Archive for the 'Research' Category



Week 39: sell joy, buy gloom

Seeing as the Western economies are all going to hell in a handcart by the end of 2011, I thought I’d take a look and see how much residual optimism is left.

To do this, I constructed the TN Joy Index, by taking the numbers of articles that mention the word “joy”, and dividing them by the number that mentioned the word “gloom”. In this case, I’m showing the results from news sources in the US (omitting sport, where both emotions are cheapened commodities, and obituaries, which might skew the data). I figured the US is the bellwether economy for joy. It is still the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of optimism, though not all of it is of the highest quality these days. for example, only the US could have produced the following three books, demonstrating how competitive the market in misplaced optimism used to be:

They'll be correct, just not yet

For would-be students of the TN Joy Index, I present three results. The first is that newspapers are still, on balance, happy places. Not one of my results contained a month where there were more articles mentioning gloom than joy. I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend a newspaper to cheer yourself up at the moment, unless your personal Joy Index is low indeed. If that is the case, buy the official Talk Normal book instead. That’ll make at least one of us happy.

The second result is that, despite a lack of concrete reasons to be cheerful, the US has been steadily recovering the joy it abruptly lost in 2007 and 2008. In 2011 joy has been up to almost pre-crash levels of exuberance. I suspect that joy is more in evidence among high earners. Still, if you’re unemployed or in foreclosure, look at this and you might be encouraged:

Not for long though. The Weekly TN Joy Index is plunging like an overworked plumber. In week 32*, beginning 8 August, we reached historically low levels of joyfulness, with only 1.62 joys for every gloom. For comparison: in the week that Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US, the index was at 1.97. In the week after 9/11, it was at 2.24.

The short-term market for optimism seems to have collapsed, but I refuse to be downhearted. I may write a book called “Joy at 100,000!!!” predicting a time when gloom is all but forgotten and a sub-2 index seems unthinkable. It’s about as likely to happen in the near future as the Dow at 40,000 – but, when the market turns, there will be money in unrealistic optimism once again. I want my cut.

* TN TruFact: Since 15 June 1988, there has been an International Standard for week numbering, to give management consultants something to report on when they visit wall chart manufacturers. It is defined in ISO-8601 and, according to Epoch Converter, “The first week of the year is the week that contains that year’s first Thursday.” If that doesn’t restore your faith in the ability of developed economies to create jobs out of thin air, nothing will.

The buck does not stop here

No one likes a blame culture. Especially when you’re the one taking the blame.

While News International flip-flops its way through the phone hacking palaver – offering various explanations of exactly what it was doing, who did it, and whether the evidence has been successfully deleted – one of the few things that most people agreed was adroit was Rupert’s personal apology (see right). We remember it because it has the word sorry at the top. You can argue that he is only sorry that they got caught, but you can’t dismiss the power of the apology.

Of course, it’s one thing to ask your advertising agency to write “sorry” on a piece of paper, it’s quite another to say it out loud. That’s why James Murdoch used a beautiful weasel phrase to describe the closure of the News of the World and any illegal phone hacking. Having got his sorrys out of the way at 3:30, phone hacking and its consequences quickly became a matter of great regret, so that he can get into the technical stuff instead:

Elsewhere in the scandal, Yates of the Yard went further. His impersonal regret was extreme:

Antitalknormalists use the Matter of Regret (MoR) when they are nominally in charge and bad things happen. They want to look concerned, just like ordinary people, while subtly emphasising their lack of individual responsibility. They want to stay on the outside, sadly shaking their regretful heads and tutting ritualistically, going along with the crowd.  This is especially the case when the crowd wants that head on a plate.

Transforming your apology or blame into a generic MoR means you keep a career-maintaining distance from the problem. It skips over who’s to blame and why it happened.

In the UK the MoR is also such a dull phrase as to be handily unreportable in most cases, because it provides no insight beyond the obvious: it’s like saying that something made you unhappy because it is sad. It has been quoted in stories in the UK papers more than 10 times in a month only twice – probably because if that’s the best quote in a story, it’s probably not much of a story. It was most popular in September 2010, when it was a matter of regret for the boss of Waterstones that demonstrators stopped Tony Blair doing a business-boosting book signing tour in his shops. That’s until July 2011 when, as we have seen, many of the people involved in phone hacking news stories were fond of using the phrase. Go figure.

MoRs imply a devolved responsibility that everyone can share but no one takes, and so they transform apology into a generic blanket of mild sadness. MoRs sit in the News International tactical toolbox alongside matters of profit and matters of political influence, ready to be used when they really want to say “don’t blame us”.

Making a crisis out of a drama

Richard M. Nixon said "Life is one crisis after another". Sort of depends whether you help to cover up a break-in at Democratic National HQ while you're president of the United States, but you see his point. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The first four words of the 2011 US debt ceiling crisis don’t imply immediate peril – its parent, the global financial crisis, has a much more virile name. But, as we found out last weekend, debt ceiling negotiations really can cause a crisis.

We like a good crisis; and they’re easier to live with if they’re just a problem dressed up in a dramatic news story. In the last week alone, a quick Googling reveals that Everton, the world’s biggest wave farm, the entire Isle of Wight, a lot of bees, the Hindley Residents’ Association, middle class marriages and The Poetry Society are also in crisis. As far as I know these are not all the same crisis, though if I was a proper blogger I’d at least find some way that they’re all linked to the World Trade Center Building 7 conspiracy crisis (I’m not providing a hyperlink to that one).

Also in the news this weekend the tiger population, Argentine football, the island of Cyprus, Spanish and Italian bonds, and fuel users in Norfolk are also at what we must now call crisis point, which means they should join the crisis queue in the next week. It’s not a great time if you’re a poetry-loving, Everton-supporting, middle-class married bee about to go on holiday to Cyprus, but at least the break means you won’t be worried sick about the Isle of Wight for a few days. You have enough on your nectar-laden plate, my stripy be-stinged friend.

I was always told not to make a drama out of a crisis, and the overwhelming number of non-crisis crises that we have created, recognised, or just announced so that we can fill inside news pages during the summer (I’m looking at you, residents of Hindley) means that poor old “drama” just can’t keep up, so that problem is solving itself. A Google Ngram (screenshot below) shows that the respective frequency of crisis and drama in literature was roughly equal until the 1960s. Then crises began to get more popular, while the level of reported drama stagnated.

In some ways, this is a pity, because calling something a “crisis” adds a level of almost military dignity to something that’s usually anything but dignified. For example, if we remodelled this weekend’s most popular crisis as the 2011 US Debt Ceiling Drama it would capture the flavour of hysterical soap-opera that some of the politicians involved seemed to relish. If we were stricter on what could be called a crisis, then we could also recategorise the rest of the non-crisis crises – based on impact, location and duration – and give them more accurate descriptions. I’d like two levels, one called palaver, and an even less serious one called kerfuffle; you are welcome to suggest your own.

Five things I learned from Google Ngram

Note: I promised that I’d ask Richard Stallman if I had represented his ideas correctly. Turns out I hadn’t. I have pasted his response in the comments section below. It’s a fascinating debate, and goes to the heart of Talknormalism: if you describe something with a misleading name, then you start to make assumptions based on the name, not on the facts.

Before I went on holiday, I pointed out the address of the Google Ngram viewer, which originally came from my creative friend Ryan Hayes. Ngram allows you to search for the frequency of a word or phrase in books going back to 1500: the database is 500 billion words. You type in the phrase, and it draws a graph for you.

You can imagine that after a couple of Mojitos on Miami Beach last month I was thinking about little else, so here’s what I thunk:

1. Intellectual property

I once wrote a book criticising the abuse of our intellectual property laws, but the more people I meet who have profited from them, the less I feel like defending IP in its current form. I particularly recall speaking at a very posh luxury goods conference in Paris which made me want to set about my fellow panellists with a cosh.

Dr Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation is the enemy of lazy IP thinkers, and in this article he argues that “intellectual property” is a meaningless term, popularised for propaganda purposes by the people who have most to gain financially from it, and that it was rarely heard until 1990. Here’s the Ngram of intellectual property that he created, showing how recent the concept is:

Original research: Dr Richard Stallman

2. Angels

As committed Talknormalist Brett Hetherington writes on his blog, “we live in superstitious times”. Having seen my tip, he used Ngram to go searching for “angels”, and discovered that, in a secular age, we’re actually writing twice as much about these fantasy beings as we were 30 years ago. Brett or Dr Stallman might argue that intellectual property is no more real than the idea of an angel: both concepts being a convenient construct designed to give power to, and increase the revenues of, global organisations that seek to exploit us. I’ll email Dr S to ask, and Brett can comment below if he thinks I’ve overstepped.

Original research: Brett Hetherington

3. Paedophiles (or pedophiles)

Moral panic or long-overdue recognition of a problem that was ignored for too long? Although the term was coined in the 19th century, we certainly write a lot more about paedophiles these days.

4. Low-hanging fruit

The Patient Zero of buzzword bingo was not always so pervasive. The phrase took off at about the same time as “intellectual property” did – probably because many of the same people were using both phrases. If some consultancy firm made up the phrase “low-hanging fruit” today, it would probably use IP law to protect it, and we’d all have to talk about MegaGlobalConsult Low Hanging Fruit™ instead. I think I’m saying that we got lucky, but it doesn’t feel that way.

5. Honesty and transparency

The great thing about “transparency” is that it doesn’t have ethical baggage – it’s a technical description of your activity that’s suited to amoral business relationships. Therefore transparency is a much more useful word than “honesty” if you work in marketing. Transparency is jolly popular lately, but honesty is in long-term decline – in books, anyway. And we write more often about angels than we do about honesty, which is proof that we’re collectively bonkers.

Nagging: someone must do something

 

If you haven't watched all 1001 of them, you clearly deserve to die anyway

During the UK general election, and afterwards, I thought I was reading an unusual number of comment articles telling David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown that they “must” do something. Once I’d spotted it, I couldn’t stop noticing that all of us are constantly being told what we must learn, deliver or promise. Governments were most often the recipients of this nagging, as were religions, and for less specific nags, “we” are constantly being told by columnists what we must do. And I haven’t even got to the things we must not do yet.

I checked to see if there was an increase in newspaper-based nagging. In British newspapers between 1990 and 1998, the frequency of headlines telling us we “must” do something declined gradually:

Then it started a long, steep climb. Now nags are twice as frequent as they were in 1998:

We must find out why. Someone must take the blame for this. Something must be done. Not that it will be: newspapers run many more opinion pieces than they did in 1998. They use them to attract commenters, which creates advertising revenue. Telling a person or group what to do is a quick way to start an argument and, in this context, all arguments are good.

Alternatively, as we become less patient and increasingly self-obsessed, we can just forget the column underneath the headline (most of us do that already) and personalise the experience. You could sign up to a genuine Daily Me, written by robot columnists, which is just a series of nagging headlines inspired by the newspaper we really care about: our Facebook wall posts.

MEDICS: FRIENDS OF PHILLIPS “MUST TAKE IBUPROFEN” IN BID TO ASSUAGE HANGOVERS

TALK NORMAL MUST BE UPDATED OR FACE OBLIVION

WIFE’S SECRET CHOCOLATE MUST NOT BE CONSUMED WHILE SHE IS AT WORK, SAY RELATIONSHIP EXPERTS

That’s much more useful than telling me that I must not let slip the opportunity to provide a legacy from the 2012 Olympics. I live next door to the stadium, but I’m pretty sure it’s not me they should be nagging.

Meanwhile columnists are free to tell all sorts of groups what they must do in the certain knowledge that their instructions will be ignored. They are lucky that no one has decided yet that bossy opinion columnists must be paid by results, because they might as well write an article telling ice cream it must not melt.

Kate Middleton: common or commoner?

The official Royal Wedding pillbox, £25: they need to cover the costs somehow.

Why can’t I just be happy for them?

I learn from the PA Newswire that 9 January 2011 has been Kate Middleton’s last birthday as a commoner. I checked my watch, and it’s not the 16th century.

As an atheist who would prefer to live in a republic, let’s just say I’m as excited by the Wedding of our Future King as I was by the visit of the Pope. In an age when there’s less respect for the ruling classes than in the past, I thought I’d check how often the former student of £22,000-a-year Marlborough College and future princess Kate is described in the British press as a commoner, and how often the newspapers just come out and accuse her of being common.

The branding of Kate Middleton as a commoner began at the same time as the speculation about an engagement. When Kate and Wills split up in 2007, and afterwards, it wasn’t a useful description. Now it’s used to create a fairytale princess story: the commoner who won the heart of the royal.

People on the internet will tell you that being a commoner (breeding) isn’t the same as being common (class). But, usefully, the press can swap one for the other and wink-wink signal the same thing. Kate and Wills are engaged now, so the royalist press have to stop insulting her parents for obviously being far too poor, but it wasn’t always the case:

For example, from the Daily Telegraph in 2007:

Some of William’s circle would even whisper “doors to manual” when Miss Middleton arrived, in a jibe at her mother being a former airline stewardess.

There were even worse social sins, such as using the word “toilet” not “lavatory”, saying “pleased to meet you” rather than “how do you do?”, and “pardon” rather than “what?”.

It’s not that the Telegraph agrees or anything, it’s just saying. When they assumed Kate was William’s bit of rough in 2003 almost one in four stories asked if she was common. Fast forward to the end of 2010: since the engagement the description of her family as common has been ruled out. It’s lucky the press can put commoner in its place.

The power of positive thinking

Many people claim to me that journalists are only interested in bad news. Why can’t we write something happy for a change? Who wouldn’t want to read a story like “weather tolerable, light breeze”, or “mild work problem solved”?

I may mock, but those who want more happiness in their news might be getting your wish. the graph below is an index of how often the words “positives” and “negatives” show up in Factiva’s global major news stories database. I’ve taken 2002 as the base because, in 2002, there were about the same number of positives and negatives in the press.

As you can see, the graph doesn’t change much until the end of 2008. Then it whizzes up. The number of stories mentioning negatives hasn’t changed very much, but there are hundreds more stories mentioning positivity. We’re obviously learning to look on the bright side.

I excluded sports stories from this on purpose, because I had chosen the jargon noun “positives” (the thing that footballers “take”) rather than the more common adjective “positive”. There are few setbacks so appalling, no disappointments too depressing that a news story can’t quote someone taking positives from them.

The news business is changing: it is less about what’s happening, and more about how people feel about what just happened. These reactions may not be informed or relevant, but they’re certainly easier to report quickly. It is news for the Facebook generation, because we can all get involved. Not only have we taken the positives, we’re evidently not ready to give them back.

Show me the remuneration

I know not everyone had wine but we're still five Euros short

Justin Webb tweeted from Radio 4′s Today programme on Tuesday morning:

Can’t talk simple this am: pay becomes renumeration and softness emollience. coffee please

Several people tweeted while he was at the coffee machine to tell him that the word he was looking for was remuneration, but I sympathise with Justin. I didn’t realise that renumeration meant “counting something again”, and not “earned money”, until I was about 30 years old.

I still have trouble saying and typing the word. More embarrassing, I have similar problems with the word laboratory. It’s a good job I never worked for the chemistry press, or my peers would have split their sides when I asked questions at press conferences.

Justin and I are not alone with this remun/renum mix-up: journalists have used renumeration when they mean remuneration around 100 times a year for the last 10 years (You have no idea how long this blog is taking me to type). On 23 August, Chemical Week made the same error. Ha! Who’s laughing now, chemists? Wearing your white coats, reading your trade paper in your labra-, lobaro-, your places of work.

If you suffer because you can’t say or spell remuneration, I don’t care, because – unlike nucular – it’s a pointless word that doesn’t need our respect. It’s a classic case of word obesity. Take Justin’s advice and say pay instead: problem solved. Everyone understands what you mean and you don’t sound pompous. Both my 1965 edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (I write as if I have copies from other years), and Essential English for Journalists agree.

If you decide to use “pay”, you’re not following the trend towards increasing word obesity. I made an index of the relative frequency of remuneration against pay (both in articles also containing the word job) from 2001 to 2009. The data is from articles published in North America and Europe:

The complicated word is twice as frequent as it was in 2001, but “pay” is almost unchanged in frequency. Most of the growth in use of renumer-, remuren-, that word has happened since 2007. Perhaps it is because we are rarely more than a day away from a story about what bankers are banking for themselves, and “pay” doesn’t seem grand enough for their piles of unearned income and bonuses.

Maybe the word we use to describe income should have at least as many letters as the income has digits, which means that only cleaners without visas and bloggers earn “pay” these days.

What about the rest of us? For Talknormalisers who want to feel special about pay, I’d suggest describing it as compensation. It’s still a pompous way to talk about money, but I like it because it sounds like they gave us the cash out of sympathy.

Role players

On the evidence of this headline, my job is half way to being a soap opera

I was scanning the comments to this excellent blog post about how our jobs are getting worse. One of the commenters asked: “When did a job become a ‘role’?”

My guess is, about the time that we started to think of ourselves as the romantic leads in a heroic work-based melodrama, which is about when we started to treat CEOs as philosophers and action heroes rather than businesspeople. Graduating from a job to a role implies we are acting the part rather than just doing something. We’re important enough to have an image.

As in any soap opera, in business not all roles are equal. Some hams overact to get attention. For example, a dedicated Talknormalist passed me details of Steve Lundin at BIGFrontier (“Our event archives provide a walk through the wild west days of Chicago’s burgeoning technology scene”), who is apparently the company’s Chief Hunter and Gatherer.

He’s certainly playing a role. You might have an opinion as to what that role is; I’ll let you come up with your own description.

Research on Factiva shows that, in UK work-related press articles, the roles-to-jobs ratio changed dramatically between 2001 and 2007. In 2001 there were about 10 jobs for every role. In 2007, the number of roles peaked: there were only four jobs per role in the press. Then, when the recession hit, the ratio declined to seven jobs per role. The higher this graph went, the more we were writing about roles:

Compare the shape of the graph with the Office of National Statistics estimates of UK employment and UK vacancies during the same period:

Best to be cautious when drawing a conclusion from this, because more or less every economic graph goes up between 2001 and 2007 and then goes off a cliff. But I’d guess that, when everything seemed exciting and full of promise, we fantasised (and were told) we had an important role. When we were fired, it was from our meaningless jobs.

The enemy within

"Firmly grasp large-scale revolutionary criticism"

It’s not fair to blame everybody for the amount of crap that plugs up our inboxes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a few people ruin it for the rest of us. This table of jargon that I compiled from 2009 press releases demonstrates it:

What’s can it mean? Read across the row. There’s a 3.7 per cent chance that a press release will use robust. But, if it also describes something as next generation, it is three times as likely (10 per cent) it will chuck in robust as well. And if it describes something as next generation and flexible, now there’s a 17 per cent chance you will find robust in there as well.

In short, the more jargon you use, the more you’re likely to use.

We get to the silly situation where, having described the product or service – or, I’m willing to wager, the solution – as next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable, more than a quarter of press releases chuck in easy to use as well.

I have three explanations why the press releases might need to call on “easy to use” in this situation:

1. It’s really important for sales: the company thinks that something which is next generation, flexible, robust, world class and scalable might sell badly because we worry that we won’t find the on switch.

2. Ease of use is not an obvious feature: if you can’t even write a press release that ordinary people can understand, it’s unlikely we will believe you can make a product that ordinary people can use.

3. Once I watched a TV report on how they used to typeset Mao-era Chinese communist newspapers. Because the Mandarin alphabet has a basic vocabulary of more than 3,000 characters it was easier for the typesetters to keep entire ready-made Cultural Revolution jargon phrases at hand, like the one at the top of the page, and just assemble the daily paper from the revolutionary brainwashing twaddle kit with a few names thrown in.

When we close our minds we tend to rely on empty, grandiose phrases to please authority. Of course in the West we’d never do anything like that, because here we are free to choose which words we use. Apparently.

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