Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Bacon and Twitter: a marriage made in heaven

Would you be surprised to learn that the most followed British celebrity on Twitter isn't Stephen Fry? How about if I told you it was Richard Bacon?

Yes, really. He of getting sacked from Blue Peter fame. He of occasional not being the MP Richard Bacon confusion. And he of the voiceover to Blockbuster ads.

So, what is it that has made a former second or even third fiddle to a pair of annoying puppets at least two whole @wittertainments (i.e. more than 50,000 followers) more popular than all-round national treasure, Apple fanatic and cuddly uber-geek, Mr Stephen Fry?

The somewhat surprising answer would appear to be: late night national radio.

Certainly Richard Bacon has TV presence, too, but it's hardly on the scale or noticeability of Stephen Fry's, or even that of Jonathan Ross, say - much of it, for one thing, being voiceover work. Neither is he a renowned blogger and technophile, as far as I'm aware. But what he does have is a a late night national radio show - four nights a week, between 10pm and 1am, on BBC 5live - and, most crucially, the Special Half Hour.

Notorious as a time listeners switch off and go to bed, Bacon decided to make the last 30 minutes of his show into a sort of secret club or community. It isn't trailed or even mentioned during the rest of the show, but as soon as it hits 12:30am, to quote Jane Graham in The Guardian, "[w]hat changes is Richard's tone, which becomes honeyed and familial, and is used to punctuate the show with regular reminders that we are now cocooned within the Special Half Hour and we are his 'favourite listeners'", as well as - more recently - some SHH-only special features such as listeners recording Jeremy Kyle re-enactments (other listeners have to guess the show's subtitle). Supporting all this is a Facebook Group and Richard's frequently updated Twitter account.

We've probably all read about how the internet has been a boon to radio, but here what's also at play seems to be the live element of the show - listening later on iPlayer, or to the podcast of the week's highlights, you lose that sense of everyone listening together, secretly, at the same time. The internet plays an important role, certainly, but it's only a part of the SHH's success.

Ultimately, what I think Richard Bacon's overtaking of Stephen Fry on Twitter perhaps shows us most clearly, then, is an unusually good example of mutually beneficial symbiosis between "old media" and "new media" - not to mention the power of word of mouth, likability, and a flair for building community. Or on the other hand, maybe there's just a remarkable overlap in demographics between Twitter users and people who like Richard Bacon? Whatever the case, though, there's something to be learned from it all.

Talking of radio

Remember how teenagers don't listen to radio or use Twitter? Well, here's How 31 Year Olds Consume Media. As the author says, "Don't expect it to make the front page of the FT any time soon though."

Friday, 24 July 2009

Masquerade: the original alternate reality game?

"One of my pupils lives there," my Mum said once, as we were driving past a solitary farmhouse in the north of Scotland. She then added, quite wistfully, as Mum was secretly a massive sci-fi and fantasy geek who never really got to indulge her nerdy proclivities: "He's doing Masquerade."

"What's Masquerade?," the 11-year old me immediately wanted to know.

Mum explained that it was a fantasy picture book that had been published a couple of years earlier, which contained a series of puzzles that led to a real treasure - a golden hare ornamented with jewels - that was hidden somewhere in Britain. Whoever solved the puzzle first and found the treasure would get to keep it. Thousands of people all over the world were trying to solve it.

To my eleven-year old mind, this sounded like the greatest thing ever. A proper mystery that could only be solved by the application of a brilliant mind; something I was quite convinced I was in possession of. I resolved to buy a copy of Masquerade as soon as my pocket money would let me.

Sadly, by the time this came about, the mystery had already been solved. You can find the solution - and all the paintings - on this Masquerade Page-by-Page site.

Masquerade itself was over, but elements of it thrive into the present day: most notably the use of fiction to create a multimedia puzzle (Masquerade was a mixture of written text and a set of beautiful, detailed paintings, like the one to the left) that holds clues to objects and locations in the real world.

In some ways, then, Masquerade was a primitive form of the highly sophisticated puzzle games known today as alternate reality games, or ARGs. ARGs take Masquerade's premise - that clues to real objects and places can be hidden in fictional texts for people to solve - and updates it for the internet age. In an analogue age, my mum's pupil was trying to solve Masquerade more or less on his own, but ARGs create collaborative communities of players who can work together online to exchange information and solve puzzles. In the age of print, Masquerade's story was confined to the page, but in ARGs, characters spill out across a multimedia universe, behaving like real people and interacting directly with players by phone, email and on the web.

Masquerade took two years to crack, about the same amount of time as the first season of 2005's Perplex City, one of the first proper alternate reality games. But Masquerade laid all its clues out upfront, so players had all the information they needed to solve the puzzle right from the start. Modern ARGs reveal their clues slowly over time, in order to make the game last. The existence of Google, forums and Twitter mean that if Masquerade was published today it would probably be solved by Wednesday.

The internet would have done no favours for Kit Williams's second treasure hunt book, either. Published in 1984, it was an equally gorgeous multimedia artefact, which scattered arcane clues across text, minutely detailed paintings and exquisite marquetry. But the book itself was untitled: the aim of the puzzle was to work out what it was called.

Being nameless may have seemed like a clever gimmick in the 80s, but in the age of Amazon and Google, it's commercially suicidal. Like Prince's squiggle, a book without a name is deeply search-engine unfriendly. Personally, I still think of it as 'that bee book', but Wikipedia lists it as Book Without A Name, Amazon calls it The Bee on the Comb, and on the bookworms' favourite social media site, LibraryThing, it's simply called Untitled.

If something doesn't have a name, it's not only harder to sell online, it's also much harder for a community to form around it. Search - especially the real-time search provided by the likes of Twitter - is becoming vital to the creation of online communities of interest: if you like something a lot, your default reaction these days is to go online and find other people who like it too. If you don't have a definite term to search for, you're on to a loser.

But the internet may just be amplifying an existing problem. With hundreds of thousands of players worldwide, Masquerade 'went viral' by the standards of its day - and is even now enjoying a revival, thanks to media coverage of its 30th anniversary. The bee book never captured the public imagination in the same way. And if you try looking for 'bee book' online now, Kit Williams's puzzle has to compete in the search rankings with everything from a kids' school notebook to a new Nicole Kidman film. Proof that if you don't have a name, it's very hard to make a name for yourself.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Finding Ada? Not at the Early Learning Centre, you won't

In January this year the writer and technophile Suw Charman-Anderson launched a campaign to raise the profile of women in the technology sector.

In light of the misogyny that seems to persist in certain corners of the tech world, Suw wanted to highlight excellent work being done by women in technology and to identify strong role models to inspire women who are already working in technology or who may want to work in the sector in the future.

Suw called the campaign 'Finding Ada' after Ada Lovelace, who worked alongside the Victorian computing pioneer Charles Babbage writing technical and marketing documentation - and the world's first programming code - for the world's first computers, Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine.

Finding Ada is a global campaign now, with its own special day, countless media articles and blog posts, and a multitude of events, debates and other activities dedicated to raising awareness of outstanding technological achievements and contributions made by women.

I must confess, though, that I'm in two minds about Finding Ada and other techno-feminist initiatives. I've worked in the technology industry for the past 13 years, and I've found it to be pretty well populated with strong, articulate, intelligent, confident and authoritative women, who would doubtlessly tell you that they don't need anyone to stand up for them. In the multinational software company that I used to work for, for example, there are very many women in very senior positions, including the company's president.

So I think there's a danger that running campaigns that aim to 'empower' women in tech may in fact achieve the opposite. Portraying these women as victims of misogyny may inadvertently create the impression that they are unable to stand up for themselves; that they need protecting from their male colleagues; that technology is an unpleasant and unwelcoming industry for women. And although I've met some reprehensibly misogynistic individuals in the course of my career, I can't honestly say that I've found the technology industry as a whole to be unwelcoming to women; quite the opposite.

But on the other hand, Suw is absolutely correct that technology has very, very few female role models. Even Ada Lovelace herself essentially played second fiddle to Charles Babbage (for my money, the 18th-century French scientist and mathematician Emilie du Chatelet is perhaps an even better role model in the proto-female-geek stakes).

There must be countless women out there who are creating wonderful things with technology every day, and there shouldn't have to be a concerted campaign to bring them to light. But somehow, despite the fact that they undoubtedly exist, and with honourable exceptions like Six Apart's Mena Trott, Blogger's Meg Hourihan and Flickr's Caterina Fake, those women by and large remain invisible.

It's all part of that same curious bias in society that would have us believe that there are no female bloggers, or no female science fiction fans. Some things are just assumed to be a male preserve, despite any and all evidence to the contrary.

All of which is a very long-winded way of getting to my point, which is that yesterday, my 10 month-old daughter was given a present of a toy laptop from the Early Learning Centre.

I was very happy about this, as I'm all for introducing her to technology as soon as possible. She's already fascinated with my laptop and my digital camera and my mobile phone and the TV remote controls, and so she should be. Knowing how these things work and how they can be used is critical to getting ahead in modern life, and I'm not going to let my nostalgia for the toys of my own childhood get in the way of her technological development.

But what struck me was the way the toy laptop was packaged. Call me naive, but in 2009, I honestly just don't expect to read something like this:

Dad's laptop is nowhere near as fun as this? In 2009, what possible reason can there be for singling out Dad as the parent who has a laptop? And as if that weren't enough, there's a photo on the back of the box of a little boy using the laptop, but that's the only photo - there's no picture of a little girl using it.

You may think I'm making a fuss about nothing here. After all, the manufacturers clearly intend for the toy laptop to be used by boys and girls: the blurb on the front is deliberately - and ungrammatically - non-gender-specific. 'Watch your baby's face glow when they see and hear the magical light and music show'.

And yet it's tiny things like this, tiny, barely perceptible ways in which women are somehow made invisible when it comes to technology, that build over time into an overwhelming societal assumption that women in technology simply don't exist.

And it's because of that assumption that they actively have to be found, through initiatives like Finding Ada. I wish it weren't the case, and I can't understand why it still *is* the case, but there you have it.

Sort it out, Early Learning Centre.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

In my day, we just made the tea...

Is it the silly season already? Or has reality just gone on holiday for a bit (quite probably to recover from its recent mauling at the First Annual Michael Jackson Memorial Fest)? After all, how else to explain "dozens and dozens of fund managers, and several CEOs" tripping over themselves to find out more about a work experience kid's anecdotes about his mates?

To explain: earlier this week Morgan Stanley published a short report on the media consuming habits of teenagers, by Matthew Robson, a 15-year-old "intern"; the document generated "five or six times" more feedback than most of Morgan Stanley's usual reports, the firm said, with execs and investment bankers phoning and emailing Morgan Stanley all day. This despite the report having been published with no claims to statistical rigour, and being seemingly largely based upon - as The FT refers to him - Mr Robson's observations of his friends.

Commenting on how accurate the report might be I'll leave to people who actually know some teenagers - nothing in it seems very new, though, especially not the observation about the low number of teenage Twitter users - and turn to the Guardian, which yesterday went one better than Morgan Stanley, flexing its considerable journalistic muscle to solicit the media-related musings of, not one, but two teenagers. Yes, two. Presumably, this twice as accurate - or half as unrepresentative - account must have sent the City into spasms, not least because the two teenagers in large part disagreed with Matthew Robson, didn't live in London, and weren't male.

Happily for our baffled City, though, all three teenagers do at least seem to agree on a few key things: they and their friends ignore Twitter, quite often enjoy computer games, and wherever possible will avoid paying for more or less anything. So if anyone in the City had already formulated an investment strategy on the back of the Robson Report - as I believe no-one sane is calling it - it probably didn't take too much tweaking (said strategy, I imagine, would now read much like this: invest in anything but Twitter - and give your kids a Hell of a lot more pocket money).

But on a more serious note: how much is actually to be gained by this widespread obsession with the habits of teenagers? Granted, they're the future of media consumption, almost by definition - but when they get to that future they'll no longer actually be teenagers. Right now, they might not be avid consumers of TV or radio or Twitter or whatever, but when they're older - with different priorities and pressures, less leisure time, more need of in-depth information, the overwhelming need to relax after a long day at work, etc. - will that necessarily still be the case? Perhaps Twitter, for instance, isn't doomed by a lack of teenage interest; perhaps it just better suits the needs of an older demographic. And perhaps looking to teenagers to gauge the future of media is only marginally more useful than deciding, "Well, they're the future of medicine too, so we might as well ask them about swine flu." Who knows?

Anyway, clearly some of what we do and like as teenagers carries through into adulthood, so proper studies of teenage media consumption doubtless have more long term value than I've suggested. But to get that pathetically excited over the report of a work experience kid hardly breeds confidence - "Anything to get the City going again, just anything, please, please, please!" you can almost hear them pleading - and these are the ones that didn't lose their jobs! Sigh. Sometimes you really can't help but wonder how the City didn't collapse even sooner.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The future of a radical price is, um... Torte Elvis?

Anyone tempted to make the obvious joke about Chris Anderson's new book, 'Free: The Future Of A Radical Price', will have to think again it seems - damn - since not only will it be available free as an e-book and abridged audiobook, for a limited period, and free as an unabridged audiobook, for an unlimited period, from 9th July, but for those of us in the UK it's already available to listen to on Spotify, as of today. [Free bonus link: the Wired article that preceded the book].

Spotify say this is a first foray into audiobooks and they'll be seeing how it goes, but what many Spotify users may not have realised is that Chris Anderson's latest is by no means its only non-musical content. Leaving aside jokes about Chris de Burgh, as well as the contradicting links in the comments section of the Spotify blog (which appear to lead to a German audiobook of Dracula and some Norwegian children's stories), see what happens when you type the following into Spotify's search box: "genre:comedy" (without the quotation marks).

Turns out there are a number of comedy albums freely available on Spotify, should you be interested in that kind of thing. The majority of it is heavily American accented, but in amongst the Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, etc., you'll still find the likes of Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, The Goons, Monty Python, Viv Stanshall, The Rutles, and much to my bleak delight the incomparable and unclassifiable poetic whimsies of Ivor Cutler.

Oh, and if you've ever wondered what Led Zeppelin crossed with Elvis, to a reggae beat, all fronted by an Elvis impersonator might sound like... well, you have curiously specific musical tastes, frankly. But anyway, here's Dread Zeppelin.

(To think I'd nearly forgotten about them 'til now... Even 'Free' has its drawbacks, I suppose).

UPDATE: And for the morbidly curious, here's what the above might look like:

"This is the video that made them famous", alleges the YouTube blurb. Come to think of it, though, I am half-remembering it being watched by Beavis and Butthead on MTV.