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.

Twitpanto 2009

Last year I wrote and “directed” (what I believe to have been) the first proper piece of drama on Twitter — Twitpanto. I still think it’s the only time that attempts to integrate theatre with the social web have gone further than people copying and pasting their lines — or awful “chose what happens next” video series. It worked really well, and this year — on Friday 18th at 3:30pm — it’s happening again.

Thanks to support from the Birmingham Hippodrome we’ve got an improved version of Matthew Somerville‘s “set” for people to watch on.  This time it goes a step further that colouring to identify cast from audience — with a stage and stalls. There’s even iCal reminders built in, if you head over too early (go on, head over there now).

The involvement of the Hipp has allowed me to spend more time on the development work than last year, but has made thinking around it a little more challenging — did we need to build in moderation to the stream? Did we need celebrity guests? How much more explanation do “new” Twitterers need?

So far we’ve gone with moderation of a sort, the ability to remove tweets from the audience section (although there wasn’t a single tweet that I’d have removed last year) and not worried about star power — although Joe Pasquale and fellow real-life panto star Ray Quinn have helped with the promotion.

Birmingham Hippodrome :: News

A lot of last year’s cast are returning, including Tom Watson who’s going to play the evil Sheriff of Nottingham. How will it go? Tune in to the #twitpanto hashtag on Friday.

The Big City Plan – Part 1 – Constructive Activism

Birmingham is getting a real reputation for being a place where social media doesn’t only happen, it organises and does things that are intended to create social good. From the Social Media Surgeries (developed from a concept used by Pete Ashton by Nick Booth to something almost the whole of the blogging community takes part in) to specially created social enterprises like We Share Stuff (which aims to use social media to help with digital inclusion) there seems to be a collective aim to use the technologies to help as many people as possible. The reputation has spread wide enough for Swedish journalist Axel Andén to come here just to see what we get up to and our motivations.

One of the largest projects has been our volunteer-created online consultation for Birmingham City Council’s Big City Plan — the work which Axel called “constructive activism”.

Birmingham Big City Plan
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

The Big City Plan is one part of a larger plan by the council for the future of Birmingham, but it has been heavily promoted as being about “the next twenty years” of the City Centre (and by extension has an impact on the rest of the city). Over Christmas and stretching into early February 2009 the official consultation period on the draft plan (referred to by the council as the “Work In Progress Document”) happened — there were high profile events, advertising hoardings, taxi advertising and even (which I can’t really understand) awards awarded to a draft plan.

Yet there wasn’t really an online version that worked in a good and social way — which lead myself and a group of bloggers to spend huge amounts of our once free time creating a comment-able version of the document that also used plain English.

The Big City Talk site (still live although comments are closed) collected comments and passed them through the official channels, and managed to work without unduly antagonising the Council — whose work it tried to help (although by its existence was perhaps implicitly criticising).

Big City Plan Talk
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

I think that the exercise was a success, it has been well received online, perhaps as expected, but also been mentioned in the Cabinet Office’s Power of Information report.

Since the creation, process and reasoning are perhaps interesting for differing reasons I’ve decided to blog about the whole thing in a series of posts:

      Which I’ll post in order as I write them.

      BiNS — where too much of my time goes

      Birmingham: It’s Not ShitBirmingham: It’s Not Shit has been serving up the not-so-ugly truth about Britain’s second city since the time of its failed European Capital of Culture bid in 2003. It continues to attract visitors and publicity, and has become one of the foremost online presences in the area – offering news and comment to as wide an audience as it can. It maintains a community element with groups on Flickr, commenting on the blog, and a long-running forum. The latest version is built on WordPress and BBPress.