In praise of Parkruns

At the beginning of November I did my first ever Parkrun (18:54 since you asked, not spectacular but not as bad as I feared), it was something I’d been meaning to do ever since 2007 when I first heard about the weekly, timed run that went around Hyde Park’s Woodhouse Moor (a quick glance at the website – http://www.parkrun.org.uk/leeds/ – indicates it has been going since October 2007 so I guess that’s about right).

In case you’ve no idea what a parkrun is here’s a description lifted from their site:

parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.

So basically, they’re organised runs, that are about running, and nothing else. There’s no entry fee, no minimum sponsorship level required, no goody bag. In short there’s none of the paraphernalia that is slowly but surely turning me off mass-participation runs.

I was talking to my brother the other day after we both entered a race, he was commenting on how he’d felt like “a complete bastard” when he didn’t choose to tell the organisers which charity he was raising money for, because…he wasn’t raising money for a charity, neither of us were, we were entering the race because…surprise surprise, we wanted to do a run.

Now I want to be clear, I have no problem with fundraisers, there are some incredible people, doing amazing things in order to raise money for a charity that they believe in, and that is completely brilliant. Fundraising is also a great way into running for a lot of people. My slight problem lies with the fact that it has now become an assumption that if you are doing a race then you must be raising money for charity, people seem unable to understand that maybe you are simply doing a run because you enjoy running.

And that is part of the reason why I love parkruns, there is none of that ‘other stuff’, it’s a straight-forward experience, that’s just about running. I also like the fact that it is staffed by volunteers (who are normally participants giving up the odd Saturday, the rest of the time they’re there taking part with everyone else) and that it is 5k – a distance that more or less everyone can complete. It is incredibly well-organised, and by 9.30 on a Saturday morning you’ve already done something constructive with your weekend.

Long live parkrun.

p.s. I have since done a second parkrun, got my time down to 18:49, aiming ultimately for sub-17.30 but…let’s see.

Leadership in the arts sector

I was reading Sunny Widmann’s piece on leadership in the arts sector (Getting Unstuck: Developing Skills to Climb the Leadership Ladder)

Marc Vogl, who works with arts and culture organizations in his role as Principal of Vogl Consulting, aptly describes the problem as a clogged and leaky pipeline. Basically, there are a small number of leadership positions at the top, often held for many years by the same people (that’s the clogged part) and therefore more junior employees are stuck at their current level, growing increasingly tired of waiting around for these positions to come available. Eventually, financial realities of working at a nonprofit and the monotony of a static career path push workers to leave the cultural sector (that’s the leaky part).

This rang pretty true, even just looking at the 10 organisations who receive the most cash from ACE you can see a pattern (FYI, never do this research, it is very very tedious):

  • Royal Opera House
    • CEO: Alex Beard, in post less than a year but previously in senior roles at The Tate for over a two decades
  • Southbank Centre
    • CEO: Alan Bishop, in post since 2009, previously the Central Office of Information and Saatchi & Saatchi. Artistic Director: Jude Kelly, in post since 2005, previously artistic directo at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 1990-2002
  • Royal National Theatre
    • Artistic Director: Nick Hytner, in post since 2003, previously – The National Theatre
  • English National Opera
    • CEO: Loretta Tomasi, in post since 2005, previously senior role at ENO, previously to that a senior role at Really Useful Theatres for 12 years. Artistic Director: John Berry, in post since 2005, previously senior roles at ENO
  • Royal Shakespeare Company
    • Executive Director: Catherine Mallyon, in post since 2012, previously senior role at the Southbank Centre. Artistic Director: Greg Doran, in post since 2012, previously various roles at the RSC and in theatreland (hopefully he’ll never read that summary)
  • Opera North
    • General Director: Richard Mantle, in post since 1994, previously General Director of Scottish Opera
  • Birmingham Royal Ballet
    • Director: David Bintley, in post since…can’t quite work out but it’d seem to be at least since the late 1990s/early 2000s. CEO: Christopher Barron, in post since 2005, previously CEO at Scottish Opera.
  • English National Ballet
    • Executive Director: Caroline Thomson, in post since 2013, previously senior roles at the BBC. Artistic Director: Tamara Rojo, in post since 2013, previously – ENB/Royal Ballet
  • Welsh National Opera
    • Chief Executive and Artistic Director: David Pountney, in post since 2011, previously Intendant of the Bregenz Festival from 2003.
  • North Music Trust (essentially: Sage Gateshead)
    • General Director, Sage Gateshead: Anthony Sargent, in post since 2000, previously senior role at the BBC.

Now don’t get me wrong, these are huge organisations that require stable leadership from people who have experience leading similar-sized organisations, that’s perfectly sensible. HOWEVER in relation to my thoughts earlier this week about the lack of understanding and ambition in relation to ‘digital stuff’ in the sector I think this is potentially a big problem.

The reality is that digital simply did not feature in the world all of these people ‘grew up’ in, you could argue that good leaders would draw on the experience(s) of those around them to assist them on issues they didn’t have a view on. However I really think that such a fundamental shift in understanding is required that is just not going to be forthcoming from people whose experience for the last 15-20 years (or longer) is in running medium/large arts organisations, in an environment in which digital has never figured. Now of course there are exceptions to this, I’m not going to go into them here.

This lack of input from people whose whole lives haven’t been spent within the sector strikes me as a real problem. I’m sure it isn’t unique to the arts sector but of all the people I’ve listed above I can only see 2 who genuinely have experience at a senior level working outside the sector; The Southbank’s Alan Murphy and ENB’s Caroline Thomson (maybe 3 if you count Anthony Sargent but his BBC experience was…a long time ago). That’s 2 (maybe 3) out of 15 which is…not very many. I’m fairly confident that this is replicated across most arts organisations, now of course you could argue that the arts require a particular set of skills and experience that you can only get by…running arts organisations (although I guess this is far more true for the role of Artistic Director or whatever). Equally I am not, by any stretch, saying that this is the one reason for the lack of urgency around this issue in the sector, there are far more issues at play and nothing is that simple. However I am fairly sure that this lack of external expertise cannot be helping anyone tackle this particular problem and I think it is becoming clearer by the day that the arts sector probably can’t tackle it on its own.

Am I being completely naïve? Are there, in fact, lots and lots of organisations who have convinced fantastic people from outside the sector into senior, permanent positions (I’m not talking ‘associate whatever’ because that can mean…absolutely anything – including precisely nothing)?

You would maybe expect ACE to set the agenda, or at least try to help guide, on such an important issue. However given what I have seen, read and heard over past few years ACE have just as much problem understanding it as anyone else hence their eagerness to try and adopt things like live broadcast into cinema on a sector-wide basis – equally does this new-found love of broadcast (albeit in a mildly different form) come from the fact that ‘Baz‘ comes from a broadcast background so this is simply a solution that he can get his head around? Which, in a way, I think comes back around to making my point for me, people’s solutions to problems are invariable based on their own experiences, if you have no experience of digital solutions, interesting digital projects and all the rest of it, and all your peers come from precisely the same background then, really, are you going to be able to understand this threat/opportunity and react accordingly? I’d argue you probably aren’t. And that’s a real shame.

What’s the solution (I’ve been told, rightly, that I can’t just moan, I have to suggest solutions too)? I see the main problem at the moment being one of a lack of understanding, a lack of skills and as a result of this, a lack of ambition.

  • Clearly the money available in the arts sector is never (or very rarely) going to be able to attract the top, top digital talent, quite simply they are always going to end up at the big tech and media companies. So why not try and forge links with those companies? A ‘geeks in residence’ (Scotland, Australia, England) -type programme at a far more senior level than has already taken place would be an interesting avenue to explore.
  • I also see increasing the digital capacity of the sector as a whole as an important step that is needed, and quickly (this is something I’ve talked about before), this will ultimately ‘filter up’ and eventually result in leaders who at least have some knowledge in, and understanding of, digital.
    • And by this I DO NOT mean anything like the ‘digital capacity in the arts’ programme that has been run over the last 18 months
  • Alongside all this is the wider need for the arts sector to start to have some proper career development/progression opportunities for people, I know the AMA are trying to set the agenda in this area in relation to marketing and comms and there seem to be similar moves in fundraising, I see a need for this in relation to digital as well. But I am not just talking about courses for people to learn how to send emails, I’m interested in the artistic implications/possibilities that digital presents, we can’t just focus on upskilling the ‘support/admin’ side of the sector and leave the artists behind, that would almost be worse than doing nothing.
  • Unrelated to leadership but: there needs to be more digital ‘messing about’ as a matter of course, I’m not convinced that as a sector we’re particularly good at trying things out and being happy if it doesn’t quite pan out as expected, and then learning from that. This sort of low-level, iterative play would then help to at least build some momentum around digital thinking and start to provide a foundation for people to start to understand the possibilities and what might, or might not work.
  • Also digital needs to stop being talked about as just a distribution channel. Yes, that is one of the potential applications but it is by no means the only one and it’d be short-sighted and narrow-minded to only pursue this.

So, what do you think? Does the arts sector have a problem with a lack of diversity in its leaders? Is this lack of diversity then having an effect on things like digital ambition across the sector? I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts.

important p.s. although this doesn’t relate to my point about digital, only 5 of those leaders (out of 15) are women. 1/3? That’s pretty disgraceful.

‘Digital’ in the arts

So, returning to an old subject, about which I’ve got very annoyed in the past.

Last week Arts Council England (ACE) published the second version of their 10-year strategic framework for 2010-2020 (you can read the whole thing here). Now they mention ‘digital stuff’ quite a lot (the always excellent Chris Unitt has done a good job of breaking this all down here). I use this by way of an introduction, not to explore the specifics of the ACE framework (Chris U does a much better job on that front than I could anyway – see previous link), but more to draw attention to the fact that, yet again, ‘digital’ is being put front and centre. My point of desperation and frustration comes from the fact that despite positive noises that have been fairly consistent (certainly in the 3 or so years I’ve been at Opera North and anecdotally for longer than that), there is very very little by way of actual, tangible signs that anyone in the arts sector really ‘gets’ digital in any meaningful way. By that I mean there still seems to be no understanding of, or desire to confront the reality that digital/technological development has brought about. I can sort of understand why this happens, arts organisations find themselves confronted with an uncomfortable reality, audiences are down, funding is reduced (and from certain sources, gone altogether), they’re expected to do more with less, people are accessing and experiencing the world in a ways that – for the most part – arts organisations are completely clueless how to engage with. I get that, it’s scary, it’s difficult, there isn’t really an obvious answer to whether or not it’ll pay for itself, ever, it’s easier to just do what they’ve always done, change just enough to tick a box on a funding form and hope that the situation will improve one day. Unfortunately I can see absolutely no way that that is going to happen.

I was following the tweets from a conference the other day (I forget which one, there are so many, how do people find the time?), and one of the speakers was quoted as saying “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital“. That feels like the situation we’re currently in in the arts sector. Everyone sort of grudgingly accepts that ‘digital’ is something you need to at least pretend to be doing but the situation hasn’t quite reached the point where reality has caught up, we can still kid ourselves that having a website and ‘doing Twitter and Facebook’ is enough.

And this situation, in my view, fundamentally undermines all the worthy words that ACE come out with. The reality, at the moment, is that arts organisations can basically do the bare minimum in relation to digital/online and, at the moment, there are no consequences. The depressing thing is that this is simply storing up a whole world of woe for the medium term. The lack of ‘digital capacity’ in the arts sector is something I’ve bemoaned previously, the lack of impetus, the lack of ambition and the lack of understanding is exacerbating this situation horribly and nowhere, do I think, is this more painfully obvious than with the websites of most arts organisations.

What should the website of an arts organisation do? What should it look like? What function should it serve. I’d say that 90% of the sector couldn’t really answer these questions with any degree of confidence. Maybe they’ve never asked them, maybe there are too many conflicting agenda within the organisation for them to be able to have a clarity of purpose. But worryingly this seems to result in a lot of websites that seem to serve the purpose of being an online brochure. I’d argue that this does noone any favours, not only does it reduce the websites of arts organisation to the level of blandly ‘selling some products’ and presenting a load of tedious information that serves no purpose than to be some sort of odd, permanent funding application, but the lack of ambition that these sort of websites represent point to the fact that, for many organisations, digital is still something that ‘sits with marketing’. There is no desire for – say – the programming or education teams to embrace the possibilities of digital and use that to represent their activities online in any meaningful way.

Some examples: this is the website for the National Portrait Gallery http://www.npg.org.uk/. Boring, huh. Unengaging, flat, unexciting. Here is how they’re displaying some portraits from the Tudor period: http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/explore/by-period/tudor.php (crikey that’s dull…so, so, so dull). Now, this is the website for the Google Art Project: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project. How is that a technology company can so comprehensively understand how to present artwork and a NATIONAL GALLERY can so comprehensively fail to? It’s so depressing. The NPG’s Tudor collection is presented like some sort of never-ending brochure of tedium. Google makes the art feel vivid and visceral and present (Google also provides far more information about each artwork but that’s by the by). NOW THEN, I’m probably being slightly unfair (in fact I almost certainly am), Google is a multi-billion dollar, global company who can afford to fritter away millions on ‘hobby projects’ like the cultural institute, the NPG is a gallery that receives almost 50% of its funding from government and a large proportion of the rest from donations. But to provide a bit of balance, here’s a website of an organisation (in a similar field) that I think really do seem to ‘get it': https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ – exciting, dynamic, engaging. Everything that the NPG isn’t. Add in the fact that the basic, underlying design architecture of the NPG’s website is hopelessly outdated (try using it on a mobile…or any screen that isn’t 800×600) and I think it provides a fairly good example of the worrying situation I think we’re in. This is a bloody national gallery. A national gallery should surely be setting the tone for the rest of the galleries in the nation? Or at least be subjectively ‘good’. This, quite simply, doesn’t, and isn’t.

Think this is unique to galleries? Nope. Soz.

The National Theatre is widely acclaimed for their NT Live stuff, broadcasting (live) from the NT itself into cinemas around the world. This seems to be celebrated as a great example of ‘digital’ – I’d argue that it isn’t really, it’s just sort of doing broadcast in a slightly different way, this essentially could have been done in exactly the same way 30 years ago. Again, have you seen their website? http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ – I mean it’s not terrible but it’s hardly interesting, or exciting, or engaging, or representative of theatre in any real way. Now I suspect they are in a slightly less bad situation compared to other organisations in that a) they’ve got fucking loads of money, b) they’ve got blimmin’ loads of content and c) I’m sure someone, somewhere is working on a new site for them so my opinion will shortly be out of date. But once again this, to me, feels, at best, like a catastrophic missed opportunity and at worse a clear sign that they don’t get digital at all. I don’t know the people at the NT, so I couldn’t say which of these views is more accurate. But surely as the NATIONAL Theatre, as well as championing new writing (which I’m told they do quite well), they should also be championing and exploring what theatre is, or could be, in the 21st century and the future. At the moment they really, really aren’t. And don’t tell me NT Live is them doing that because, it isn’t. Spending £150k a go to shoot and stream a play from a theatre into cinema isn’t innovative or exploratory, it’s a great exploitation of proven distribution techniques and a proven brand being used in a slightly new way and it is very successful on those (and commercial/profile) terms, but an example of theatre in a digital world? No. Someone who had never been to the NT, who knew nothing about what it was, would not get an accurate or interesting impression from visiting that website. Equally it’s not particularly great at selling you a ticket (but I’ve rarely found a theatre that does this well) which, I assume, is probably its primary purpose at the moment.

I know these are just two examples, and some would say the NT are doing just fine, ACE certainly seem to subscribe to this view seemingly ignoring the fairly substantial financial barriers to entry for this particular model of ‘doing digital’ (I don’t know about the NPG – I think they were advertising for a Director of Digital recently so maybe they’ll have their revolution soon), however these are two ‘national’ organisations, based in London, they are well-funded, they are in the capital surrounded by incredible digital talent and if THEY aren’t doing stuff that’s great then god help the rest of us.

I know it’s not easy to get websites built for arts organisations (I’ve been there, I’ve done it), a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the potential results in the organisational website being treated like a glorified brochure, the number of agendas which are suddenly ‘all equally important’ means that design by committee is, at present, an unfortunate reality in most situations. However I’d argue that arts organisations need a watershed, and soon, they need to grasp the nettle, and start getting their heads around what they can do with digital. Why is it that websites for theatres, galleries, dance companies, west end musicals and opera companies all, for the most part, look exactly the same (and uninspiringly so) when what these companies do is so different?

We need to move to a point where the websites of arts organisations are as exciting, inspirational and engaging as what the organisations do. Now don’t get me wrong, by that I do not mean that websites should be flashy and difficult to use and clever for the sake of it. They just need to be better and they need to be representative, this is the arts sector, not a bloody wallpaper shop. (wikipedia to the rescue here) ” Goethe defined art as an other resp. a second nature, according to his ideal of a style founded on the basic fundaments of insight and on the innermost character of things. Leo Tolstoy identified art as a use of indirect means to communicate from one person to another. Benedetto Croce and R.G. Collingwood advanced the idealist view that art expresses emotions, and that the work of art therefore essentially exists in the mind of the creator.” Do the websites of arts organisations, as they currently exist, even come close to achieving any of these things? Websites aren’t just catalogues, they can be, and should be, so much more than that. And the fact that they aren’t is deeply worrying.

To round this all off I want to credit a few places that I think are doing good things (although these are by no means flawless examples I think they’re worth a look). I’ve already mentioned the Rijksmuseum above but they deserve mentioning twice, not only do they look like they get it: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/ but they act like they get it too https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio-award. The Southbank Centre’s new site is a million times better than their old one, it actually looks vibrant and exciting and diverse (which, I think, is what they want) http://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/ – not only does it give a sense of the place but the design would also seem to provide a fairly flexible platform for ‘messing about’ in the future. Important. Another decent effort is from National Theatre Wales (who genuinely are exploring what theatre might look like and be) http://nationaltheatrewales.org/.

Please feel more than free to disagree with me, or to point out other people who are doing ‘good stuff’ (they should be commended) via the comments below or on Twitter, I’m @biglittlethings.

p.s. I do worry sometimes that maybe I just misunderstand the entire situation and I should be more forgiving and patient and there are in fact lots and lots of completely great things happening that I’m simply unaware of. However the more I look, and the more I ask, the less convinced I am this is the case. I am aware there are some people doing good stuff, but I’d say they are very very much in the minority. Equally I am aware (as people have been quick to point out in the past) that this malaise is not unique to the arts sector, I know, but I work in the arts sector, I care about the arts sector and this post is about the arts sector.

Related:

Responses:

This seemed to strike a little bit of a nerve on Twitter n tha’, a few responses below…

Valid point about design vs function from @ammeveleigh

@etiennelefleur indicated that he thought my focus was too firmly on websites and digital at the expense of organisations’ core mission/purpose (which I disagreed with but it was an interesting discussion)

and then the always-excellent Chris Unitt wrote this very good response (far better researched and referenced than my original blog! I’ll write something properly considered in response to a couple of his points)

Some people definitely thought I’d over-exaggerated the importance of digital, although I’d argue this viewpoint is part of the problem that could land us all, as a sector, in trouble quite soon. And I am never arguing that digital is more important than ‘core’ activity, core activity/purpose/mission/whatever is the starting point for absolutely everything.

But it was also good to see that people seemed to agree (and yes this is bordering on the self-congratulatory but I don’t care)

Digital strategy: why, how…wait…why again?

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months pondering questions of strategy, partly because I’m a deeply boring person and partly because it’s sort of my job.

I was half following the discussions at today’s Leeds Digital Lunch which was attempting to define (or at least explore) the question of a city-wide digital strategy for Leeds, now I was only following things at a distance, via Twitter, so there is no question that any sort of nuance was completely lost on me but it did make me even more sure of a few things that’ve been on my mind of late.

Every now and again I’m asked to help define a digital strategy, whether that’s at work or inputting into things other people are doing elsewhere.

Let me say this now, and loudly (imagine all this is written in caps): a digital strategy, on its own, is a pointless thing. Completely pointless. You may as well have a ‘chairs strategy’ or a ‘conversation strategy’ or an ‘indoors strategy’. Saying you have a digital strategy, or you need a digital strategy doesn’t really mean anything. I understand why these conversations happen, digital (especially in the arts sector) has come to be an awful, nebulous, catch-all term for…well, sometimes it seems to cover anything that involves electricity, or technology – i.e. it is so broad and indistinct as to be almost completely meaningless.

Someone said recently (and I forget who so, sorry): “it’s a layer.” Now, the fact that they didn’t really define what ‘it’ was seems to back up my earlier point, but this definition seems to get closest to what I think people are describing when they talk about ‘digital’. And this brings me to my second point of frustration about the drive towards a digital strategy, it isn’t really a thing, digital (or at least what I think people mean when they say ‘digital’) is reaching a point of all-pervasiveness which means it enables, represents or engages with almost every single thing we do. In and of itself it isn’t really anything, social media is just conversations and other socially interactive behaviour but carried out and represented via the internet and web-enabled technology. Take it out of that context and into the real world and it’s just…talking and that. The same could be said of many, many ‘digital’ activities and functions – ‘digital’ (and yes I’m keeping the apostrophes every time I write it) is something that bleeds into everything your organisation does, and if it doesn’t at the moment it will do in the not too distant future. The advance of digital, technological development and all that jazz has fundamentally altered (or some might say irrevocably damaged) industry after industry, and it’s not going to stop.

Your digital strategy, if we’re still admitting that it might be a thing that exists, should be something that exists in terms of how you’re going to think about every other element of what you do. It is something that enables other activity. It is, in my view, probably more influential over tactical activity than your strategy itself.

“We aim to reach new audiences” – strategic aim. How you achieve that can be done in any number of non-digital ways, however digital can also play a part in helping you meet this aim in conjunction with the non-digital, revelation time – you do not need a digital strategy to accomplish this.

Saying “we aim to reach new audiences online by filming our work and putting it on youtube” is NOT A STRATEGY, that is a description of tactical activity.

All too often I see and hear people describing a succession of activities that don’t really have anything at all to do with anything and trying to call that a digital strategy. Being more active on social media, improving your website, creating more content, making better use of your data – not a digital strategy. Just ‘doing more stuff online’ isn’t strategic if you don’t have any clear idea about WHY you are doing it.

The sooner we stop thinking of ‘digital’ as this thing we can put a ring around the better, the relentless speed at which technology develops (and behaviours and attitudes along with it) means that the moment you start trying to define it you’re already out-of-date and becoming less relevant with each passing moment. People get far too hung up with specific technology, or platforms. We should be able to step back and look at what we are are trying to achieve and assess the tools available to help us do that. Now many of these tools are likely to be technological (or ‘digital’) in nature, however we don’t need a separate strategy to tell us that. I really feel that a sensible organisation would have, by now, realised that the ‘digital strategy’ debate is a distraction, it should simply be part of everything we do, because it probably already is.

So there we have it, my two problems: 1) I think a lot of people misunderstand what strategy actually is and 2) a digital strategy makes no sense, “it’s a layer”.

Discuss!

What I think about running when I’m reading books about what people think about running

I like reading, I’m no great literary mind but I like a good story. I also really like reading about things that I enjoy doing, so recently I’ve been working my way through a few books about runners, running and the like. To start off with I read ‘Born to Run’ which has in part been credited for helping to fuel the barefoot/minimal running argument/craze/fad. I’d been putting off reading it for ages because, well, everyone else was reading it and I’m a contrary twat sometimes. But I bought it for my brother for his birthday and he loved it so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s a really passionately-written and fascinating book, I suspect you probably have to have an interest in running to enjoy it and there are certain parts of your brain you need to switch off to go with how vociferous the author is about certain things. But on the whole, a good read.

It made me think a bit more about running, and why I run. A few friends have started running recently and it’s interesting to observe how other people approach it, and what they get out of it. Warning, what follows is very introspective and probably quite boring, but I enjoyed writing it.

The first time I went for a ‘proper’ run was with my dad, I was about 9 or 10 and really wanted to go with my dad when he went for one of his ‘jogs’. It was probably only about 2 or 3 miles, from the village where we lived to the nearest town and back, but I remember it really vividly. It was dark, it was misty, I was wearing a gilet (it was the 90s, shut up) and it made my lungs burn a bit (the fun of running in the cold). I remember being quite proud when we got back to the house.

I’m not really sure at what point I went from someone who went for the odd jog to considering myself ‘a runner’ – maybe while I was at uni as a reaction to the hugely unhealthy lifestyle that comes with being a student?

I didn’t really start training properly and regularly until I was training for my first marathon in 2010, I think that was the point when I really ‘got’ running. Before then it had always seemed a bit difficult and something to endure rather than to enjoy. The all-encompassing nature of marathon training made me confront the more meditative aspects of forcing yourself to go for a 2 or 3+ hour-long run. I don’t think at any point up until then I had ever given myself that long alone with my thoughts, certainly not consciously. I quite liked that realisation, from then it felt like I was getting more from running than just the physical health stuff. I realise that is not the most well-articulated epiphany but I think it goes a long way to explain why I have spent more and more time running over the last few years, not only does it feel like you are actually accomplishing something (even if that is as banal as travelling an arbitrary distance that also, normally, means you end up where you started) but it also gives me some time, most days, to sort out my thoughts and work out what I think about things – sort of ‘brain admin’ for want of a better description.

I also love the improvement/achievement aspect of it all, follow a training plan and you will improve. And that’s great. You get out what you put in, there are no shortcuts, you can’t just decide to run faster, or further, you need to work at it, in the simplest possible terms I am completely in love with the honesty of running.

I don’t really like training with anyone, I love racing with lots of people I know for all of the pre and post race stuff but training is my thing, time spent, on my own, where my opponent is myself – this is probably deeply anti-social and misanthropic.

I have an ongoing argument with myself about listening to music when I run. On the one hand it’s quite nice to stick on some music and detach yourself from the entire experience a bit but on the other hand that feels a bit like cheating, and like you’re trying to trick yourself into forgetting that you’re actually running. At the moment I am in a ‘no music’ phase, but sometimes training just gets really difficult and any distraction is welcomed.

Running is great, I love it, I probably spend more time running than I do on most other things other than work and sleep.

ACE annual submission

As part of my day job I’ve just had to fill out part of Opera North’s annual Arts Council submission. The ‘digital’ section is all of 6 questions long:

– Do you monitor web metrics for your organisational website? Web metrics are the measures used to quantify the performance of a website, for example page impressions, unique browsers, visits and visit duration.

Please provide the following web metrics for your organisation’s website over the last 12 month period.

– Number of unique browsers?This is the total number of unique devices (e.g. computers or mobile phones) that have made requests to the site in the period being measured.

– Number of page impressions? This is the total number of requests (e.g. mouse clicks) made for a site’s content by users of the site (i.e. unique devices) in the period being measured.

– Number of visits? A visit is a single period of activity by a unique browser.

– How much time have visitors spent on your organisation’s website (in seconds). 

– Does your website have specific content for children and young people aged 0-19 years and / or teachers?

I think that this helps to illustrate my ongoing frustration that it feels that the arts sector doesn’t really ‘get’ the internet/digital/whatever you want to call it, on any meaningful level. These are all ultimately meaningless, vanity metrics. What is this data going to help you to prove? What will it inform? Is there any qualitative information being gathered there? No. Will you get an idea as to how the growth of the mobile web is impacting arts organisations? How organisation’s content is being consumed? Whether audio is more popular than video? Whether blogs are more popular than podcasts? How much ticket buying etc is now happening online? No to every single one of those questions.

It’s interesting that the final question seems to hint towards trying to get some information of value, although when the answer is just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ I’m not sure how deep any insights are going to be. We could have an entire suite of carefully developed educational materials, or we could have a pdf of a handout that is completely unfit for purpose, regardless we would still answer ‘yes’.

But, as ever, maybe I’m missing the point, maybe this is intended to be one big, snapshot, bean-counting exercise designed to create a giant spreadsheet of essentially pointless information.

Although while this is the level of interrogation that the digital element of an organisation’s activity is subject to on a sector-wide basis, from the body that funds everything, I can’t really see things improving any time soon.


Cookie Monster

So something that seems to have been exercising the worry muscles of quite a few colleagues of late seems to be the latest EU privacy wheeze and how it impacts the way that websites operate. If you want to read more about the Directive then there is further info here http://www.cookielaw.org/ and here http://www.ico.gov.uk/for_organisations/privacy_and_electronic_communications/the_guide/cookies.aspx. The Directive is so vague and there isn’t really any suggested or recommended way of implementation that anyone official has endorsed but the thrust seems to basically be that if your site drops a cookie on a user’s machine for anything other than ‘essential website functions’ then you need to get the user’s explicit permission to do so. There are a few things to consider with this, number one (to me at least) seems to be that most internet users don’t know what a cookie is, they don’t care what they do but they DO care about their privacy. So if they are told that cookies track your behaviour, they record what you do, what you look at etc then I would say that most people will think that that is creepy, 1984-esque awfulness that they want no part of. They don’t care how tailored that can make their browsing experience, they don’t want you, me, Google, Facebook, whoever knowing what they do when they’re online. And I can’t really say that I blame them.

Some useful info from EConsultancy who recently carried out a survey on this subject: “89% of UK consumers think that the EU cookie law is a positive step, though 75% had not heard of the e-Privacy Directive before they were surveyed.” http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/9819-89-of-uk-consumers-think-the-eu-cookie-law-is-a-positive-step-but-is-it. Basically they don’t care or know what it is, but they like the sound of it.

Coming out of all this confusion are a number of ‘solutions’ ranging from much clearer and better-written privacy policies (which I am massively in favour of) through to fairly clunky and garish opt-in mechanisms (which I am less in favour of).

So what should you do? Well firstly at least get an idea of what cookies your site uses (if you don’t know this already, forshame!), then work out how worried you are by the prospect of “failing to comply” (I would say, don’t be that worried – unless your site is hugely cookie-dependent or, having audited the cookies you do drop, you realise there are some borderline shady practises at work). The ICO has indicated that fines aren’t likely unless you are doing some “really bad stuff” (my words, not theirs) http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/enterprise/374734/ico-no-fines-for-breaking-cookie-rules so in general I would say, be aware, have some idea as to how you might implement a range of solutions, monitor the situation from Friday (or whenever the thing goes live, I can’t remember) and react accordingly. Things I would not recommend: flapping around and implementing some poorly thought, clunky, horrible to use opt-in system that scares your users away and makes you look stupid.

Discuss!

Google Analytics – things that I think are essential

There are a couple of things that I would say are really, really important to set up if you’re using Google Analytics and want to properly measure campaign activity/effectiveness. The first thing is to include UTM tags in all your links and the second is to properly set up goal-tracking on your site.

UTM tags and Google’s URL Builder

Google are pretty good at providing you useful, free tools for getting the most out of their various products. Unfortunately they’re quite bad at putting these tools in an easy to find place, and they’re even worse at explaining how to use them! If you send out 3 email newsletters surely you want to be able to find out which of these sent traffic to your site and what these visitors did whilst they were on your site, similarly you want to be able to deliniate this traffic from traffic coming via a banner ad, or from social media, or from a blog you posted on another site. A good way to track all of this is by tagging links to your site/pages with Google’s URL builder tool, which lives here: http://support.google.com/googleanalytics/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=55578. It’s pretty straight-forward to use and there are examples on the page so I don’t think it needs any further explanation – but shout if this assumption is misplaced and I’ll do a step-by-step walkthrough.

Advanced segments

Once you have tagged all your links you’ll then want to go into Analytics and set up some ‘advanced segments’. Now these segments allow you to break down traffic into everything coming from a specific campaign, source, site or whatever. Typically I will set up a segment for every campaign e.g. Spring-season-announcement and then also set up segments for each element of that campaign e.g. eflyer, twitter, banner ads etc. To set up a campaign-specific segment you simply click ‘New Custom Segment’ then choose to ‘include’ ‘campaign’ containing ‘whatever you entered into the campaign name field in the Google Url Builder‘ – call the segment something meaningful and then just click ‘save segment’, this will then show you the activity for all the traffic that came via a link tagged with that campaign name, you can use the usual breakdowns into traffic source, location, etc to delve further into this traffic.

If you want to create a segment that is just for, for example, all the traffic coming via a banner ad then – and this example assumes you are just running one banner ad – you set up the segment as above, however instead of saving it at the end you’d add another rule, so click ‘add AND statement’ then click ‘add dimension or metric’ then click ‘medium’ and in the field enter whatever you entered into the ‘campaign medium’ field in the URL builder. Then save that segment and it will show you the activity of all the traffic that has come from a link tagged with that campaign name and that campaign medium (in this case, a banner ad).

Hopefully you can start to see (as with building any query) that depending on what you want to find (and defining this first is essential) you can build custom segments to show you lots of different things – however you simply must start tagging all your links so that all your online activity starts to work together.

Goal tracking

To supplement this bit, here is a Google help article on exactly the same subject http://support.google.com/analytics/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1032415

Right, so you’re tagging your links, you’re starting to get an idea that your Spring campaign (or whatever) was really successful in driving traffic to your site and you can see that the eflyer was particularly successful within this campaign. Next thing you need to know is how much of that campaign traffic is actually resulting in…whatever it is that you have your website for, whether that’s selling a ticket or gaining a newsletter signup or whatever. You need to set up goals. There are lots of different ways of doing this, obviously as there are myriad different goals that any website might have.

In this example I’m going to assume that a goal is the clicking of a link that takes your visitor off to a 3rd party purchasing system over which you have no control – therefore the purpose of your website is to get a visitor to click the ‘purchase’ button, beyond that you have zero control so, as ever, concentrate on what you can do first – then you can worry about everything else.

The clicking of a link is an ‘event’, therefore you need to set things up so that Analytics sees it as such. First things first you need to add some code to the links you want to track the clicks of as goals:

onClick="_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'category', 'action', 'label']);"

so your link code would look something like this:

<a href=”http://someurl” class=”a link” onClick=”_gaq.push([‘_trackEvent’, ‘bookingLink’, ‘click’, ‘springSeason001′]);” >

in this example the category=bookingLink, the category=click and the label=springSeason001.

What this is doing (if you want a boring explanation) is adding some javascript to the link that catches that user interaction and labels it as something that is then read by the Analytics code you’ve already included if you are running Analytics on your site.

Right, so, you’ve done that for all the links you want to track clicks of as goals.

You then need to go into Analytics and set up your goals, click on ‘Admin’ in the top right, click on ‘goals’, call it whatever you want, for ‘goal type’ select ‘event’ (in this instance), the put whatever labels you included in your code in the relevant fields, you can also assigned a value to each goal (for example, if a ticket is £10) – I normally set this in the ‘goal value’ field rather than with the rest of the goal info, you need to select ‘use a constant value’ and then enter 10 (or whatever the value is) in this field.

Phew

Right, then click ‘save’ and you have set up a goal. Because Analytics still doesn’t do realtime very well you’ll have to wait a day to make sure everything is linking up and working properly (the usual reason, I find, for something not working is that you’ve included a typo somewhere along the way).

You can then track whether any of your goals are being met under the ‘conversions’ tab in Analytics.

Conversions and effectiveness

So, you’ve set up your url tagging so you know which links are sending you traffic, you’ve set up advanced segments so you can really divide up your traffic into meaningful groups and you’ve set up goals so you can track whether traffic is doing the thing you want it to do. Now you can start measuring the effectiveness of your digital activity, e.g. if you’re sending out an eflyer with the explicit aim of getting people to buy tickets for a specific show then create an advanced segment for all of the links in that eflyer, set up a goal as the clicking of that booking link on your site, send the eflyer and then measure.

The biggest advantage that digital activity has is that it is so measurable – you should be making the most of this wherever possible! Google Analytics is a very powerful, very free package – learn to use it – simply being able to tell your boss that you had 10,000 visitors last month doesn’t mean anything, it is almost devoid of any use as a piece of information, you need to be able to contextualise and connect up all the various metrics available to you so that you can understand what’s going on.

Disclaimer: I wrote this in my lunch hour, whilst eating, so chances are I’ve made a mistake or included typos somewhere along the way, however it is – in the main correct (I hope).

Further reading

Google’s own help articles are fairly labyrinthine, but there is a lot of useful info in there, and they seem to be forever adding new features and not quite telling everyone about them so it’s good to keep a regular eye on things http://support.google.com/analytics/?hl=en

 

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. m.guardian.co.uk) 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

Advantages?

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

P.s.

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.

The Space.

So, you may have heard about one of the myriad new Arts Council funding pots called ‘The Space’. At Opera North we have a few ideas that we are considering pitching for funding, however, as always, the ACE criteria seems confused as to what it’s actually asking for.

On the one hand, the ACE guidance says “We are keen to see proposals that address the development of innovative, user-centred experiences and media work across one or more devices and platforms – mobile, tablet, PC and connected televisions. This might include proposals that utilise some of the unique capabilities and features of modern connected devices, for example: geo-location or GPS on smart phones and tablets; QR code readers; bluetooth, Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity; SMS messages; the ability to find friends or create groups or communities; or the ability to share or comment on material.

However in the technical document outlining The Space it is clear that this is ‘just’ a content platform, there doesn’t seem to be any mention of an API or any actual technical details so how are you supposed to integrate geo/qr/magic/whatever functionality with this platform? There is talk of metadata but if there is no way of easily plugging into the system to make sense of this then WHAT’S THE POINT!?

Or maybe I’m just missing the point.

But then again the ACE guidance also refers to SMS and QR codes as emerging technologies so we should probably all just pack up, go home and cry.

Culture Hack North: Leeds 2011

I spend a lot of time moaning about things so I thought it was about time I put my money where my mouth is and did something constructive. As a result I have spent the last few months putting my energies into organising Culture Hack North.

What’s a Culture Hack? Well, I’ve done my best to answer that (in my usual succinct, to-the-point style…) here http://theculturevulture.co.uk/blog/radar/what-is-a-culture-hack/

The event which takes place on 12-13th November at NTI Leeds will bring together developers from across the region with data and representatives from organisations including, Opera North, Sheffield Theatres, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Manchester Museums, Leeds Museums, Pilot Theatre, Museums Sheffield, Cornerhouse, Breeze Festival, Leeds Libraries and others.

You can find out a whole lot more info here: www.culturehacknorth.co.uk

Oh and here are some more news articles and blogs on the matter:
wired.co.uk
guardian.co.uk

Digital success…?

NESTA recently announced the beneficiaries of their £500,000 Digital R&D fund (details here). I’m not sure exactly what the aim of this investment is (the stated aim is for the projects to “harness digital technologies for the benefit of the arts and cultural sector” which is suitably woolly as to cover a multitude of sins) as I have variously heard it is aiming to explore new business models, use new technology and/or encourage arts organisations to think in new ways about the ‘potential of digital’.

Whatever the purpose is I don’t think there is enough information available yet to be able to make a judgement about whether or not the 8 selected projects represent a diverse and thorough range of initiatives (my sense is that they don’t but I’d like to be able to actually rationalise that feeling).

Harnessing digital technology

So I was pondering on what examples already exist that could be framed in terms of ‘harnessing digital technology’. An obvious one (to me at any rate) is the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, however, as I am discovering with many things in the arts, it is not quite the panacea that (some) people seem to see it as. This article in the FT (from March 2011) looks at the numbers, and the striking thing is that the project hasn’t broken even yet – striking but perhaps not surprising, after all the set up costs for such an initiative must be large, even when you take into account things such as the fact that the cameras are all remote-controlled (thus removing the need for individual camera operators and the cost they bring with them). However it is when you realise that the project was only ever feasible because Deutsche Bank are the sole, exclusive sponsors (again this partnership is perhaps unremarkable because the Berlin Philharmonic are an incredibly reputable, incredibly German cultural brand that it makes sense for a large financial organisation to be involved with) that you realise this isn’t really a transferable model, how many brands are there that carry the prestige of the Berlin Phil? How many banks are there (or organisations of similar financial means) that’d gladly sink considerable sums of money into such a venture?

Commercial reality

Anyway, at the risk of descending into negativity my point is this: the true commercial potential offered by digital developments to arts organisations is the opportunity to reach larger/new audiences HOWEVER the infrastructure required to deliver artistic content at a high-enough quality, in a way that can be monetised, in a way that is accessible to the largest number of people is still incredibly costly. Yes the advent of YouTube and every phone having a videocamera built in is great, however this will not produce content that audiences will pay for. Digital advertising, having a good website – these will reduce some of your overheads but you are unlikely to see exponential commercial gains.

A solution? Probably not

What I would dearly love to see, as I’ve hinted at in previous posts (rants) is some realisation by funding bodies/people with lots of money that sensible investment in truly adaptable/adoptable/transferable solutions is what needs to happen. Broadly the ‘digital needs’ of the arts can be summarise as: need to find more people to see our stuff, need to make it easier for people to see our stuff, obviously it is far more complicated than that but I think you can probably boil everything down to those two points (which, on consideration might actually be just the one point from two slightly different angles).

The internet is, ultimately, people and content driven. Have good content, tell people, people watch the content and tell people, who watch the content, who tell people and so on. It is easier than ‘real’ life because of the removal of geographical restrictions and the joys (ease) of having content delivered straight onto a device that can be taken with you more or less anywhere, but if you don’t have content, if you can’t tell people about it, it is fundamentally useless to you.

Noone really has the financial capacity to invest in the kind of setup enjoyed by the Berlin Phil, there are some companies doing good stuff (Digital Theatre spring to mind) with multiple organisations, but even these companies are relatively small and simply don’t have the capacity to provide a sector-wide solution (e.g. Digital Theatre can turn a production around in 6-12 weeks – which is fast but is still only 4-8 productions a year). And the problem with the allocation of these pots of money (e.g. this NESTA fund) is that they seem too often to just serve the needs of one organisation by providing them with the cash to buy in their own setup rather than by actually providing a sustainable solution for the good of the sector.

Something that we’ve been involved with recently at Opera North perhaps moves more in the direction I see as providing actual, long-term solutions (as digital developments aren’t just a set of problems/opportunities for today that can be solved one-by-one, they are ever evolving, therein lies the issue). The University of Lancaster, along with Newcastle Uni and the Royal College of Art was awarded a £4m research grant (more info) to “set up a Knowledge Exchange Hub in collaboration with the BBC, Microsoft, MediaCityUK, FutureEverything, Tate Liverpool, Opera North, Storey Creative Industries Centre, The Sharp Project, Lancaster City Council, NESTA, National Media Museum, Manchester Digital, Arts Council England and over 30 small and medium sized companies working in the sector, such as Stardotstar and Mudlark.” surely this kind of inter-organisational relationship-building should be the focus of investment, allowing the sharing of existing expertise/resources rather than funding pale imitations throughout the sector?

My frustration again and again is at seeing this strange belief that reinventing the wheel is something to be applauded and rewarded. E.g. Don’t fund the development of a new video-sharing platform when the proposed outcome will only benefit a handful of organisations AND, more importantly, there are a large number of very good, widely-used video-sharing platforms already in existence that, with the best will in the world, you have NO chance of overcoming – 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, you cannot and should not try to compete with that (in addition are you proposing to try and match YouTube’s rights agreements with the PRS et al? Unlikely). In this particular instance, if you can’t beat them, join them. Seriously.

To conclude

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the arts sector is wildly trying to jump on the back of the mental digital dragon and ride it off to the end of the rainbow where there will be pots of gold (that metaphor made my brain hurt), but it seems to be going about it in a very strange way.

Instead of trying to identify the key things that’d benefit the sector, increase revenues, increase audiences (and in turn be able to fund some of the, all too frequent, vanity projects I see again and again) there seems to be a concerted effort to salami-slice the money available and put it into low-impact, limited-focus initiatives that ultimately will be of little use to anyone. Surely it’s better to fire off a few, large, well-aimed arrows rather than chuck a load of pins at the wall and hope in vain that one of them sticks?

But then, if it was the other way round I’d probably be moaning that it was only a few initiatives being funded with lavish amounts of cash. Because I’m grumbly.

Post-script

Of course my ramblings here don’t really cover how to utilise digital developments in artistic endeavours. That’s a whole different point. I have, on purpose, focussed on the issues that I see as the biggest missed opportunity.

Some initial thoughts about Google+

Google+, for those of you who have missed it, is the latest attempt by Google to create their own social network. Google+ places itself more-or-less directly between the already established Facebook and Twitter.

Brief summary

It aims to solve some of the privacy concerns that have been voiced by Facebook users through its ‘Circles’ feature and it also aims to replicate the open/conversational nature of Twitter by allowing you to ‘follow’ (not their terminology) anyone who has a profile on Google+. The Circles feature essentially allows you to define groups of users and then choose what content/activity you share with those groups. I started writing a longer explanation but on reflection Google+ as a platform (as with lots of Google’s products) works far better through experience rather than explanation.

Brief moan/warning about social networks

One thing that has struck me of late is the amount of time people invest in some of these platforms (Facebook in particular), using them as address books/photos albums/diaries – which is fine, BUT in almost every case the platform/network provider will claim partial (or complete) ownership of everything you do/say/upload on their network, it’s worrying how many people either don’t realise this or don’t seem to care…or perhaps I just worry too much?

This paragraph from the Guardian’s ‘1 month review‘ struck me as particularly worrying:

“I’m also disappointed by what I’ve learned about the service’s security. Although communications are encrypted, Google’s responses to my questions about government spying on users were not encouraging. The company does not deny that: a) it can record users’ text and video conversations even when they are, in theory, shared by only two people; and b) it will give government agencies the ability to tap these conversations as well. Google has to abide by the law, and it has a track record of resisting overweening government efforts to spy on US citizens”

Anyway, this debate deserves its own post really, the issue of online privacy and ownership of content is huge (in my opinion). Social networks are still such a new concept that we still don’t seem to have decided what is and isn’t acceptable regarding terms of service etc.

Brief thoughts

Google+ works.

Although I’m probably never going to use Hangouts on a day to day basis I can see this feature potentially (maybe) rivalling Skype for easy, free video communication.

Circles is a great feature, much easier than creating a list on Twitter or a Friends Group on Facebook – although it is a little arduous dragging and dropping contacts one-by-one into one or more Circles. It’s very intuitive and a great way to choose how to share content in a more nuanced way than on the other big social networks.

Sparks has great potential but at the moment I think it’s a little too clunky, I’d like to be able to see all my Sparks content in the one place (as you can with contacts in the Stream view) as well as being able to view it by individual category.

Ultimately, for me, I use social networks as a place to have conversations and access content recommended/shared by people I trust/admire/find interesting. I don’t feel comfortable uploading huge collections of photos or video, so those elements of Google+ have absolutely no interest for me and I haven’t looked at them. Google+ seems to make conversations quite easy without the constraints (140 characters) of Twitter. At the moment though there just simply aren’t enough people on Google+ to consider swapping away from Twitter. I also do like Twitter’s brevity – making it ideal to communicate whilst on the move via the many, many (many) mobile apps. Although apparently the Google+ mobile app is also very good, so maybe there is more of a crossover than I’m seeing at the moment.

It’ll also be interesting to see how Google approaches bringing brands/organisations onto the platform, they have already said that they are rushing through development of that aspect of things. I’d also like to see an API opened up to developers, as we have seen with Twitter and Facebook with great success.

So, those are my thoughts, I think as a social network Google+ does have some new and interesting ways of doing things, if the userbase continues to grow at the ridiculous pace we’ve seen since it launched a month ago (20 million users and counting) then it’ll be interesting to see who it starts taking market share from, or whether it’s seen as another complimentary platform that can sit alongside the already established big players.

Content is king

I have pulled this post out from the archives of my personal blog, I originally wrote it towards the end of 2009 (I think), I believe it still holds true:

“‘Content is king’, how many times have you heard that? Well when it comes to the web, in my experience, it is pretty much a universal truth. The worrying thing is how few businesses seem to realise this, and even if they claim to, how many of them act on it?

This follows on, in some respect, from my earlier post about “design for design’s sake“. There I mused about the appropriateness of design vs what the client/designer ‘thought was best’. The idea of having good, strong, useful and appropriate content follows on from that. Too many businesses seem to think that their web presence starts and ends with simply having a web site or twitter account or facebook page or blog. But this simply isn’t enough, in fact I’d go so far as to argue that having a presence on these platforms (or indeed any presence on the web) and then not using them is worse, and more damaging to your brand, that not having one at all.

People need to realise that having any one of the presences i’ve mentioned above (and all the others I haven’t) requires a commitment in time and thought. Simply registering a facebook fan page for your company, filling it with little or useless information, inviting all your friends to become a fan and then promptly never updating it displays a lack of understanding of the medium and has little or no positive outcome. Content is king, and never updating your content renders it useful to practically no-one.

I’ve encountered this a couple of times recently, with clients enthusiastically asking for bespoke blogging solutions and help with their facebook presence. I am all in favour of this, if done right. Whenever a client asks me about social media I provide them with a bit of a ‘how-to’ guide for each of the main channels/platforms, this outlines the type of content that would be appropriate (and some examples), how much time the particular platform requires (e.g. twitter=at least daily), how these platforms can be managed, examples of the types of interactions that can take place and an idea of the likely outcomes for their business.

All too often you see people painfully trying to shoehorn completely unsuitable content into an equally unsuitable platform. You need to, as mentioned in the post linked to above, consider your audience, consider what they want to find out and why they came to you via whatever platform you’re addressing them on. You must produce useful, regular, engaging content or quite simply – don’t bother”

White label app development

Someone sent me a link to the Royal Opera House’s app the other day (http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/royal-opera-house/id449056230?mt=8), interesting – does all the things an app should do i.e. presents content, listings, allows you to buy tickets (to a degree).

I then did a bit of research into the app developer, CloudTix, it would seem they have developed very similar (the same) app for a number of arts organisations. Further research confirmed my hunch that this is a white-label product, specifically for organisations using the Tessitura ticketing system – details here http://cloudtix.com/.

This chimed with a thought I had the other day (quite possibly whilst at the AMA Conference). Why can’t this approach by picked up more widely? Ultimately the requirements for many arts organisations are, when it comes to an app, whilst not identical, very similar in function at least e.g. sell a ticket, display event listings, deliver content, allow user to share/engage. When it comes to the slightly more complex issue of selling a ticket there are only a certain number of ticketing systems that are widely used – develop something that does the basics well, can connect with the ‘main’ ticketing systems and is developed for platforms other than just bloody Apple devices (Android’s market share is almost 39% at the last check compared to 18% for the iPhone).

Surely a project like this, funded by the Arts Council, would remove a lot of the fear-factor for arts organisations when it comes to developments such as this. Apps are expensive, they are easy to get wrong and to do them properly you need to develop for multiple platforms (i would say at least Android and iOS). A properly, carefully developed white-label solution could be relatively easily rolled out throughout the sector and allow organisations to properly consider, or at least start to consider, the explosion in the mobile web. Even better – make it a true open source project, properly engage with the digital community and get something that starts by doing the basics well and gets better and better without turning into a black hole for funding.

I still don’t believe that apps are the be all and end all, it’s just as (probably more) important to consider how your digital offering (i.e. website) is delivered to mobile devices. There needs to be a recognition that you cannot just deliver the same site to a desktop size screen as you do to a smartphone, the same content – sure – but not the same design and probably not with the same information hierarchy. My preferred route is carefully considered responsive design.

Thoughts, as ever, welcomed.