Category Archives: Social Media Douchebaggery

Ten Reasons Not to Use QR Codes

ihr_qr_code_ohne_logoPixellated tattoos defacing advertising everywhere, QR codes are so fashionable. Oddly, the only people that actually want them seem to be marketing consultants, and I bet even they never actually use the things. The theory behind QR codes is great: a quick way of getting a long complicated chunk of text, like a URL, into your smartphone. In practice, though, I think they’re lame, and here are ten reasons why.

  1. They’re ugly. Far more obtrusive than barcodes, the last-minute addition of a QR code can ruin a subtle ad or poster design, and there’s no way of minimising them—if you make them too small or reduce the contrast, they no longer work.
  2. They’re an enigma. “What am I supposed to do with this?” The QR code contains no affordances, no clue about how to read it. The user has to know in advance.
  3. They’re not integrated. One day there might be a little “read QR code” button in the toolbar of a smartphone browser or contacts app, but not yet. And so…
  4. The user has to install additional software. To be precise, he or she has to 1) already know what a QR code is, 2) go to the app store on their phone and know to search for “QR code reader”, 3) choose between the many, many competing readers, and 4) wait while one downloads and installs (which will often be an experience they’re paying to have). Maybe they’re standing in the hot sun doing this over a flaky 3G connection. Good luck.
  5. They’re not standardised. For example, uses its own special QRs, which you need to download its app to read; scanning an ordinary QR code from within STQRY doesn’t send you off to a web browser, it just gives you an error message. Let’s hope users can tell just by looking what kind of QR code they’re dealing with.
  6. There are no clues. A barcode always writes out the numbers it encodes, but QR codes contain no indication what’s going to happen when you scan them or where you’ll be sent.
  7. They’re often pointless. Right beside the QR code you’ll often find the home page (“Of course,” says the boss! “You can’t leave the URL off!”) and by definition the URL’s short and easy to type (“We spent $100,000 getting a short URL!”) and people have a browser right there on their smartphone, and know how to type, and know what a web address is. So how do you think they feel when the QR code sends them to the home page?
  8. Especially if the home page turns out be smartphone-unfriendly.
  9. They’re insecure. Because there’s no preview, every QR code is like clicking on a phishing link you can’t check. Because they’re physical objects, an enterprising criminal could easily replace ones on a billboard or poster with their own stickers. That we don’t hear about this happening is more evidence almost nobody’s using QR codes.
  10. They’re not future-proof. Some are generated by or other proprietary services, which won’t last forever. When a URL breaks, at least you can tell what it was meant to be, and perhaps search for its new location; in 30 years, to find hardware and software that can read old QR codes you’ll have to go to a museum.

The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco

Natural disasters create a surge of helplessness in those not directly affected. Many people want to do something concrete, something more than a quick donation or a Like on Facebook. Nowadays this desire to help can be harnessed by social media, but it’s easy to waste the time and goodwill of volunteers if this isn’t managed well.

On October 5th 2011, the cargo ship Rena ran aground on a reef near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, a couple of hour’s drive from Auckland, New Zealand. It leaked 350 tonnes of fuel oil, which blanketed nearby beaches and killed or injured dozens of seabirds and seals, among them Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor), the most common penguin species around New Zealand coasts. Thousands of volunteers went to Tauranga to help shovel oil-soaked sand, and veterinary specialists set up a facility for cleaning oil-soaked birds. The Rena spill was and is a national tragedy, and all around the country people wanted to know what they could do to help.

Back in 2000 a similar oil spill near Phillip Island, Australia, left many Blue Penguins oil-covered, and a bird rescue team through trial and error developed a little knitted sweater (or jumper, in Australian) that would keep penguins warm and stop them from preening oily feathers. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust organised a knitting drive, hoping volunteers could supply them with 100 or so. As often happens with unmanaged email requests, it was wildly over-successful: they ended up with 15,000. The Trust page now politely requests people stop sending them jumpers; they’re supposedly filling a small room somewhere waiting for a gigantic oil spill, but are actually being sold at the Phillip Island gift shop, adorning toy penguins.

(FUN FACT FOR JOURNALISTS: Tauranga is in New Zealand, Phillip Island is in Australia. NZ and Australia are different countries, 1300 miles apart—the same as the distance from Canada to Mexico. You would think there’d be no need to point this out, but…)

© saskyumchar on Ravelry

Six days after the Rena grounded, in a discussion forum on the knitting website Ravelry, one keen knitter posted the Australian penguin sweater pattern, and said a friend’s daughter was in contact with the bird rescue crew, and there were Blue Penguins in need of sweaters. A Napier wool shop, Skeinz, volunteered to receive completed sweaters and send them on to Tauranga. Having seen what happened in Australia, I created a Ravelry project page that anyone knitting could link to, partly to make a gallery of completed sweaters, but mostly so there was a single place that allowed control over the message and would let me notify knitters when enough had been received.

My concern from the start was that we had no direct link to actual rescue workers: our only contact was the coordinator’s friend’s daughter, who was “in touch with” the veterinarians (note the similarity to that classic “friend-of-a-friend” setup we see in urban legends), and all communication was by two-stage mail, channeled through Skeinz in Napier. The coordinator at Skeinz then went on holiday, and the fun began.

First the pattern was linked to by multiple different forums in Ravelry, and knitters from all over the world got busy. Then it started being emailed to knitters not on the network. Most critically, the call to action, full pattern, and mailing address were posted in the Skeinz online newsletter, where anyone could link to it, up to October 25th. And link to it they did: knitting blogs, conservation websites, the popular craft site Etsy, the Huffington Post, and the world’s most-read blog, BoingBoing.

© beforesunrise on Ravelry

Hundreds of sweaters started flooding in, far outnumbering the rescued penguins. Skeinz was contacted by local and international media wanting pictures of cute penguins in sweaters. The organiser’s holiday coincided with a long weekend, so there was another delay in shutting down the campaign. But by now the horse had bolted, as the online newsletter content remained unchanged and was easy enough to copy and paste into emails; the penguin sweaters had gone viral.

And by now it turned out that none—not one—of the sweaters was actually used. The rescued penguins were being kept in warm water and recovering under heat lamps, much less stressful for wild birds than dressing them in a cute knitted sweater. Nobody seems to have asked the vets and rescue workers if they in fact needed penguin sweaters, and those interviewed seemed a bit surprised by the international knitting effort.

The end result is that “hundreds, possibly thousands” of unneeded sweaters will continue arriving at Skeinz. The organiser claimed, “the sweaters were a way for people to help, even if they weren’t going to be used.” Apparently the sweaters will be sent to a conservation group in Australia, though with crates of penguin jumpers already in storage it’s hard to see when they’ll ever be needed; some might be sold for unspecified fund-raising purposes. It all seems like rather a poor use of thousands of hours of volunteer effort: the knitters would have made more of a difference supplying gloves and hats for the volunteer clean-up crew, or donating a few dollars to Greenpeace, or writing to their MP with their views on maritime safety or offshore oil drilling. Knitters didn’t sign up to make sweaters for sale; they made them for penguins.

© jenromero on Ravelry

So history repeats itself in the Great Penguin Sweater Call To Arms, and the result is once again squandered effort and goodwill. This is an example of how not to use social media to rally the troops; how should a similar effort be organised in the future? Enlisting the crafting skills of volunteers really can work: see for example the knitting drives of WWII, the Knitted Periodic Table project, or the campaign to knit a cosy for the shipping containers of Christchurch. Here’s what I’d do, if we had a chance to rerun the project:

  1. Set up a dedicated website: say, using a WordPress blog (these can be updated from any computer) or even a Facebook fan page. Registering a domain name would help its credibility and make for more concise links.
  2. Make sure all URLs in tweets, emails, and forum postings point to that top-level domain name (e.g., not an individual page with a knitting pattern (
  3. Get the visible support of the group being helped: say, a short message and photo from them on the home page. In this case, perhaps show a sweater actually being worn by an actual rescued Tauranga penguin. Most importantly, the group being helped should also have editing privileges for the site, so they can correct mistakes and add a news release as soon as any target is reached.
  4. Date-stamp everything, especially any page that might be linked to or emailed out of context. Add day-to-day updates on targets: the number of rescued birds, how many sweaters received, and so on, so volunteers can judge whether their effort is still needed.
  5. Keep any pattern or instructions from being emailed. Make the instructional text hard to copy and paste by embedding pictures and CSS styles, so it’s more convenient for a supporter to just pass on the page URL (write out the URL on the page itself and tell them to only mail this). Block search engine spiders so the pattern won’t be indexed (and cached) by Google, only the home page. The goal is to have the pattern existing in just one place, on that web page.
  6. Put the mailing instructions on a different page from the pattern, preferably the main page. Make sure this has a press kit link and instructions for media, in case the whole thing goes viral.
  7. And when the target is reached, put a big THANK YOU on the home page, post a gallery of the finished project (say, happy penguins in their sweaters), and… take the pattern down.

UPDATE, 7 March 2014: The Phillip Island Penguin Foundation have changed their tune, and put out a new call for more sweaters, with predictably huge amounts of media coverage. They strongly imply in their advertising that this will save oil-soaked penguins (although there’s been no oil spill since 2001). If you read the fine print, you find out the sweaters will actually be sold in the gift shop. I guess “knit sweaters for us to sell in our gift shop” is not the sort of thing that goes viral.

UPDATED UPDATE, 8 March 2014: The Penguin Foundation have added a paragraph (in a hurry, I presume, given it’s in a different font, with typos) to clarify they don’t need jumpers for actual penguins, and hey, isn’t this a great opportunity to work on your knitting skills! But all the media outlets and Facebook shares and retweets still seem convinced the jumpers are for saving oily penguins.

Science Blogging Conference

anton_zuiker.jpgBlogs, as we all know, are about what you had for breakfast, or the cuteness of your cat. But science blogs are something different, claimed Bora Zivkovic, who along with Anton Zuiker organized the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, held at UNC Chapel Hill on January 20th. Most of the day was devoted to thrashing out just how different.

Everyone broadly agreed that science blogs allow experts to write about what they know best. In her excellent talk Janet Stemwedel listed some possibilities: scientists can post about their latest cool findings, translate a recently-published article into something understandable, unpack media coverage of their field and correct misconceptions, recommend books, share work in progress (an audible intake of breath here, as all the scientists in the room imagined someone stealing their precious ideas), and just write about what being a scientist involves and what they do all day. NCSBClogo175.png (Most of the latter, interestingly, seem to be anonymous blogs written by women in science lamenting their lot.) Science blogs in general share a voice of authority that most blogs lack, as long as scientists remember to stick to stuff they actually know about–this is probably easier in a blog posting than in front of a TV crew.

So science blogs are all well and good, but what do scientists get out of them, apart from the ego trip shared by all bloggers from seeing their very own words on the actual internet? Stemwedel pointed out that, unlike publication, blogging is a conversation; you can get feedback quickly, and the exchange is archived for all to see, so it can be a great forum to test ideas and see whether you’re making yourself understood. And it builds those valuable communication skills, which everyone going into science needs, whether they believe it or not. As Hunt Willard joked in his talk, “People go into science because they don’t like speaking plain English to normal people.” But most funding agencies want to see evidence of “outreach activities,” and blogs allow scientists to broaden their audience, even to the classroom.

adnaan_wasey.jpg To help with this, Adnaan Wasey from PBS’s The Online NewsHour ran a session on teaching science with blogs, where the goodwill of eager scientists wanting to know what they could do to help teachers ran smack into the brick wall of the US education system. Blogs are all very well, said the middle-school teachers in the audience, but we need lesson plans. And those lesson plans have to contain a section on North Carolina Curriculum Alignment (a section as long as the actual teaching material, it seems) setting out which part of the state science standards they conform to, because the students have to be prepped for the next standardized test. This was probably the most depressing moment of the whole day.

The conversation was derailed at this point by a gray-haired, somewhat smug gentleman in the audience who pooh-poohed the use of blogs in the classroom, because they weren’t “accurate”. (As opposed to, say, an out-of-date middle-school textbook? Or a teacher without an undergraduate degree in science? Both all too common, I suspect.) The gray-haired gentleman observed that there was no quality control for websites, and suggested a group of experts should give their stamp of approval to blogs deemed sufficiently accurate. I wonder who he had in mind? In fact, all the speakers agreed that blogging makes it easier for actual scientists to write directly for a popular audience than ever before; the problem is figuring out who on the internet is an actual scientist. Cue the interminable “information literacy” debate, and the accompanying wailing and gnashing of teeth.

janet_stemwedel.jpg So science blogging seems to open up a myriad of possibilities, or, as Stemwedel put it, “Ponies for everyone.” But there are at least three reasons why blogging could be bad for scientists. It takes time, of course, time that your peers are probably using to write papers; but then again, science always rewards those boring people who never leave the lab and have no lives, and who wants to be them? Helping the public understand science is an activity all scientists agree is a Good Thing, but they tend to be rather suspicious of scientists that actually do it; it smacks of self-promotion and slick marketing. And blogs in particular have a bad smell, looking far less reputable on your résumé than that nice dull article in Scientific American.

Surely the biggest danger with blogging, though, is that you could turn into a blogger. There were just a few at the conference; large men with loud voices and excessive self-esteem. They liked to point out, using needlessly technical language, that things were more complicated than anyone but them appreciated, and treated all discussion as if it was a conversation between themselves and everyone else. This led to the sublime moment when one loudly interrupted a discussion on lesson plans solely to say, “I don’t feel comfortable conversing here because I’m not a teacher,” followed by everyone in the audience making an unspoken but pointed mental suggestion to the blogger. Happily, this was the closest to consensus the whole day came, which bodes well for the future of science blogs.