Monday, April 11, 2011

Lessons learned from an internet cafe

Internet Cafe
I often get asked by people to explain what makes me different from all the other web designers out there.
I tell them my first business was an internet cafe.

Ok, not the type of answer they were expecting, so I elaborate.

Firstly, I tell them that running and managing a service-based business, often working long hours on the front lines in a sales and customer care capacity, has enabled me to better understand the day to day concerns and needs of the small/medium-sized business owner in a way my competitors never can. This experience, added with my years of experience as a designer, both as an entrepreneur and also in the corporate environment as an employee, has broadened my perspective enormously.

But that's not the best part. See what makes me different is not simply that I used to run a brick and mortar business, but the nature of the business itself. Back when I set up DSL wasn't always available and wireless and mobile internet were still embryonic and so, to fill the increasing demand for internet access, cafes like mine were popping up like mushrooms all over the world. I had gotten into the game quite early which was why my internet cafe swiftly became the primary communications hub for an entire town. It kept me quite busy. And it was also a laboratory of sorts where I could freely study the habits, patterns and preferences of a wide range of customer demographics. Invaluable information as I began to expand online into the field of web design, consultancy and internet marketing.

Since starting that business I've seen more websites than most mortals and helped hundreds of customers navigate them correctly, even when, for example, the website in question was in Arabic, Cyrillic or Chinese. When it comes to knowing the difference between good and bad site navigation, I'm your man.

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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Anyone remember when ads just sat there blinking at you?

It's not the first time I've mentioned this, I've mentioned it before, and no doubt I'll mention it again. And as you can probably guess I'm going to mention it now. It's the one thing which really, REALLY gets on my nerves, the one and only thing I would happily ban from the internet completely under pain of death. I'm talking, of course, about ads that won't shut the fuck up.

Back in 2007, when those loud screaming smilies were driving me insane, I had thought this was as bad as web advertising could possibly get. Oh boy was I wrong.

For one thing, incredibly loud, obnoxious and infuriating though they were, you could contain them. They only made noise when you moused over them. If they were placed in side banners then you could easily avoid them. The problem was that they were often placed sneakily in the body of textual content like mines in a harbour which meant that you had to steer your cursor carefully around them.

Still, whenever those ads shrieked at me I knew, deep down, that it was really my own fault. No point blaming an ad that's specifically designed to only make a noise when a mouseover is detected. No mouseover, no noise.

That covenant between browser and advertiser lasted for a good few years. Since then I've seen countless ads based on the same mouseover principle, some, like the smilies, that drove me crazy and others which, I have to admit, were very, very clever. Examples of these were ads that learned to take advantage of Flash's then-newfound (this is 2007 I'm talking about remember) video capabilities to create interactive video ads where users could affect the outcome of the real video output depending on where they clicked. What I liked about them was the fact that they were more than mere ads but rather cleverly implemented multimedia applications that built upon the web's strong tradition of interactivity. Plus, instead of garish old skool gifs inducing mass seizures with their incessant strobing and flickering, these ads sat perfectly still and quiet in the corner unless moused over. And by that time these 3rd generation banner ads had become so common that accidental mouseovers were rare.

By the end of 2009 and into 2010, however, something started to happen. All through the summer of 2009 and into the Autumn (that's Fall for you Yanks) internet advertising seemed mainly consist of a phenomenon known as Evony Boobs.

At the time there was a lot of buzz around these ads and their slow descent from medieval fantasy artwork to soft porn which caused no shortage of controversy.
The cheek of them! What cynicism! To think that mature, intelligent video gaming geeks would be seduced into playing a crappy (and, as it transpires not even remotely sexy) online Civ clone just because of a banner-adful of boobs! Two years on I need not tell you that the boobs won.

Evony - cleavage sells
An Evony cleavage queen - and this is one of the tame ones

The Evony boobs campaigns set a precedent for all other online games, in particular the never-ending deluge of Warcraft clones, to try to be bigger, louder and brasher than their competitors in order to get more signups. After that it was only a matter of time before the Treaty of Mouseover was broken. (Xmas 2009 by my book)

From there on in the web just got louder and louder and louder. Full sound and video ads for online games would be triggered automatically blaring out Final Fantasy action cutscene-style music at maximum volume. So loud, in fact, that even though I usually set my speakers or headset to a reasonably low level, the sound is still deafening.

And that was it, the floodgates were open. From there on in it was considered fair game, even for large companies, to disseminate their loud, obnoxious video ads throughout the web. Ads deliberately designed to play automatically even before the page has fully loaded. Which, as you can imagine, is a nightmare if, like me, you're in the habit of right-click new-tabbing dozens of links in one go until you find the thing you're looking for.

I'd been so busy evangelizing about how great internet-enabled TV will be that I'd forgotten it's a double-edged sword. That whilst the web will change the way we view TV forever that there might be some serious blowback and that some of the more nauseating aspects of TV would also begin to materialise on the internet.

If you look at it from that perspective you can see evidence of this already. Certainly the Evony ads are a watershed moment with one blogger cleverly comparing them to something out of the movie Idiocracy. Indeed the Evony ads are perhaps the most blatant example of the TV network executive mentality ever seen on the web, no imagination, no innovation just slavishly dredging the very squalid depths of stupidity and vulgarity in a bid to be always lower than the lowest common denominator. Indeed you can just picture some thick-headed executive sociopath slavering over the Evony campaign results before storming into his timid, terrified graphic design team bellowing "more boobs!"

At least the Evony ads were silent, this new autoplaying breed, which started with Warcraft clones, has now spread to the mainstream. At the time of writing I'm currently working Sausage-side. The sort of ads favoured here are generally the type of bile-building nastiness which we were grinding our teeth to ten or fifteen, or in some cases 20, years ago.

German TV doesn't have commercial breaks so much as sporadic temporal interference from a parallel universe. A robotic, dystopian Daz doorstep challenge universe where the Wethers Original granddad is still knoodling with his grandson, all men are fat guys in blue overalls who spend their weekends sawing timber and young women achieve orgasm from eating yogurt. Eventually Overalls-man and Muller-women get married and have a bunch of blonde, bowl-cutted Nutella children that hatch out of Kinder eggs. Mother then lives out her entire miserable life making instant meals and cakes for her goofy-looking family who all start pulling strange faces and going "mmm" as the camera pans around the dinner table. It's that same brand of weary, bug-eyed Betty Crocker crap that Americans were already wincing at back in the 1950s. But in Germany it's cutting edge. I give it 38 years at least before they get to the whole, man decides to make dinner whilst women laugh at him but it turns out to be great because he used some stuff out of a jar, type ads. Right now, however, the idea that a man might swap his blue overalls for an apron is too radical and subversive for German television.

So what's my point? Well my point is it never bothered me before because German TV is so utterly atrocious I never watch it thus their painfully retro commercials remained sealed in the idiot box dungeon dimensions where they belong. And all was well, until a couple of months ago, when they suddenly broke free.

Now whenever I go online I run the risk of getting accosted by large German chemical corporations and culinary war criminals like Doctor Oetker trying to loudly convince me to buy their "fresh and tasty!" soup with a pitch that was already lame back in 1983, often five at a time, depending on how many tabs I open.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you say, then why don't you use something like Adblock Plus and run NoScript for good measure. Well I can (and often do) do that, but doing so still doesn't mean I'm safe from the tyranny of loud ads.

Take YouTube. Used to be a time when you went to YouTube and the worst you'd see was a silly little semi-transparent overlay with a regular AdSense unit on it. Click on the X and it's gone - simple. Now, rather unimaginatively for Google, they've just copied the forced ads concept from other websites. In their latest lame attempt to try wring some sort of proper revenue from the site Google have enabled a new pre-roll ad feature. This means that it's now not uncommon to click on a YouTube video and get deafened by a full video ad which you have to sit through before finally getting to see the video you want to watch. It's particularly annoying when you're trying to watch a video sequence with the volume set to regular and then some BIG LOUD AD FOR AMERICAN BULLSHIT comes on. Wow, that's great, YouTube, thanks for the tinnitus.

YouTube is also inadvertently responsible, as the most popular video hosting site, for the evil that is autoplay. You know, you're looking for some information or company details and suddenly you get this BIG LOUD VIDEO AUTOMATICALLY PLAYED AT YOU. This is the sort of tactic MLM "Gurus" and other "how I got rich quick doing nothing" types love to employ, usually in conjunction with a "Are you SURE you want to leave this page?" type popup when you try to exit, ideally set to make it next to impossible for the average user to do so, for maximum irritation.

Proper business websites should not resort to these sort of cheap tactics, it's basically like having a great big neon sign over your door saying, "Hey! Look at me I'm a complete scumbag!"

Thing is a lot of traditional marketing types see that and think it's great because it creates IMPACT!! (They love that word.) How do they do that? Can you do that? I want that on my website... oh here we go again with the pushy sales website gimmicks...

Never, ever try and ram things down people's throat on the internet. Always give your site visitors a choice and never forget your company website is just one click from oblivion, one tab in ten, where the other nine are your competitors.

When a visitor comes to your site they want to be able to find the information that they want to find not what you want them to find. Ambushing them with a sales pitch video that automatically plays on your landing page might seem like a great idea but it isn't. It only appears that way to those from a traditional marketing background who have as yet failed to realise that the web is not a broadcast medium.

Radio and TV are broadcast mediums. They're unidirectionally broadcast and therefore also passive mediums. The web, on the other hand, is an active, multidirectional medium. You click, you search you navigate until you get to the content you want. Anything that impedes this process will invariably end up backfiring disastrously.

There are rules for advertising on the web, just as there are rules for radio and television. Imagine how crazy people would go if they weren't able to flip channels during ad breaks or if the number one song came on the radio and then halfway through an ad for floor polish starting playing right over the chorus.

And yet I see these rules being broken time and time again; people trying to plaster website after website with loud, shrieking digital graffiti because they still don't get it. The whole point of internet marketing is that it is the opposite of broadcast marketing. You don't have a captive and passive audience, in fact you won't have an audience at all if you persist in screaming slogans at passers by instead of trying to connect with people. Nor will you ever be taken seriously unless you are seen to actively participate online.

Then again, as the Evony vamps have so amply illustrated, if all you want to do is make a fast buck and don't care how tacky you look then really big boobs and an even bigger budget will probably do the trick. That's, of course, providing you have the wealth and resources to completely carpet-bomb the worldwide web with your adverts. And, since everyone and their uncle are all hell-bent on doing the exact same thing, your saturation bombing campaign could wind up costing a hell of a lot more than you had initially estimated.

Yes, it's dark days indeed for the web. The advertising genie is finally out of the bottle, the gloves are off and my metaphors are running thin, thinner than my patience. It's enough to make me yearn for screaming smilies and the fart button, the good ole days when the internet was a wild frontier of Active X exploits, trojans, spyware and filth and the worst thing lurking at the end of a hyperlink would be a Russian-made Stormworm variant instead of smaltzy ads for insurance companies or pink-liveried shocktroopers accosting shoppers with Vanish stain remover.

Seriously, can't we just go back to purple flashing "buy now" gifs, hitcounters, Comic Sans and dancing babies?

Oh and these things - seriously how cool were they?

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Two new websites

Two new Irish websites have been launched by Brionglóid Media

Pantaloons EnnisThe first is The Pantaloons a pantomime company based in Ennis, Co. Clare.

The Pantaloons have been performing the annual Ennis panto for ten years and have just recently performed their 10th Anniversary panto, Aladdin.

The Pantalooons are always looking for people to join in so if you are interesting in performing on stage or helping behind the scenes contact the Pantaloons for more information.

West Limerick View

West Limerick View is a new West Limerick portal website which launched this week. The aim of the website is to serve as a one-stop source for all information on the West Limerick region including Business in West Limerick, Events in West Limerick, Bars and Restaurants in West Limerick, West Limerick Hotels, West Limerick Tourism and West Limerick News.

So, for example if you are looking to find events in Abbeyfeale or hotels in Newcastlewest West Limerick View has all the information you need.

Businesses can advertise with West Limerick View for as little as €1 a day, contact West Limerick View for more details.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nintendo to release 3D version of handheld DS console

As regular readers of this blog no doubt already know, I'm a huge Nintendo fan.

Yes, when it comes to the Big N I'm just a big kid. I still have my original NES in not-so-mint condition and will freely admit to have sacrificed a large portion of my life to the Legend of Zelda series, from the first golden cartridge all the way up to the Twilight Princess on the Wii. So the first great news for me is that there's a new installment on the way.

The really BIG news from the Big N, however, is the upcoming release of the 3DS, a three dimensional version of their excellent DS handheld which apparently manages to create a stunningly realistic 3D effect without the need for goofy glasses.

View the video of people's reactions to it here. Maybe the effect can't be captured on 2D camera, then again maybe it's just clever marketing, but somehow not being able to see the effect and only being able to hear people talking about it only makes me want to see one in action more.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

The Social Network

Next month two movies which I've been really looking forward to will finally be released. The first is Oliver Stone's sequel to the 80s classic, Wall Street. The movie, set at the beginning of the current financial crisis, sees the return of the most dynamic wheeler-dealer in cinematic history, Gordon Gecko, played once-again by Michael Douglas.

The second movie, however, I thought was a dumb idea for a movie when I first heard about it; a movie based on Facebook founder Mark "I'm CEO bitch!" Zuckerberg. I was told it was going to be thriller and couldn't help wondering how thrilling it could possibly be? And all I could think of was that the movie was clearly a shameless cash-in.

Then I heard who was going to direct it.

David Fincher is a former music video director who moved into the world of movies with Alien 3. Though, by his own admission, the movie is a failure (Fox micromanaged the whole project to death long before Fincher had even signed on) it's still a damn sight better than its successors and helped him land his second movie, Se7en. Like Alien 3, Se7en immersed its audience in a dark, murky, sepia-toned nightmare. His most popular movie to date, Fight Club, retained many of those trademarks; the hazy, yellowy industrial grunge and acid-burn exposures that characterised the Fight Club world. Then, in sharp contrast with that, was the Corporate World; searing Xerox scan lights and blinding fluorescents, bland white cubicles filled with bland white people, styrofoam coffee cups and Ikea-styled iconography. The movie would have been a pretty cool movie based on its storyline alone, but in the hands of Fincher, it became one of the masterpiece movies of the 90s and a true piece of visual art.

So what's he going to do with Facebook? Well, Facebook the website, of course, has its very own distinctive look and feel; clinical white shiny surfaces offset by lines of neon blue. (The blue, apparently, because Zuckerberg's colourblind and blue's the colour he sees clearest.)

The idea that got me excited about the movie was when I put Fincher and Facebook together in my mind I envisioned something akin to the Fight Club Ikea sequence with Facebook buttons and widgets. From the look of the trailer and promotional videos, it looks like this is precisely what Fincher has done.

Fight Club's relentless pace and the raw and edgy editing style, cutting back and forth between the jaded, insomniac Corporate World and the visceral, blood and testosterone world of Fight Club, may never have worked, however, without the erratic sonic sculptures of the Dust Brothers who provided one of my favourite soundtracks to any movie and the perfect aural accompaniment to Fight Club.

For The Social Network Fincher is reunited with one of his former music video clients, none other than Trent Reznor a.k.a. Nine Inch Nails as well as NIN collaborator and producer Atticus Ross. Ross has recently worked on yet another excellent soundtrack, to the post-apocalyptic badass-evangelist movie The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington.

I signed up to the NIN newsletter some time back and so was recently informed of a free downloadable "Sampler" containing a few tracks from the upcoming soundtrack.

If the music from the sampler is anything to go by this movie, much like other Fincher movies, is going to be pretty dark. It sounds very much like the aforementioned Book of Eli soundtrack, as well as other NIN works like those from the Ghosts series or some of the instrumental pieces from The Fragile.

Among the central themes of Reznor's entire body of work is that of "technology in decay" and that of loosing one's humanity to "the machine." Themes which are in stark contrast to experimental abstraction of British electronica or the shining futurists of Detroit techno. For that reason I can think Reznor is the ideal candidate to follow in the Dust Brothers' footsteps.

Together, I'm certain, Fincher, Reznor and Ross are going to detonate a sensory depth charge deep inside our minds. Whether or not the story is up to scratch I cannot say, though the trailers certainly make it look compelling.

I understand it to be a paranoid techno-thriller about treachery and corporate greed. The story of how one, cocky, scrawny little geek became the world's youngest billionaire by stabbing his friends in the back and exposing all our private lives to global scrutiny. That's about the gist of it as far as I can tell, well it's certainly not going to be a "horray for Zuckerberg" plot. That message is conveyed immediately on watching the trailer, where a choir of children sing a cover version of Radiohead's "Creep" over a montage of Facebook profile activity.

In fact, one gets the distinct impression that even with the despicable corporate marauder Gordon Gecko coming out of retirement, Oliver Stone's iconic character won't receive a fraction of the ire Zuckerberg will when both movies hit the screens.

As to whether this movie is going to be better than Fight Club? No I don't think so. I don't imagine The Social Network being better than Fight Club any more than I can imagine "Zuck" beating up Tyler Durden. Still can't wait to watch it though.

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