Bon voyage, Pier Review

We’ve just completed and sent away to the publisher via our agent the text that is to become the book Pier Review.

We signed with Summersdale a few months ago, and they plan to release the finished thing in the spring next year.

There will no doubt be edits, but it’s there — and had packed a lot more into it than we thought possible. The subtitle has changed to “A Road Trip in Search of the Great British Seaside”, which is broader.  Here’s the current rough take on the blurb:


Fifty-six piers. Two weeks. One eccentric road trip.

Before the seaside of their youth disappears forever, two friends from the landlocked Midlands embark on a hare-brained journey to see all the surviving pleasure piers in England and Wales. With a clapped-out car, and not enough cash, Jon and Danny recruit Midge, a man they barely know, to be their driver, even though he has to be back in two weeks to sign on… Taking turns to tell their madcap story, Jon and Danny invite us to join them as they take a funny and nostalgic look at Britishness at the beach, amusement in the arcades, and friendship on the road.




Some recent writing

Pluralistic ignorance and the modern condition – on social phycology and group behaviour.

Ol’ Red Eyes: Marxist TV reviews – a tumblr full of the Marxist television writing I’ve been commissioned to do recently.

Den Pen’s Shoes – on people who pretend to be dead authors on Twitter.

An interview with Stephen Duffy of the Lilac Time.

Plenty of stuff collected on Pop and Politics, including this on the death of the centrist protest vote.

Reviewing Saltburn Pier

Forty two piers in to our circumnavigation of the coast of England and Wales we arrived bleary in Saltburn-by-the-sea one morning. Luckily the breathtaking coastline and the warming sun perked us up. Luckily as it was the only time we were captured on video during the trip. It’s for and, we think, going to be part of a documentary about the pier for its 100th anniversary.

Based on current estimates we’re about halfway or just over to finishing writing the book. Then the edits and long search for a publisher begin in earnest. If you’d like to know more then is the place.

The future of publishing

If there’s one thing that fills the web more than cat pictures it’s ruminations on the state, past or future of newspapers and magazines. The truth is old models are failing and no-one really knows. Rupert Murdoch is trying paywalls, which is a possibility for publications with existing audiences and strong brands, but what can a start-up publication do?

In my own small way I’m experimenting — this week sees the launch of a—yes—paper-based magazine that Danny Smith and I have been working on for the best part of six months. This is what it looks like:

Pile of Dirty Bristow magazines

Things we’ve worked out so far:

  • Print is really expensive at small scale, but it’s still much easier to get people excited to work for and to sell than web content.
  • Brand is all important: we’ve gone for wilfully obtuse and arty—we think that’s a sector we can sell to.
  • A clean break between web and print means that you need to create lots of reasons for, and a fair amount of, ‘related but not similar’ content. Content that reaches the same audience, but isn’t seen as either a free or a second-rate version of what you’re asking payment for in print.
  • A new thing needs its networks—we’ve tried to make sure that everyone that can feel ownership of the magazine finds it easy to talk about and share stuff about it with their networks.
  • If you’ve got a brand, related events can make a fair bit of money—but they’re an additional risk. We’re operating at small scale, but publishers have tried this — Wrox Press when I worked for it’s web design offshoot was trying to maximise return on brand by conferences, it didn’t bring in enough money to save the company. It seems easier, however, to sell a specific happening via the social web than it does an ongoing concept.
  • No-one’s going to pay to get past the paywall on a Twitter account—well only about ten people in my experience.

As well as being exhausting and a great hobby, there’s been a fair few opportunities to try out different promotional web-tricks that I’m going to use again. Issue two shouldn’t take so long.

We’ve won a Webby (almost)

While it’s not made the final shortlist of five, there’s still a bit to be proud of as Twitpanto has been made an Honoree (US spelling) in the 2010 Webby Awards in the Net Art category.

As that shortlist includes big budget projects like BBC Blast, I don’t think we’ve done badly seeing as it was one crash hot web guy (that’s Matt, not me) and 20 odd (very) Twitterers on a cold December afternoon (which you can relive, of course, here).

In speech mode, we couldn’t have done it so well without the support of the Birmingham Hippodrome — or the hundreds of people that joined in during the play. Sincere thanks for going along with it.

Quite interesting timing as the RSC’s Twitter Shakespeare project launched this week with much fanfare, in some ways it’s a logical step on from Twitpanto and it’ll be interesting to see how it’s sheer scale affects the experience (a slight overreach of scale was one of the problems I felt with this second panto).

To read all about both Twitter panto experiences there are a couple of long and detailed posts here.

Twitpanto 2009 — The Sequel

After proving that online pantomime could work last year, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to repeat the trick — but eventually the lure of doing it again with the experience of how it went before proved too much. It does take a long time to organise, and I wanted to do something more complex with the viewing platform which required more tech skills than I had, so I was very grateful to the Birmingham Hippodrome for their support in making it happen.

The structure of the pantomime was very similar to Cinderella last year — there was a cast, who had ‘motivations’ (character bios) and a script to follow (or improvise around), and a private “director” account for prompts and the like during the performance. Most of the differences were to do with how the medium (Twitter) has evolved over 2009:

The main difference is it’s reach — here’s an Alexa (usual caveats apply, Alexa is a skewed sample to both the US and to ‘techies’) graph of PageViews for the Twitter website (remember also that a huge number of Twitter users very rarely have cause to visit the site): - Site Info from Alexa

With more users comes both the problems of noise and an altered demographic — it wasn’t possible to rely on as much shared knowledge of either how Twitter works or shared culture if we wanted to reach any more than the same people.

Many people found following Cinderella (last years #twitpanto) hard and were happy to use Matthew Somerville‘s Roomatic hack which highlighted cast members within the stream — but I felt that this would still be too hard to read this year. So, while it was still possible to follow the hashtag any way people liked, I planned a version that separated those ‘on stage’ more completely using two different windows. Here’s my mock up:


The changing nature of Twitter also presented issues for casting, I found difficulty balancing keeping the cast open to as many people as possible, while making sure that they were people who would ‘get’ how to do it difficult. Due to this, and also the possibility of a collision with the Hippodrome’s offline panto (which due to real-world rehearsal commitments didn’t happen) I wrote a scene that would contain characters from other pantomimes, so people could be in it without having much impact on the story.

With increased interest in being in the cast (people were clamouring from May) , I wanted a panto with a good number of characters, but it was also imperative that the plot was very well known. Twitter isn’t a great medium for establishing scene or location, nor one where curtains can be drawn between scenes — there’s also the conceptual problem that there can be no secrets from one character to the other (we ask for suspension of disbelief, unless it’s a good plot point). For that, and the obvious men in tights gags, I chose Robin Hood.

The script this year was written to be less in-jokey than last years (where I not only knew the audience better, but wasn’t attempting to get a wide audience), which was more of a struggle but — with a good chuck of help from Danny Smith — it turned out I think to be a good deal funnier. In fact it’s readable and enjoyable out of context, if I do say so myself.

What I was more sure of this year is that Twitpanto is a collaborative and open piece of art — played out online — and as such the live, free and interactive nature of it is the main thrust. There were over the Christmas period attempts to do “real time” twittering of both Home Alone and It’s A Wonderful Life  — interesting, but too tightly scripted to be anything than transposing to a new medium.

The ‘set’ worked, after a few Twitter hiccups, brilliantly — and even more impressively Matthew modified it after the event to  allow a replay — it’s the iPlayer for Twitter and very clever. You can watch Twitpanto ‘as live’ here.

It proved a little difficult for the cast to use, I’d advised them to use the Twitter website and keep refreshing, as it wasn’t quite fast enough for them to wait for their cues on anything using the Twitter API. There were also some early web issues for a few of the cast, which contributed to the rocky start.

I also had to stop myself from being overly directorial, I felt at times that some of the improvisation was making it difficult for people to find their cues — disappointingly for me also muddying some of the jokes. But all in all the cast were brilliant in staying in character and interacting with the whole messy experience. It was especially difficult for some with only one or two lines to stay quiet for the duration, in retrospect fewer, bigger, parts work better.

Nudging, which is really all you want to attempt on the social web, is a difficult theatrical directing style to achieve, here’s what Joanna Geary (whose involvement got us a bit of press from The Times) tweeted:

Twitter / Joanna Geary: @alexhughes has just perfe ...

It was  better attended than 2008 — the #twitpanto hashtag  was one of Twitter’s top ten trending phrases during the “performance” — very unusual for a UK based topic to trend these days. There were over 1,500 tweets containing it between 3:30pm and 4:30pm (1,500 is the limit that Twitter’s search facility can recall on any one search).

Whether the model can work outside the structured chaos of the pantomime I’m not sure, but happy to try (maybe  a Shakespeare comedy…), but it’s certainly the most innovative drama experience on the web.

Thanks again to all the cast (find ’em here) all at the Hippodrome (follow them here), Libby (who contributed last minute lute) and all that participated.