“All news is good news“, say the ubiquitous public relations people. The spin doctors might disagree. Whatever the truth of the matter, if you’re in public life, to be ignored is the worst possible outcome. No criticism can be too scathing compared to that. It really is the worst case scenario. Despite her penchant for getting herself into the news, the most famous Member of Parliament without any portfolio whatsoever, Louise Mensch, greets the week without any new references to herself from the establish media. For many ever hungry publicity seekers, this happens from time to time. It’s what they must learn to expect. What she cannot not have expected though, is that it would happen this morning. The Monday morning after her new discussion forum was launched. After a blaze of publicity, on a scale which most business people could only have wet dreams about. What went wrong?
You can read my early and detailed review of menshn.com, you can trawl through the twitter conversations (bearing in mind that as the genuine conversation moves on, increasingly only the promoters will be left in it), you can check it out for yourself but to save you the bother, here’s the summary. Essentially, there are three reasons why Ms Mensch is not in the press this morning.
With so much pre-launch publicity and the claims by the politicians who launched it that they had been thinking about it since Christmas (registering the domain name on 7th February this year), you’d expect the service to run fairly smoothly from the start. If web services are launched before they’re pretty good, normally there’s a kind of techie warning – the thing is declared to be “in beta”. Menshn.com had no such warning. Despite that, there were all manner of problems with the site’s coding. Even a merely inquisitive user like myself, not deploying any technical skills (let alone doing anything illegal) was able to get access to directories which shouldn’t have been open to the public. There was fun to be had with the homepage too, like this:
Others deployed routine security checks and found problems. Big problems. Warnings were issued sensibly, to allow the site to correct the problems, like this one concerning the ability of hackers to easily obtain your user name and password from Louise Mensch’s baby site. Childish is the best way to describe the technical design at launch. Others reported that there didn’t seem to be a firewall in place. There were reports of passwords being stored in clear text, an unimaginably crass error these days.
Hardly surprising then that people wanted to delete their accounts. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. Anya Palmer led the campaign to be released from Mensch’s prison and when she couldn’t get win her freedom by ordinary methods she changed her profile pic and bio to make her feelings very clear. That got her unceremoniously evicted. The word got around that the only way to escape was to break the rules by being abusive. Suddenly, the prison gates were open and an unexpected mass early release process began. Bowed by this social pressure, Mensch & Co added a link to delete accounts. Pleased with their Sunday afternoon pre-match entertainment, various tech heads entered and promoted themselves inside the site to the point of being ridiculous. They gave themselves more points in the site’s bizarre loyalty card system than was mathematically possible.
With all this laughter and criticism, you’d expect the site’s founders to have taken remedial steps. Many of us suggested that they take the site down to fix it. Instead, they denied there were any issues at all! Nothing more clearly demonstrates the differences between political life and real life than this attitudinal problem. Sensible people acknowledge problems and thank those who point them out. Politicians increasingly deny everything. The tech heads which run our world routinely admit to their issues and ask for help solving them. These people did nothing to help themselves.
We’re told that the purpose of the site is to focus people on certain topics of conversation. Now, if I’m chatting to someone in a pub, cafe or on the street that’s easy because I can remember the conversation. If someone else comes along and wants to join in, we can give them a recap of what they need to know to catch up. With online conversations, regardless of whether a social network is being employed or not, it is possible to read back through a thread to discover what people are talking about.
For some inexplicable reason menshn.com limits its conversationalists to 52 messages. Given that each message is only 180 characters long, that’s a severe limit to the ability to discuss. We’re told that more than six topics of conversation will be allowed soon but there’s no quick way to start them. Therefore, you can only be part of Mensch’s “focused” conversation if you were in it at the start and have been paying close attention throughout.
That’s impracticable. It reveals a complete misunderstanding of why we chitter chatter so much online. Who has the time to devote to talking to anyone like that? Only people without any job or anything else to do whatsoever could manage it, begging the question of why #BigLouise hasn’t quit her day job representing the people of Corby in the House of Commons.
Tiny. Really small.
Despite the enormous amount of free publicity Mensch garnered for her new venture, the number of people using it were risible yesterday. You’d expect the numbers to be large on the day it launched, surely? Mensch & crew claim that they were but anyone actually logging in could see that the numbers chatting (sorry, ‘menshning’ in the absurdly contrived jargon) were really low. When I joined yesterday morning, there were 427 people chatting live. Don’t forget, that’s all this site offers – live chat. By last night that figure had risen to around about one thousand. This morning, just before I deleted my account, there were 1,200.
Perhaps that’s why Mensch herself wasn’t answering questions yesterday? She probably switched the internet off and went to play a round of golf or something. True, there were large numbers of people chatting about the new service… on twitter. Politicians have to learn to have a thick skin, so we can expect the barbs not to penetrate her hide.
This isn’t a new social network, it’s a parlour game for Tories who wish the whole internet thing would simply go away. If can’t be controlled, it can be crushed, according to their world view. That’s why Louise Mensch called for social networks to be closed when the youths rioted last summer. Even though social networks were not the main engine of messaging for those riots – blackberries were. I didn’t notice her calling for the blackberry network to be closed. Oh, hang on, it was (at the time) also the favoured method of secure communication by business.
The only interesting question left in this debacle is how long will Mensch continue with this farce? Notably, she’s only bought the domain name for one year…
Did I mention that it still doesn’t comply with the UK cookie law? The site’s founder sits on the back benches of the government which introduced that law…. we all expect politicians to lie and cheat their way through to power but aren’t they supposed to do that in secret? The cookie law is very clear and clearly being ignored. Time to contact the Information Commissioner’s Office. Louise Mensch can expect a compliance notice shortly and, if she doesn’t comply, prosecution.