Voskhod instruments by Tom Royal on Flickr
Valentina Tereshkova with Vostok 6 by Tom Royal on Flickr
Voskhod Capsule by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Chartwell by Tom Royal on Flickr
Heron by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr
Highgate Cemetery by Tom Royal on Flickr

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The Buzzfeedification of Bullshit

March 2nd, 2014

Hey, heard the one about the Ugandan President’s daughter? She’s trending on Twitter, and for the best possible reason – right after her father backed some really hideous homophobic laws, she came out as gay. Except, you know, she didn’t.

Ten seconds on Google tells you that Diana Kamuntu is, or at least was, married to a guy. She could have divorced him and then come out, of course, but when the sole original source is called “Abril Uno” (um) and even carries a disclaimer (“Abril Uno is a satire, parody and spoof web publication”), you can be pretty sure the story’s nonsense.

But what shareable nonsense, right?

This seems to be a new twist on a phenomenon I wrote about last year. Last time it was made-up scare stories and exaggerated disasters, but this time the sites in question have found something even more tweet-worthy: a good tale of ironic comeuppance, in this case for President Museveni. This isn’t the first case – in fact, it’s not even the first attempt of “child of homophobic dictator comes out” – recently it was (or wasn’t) Robert Mugabe’s son. Both even “came out” on conveniently not-recorded talk radio.

So that’s the trick – make a share-worthy headline, even if it isn’t true, let it loose on the internet then sit back and wait for the Google Ad impressions. You can even stick a disclaimer on there, noting that the story’s nonsense, and people will still share it – after all, few are reading beyond the  headline, let alone the lede. And the sites that rip you off (and there are several already) won’t copy the disclaimer, anyhow.

It’s interesting to see the people behind this kind of trick learn from the success of the legitimate sites that have turned share-optimisation into an artform. Whatever you think of Buzzfeed (It’s going to save journalism! It’s going to destroy journalism! It’s going to tell me that I’m Sonic Youth after I fill in an online quiz, and hey, I would have preferred Sleater Kinney, but whatever and shit wasn’t I working on something?), it’s certainly successful at crafting headlines (and stories) that tickle our need to pass on the link to everyone we know. But it is, fundamentally, constrained by the desire to publish pieces that are, you know, not completely made-up.

Abril Uno, and its ilk, don’t have this limitation. Now watch them go.

When bad news makes money, making up bad news is good business

September 5th, 2013

The other day a message scrolled past in my Twitter feed:


Which made me think: if the sea off Fukushima really were boiling, I’m pretty sure we would have heard about it. Except if there were some sort of amazing cover-up, in which case why would NHK (which is, essentially, the Japanese BBC) be showing pictures? Doesn’t make sense. But a quick search showed that the photo was being shared left, right and centre – everyone wanted to pass on the latest bad news. Some people even expanded the story to include an (also fake) evacuation order.

But where does a story like this come from? With some translation help from Morgan Giles, I was able to find the source of the photo: an NHK News report broadcast on 3/8/13. So that’s the photo, but somebody must have misinterpreted it.

Most links on Twitter came via an Energy News piece, “BBC website links to report claiming ocean is ‘boiling’ in front of Fukushima Daiichi (PHOTOS)” (see note 1 below), which in turn linked to a fairly hilariously inept article on the Voice of Russia. The Voice of Russia’s sole source is “a Twitter photo”, though (journalism!), so it’s not the root of the story.

Go further back a day, though, and you find an article published on The National Report: ‘BREAKING… Fukushima Crisis Escalates Tons of Radioactive Waste Released into the Pacific Causes Ocean to Boil…’, complete with that NHK screencap:


This does seem to be the genesis of the whole story. And, as noted above, the whole story is a lie. So why does it exist? A dig around the National Report website suggests fairly depressing motivation: if bad news makes money, making up bad news is good business.

Much of the website’s content is collegiate-level satire – The Onion this ain’t – but of late the editors have started to run a series of what appear to be intentionally shocking stories written just for the clicks. A few months ago, just after the Treyvon Martin verdict, it ran with the (false) news that George Zimmerman was to sue Martin’s parents:


.. while today it’s leading on some pretty nasty stuff designed to create immigration-related outrage (side note: anyone able to track down the guy in this photo? He’d have a lawsuit and a half..)


.. and as for Fukushima, the story proved so popular that it went back for another try. This time, a reporter was dispatched to the “village of Fukushima” (fail), and photographed hundreds of dead whales:


.. which have been duly shared all around Twitter again by people too immediately outraged to check anything about the source – as tracked down by Masa Kanagawa, the whale photo is from a 2010 report in New Zealand. And this strategy of posting hideous, nasty rubbish online in the hope of scoring clicks from social media appears to be doing pretty well – here’s Alexa’s report for the site:


.. which, of course, runs lots of adverts. Links make views, views make clicks, clicks make money. And, meanwhile, all around the world, thousands of people are misinformed. Services such as Twitter might have revolutionised the way that real news can be almost instantly disseminated, but they’ve also done the same for lies, half-truths and bullshit – when people quite happily believe anything that’s written on a news-like WordPress template, we’re all going to have to cope with the damage.

Oh, and in the “village” (prefecture) of Fukushima? The situation at the plant is still very bad, but outside the exclusion zone life goes on in one of the loveliest places I’ve ever visited – do go if you can.

* Note 1: The BBC didn’t actually link to the Voice of Russia report, it appeared in a web search result. But hey. On the scale of stupidity we’re dealing with here, this ranks fairly low.

On moving on

February 5th, 2013

My Lucky Cat

Today I’m sad to announce that I’m leaving Computeractive – a great magazine that’s brilliantly focused on the needs of its readers, produced by a fantastic team with whom I’ve enjoyed working immensely. However, I’m also excited to announce my new role as CTO* at the brand-new Apptitude Media.

Apptitude is a new company that we’ve created following a management buyout of the British Journal of Photography, Popular Science UK, and the team that I’ve been working on for almost two years, producing digital magazines for the iPad and iPhone. We will continue to publish both magazines, while expanding to build on our work helping other publishers – such as 125 Magazine – make the leap from print onto touchscreen devices.

More details are in our press release, here.

If you’re a reader of one of our titles, rest assured that publication will continue without interruption. If you write for me, and I’ve been unable to warn you in advance – apologies – it’s business as usual and I’ll be in touch to talk commissions soon. And if you know me, and I’ve been slightly distant or evasive when discussing work in the last few months, then apologies: I’ve been unable to talk about any of this stuff until today – lawyers, etc. Sorry.

So, that’s my exciting news for the day: new company, new start. Watch this space.

You can reach me at: tom -at- apptitudemedia.co.uk

* Cats, Tea and, er, other stuff. No?

On Satoru Iwata and magazines

September 16th, 2012

So imagine you sell an entertainment product. Ten years ago it was very popular, with millions of customers prepared to pay decent money to enjoy the product you made. These days, sales have shrunk – in part because people are getting something similar, cheaper, on smartphones and the web – and some suggest that your product might die out entirely.

Sound familiar?

The other day, courtesy of the 8-4 podcast, I came across this interview with Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata, in which he discusses the 3DS and mobile gaming. And he makes the following point:

“I think within games you have two needs that people fill. One is the time-filler need. The other is that it’s a very important time for me and I want to have a rich experience. Those are two separate needs, I think.”

“The other thing is how much are consumers willing to pay to play. I think that consumers who are willing to pay money for a gaming experience are looking for something that is more rich and are willing to spend some of that valuable time on that experience. I believe that as environments change and as the world progresses we’re going to have different ways in which people want to spend their time. That being said, I don’t think we’re going to see the desire to have, again, rich and deep sort of gaming experiences… we’re not going to see that vanish. That’s not going to go away.”

Which, as somebody currently buried 30 hours into Tales of Graces F on the PS3, but also worryingly addicted to Super Hexagon while riding the train to work, makes a lot of sense. Many people will only ever dip in and out of video games, and 69p apps that can fill five minutes (or before them, those pay-to-download mobile games) will suit them perfectly. Other people want to enjoy splurging 50+ hours on a big immersive experience that sucks them in, and won’t mind paying £30-50 for the privilege. And many of us like both. See also: The Simpsons vs The Wire on TV, or supermarket fiction vs, say, Infinite Jest on the bookshelf.

Or, yes, magazines.

About ten years ago I first started writing for magazines. That first year, the mag I was working on recorded an ABC figure (Audit Bureau of Circulation – essentially, your monitored, verified sales figures) higher than the one before. And we celebrated, of course. Since then, year on year, sales have declined. Not badly, of course – I’ve been lucky enough to work on some great magazines that have held up comparatively well – but always slightly declining. Not something to celebrate, especially as you see, year on year, other magazines shutting around you.

So you can see why some are convinced that magazines are doomed entirely. But, while the audience might have shrunk, that doesn’t mean that no audience remains. And what good, thick magazines* provide is not the same as, say, a news website or blog** or cyclone of words, poorly aggregated from the web. Like a sit-down-and-play video game, a big novel or following the same godawful football team every week all season,  it’s a decision to spend a chunk of time doing something you actually enjoy. Or, to borrow some words, one where it’s “a very important time for me and I want to have a rich experience”.

And that’s not, I believe, going to go away.

So, money where my mouth is, on Friday I’m launching a new magazine. It will be big, will take time to download and – after the first issue, which is free – will cost money to read. And it will only be available (from launch, at least) on the iPad, because the concept of a magazine is no more tied to print than novels are to paperbacks. But I hope that it will fit into the “very important time” audience that Iwata-san describes, and that readers will enjoy it enough to want to set aside a few hours, and around £2, each month. I guess what we’re aiming for is the 50+ hour RPG experience of publishing.

Might not put that on the cover, though.


* There’s no doubt at all that some magazines are, at best, cheap time-filler – I assume these will survive only as long as their audience lacks cheap access to the same material online

** I like news websites and blogs, and spend a lot of time reading them. I have never, though, set aside a few hours of my weekend to do so

Run for the hills – the Facebook Divorce Zombie returns

May 21st, 2012

I’ve written on a number of occasions about the fascinating-but-flawed ‘Facebook causes x% of Divorces’ story that pops up in the media every year or so.It first lurched around in 2011, and then crawled back out in January. I anxiously await the next outbreak in January 2013, summing up the results of a survey conducted online in a few months.

Well, Mark Zuckerberg just got married (Mazel Tov!), which is reason enough for another outbreak. And in the Wall Street Journal, no less.

Enter the churnalists:

  • Facebook Now Mentioned in More Than One-Third of Divorces (The Inquisitr)
  • Is Facebook responsible for your divorce*? (Metro)
  • Lawyers say Facebook a growing factor in divorce (BizJournal)
  • Facebook: The Marriage Killer (EETechNews)
  • Incriminating Facebook Photos and blah blah blah blah (Daily Mail)
  • .. and hundreds more.

Notice how, yet again, most cite previous variants of the same story – usually the AAML  2011 version, which was itself pretty garbled. It’s amazing how far a bit of simple PR research (presearch?) can go.

* To which the answer is “No. Hang on, shit, what divorce?”