Social media: An interview with Tom Raftery

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Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience Podcast. My guest today is a prolific blogger. While studying for his PhD in Plant Science he got side-tracked by technology and is now firmly embedded in technology-centred roles. He runs an influential social media blog which comments on a wide range of technology, social and political issues. He also runs the Podleader podcast, discussing matters technical with a wide range of technology leaders. Currently he is also involved in setting up the Cork Internet Exchange data centre in Ireland. Tom Raftery, tá fáilte romhat go dtí an User Experience Podcast [welcome to the User Experience Podcast].

Tom
Raftery:

Míle maith agat, Gerry [Thanks, Gerry].

Gerry:

Now last year you changed then name of your blog from ‘Tom Raftery’s IT Views’ to ‘Tom Raftery’s Social Media’. Why was that?

Tom:

Frankly the reason I did that Gerry was because it reflects more what I do through my work. My role, my work is as a social media consultant so it’s more to do with what I do day to day then really what I do on the blog. If I’m completely honest about it the older name of the blog probably is more reflective of the content of the blog because as you mentioned the blog is wide-ranging. I blog on all kinds of things not even within the purview of IT but well beyond that.

Gerry:

You do indeed tend to blur the lines. You’re equally likely to be commenting about something technical or doing a review as you are to be – ‘meddling’ might be the word [laughter] – in Irish politics, or talking about significant events in your personal life.

What is a social media consultant?

Tom:

Social media is a kind of catch-all term which refers to all these new interactive technologies around the web; things like blogs, podcasts, wikis, social networks, the likes of Facebook, MySpace, all these kind of things. They all together constitute social media. They’re social tools, they’re tools for lots of different forms and functions. In terms of what they do for somebody or some organisation, it would depend entirely on who I’d be talking to what I’d recommend they use them for.

Gerry:

People actually give you money to go and consult, I don’t mean that in any negative fashion but you actually get paid by people to advise them on how to use these media, yeah? [Laughter]

Tom:

That’s correct. It’s a very new area for a lot of companies. A lot of companies haven’t used these kinds of tools before and are quite nervous about moving into the space. A lot of them don’t realise the potential of these tools so they would ask me to come in and have a chat with them about how they can leverage these tools. I’ll look at their organisation and I’ll look at the various job functions within the organisation. I’ll look at things like who it is they’re trying to target and I’ll look at the communications infrastructure internally within the company as well, and I’ll make recommendations based on what I find there.

Tom:

A lot of times when people are thinking about blogs, they think about blogs for just getting news out about the organisation to customers and potential customers, whereas there are all kinds of other uses people can put blogs to; everything from internal knowledge management to internal company communications to external market research, you know it’s massively broad.

Gerry:

It sounds like a very interesting niche you’ve carved out for yourself. Did you sort of fall into it or is this a deliberate strategy?

Tom:

Yes.

Gerry:

Right. Good answer. [Laughter]

Tom:

Both of the above. I fell into it and I made it a deliberate strategy. I fell into it because like a lot of people there was a period in my employment history where I was between jobs as they say euphemistically and I started taking a look at, this was around 2004, I had been doing blogging in 2003 with a company I was with at the time and I started looking into it more seriously in 2004 when I had time on my hands and decided that this was something that should be pursued.

Tom:

From a professional point of view I held the first conference on business blogging in Ireland back in June 2005 so I was quite far ahead of the curve at that time, and then I started looking into and talking about all kinds of the other media, RSS, podcasts, all these kinds of things.

Tom:

I’m involved with a local organisation called IT@Cork, IT@Cork is a not-for-profit IT professionals’ networking organisation, and through the auspices of IT@Cork I get to run a lot of events. I kind of run the Future Trends sub-committee so I run a lot of events and I keep the focus of those events very forward looking, things like social networking, things like RSS, things like podcasts, blogs, all these kinds of things, they’ve all happened in Cork before anywhere else in the country because of IT@Cork and because of my interest in them.

Gerry:

And of course Ireland is in a very interesting position too. The country has changed so much… particularly in the last 15 years or so I guess, with a very highly technically literate population.

Tom:

And we’ve a lot of what would be considered the large multi-national tech companies based in Ireland, we have a young highly-educated workforce, we have an English-speaking workforce. We’re the only English speaking country in the Euro zone, plus we have the low corporate tax rate of about 12%, which brings a lot of the pharmas and the tech companies into Ireland. So we’ve got a good demographic and we’ve got a good infrastructure for getting tech companies into the country and therefore we’re highly technically literate.

Gerry:

Now you yourself are at one end of the spectrum in terms of technology literacy. Do you think that ordinary people are being excluded by dint of lack of literacy in that area, and will that technology gap widen or will it contract?

Tom:

I think it’ll contract. I think the online tools that are out there are getting better day by day. You’re seeing the likes of blogs make it incredibly easy for people to bridge that gap. It’s incredibly easy to set up a blog. Go to wordpress.com and you have a blog set up in minutes and you require almost no technical literacy to do that. So that’s really, really bridging the gap.

Tom:

In Ireland the issue we have in some parts of the country is not technical literacy but it’s broadband infrastructure. We still have a fairly poor broadband infrastructure nationwide and that’s holding people up more I would say than technical literacy. As well as that, as the younger generation are coming up and they’re growing up in an online world, that divide is going away as well. When I grew up, I grew up in the 70′s and 80′s in Ireland. We had one television channel, it was black and white, there was no such thing as the internet, there was no such thing as mobile phones. My kids, the next generation onward from me, are growing up with the internet, they will have mobile phones. They’re one and four [years of age] now; they’re not going to have mobile phones for another few years, but they will have mobile phones, they will be always connected. They’ll take an online connection for granted, something that we never had.

Tom:

That has changed enormously, it will change enormously their perception of the world, it will change enormously their perception of access to information. I can’t imagine what the world will be like when my kids are 20, I have no idea, I can’t conceive of it because the world has changed so much in the last 20 years and like I say, it’s not that long ago we only had even 3 or 4 television channels, and now with satellite TV we’ve 100′s of channels and all this has an effect as well in that it’s competing for people’s attention.

Gerry:

To change topics slightly, Tom, you’ve been extremely critical of the quality of support and service that you’ve received from various organisations, particularly on your blog. Why do they continue to get that so wrong?

Tom:

I think there’s a culture in Ireland of not complaining. I think complaining is a good thing, I really do. I think complaining gives people important feedback on where they’re going wrong with their product offerings. I think it’s a form of positive feedback, done properly obviously. Other people see complaining as a negative thing. I can’t understand that, I really can’t. If you complain in a public forum, people get very upset and again I think, you know, if somebody complains about your company or your product offerings in a public forum this is a fantastic opportunity for you to showcase in that public forum how well you deal with complaints.

Gerry:

Or to screw it up entirely.

Tom:

Exactly, you can get it wrong. But, if you look it at as an opportunity to showcase how well you handle customer service then it becomes an incredible opportunity for you to turn around people’s perception of your company in a public forum.

Gerry:

I was thinking when I asked that question partially, I didn’t want to get into sort of throwing mud or anything, but I was thinking of a recent post you had about Microsoft and their response to your attempts to get Live something, what is it…?

Tom:

Live OneCare.

Gerry:

…Live OneCare up and running.

Tom:

Yeah. The people I was dealing with there were, you know, grand, they were perfectly polite, they were helpful in as far as they could be. They weren’t very timely about their responses. They’d say ‘I’ll call you back in 5 minutes’ and I was lucky if it was two or three days later and an hour one time was a couple of weeks later or a week later. I can’t remember the details now but eventually they gave up.

Tom:

Eventually they sent me an email, it was quite incredible, eventually they sent me an email going ‘I’m sorry we can’t solve your problem, thanks, goodbye’. I should have been livid, I should have been absolutely livid at that. But I wasn’t, and the reason I wasn’t livid was very specific to me. I wasn’t livid because I didn’t buy the product, Microsoft gave me the product to try. If I had gone down to the shop and shelled out 80 or 100 or 120 or 150… I don’t know how much the product is, let’s say its 100 Euro, if I had gone down to the shop and shelled out 100 Euro for Windows Live OneCare, if I had spent several weeks trying to install it onto my Windows Vista laptop and failed, even with the support, slow as it was, of Microsoft support, and they turned around and failed I would have been livid.

Tom:

The other thing of course, is that Windows Live OneCare has been panned. Anytime I’ve put up a post about it. People have come on and said ‘This product is such a piece of crap’, ‘it destroys my processor’, ‘it slows it right down’, ‘it doesn’t catch half the viruses and spam out there’, you know, ‘you’re better off without it’. So, again, another reason why I’m not actually that livid about it. Now, I should be a little bit livid about it because part of the install process for it was to disable the other anti-virus software that was installed on my machine. My machine came with Norton anti-virus on it, and part of the install process was to completely remove Norton anti-virus. So, I did, because I had to, but now Norton anti-virus is no longer on my computer, and Windows Live OneCare can’t be installed on it.

Gerry:

So anybody out there who’s listening and wants to hack into Tom Raftery’s computer, now’s the time to do it. [Laughter]

Tom:

There you go, you know. Now, the thing about it is, I’ve gone ahead and installed Ubuntu on the same laptop, so I rarely if ever now, boot it into Windows, so the chance of my getting anything through it are pretty limited.

Gerry:

Now, and again I don’t want to go on about Microsoft, but you have an interesting relationship with them because they’ve sponsored you a few times to present, correct me if I’m wrong here, but to present at conferences and they do provide you with stuff, free stuff to look at and so on.

Tom:

Correct.

Gerry:

But a lot of the commentary, if we were to look at the commentary about Microsoft stuff over the last couple of years, and I’ve got no bone to pick on this either way, but it would probably be predominantly negative. Is that fair to say?

Tom:

Yeah, it is fair to say. It is kind of a strange relationship. As you say they have paid for me to go to conferences and speak, they have given me the laptop, the Vaio with Vista installed, Vista Ultimate and Office Ultimate installed. That was part of the European Influencers program where they gave 10 people in Europe these laptops with Vista installed and I wrote a considerable amount about Vista as a result. I know some of the other people who got Vista didn’t write anything. So I wrote quite a lot about Vista, some of it was negative.

Gerry:

You’re a big fan of open source, you mentioned Ubuntu there, Ubuntu Linux. In a recent post, you said you believe Microsoft will have to go the same way. You’ve held up both Sun and IBM as examples of people who have embraced the open source community. However, and as a, you know, a usability guy, I have to say many of the open source products are difficult for the non expert to install and use, so do you have an interest in that area or do you think that that lack of usability can be addressed?

Tom:

I do think the lack of usability can be addressed and I think Ubuntu have addressed it quite well. Ubuntu was the first Linux distro I’ve installed in a number of years the last time I installed a Linux distro it was Mandrake back in about 2004 or 2005, so it’s been a while, and I have to say the Ubuntu installer was extremely easy to do, very, very straightforward, and the operating system is quite easy to use as well. They’re getting closer, they’re getting a lot better. But you know with all these things it can be improved, and when some usability experts start contributing to open source then it will get even better.

Gerry:

Well there’s a little sting [Laughter].

Tom:

Well that’s what it’s all about. You know, if you don’t think it’s any good or if you think there’s a problem with it, get in there and fix it.

Gerry:

Okay, to get back to the whole social software stuff. I talk to a lot of companies that are very interested in social software and some of them are building you know applications that have got various elements of social media or social software involved in them, but when I see it on the streets it’s still got, you know, a geeks and kids vibe to it. The people who are on Twitter, who are on Facebook, to a large extent they’re either working in or they’re involved in IT or they’re a very younger generation. Do you see these sorts of things making it out onto the street, to the average person, say the average 50 year old Cork person?

Tom:

Yeah, it depends on what we’re talking about. Twitter no, Twitter won’t. Twitter is too niche and too limited I think for the average as you say middle aged person in Cork. Having said that though, I’m amazed at the people who are constantly linking to me and LinkedIn. Facebook, not so much but I think that’s just because Facebook is newer. I think Facebook is probably easier to get around then LinkedIn and therefore will probably supersede it in terms of the age profile. Right now it’s still very much a younger person’s sphere but I see that changing. The LinkedIn people who are connecting to me are people from all walks of life and all ages. Xing is another one, Xing is a more European type of linked in its’ X-I-N-G.

Gerry:

Yeah that’s the German one originally, Open BC.

Tom:

Yeah that’s right it was Open BC. Again lots of the connections there are from outside of the tech sphere but even more so LinkedIn. I can see that definitely going outside the tech area.

Gerry:

I guess what I’m thinking of is that a lot of the people who use them, this is my perception anyway, are people who are either in the tech area, or value networking very highly. But what about, you know, what about bus drivers? Is social software going to change their lives in any way and should it?

Tom:

[Laughs.] It probably won’t change their professional lives that much. But, you know, what do they do when they go home in the evenings? If they’ve got a broadband connection at home they’re going to start firing it up and you know, they will start going on to the likes of, maybe Bebo, or maybe MySpace or maybe Facebook or one of these ones and just start talking to people, because essentially that’s what social software is.

Tom:

Sure, a lot of us are using it for professional networking but at the base of it it’s all about having conversations, it’s all about talking to people, it’s all about being social or sociable and that’s a human trait. It’s not so much a professional thing. Sure, we leverage it for professional reasons but at the very bottom of it we’re all human and we all like to talk. Therefore I think, absolutely it’ll get outside the tech sphere very much because it’s a way of enabling people to talk to other people.

Gerry:

To move onto another topic, Tom, you’re involved in the Cork Internet Exchange which I should point out is a commercial venture of yours that you’re very closely involved in.

Tom:

Yep.

Gerry:

You’ve said you’d like the Cork internet exchange to be carbon neutral. Is that something that’s achievable?

Tom:

Yes it is. Absolutely, it is.

Gerry:

You gave a very interesting presentation I wasn’t there unfortunately but I saw the slides from Barcamp Galway recently and that looked very interesting.

Tom:

That’s a presentation I’ve given a couple of times now, not that exact one but shades of it I gave it at Barcamp Dublin, I gave it at Reboot at Copenhagen, I’ve been asked to Keynote the Web2 Expo with it and I’ve been asked to give that presentation at the Le Web conference in Paris as well and possibly the DLD conference in Munich early next year.

Gerry:

So does this imply that people actually care about this stuff now in the industry?

Tom:

Yeah, absolutely, very much. Climate change is very much, no pun intended, a hot topic. It’s one people are talking about, it’s one people are concerned about and the other reason is because it’s about cost efficiency as well. If you’re burning a lot of energy you’re burning a lot of money, energy is not getting cheaper, it’s getting more expensive day by day, and that was one of the main drivers for the data centre I’m involved with, CIX, to be hyper energy efficient. It’s not that we’re tree hugging eco-warriors, it’s that we want to save money, we want to be more competitive. We designed hyper energy efficiency into the data centre from the ground up, we were starting with essentially a green field site so we could.

Tom:

On the CIX website on the blog, CIX.ie we’ve put up a lot of posts about the energy efficiency strategies that we’re rolling out in the data centre.

Gerry:

Just to harp back to an earlier topic, you do blur in your blogs the sorts of things you do, you maybe talking one day about politics, the next day about technical reviews of the latest Nokia phone or whatever. Do you think that blurring of commentary is a trend or is it more related to your personality?

Tom:

I think it’s a bit of both. You find most bloggers will blur the line a bit. Again it goes back to what I was saying earlier, we’re all human and that’s one of the appeals of blogs and blogging, particularly for companies. If you have a company blog if it’s written by someone who doesn’t let any of their personality come through then it’s boring and no-one wants to read it. It won’t attract a readership. But if it’s a blog which is written by someone who is more human, and is more inclined to talk about everyday things that are happening to them, it actually becomes interesting because they’re telling stories. And that’s what we do as people, we tell stories. We talk about the latest thing, the latest car we’ve just bought, we tell our friends about it, and we tell them, you know, all the reviews we read first and all the cool things it has. This is what we do, this is who we are, you know, the latest TV we’ve just got, it’s cool because it’s got Ambilight at the back of it, or it’s got this cool remote control that glows in the dark or, I don’t know, these are the kind of things we do face-to-face so if we do these kinds of things online it’s just being ourselves, and that’s what makes these things more interesting than a cold news release which has no personality in it and is written in the third person.

Gerry:

Tom Raftery, go raibh míle maith agat a bheith anseo ar an User Experience podcast [thanks for being here on the User Experience Podcast].

Tom:

Tá fáilte romhat. [You're welcome.]

Published: October 2007

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).