog08, telling us how to build a blog empire. He should know, because, as the Blog08 site tells us, Mashable has 5 million monthly pageviews and Cashmore was recently named the 22nd most important Web Celeb by Forbes.com
(Forgive the shot; the light and people’s inconveniently-placed heads conspired against my dream of a Magnum photographic moment at Blog08! )
The twenty three year-old English-born, Scottish-raised internet entrepreneur was at ease on stage as he imparted his wisdom to the crowd. He confided that he’d been unwell as a youngster so hadn’t been able to attend college or university, concentrating on the money-making opportunities that the internet could provide him. At first, Cashmore had wanted to build his own social network, but while he was working out how to do this, he started blogging about the social networks that already existed or were then in development. That’s how Mashable came about and now his site is THE authority on social networking.
In a nutshell, Cashmore says that in order to build a blog empire, you have to eat, live and breathe the business, which is exactly what he’d done himself. In Mashable’s early days, Cashmore existed on four hours’ sleep per night, but the effort paid off, didn’t it?
Here are his main tips for blog success:
- 1. Build something you love. No one fell in love with a market opportunity.
- 2. The passion for what you do will help you work hard with little sleep if necessary.
- 3. Don’t waste too much time making your blog look good. Content is king. If you blog about what you’re passionate about, well enough and for long enough, eventually someone will take notice.
- 4. Just do it.
- 5. Read, write, comment, improve – and repeat. Blog, eat and sleep – for years, if necessary. Seek out interesting blogs related to what you do and subscribe to them. Use Google reader. Do not worry about funding yet.
- 6. Use WordPress as your platform. In Cashmore’s opinion, WordPress is the most extensible platform for a blog.
- 7. ANALYSE. Look at your stats and steer into the areas where you’re successful. Find out what’s working on your blog. Extend it. Serialise it. Give readers what they want. Use analysis sites like Woopra, getclicky.com and Google analytics, which Cashmore thinks is the best. Check out your referrers and stats twice every day. If people are checking out your site via Digg, then target Digg.
- 8. MONETISE. Mashable uses Google Adsense but Cashmore doesn’t think it’s that effective. He says that CPMs are not that great either. Look into niche advertising and find a network selling ads across your niche. Think about direct selling. (Mashable sells ads on its sidebar). Consider creating a marketplace or job boards.
- 9. Cashmore’s favourite networks are:
- TWITTER: This engages your audience, reaches friends, creates ripples so you don’t need a big hit. It’s a good tool for tracking conversations and syndicating headlines and for finding negative feedback about your site quickly so you can act on it before it becomes farther-reaching.
- FLICKR: Isn’t great for traffic-building but is good for creating community.
- FACEBOOK is most effective if you work with groups but loses effectiveness at scale. How many REAL friends do you have on Facebook?
- DIGG: Here you can vote for the best stories. It’s useful for learning how to write a rocking headline. A blogger asks “Is it okay to DIGG yourself?” Cashmore replies: “Yes, but the system is starting to make this harder.”
- STUMBLE UPON: this is a useful tool for watching what’s popular but here it is not so good to vote for your own site.
Cashmore then takes us to the next stage: you’ve built a successful blog and it’s been recognised, monetised etc. YOU’VE GOT COMPANY! His tips about staffing your blog company are simple:
HIRE carefully, frugally and remotely. Personality isn’t that important if you’re working with someone on an internet platform, so if you like what you see of their internet presence and it’s what you need at the time, then that should be sufficient proof that they can help you.
FIRE quickly, decisively and mathematically. Remember that people are assets so they need to make you more money than they’re costing you.
Then, before leaving the stage Cashmore took some audience Q&A, providing us with the following nuggets of information:
- Cashmore IS Pete Cashmore’s real name. Someone thought it might not be, probably because this internet guru has more cash than he can shake a stick at! He said he’d rather have been called ‘Cashman’, however, because it sounds funnier.
- Cashmore as a name has it’s origins in meaning ‘castle man’, which is what castle caretakers were once called.
- He receives about 400 e-mails per day.
- His view is that a blog takes a long time to set up properly, but once that’s been done, it’s stable.
Sadly, by the end of Blog08, Pete Cashmore still hadn’t invited me to a Mashable party, insisting I wear party-on clogs. I suppose there’s still time. As some consolation, however, I did get to sit next to him at dinner and his chocolate lasagne dessert looked amazing. But that’s another story…
Get clicky: http://getclicky.com/
Google analytics: http://www.google.com/analytics/en-GB/
Cashmore reviewed by Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/2007/12/18/web-celeb-fame-tech-cx_de_07webceleb_1218top_slide_23.html?thisSpeed=20000
[Warning: you may like to grab a cuppa and take your time with this post. It's a LONG one.]
When Andy Bargery announced the London Bloggers Meetup competition where entrants had to state why they felt they deserved a free ticket to Blog08, the day-long conference for bloggers in Amsterdam, I entered for fun. I never dreamed that playing around with Powerpoint with pictures of strange clogs and a tune called ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ could possibly win; it was surely too weird. Regardless, I put the entry together and dutifully sent it off, only to be shocked to the hilt when the bloggers’ website announced I’d won. I really thought Lolly had it in the bag because her entry was so social networking-tastic.
Of course, plenty of people are capable of winning competitions without promising to do something stupid if they win. Not me. In my entry I promised to wear clogs, All. Day. Long. at Blog08 and I also pledged to set up a blog about clogs. When I won, (and being a woman of my word), that’s exactly what I did. Would I do it again? If it involves wearing big wooden clogs painted with a Fresian cow pattern to an event where I know not a single soul, then probably not. However, Clogblogger, the blog I started as a result of the competition, has actually been a surprising amount of fun, so yes to that one.
Blog08 was the brainchild of two Dutch blog prodigies, Ernst-Jan Pfauth and Edial Dekker. Compared to me, these early twenty-somethings are babes in arms but their c.v.s are impressive. For instance, Ernst-Jan is Editor-in-Chief of The Next Web Blog and also of award-winning blog, Spotlight Effect, whilst somehow finding time to write an e-book about the Dutch blogosphere AND plan this blog conference. Meanwhile, his partner in crime, Edial, is an editor of Spotlight Effect and founder of MaptheGap, a mobile start-up. The three of us had chatted a bit online prior to me reaching Amsterdam, and the lads were encouraging about my wearing of clogs; they’d even put a post about me on the Blog08 site. However, Ernst-Jan’s face when he saw me in the Fresian Wonders is something I will not easily forget. His jaw dropped slightly, eyebrows raised high and the forthcoming high-pitched giggle showed that he hadn’t really believed that I’d wear clogs. “They’re…um…. COOL!” he told me, still laughing a bit, “and you match!” That was certainly true. I was black-and-white colour-coordinated with my clogs. Too cool for school. Or not, as the case may be.
Initially, my fellow bloggers looked me up and down and dismissed me as a viable person to talk to as soon as they spotted the clogs. I started to think I’d made a serious error of judgment in wearing these things. Then no one sat in my row so clog-related paranoia set in. There were plenty of rows to sit in about the hall, yet mine remained ominously empty as the rest filled up with bloggers keen to hear the experts’ views on the blogosphere. When a man did finally sit with me and chat a bit, I was relieved, but he made such a quick getaway at tea time that I couldn’t keep up in my cumbersome Klompen.
Meanwhile, the conference commenced and a tall bald guy in a white suit reminiscent of those worn by the hosts on Fantasy Island, introduced himself as Patrick de Laive, the Blog08 moderator. Then Pete Cashmore taught us his technique for building a blog empire the Mashable way (see my Cashing-in with Cashmore post), and a Dutch chap called Nalden took to the stage to show off what you can do with your blog if you have 150,000 Euros to burn and a talent for merchandising.
At different points there were panels of blogging aficionados inviting active discussion on current affairs of relevance to bloggers, but somehow they always got stuck on one topic so that the tweets from the Blog08 backchannel, being projected onto screens to either side of the stage, would get a bit antsy, referring to stuck records and the like.
The most debated topics were:
- Why aren’t there more women at Blog08? (this was an issue, both on-stage AND in the audience, so a journalist from England was pulled up onto the stage to represent women in one panel.)
- Can you be transparent on the web? (Some say yes; Loren Feldman says an unequivocal NO).
- Is blogging journalism and can journalism use blogging? (Fiery activity on this one; the general consensus was that the two are inter-linked and sometimes inter-changeable but the polar opposite opinions of yes or no could not see eye-to-eye).
- Is blogging dead? Well, obviously not because otherwise what were 250 of us doing at the conference?
- Is micro-blogging the new blogging? Only if you can’t spell or you work in PR, apparently. People either love to tweet or can’t be bothered. The audience was split, even though the Blog08 Twitter backchannel was unavoidably displayed to us with such lively tweet activity that it had to be hidden at times.
After a full-on morning, we bloggers needed sustenance and I have to say that lunch was a bit odd. By this point I’d made friends with some of the more clog-friendly bloggers, so I didn’t eat alone (thank my sainted clogs) and the buffet of filled ciabatta sandwiches was normal enough, but the drinks made me wonder. There were three groups of glasses filled with milk, orange juice or more milk. What? I’d never seen anything like it before, but as my new friend informed me, the Dutch love to drink milk. At least all this milk seemed to complement my cow clog theme. Meanwhile, in the corner of the lunch room, a couple of men watched me with suspicion, as if I might jump up and clogger them with my clogs at any moment. The sense of humour I’d so expected was lacking in such folk and, unfortunately for me, they weren’t alone.
Back in the lecture hall, we heard a range of speakers, their presentations varying greatly in both theme and viewpoint. Boris van der Ham, a member of the Dutch House of Representatives, talked about using his blog to connect with his constituents , something of particular interest given the 2008 US elections witnessing a huge boom in political blogging.
Scott Rafer, the CEO of Lookery, blinded us with science as he told us how his site provides a service to help site owners ‘amplify their audience data’. In explaining the importance of his particular tools, he vented frustration from his dealings with Facebook management, telling us that ‘they don’t care about anyone’. He also recommended considering carefully before signing up to the new Facebook Connect because of data storage concerns which Facebook staff aren’t sufficiently answering. Rafer claims that Facebook is helping Microsoft to gain market share against Google, but that’s hardly surprising in a competitive market. What interested me was that Facebook tracks every search made through its platform, linking those searches with relevant advertisers, which is how we end up getting so much SPAM. According to Rafer this will only intensify under Facebook Connect. Conversely, Rafer’s site, Lookery, was set up according to the strictest privacy laws on the planet, (which just so happen to be German), and they utilise and store their data according to those laws. When Rafer’s presentation ended, the audience sat slightly stunned. The Blog08 moderator thanked Rafer by telling him: “That was a really nerdy presentation!” Nerdy, perhaps, but I’ve already signed up to Lookery to learn more about my audience. So far, so good.
Next on stage was Loren Feldman, controversial vlogger-stroke-puppeteer, telling us how he got to where he is today. In a nutshell, he found himself to be an ageing actor with plenty to say about everything, so chose the blog/ vlog arena in which to say it. Most of the bloggers in the audience had already seen his Blog08 site vlog post appealing for our help as he claimed not to know where Amsterdam was (this was thankfully prior to his arrival). Did Björk come from Amsterdam? he pondered. I’ll have to dedicate a separate post to Feldman because he was one of the most refreshingly direct and unabashedly opinionated presenters at Blog08, making him one of the conference’s highlights.
Then we heard from Dutch internet millionaire and entrepreneur, Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, co-founder of The Next Web Blog and unnervingly wearing the same white suit as Patrick de Laive. It turns out they’re business partners, so this wasn’t a new Dutch trend, as had occurred to me might be the case. White suits on men are unusual enough in summer; in Amsterdam the weather outside was atrocious, so the white suits looked even more odd. To intensify the surrealism of this, Boris demonstrated his unicycle techniques by riding from one end of the stage to the other, and back again. Just when we were pinching ourselves to check we weren’t in some sort of Fantasy Island circus hallucination, Boris started to explain why he thinks that blog prowess is next to godliness. It was a confusion of philosophy and theology, of technology and circus performance leading to the very special conclusion that (to himself, at least) Boris is God. Perhaps that’s why he wears white. This presentation was strange, yes, but forgettable? Not likely.
Moving swiftly on, an obviously jet-lagged Hugh MacLeod, cartoonist extraordinaire of Gaping Void fame, whose post ‘How to be Creative’ has been downloaded a million-plus times and is due to be published as a book next year, entertained us with his amusing doodles and ponderings on life. I’ll write a separate post about MacLeod, as some of his advice is wisdom on a stick.
It was the last presenter who made us all sit up and take notice at the end of this nine-hour blog-fest: Gabe Mac, self-proclaimed Bad Mother Vlogger, took the day’s Rockstar theme to the extreme as he pranced around the stage to a funky remix of a classic Scottish pipes tune. He wore streaks of blusher, serious eye make-up and twanged his Wii Air Guitar madly. He had our full attention. His siren of a sidekick sported bright red stilettos and figure-hugging leggings, dancing about him with a giant video camera, causing the feminists in the audience to tut tut and shake their heads. I think that was the point. Then Gabe Mac toked on a spliff rolled for him on stage by Stiletto Chick, crooning “good stuff, baby”, and any thoughts of audience fatigue left the room. Like him or hate him, we wouldn’t be bored by him.
Gabe Mac told us his vlogging evolution story which suitably began in Amsterdam but is now based in Madrid. We watched some of his own favourite posts and tolerated his thespian arrogance and shameless self-promotion. In summary, I think Gabe Mac was acting his pants off for us, but can’t really be sure, just that off-stage he seemed like a much quieter soul than he was projecting to us in his presentation. You probably need to decide for yourself whether or not he’s worth watching. Check the link at the end of this post to see what this Bad Mother Vlogger is all about.
Throughout the day a band of rock musicians called Love OD rocked us awake, literally, so that we’d soon OD-ed on their brand of ‘love’. However, as the theme for Blog08 was “Rockstars of the Web”, I suppose the first theme accessory must be a rock band, so there they were and, in keeping with said theme, the lone freebie handed out to everyone on arrival had been Blog08-branded guitar picks. Somewhat bemused as to what I’d use it for, mine went in my pocket, but I later saw someone wearing a bracelet made with lots of the picks and it looked fantastic. I’d found out too late that the dress code was ‘Rock star’ so hadn’t had time to change my clogs to something a bit zanier, however, at Heathrow I had bought a few rock guitar-shaped pins in aid of the charity, Ability Net, which uses technology to help people with disabilities, so I was wearing one of these to show willing. It also struck me as a suitable charity for bloggers to support.
In summary, Blog08 was a fascinating exercise in debating what’s hot and what’s not on the web today. Transparent or not, microblogger or not, there were strong opinions and plenty of voices willing to air their views. The presenters were a varied bunch, providing us with valuable insight into the blogosphere of today, and the audience was keen to participate. As this was an inaugural event, it’ll be interesting to see whether Ernst-Jan and Edial plan a Blog09. If they do, I’d be keen to attend, only this time I think I’ll leave the clogs at home.
The Next Web Blog: http://thenextweb.com/
Spotlight Effect: http://www.spotlighteffect.nl/
Loren Feldman http://www.1938media.com/
Ability Net: http://www.abilitynet.org.uk/
Gaping Void: http://www.gapingvoid.com/
Gabe Mac: http://gabemac.com/