Subsidised arts

A few inarticulate thoughts:

There has been a bit of a debate recently (that I’ve been reading, via my phone, on the way to work) about the place of subsidised arts in the ‘arts ecology’ of the UK. The general consensus seems to be that in these straightened times subsidised arts companies are becoming more conservative and as a result more overtly “commercial” in their programming. A friend of mine from Germany expressed the view recently that ‘if a commercial theatre is going to do it then a subsidised company has no business going anywhere near it’ and whilst I can completely understand the desire and need to maximise box office revenues I do agree with his point. The public subsidy surely exists in part to help create work that simply isn’t commercially in its (primary) focus.

I recently read an article written by Melvyn Bragg in the Daily Telegraph, the comments left under the article left no doubt that any public subsidy of the arts was an utter waste of money but given the readership of that particular paper that probably isn’t surprising. I have also heard directly from government ministers (who, depressingly, actually work at the DCMS) that there is ‘no point’ in public funding of the arts and it should be ‘left to the public to show what they want by where they spend their money’. But surely this is an utterly depressing viewpoint, if it was left entirely up to ‘market forces’ to dictate what art did and didn’t get made then we would (it seems to me) get stuck in a hideous downward spiral of banality until we reached some awful rock bottom that resembled the daytime TV schedule. Horrible.

But then maybe I’m just seeing this all through some lefty, guardianista, simplistic prism. Maybe we can’t afford to fund stuff that “noone wants to go and see”, that challenges audiences as opposed to to pandering to some arbitrary lowest common denominator of entertainment. Although if that is the case then I think I might move abroad, it’d be an entirely awful state for our society to end up in.

I’m aware that this is not an extensive, in-depth or particularly considered post, but it was on my mind.

Related stuff: (I realise there are a lot of Guardian links there so it’s probably not the most balanced selection of reading)

Mobile doesn’t just mean smaller screens

The issue of the mobile web has been just that, an issue, for years now. In fact its been an issue for so long that that even my undergraduate dissertation covered it (and that was years ago). The proliferation of smartphones means that a quick(ish), rich, meaningful and enjoyable mobile internet is available to more and more people (the less we talk about, or even remember, the bad old days of WAP the better).

When considering how to present an organisation’s offering to mobiles you need to remember that access via mobile devices doesn’t simply mean that people will be accessing your online offering via a smaller screen. It also means that they, for example, might (probably will) be accessing it via a touchscreen – does your mobile offering support this? Are you pushing lots of huge images to your mobile site or functionality that would be inaccessible or meaningless on a mobile device?

Also, it’s worth considering when and why people will be accessing your corner of the web via their mobile device, the reasons and situations in which they will be doing so probably differ from when they’d access via a laptop/desktop. A quick and easy way to see if this assumption is true is to check whatever analytics package you’re running and to see whether mobile traffic accesses the same sort of content as non-mobile traffic, my experience is that they are generally looking for and at different things, e.g. at Opera North the top 30 or so pages (by popularity) for mobile traffic are all for specific events/production page whereas for non-mobile traffic it is a much more even mix of production/event pages and also pages about the company’s work (e.g. Education/Support Us/etc).

When it comes to how your mobile offering might manifest itself you have (as far as I see it) 3 main choices: an app, a mobile-specific site (with a separate url, e.g. or a responsively-designed site (same url as everything else but the design/functionality changes based on browser/screen size). I don’t really think that there is any “right” choice however you do need to be aware that each of these ways of working have their own advantages and disadvantages, e.g. an app – you can provide a completely specified experience, link in with phone-specific functionality and even monetise the app however you’ll need to develop apps for each operating system (of which there are a few, even if you’re just looking at the main players you’ve got iOS, Android and Windows to contend with) which can be very expensive.

So, as I hope it’s clear even with the brief examples I’ve provided, mobile offers a wealth of potential (you could develop something that links in with the users camera, gps, social media activity) however the sheer amount of options available to you can also scupper the best laid plans. If you don’t give proper consideration to how or why your users will be engaging with your mobile offering then inevitably you will produce something that is unfit for purpose, frustrating for users and a complete waste of money.

Mobile shouldn’t just be an afterthought, the explosion in smartphone ownership means that in the next few years mobile is set to outstrip non-mobile traffic however it doesn’t just mean smaller screens, it is a different experience altogether and should be treated as such.

Web literacy – time to get technical?

I know I have blogged (ranted) on the subject of web literacy before (here), however that particular thought was aimed more at ‘thought-leaders’ and the like. This post is aimed more at thinking about people (regardless of sector) who have to use the web on a day to day basis. For these people I believe that some basic level of coding should be a mandatory skill. You wouldn’t let someone who didn’t have basic literacy skills draft and send a press release or write copy for a brochure so why isn’t the same basic level of ‘digital literacy’ required of people who output content on/for the web on an almost daily basis?

I’m not talking about the ability to juggle python, ruby, php and asp simultaneously, what I’m trying to describe is a better understanding of things like basic HTML markup (that actually conforms to standards!), or simple CSS. I think that the time has passed where these are ‘specific’ skills that should only be expected of people with ‘digital’ or ‘online’ in their job title (although lots of those don’t understand this sort of thing either…). If, for example, you work in a marketing department and produce copy for e-comms on a regular basis shouldn’t you have some idea as to how this should be marked up? I know a lot of time is spent by people wrestling fruitlessly with crap WYSIWYG editors that a basic knowledge of HTML would solve in an instant.

However there seems to be a fundamental mental block with lots of people whenever this sort of thing is mentioned. It is unfortunately seen as geeky, inaccessible and hard. Maybe this is a result of the lamentable way that IT has been taught in schools for too long? Whatever the reason I really do think that a basic understanding of this sort of thing would help lots of people in lots of very small ways to do their job (or help other people do their job) in a more efficient, effective way.

A few thoughts on Facebook

What with all the hoo-ha around Facebook’s flotation (for what it’s worth, $100bn – WHAT!? did the last dotcom bubble teach anyone anything? This is a fairly good article on the subject: Facebook IPO – do not buy), I thought I’d share a few thoughts I’ve been having around Facebook. Specifically Facebook’s headlong rush into forcing their Open Graph and concept of ‘frictionless sharing’ on everyone. I’m aware these aren’t original thoughts, and I’m arriving slightly late to the party but I think it’s a point that needs reiterating. Facebook’s idea of “frictionless” sharing flies in the face of how the internet works, and how I think it should continue to work.

Facebook is ruining sharing

Facebook’s drive to force everyone to operate within the Facebook ecosystem is irritating beyond words, Molly Wood’s excellent article articulates this far better than I ever could: “How Facebook is ruining sharing“. Worryingly a number of high-profile content producers/platforms have already embraced this new way of operating, namely the Guardian, The Independent and Spotify. I’m sure that they will all claim that this offers a more integrated, seamless experience for users but in reality I’m not so sure this is the case. It smacks of forcing proprietary solutions on people and any solution that sets out to reduce choice and prescribe things to users is a bad thing in my book. Why should I have to use the Guardian Facebook app to read a story if a friend has shared a Guardian link within Facebook? Surely the choice should be up to me? The fact that Facebook is taking this choice away from users can only be a bad thing and hopefully they’ll rethink, unfortunately I don’t think this is likely.

Follow the money

The more they (Facebook) can lock users into Facebook, forcing them to stay “within” Facebook for longer and longer periods of time whilst being able to gather even more data on their user’s activities (what you read, what you listen to, etc etc) means that Facebook becomes even more attractive to advertisers. Speaking as someone who runs fairly frequent ad campaigns on Facebook I can say that the way in which you can segment who sees your ads on Facebook is very attractive/useful/effective and if they can make this even more nuanced then Facebook will become even more attractive to advertisers – and given that the vast majority of Facebook’s income comes from selling advertising this is surely the way they will look to move.

Remember; if the product is free, then you are the product


Of course there are those that argue this hugely integrated concept can only be a good thing, that it takes the thought out of sharing and just makes it a default part of everyone’s online experience i.e. that all your activity will eventually be shared, on Facebook, regardless of where you are operating online. I couldn’t disagree more, much like the information you put on Facebook what you share should be a conscious decision, it shouldn’t be default, that is a dangerous move for anyone who cares about controlling their digital footprint (as I think everyone should). Of course there will then be the argument, as there is for ID cards and CCTV, that if you aren’t doing anything ‘wrong’ then you have nothing to worry about, but this fundamentally misses the point – if I don’t want to share with everyone on Facebook that I’ve just read an article about Russia and China vetoing a resolution on Syria, or a review of Borgen, or listened to 300 David Bowie songs back-to-back then that should be my choice, I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to ensure that this isn’t shared.

Further reading

There are (of course!) lots of excellent articles on this subject if it’s something you’d like to read up on. I’d recommend:

Why Facebook’s Seamless Sharing is Wrong
Facebook Hasn’t Ruined Sharing, It’s Just Re-Defined It
Is Facebook ruining sharing?
Facebook: Ruining or Evolving Online Sharing?
The Pros & Cons of Frictionless Sharing


One aspect of this entire endeavour that I didn’t really touch upon was the issue of privacy, if you start using these sorts of services then Facebook’s fairly complex way of setting your privacy controls may come back to bite you, as demonstrated quite succinctly here “Luluvise’s date-rating site shows where your Facebook data can end up“. Whilst that article concerns itself with an app that ‘adds functionality’ rather than sharing as such, it doesn’t take anything approaching a leap of imagination for this to have wider and more serious implications via “content sharing” apps too. To ensure that your data doesn’t get shared with all and sundry thanks to a ‘friend’s’ perchant for apps you’ll need to dig into the ‘Apps’ section of the ‘Privacy Settings’ in your Facebook account.

Stop worrying about the future, and/or worry about the now

Lots of people I talk to seem to spend a LOT of time worrying about ‘the next big thing/development/product/platform/way of working/etc’. Indeed there seem to be people who spend all their time thinking about what will happen in a year’s time rather than dealing with the way that things are at the moment. Of course this, in some cases, is to be expected – someone needs to absorb themselves in considering what is next going to impact our lives but you also need to understand the situation as it currently exists so you can actually get on with things on a day-to-day basis.

The problem is that as far as developments online go, things move pretty quickly. Often people are only just coming to terms with the last ‘big thing’ before 15 other products have popped up, all of which are being touted as the next important development which causes everyone to go into meltdown in trying to figure out how the hell they’re supposed to use whatever it is that is being proffered as the latest miracle solution.

I’m as guilty of getting excited about ‘new stuff’ as the next person. By their very nature people who work with ‘digital stuff’ tend to like progress, development and new ways of working. However too often this can spill over into taking your eye off the ball and not getting to grips with the platforms/products/etc that everyone is using now, if people who you want to reach are using a platform then it is relevant to you and you need to understand how to use it. In this I am talking about people who have a Twitter id but never use it, or have obviously never taken the time to work out how to use it effectively, the organisations who are on Facebook but engage with it in the strange, disconnected, 3rd person-7-times-removed-from-reality of a marketing team adopting the persona of a brand and then still trying to talk to people in something approaching a normal way, or companies who have a blog but have never posted anything worth reading, people who promote a Flickr account for no discernible reason, Youtube channels devoid of content etc etc etc, you get the idea.

What is strange is that these very same people will then doubt the ‘point’ of these platforms, they will claim that they ‘don’t work’ and are perhaps searching for the next big thing because of this perceived lack of effectiveness. However surely it is obvious that if you fail to engage with people/products/platforms then noone is going to want to engage with you. If you never say anything, or anything worth reading/responding to then don’t get frustrated at the channel – it’s not Twitter’s fault that noone is talking to you.

In my opinion it is an almost undeniable truth that with social platforms (and in that I am grouping everything from networks such as Twitter, Google+ and Facebook to content-sharing such as Flickr, Youtube, blogs etc) that you get out what you put in AND these platforms will only work for you if you recognise that they are populated by people and that you have to behave like an actual, real person in order for other actual, real people to respond to you. Of course I’m not suggesting that you should use your personal and organisation’s Twitter IDs in exactly the same tone of language but the tone should be degrees of difference on the same scale rather than coming across as though they are being run by people talking two entirely different languages.

So, what am I saying, in my typically rambling manner?

  • Social platforms are social
  • They’re also populated almost entirely by people (and some spambots)
  • You have to actually use them for people to notice you
    • You also have to use them in a way that is recognisable to other users, how do you use that platform/service/website when you aren’t at work? you should probably use it in a similar way when you are at work too (unless you spend all of your spare time posting naughty photos/videos of yourself or other questionable activities, if you do that then I wouldn’t recommend doing that when you’re at work too, you’ll probably get fired)
  • Stop worrying about whether or not this platform/service will exist next year – if your audience/customers/friends are using it now then, for now, it is relevant.