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.

Birmingham Music Map

I’m a great supporter of the Birmingham Music Archive, and have long been discussing types of social media and other work that could contribute to their archiving of Birmingham based music and related culture. One idea I came up with was to map people’s music emotional attachments. Not just musicians or venues or bands, but mangers, personalities, shops, companies, collectives and hang-outs. We opened a public Google Map and asked people to contribute. That map is still open for contributions, but the first result of it is now produced — an A1 poster of memories:

Birmingham Music Map

It contains over 200 records, placed on the map by contributors. Zoom in, or see a detail:

It’s available to buy on my Zazzle store, with my other map-based artworks.

Hyperlocal News Wire

Here’s a pipe I’ve created that attempts to marshal the content from hyperlocal blogging in Birmingham and allow people only to subscribe to feeds that interest them. This is a piece of investigation and experimentation that I’ve been able to find the time to do thanks to Will Perrin and his hyperlocal blogging initiative Talk About Local. Will also helped define the reason why it would be useful to do — for what he called “lazy journalists”.

Lazy here is used in the same way that it might be used — in praise — of a computer programmer; that is, lazy means you’ll work hard at setting yourself up right to make sure you get everything you need easily later on. Will got to the crux of the argument by saying that journalists interested in a subject — let’s say noise abatement issues — could easily find examples of those at a local level outside the areas they physically know.

So this is a run through of the decisions made in building it (and what other options could work), it’s no more than a prototype at this stage so comments and improvements are very welcome. However if you would rather just get stuck into the pipe itself, head on over.

Continue reading Hyperlocal News Wire

Conversational Psychogeography — mapping real life with the social web

Psychogeography can be sort of explained as the geography of emotion, the relation between place and feeling.

The first attempt to formalise it was in the 50’s by various Lettritsts and while they were concentrating firmly on the urban (and architecture in particular) the idea was something that continued and was further worked on by Guy Debord in Critique of Urban Geography.

I’ve long been of the opinion that the social web, the blog especially was an ideal canvas for this sort of activity — allowing as it does fast and free publication of thoughts and also, increasingly, opportunities to “tag” the locations easily. Recently though I’ve been thinking more and more about just how perfect our internet of feelings and thoughts was for the study of emotion and location. As I had re-iterated to me at the recent Cultural Mappings Symposium — place is the great unifier and connector of all sorts of data, mapping allows juxtaposition of otherwise unrelated items, and that reveals the questions we should be answering.

A problem with psychogeography as defined by Debourd and the Situtationists is that in order to prepare reports on areas the pyschogeographer (as opposed to the wandering flâneur) must submit themselves to the dérive — a kind of deliberately directionless route with attempts to let emotion act as the guide.

“the dérive, or drift, was defined by the situationists as the ‘technique of locomotion without a goal’, in which ‘one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’. The dérive acted as something of a model for the ‘playful creation’ of all human relationships.” (‘The most radical gesture: The Situationist International in a postmodern age’ by Sadie Plant)

The dérive attempts to mirror the movement of the residents or users of the area — and to disorientate the pyschogeographer to document emotion rather than topography. It is doomed in this attempt as the observer by his/her very nature is not experiencing the emotion of the inhabitant. This is analogous perhaps to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (there some pairs of properties on a sub-atomic level that cannot both be know — by measuring one you alter the other), as by becoming a supposedly dispassionate observer you cannot experience the emotions as they are commonly felt.

Psychogeography has stumbled in and out of fashion, and become sidelined as a worthwhile pursuit, referenced more often as a thread in fictions than as a pure study — where in fact the relation between emotion and place is one of the most important pieces of information going.

It’s what I’m calling Conversational Psychogeography — the applying of psychogeographical method to the conversations that take place online.

There are two strands to this:

Continue reading Conversational Psychogeography — mapping real life with the social web

Meme culture and how it builds community

On Friday I gave a talk to Pete Ashton‘s Metapod Connect course. It was a gentle introduction to how memes can work on the web, and how the culture around them creates other (some would say…) more useful things too.

This is a recording of the the talk (complete with the odd giggle, a few interjections and a tiny bit of mobile phone interference) alongside the slides I used.

Interweb memes and contribution to community from bounder on Vimeo.

The Twitterlizer & Digital Inclusion


Last week I used a Sweetcron installation, a red pen, some cardboard and scissors to build The Twitterlizer (excuse the American spelling). It aggregates mentions of the phrase “digitally included” from across the social web, YouTube, flickr, 12 seconds, blogs, Twitter — especially Twitter, if you’re logged in to Twitter it will even tweet for you with one click.

The aim is to use it to persuade other people to help someone else understand something on the web, and we’re using Twitter as the main thrust because it is so simple. It’s a little trite, and people will in no way really be “digitally included” just because they’ve tweeted — but it’s a start and a start of a helping relationship. If you’re happy to show someone Twitter, you’ll be happy to show them all sorts of useful stuff — and hopefully they’ll be happy to ask for help.

It’s all part of the social enterprise I’m involved with — We Share Stuff — we believe that using IT to share experiences and make connections is a far better way to get people able to use the technology than any formal training or certificate. Social interaction is a much bigger driver than a job using a spreadsheet.

We’re running an event at the National Digital Inclusion Conference – Mon 27th and Tues 28th – in London. So if you’re going to that please stop by and say hello. If you’re interested in digital inclusion but can’t afford the (very high) cost of attendance then we’re also hosting a FREE fringe event on the Monday evening in Westminster, come along and meet us, hopefully as many interested delegates as we can grab, and others who are interested in really doing something to share their knowledge and experience. See more details on

If you can’t make it to London, then give us a tweet, and digitally include someone too.

Tweeting for a “brand” or organisation

First written May ’09, updated (slightly) April ’11.

Although listening is the most important way of using Twitter for a brand or organisation, you’ll want to do some actual tweeting too — or it’s not a conversation. Here are some generic tips on how this can work well, based on my work with a number of organisations. Again, I’ll assume that you’ve got a basic idea what Twitter is and got an account. I’ll use the example of a theatre venue here, as it’s something I’ve been thinking about, but the principles should be applicable across organisations.

What to tweet

Twitter is all about adding value to other people – on a personal level you get this value back in kind (your questions answered, or being entertained), for a business you would hope that it’s a loss leader for sales (like making the seats in your venue nicer than the absolute basic). In order to make valuable and useful tweets it’s good to think about the “value” of each tweet that the organisation makes — they should be (at least one of):

  • Interesting : eg. an exciting new booking for the venue (or new product, whatever)
  • Entertaining (or nicely personal) : eg. something interesting backstage (This tweet of mine from the Warwick Arts Centre of Rapunzel’s hair would be a good example) – this is mostly where the personality of the tweeters can come through*
  • Informative: eg. a road closure nearby (this might not affect just visitors, but useful locally), cancellations, additional dates to sold out shows…
  • Helpful: mainly this is responding to queries either asked directly to @yourname or that we can see through the search feeds.

*The “entertaining” tweets are very attached to people’s personalities — brands don’t have personalities, but the tweeters do. It can depend on the size or your organisation, and the number of people tweeting from it as to how you can best get the personality out.

Personality matters, how to get it through

For a very small organisation, one person bands especially, showing the personality can be quite easy to do — if one person is doing all the tweeting it will happen quite naturally. But if one person is responsible for Twitter in a larger organisation, what happens then they are on holiday or at weekends? If your Twitter contacts get used to a certain level of updates or response, a dead period can break trust — people will drift off and get information elsewhere. Because of this it’s important to share out the responsibility of Twitter (both monitoring and responding), there are a number of different strategies.

One, employed to good effect by Channel Four News (@channel4news) is to decide on an organisational tone of voice — theirs is lightly conspiratorial, and friendly — but then not say at all who is actually tweeting. I would suspect that one of the broadcast assistants is put “on Twitter duty” each day. This is useful for a very well know organisation, but it is a barrier to conversation — Channel Four News don’t have to work hard to build contacts or answer difficult customers (or deliver information), they are there to create a friendly atmosphere and to extend the culture/community around the programmes, they don’t need to build personal relationships.

Another way of letting the personality though is to “sign” some of the tweets — this works well for the asides, the entertaining nonsense that builds networks. By signing the tweets I mean tweeting messages that are linked to real people — you could do this my leaving a name/initials after a circumflex at the end of the tweet (“just seen something odd ^jon”) or better still link the organisation’s tweets to the Twitters of individual people one their own accounts.  This can be done technically (by services like GroupTweet or ConnectTweet, or by bespoke filters — I’ve used Yahoo Pipes and Twitterfeed for this purpose) and can work really well when people are already using Twitter for themselves.

An example of a use of GroupTweet is the Twitter stream of my radio show The Big Paws (@thebigpaws)  — we use normal (“unsigned”) tweets for information,  and GroupTweet fed direct messages from our own accounts for “asides”. GroupTweet has a slight technical issue in that you can’t follow people outside the organisation with the account (as it works by retweeting direct messages), ConnectTweet uses #hashtags, which solves that but does leave brand tweets also in the originators account.

Whichever method you choose it’s still up to all tweeters to understand what’s appropriate to say on behalf of the brand or organisation — but this is no different to them speaking in public offline, and you trust them to do that, right? Spamming isn’t a good idea, everyone must understand that.

Tweeting tips

Here are a few tips of how to structure tweets, what to include and a few common pitfalls to be aware of:

  • When tweeting a link (to a new blog post, or anything else on your site or not) tweet the direct link to the actual content – don’t just tweet a link to your website and expect people to find it (use a URL shortener like with stats if you’re interested in how many people click on it).
  • Watch how often you tweet links to your content — most people are capable of finding your blog posts without twittered links. Don’t automatically set links to be tweeted as new posts are posted, or at least set up a separate Twitter account for that and mark it clearly as a feed of your new posts. If you have a new blog post that you’re really excited about and want to tweet about, communicate that excitement in the tweet.
  • Asking for a ReTweet is a little desparate, make interesting content and people will want to pass it on — be very careful about asking for ReTweets, campaigns are a possible use, but your latest blog post isn’t.
  • Think about when to tweet, if you want to generate a fun discussion (or even a more weighty one) then think about when your network is most partial to that sort of thing. Friday afternoons are good for fun, Monday mornings, not so much — although your network might display different characteristics.

When and how often to tweet

This is really the same question; each tweet exists separately and due to the ambient and transient nature of how people read Twitter there isn’t really a too much or a wrong time — as long a each tweet is adding something to the people who read it. The tweeter has to ask themselves “why should anyone care about this?” — friends will put up with things from you that people you’re hoping to communicate with as a brand won’t. Tweet useful and interesting stuff and people will want to engage, don’t and they won’t.

As ever any questions, improvements or suggestions are welcome — these can only be very broad tips because each organisation is different, but I hope they’re useful. I’m very happy to talk to you about specific cases (and I’m @bounder btw).

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.

      Freedom Town

      Freedom Town is in Sierra Leone, but it’s also the name of an art project connecting schools in Birmingham (UK) with schools in Freedom Town. It’s being run by the education department of Birmingham’s Town Hall & Symphony Hall, along with a local artist and will feature the associate musicians of the organisation. The aim is to eventually enable the schools to collaborate — and a website is the ideal tool to achieve that.

      I’ve really enjoyed building it, and working with the team to make sure they understand how best to use it.

      The website is just starting to be used by the children this week, and they seem to be having fun already — as well as blogging for themselves (moderated by their teachers)  they are being encouraged to comment on the posts of others and also write about how they are finding the project.

      Some of the first work they’re doing is to make sure their School’s homepage on the site is up-to-date, and they’re also thinking about how the site should look (it has been purposely left very plain, so they can change it to suit themselves).

      Technically the site is a instalaltion of WordPress, with plugins and tweaks to handle the expected use of video and audio later in the project and also the moderation issues of having hundreds of young people posting.  So far it seems to be working well, and the children have found blogging quite easy. I’ll post a link to the site when it really gets going — looking forward to reading and hearing the results.