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.
Dan Nosowitz, “I Don’t Know How to Waste Time on the Internet Anymore”:
“The other day, I found myself looking at a blinking cursor in a blank address bar in a new tab of my web browser. I was bored. I didn’t really feel like doing work, but I felt some distant compulsion to sit at my computer in a kind of work-simulacrum, so that at least at the end of the day I would feel gross and tired in the manner of someone who had worked. What I really wanted to do was waste some time.
But… I didn’t know how. I did not know what to type into the address bar of my browser. I stared at the cursor. Eventually, I typed “nytimes.com” and hit enter. Like a freaking dad. The entire world of the internet, one that used to boast so many ways to waste time, and here I was, reading the news. It was even worse than working.
(It’s worth reading the whole article; it’s short, and I’m not about to quote every relevant piece of the article here.)
Here’s my own experience: when I first got proper access to the net at university back in 2001, I ended up with tab after tab after tab open, as I got lost in a spiral of links. These days… I end up with tab after tab after tab open, as I get lost in a spiral of links. The above from Dan isn’t something I can relate to at all; I can still find loads of things to do. A quick glance through the Trivia section on TV Tropes is all I need to end up reading endless fascinating stuff on obscure blogs. I can get stuck in much the same way on Wikipedia’s list of hoaxes, or spend hours lazing about on The Cutting Room Floor. And a visit to The Digital Antiquarian always lasts rather more time than I can officially spare to it. That’s just four examples out of hundreds.
Now, do I think that people spend too much time on social media these days in lieu of other stuff? Yes, I do, myself included.1 And there are many, many abandoned blogs that I wish were still updated. But that doesn’t mean the web is suddenly a wasteground. There’s always something for me to read or do online.
To be fair, Dan does go deeper than the above quote from his piece suggests:
“There is an argument that this my fault. I followed the wrong people; I am too nostalgic about bad blogs; I am in my 30s and what I used to think was fun time-killing is now deadly. But I don’t think so. What happened is that the internet stopped being something you went to in order to separate from the real world — from your job and your work and your obligations and responsibilities. It’s not the place you seek to waste time, but the place you go to so that you’ll someday have time to waste. The internet is a utility world for me now. It is efficient and all-encompassing. It is not very much fun.”
Maybe I’m lucky in that my work life barely involves the internet, except to check a few TV listings here and there. The net has never been about work for me. But then, I spend my work hours watching television for up to 12 hours a day… and then go back home and keep watching it while I have my tea. I’m not sure my work being online would affect me having fun on it too.
Anecdotally, however, here’s something which might be worth discussing. Because it’s true that I spend a great deal of time clicking around websites in a spiral of hot web action: but how many other people actually do that these days?
It used to be that when people visited one of my sites, they would have a look around and see what else was there. These days, that rarely seems to happen, according to my logs. People might come to Dirty Feed to read something that was linked to on Twitter… but they won’t click through to anything else and see what other things I’ve written.
Now, this could obviously be because people think what they’ve just read is complete shit, and they sure don’t need any more of that, thank you very much indeed. But I’ve talked to people about other websites, and this seems to be a common thing. Many people just don’t seem to click around like they used to. They’re far keener to go back to their Twitter or Facebook feeds rather than hanging around on a website, even if they found what they read interesting.
And this is something I find odd… because if I like something somebody has written, I’ll always look and see what else they’ve done. I might not read their entire oeuvre. But I’ll have a click around and see what else is on offer. A quick scroll through their archives to see if something catches me eye is the least I’ll do. And I’ll often end up with my aforementioned endless steam of open tabs.
Of course, the web has changed a lot in the last fifteen years. But I’m not sure it’s changed so much that it’s impossible for people to find fun things to read or do. I think some people are just getting out of the habit of clicking on a link and seeing where it will take them. And that’s a bit of a shame.
* * *
One final thought. If the above doesn’t resonate with you, and if you really do feel you can’t find enough fun stuff online like you used to, the beautiful thing about the web is that you can do something about that.
More to the point, the web makes doing that very easy. For instance, a lot of TV made these days isn’t quite to my taste, shall we say. But there’s not much I can do about that. I can’t make the audience sitcom of my dreams, and blast it out to the nation. But I can write silly things online for free, and publish them.
Take my recent set of articles about Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton plays. They didn’t set the world on fire; in fact, relatively few people read them at all. I got a bit grumpy about that at first, slightly embarrassingly, but then decided to take my own advice: numbers aren’t everything.2
The point is: those articles are something I wanted to exist in the world… so I went out there and wrote them. And we can all do this, or at least all of us who are in a position to write pontificating articles about the state of the web. If you’re not happy about the web as it is, you can go out there and do something about it.
So if the internet’s not fun for you any more… go out there and help make it fun again. None of us can change the world. But we can bend it, just a little. And if enough of us bend it, we might just get somewhere.
Of all the striking things about Dennis Potter’s 1965 play Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton, one thing in particular stands out: its use of real news footage, of Nye Bevan’s speech on the Suez crisis, and an “interview” with Oswald Mosley1 on unemployment. Clips which aren’t included into the play in a diegetic fashion, but are merely thrown into the mix when a character mentions them.
This is the tale of how such unusual method of storytelling may have preserved a little piece of history. And although the world probably doesn’t need any more Oswald Mosley2, Nigel Barton nonetheless provides exactly that.
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