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Iconoclasm

Always vaunted, those iconoclasts. They ain’t part of the herd. They know their own mind and don’t get drawn into believing all that they see and thinking it’s great. Balls – they’ve got ‘em! Not for them the emasculated trudge through electronic ephemera, liking everything that’s laid before them. NoSireeBob. They ain’t afraid to buck the trend. If it looks like shit, talks like shit and probably smells like shit too, as far as they’re concerned, then they’re gonna tell it like it is.

I’ll admit it. I’m one, always have been. I’ve never understood the attraction of most of what can only be described as ‘popular,’ and I mean that in the most pejorative of senses I hasten to add. The way all that’s mundane is joyfully hoovered up by all and sundry – who, staggeringly, appear satisfied after its consumption – never ceases to amaze and appal me.

These days, we’ve got a whole new bunch of icons that seem to hold us in thrall. Those little fellas on every interface we spend so many hours interacting with. Those smiley faces. Shocked faces, sad faces, borderline-racist smiley Chinese guy faces. Weeping faces. Animated weeping faces. Faces with shades on for fuck’s sake! It’s like a plague. Like some alien race has quietly descended and inculcated itself into the very essence of what it is to be a 21st Century human being.

There’s been a death in the family. Whether you think such announcements on social media are crass in the extreme is neither here nor there. But the intervention of a ‘friend’ who’s so moved, so concerned and so keen to show that they care that they go to the great trouble of posting a sad face with animated streaming tears and a succession of heart-shapes as a comment encapsulates much of what drives me to despair in this superficial existence of ours.

Come on, they’re just a bit of fun you miserable old git, I’m sure some would say. They may even point to that hilarious pile of shit that appears on many a status update. Or the little Gremlin-type thing. Or a host of other cutesy little constructions of some foul icon-evolving mastermind somewhere out there in the ether. But I’m not convinced. Not taken in by their shorthand substitution for the use of this beautiful language with which we are blessed. I hate them all.

There’s one in particular that I’ve developed utmost hatred for. I could cheerfully strangle the virtually-androgynous little bastard. It mocks me. It pulls funny faces as a patronising precursor to its subsequent, humiliating exposé of my all-too limited vocabulary. Always bleeding right, that’s its problem. And it lacks grace, in my view. Much as it may try to dress up its innate sense of superiority in apparently chummy little interjections, I know what it’s really thinking, and it’s thinking just how much cleverer than me it really is.

It lives in the land of Scrabble and it goes by the name of Teacher. It’s a square little face – kind of David Coulthardesque if you get my drift – and yellow in colour. It wears glasses, probably to give it an air of authority, a learned look that’ll allow it to get away with its sarcastic superciliousness and prevent it from being given the hefty smack its behaviour deserves.

It’s always got an opinion as well. And that’s my main problem with it. For instance: you’ve just played a word, let’s say it’s something like ‘QUEER’ for argument’s sake. You’ve scored 46 points and you’re well chuffed with yourself. First it’s the facial expression. It assumes a sort of ironic smile, with a knowing arch of its eyebrows. Then it’ll say, “Hmmmm, let me show you what you’ve missed,” and proceed to lay down ‘REPIQUED’ on a triple-word score for a soul-destroying 149.

Even when you think you really couldn’t possibly have scored more it’ll quickly kick you back into the sub-educated gutter it personally thinks you inhabit. You lay down ‘DISTRACT’ and score 74 points. It assumes a condescendingly surprised look, and says: “Outstanding, that’s really tough to beat.” It then lays down the same word in a different location that encompasses five new two-letter words, a triple-word score that, idiot that you are you failed to notice, and scores 114 points. It’s a bastard, and I’m sick of it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it sullies my enjoyment of the game completely, but it really is like having a particularly annoying stranger leaning over your shoulder and saying, “you didn’t want to do that.”

Mercifully, it recently disappeared from the internet version of the game as a free ‘service.’ You can pay for it, apparently, but why anyone would is beyond me. It’d be like paying to be annoyed, paying to be belittled, paying to be shown up for the dullard you are. It’s still on the smartphone app, though, so I’ll be cursed by that little smart-arse for quite some time I’d imagine. To paraphrase Harold Shand: “Icons? I’ve shit ‘em.”

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Being facile

I’ll admit that it started out purely as a visual pun. It seemed too obvious not to have already been done, but I couldn’t find any reference to someone beating me to it. So I did it anyway.

A bit of cut and pastry later and I had transformed the Facebook logo into a fully working Facilebook logo. It looked like the picture you can see here.

As I’d gone to the trouble of creating a logo I thought it would be facile not to create a Facebook group to accompany it. So I did that as well.

I invited a few people who I knew were deeply facile on a number of levels to join. They did. They invited their friends to join too. They did as well. Before I knew what was going on the group had more than 50 members. They all seemed to be facile too.

I have to say my original intention was to highlight the deeply facile actual posts that people choose to share. I set some ground rules. This is what they were:

  • Posts that begin with “If you have a blah blah blah that has blah blah let them know you’re blah blah blah”
  • Posts that illustrate the profound shallowness of the poster by revealing startling facts like “I really want an ice cream.”
  • Posts that contain any reference whatsoever to the loveliness of pets.
  • Posts that include hugs, hearts or histrionics.
  • IF YOU SEE A POST THAT STRIKES YOU AS BEING FACILE, WHY NOT SHARE IT WITH US HERE – YOU MAY LOSE A FEW FRIENDS, BUT THEY’RE IDIOTS ANYWAY.”

I even included a helpful explanation of what facile means to help interested, but obviously poorly-educated, parties ensure that they got it. It went like this: FACILE – ARRIVED AT WITHOUT DUE CARE, EFFORT, OR EXAMINATION; SUPERFICIAL.

But did they listen? No. Before long people were actually making up their own facile posts. This wasn’t what I intended. I despair at the general population and their inability to understand basic instructions. However, the posts were funny – and deeply facile of course! So I let it go. I’m nice like that.

Since its launch a couple of weeks ago more than 2,500 facile posts and observations have been added to the group. Many are actual, many are self-consciously created by those with a hankering to appear facile even if they aren’t, but all of them are, I’m glad to say, facile.

I’m heartened by the group’s capacity for facile content. You probably won’t be if you take a look here: https://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/250954874937598/

I’m not sure what the group’s success says about 21st century attitudes. I’ve no idea if it’s indicative of falling standards generally, a burgeoning intellectual malaise or indeed an illustration that at heart we all love to be facile. What I do know though is that I’ve been laughing like a drain at it and I’m not the only one.

So, if you would like to join in with what is at heart an utter waste of time and energy, then get yourself down to Facilebook forthwith. Chances are you’ll be hugely disappointed!

Rioting 2.0: Me-Generation Unrest

I was 17 when the riots that swept Britain in 1981 broke out. I lived in Coventry at the time and what little opportunity there had been for young people was gradually diminishing to a point of no return.

An industrial city with a long and proud heritage of manufacturing excellence, Coventry was slowly dying on the vine as businesses closed, mass redundancies began to bite and a real sense of despair grew within the local community. It was a time when people in the area literally didn’t know what the future held and tensions were building.

Coventry was distinctly multi-cultural and people from every corner of the world, including my own family from Dublin, had made it their home having been attracted by the opportunities it provided. But in 1981 there literally was a palpable sense of tension in the air and The Specials summed up the spirit of the times with their number 1 single ‘Ghost Town,’ which contained the prophetic line, “can’t go on no more, the people getting angry.”

And they were getting angry. Racial tensions began to rise, there were skirmishes in the City Centre between Anti-Nazi League and National Front supporters and small pockets of trouble broke out across the city. But nothing on the scale of what was seen in later seen in Toxteth or had been seen earlier in Bristol’s St Pauls district.

Like everyone else, my friends and peer group were angry too. None of us had jobs, we’d all been on the receiving end of heavy-handed policing and the future looked anything but rosy. As we watched other cities burning we understood what was motivating the rioters and felt a real sense of solidarity with them.

They were standing up for themselves in our view and the violence and rage seemed a proportionate response – or at least the only response available – to what many of us perceived was a direct attack on our families, livelihoods and communities by the incumbent Thatcher Government.

Just like Margaret, we felt we had no alternative but to take the actions we had to take to achieve what we wanted to achieve. We felt everything we had was being wilfully pulled from under us and had to suffer the added indignity of being told it was medicine we needed to take, and stoically endure, if the country was going to get better.

I’m not saying that attitude was justified; just that it was a completely understandable response to an over-riding perception that as a community we were being fundamentally undermined and no-one was listening.

Fast forward 30 years and we’re dealing with a different beast in my view. Of course there are many parallels: widespread youth unemployment, an economy in the doldrums, savage spending cuts, insensitive policing and yes a Tory at the head of the country again. But the atmosphere’s different.

Today’s rioters, Rioters 2.0 if you like, don’t seem politically motivated to me. This doesn’t feel like the culmination of simmering ill-will towards the authorities and a sense of hopelessness manifesting itself in rage on the streets like it did 30 years ago. It feels more like a lifestyle statement!

Maybe I’m getting old or maybe my inner Mail reader is struggling to get out, but though it grieves me to say it, some of today’s kids don’t seem to care about anything but themselves.

Yes it’s a sweeping generalisation and yes it doesn’t apply to every youth, but as evidenced over the past few days, Rioters 2.0 seem more concerned with upgrading their trainers than protesting. More motivated by the ‘riot experience’ than by a genuine desire for grievances to be heard, and keen to share their adventures with their peer group online as virtual self-aggrandisement.

On Sunday night as the trouble in Tottenham escalated I was watching the news. As more and more youths gathered on the street, almost to a man they were on the phone or taking pictures. You can imagine the conversations they were having – and it’s no surprise to see the fluidity and rapidity with which copycat incidents have erupted since, given the immediacy of today’s communications.

Remember ‘flash mobs’ – spontaneous gatherings for no real purpose other than the experience of experiencing it? Rioting 2.0 is just flash mobbing with added violence and criminality as far as I’m concerned. It’s almost as if it’s a new live gaming experience – with sportswear-centric prizes I might add – that’s open to anyone with a hoodie.

The disgraceful footage of that injured young lad being helped by bystanders, while being simultaneously relieved of his possessions behind his back was emblematic of the acquisitive nature of Rioting 2.0. There can be no sense of community solidarity, common purpose or standing up for what you believe in motivating such behaviour. It’s criminality and disrespect, pure and simple and reflects the ‘me’ not the ‘we.’

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that low-life thieves and predatory individuals are a recent phenomenon, but I have to say that in my day (pipe and slipper alert!) we wouldn’t have dreamt of standing by and watching that happen. So why didn’t anyone step in?

Over the last 30 years, I’d argue, the sense of community we felt has been gradually eroded and replaced by an individualistic mindset. Communities are no longer cohesive entities that are bound by the industries they served and a common purpose. In the days of mass employment in the car industry, for instance, communities had a stake in the infrastructure that constituted their neighbourhoods. With widespread union membership they had an ongoing engagement with politics and a vehicle for expressing dissent collectively and democratically (even if that process proved ultimately ineffective). But not anymore.

Today we have atomised individuals rather than communities. There seems to be little sense of the collective, but plenty of ‘what’s in it for me.’ Rioting 2.0 is just another manifestation of what appears to be an all-pervasive selfishness and desire for instant gratification characterising many in today’s society.

We seem to have developed into a society where consumption takes precedence over compassion, where individual gain rather than mutual beneficence is to the fore and where swathes of the population are marginalised, disaffected and without hope. Given such an explosive mix, is it any wonder that we are now seeing groups of youths running amok with no apparent respect for the people or property around them and who seem more concerned with living the moment and gaining possessions than actually trying to bring about change?

Somebody once said, ‘there’s no such thing as society.’ From where I’m sitting today the society I was a part of 30 years ago really is nowhere to be found. Maybe it was a prediction?

Time for a CSR downsize and rebrand?

It’s been around since the 60s and goes under a number of guises, but Corporate Social Responsibility has probably never had a more tarnished image than it has today. From Union Carbide, through Enron and all the way up to BP and the Bankers it’s done little to prevent a shoddy history of corporate irresponsibility that, in one way or another, we’ve all ended up paying for.

For the last decade I’ve talked to business owners about CSR, written reams of corporate literature that referenced it and seen the exponential growth of web pages on corporate sites dedicated to it. But almost without exception, from a small business perspective, it’s been off the radar or in the words of one business owner I met, “it’s got nothing to do with me, I’m not a corporate.”

I think that he’s wrong, however, and I see a real opportunity for small business owners in particular, to take ownership of the concept – with a slight tweak! In fact I think many of them are already doing it, even if they don’t think that they are.

So what’s the tweak? One word and a change of focus is the answer.

I think that SME owners need to start thinking in terms of Community Social Responsibility and understanding just how significant reputation is when it comes to the bottom line. After all, the reputational stock of big business is as low as a snake’s belly button at the moment. And what little trust the average Joe had in corporations has been gradually eroded over the lifetime of the CSR concept by a succession of business scandals, not to mention the unedifying conspicuous consumption of the Feral Elite.

I think that current consumer dissatisfaction with ‘big’ business is a fertile furrow for smaller firms to plough – and one that can make a real impact on the success or otherwise of any business venture. To truly appeal to today’s discerning consumer – who are often in possession of an acute environmental awareness -, businesses should be actively seeking to promote their Community Social Responsibilities to customers at every opportunity.

And, of course, there are myriad ways in which they can achieve this. As with most business concepts one size certainly doesn’t fit all, so I think it’s crucial that SME owners give some real thought to how they get their CSR credentials across to existing and potential customers.

Some firms take a truly holistic approach to embedding their CSR awareness across all of their communications activities. Nicholas Hythe, a Kitchen Design Studio that I’ve been working with recently, is one firm that really gets the whole CSR thing. It realised at the outset that reputation and what its brand represented were crucial elements when it came to building customer trust and growing the business.

Take a look at the blog that Ross, the firm’s boss, recently published here: http://www.nicholashythe.co.uk/2011/07/15/the-invisible-cogs-in-delivering-our-promises/

As the blog acknowledges, there’s much to value in so-called Communities of Interest and it also clearly recognises that in the commercial world no man is an island and every business is interdependent upon the companies that it collaborates with to achieve success, and customer satisfaction.

But it’s by no means the only way that the firm highlights its CSR credentials. Its website is packed with information about environmental policies, recycling opportunities, the ‘local’ focus of the company, and of course, plenty of testimonials from satisfied customers. Now I’m not suggesting that every company has the inclination, or indeed the time and resources, to communicate such a clearly defined set of CSR principles as a fundamental element of how it does business, but I would advise other SMEs to sit up and take notice.

Even incorporating one or two of the elements that Nicholas Hythe uses in its virtual and real world activities can help other businesses to strengthen the customer perception that ‘this is an outfit that I’d be happy to do business with.’

Take this section of the Airco Bathrooms site for instance; http://www.aircobathrooms.co.uk/Reference.html

It’s simple stuff, but it’s the sort of stuff that will help other customers to make an informed choice about where they will spend their hard-earned cash. It puts a human face on the company. Like everyone else, I would prefer to deal with a real person rather than a faceless organisation, so I’d venture that this type of web presence can have a really positive impact on customer perceptions.

And they’re not alone, of course. I particularly like this page on the Purelybeds site: http://www.purelybeds.co.uk/about-us

It takes ‘personalisation’ to the nth degree and makes a virtue of the character behind the business. It does a number of things to help win the trust of the customer. It’s obviously a family business, always a good selling point. The people behind it are clearly passionate about what they do, and given Mike’s Dad’s wide experience, knowledgeable as well. And finally, it does so with a sense of humour – even managing to make a ‘brand virtue’ out of a regional stereotype!

But let’s not be fooled into thinking this is only something you can do on the ‘corporate’ web. It would be ridiculous to overlook the significance of Social Media when it comes to communicating brand values and a couple of the firms I’ve mentioned above cleverly exploit the medium to their own business ends.

Through blogging, twitter updates and facebook pages smart companies exploit every opportunity to get their message across and bolster what their brand and business methods are founded upon.

I’ve seen plenty of other small firms using facebook to do the same. A friend of mine who has his own computer repair business uses facebook almost exclusively to promote his services. He concentrates on the ‘personal’ service he provides throughout his facebook activities, highlighting the fact that he’s local, offering discounts to Students and OAPs and, of course, capitalising on the messages posted by satisfied customers on his profile. All of which, I would venture, contribute massively to the trust his customers place in him.

And let’s not forget the real world. I know a builder, for instance, that’s been in business for more than 14 years and always has a full appointments book. He does business purely on recommendation and in all of his years trading has never once had to advertise for business. He’s solid, trustworthy and flexible when it comes to giving the customer exactly what they want, and above all he’s a terrific guy who people warm to, something that should never be underestimated!

So how can you embed Community Social Responsibility into your activities? I think the 5 points below are a great starting point:
• Actively promote your CSR credentials – make it plain to customers that you’re committed to doing what you do responsibly
• Talk about real people – personalise your business and let your satisfied customers promote your business
• Be flexible – give the customer what they want and take account of the things they believe are important, customer-led change is having a profound impact on the retail landscape
• Get a local focus – highlight the fact that you contribute to the local economy, where possible use local suppliers and try to be a good citizen
• Never underestimate environmental impact – socially conscious customers (who are often well-healed to boot) are increasingly making choices based on minimising that impact.

Today’s customers really do care who they’re spending their money with and will make informed decisions about which company they want to do business with.

As my mother used to say, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” and I think it’s the same with Community Social Responsibility. Successful businesses have been quietly doing it for years without necessarily realising it. So if you want to increase your chances of success as a business, get with the Community Social Responsibility programme, but more importantly tell your customers about it – it might just be the clincher!

When your musical number’s up

What is it with Rock stars and dying at 27?  As they possibly could have said, “to lose one musical hero at 27 may be regarded as tragic; to lose any number of them looks like carelessness,” but it does seem a bit weird don’t you think?

It’s just been announced in the last hour or so that Amy Winehouse, ‘troubled’ singer who ‘didn’t wanna go to rehab’ has been found dead at her London home. It’s a little too early to speculate on what the cause of death is, but already there’s an internet link suggesting that drugs may have been involved. And let’s be honest, given the long history of self abuse and recent incoherent stage appearances, it wouldn’t be all that much of a surprise.

But it’s the 27 thing that gets me. The roll call of those who’ve rocked off this mortal coil at the same age is pretty stellar. Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and even that giant of the Delta Blues Robert Johnson all struck their last chord at the same age. And there are many lesser lights who’ve also recorded their mortal coda at one score year and seven (there’s a song there I’m convinced of it.).

Members of Badfinger, The Stooges and even Echo and the Bunnymen have all met their musicmaker at the same age. And let’s not forget those members of the Grateful Dead, the Drifters and even Richie from Manic Street Preachers who went missing, presumed dead at the same tender age.

There’s even been a book about it: The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock & Roll, created by Eric Segalstad (author) and Josh Hunter (illustrator): http://www.the27s.com/

I haven’t read it and have no idea what conclusions it draws, but it does highlight that it ain’t just me who thinks it strange. That’ll be the same reason why there’s also been a film and numerous websites: http://www.the27club.net/

And as I write I’ve just looked at wikipedia – and yes you’ve guessed it, Amy Winehouse has already been added to The 27 Club!

Rupert’s Sky may be falling – but in the real world SMEs are still hacked off

You can’t escape it it seems. Everywhere you look it’s Rupert this, Rebekah’s resignation that and Andy the other. Yet while the nation’s attention is focused on big business shenanigans there’re a whole load of firms out there struggling to cope in a challenging marketplace.

For small businesses in particular, things are tough. I’m currently working with a firm called Nicholas Hythe. It’s a Kitchen Design Studio based near Milton Keynes. It’s an innovative outfit that has a distinct local focus, admirable environmental principles and, despite the tough economic climate, is managing to grow its business; unlike ‘big ticket’ failures like Moben and Habitat. So all good I hear you say – well not really.

I used to be the Press Officer for a small business lobby group. At the time we had a Tory opposition and I met many MPs, including the now Chancellor George Osbourne, who were keen to stress how supportive of small business they would be if they got into power. “We understand your problems,” they’d say. “We know how negatively excessive Red Tape impacts your business and if we had our way we’d sweep it aside and free you to get on with what you do best – getting down to business.”

The best part of a decade later and has anything changed? Despite being in power for a while it appears that those promises were as empty as they would have us believe the country’s bank balance is. Nicholas Hythe is still coming up against those hoary old chestnuts that so vexed our members all that time ago – barriers to growth.

Let’s put some context around the contribution that SMEs make to UK plc. According to the Department of Business Innovation and Skills’ own figures for 2010, “small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) together accounted for 99.9 per cent of all enterprises, 59.8 per cent of private sector employment and 49.0 per cent of private sector turnover. Turnover in SMEs is estimated at £1,589 billion, £88 billion (5.8 per cent) higher than 2008.” Small firms they may be, but small beer they certainly ain’t.

So you’d think that it would be easy for a firm with ambition and a burgeoning order book to expand their operation while a ‘business-friendly’ Government is in power? Well frustratingly it isn’t proving to be the case for Nicholas Hythe.

Ross, the firm’s boss is trying to expand the business in the Huntingdon area. He’s written a blog about the increasing frustration he’s experiencing while trying to set up a new showroom, which you can read here: http://www.nicholashythe.co.uk/2011/07/11/retail-property-crisis-really/

It’s a depressing, and from my experience, all too familiar tale of intransigence from planners, a total lack of ‘joined-up’ Government thinking, little help from big business and the little guys being left to sink or swim on their own – while making a massive contribution to keeping the UK economy afloat. The company already has an office in Huntingdon, so you think that’d work in its favour. It has a policy of only using locally sourced materials and tradespeople and is committed to adding value to the communities in which it operates – surely the type of business local authorities would be falling over themselves to attract to their area and support. But not a bit of it. Eight months later and Ross is still looking for premises.

In an era when many believe that the High Street is dying, that we live in an age of retail homogeneity and where good quality craftsmanship and business opportunity is thin on the ground you’d think that a go-ahead firm with big ambitions would find it all too easy to garner the support to achieve all that it wants to achieve. Sadly this isn’t the case for Ross and his colleagues. No wonder they’re hacked off!