Archive: Society & Media
Jan 7, 2010 2
I am not a sport-loving person, but I make one rather large exception every few years for the Olympics and – more specifically – the winter Olympics.
It started in the early eighties.
In 1984, I watched Torvill & Dean’s winning Sarajevo ice dance performance, and was enchanted.
Inspired by their performance, my older brother and I decided to recreate the performance on the slippy tiled floor of our hallway. We swooshed about in socks, and he grabbed my hands and told me to dive through his legs. At no point did he specify that I should attempt this manoevre feet-first, and the resulting broken nose was a humiliating reminder of the universal folly of letting oneself be cajoled into doing stupid things by elder siblings.
Around the same time – and not coincidentally – I started going ice-skating every Saturday at Queensway ice rink in Bayswater, with my friend Jane. If we got there early enough, we could be first to carve up the smooth surface after the Rolba Zamboni had trundled across the ice. For ten minutes of every hour, they would pump out disco music through the rink speakers which we could dance to in a shambolic sort of way. I couldn’t afford lessons, and so taught myself to do wobbly backwards skating and slow, clumsy spins.
But no matter – I had a pinky-purple leotard-like lycra dress with silver glittery raindrops on it and a skirt which flared out when I twizzled around, even if I couldn’t afford the proper thick skaters’ tights, and had to do with Pretty Polly instead. The cafe there served hot chips with vinegar, and I think I even had a birthday party there on year. Maybe my tenth or eleventh?
This was also around the same time that we got a home computer – a Dragon 32, which was terrible for just about everything – but a couple of years later, we finally got a family computer that could do good stuff.
And by good stuff, I mean games.
And by games, I mean more than just text-based adventures (as good as the H2G2 text game was).
Specifically, I mean Winter Games (Epyx, I think), which was the height of computer gaming brilliance at the time, rendered in woeful graphics and required the player to left-right-left-right-left-right to cross country ski or speed skate; leftleftleftleftrightrightrightrightright on the bobsled and luge; time your smacking of the space bar perfectly to hit the targets as your cross-hairs wobbled in the biathlon; mash various combinations of keys to produce camel toe loops and triple salco stunts (whatever they were) in the figure skating, all performed to a jangly 8-bit rendition of “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker Suite”.
[in German, but you get a great sense of the gameplay]
The game(s) also included a ski-jump simulation. You set off from the top of an impossibly steep slope by hitting the space bar, then hit it again at the bottom to “take off”, then once more to land in an upright position. Not exactly tricky, but sort of puzzling. Why would someone even want do do such a thing? Most perplexing.
In the years that followed, I got into the habit of watching Ski Sunday, which my family were completely bemused by – we were not a ski-holiday type of clan – but tolerated nevertheless.
I just liked watching people do technically complicated things in a seemingly effortless way. I liked the fact it was a solo pursuit, not a team thing. It focused the attention – and the performance pressure. There were brilliant interpersonal battles over hundredths of seconds, and occasional spectacular spills and tumbles. Plus it all happened in stunning apline snowy scenery, with spectators bundled in multiple layers of fleece, sounding cowbells. What’s not to like?
In 1988, I watched the winter Olympics from Calgary, mainly for the figure skating and downhill skiing, if I’m honest, but it was the ski-jumping that got me hooked. I hadn’t realised that the slope was so big and the men and women competing her basically flying. How cool! Can anyone have a go? Where do I sign up? Answer: not in west London.
That was the year that Finn Matti Nykänen won gold medals in both ski-jumping events.
I cut out pictures of a man in flight and stuck them on my bedroom wall. What an idol.
I hadn’t kept up with his colourful career since then, but it transpires that he’s become quite the tragic once-successful now-struggling sporting characte – the George Best of ski-jumping, only more so.
This excellent article by Barney Ronay contains a glimpse of the man behind the headlines, and is definitely worth a read, if only because any article with a standfirst like Matti Nykänen was Finland’s greatest sportsman, winner of four Olympic golds. Since then he has stabbed someone in a finger-pulling contest, worked for a sex phoneline – and found God – surely deserves further attention.
It also provides insight into how Nykänen remains a national hero of sorts, in his native Finland.
Nobody in Finland is excusing Nykänen’s worst transgressions; but it is perhaps to their credit that Finns appear willing to forgive this strangely home-made, ne’er-do-well kind of national hero. Finland is fascinated by the turbulence of his decline, but also sympathetic to his plight.
There was even a sense of a Nykänen revival in train before his latest explosion. In the autumn of 2007 he came out of retirement, then won the ski-jumping-for-veterans International Masters Championship the following year. And last year he moved, tentatively, into a new career as a celebrity chef.
Perhaps it is this wistful quality that has endeared Nykänen to his people: the man-child ex-superstar athlete with his look of rampaging bewilderment, his middle-aged puppy fat, and his inability to engage sensibly with the world beyond the icy slope and the jump ramp.
Fascinating story. Complete character. Unbelievable sport.
So, in short, the summer Olympics are good and everything, but it’s the winter Olympics which really get me excited. It contains so many more sports and disciplines that I’d like to have a go at myself. Curling! Biathlon! Luge FFS! Who wouldn’t want to have a go at the luge, really?
OK, maybe not. But I’ll certainly be watching it and all the other sports on telly when the Vancouver winter Olympics start in a little over a month’s time.
I. Cannot. Wait.
More snow! More crazy sports! More skintight lycra! More cowbell!
Jan 6, 2010 2
Not to underplay the serious inconvenience caused by inclement meteorological conditions to some parts of the UK, but I’d just like to take a moment to reflect on this typically calm and understated headline from yesterday’s London Evening Standard:
A few points.
If you’re still measuring the snow in inches rather than feet or yards, it’s not an “extreme” weather event, it’s a “bothersome” one. The words “extreme weather” should apply to total snowmageddon, not tobogganing & a bit of a whinge about slippery pavements.
“Extreme weather” seems like a rather odd overstatement by the Met Office. It brings to mind scenes from The Day After Tomorrow. Epic, unbelievable, unusual weather with catastrophic effects.
Hurricane Katrina was extreme. The 1988 ice storm in Quebec was extreme. The heatwave + drought + bushfires in SE Australia in early 2009 were extreme.
In this photo, taken during last night’s snow, you can still see the cars.
This is a good indication that it’s not an extreme weather event. Yet. Whatever the hysteria from media and transport providers may otherwise indicate.
OK, it doesn’t snow often in London, but it does snow in southern England in winter sometimes, and in northern England and Scotland more often. So it’s not that weird.
We can be forgiven for being underprepared for a long stint of cold or inclement weather (hot, cold…) because most of the time, this country is just a bit middling, weather-wise. But we have no excuse for over-reacting and creating blanket hype and pointless coverage about extreme hardship and crisis caused by some seasonally-expected wet white stuff. Breaking news: snow happens in winter.
Snowpocalypse by antimega
(My favourite example of this was yesterday, when my local train service provider, SouthWest Trains, cancelled a number of services for today in advance because of the weather, which I thought was particularly brilliant considering it hadn’t even snowed yet. It was almost like they were saying “we know that however much it snows, we’re not going to be able to cope”)
Dec 1, 2009 2
Nov 15, 2009 Comments Off
I realised the other day that I hadn’t even thought about FriendsReunited for at least a year.
I clocked this only when mucking out untended folders within my gmail account, where I’d long ago set up a rule to filter newsletters from sites which I barely ever visited. I suddenly discovered that FriendsReunited had been emailing me regularly, with increasing desperation. The emails hinted at the potential to rediscover lost connections; spy on former classmates, announce things to the world; pimp one’s profile; add photos, reunion notes, avatars.
This was enough to spur me into action. Without hesitation I headed over to the site with the intention of removing myself from it altogether – committing social networking suicide. Long overdue and undoubtedly not the only one to have done so in recent time.
Before I went, though, I noticed this alert box, which sort of sums up the problem with FriendsReunited for me:
Why don’t I add myself to those contexts? Because they’re completely bloody irrelevant, that’s why.
I’ve never attended those institutions or lived or worked in those places, so why would I add myself to them? Just to be more present and “out there” on the Internet? To meet more people? Who I don’t know (yet)? Or in the hope that lurking somewhere in one of those places there may be someone I once knew, waiting to be discovered? Er, no.
FR was a turn-of-the-century novelty: one of the first ways that you could easily, legitimately and contextually hunt down your old schoolmates and peer nosily into their current lives without the need for (or fear of) reciprocation. Socially-acceptable stalking, dressed up as old-friendship-inspired curiosity.
The personal, public, externalising internet made that easier over the years, and experiences with global traction like Facebook soon eclipsed the relevance of FR, even if they came with their own array of pitfalls and social etiquette dilemmas.
Now the internet’s social spaces overlap, with people having multiple accounts across a range of social services, reproducing their social graphs wherever they create an identity. Increasingly, folk are feeding identical information into multiple outlets, to the extent that I’m overdosing on some people’s news, photos, statuses and updates. Twitter updates are fed into Facebook status updates. Notes saved on delicious are fed into Facebook notes. Pics posted on Flickr are rechannelled into Facebook galleries.
This means I sometimes see things twice, three times, from the same person but in different spaces. It has the effect of overwhelming and drowning out the updates of others – the less prolific, less connected, less socialwebbed, less loud.
So in light of that and the increasing noise from all corners, I’ve started a tactical withdrawal from social spaces – or rather, I’ve started to prune the social spaces I occupy to better tune into the signal that is there.
The immediate upshot of this is that I’m unfollowing/unfriending (as if that’s even a word, or at least as if that doesn’t come with all sorts of loaded connotations) a bunch of people on FB, not because I don’t like them but because I already hear them more loudly, frequently and appropriately in other places – like Twitter, or at work, or on mailing lists.
If this happens to you, it’s not about you: it’s about me, and my ability to give you proper attention, in devoted contextual space. I want to keep hearing from you; I just want to hear you – and others – better.
Oct 26, 2009 1
Back in the nineties, when the web was young…
…most web pages took over a minute to load
…the song of one’s home 14.4kbps modem was more familiar than any novelty ringtone (what’s one of those, then?)
…AOL was a groundbreaking kind of company
…chatrooms were still a non-sleazy novelty
…marquee and blink tags were in common usage
…a web-ring was a social navigational device, not a gang of kiddy-fiddlers
…many web sites had an entire page dedicated to links
…the use of nested tables to layout a website was cutting-edge
…Google, Blogger and Amazon were just a twinkle in the eyes of their founders
…Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Twitter were just random meaningless utterings
…building a web page was something only total weirdos would do
…dear, (now) departed Geocities was a vibrant and bustling place for play and experimentation, consisting of “neighbourhoods” and suburbs with particular themes or personalities, named after real or imagined geographical locations – SouthBeach, TheTropics, EnchantedForest, Tokyo, MotorCity, PicketFence, Petsburgh, Athens.
And each of these was stuffed with hundreds of citizens, tending hundreds upon thousands of lovingly constructed pages, each brimming with animated gifs, eye-bleeding backgrounds and a never-ending stream of scrolling, blinking, neon, capitalised, centre-justified text and badly-compressed, rasterized photos.
Including me, for a short while.
At the time, one of the most common phrases on the internet was “this page is under construction” – a sort of excuse or explanation, I suppose, often accompanied by a representation or parody of the symbols usually associated with road-works or construction sites in the non-virtual world. Strips of black and yellow tape or triangular red, black and white icons of ‘Men At Work’.
But thinking about it, it was a strange statement to make. At the time, the entire Internet was itself under construction; being built and explored and defined and designed and conquered and claimed by users just like me. By definition, web pages could (and can) continue being constructed, built upon, refined and redesigned forever – there’s no end to the work: even now, a redesign is only ever a temporary thing and its unveiling tends to be just a brief resting status in between periods of intense redevelopment activity.
The point is, the Internet can’t ever be completed, at least in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a living work in progress. The constant ripple of activity keeps it being. When it stops evolving, it stops being relevant. That was the point of web pages versus print and then as now, the idea of publishing flat print-like pages without interactivity or hypertextuality or even contextuality and formatting to the web is quite daft.
The web is alive: as long as there is networking occurring – both social and electronic – the Internet will exist and be continuously re-invented, never quite the same from one second to the next.
Back in the nineties, I used the idea of being under construction as the central focus for my (now horribly outdated and quite shuddersomely facile) MA Thesis: Under Construction: (Re)Defining Culture and Community in Cyberspace.
Don’t read it though. You can garner more knowledge about internet culture and community from five minutes on Twitter these days – and if you do decide to plough through it, remember that in the nineties many, many people (including academics) didn’t know what the internet was, let alone a modem, which is why it’s so full of explanations and definitions of terms.
In fact, back in 1997 when I stated my intention to embark on research in this particular area, I was told by senior members of the Anthropology department that there was no such thing as culture and community in cyberspace, and that I should redirect my attentions to something proper instead.
WHO’S LAUGHING NOW, EH?
The phrase ‘Under Construction’ is interesting for Anthropologists and other social scientists, who sometimes theorise that that culture is itself a construction – made and reinforced by the actions of those who show up and participate. In my thesis, I explained that even perception is not a passive experience.
We are constantly constructing the world (through perception, etc.) as much as the world is constantly constructing (shaping, changing and influencing) us. The idea of a ‘passive media’ such as television takes on a new perspective when it is understood that the process of watching a soap-opera requires the brain to unconsciously perform startling feats of interpretation and imagination just to make sense – images – out of the millions of pixels and lines fired rapidly at the screen, not to mention understanding the plot.
Fascinated back then – and still – by the idea that just by showing up, we are causing the net to come into a new phase of being. Leaning forward makes that link even more tangible. That’s still true, of course. Perhaps moreso than ever?
As a sidenote, I was thinking the other day how long it had been since I used the acronym “IRL” or the expanded phrase “In Real Life.”
It used to be the thing we’d say when we meant “not on the internet”, and I’m glad that it has become gradually obsolete over the years, now that the internet is accepted as part of life.
The internet is real life: I am real, sat at my real computer, engaging with the screen and the world beyond that it unlocks, in real time, via my eyes, ears, keyboard, mouse, attention. Online and offline make much more sense, being descriptive of state rather than reality.
(Likewise, I’m glad that we don’t talk about “virtual communities” anymore – as if spending time with people interacting around common interests and deepening relationships over time was in any way less than real. Now we know it can be, and that gets proved and reproved every day.)
So anyway, today’s unplugging of the Geocities life-support made me think about how we shaped it, and it shaped us.
Geocities slowly became unloved, unused and eventually undermined by wave upon wave of new services which helped us to express ourselves; live out loud, on the screen; learn to create/tinker/experiment; play with our identities; find others; experience the thrill of seeing our words, our work in a public “space”.
But for all its faults, Geocities was, for many long-term residents of the web, the first place they called home(page). And because of that, we mourn its passing.
But its spirit lives on. The creative, tinkering itch still runs thunderous and irrepressible through us. Our web experiences – and we ourselves – are still under construction.
Oct 24, 2009 5
As part of Quadriga’s Online Communication 2009 conference, I was invited by the organisers to present some reflections about how to communicate with people online, drawn from both personal and professional experiences, in the form of an after-dinner speech. This was a new experience for me: I’ve never done an after-dinner speech before. Lots of presentations, lectures, debates and panels, but nothing in quite this format before, with no visual aid, nestled in between main course and dessert.
Rather than just post my notes, here’s a fully-written up version of what I said, including links to sources, resources, inspirations and further reading. Forgive the slightly odd formatting, with so many paragraphs – it’s structured this way to reflect the emphasis and pauses and topic sections as I spoke.
If anyone wants it, I was thinking about making an audio version available to download, because this is fairly long (about 25 minutes) – let me know if this would be interesting to you. And if you’re interested in me giving this presentation (or one similar) at an event you’re organising, do get in touch.
When I first told my friends I was coming to Amsterdam to speak to a room full of online communication executives, they asked me why I had to fly to Amsterdam to do that. Why do we all need to get together in one room? Couldn’t I just do it by email, maybe in a newsletter or a series of tweets?
Well, maybe – but if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy such a delicious meal and wouldn’t have met so many of you face to face. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that.
Actually, yesterday I asked my Twitter contacts whether there’s anything they’d recommend to a room full of the best and brightest communication professionals in Europe. I got a lot of interesting answers, many of which I’ll draw on later, but I particularly liked this suggestion from a contact who said:
“Just tell them they should promote the juniors for two months and let them run wild over the internet.”
Well, it’s an idea. Not sure it’s the first thing you could do, but still…
When Quadriga were putting together the conference programme, I was asked to present my perspective on online communication from “both sides of the wall” – as a keen online user both personally and professionally.
I’s just like to note that that implies the wall is somehow this insurmountable, divisive thing which is rarely scaled. In fact, the walls are coming down. I think it’s remarkably easy – and getting easier – to hop from one side to the other, and in fact the boundaries are blurring for many of us every day. I count myself as incredibly lucky that my professional life draws on my personal experiences and passions.
As part of that, I have a confession to make.
Read the rest of this entry »
Oct 7, 2009 2
I was interested to learn (via Mashable) that Hipster social location game Foursquare is launching in London at the end of the week. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s not in fact the primary school playground game we used to call “Champ”, but a location based social networking game played mainly via mobile apps, which involves players “checking in” whenever they visit a bar, restaurant, event or hangout to receive points based on frequency, pattern of activity, who else checks in at the same time as them and so on (there’s a full breakdown of points awarded in their Wikipedia entry). With enough points, a player becomes the “Mayor” of a particular venue, until someone else overtakes them.
Friends (and family) in the US tell me that it is hopelessly addictive and that it’s increasingly the first thing people do when arriving at an event these days.
I’m not sure that London has enough social butterflies and hipsters to make this take off in much the same way (who am I trying to kid? Of course it does!) but it reminded me a bit of two other things I’ve been engaged with in recent time.
The first is recently-acquired by Nokia social travel tracker Dopplr, which contains strong elements of synchronicity and coincidence built in to the user experience – while no points are awarded, the service tells you when your friends will be visiting your city, or when your scheduled trip will coincide with that of another traveller you’re linked to. In theory, that could mean that you’d be able to drop people a line saying “Hey, Dopplr tells me you’re going to be in Madrid at the same time I’m going to be there – let’s do lunch!” though in practice my experience has been that I tend to know when friends are going to be in the same place as me because we’re going there for the same conference or wedding or whatever.
But another game I’ve been playing recently (and really getting into) is the rather marvellous noticin.gs which is wonderfully simple yet very addictive. The game involves taking photos of things you’ve spotted and then geotagging them on Flickr.
You get points for noticing things
and points for being geographically near someone else’s noticing
and points for being the first noticing in a new area
and points for being noticed within a few minutes of another player’s noticings
and so on.
All you need to do to play is take a photo and upload it to Flickr, tag it “noticings” and make sure it has location data – some mobile phone apps include this on upload, but if not, you can always do it manually later, bearing in mind that points are only calculated on the previous 24 hours of noticings.
It appeals to me partly because it’s a habit I have anyway (spotting interesting things on my daily routine or extraordinary explorations and migrations across town) combined with a delicious frisson of pointy reward but for things which are not to do with effort but to do with coincidence and synchronicity and chance.
In other words, playing the game is rewarding in itself because it encourages you to open your eyes and capture interesting stuff in the everyday; getting points for doing so in a time/place which coincides (or not) with another player’s actions which you couldn’t know about is a delightful, random cherry on top.
Oct 1, 2009 19
Being a list of British actors depicting Americans in popular TV programmes, arranged by how convincing their accent is
(In this scale good = “Blimey, I didn’t know they were British” and bad = “A British equivalent of Dick Van Dyke”)
|John Mahoney (Frasier)
Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Without a Trace)
Ed Westwick (Gossip Girl)
Idris Elba (The Wire)
Damien Lewis (Life)
Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck)
Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica)
Hugh Laurie (House, MD)
Robert Pattinson (Twilight)
Gabrielle Anwar (Burn Notice)
Joseph Fiennes (Flash Forward)
Ian McShane (Deadwood)
Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies)
Louise Lombard (CSI)
Minnie Driver (The Riches)
Dominic West (The Wire)
Kevin McKidd (Grey’s Anatomy)
Michelle Ryan (Bionic Woman)
Kevin McKidd (Journeyman)
Eddie Izzard (The Riches)
Mark Addy (Still Standing)
Of course, it’s not for a British person to say whether a fake American accent is convincing or not, because we don’t have the natural ear, so this is more of a list of British actors playing Americans on TV ranked in order of whether their accent is convincing enough to the non-native ear to suspend belief or confound expectations of an audience who have previously heard them speaking in a different way during a performance. See: Lovejoy, a bit of Fry & Laurie, Eastenders.
Sep 4, 2009 4
The many ways in which the experience of Twitter’s development and growing popularity is very much like the experience of early blogging
The reminder a couple of weeks ago that pioneering blog publishing engine Blogger was launched ten years ago got me thinking.
I’ve been blogging for nearly ten years now – since it began with a W – and being involved with something from the beginning, plus passionate (and sometimes despondent) about its potential and usage in the years since means I’ve had a lot of time to watch and think about how it has matured and been used. There are certain things which we can now look back on and consider milestones in the development and maturing of blogging – like how the media responded to it, how people embraced and used it and how it penetrated mainstream web usage over time.
Like blogging (which I started doing in January 2000, and used Blogger to publish my blog from April of that year), I’ve been using Twitter since relatively early on – my earliest update via Twitter was in November 2005. I’d link to it, but
a) it’s in my private/personal account (@megp) and
b) all my archived tweets (pre July 31 2009) have disappeared, as experienced by many others in this thread on the Twitter help forum.
It’s actually that help forum – and the appalling petulant and rude manner in which some users are addressing Twitter staff – which got me thinking more specifically about how, in so many ways, the timeline of the Twitter story mirrors that of Blogger and early blogging. Both have seen similar patterns of early usage and behaviour and adoption by certain functional and social groups, and both have learnt – the hard way, sometimes – about technical and social scaling issues as well as being a playground for emergent behaviours and activities, and all the fun and challenge that comes with that.
This isn’t an attempt to demonstrate that startups and new technologies are subject to many of the same pressures and reception issues – that’s been clearly documented and brilliantly expressed in Gartner’s Hype Curve. Rather, I wanted to explore some of the striking similarities in specific situations, movements and experiences in the early days of both micropublishing and blogging, from the perspective of an early settler and long-term resident of both of these strange and wonderful new(ish) countries.
So here’s something I’ve been working on for a little while: it’s a very approximate timeline of the activities, patterns, behaviours and reactions experienced by both Twitter (/micropublishing) and Blogger (/early blogging) during their first few years.
Read the rest of this entry »
Sep 2, 2009 2
Yesterday, a new empowering climate change campaign called 10:10 launched with the aim of encouraging as many people, companies and institutions as possible to sign up to a pledge to cut their personal carbon footprints by 10% during 2010.
Here’s a chunk from one of the articles from yesterday’s Guardian G2:
The 10:10 campaign, which is launched today in partnership with the Guardian, is designed both to answer the call for immediate action, and to offer individuals and organisations a meaningful way of taking it. It is the brainchild of Franny Armstrong, the irrepressible film-maker behind The Age of Stupid, a powerful docudrama about our failure to tackle climate change. The idea is compellingly simple: by signing up, individuals and organisations from multinational companies to schools and hospitals commit to doing their best to cut their emissions by 10% by the end of 2010, precisely the sort of deep, quick cut the scientists say is needed.
You can read much more about the initiative, the launch, the philosophy behind it and the difference that such an apparently small commitment would make here on the Guardian environment site (The Guardian is a supporting partner of 10:10, though this probably earns it a higher place on the IoS’s smuggest Britons list – this year we were included for being “Patronising toffs, taking their revenge on the world after being bullied at school.” Does that mean the IoS are pro-bully? Or just bitter? Most confusing. Anyway, I digress.) or at the official campaign site at http://www.1010uk.org.
I signed up yesterday:
10% is a very achievable reduction for the vast majority of people, and can be made through a small number of very simple (and not too hairshirted) actions (which we should all be doing anyway and which take very little effort)..
I’m inspired to think that a committed movement of people making small, personal but significant actions might be able to make a real difference. What was it Margaret Mead said…?
I hope you will consider signing up, too, and encourage your friends to do likewise, even though I know that many people try to live in an environmentally-sensitive way already, for lots of varying individual reasons.
Proselytizing aside, I went along to the launch event yesterday at the Tate Modern on London’s south bank, and had a few thoughts and experiences there that I wanted to jot down while they were still in my head.
Read the rest of this entry »