By @SimonCocking. We recently read the Dark Net, so it made sense to have a chat with it’s intelligent and entertaining author Jamie Bartlett, who also recently spoke at the Science Gallery in Dublin too (see video below). 

What is your background briefly?

If you mean early background, then pretty ordinary. Comprehensive school, hadn’t ever thought I’d go to university – not something me or my friends did. But I did well at school and thought it might be fun.

I worked for a while in international development for a while; and then on to doing research for a think tank, specialising in political extremism. (9/11 was the reason I became interested in that).

Was it a logical progression to what you do now?

Yes. Because I noticed how radical movement and groups were usually early adopters of technology and very clever users of it. They usually have to be. And so I became interested in what we could learn from people on the fringes. In my work on political extremism I always noticed how when you spend time with these people you get a very different view of the story to that you see in the news. And so I wanted to do the same with online fringe groups too.

In your summary to the Dark Net book you discuss how you came to feel many issues were more shades of grey than you had expected them to be. Two years on have your views changed or evolved about this?

Not really. It’s strange that many of the subjects I wrote about – drugs markets, internet privacy, trolling, illegal pornography and so on – have remained in the news. But certainly there are new trends, as there always are, that I’d not anticipated. The growth of Bitcoin was fairly predictable, but the dramatic use of dark net hidden services for stolen data was not something I expected. People always find new ways to surprise and shock you. And I’m sure it will in future.

Social media has risen in terms of numbers using it, and engaging with it. At the same time some sites like LinkedIn have become a little devalued by too much content being pushed too frequently. How do you find extract / find good content in the middle of all the noise?

This I think is becoming one of the key challenges for journalists. There’s a whole new world of available information, data, stories. The problem is no longer one of scarcity (finding a story) but of deluge (finding the right story from the noise). I think journalists need more than ever to both understand internet culture, and also software that can help make sense of it. Every journalist should understand how APIs work, search engine algorithms work, data analytics, and so on. Whenever I see, for example, journalists saying ‘Twitter users reacted furiously’ or subject xxx is trending on Facebook. I think: really How many? How do you know? What does that really mean?

What social media trends are you excited by?

I’m enjoying watching how Pokémon is evolving, and the bizarre outrage and worry it seems to be causing. In the nineties: ‘children are wasting their lives, in front of the computer’; and now it’s: ‘children are wasting their lives, walking around outside with their friends.’ I’m excited and terrified in equal measure with the rise of social networks based on block chain technology that will be more or less impossible to regulate and censor. But I’m also noticing the human trends: people getting worried about privacy, journalists slowly wondering if large social media companies have too much power, the possibility that people are becoming trapped in echo chambers and filter bubbles online.

What will your next book be about? When is it out?

Next book is about radical political movements. In a similar vein, I’ve been following lots of (very different) political and social movements that want to change the world quite dramatically. It’s been a lot of fun, and very eye opening. Many more surprising, and, as ever in life, more shades of grey than expected! Out Spring 2017 – so I’d better get back to work!

What advice would you give to new users of social media looking to create relevant and engaging content online?

There’s already a lot of advice out there about what content is engaging, sticky, shareable et cetera: witty, use images or videos, simple messages, post often and make it relevant to the day’s news, and so on. But I always prefer a far simpler one: just try to be yourself. I always find people enjoy content that is not obviously carefully press released or inauthentic brand content. People can see it a mile off.

Online /offline, work / life, how do you manage this challenge?

Like most people, with difficulty. Like most people, I check social media far more than I should, and find myself in a Facebook hole 30 minutes later thinking ‘what on earth am I doing?!’ And like a growing number of people, I try to have some time without being online. Work / Life? When you’re a writer, and if you really enjoy the things you do, the boundary between work and life and very blurred, since I actually enjoy working on these subjects in my ‘free time’. Sad eh?

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