Late last year, I took a month off Twitter.1 No fuss, no drama, no attention-seeking. Just a short tweet saying I’d be back soon, which I was. Among other things, sometimes the news agenda simply becomes a little too much in my feed; considering my job involves watching the news endlessly for a living, I consider the move practical, not ostrich-like. I get more than enough of that stuff elsewhere.
I did, however, use the time away to perform a little experiment, based on something I noticed the previous time I took a little break. When I disappeared, my tweet count was bang on 70,000 tweets. (A move that tells you an embarrassing amount about how my brain works.) But what was my tweet count when I returned?
26th October 2017
21st November 2017
69,964. A difference of 36 tweets. But why? I hadn’t deleted any myself. Surely I should have exactly the same number of tweets when I returned? Is Twitter just really bad at maths?
In order to find out, I downloaded an archive of my tweets just before I took my month’s break, and downloaded another archive when I returned, so I could compare the two and find out what was missing. You may think this was a ridiculous thing to do. I would say it is entirely consistent with the kind of person who decides to get to exactly 70,000 tweets before they take their planned break from Twitter.
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Short version: you should all be listening to Jon Wolfert’s live Rewound Radio show (Sundays, 3pm ET, 8pm BST), full of great 60s/70s music, and loads of talk about radio and advertising jingles.
Long version: why would you want to do this?
Well, I’ve talked before about some of the reasons I love jingles, but hey – I’m just a fan. Jon Wolfert is president of JAM Creative Productions, who have made some of the finest jingles ever made… and also just happens to be the biggest jingle fan in the world. There is literally nobody else in the world who knows more about jingles than Jon. And listening to people talking about stuff they know and love is one of my favourite things in the world.
And he can bring the history of jingles to life in a way I’ve never heard anyone else do. Here’s one of my favourite examples from recent weeks – an eight minute segment from his show, on the topic of 1960s soul jingles:
Download “Rewound Radio (12/08/18) – Soul Jingles” (8MB MP3, 8:32)
Jon takes what could have been a difficult subject, and brings out a fascinating tale of not only music, not only radio, but of history, and people. Every jingle has a tale behind it, and nobody can tell those tales better than Jon Wolfert.
Rewound Radio, Sundays, 3pm ET, 8pm BST. Three hours of jingle fun, and loads of great music too. You can’t go wrong.
Here ends your public service announcement.
Earlier this year, a well-known web rascal died.1 I didn’t know him. I didn’t even really like his writing, despite it being much lauded; I found it a little pretentious, and prone to sweeping judgements. I have no reason to write about him. His death is none of my business.
Except: I can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s gone, you see. All his writing: he deleted it from the web years ago. So when his death was announced, and people across the world went to look for their favourite posts to remember him by… they weren’t there. None of his sites were still online. Sure, people went scrabbling around on the Wayback Machine to find his stuff again, but however amazing the Wayback Machine is, it isn’t perfect at preserving sites. For a guy who cared so much about how the web looked and felt, and gave attention to every detail, to see people being forced to link to the equivalent of a dodgy photocopy was… well, a shame.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not criticising him, and his specific situation. (There are particular reasons for this which are not necessary to go into here.) This isn’t really about him, in fact.
It just made me think. When you die, unless you were a right nasty piece of work, people will want to remember you. In years past, aside from the famous, that might only have been family and friends, gathering together and flicking through a book of photos. These days, if you live your life online, you might have people who read your nonsense who live halfway across the world. For that nonsense to just disappear into the ether means that when it comes for people to mourn… they can’t remember you in the way they would have liked. It’s the equivalent of chucking that book of photos onto a big bonfire.
When I die, I want to leave as much of myself behind as possible. Eventually, I’ll fade, as everything does. But I don’t want that to happen before it has to.
On the 30th July, I went to see The Lenny Henry Birthday Show recorded in TC1 at TV Centre. The following are a few notes from the experience. Nothing too spoilery, if only because my brain has an innate capability for forgetting the funniest of jokes precisely 10 seconds later.
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Back in April, Twitter started grouping responses to news stories together in your timeline, in a determined attempt to annoy you as much as possible. Now, they seem to have gone one step further. Take a look at what appeared in my timeline today:
Responses to actual tweets, all grouped together. Annoying enough, you might think, seeing as it’s one of the most lame-ass tweets anybody has ever posted in the entire history of Twitter. (Luckily, all the replies were pointing this out.) But that’s not what I’m complaining about.
What I’m complaining about is that it happened despite this:
Yes, @IL0VEthe80s blocked me two years ago, because I was mildly sarcastic to them. In which case: why the hell did their ludicrous tweet suddenly show up in my timeline? It surely doesn’t matter whether it’s a normal retweet, or Twitter’s weirdo “Tweeted about this” nonsense – if an account has blocked me, I should not be able to read their tweets.
And sure, it doesn’t matter in this instance. I was a little rude because their account is shit, they blocked me, we all move on. But if you’ve blocked someone for rather more serious reasons, then it really could matter. Once you block someone, you really need to be confident that person will see none of your tweets. You don’t need me to list all the circumstances where someone you’ve blocked seeing your tweets would be a terrible thing to happen.
Twitter protests that they’re really trying when it comes to dealing with abuse on their platform. But – alongside a million and one other indicators – things like this prove that they aren’t thinking about it nearly enough. They’ve rolled out a brand new feature, without taking into consideration the very fundamentals of account blocking – a hugely important safety feature of the platform. It should have been one of the first things that was thought of. Seemingly, it’s slipped through the net.
It really doesn’t feel like Twitter gives a damn about this stuff, does it?
BBC News, ‘Netflix effect’ poses challenge to British TV’, 18th July 2018:
Video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime now have more subscribers than traditional pay TV services in the UK, new data from Ofcom has revealed.
The media regulator says British TV will have to change the way it operates if it wants to compete with the internet giants.
Sharon White, Ofcom’s chief executive, says: ‘We’d love to see broadcasters such as the BBC work collaboratively with ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 so that they have got that scale to compete globally, making shows together, co-producing great shows that all of us can watch.
“I think it would be great to see a British Netflix.”
* * *
BBC Media Centre, ‘BBC announces changes to political programming’, 12th July 2018:
The BBC has announced changes to its political and parliamentary output to improve its digital coverage, better serve its audiences, and provide more value for money.
The changes include:
A changed schedule for BBC Parliament: the channel will still broadcast live and replayed coverage of Parliament and the devolved parliaments and assemblies, but will no longer make bespoke programmes and will not air in the weeks when the UK Parliament or the devolved Parliaments and assemblies are not sitting.
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Back in September 2016 – two months before Donald Trump won the election – I read a Twitter exchange. A Twitter exchange involving someone who worked on one of my favourite TV shows at the time, and was well known in the fan community for giving up their time to talk to fans.
A Twitter exchange which I can’t stop thinking about.
Somebody had compared Donald Trump to Hitler, you see. And this person didn’t like it. Oh, they didn’t support Trump, of course. In fact, they didn’t even object to his politics being described as Fascism. But they thought Trump being compared to Hitler was beyond the pale.
“I don’t think the US will allow genocide to happen again.”
“I just don’t like how it downplays the actual genocide that happened.”
And when it was pointed out to them that “It can’t happen here” is, in fact, one of the worst ways to downplay the Holocaust?
“I guess I just have a little more faith in your country than you do. /end”
Of course, in the subsequent two years, there have been endless debates about comparing Trump to Hitler. Here’s the pithiest, from someone who knows. But I keep coming back to the above conversation, because it was when it was really brought home to me how otherwise good people can’t believe when terrible things are happening, before it’s too late. Not people telling me about it, in long, ponderous columns. But seeing it happen before my eyes, with someone I liked.
Then: “I guess I just have a little more faith in your country than you do.” Now: children being forcibly separated from their parents.
Personally, I hope U.S. citizens will risk downplaying genocide. Just on the off-chance they can stop it happening again.
Jonah Nolan1, guesting on the podcast Scriptnotes, Episode #352:
“…I’ve done broadcast TV, and I’d very gotten very used to the sort of endless churn. I liken broadcast TV to getting a tie caught in a shredder. You’re just fucking all in. The prevailing rule of broadcast television for decades was once you’ve got that magic formula, that franchise of cast and characters and the story of the week, you just keep doing that. And I never had any interest in that whatsoever.
I think with Westworld much more explicitly we set out not using the rules of television, because TV has now expanded to fit so many different formats, it’s kind of the Wild West. We looked more at the rules for franchise filmmaking.”
Me? I love the churn. The churn is responsible for some of the best moments of television ever.
* * *
The churn gets you the angriest episode of Frasier ever made. The churn gets you Coronation Street‘s widely-praised storyline about Aidan’s suicide. The churn gets you endless fun on CBBC live links; tons of material, written fast, rehearsed minutes before transmission. The very definition of churn, and stuff which has had me hooting so loudly you could hear me three streets away.
And the churn gets you moments like the Star Trek: Voyager episode Course: Oblivion. Oh, I could have cheated here, and dug up a widely-acknowledged Next Generation classic: Yesterday’s Enterprise, for instance, which was done in such a ridiculous time crunch five people worked on the teleplay just to get the damn thing finished. Course: Oblivion is a divisive episode at the very least, and is rarely considered one of the best Trek episodes ever made.
But it’s a fascinating example of what the churn of television can create. The story of an entirely duplicate Voyager crew, which would never exist if Voyager was a carefully-plotted, 10 episodes a year kind of show. It’s a sideshow – the kind of episode which has many people asking “Who cares – they’re not our characters.”
Or put another way, it’s Voyager having the freedom to say: “What the hell, we’ve got 25 other episodes this year – let’s just do something weird and see what happens”. An episode so nihilistic it barely feels like a Trek episode at times, as our duplicate crew go unremittingly towards their destruction, through no fault of their own. And yet the episode is far from pointless; it’s about the need to be remembered, for your life to mean something. As co-writer Nick Sagan puts it: “it’s about loss and remembering, death and grief.”
I love it to bits. And we owe its existence to the churn of weekly television.
* * *
The churn is “Shit, what the fuck do we do this week?” – and coming up with an answer. Sometimes, the answer is crap. Sometimes, it’s merely fine.
But sometimes, it’s amazing. And you can end up in places it’s difficult to get to with your 10-episodes-a-year, we’re-really-just-one-long-movie-style plotting. Not necessarily superior places, not always. But places we may never otherwise have gone.
As ever: let’s embrace all the different ways we can make television.
Recently I read an interesting piece by design advocate Chappell Ellison: How to Take Criticism.1 I found it a slightly bizarre experience, in that while I kept wanting to agree with it – I’m not a fan of merely “insults as review” approach either – I ended up disagreeing at nearly every turn instead. Any piece which reduces Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s contribution to film criticism to merely their thumbs up or thumbs down is simplifying their work a little too much for me.2 That’s my problem with the piece as a whole: I think it’s coming from a good place, but lacks nuance.
But of all the parts of the article I’m not sure about, it’s Chappell’s approach to comedy in criticism which I found hardest to swallow. And there’s one particular example given as a bad example of criticism which I want to dissect a little. Let’s take a look at the logo for the University of California, and then a criticism of it posted by some random person to social media:
“I didn’t know the University of California was a Children’s network.”
Chappell Ellison thinks this review is worthless:
“These opinions aren’t wrong or bad. They simply aren’t meaningful.
They are jokes.
They only benefit the joker.”
And I just don’t think that is true in the slightest. Surely that’s only true if you think that jokes can’t be meaningful – and if you think that, I’ve got a shelf of comedy DVDs which prove otherwise.
Moreover, the actual point which the above joke makes is fairly obvious. Let’s rewrite it with the joke removed:
“The new logo for the University of California looks too much like one for a Children’s network.”
Now, you may agree with that criticism, or you may not. (I can see both sides.) But either way, the criticism of the logo is certainly not meaningless; the idea that a logo might take some incorrect visual cues and not properly reflect the organisation it was designed for is a good, solid piece of crit. Sure, it’s not the most in-depth piece of criticism ever written. But as Chappell herself says in the article: “To be a good critic, you don’t have to start a blog or write essays.”
The only reason a person might think the above doesn’t work as criticism is if you think framing the point in terms of a joke renders it meaningless. And this endlessly seems to be a problem with comedy. Over here is someone who thinks criticism expressed comedically doesn’t work. And over there is someone else, who dismisses sitcoms in favour of “serious, meaningful” drama. It’s all part of the same thing.
Criticism framed comedically is meaningless? That’s some of the worst criticism I’ve ever read.
Kate Lee, “Introducing The Message”, 22nd April 2014:
“One of the tenets underpinning Medium is that people write better together – or, as Ev has written, “Don’t write alone.”
In that spirit, The Message is a new collection for collaborative writing. We’ve gathered twelve writers and thinkers across technology, media, culture, and academia to publish together in one place—and demonstrate that the sum is greater than its parts. Think of it as a modern version of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table, whose members, in the course of conversing on a constant basis, collaborated on creative projects. We hope that, like the Round Table, The Message will allow for a flowering of ideas, robust debate, and thoughtful discourse.”
And so it did. Over the next year and a half, The Message published such things as the story of Tilde.Club, forcing your child to play old videogames, or how to scale Kim Kardashian’s backend. And while it never became a must-visit publication for me, I often found myself on there without even realising it.
And then, in 2016, it spluttered to a halt. Three articles about the Berenstain Bears in January, a piece about Zuckerberg and India in February, and then finally a piece about some fellow called Alexander Heffner on May 22nd. That was two years ago to the very day.
Since then: nothing. Not a single article published. Crucially: not a “we’re closing, goodbye, but there’s loads of other cool stuff on Medium”. Absolutely sod all. The Twitter feed is silent too. The project just… stopped.
OK, so it’s not exactly hard to find out exactly what happened, at least in vague terms. See this article on Business Insider, from June 2015:
“Two weeks ago, publishing platform Medium — which has become known for tech and culture blogs like Matter, Backchannel, The Nib, and The Message — announced a change in its direction.
Medium now wants to become more of a social network rather than a publishing platform. But this comes at a great cost to its full-time and freelance staff, people familiar with the matter told Business Insider.”
And although the article goes on to state that The Message was undergoing some “reshuffling”, rather than shutting down entirely… clearly plans changed. And the mention of budget cuts probably tell you all you need to know.
* * *
Medium itself is still going strong, of course. Here’s a blog about their latest developments. Which – and let me be absolutely clear about this – I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about.
Because I can’t forget how they dealt with the death of The Message. How they didn’t have respect for the publication’s readers, how they didn’t bother to do an official goodbye post. How they just abandoned it, and moved on to whatever the company set its eyes upon next.
How frankly, they couldn’t be bothered to do something like this. Wind up the project respectfully, and move on.
And why do I care so much? Because communication with your readers is everything when it comes to ending projects like this. I can deal with it on a personal blog, which is often just one person with far too much going on in their life. It’s not ideal, but it’s at least understandable. But Medium is a commercial company, and there are simply higher expectations. If you have an audience who is bothering to read what you’re putting out there, you owe it to them to actually tell them your publication is closing. As far as I can tell, Medium has made absolutely no official statement about The Message whatsoever. As much as anything else: it’s just rude.
There’s also some rather unpleasant implications which come from not shutting down The Message correctly: it gives the distinct impression that the company never cared about this set of writing in the first place, despite the words quoted at the top of this article. Because if they cared, they’d want to give it a dignified end. So if they didn’t care about this, how do I know they actually give a stuff about what they say they care about now?
Finally, and perhaps worst of all: it gives me absolutely no confidence that Medium will treat its current readers and writers with any respect whatsoever. If the company wants to change tack, they’ll change tack, perhaps silently, and damn everything else.
That’s their right, of course, and good luck to them. But I don’t trust a company like that with my words.