Archives for October 2011

Give an Hour and introduce someone to the wonders of the web

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Zoe E Breen Zoe E Breen | 10:15 UK time, Friday, 28 October 2011

Give an Hour and introduce someone to the wonders of the web

According to research carried out for the BBC, 86% of people in the UK who know someone who doesn't use the internet, say they are 'quite likely' or 'very likely' to help someone get online.

Everyone reading this is likely to know something about using computers and the internet. Perhaps you have tips on how to use a mouse, search for a website or shop online. You don’t need to be a web expert to share your skills with someone else, which is why Give an Hour is asking you to give up 60 minutes of your time to do just that.

Fiona Bruce is among the stars encouraging people to Give an Hour and help someone new to the internet to pursue their passion. Be it gardening, cookery or sport, the Give an Hour website is a great place to get learners ‘hooked’ on what the web has to offer.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash Installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

A host of famous faces explain how they pursue their passions online.


Former athlete Colin Jackson shows off the BBC Sport website and reveals how he checks out the competition online. You can also download Colin’s guide to 2012 Olympics websites.


Top chef and Something for the Weekend presenter Simon Rimmer explains how he uses search to find recipes and demonstrates how the BBC recipe finder can suggest a meal based on the ingredients in your fridge.


Actress Lesley Manville talks about the importance of health and staying well, her video provides a guide to the NHS Life Check website. There’s also a guide to using this tool alongside Lesley’s video.


Money expert Alvin Hall is an internet evangelist and suggests how you can use the web to take charge of your finances. You can also follow the step-by-step guide to managing your money.

Family history

Actor Larry Lamb introduces a downloadable guide to researching your family tree. In two parts, the guide includes tips on searching census data, tracing marriage records and a jargon buster.

What else?

You’ll also find resources to inspire learners with a passion for dance (with Angela Rippon), nature and wildlife with Bill Oddie, gardening with Carol Klein and staying in touch with Julia Bradbury.

In a heartfelt message, Bill Oddie also urges those offline not to alienate themselves and to have a go at getting online.

Visit the Give an Hour website.

Download the Give an Hour volunteer handbook packed with tips on making the most of your hour.

Zoe Breen is a Senior Producer on WebWise - a beginner's guide to using the internet.

WebWise news report - Online discount sites

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 11:32 UK time, Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Group-discount websites have been in the news this week with the US site and market leader Groupon launching a roadshow to attract new investors. In the last two years there has been a surge in collective buying websites, which offer consumers large savings on anything from haircuts and massages to MOTs and cleaners.

Group-buying works by sites agreeing with a retailer to sell a large number of their products at a discount - meaning the seller has a broader client base, while the buyer saves money. As such sites are now getting millions of hits a day, being featured on them is seen as a great advertising opportunity for small businesses.

But as a BBC News report demonstrated, retailers can feel cheated because money-saving clients tend not to be brand-loyal. For example, if I buy a cheap haircut on a discount site, rather than head back to the same hairdresser, I'll go back to the discount site and see what other salons are offering good deals.

Collective buying is the cheap thrill of the consumer world. Often the sites tell you to consider buying things you wouldn't ordinarily get, yet still leave you feeling like you've made a saving. Deals tend to run for 24 hours, forcing users to make quick decisions. If you're after a treat or in fact wanted a certain item anyway, the sites can be a great way of saving money, but it's important to look into exactly what you're getting for your cash.

On one group-buying site, I paid about £15 for an evening at a London club that promised cocktails, a three course meal and a neck and shoulder massage. It felt like a no-brainer, until I turned up, only to be herded from room to room with the other clients like cattle, sitting through embarrassingly poor entertainment and waiting three hours to be served cold food. The cocktail was watered down and the neck and shoulder massages only made it to a quarter of the room, where suited city men ogled a young woman as she pouted and hair-flicked her way through a three minute massage, collecting her tip at the end. The voucher was cheap and so was the experience.

What I failed to do was find out exactly what I was getting for my money. For £15 it's easy to think you can't go wrong, but an evening in front of Masterchef with a bottle of wine would have been a far better use of my time.

However, as an online discount addict, I've had mostly great experiences. Massages and meal vouchers are definitely things to keep an eye out for, but not if you wouldn't ordinarily purchase them.

Things to remember when buying from a discount site:

  • DO read all the small print. If a salon is open at the evenings and weekends, check that the voucher is also valid at those times. Some businesses set aside windows for people with vouchers, so don't get caught out with a discount you don't have the time to use.
  • DO shop around. Just because something is on a discount site, it doesn't necessarily mean you won't find it cheaper elsewhere.
  • DON'T settle for a shoddy experience. Just because something is cheap, it doesn't mean you should put up with a bad product or service. Make sure you complain and negotiate a refund.
  • DON'T think you're stuck with a deal. There is a 7 day cooling off period, so if you're not sure about a purchase, contact the discount site and get a refund.
  • DO read the BBC WebWise guide to buying online.

Read the BBC News report on group-buying.
Get consumer guides and advice from Watchdog.

The fear of missing out

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Rhodri Marsden Rhodri Marsden | 09:20 UK time, Friday, 21 October 2011

Even the most generously spirited of human beings have the capacity for envy. Morrissey once wrote a song called "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful", and while the former Smiths frontman was exaggerating for comic effect - at least, I hope he was - there's certainly a grain of truth in it; it's often hard to receive news of a friend jetting off on a month-long holiday, or receiving an unexpected windfall, or meeting the partner of their dreams, without thinking "Oh… that's nice for them and everything, but I wish it were happening to me."

Social media is exacerbating these often suppressed feelings, according to psychologists - enough, in fact, for the resulting state of mind to be given an acronym: FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO could range from distress surrounding major life events such as getting married and having children (or, rather, not doing either), to short-term worry over the fact that, say, other people seem to be attending a party to which you were never invited. Facebook, Twitter and latterly Google+ are undoubtedly valuable social tools that connect us with our friends and keep us informed about goings on, but if you're sitting in front of a computer and they've just announced that they're sipping a cool drink on the banks of the River Danube, you'd surely be permitted a twinge of jealousy. The trouble is, the more we're connected, the more these twinges can mount up.

The twin compulsions we have in this social media age to tell friends what we're up to while also reading about their activities can pose a constant philosophical question: Have I chosen the wrong way to spend my time? Answering that question isn't helped by the fact that people generally feel the urge - quite understandably - to project a very positive persona online that might not reflect how they're actually feeling.

When I was young, my parents would tell me that "it's not a popularity contest" if I ever complained about having to do something that made me feel awkward or self-conscious. But social media, by definition, is a popularity contest; the first thing you see on these sites is a tally count of how many friends or followers people have. So everyone is on something of a personal PR drive, telling all and sundry how great everything is; this might not be the case, but it's almost impossible for us not be affected by it. It sometime feels like a race to become the most visibly satisfied - but is it making us happy?

As our connections with each other via the internet become stronger, there's a mental adjustment that needs to be made to cope with that new experience of being in each other's faces all the time. It's surely possible to turn FOMO on its head, to transform it from a negative phenomenon and use it as an inspiration instead; see people achieving great things, and think "Yes! I can do that!" After all, we make our own success in life, and sitting indoors and feeling uncharitable about other people is spectacularly unproductive. But if you do happen to be feeling a bit low, it might be worth steering clear of tweets and Facebook posts by people you suspect might currently be blissfully happy.

WebWise news report - Voice recognition software

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:13 UK time, Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Voice recognition software - an assistant with selective hearing

No longer just a cool add-on, voice recognition apps are once again in the news, but this time as potential personal assistants for phone users.

I first became both aware and in awe of speech recognition technology about 15 years ago when my computer-whizz brother attempted to install what we thought would be revolutionary software on our home PC. For me the idea that something without a brain could understand language was ludicrous, yet as a then rather slow typist, I was equally excited at the prospect of bypassing the keyboard altogether and simply instructing my computer to write my schoolwork. I was however bitterly disappointed - and I wasn't the only one.

As BBC technology guru Rory Cellan-Jones explains, the legal and medical industries had high hopes for speech recognition, with busy professionals expecting to dictate letters to their computers, rather than their secretaries. The reality was however that their assistants were still needed to correct the sentences that had been lost in the process.

Smartphone giants Apple and Google have both featured voice recognition software for several years, but they're now hoping to demonstrate how it can move beyond a party trick, to a feature that can be fully integrated into daily life.

If you pine for days gone by of servitude and serfdom, and just want to tell something what to do, this may be the app for you. When I command my app to "Search BBC WebWise" for example, I'm taken to the correct search results page. "Navigate to London Bridge" is also recognised perfectly. But as a timesaving app for say, sending a text, making sure I speak slowly in my best RP voice isn't exactly quicker than pressing my messages icon.

The things that take the most time tend to require more thought, and knowing exactly what you want to say in an email without seeing the words on the screen is no easy task. Saying things like 'OK' or 'See you there' is straightforward enough, but consider the effect of different accents, place names and surnames, not to mention changing your mind about what's just been written, and suddenly the perfect time-saving speech recognition app seems a very long way off.

Here are just some of the results I got when I tried to say "BBC WebWise is a beginner's guide to the internet" in a voice recognition email. Some of the results were too rude to publish:

  • BBC website is again is god's to be on tonight.
  • BBC web, why is it again is sky to the internet.
  • Baby see but why is a the game tired to the internet!

Read about Charlie Swinbourne's week spent monitoring speech-generated subtitles.

WebWise news report - Are you feeling ticked off?

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 12:17 UK time, Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Airlines could be amongst the companies hardest hit by EU legislation approved this week, which bans websites from using pre-ticked boxes.

The pre-ticked box has become a staple of the online consumer world, with customers easily finding themselves lumbered with extra charges after failing to spot that they had unwittingly signed up to buy an extra product. Travel insurance, for example, is often added on at the checkout stage of certain sites, with the onus on the consumer to opt out of paying for it by unchecking a box.

Under the EU's new Consumer Rights Directive, not only will pre-ticked boxes be banned, but consumers will receive greater refund rights, while businesses are required to provide better 'cost transparency' so online shoppers are saved from paying charges they weren't made aware of before placing an order. Websites will also no longer be able to add extra credit card surcharges above the cost of actually processing the payment.

The internet was previously a hotbed for hidden charges, scams and false advertising, but over the last few years the real world has started to catch up with the virtual one and websites are having to meet increasingly higher standards. At the heart of consumer online niggles are unsubstantiated claims and false advertising.

In March, the Advertising Standards Authority extended its remit to include companies advertising in non-paid-for space, as well as paid-for space. This means that if a business makes an unsubstantiated claim on their own site or even Twitter and Facebook, they could face an ASA ruling. When we consider how many issues still arise over television advertising – and how few channels there are compared to websites – bringing the online world up to standard will take a long time, if indeed it ever happens. But this week's approval of EU proposals is at least another reminder that, when it comes to that cyber world, we're not entirely on our own and there are authorities to turn to that can fight the web user's corner.

In the meantime, while websites get their act together, which won't be until late 2013 when the legislation becomes UK law, if you are shopping online, make sure your eye is constantly on the sub-total figure. I like to have a pen and paper handy to jot down prices so that when it comes to the final checkout screen, I have a good idea of what I should be paying – and then can spot any boxes that might have been checked for me.

To learn more about their work, go to the Advertising Standards Authority website.

Or, if you think you've been ripped off, and would quite like Gloria Hunniford on the case, get in touch with Rip off Britain.

For help shopping online, follow the BBC WebWise guide.

WebWise news report - BT broadband outage

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 15:41 UK time, Wednesday, 5 October 2011

In an ironic twist, mobile phones may have saved the day for many of BT's landline customers affected by the service provider's broadband outage on Monday, the result of a power failure at an exchange in the Midlands.

BT kept users up-to-date via its Twitter account when hundreds of thousands of its customers were left without broadband coverage. While many struggled to get through on BT's telephone helpline, others were able to get reassurance through the social networking site, which they could access thanks to the data service on their mobile phones.

Residential customers were without broadband for little more than a couple of hours, but businesses faced longer delays, with many reporting lost revenue as a result of the outage. Many modern businesses have come to depend on high-speed internet access and the loss of something as simple as email can have serious consequences such as loss of orders.

Large companies such as Vodafone, Microsoft and Virgin are increasingly turning to real-time social media sites to interact with existing customers and to woo potential customers. Customer care on Twitter is an increasingly popular way for for companies to add a personal touch to the customer experience, often tweeting users to check that their problems have been resolved. In the 'biography' box, too, they give the first names of the staff working that day, which helps cultivate a more friendly online atmosphere with customers.

Facebook is used a lot less for customer care. As a medium it lacks the potential for interactivity and immediate responses that characterises Twitter. Most corporate sites on Facebook will simply be ones which offer you the chance to 'like' them in exchange for regular updates on product information. Some companies such as Yahoo! and Virgin do have pages for their customer care centres but the actual business of answering questions and addressing complaints is done with phone numbers and links to other sites. Including of course Twitter.

Check out last week's news piece on smart phones and mobile data.

For more on social media, take the BBC WebWise Social Media Basics course.

21st Century Etiquette

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Hajar Javaheri Hajar Javaheri | 14:59 UK time, Monday, 3 October 2011

There's no subtle way to write this so I'm just going to come out with it: technology is making us rude.

I know I'm not the only one to have sat in a pub with friends only to see several of them getting out their phones to check their social networks. I, admittedly, am one of those friends and it's becoming a bad habit. Yet unless I'm in the middle of a conversation, no one seems to think it rude and, according to a report by Ofcom in August, I'm part of the 51% of adult smartphone users who use their phone while out socialising. It seems impolite, but then years ago the same might have been said of phones at the dinner table - answered or not.

Now though, even the Emily Post etiquette foundation, which promotes the values of the 20th century American expert, deems it perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself from the table to take a call.

Manners have always changed, but the internet has sparked a dramatic cultural shift in acceptable social behaviour. The mobile, with its bigger screen and data service, is now the television in the room. It doesn't matter if it's the football or CBeebies that's on, somehow we're just drawn to screens, and with flashy portable ones simply aching to give us information, checking our phones is becoming an addiction. The Debrett's Netiquette guide stresses that technology is a way of enhancing your life, not a substitute for living, yet just a day without a phone or the internet can leave the heaviest users twitching with the fear that they're missing out.

To my shame, my phone is the first thing I see in the morning - and not just to switch the alarm off. Ofcom tells me I'm not alone in this as 38% of smartphone-using adults do the same. Each morning several minutes go by as I run through my emails and social networks before finally turning my head to my partner, only to see he's doing the same. Most etiquette guides will tell you that how you use technology when in company all depends on how it affects those around you. So, although it may seem worryingly addictive behaviour, it's not necessarily rude. Perhaps it's just a sign of the times - or maybe I need a single-purpose alarm clock.

It seems the pressure of politeness has now transferred to the person being interrupted by technology as they sympathetically say 'no, go ahead' when their companion needs to send a text or reply to an important email about which lawnmower to buy. Immediate communication has become so expected that there's an understanding that the person on the other end of the line simply can't be kept waiting. Whether we're at work, with friends, or brushing our teeth, we've ramped up the pace of communication to the point that we feel we're being rude by not replying to someone instantly.

For all the loud personal phone calls on trains that disturb strangers and the social media addiction when in company, it's that staple of modern technology, the humble email, that can cause the most problems through miscommunication, misunderstanding and altogether avoiding the good old fashioned spoken word.

Several months ago, the case of the woman who emailed her son's fiancée her grievances over manners garnered column inches and the opinions of many an etiquette expert. But what was agreed upon by most was that sending an email rather than talking was in fact the rudest thing of all.

Polite, professional emails are the lifeblood of good businesses. They help you organise get-togethers, send links or catch up with overseas friends, but they are not the way to tell someone you're annoyed with them.

For some, emails have become no more than an electronic diary, used to scrawl down one's entire thoughts and, thinking that everything makes perfect sense, pressing 'send' without a thought of the possible consequences. For this reason the medium is increasingly finding its way to the epicentre of the family row, where each party struggles to understand the sender's exact meaning amongst the mental regurgitation that rests on the screen.

A word of advice: if, like the would-be-mother-in-law, you feel the need to tell someone just what you think of them, have the courtesy to say it to their face, or, if you simply have to get it down in an email, remember that the 'save to drafts' button is your friend. Save it, sleep on it, read it back with a fresh perspective, and delete. Then pick up the phone and have a conversation. But not on the train.


Read Hajar's account of her own mobile adventures on a train.

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