28Feb/12

Pier Review review

I’m currently knee deep in postcards, books about the seaside and still have sand in my good pumps. It’s nearly six months since I spent two weeks traveling around all of England and Wales’s surviving seaside pleasure piers and we’re about halfway through writing the book. It’s hard going, but fun. Here’s the picture side of every postcard we sent (one of each) to each of our funders—the trip was paid for by around thirty people, all of whom are awaiting publication with anticipation I hope.

But what was it about? Well, we were lucky enough to get the chance to talk to the great Andrew Collins and Josie Long on 6 Music, and that’s as good an introduction as any is likely to be.

Listen to Pier Review on 6 Music Pier Review On 6 Music.

And we followed it up a week later with another slot: Pier Review on 6 Music, week two.

And we’ve also made our secret blog open to all, you can read some behind-the-scenes stuff now.

Find our more and sign up at Pier Review dot co dot uk.

04Aug/11

Why I’m about to spend two weeks in a car in the name of art

I write, you know, it’s sort of the core of loads of stuff I do—writing is a founding block of good social web engagement which is where I get most of my living from. It’s also part of teaching or training in a way, you need to be able to construct narratives and find the right words. Journalism, or at least the writing of words to order for publication, is fun too. But the writing that’s most rewarding is where you get to have an idea, and then run with the bugger until it’s done.

Listening to all six hundred and ninety eight Elvis Presley songs in order in one sitting was one of those, but Dirty Bristow was sort of like that on a grand scale, and not just me writing.

When you look around there seems to be a straight choice for writers: the web and freedom (but no guaranteed audience or context) or whatever publication will have you and whatever rules they apply. Not that rules are bad: it’s not just the subject/audience/word count stuff that’s the problem, it’s the context and the pressure of it. Want to discuss South American literature and pop-culture in the same breath? You’ll be too worried that not everyone will get it, waste the word count explaining things and end up with something without the élan you wanted.

So we invented a magazine with as few rules and pressures as possible, it seems (artistically at least) to work. That sorted what’s the next challenge?

Piers.

Or to be specific, nostalgia for a lost and fictional time and piers are a good knob to hang this particular type upon.

Danny Smith, with whom I’d managed to hold out against the advice and make the magazine, said there was something in a book visiting all of the pleasure piers in Britain. He didn’t know how many there were, how long that would take, but it sounded good. I said yes, and then basically a lot of people said ‘no’. Or rather they said “don’t do it”, “I’m not coming”, “that’s stupid”, “why?” or most devastatingly of all for Dan “you’re wasting your life” (his mum).

But we’re going to do it anyway. We’ve researched a bit, and know where they are. We’ve press-ganged a driver—I say so my creative stance isn’t diluted, my friend says “so your drinking isn’t interrupted” and she’s possibly half right. But it’s more so I don’t have to worry so much.

I love new places, but find that travel can be a trial, even if arriving is a pleasure.

I get nervous: sit on a train, is it the right train? Is it working? Have I go the right ticket?  What if it doesn’t stop at the right place? What if it breaks down, what if… No, I can’t relax. Not til all decisions have been taken off me—which is sort of why I can cope a lot more easily with the regimented walk/don’t walk watch-the-screens travel by air. I mean, they’re actively trying to make sure you don’t get on the wrong plane—and the consequences of a break-down are a little more final than having to spend the night on Crewe Station.

So if I don’t have to think, and the worst thing that can happen is that I die, I’m good.

I don’t have a point or an allegory for the journey, certainly not one as deeply thought out and involving the A-Team as m’colleague Mr Smith has. Nor am I thinking about group dynamics in a wider sense than I don’t really want to have a row with either of them. I’m not looking for conflict or hardship: the last thing I want is for this tale to turn into one of struggle, of dirty sleeping conditions or danger. We might find some, but I’m more interested in the ghosts of the past.

There’s something we’ve lost culturally, it’s like a love that’s gone and hurts. The empty past leaves you constantly hungry around the heart: it’s true to call it an ache but there are sharp pains too. There’ll be explosions of emptiness, like going over a humpbacked bridge too fast.

Inspirationally, for me the trip is a mirror world version of Drummond and Manning’s Bad Wisdom series. In that two differing writers travel to the unknown, testing themselves and their sanity—we’re hunting the familiar in a county that is changing faster than we can cope with. Except that instead of two independently wealthy ex-pop stars, we’re two people without two pots to rub together; having spent what little spare we had on the magazine itself.

People have been kind, we’ve had offers of support and places to kip as well as a surprisingly quick race to the (low admittedly) Crowdfunding target. Thanks everybody.

If you want to check out something similar, there’s the much smaller scale trip we did around Birmingham’s pubs Concrete and Cocktails that you can download for nowt.

More details of how to help or get involved in this madness are here: http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/investment/pier-review-a-book-about-a-journey-to-the-outcrops-of-a-dying-culture-311

Twitter – @Pierreview
Facebook – Facebook.com/PierReview

03May/11

Excellent Engagement

Content, interaction, community—that’s what your social media profile is all about. It’s a message that seems to have hit most brands, and organisations right down to the smallest. But from what I’m seeing a lot of at the moment, there are a lot of people finding it hard to think about what to do once they get there.

There’s an episode of the Simpsons (Season Two, Episode 22), stay with me, where Mr Burns would like to be nice to Homer—but he knows nothing about him (nor really cares) so falls on the most bland of engagement:

“Hey there Mr….d’uh….Brown Shoes! How ’bout that local sports team eh?”

(Oddly for a great Simpson’s quote the video doesn’t seem to be on YouTube anywhere, but there is an audio clip here.)

Does that remind you of anything? Here’s a collection of Tweets reminding me of it that I collected on Friday:

It’s not exclusive to Twitter, nor the Royal Wedding: check out any number of Facebook fan pages or any social platform on a Friday lunchtime to see loads of “Hey guys, what are you doing this weekend. Let us know!” type-posts. They’re a close cousin of the way blogs starting up will often end their debut post with a plaintive cry of “what would you like to see?”

It is no doubt amusing to watch them all come in (and to watch the meme or cliche spread), but there’s something deeper I think—and some lessons to learn.

I think it sometimes happens because people are following what the mainstream media started to do a few years ago (‘have your say’). “Let us know!” became their coda to all stories, because they were getting to grips with the idea that people could converse and create en masse without their involvement. They were trying to channel this new thing called UCG through them so they could continue to act as gatekeepers, or perhaps they were genuinely excited by all of those pictures of snow. The TV programmes and the newspapers (and to an extent their associated online spaces) were offering an audience, much like Tony Hart in his gallery, and still do—hence the potential motivation for sharing your content through them.

Most brand social web channels don’t have such a huge audience, or if they have a big one it’s often very tightly around a subject—big wide and generic questions aren’t going to engage that audience. Your dry cleaners, or a skincare brand, aren’t the first place you think of to tell your plans for a Bank Holiday.

Possibly it also comes from a desire to “get into the conversation”, to make a brand seem like it’s one of your mates. Might work, if you’re trying to create a very small community round your social web space—if you’re usually about answering questions and sending out news, isn’t it a little odd? What are your other followers going to do with the information if you get it and and then you spread it?

Most of all, people probably do it because they see others doing the same. That’s one way to learn, but you need to think more deeply about whether any techniques apply to your situation—what they might achieve and how they might look. In essence if you’re attempting to engage around your brand then things closely related, or of direct relevance are going to hold more weight.

As a bonus here’s Mr Burn’s classic funk track ‘Look at all those idiots‘, including wailing guitar from Waylon Smithers. What’s your favourite Simpsons as metaphor for social web engagement story? Let us know!

13Feb/11

Ask a stupid question…

If there was one central point to remember to make online consultation successful it would be that if the question isn’t a good one the best response you’ll get is none. If the object of the exercise has no real meaning or effect then, while no response would be disappointing, it only takes a tiny meme to make silence seem like a success.

Take the administration in Austin, Texas (home, it must be said to large number of Internet culture savvy people) who probably thought that it was a nice piece of harmless PR through engagement to ask the people to come up with a new identity for the city’s waste dept. No-one sensible could care too much about the outcome, so it becomes open for hijack, open for people to have fun with, and easy fun is a great driver of activity. Activity you may have seen on the web this week:

And so the idea of the ‘Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts‘ was born and attracted much attention, narrowly beating the ‘Ministry of Filth’ (although my personal favourite was ‘The Austin Dept. of Are You Going To Eat That?’).

It’s not going to happen, of course, so the outcome is that the consulters look stupid—drawing attention to both the time wasted of rebranding and their helplessness against the weak ties and satire of the web. What’s worse is it shows problems in engament in that  numbers of votes for this poll in total dwarf  those in other, more well thought through, consultations.

Even worse is when there’s a memetic idea that is simultaneously eligible, fun, and unacceptable to the consulters. That’s what’s has just taken hold in Fort Wayne (who like Austin are using the feedback tool Uservoice—blameless in these instances and a fairly nice solution to the tech aspects of this sort of questioning).  What bad luck for the town to have had a mayor and statesman with a vaguely rude sounding name (the man himself pronounced Baals “balls”):

As you can see the comments here are getting heated, there are legitimate reasons for honouring the man and there’s just no way to come out of this well now. Not every question is a good one.

19Jan/11

Is Twitter about to do a mass reclaim of unused accounts?

We've missed you on Twitter! - jonbounds@gmail.com - Gmail

It’s easy to sign up for a Twitter account, all you need is an email address. It used to be even easier, they weren’t even verified. I have, I estimate, about a hundred—lots used but others created for short-term projects or jokes. Some, in truth, in the same way as you register a domain name—idea half-formed but name assured.

That it was so, lead to a lot of great Twitter names claimed but unused and unloved. (@fry posted to about once very 6 months, @cat about the same)

Unless it violates a trademark, there’s no real mechanism for getting one freed up either.

Twitter has about the same sign-up to action ratio as most social web sites, but unlike Facebook for example your username, its uniqueness, its readability, matters. And those are getting used up too cheaply.

So, the first stage I think—the “where are you” email above, which I ‘ve just received. A shot that says ‘we did warn you’, when six months later—if you don’t log in— the account is closed and the name freed

How do I tell them that directing Twitpantos is a very, erm, seasonal activity?

If you’ve an account that you value, I’d take time to post every so often.

Is Twitter about to do a mass reclaim of unused accounts?

17Jan/11

Broadcast’s Trish Keenan: a singer for whom life was a discovery | Music | guardian.co.uk

"If the reaction of the blogosphere and Twitterati to Keenan's sudden death are reliable indicators, every one of their four studio albums should have been worldwide No 1s.

Blur's Graham Coxon called the news "devastating". Chillwave artist, Toro Y Moi, aka Chaz Bundick, tweeted that Keenan was "one of my biggest influences", while Colin Meloy from the Decemberists' wrote, "So sad. Everyone should listen to Broadcast today. Come on let's go …", referring to the title of an early Broadcast single.

Even the Arkansas Times was touched by Keenan's passing. The truth is that while Broadcast were shamefully underrated they were also quietly, beguilingly influential. They encouraged people to seek out esoteric or long-forgotten music – from electronica to folk." – Broadcast’s Trish Keenan: a singer for whom life was a discovery | Music | guardian.co.uk.

07Jan/11

Map of Birmingham— Inebriance Survey

Pub Map.pdf (1 page)

Map of Birmingham: Inebriance Survey 2011 PDF

Now that is what I call a map. Every pub in Birmingham as available from the Open Street Map XAPI (on 6/1/11), for use as a navigational aid.

Plotted as a mapless map with Maperitive, and text tided up in Illustrator, no data was added or removed (except for duplicate of ‘The Tennis Courts’ in Perry Barr, which is plotted twice on OSM).

Prints  available , although you’re free to open, download, and explore the PDF.

Data and icon from and © Open Street Map under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence and as such the PDF/image here is too.

16Dec/10

How Christmassy are you feeling?

The Christmas-o-meter bounder

Just a little fun seasonal project I’ve made with the layout and design help of Gavin Wray.

It works very much like my other sentiment analysis tools, but with a sprinkling of Santa’s magic. Santa’s magic in this instance being that any tweets with the words ‘Christmas’ or ‘Xmas’ in them are weighted doubly—that is the scores are counted twice for the purpose of producing the mean score.

So, try the Christmas-o-meter and see how Christmassy you’re feeling.

03Dec/10

Funny, ha ha.

The ability to make people laugh has always been something that is fairly central to my personality. I’m not entirely sure why, but it wasn’t for cliched make-the-bullies-laugh at school reasons, because I did—and they still hit me. 

That was a lot more to do with me being obviously poorer and shyer in a school full of the confident entitled. And a bit of a dick, I’ve always been a bit of a dick.

I’m wary of being seen to be taking anything overly seriously, or being unable to break the tension with a quip. Confrontation so rarely solves anything, so if you can dodge it all the better and that has something to do with it but there’s a streak of performance and the need for validation in there too.

Writing gentle satire, or being amusing around strict parameters is easy—there are hundreds of people doing it fairly competently around the country every day. Creativity is different though, if you have to come up with the ideas rather than react to situations, if you decide that adaption of existing jokes to the situation isn’t what you want to do, if you want to be funny without it relying on reference, then it’s somewhat harder.

I’ve done plenty of compering, quizes, awards, that sort of thing, where a tiny bit of wit will do wonders to prop up the ‘turns’. I’ve also injected the odd bit of humour into the various other bits of public speaking I do as part of ‘work’, that’s easy and really does help get the point across. 

What I’ve not done is stand-up comedy. 

Well, not until last week. When I, er did.

Stand-up is the purest form of entertainment, it’s just one person talking, and that’s exciting. It’s also quite scary, and difficult. I’ve always thought that I’d like to and would be able to, but have never got round to doing anything.

Part of the reticence has been because no-one is pushing me to do it, I’ve got plenty of creative outlets and it’s just another one. Putting myself forward to do even an open slot somewhere seems boastful somehow, I’d need proof that I could do it. Partly it’s that I want to be great at whatever I try, and as an art form it doesn’t offer many safety features: no-one can really tell how comedy is going to go down, and a silence at a stand-up gig leaves no hiding place.

All of which is why that, despite being bad at learning (or being taught, rather), I signed up for a course in stand-up a couple of months ago. I’d seen James Cook, the tutor, perform: being accomplished, funny, and obviously in control of an audience. There was stuff I could learn there, and I also had a vague feeling that the pressure to produce material might help my other writing.

I can write, I think, it doesn’t usually take me that long to produce something when I sit down to do it—but the time it takes me to actually start is sometimes a problem. I can only work well when inspiration strikes, or when a deadline is looming, and usually manage it by not attempting to work when I don’t feel right. I’m not going to do it, I figure, so I can get on with other stuff until the time comes. It’s a solution, but not a good one, and I thought perhaps that working on stuff across a couple of months could really help.

The other people on the course, run from a windowless but expensively carpeted conference room at mac, were a mixture of those that were thinking of doing it professionally eventually and those that just thought it might be fun. All were obviously comedy fans, which I guess you’d have to be. 

Alongside exercises, bits of stuff about things like mic technique, there were a couple of great sessions from comedians Andy White and Gary Delaney where they talked about how they worked and how they got started. The main thread of the sessions, though, was practical: listening to others trying out material and, when I could pluck up the courage, doing a bit myself.

I actually found this much more difficult than the more theoretical stuff. I didn’t want to say anything that would nudge people away from their own paths, I was worried about a homogenising effect with 14-15 would-be stand-ups working on routines in the same environment. It didn’t happen, without too much thought about style people seemed to find their own ways.

By the end-of-term showcase, in front of about 80 people, everyone on the course had enough stuff. Some had way too much and squeezed it into their allotted five minutes. It was an incredibly supportive audience, and each comic went down well.

I did struggle with material, I was after something that was sort of simultaneously clever and accessible and I couldn’t find anything I was happy with. In the end I’m not sure if I didn’t chicken out and go for easy laughs. I’m not sure I respect me as a stand-up, I think I can do it but I’m not sure if I can do it as well as I’d want to. I think I’ll wait for the big idea before having another go.

That’s not the fault of the course, which was really great and runs again in January. You’ll enjoy it if you have a go, I promise.