The Return of Tom Mason’s Handles

Just before last night's performance.

Just before last night’s performance.

I was at the University of Salford’s Robert Powell Theatre last night for the latest performance of Handles, a play about the impact of social media on our lives from Tom Mason. This is the second play of its kind by Tom, and after the original Handles made its debut at The Lowry last year, this was a bigger, longer and more ambitious effort altogether.

The story took place in a near-future world in which a new social network called Handles has come to dominate the lives of a group of connected twentysomethings, all glued to their phones in an attempt to become the UK’s first “platinum user” of the service. Trolling, sex assault rumours, hacked celebrity nude pictures, scurrilous showbiz journalists and the ethics of reviewing products on vlogs were among the themes, while the whole play kicked off with a spoof Steve Jobs-style keynote address, reminiscent of a similar scene in Grand Theft Auto V (only without the explosive conclusion).

As before, the audience was encouraged to tweet along, with tweets appearing on a wall behind the performers. Evidently, I was doing something right.

This territory is quite reminiscent of both Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed Channel 4 series Black Mirror, and the various allegations made about the widely-rumoured VIP paedophile ring of the 1980s. The play’s theme of the damage done to an individual’s good name by claims of sexual assault seemed particularly timely in the week that former Home Secretary Leon Brittan died, his reputation shattered by as-yet-unsubstantiated claims of his knowledge or involvement in historic abuse.

Warm congratulations to Tom and the team behind Handles for another enjoyable show. I’m already looking forward to a part three.

The Enduring Power Of Twitter Lists

My Hootsuite. I'm afraid I do look at this screen quite a lot.

My Hootsuite. I’m afraid I do look at this screen quite a lot.

Here’s a story about what Twitter used to be like, what it’s like now, and how it’s still more or less as useful as it ever was.

After a couple of false starts in 2008, I finally started to get it in early 2009. There wasn’t all that much you could do with Twitter itself back then, especially when it was interrupted by the all-too-familiar Fail Whale. But one of the things you could do was make a Twitter list of useful tweeters to follow. Import the list into a third-party application and suddenly you had an updating feed of tweets, a bit like the news wires familiar from all those hours spent in newsrooms.

I had a go at creating one of Formula 1 journalists, stuck it into Tweetdeck on my laptop, and kept an eye on it during one of the early Grands Prix that year. As the race went by I noticed I was looking at the list more and more, as reporters (James Allen’s was particularly good) passed on bits of information the TV commentators hadn’t spotted. Some people might remember it as the year when Jenson Button won the title, but in my house 2009 is fondly recalled as the ‘Summer of Second Screening’. Glory days, indeed.

I started to create a list of tweeting journalists to use at work. Local and national, newspaper, TV and radio, every time I spotted a new reporter on Twitter I’d add them. Soon, this list overtook everything else as my main source of news. As an early warning system for breaking stories, and a filter of the best stuff to read online, I found it was remarkably useful. After a while, I even worked out how to turn off the little chirrupy sound Tweetdeck used to make when it updated (I actually switched to Hootsuite and have stayed loyal ever since – evidently I change my bank more often than my social media management tool).

I used various Twitter lists extensively as a tool for gathering hyperlocal news when I did Saddleworth News. I noticed that one of my former employers, Sky News, was really getting into it, too. When I started teaching journalism students at the University of Leeds in 2011, one of the first things I would show them would be how they could use Twitter like professional journalists were starting to.

And all these years later, even though you’d have thought something else would have come along by now, I’m surprised how little has changed. I still add the odd name to my master list of journalists, and a tweet arrived the other day from Electoral HQ telling me it was now the biggest, and second-most popular, list of its kind on all of Twitter. I still look at it every day, several times a day, on mobile, tablet and desktop.

Growing up I found myself impulsively loading up Ceefax all the time, probably to check whether something catastrophic had happened since I last checked. Later when I worked in newsrooms, I was forever casting my eyes down the wires. At one level the Twitter list has really just filled this particular hole in my media consumption. But it’s not because of the technology itself, rather it’s the fact I’ve taken the time to interact with it and curate a list of users who are particularly useful to me that makes it so indispensable.

You can subscribe to the list here.

Lord Clark On The Mystery Of Victor Grayson

Victor_Grayson

Victor Grayson (picture: Wikipedia/public domain)

It’s now 107 years since Victor Grayson won a spectacular victory in the 1907 Colne Valley by-election, standing as an Independent Labour candidate. But his life and mysterious disappearance continue to fascinate political historians. His biographer, and one of his successors as MP for Colne Valley, David (now Lord) Clark, was the main speaker at an event about Grayson at the University of Huddersfield last night.

Victor Grayson had a reputation as one of the great and most radical public speakers of his time, and the Pankhursts were among those who travelled to Colne Valley to join his campaign. His success was short-lived and his Parliamentary career ended at the next general election in 1910, after, with the help of a series of drunken outbursts on the floor of the Commons chamber, he managed to alienate just about all his fellow MPs, including those from Keir Hardie’s mainstream Labour Party. Grayson re-emerged after the First World War but was not seen again after 1920, amid suggestions he got himself mixed up with a shadowy Whitehall fixer called Maundy Gregory, a man responsible for co-ordinating the sale of honours on behalf of Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

The evening began with an extremely rare screening of a 1985 BBC2 documentary about Grayson, not thought to have been shown publicly since its original broadcast. It included interviews with Grayson’s landlady at the time of his disappearance in 1920, Grayson’s nephew as well as a New Zealand soldier who had served with Grayson during WWI, and claimed to have seen him in Spain some years after his apparent disappearance. A rather younger looking David Clark, who by this time had lost his seat in Colne Valley but been elected in South Shields, also featured prominently.

Having read and written a bit about Grayson during my time reporting politics in Saddleworth, in particular the 2011 Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election (Saddleworth and ‘Red Delph’ was part of the Colne Valley constituency in Grayson’s day, indeed it was up until 1983), I’d always assumed that the various sightings of him after his disappearance were probably false, and that he’d been bumped off on Gregory’s orders. A common suggestion is that Grayson knew too much about the honours scandal, and may have threatened to reveal it.

However, Lord Clark seemed fairly convinced, both in the original documentary and again in his remarks last night, that Grayson went to ground and was paid off, and continued living in secret under an assumed name. That would certainly explain the various sightings of Grayson recorded in the 1920s and 30s. But a stronger piece of evidence is the fact that somebody retrieved Grayson’s WWI medals from the New Zealand authorities in London in August 1939. If not Grayson himself, this would have to have been a direct and close relative. The only one alive at that time was his daughter, who, according to Clark, had told him she knew nothing about the medals. It strikes me the sightings can be easily explained away, but that can’t.

Lord Clark speaks about Victor Grayson last night.

Lord Clark speaks about Victor Grayson last night.

Lord Clark also revealed that files about Grayson and some of his political contemporaries held by the Home Office still haven’t been released. When asked by event organiser and University of Huddersfield lecturer Stephen Dorril whether his experiences investigating Grayson’s life had informed his later work on Freedom of Information during the first year of Tony Blair’s government, Lord Clark said it had up to a point. But he then added he was concerned it was the media rather than the general public which tended to use FOI today, which had not necessarily been his original intention.

After Lord Clark’s talk, University of Huddersfield history lecturer Keith Laybourn set Grayson’s life in the context of the Labour movement of the early 1900s, then both men took questions from the good-sized crowd of about 80 people. Thanks to all for a very enjoyable evening.

Lecture: Trolling

sackbrunt

Having exposed a troll in ultimately tragic circumstances, Sky’s Martin Brunt is now himself being trolled.

I gave today’s lecture in the second year Digital Cultures module here at the University of Huddersfield. The presentation I gave can be found here.

I showed the students some of the most recent high-profile examples of trolling and related behaviour, from the ultimately tragic case of Brenda Leyland to the row involving Dapper Laughs and what happened after he was called out by UsVsTh3m. I then discussed some of the academic research into the motivations that lie behind trolling, before considering the various ways in which government, the police and others have responded to trolling.

I took as the starting point of the lecture a definition of trolling outlined in a paper published this year by Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell and Delroy Paulhus, called Trolls Just Want To Have Fun. It suggests: “Online trolling is the practice of behaving in a deceptive, destructive, or disruptive manner in a social setting on the Internet with no apparent instrumental purpose.”

It’s not bad as definitions go. Some have suggested that Brenda Leyland wasn’t really a troll, because as the parents of Madeleine McCann aren’t on Twitter themselves, her tweets about them weren’t aimed at them personally. However, I’d say her tweets could probably be considered “deceptive, destructive, or disruptive” – and possibly all three – and certainly existed in a social setting online, so would fall under that definition.

However, the case of Dapper Laughs and the apparent trolling of UsVsTh3m journalist Abi Wilkinson and others by his fans which took place on Snapchat, pushes this definition to its limit. Snapchat is more of a private than a social setting, and you although you access it using the internet, any trolling on Snapchat is done in the form of direct messaging not open to the general public. I suppose the same would go for Twitter DMs or anything sent by Facebook Messenger. It’s not even a year old, but perhaps it’s already time to stretch that definition a bit.

Talking Hyperlocal At The University Of Salford

Oh ok, I suppose I can squeeze one more use out of this photo.

Oh ok, I suppose I can squeeze one more use out of this photo.

I was back at MediaCity on Thursday afternoon, to give a talk on hyperlocal to MA International Journalism students at the University of Salford. It was good to catch up with Kate “Manchizzle” Feld, who is a tutor there and invited me to come over from Huddersfield and speak. And it was also good to revisit a subject that I’ve still got a great interest in, even though it’s more than three years since I handed on Saddleworth News.

I told the students that although hyperlocal is no longer the fashionable media buzzword it was in, say, 2010, the sector is proving pretty resilient. Dave Harte’s latest snapshot of the UK scene shows more than 400 active websites, and that doesn’t take into account the many hyperlocal-style offerings available elsewhere, from social networks to old-style forums.

My expectation is that hyperlocal is here to stay for the same reasons it appeared in the first place. People are interested in very local news about their areas, the mainstream media is generally less able to provide that news, more information than ever about our communities is publicly available online, and it’s easy to set up a website of your own and get publishing some of it. It’s not the moneyspinning saviour of local journalism that some hoped it might be, but that always seemed more than a little optimistic.

The presentation I gave is here. Embarrassingly enough, I was wearing the same t-shirt I had on when the picture at the top of this post was taken. Given my eldest daughter is now five, it’s probably time to retire it. The picture that is, not the t-shirt. Plenty of wear in that yet.

I’ve Started My PhD

I'm a student again. So if you need 10% off in Topshop let me know.

I’m a student again. So if you need 10% off in Topshop let me know.

I was in Cardiff on Tuesday to formally start my PhD. I’ll be doing it part-time, while continuing to work full-time at the University of Huddersfield. I’ve got one research day a week to work on it, with a bit of extra time over the summer, and my target is to complete within five years.

I’m fortunate to have Huddersfield’s financial backing, so I’ve had quite a free hand with what to study. I’ve chosen something I’ve been interested in since my hyperlocal experiences with Saddleworth News, the coverage of courts and councils by local newspapers and other media. By focusing on some towns in the north of England, I aim to assess the current level of coverage, how that compares with the past and the extent to which it’s under pressure from cutbacks in the local press. I want to produce some practical recommendations which will hopefully help make sure proper coverage of local public affairs continues, even if certain newspapers are forced to print only weekly or not at all in future.

Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies is a natural home for my research, not least because it has a particular interest in community and hyperlocal media. Prof Stuart Allan will be my supervisor, with Prof Richard Sambrook as second supervisor. I’ll be updating this blog occasionally with bits and bobs from my studies as I go along.

Printing Off The Internet With PaperLater

Look, I printed off the internet.

Look, I printed off the internet.

Here’s something you wouldn’t expect someone like me, a serial pisser-about-on-the-internet, to get excited about. It’s PaperLater, a new thing from The Newspaper Club which lets you make your own little newspaper of stuff you’ve found online.

You select the articles, either by clicking a desktop shortcut or by emailing the link from your mobile or tablet. They print it out and deliver it to your door, with a paper of 24 pages costing you £4.99.

On the face of it, paying someone a fiver to print out the internet seems like a borderline insane thing to do. And there’s no doubt, this is basically what is happening here.

The PaperLater folks suggest you might do this as a way of catching up on things you haven’t got round to reading, such as longform articles. And the number of fascinating-looking but sadly unread pieces from the New Yorker and suchlike in my Pocket folder certainly suggests that there can be too many distractions to consume quality writing in a satisfying way on a smartphone. I’ve found the Kindle app for iPad to be a much better bet.

I actually ordered a PaperLater full of longreads as a present for a friend I visited last week. I enjoyed the process of picking and choosing the articles to fill up by 24-page allowance, and the paper itself when it arrived was a decent quality object. I don’t know if I’d make one purely for myself – I’m probably more likely to continue with not only the Kindle but also the Longform apps on my iPad – but I reckon it’s not a bad gift idea.

If you want to have a go yourself, you’ll need to go to the PaperLater website and request an invitation, because it’s still in beta.

The Strange Case Of Willie MacRae

Willie MacRae's crashed car. (picture: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)

Willie MacRae’s crashed car. (pictures: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)

The death of Willie MacRae is one of Scotland’s most enduring mysteries. A prominent lawyer and SNP political figure, he was found dying from severe head injuries in his crashed car at the side of a road in the Highlands in 1985. Later examinations revealed he’d actually been shot. The official verdict of suicide has often been questioned.

I was only vaguely aware of the story until I read James Robertson’s novel And The Land Lay Still, which features the MacRae death as a key incident as part of its epic sweep through the events of post-war Scotland. He’s not the only author to have been inspired by the mysterious case: Ian Rankin writes here about how he studied it as part of his research for one of his recent books, and a new play is going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. There’s also an old Channel 4 documentary on YouTube which is worth a watch.

Some information relating to the case was quietly released last year by the Northern Constabulary (now part of Police Scotland), in response to an Freedom of Information request made using the excellent What Do They Know? site. The pictures in this blogpost are among a series of images and documents made public, and they appear not to have been widely published before, if at all.

Willie MacRae's gun, recovered from the scene.

Willie MacRae’s gun, recovered from the scene.

The conspiracy theory goes, roughly, that MacRae was murdered because he was considered a threat to the state, perhaps because of his role in anti-nuclear campaigns. The official version is outlined in a letter from the-then Lord Advocate Lord Fraser of Carmyllie to the Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, that is included in the files released by the police. It states that MacRae had been considering killing himself following a series of misfortunes in his personal life, and had told his brother and a friend about it.

The case remains closed and that seems extremely unlikely to change. But, once again, FOI has helped shed a small amount of new light on a matter of public interest.

What I’m Reading: WWI Anniversary Coverage, Phil Collins and The Alamo, And More

The picture shows Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in June 1914, minutes before they were assassinated in an incident which ultimately sparked off World War I. The 100th anniversary has been much in the news lately, and some of the best coverage I’ve seen has been provided by the BBC.

It used a very 21st century tool, the liveblog, to tell the story of that day in real time, including some new videos shot by BBC correspondents pretending they were reporting at the time. This sounds all a bit worthy-but-dull-schools-programme, but actually worked really well. NPR’s newish London correspondent Ari Shapiro is well worth a follow on Twitter for his perceptive insights on Britain, and he was in Sarajevo for the anniversary too.

Sky News has started its own ‘real time’ WWI Twitter account, although it’s been a little disappointing so far – just a daily tweet with no links to anything to put it in any context, let alone a mini-site to rival the BBC’s. Hopefully it will improve as time goes on. Reuters looked into its own archive for this fascinating piece on how close it came to confusing the assassination with the result of a French horse race.

An eye-catching story from the WTF department was this one about Phil Collins (yes, that one) and his obsession with The Alamo. The story behind the story is well told by Texas Monthly here.

On the subject of curious obsessions, this Newsweek article on the tunnel king of Brooklyn is great. Guardian-backed collaborative journalism project Contributoria is well up and running, and this Jon Hickman article on social capital is well worth a read this month. And, joy of joys, this classic 2011 Vanity Fair piece on how Chad Harbach’s modern classic baseball novel, The Art of Fielding, came to be published is now free to read online. It’s the best insight into the world of publishing I’ve ever read.

Using Findery In The Classroom

I was at Bury College today to lead a practical session with some of their Year 1 BTEC media students. The group is coming to the University of Huddersfield next week for a Taster Day and sessions on TV, radio, magazine design and PR, so I thought I’d give them something a little different, and led a workshop focusing on the internet’s near-future.

I got into Google Glass, Augmented Reality and how the race is on among media companies to produce mobile-friendly content that will work well in these areas. With even the BBC News website reporting that more than half of its page views at weekends are now from mobile and tablet devices, the decline of the desktop seems to be coming about faster than we might have predicted.

To illustrate this, I got the students to make some notes on Findery. I’ve written here before about how I’m a fan of the site, which is run by Flickr and Hunch founder Caterina Fake. These days it’s out of beta and open to the public on the desktop, mobile web and as an iPhone app. I thought it would be useful for a workshop of this kind with students, because it’s all about making content that can work on mobiles but which uses an attractive and user-friendly desktop CMS.

The session seemed to go pretty well, and you can find the notes left by the students here. Findery is also appealing because the technology works like a charm, and the number of possible uses for it – from personal stories to local history to Instagram-style here’s-what-I’m-doing-now pictures – make it flexible for a variety of different audiences. I’ll be using it again in future to make some other point about the media, I’ve no doubt.