World Backup Day

For the third year running we have World Backup Day. A simple idea originally posited on Reddit and one that we all know makes sense. Nobody wants to wake up a fool on April Fool’s Day.

Not much to say on the matter really that people don’t already know and have usually learned the hard way. So, lick the last of the Easter egg chocolate off your fingers on the Bank Holiday weekend. Go plug in your external hard drive or connect to your Cloud storage service of choice and transfer away.

I backup to both a local hard drive and a number of cloud based services. I use Dropbox, Amazon, Skydrive and Google Docs for two reasons.

One is that the free tiers of these services don’t offer enough space for everything so I have to split storage up, usually by category.

And two, I am still uneasy about committing a) really personal stuff or b) really valuable stuff to folks who whose business is to make money out of people’s personal likes and dislikes.

I refer to them collectively as my Cloudbase to remind myself of my view of the operators as having the possibility of being got at by the Mysterons.

But whether it is a hard disk in front of me or somewhere out there in Serverland be sure to keep your data safe.

Personal story: I lost all the pictures of my son both as a new born and over the following first week of his life due to my laptop going kaput. Ten years later and the memory of discovering their disappearance still sickens. (Mercifully, I shared a few copies with relatives which I had hard copied in those pre-Facebook days but that only amounts to three photographs.)

Galway’s OnePageCRM, Cloud-Based Sales Management System, Creates 12 New Jobs


Michael FitzGerald, founder and CEO of OnePageCRM; Richard Bruton, TD and Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; Brian O’Malley, Enterprise Ireland

Galway-based sales management software company, OnePageCRM, today announced that it will create 12 new jobs as part of a €575,000 investment programme supported by Enterprise Ireland and other investors. The new hires will be in engineering roles for web and mobile technology, digital marketing and customer support. OnePageCRM is headquartered in Galway with offices in the USA and Poland.

A cloud-based sales management application for SMEs, OnePageCRM uses a variety of methods to help boost sales. Specifically built for small business, it has been designed for minimal but effective data entry. OnePageCRM is part of a new wave of cloud-based applications for business, where team collaboration and mobile access are to the fore. Hosted on Amazon servers, it uses the same type of encryption as online banking.

Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton TD, who visited Galway to hold an Action Plan for Jobs Business Forum, said: ‘OnePageCRM is implementing an ambitious growth strategy and demonstrating ability to compete and win new business. Innovative small companies like this are right at the heart of the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs which is aimed at building a sustainable, jobs-rich economy based on enterprise, exports and innovation. This investment and these jobs are very welcome, I commend the company on its achievements and wish it every success for the future’.

CEO Michael FitzGerald, who founded OnePageCRM in 2010, said: ‘Larger CRM systems work well at enterprise level, but not in SMEs whose managers are busy juggling the multiple tasks of running their business. Enterprise CRM is overkill for their needs’.

With an international market for its low-cost product, OnePageCRM has been focused on export sales from the beginning. FitzGerald added: ‘The beauty of distributing a sales-related product is that it can be sold globally without the need of complex configuration. Sales in SMEs is the same the world over – engage, build trust and stay organised. OnePageCRM excels at this process. The application, being used by companies around the world, proves its value every day by helping salespeople get things done’.

Welcoming the announcement was Barry Egan, Enterprise Ireland’s Regional Director for the West Region, who said: ‘OnePageCRM is exactly the type of young and innovative company that Enterprise Ireland is keen to support. They have worked with both the local Galway Enterprise Board and now Enterprise Ireland to build an ambitious company with a very strong product offering. We look forward to continue working with them as they grow and develop their business on international markets’. Enterprise Ireland selected OnePageCRM as one of its High Potential Start-Up (HPSU) companies in 2011.

An engineering graduate from NUI Galway, FitzGerald received mentorship on Enterprise Ireland’s iGAP program from Silicon Valley leaders such as Eric Ries, the Lean Startup guru, and Sean Ellis, the first marketer for Dropbox. FitzGerald also cited the advantages of being based in Galway: ‘Galway has been good to us with close proximity to the University for graduates and expertise. It’s also a city that people like to live in, so attracting key staff to Galway has not been a problem. Our most recent hire came from a passionate OnePageCRM user, who believed in the product so much, asked to fly into Ireland and meet the team. Four weeks later, he moved to Galway with his wife and children to work with OnePageCRM’ [See also: Galway in 3 Minutes].

An Irish Smartphone – Why Not?

Plato wrote about Socrates wandering around Athens questioning assumptions and challenging complacent thinking and conventionally held views. (It didn’t end well.) Over the last few months in my own very minor way I have been wandering around asking myself and the odd person here and there — Is it possible to build an Irish smartphone?

It wasn’t a survey where I had people ticking boxes. It was just an idea I floated into the conversation every now and then. I was curious to know whether others, or even I, thought it could or couldn’t be done.

The engineering knowledge already exists to build a smartphone. All the hard grind has been done. Although, it is still by no means an easy task — if you take a few minutes to watch John Breslin’s video, “Lecture 2: Systems, Plugged In” you can’t help but marvel at the amount of things that have to happen in such a tiny space and the nature of the components needed — but it is a knowable task.

Aside from resolving patent issues, either by licensing or innovation, there are no major R&D costs. Manufacturing is undoubtedly a challenge but there are companies around the world that specialize in the volume production of the needed components. Assembly tends to be handled separately from manufacture and the location for that part of the process is determined mostly by labour costs and access to transport.

So making an Irish smartphone, while difficult and challenging, is far from impossible. There are no wheels to invent.

But that is just the fabrication of the smartphone. We now have this great device made of the finest materials able to run the software apps that most users would use frequently, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. (What apps do you use? Let us know at podcast@technologyvoice.com. I am very curious now that I have brought the subject up. The Podcast app gets the most use on my phone.)

The next stage is to sell it.

The first step of getting the device into a customer’s hand is to tell them that you have it in the first place so it has to be marketed.

Oh, goodness, not that black box of nonsense.

Marketing seems to be an anathema to many of those who think of themselves as practical sorts who deal daily with quantitive realities. After all it took an extraordinary amount of very hard, concrete thinking and experimentation to make the device a reality, introducing intangible and unquantifiable attributes such as branding and the creation of customer desire for the product seems like being dropped into a room full of smoke and mirrors with only magical thinking to guide you to the exit.

This is a terrible, self-defeating error. Marketing is not something separate to innovation and development. It is just as integral to the process of making ideas a reality as the first sketch on a napkin or in notebook.

So, as makers of a device that has the same quality standards and functionality as any other smartphone out there, but lovelier to look at and easier to use, we now have to get into the hands of customers.

First of all would they want it? Well we know the market for smartphones is growing. Over a billion have been sold already and that figure is expected to double by 2015. Clearly, people want them. More importantly, we know they will want more in the future. So there is plenty of room to expand.

What about competitors? All we know is that they exist but also that they come and go. It is not a static marketplace. Just before the start of the smartphone era mobile phone use was essentially divided up between Nokia in the domestic market and the Blackberry for business. Eighteen months ago Apple was predominant and HTC was the alternative of choice.

Now we have a situation where Apple is no longer the leading player in smartphone sales. Samsung now shares (for the time being) the number one spot. HTC has faded away, Nokia is down but not dead and Research In Motion (Blackberry) are promising to reignite their sales efforts with a new product.

Essentially, no one owns the market. There is no monopoly to overcome. No absolute deterrent to participation.

After discounting all the other factors involved in making or selling a phone we are left with financing the initial stages of product development. Engineering and the marketing factors are well known and therefore R&D costs are minimal but it would still take a chunk of change to get to the stage where one could plant one’s studs in the grass.

But even then, considering that no original or very little original research work has to be done, what is really needed is a team of highly organised managers that are solely devoted to the development of a system of creation and delivery that are as competitively efficient as any other manufacturer.

Ireland has some of the best managerial talent in the world. Just by looking at the names listed in company reports in the US and UK, executive ability seems to be one of our more successful exports. Lack of ability isn’t a barrier.

I acknowledge that to many people this seems silly and impossible and, of course, they will have all sorts of good reasons why that may be so and they are right. But they would be missing the point.

If, on paper anyway, it is possible that we can contend favourably in the global market for smartphones then by the same logic we can participate in any technology-based global market.

Just a reminder that we are going to put out a podcast in a couple of weeks time (TBA) and we would love to have you send in comments, suggestions, questions, points for debate to our good selves at podcast@technologyvoice.com. Look forward to seeing what you send.

Shamrock image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Thomas Gun

Technology Voice Launching New Podcast

We are pleased to announce that we are putting together our very first podcast for Technology Voice. We hope it is going to be the first of many monthly broadcasts focusing on tech in general and the Irish tech sector in particular. Despite the financial havoc of the last few years, the Irish tech sector has shown itself to be robust, profitable and a major source of job creation. We believe it deserves to be talked about and discussed in greater depth.

Writing articles and blogs will still be the main focus of our endeavours here but there are some stories that simply lend themselves better to the spoken word. More so if the spoken word is part of a wider conversation.

John: Hosting our conversation will be John Breslin, publisher and owner of Technology Voice. (That’s him in the picture above.) Amongst many other things he was co-founder of boards.ie/adverts.ie and is co-founder of StreamGlider.

Marie: Also participating is Marie Boran, PhD candidate at the Social Software Unit, Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI). She is also a part-time science/tech journalist.

Fergal: Joining them is Fergal Gallagher, journalist and social media researcher. He is also at DERI.

You will probably, on occasion, hear me in the background doing producery things like rattling tea-cups and kicking printers.

We will be discussing mainstream topical events both in Ireland and in Silicon Valley. We will also bring to your attention developments of significance that may not have been otherwise widely reported.

But we don’t want it to be just disembodied, disconnected voices spouting forth in a studio. To prevent that we would hugely appreciate questions and suggestions for themes for discussion on all things tech and social media to be submitted to us. No prizes, sorry about that!

We will have guests as the shows progress. Some will be discussing their product or project with the view that others may learn from their experience. Others will cover aspects of doing business that are important to all innovators and entrepreneurs such as legal, finance and general commercial issues.

Be sure to look out for the podcast which will we will be posting on iTunes, etc., in early April.

(But we will be letting you know nearer the time anyway.)

We hope that you can join us in this new project and we look forward to receiving your questions and suggestions.

Please email us at podcast@technologyvoice.com.

Goodbye Google Reader but No Pay = No Say

Google have just announced that they are discontinuing Google Reader (GR) in July. I can’t say I love GR as every time I look at it I feel like my eyeballs are being sand-papered but it is a great way to list subscriptions in a nice, long, scannable list. It was ugly but it worked.

Google say that, “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined.” So, there weren’t enough ‘loyal’ folks like myself using the service to make it worthwhile for Google to keep managing and maintaining it.

I can’t complain too much as it is a free service and as Google, Facebook and other providers have made abundantly clear over the years — No pay = no say.

Protesting the decision would be futile and leaves me to lament its passing and reflect that barebones presentation does not make good design. GR wasn’t a place to hangout because of its soothing user experience.

My other reader is Feedly. It is a lovely service and it is a pleasure to scan through it for stories I might have missed at times of low pressure but as an everyday working tool it gets laborious.

However, it does work very nicely across the platforms which is something that I wish Flipboard would do.

Dave Winer, a major developer of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) which is the technology at the back of GR, is not sorry to see it go for a couple of reasons.

For a start he, “Didn’t trust the idea of a big company like Google’s interests being so aligned with mine that I could trust them to get all my news.”

And also, “I didn’t think the mailbox approach to news was right. Who cares how many unread items there are. I like the river of news approach.”

So, soon to be bereft of being able to process my news in rapid and easy manner, does anyone have any suggestions for what I could use instead? This time around I won’t mind paying because I do want a say.

Dragon to Teach Start-up Hatchlings How to Fly at Final Exponential Event

The final Exponential, an NUI Galway funded event which allows the public to meet start-up founders, students, techies and entrepreneurs in a fun and casual way, will take place Upstairs at Kelly’s Bar on Tuesday, 19 March at 7.30pm. Guest speaker for the final will be Barry O’Sullivan, Senior Vice President at Cisco Systems and one of the new “Dragons” on RTÉ’s Dragon’s Den show.

Over the past four months, Exponential has given hundreds of students the opportunity to meet some of Ireland’s technology start-up companies and innovative entrepreneurs, to share ideas, and to learn how some NUI Galway graduates started their own business, right out of college.

The final event will centre around a “fireside chat” with one of Ireland’s top technology leaders, Barry O’Sullivan. As well as his role as SVP at Cisco, he is a technology investor and co-founder of the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), a network of Irish and Irish American technology leaders.

Some of the topics for discussion on the night will include Barry’s take on how he found the whole Dragon’s Den experience, how start-up companies should go about getting funding, and some advice for people on what to do, and not to do when starting with their business model.

Throughout the night, students and other attendees will be able to interact with other start-up company founders, speak to potential employers, and learn what it takes to develop a business idea, form a team, raise finance, set up and run a company. Those who already have a novel idea for a product or business can share their idea and get advice and feedback from fellow students and other entrepreneurs.

This is a free event, open to all, but you do need to register at http://exponential4.eventbrite.com/ or via the Exponential website at http://exponential.ly/.

Exponential is a project undertaken as part of the NUI Galway/Students’ Union EXPLORE initiative. Further details on this initiative are available at http://www.su.nuigalway.ie/explore/.

Are Online Gambling Sites Getting an Easy Ride?

Many tears will be shed, fingernails chewed, hands sat on and champagne bottles opened this week as much of the nation turns its attention to the Cheltenham festival. It’s probably the biggest week of the year for the horse racing fraternity, but it’s also the biggest bumper event for the multi-million euro online gambling industry.

Despite the damage caused to many people’s lives by gambling, online and other forms of betting are constantly promoted in Ireland, and the Taoiseach even celebrated the success of the industry by opening Paddy Power’s new offices recently. It seems we’re being wowed by the boost it provides the economy and the jobs being created without considering the long term consequences the growth of this industry could have for society as a whole.

The Irish have always enjoyed a flutter on the races but we – as well as the rest of the world – are betting more than ever thanks largely to the emergence of online gambling. In 2003 the online gambling market was worth $7.4 billion, but since then has grown a staggering 483% into a market worth $35.8 billion in 2012. Gambling is also no longer the preserve of men hanging around smoky betting shops as anyone with access to the internet on a computer or mobile phone can now part with their hard earned cash with just a few clicks. Middle-aged housewives are almost as likely to be having a punt as the sports-crazed young male, thanks to the boom in online casinos and virtual bingo.

Larger versions of the growth of online gambling and Paddy Power online are available

As the market has grown, so too have the advertising budgets of the new multinational bookmaking companies. Not only are we subjected to ads for multiple betting platforms during the half time ads in football matches, but during the game live betting odds constantly scroll across the pitch side advertising hoardings.

Paddy Power – Ireland’s biggest bookmaker – is one of the few domestic companies flourishing in the recession. In 2003 its fledgling online business made a profit of €1.37 million on €185 million staked from punters. By the peak of the boom in 2007 that had risen to a €32 million profit based on €630 million staked, but amazingly since then despite the worsening economic conditions business has continued to boom. In 2012 the company took a staggering total of €2.1 billion in online bets in 2012 resulting in a €72.7 million profit which accounts for 62% of the firm’s overall profit. In the same period the number of online ‘active customers’ has increased from 29,000 in 2002 to more than 1.3 million in 2012. *

Now you can say that this is great and the company is boosting the economy and creating jobs at a very difficult time, but for a bookmaker to make money the punter has to be losing, and often the ones losing are those who can least afford to. The bookies, in much the same way as the drinks industry claim they want customers to ‘drink responsibly,’ say it’s not in their interest for people to lose badly but if all the customers were winning there wouldn’t be an industry. Although many will enjoy the buzz of a gamble this week, in a country where we already have a huge problem with alcohol addiction should we be doing a little more to discourage the growth of what could easily become another damaging national obsession?

* All financial figures quoted in this article do not include Sportsbet figures, an Australian firm acquired by Paddy Power in 2009.

Agent Based Models Offer Better Predictions

Statistical forecasting is a familiar technique where lots of data points are gathered and assessed. An aggregation is formed and the analysis of that aggregated information is used to predict everything from elections to global warming.

This method, as pioneered by W. Edwards Deming, was used as an industrial tool while working to help create a viable manufacturing industry, virtually from scratch, from amidst the burnt out wreckage of post-war Japan. Now, nearly all modern industry uses statistical probability in their manufacturing and engineering processes to great effect as long as precision is not confused with accuracy.

However, statistical approaches that are ideal for maximizing the performance of machines encounter serious issue when it comes to working with humans. That is because even when we are given a highly restricted amount of options from which to choose from it doesn’t follow that the optimal decision gets made. This source for unpredictably by itself not such a big deal with the involvement of the properly trained and competent people working in a team. But even within clearly defined parameters the possibility always exists that, even with good intentions and sound thinking, decisions can get made which could have disastrous consequences.

In any system where human are required to make a decision options and methodologies can vary from person. They can vary because of influences from environmental conditions and also in how the information presents itself.

Technology, through the use of robots, automated systems, and computerization has at every stage of its growing capability been used to take humans out of the industrial process but human involvement can never be eliminated.

Even in the well-resourced and vast global systems; commercial, political, military and environmental, it is the individual doing the unpredictable thing that can invalidate complex, deeply wrought models of statistical forecasting based on petabytes or more of data.

We know humans are unreliable. We all think it is wise to get a second opinion on important medical matters even if we have faith and ability in the training and competence of the doctor that we are dealing with. So, the question becomes, can we account for our unpredictability in predictable ways?

Michal Kosinski, Operations Director at the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre, thinks it is possible. In an article soon to be published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences he suggests that minor or incomplete digital information that exists about our individual selves when collated and aggregated with hundreds of thousands of people roughly like us can serve to make accurate predictions about what we will do next.

The testbed used for his theory was Facebook. Using a sample size of 58,000 and measuring just their activity using the Like button alone they were able to make predictions of such accuracy that the information, according to the researchers could be, “Worthwhile for advertisers.”

[NB: When the PNAS article is published Technology Voice will be covering the findings in greater detail.]


But the application of this work goes beyond selling stuff on a social network site. By being able to make predictions in the very area where predictive power is weakest could save us from all sorts of disasters. Apart from natural disasters nearly all catastrophes can be traced to human error of some sort.

The classic failure of statistical forecasting as a predictive tool was seen in the recent financial meltdown. Financial Services was, and still is, a massively data-ized industry. Yet the gazillion bits of intensely analyzed data and the resulting highly thought-through prognostications were rendered illusory when the economy disappeared.

The idea of econometrics as a trustworthy and reliable tool for policy-makers evaporated along with it. But this attitude only shows a lack of understanding on what the limits are on what can be gleaned from an approach that is based purely on statistical forecasting. The failure was not in the data but in how people used and interacted with (or ignored) the data.

However, by focusing on people are likely to do rather than what information on its own does we can perhaps model intensely complex systems such as economies in a far more realistic and useful manner.

Approaching the same issue from another angle is the research is taking place in what are called, agent-based models, which in turn have been developed from complexity theory, (the theory that enables companies to move things from A to B around the world but often, and counter-intuitively, not by the shortest route.) It looks very promising and the work being done by projects such as CRISIS – Complexity Research Initiative for Systemic InstabilitieS is beginning to attract wider attention and is receiving major funding.

The idea of developing agent-based models is to predict what human decision-makers in a given system will do. That agent could be a pilot in a plane, a manager tasked with a project or a customer picking up something from the supermarket on the way home from work. All humans in a system – all bringing their own rationales and temperament to the process.

Apart from the obvious benefit to marketers, being able to predict how people or individuals will make decisions in a given situation while working within the confines of a process or a system would help to reduce randomness and increase reliability.

However, it seems we now have the very odd situation where the abstracted you, which has been formulated by the aggregation of data derived in part or in whole by vasts number of people who are somewhat like you, is more likely to behave like you than the real you. Where’s Douglas Adams when you need him?

Social Media: A New Frontier for Researchers

Following a presentation I gave at the European Intersectoral Summit on Research and Innovation last month entitled ‘Engaging Citizens in Research and Innovation: Opportunities and Challenges Afforded by Social Media’, I was interviewed by Orlaith Finnegan from Digimind on this topic. A copy of the interview is below.

1) Can you start by telling us about your background and where your interest in social media comes from?

My background in social media started in 1998 when I set up a discussion forum to talk about a multiplayer computer game called Quake. This evolved into boards.ie, a company I co-founded with some fellow computer gamers in 2000, which is now Ireland’s largest general discussion forum and is part of Distilled Media.

Forums are the original social media on the Web, predating the term social media, but exhibiting the main feature of people connecting through shared “social objects” of interest – in our case, the original social object was the game we all played together and discussed on the forum.

Social media was pretty much just a hobby interest for me up until boards.ie became a major service, and also my connection grew through social software and social media becoming one of my main research areas when I joined DERI, a large Semantic Web research institute based in NUI Galway, Ireland. I also chaired the premier social media research conference, ICWSM, in Dublin last year.

2) You recently spoke at The European Intersectoral Summit on Research and Innovation 2013, on the importance of using social media to promote research and innovation to a wider audience. How has social media opened up opportunities to scientific researchers?

Social media is providing new opportunities for researchers to disseminate their research, but also for them to become aware of peers’ research, and to find interdisciplinary topics (through status updates from people in other disciplines) so as to explore possibilities for cross-domain collaboration. It doesn’t have to be just a paper that a researcher shares through social media – it could be a research presentation, an explanatory video, or a blog post about one’s work.

An interesting emerging topic in this space is something called Altmetrics which looks at how researchers are being “cited” and referred to through social media rather than through traditional paper references and citations. In fact, these are related, because if someone retweets your post about a slideset that in turn is a presentation you have given about an academic paper, that person or someone else who sees the retweet from that person may well cite your paper in their own academic work.

3) What advice would you give to those in the research community who are looking to reap the benefits of social media and engage with a wider audience?

For finding things, I would use a tool like TweetDeck or StreamGlider [I’m also a co-founder] to set up searches for keywords of interest, so you can keep abreast of both research and industry news on your research topics. I have a Twitter search set up for my research areas, e.g. “semantic web” OR “sem web” OR semanticweb OR semweb, and from that I can have a fair idea of what is going on in this space. It’s easier to keep track of a topic-specific search rather than dipping in and out of the streams of content coming from social sites. Also, join relevant groups on LinkedIn for your topic of interest, as again they are another great source of information from various perspectives, but also a place to talk about your own research.

But for engaging, there is a challenge to get noticed. Huberman, director of HP Social Labs, says that almost anything except attention can be manufactured as a commodity. So to get attention in the first place, the researcher has to think carefully about how they should phrase their message and who would they most like to get the attention of. Rather than regurgitating the title of an academic paper in a status update, how about phrasing a question that will draw (balanced) commentary if possible? Also, can you find some hubs or connectors in your topic who would be interested in sharing your message with their contacts? If it’s a blog post about your research, make sure to mention the leaders in this space (as you would do in an academic paper), and tell them about it via @mentions or even email when sending out your messages.

Timing of your message is also important. Just like any social media marketing, choosing the optimal time is key. I haven’t seen any studies to look at the best times to send out scientific research updates, but in general mid week after mid day is the best time for getting clicks. If you’re in the middle of meetings, you can use a scheduling tool like HootSuite to send it out at a pre-ordained time.

4) Many researchers are starting to use social media to surface important insights, to crowd source information and to analyse data. What do you think are the challenges presented by this new form of information retrieval and analysis?

There are some obvious challenges. The first is that most researchers tend to use data from Twitter, as they can’t get data from Facebook where there are more people. This is mainly because the Twitter API is more open, allowing you to access updates and networks for most users with public profiles, whereas on Facebook you only have access to your direct friends’ data via the API. The second issue is that it has recently been posited by Pew Research that Twitter is not as representative as previously thought, with opinion on Twitter sometimes differing from general public opinion, so some assumptions may be slightly off with respect to political analysis or policy opinions.

Having said that, for getting answers, social media is definitely an extremely valuable and rapid source of information. There’s no better way to crowd source a research idea, or to get insights into a problem you are having. For analysing data, again, being able to quickly draw on a swathe of people who can assist with a task is really useful for a researcher.

5) Can you give an example of who you think is using social media effectively to promote research and innovation?

If I was to pick out a few, I’d think of: MIT Technology Review, who do a great job covering emerging topics and whose social media stream is a combination of stories, staff updates and community-directed messages; William Gunn, head of academic outreach at Mendeley (@mrgunn on Twitter); Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc), covering social science and technology; the Irish Ben Goldacre, my colleague Brian Hughes, who writes “The Science Bit”, a blog that debunks pseudoscience with actual science.

Web Behaving Badly: Is the Internet Having a Negative Effect on Our Personalities?

Visit the comments section of any online publication or scroll down to the activity beneath a popular YouTube video and you’ll see the full spectrum of human emotion, often expressions of anger, aggression and vitriol. Then there is the dark side of the dark side of the Web: cyberbullying incidents that have, in the worst cases, contributed to the suicide of the victims involved, such as Irish teenagers Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley.

While anti-bullying campaigns are useful for raising awareness and encouraging the reporting of cyberbullying incidents, there is also research being done into why certain deviant behaviour appears to be intensified by virtue of taking place online. Dr John Suler is a professor of psychology at Rider University, New Jersey and specializes in cyberpsychology, which is the study of individual and group behaviour on the Web.

Suler’s paper titled ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’ – published in 2004 in the journal Cyberpsychology and Behaviour – approaches deviant or anti-social behaviour from the point of view of how safe or free an individual feels in an online setting to express opinions or engage with others in a way that they mightn’t necessarily do in a face-to-face situation. Essentially, this paper is the theory behind the feeling many of us have that some people are “brave” enough to be nasty on an online forum but would never say to a person standing in front of them.

Do all of us behave differently online? This depends on the person says Suler: “Some people online behave very similarly to the way they do in person. Some people may act quite differently.

“People who have underlying needs and emotions that need to be expressed, but cannot be expressed in their “real” life, will be especially tempted to do so online.”

Two of the concepts Suler uses to explain deviant behaviour online are dissociative anonymity and invisibility; it is much easier to be less inhibited when we feel that we can slip away unnoticed and unidentified. It sounds similar to when people get caught up in riots or become part of a group of football hooligans, I suggest to Suler.

“Sure, any situation in the ‘real’ world that involves anonymity and deindividuation (blending with the crowd) is one in which a person might lose their sense of individual responsibility and do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise,” he explains.

One of the most damaging forms of online behaviour is cyberbullying. Can the online disinhibition effect shed some light on what kinds of people engage in cyberbullying?

“Bullying, online or off, is almost always a displacement or acting out of underlying feelings of anger and helplessness.

“All of us might do some of this under the right conditions, but people with a history of abuse and impulsiveness are more likely to engage in this kind of acting out.”

Cyberbullying has an added element of audience. On social networks like Facebook, the victim’s network of friends are also exposed to this. “Unfortunately, there can be a ‘performance’ aspect to bullying in general. Bullies often like to impress people with their supposed strength, especially their minions,” explains Suler.

Generally speaking, he says that it is easier and more tempting for an individual to be anti-social online but it does come down to how restricted or inhibited that individual feels in an offline setting to begin with. There are, however, positive effects to feel less socially restricted online; Suler says that some researchers believe it may result in acts of generosity and altruism.

“One factor contributing to online disinhibition is the tendency to project one’s own thoughts and feelings into the somewhat ambiguous interactions we have online – ambiguous because, especially in text communication, we can’t see or hear other people. As a result, some people might project feelings of sympathy into how they experience others online.”

Check out watchyourspace.ie for more information, short videos and lots of tips about cyberbullying.