Category Archives: Culture

Open Plaques: joining the blue dots

Writing in the Telegraph last year, Stephen Fry reflected: “Many of us like to believe that we understand the point of history. We all pay lip service to the idea that yesterday makes today, but it is hard to make the imaginative leap that truly connects us to the past. It is as if we are forced to move forwards in such a narrow passageway of time that the act of stopping to look behind us is difficult.”

Fry surmised that the UK’s blue plaques – erected to mark the physical locations occupied by people from history who have left a notable mark on our culture – were a living corrective to this. But are they really? What if these inert short-form stories were re-animated by augmenting the physical markers with a layer of digital information that made looking back in time from the present day a far easier, richer and more immediate experience? Wouldn’t that be a greater step forward in terms of bringing history to life?

WB Yeats open plaque on Flickr courtesy of ChicagoGeek

Even as Fry was writing this in June 2009, a project was already underway do just that – to open up that heritage and make it accessible, expanding the narrow passageway of time that Fry lamented.

Credit to kickstarting this goes to Frankie Roberto who came away from a conference on mobile learning for the museums and archives sector in January 2009 with a bee in his bonnet:

“You see them everywhere – especially when sat on the top deck of a double-decker bus in London – and yet the plaques themselves never seem that revealing. You’ve often never heard of the person named, or perhaps only vaguely, and the only clue you’re given is something like “scientist and electrical engineer” (Sir Ambrose Fleming) or “landscape gardener” (Charles Bridgeman).

I always want to know more. Who are these people, what’s the story about them, and why are they considered important enough for their home to be commemorated? I’d like to be able to find out all this, and to do so at the point at which I stumble across a plaque – which to me suggests something on a mobile platform.”

In the 15 months since, this desire for deeper and more accessible context to these static emblems has crystallized in the Open Plaques initiative. An open source community project; it is also community-driven by necessity, due mainly to the data surrounding the UK plaques being fragmented between hundreds of bodies, and not only inconsistent but sometimes totally absent.

It gathered momentum when Frankie’s early efforts caught the attention of Jez Nicholson, Simon Harriyott and Marvin Baretto who’d already (coincidentally) teamed-up to do a blue plaques project for the Open Hack London event in May 2009. So it happened that they prototyped a website that could pull this information together.

Open Plaques London Map

The Open Plaques service which emerged from this ad-hoc grouping (which I joined later last year) synthesises a number of tactics and workarounds to overcome the challenges it faces. As the plaques by their very existence are in public domain, Frankie has made a series of Freedom of Information requests for data and records of the plaques to several of the bodies that hold them, so they can aggregate them together and offer the data in standardised form for free re-use by others.

In turn, the already existent Blue Plaques group on Flickr proved useful and amenable, and the idea of using images from Flickr on the Open Plaques service gained an important leg-up when Flickr agreed to grant a “machine tag” option to photographs of plaques uploaded under a Creative Commons licence.

It’s remarkably simple and works like this: each plaque location listed on the Open Plaques database (which you can search on their site by name, place or organisation) has a number. When the number is added as a machine code in the tags of the corresponding photograph on Flickr by the user – and if the user gives the photo a Creative Commons licence – the image is pulled from Flickr onto the Open Plaques website. The service also allows geo co-ordinates to be imported.

The site itself is still in Alpha phase of development but is already substantially populated – with 38.44% of 2297 known plaques in the database now having a corresponding machine-tagged photograph.

William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect on Flickr courtesy of Sleekit

The whole project is still in the earliest of stages. Making it fully functional and accessible on mobile devices still lies ahead. Any number of possibilities for what could be done going forward suggest themselves. But in the very act of pulling it together, it already bears the DNA stamp of what it could some day become. The plaques themselves encapsulate people-powered history: a history of action, ideas and invention. Open Plaques has the potential to transform them into a living resource – and make each one a porthole that helps us connect with, understand and traverse moments in place and time, just like Stephen Fry said.

Re-shaping historical interest points nationwide as dynamic experiences is a mammoth task but Open Plaques – which is unfunded and 100% volunteer based – is already gearing up for a productive 2010. In February, Simon and Frankie attended the first ever English Heritage conference on commemorative plaques (yes, they’re not all blue) to find out more about the organisation’s thinking and plans, and talk to people about the initiative. Simon also talked about the project at last week’s £5 App Meet in Brighton.

In the meantime, we need more people to help fill up the image database – yes that’s you Flickr users! – plus help with the technical development. Spreading the word also matters and you can stay in the loop by following Open Plaques on Twitter.

Any input is welcome. You can even source and suggest plaques that aren’t on the website’s (incomplete) list. So if you’d like to get involved in connecting past and present, and do some local or further-afield exploring in the process, visit the site’s Contribute page for more instructions, see Jez’s blog and the Open Plaques group for simple Flickr tips or get in touch directly, and lend a hand in joining the blue dots.

[UPDATE 12/5/10] We now have an Open Plaques blog and I’ve added my first post: Meet the time bandits.

Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Lee Miller in focus

Telling the story of my Finding Ada heroine for 2010 – photographer Lee Miller – requires taking a broad perspective. Her life’s achievement is a composite of a number of key strands: art, photography, fashion, technology and war reporting, bound together by a pioneering spirit.

This hurried blog isn’t the place to explore and understand these all in detail. Lee Miller was a breakthrough figure for a number of reasons – this is just a snapshot.

Lee Miller self portrait, New York 1942

Born in Poughkeepsie, New York state in 1907, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller left for Paris at the age of eighteen where, according to Ursula Butler:

“She studied lighting, costume and theatre design at Ladislas Medgyes’s School of Stagecraft. She later returned to New York and enrolled in the Art Students League. There she met Condé Nast and he introduced Miller to the world of modeling. From 1926-1929 she modeled, but eventually wanted to see what life was like behind the camera. Miller studied under the great dada-surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray. Under his supervision, Miller learned how to manipulate the photograph to make a self-contained, semi-abstract or dreamlike image.”

She also became his wife and established her own studio. So far so interesting, but things were just hotting up.

The word ‘photography’ was coined by scientist Sir John F.W. Herschel in 1839 (though it had been coined seperately by Hercules Florence in 1834!) and is actually is derived from two Greek words: ‘photos’ meaning light and ‘graphein’ meaning draw. The pace of technology development in cameras and photography accelerated during the early twentieth centry, but our subject’s contribution to the science of photography was a marriage of chance and artistry. Miller brought the alchemy.

Much debate surrounds the issue as to which of the couple stumbled across a technique in photography that – like a reverse negative of the ‘photography’ coinage – had been discovered a few times previously but not clearly defined and adopted: namely solarisation.

Solarized portrait of an unknown woman by Lee Miller, Paris 1930

The effect was usually caused by inadvertent severe over-exposure or occasionally by accidentally exposing an exposed plate or film to light before processing. Artist Man Ray perfected the technique which was accidentally discovered in his darkroom by his assistant Lee Miller.” [Wikpedia]

Whatever the facts, Man Ray was soon flying the flag for perfecting this technique whilst his collaborator Miller was merely, again, known as his model (although she marshalled the technique to equally compelling effect – see her above ‘Portrait of an Unknown Woman’ from 1930). Man Ray was of the controlling variety, and Miller being a woman of substance soon broke free of his grip. She continued to be deeply involved in the Surrealist movement, amassing a body of work in her late twenties and early thirties that puts her on a par with the leading figures in photographic art and photo journalism, though this has only been recognised in the last two decades after her death, thanks to the meticulous recovery, ordering and promotion of her archives by her son.

A friend of Picasso – and combining commercial fashion photography and artistic work while entwined in a bohemian milieu – what beguiles me is the mastery she achieved in the realm of photography by bringing with her all her selves as she worked though each chapter of her career and each dimension of her work. There was truth and artifice – with neither undermining the other – in her iconic photo ‘Women with fire masks’ (1941), taken on the street of her own residence in Hampstead.

Women with firemasks by Lee Miller, 1941

Conversely, when Vogue sent her off with a Rolliflex to Europe to cover the end of the war and the liberation, her photos combined a self-sufficient, often mysterious power with a visceral sense of unfolding drama. As she travelled through a bombed-out, shattered Europe, her camera captured many of the most powerful images of the closing months of that dark chapter in the last century. From the Italian front and the first ever use of Napalm at the siege of St Malo, to the death camps of Buchenwald and Dachau, and the liberation of Paris, you can view a wide selection of her potent war images online in the Lee Miller Archive.

Mistress of the lens, at the height of her career she lived for several years in this house on Downshire Hill in Hampstead, also spending time in Egypt and travelling widely, before moving to Farley Farm House in east Sussex. She had two further marriages, the second to British surrealist artist Roland Penrose whom she stayed with.

Lee Miller’s house, Downshire Hill, London, March 2010

After the war, whilst still doing the occasional fashion shoot, Miller’s overall profile declined and she suffered bouts of clinical depression alleged (in retrospect) to have been symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the horrors she had seen while on war assignment. In turn, her ironic sensibility was reinforced with disillusionment at the limited type of commercial work she was being offered. Women en masse had successfully taken on all sorts of previously “male” roles during the conflict, and as a surrealist photojournalist embedded with the US army Miller was among them. But after the war, governments scrambled to promote traditional values in their efforts to glue broken societies back together, and opportunities for women in the working world shrank.

In her lifetime, she was all to aware of the cultural – and personal – impact of womens’ abilities and output being marginalised. A photograph she composed of Max Ernst and his partner, artist Dorothea Tanning, encapsulates her subversive take on this.

The recognition she has posthumously achieved was acknowledged on a grand scale some 30 years after her death in a major retrospective at the V&A in 2007, which I attended, plus coverage and exhibitions globally in the last decade. Now the scales have been duly re-balanced, we can celebrate Miller as a true icon and pioneer in the art and technology of photography. For innovation and inspiration personified, look to Lee Miller on Ada Lovelace Day.

Ada Lovelace Day is an annual worldwide day of blogging to celebrate the achievement of women in science and technology. More information on Ada Lovelace Day 2010 can be found on the Finding Ada website.  This post hasn’t been much about technology per se – it’s what we do with it that matters…

Social media diet – the book supplement

In December 2007 I went on a media diet, inspired by a Digital Health Service Workshop I’d attended. To be truthful, it was mainly a social media diet. I was an early casualty, as it seems to be catching on more widely now.  After being relentlessly engrossed in reading and then creating blogs since 2004, and then diving into the participatathon of Facebook in October 2006, and Twitter the month after, plus a host of other social-sharing-crowdfacing-wikified-whateverisms (on top of all the other web stuff I do), warning signals were sounding.

Having partaken in these principally as a core (and very fruitful) part of my job, they were completely taking over, and the side-effects were not exactly glamorous. I’ve written about them before.

In some ways social media latecomers are lucky and have probably adapted better to the social mediaverse. Plus most don’t have to do it as a matter-of-life-or-paycheck, (although a few dozen tweets can get you a social media intern gig these days, but what did you do before that Tarquin? Enough said).

After I emerged from the two-week zero-fat diet of Xmas 07/ NY 08, things were different. Nowadays, it’s all about judicious media consumption for me, honing a better skim-and-plunge technique… supposedly. I still spend my working days neck-deep in the mechanics and strategy of all aspects of online communities, social media and their ilk, and find their business, tech, social and cultural impacts fascinating. Evenings, if I’m dabbling, it’s more likely reading, bookmarking and the odd tweet. Sometimes I’ll even try out a new web service. But there’s more to life…

And the part I was missing most was books.

(I’d just about managed to keep up on music, film, art and other stuff; somehow that was possible).

When I first moved to London in 1998 I didn’t read a book for 6 months. I was shellshocked – by the material stress of the move, the quantum leap of my job, the social rupture of leaving my life in Glasgow, the general disorienting strangeness (I’d been to London 30+ times previously, but living there – sorry, here – is different). As someone who’d normally read – and often review in my freelance journalist guise – 3-5 books a month, the book-reading famine was symptomatic of a larger destabilising episode.

I just couldn’t sit, zone-in and immerse myself in the great books I’d got queued up to read. When I think about it now, the wave of social media that’s washed over me in a work context in the last 5 years has made me exhibit many of the same behaviours that resulted from my transplanting to Londinium. But you always – hopefully – resurface.

So I made an effort to get some nourishment. Here are (some of) the books I read in 2009. Mainly – if sometimes vaguely – work-related, hence the exhibitionism…

Books queued up in December 2008

Books queued up in December 2008

I’m not reviewing them (if only!) but I have to admit two of the pictured editions are unfinished: Yochai Benkler’s (seminal) The Wealth Of Networks (see also the blog and wiki) and Grant McCracken‘s Transformations. I’m still in transit with them, gradually snacking my way through. Must be the microblogging ripple effect :-)

Books queued to read August 2009

Books queued to read August 2009

I can’t wait to read 2010′s offerings. The pile is currently being assembled. And the project of filtering too many media inputs continues :-)

If anyone wants to do a digital / social web book club (preferrably offline), this reader might be interested.

Delete, not fade away and radiate?

As digital capture of our lives edges ever closer to ubiquity – and that seems to be where we’re heading – what are the consequences for memory and for judgement on both a personal and societal scale? Is it a curse or just a new aspect of the modern age that we’re inevitably making some mistakes in coming to terms with?

That’s the subject of a new book ‘Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In A Digital Age’, and on 19th November I attended a talk at the RSA given by the author Victor Mayer-Schonberger, director of the information and innovation policy research centre at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which was ably chaired by Kevin Anderson, Blogs Editor (now Digital Research Editor since December ’09) at The Guardian.

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In The Digital Age at the RSA, 19th November 2009

It’s a wide ranging topic, and a lot was covered, but the crux was this: the growing tendency to default to digitally documenting and sharing experience is creating a digital legacy that we as individuals are not fully able to control. In many cases this can lead to information being taken out of context, or shared beyond appropriate boundaries, with baleful (and other, still unknown) consequences.

Take a trio of now commonplace examples. The innocent party photo passed through Facebook or stored in Flickr or Google’s image archive means you’re passed over for a promotion or job, or sacked from your current one. The long past relationship is made ever present by related content from that time being accessible at the push of a button and compounded by current two or three-degrees connection to the ex. The holiday or special occasion is experienced less as something we live through intensely in the moment and later recollect at leisure, but is constantly punctuated with recording for posterity and increasingly stylised and calculated for the consumption of a small or not-so-small audience.

The second interlinked thesis is that our slowly evolved patterns of memory, learning and recollection are being distorted and un-bound by reliance on digital recording and storage. Memory reconstructs the past to minimise cognitive dissonance, the author explained. This is more potent and interesting, if an area I’m less familiar with. Normally, we cannot deliberately forget (for the reverse, see Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s fantastic movie Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) and memory naturally both selects, filters and deteriorates over time. But if the default is moving to not physiologically but digitally remembering, is the solution to delete?

Mayer-Schonberger is himself ambivalent about this, but citing a woman known as “AJ” he shared some compelling evidence of studies of human beings who have biological difficulties with forgetting. AJ experiences total recall as a curse. Tethered by an ever more detailed recollection of what has gone before, she is continually haunted by the past; resulting in an inability to live in the present, to generalise and to abstract from experience.

Another worrying consequence touched on by Mayer-Schonberger is our mass participation and compliance in the creation of a temporal Panopticon – in other words our collusion in the ability of institutions to store and always see our actions at any moment in time. My colleague Ian Delaney has written about this more eloquently than I can.

Accelerating referencing of digital content taken out of context – according to Mayer-Schonberger – means we also increasingly deny each other the capacity to change, evolve and grow and as such we are becoming a more unforgiving society. He floated an extreme scenario: what if we disregard our own recollection and instead depend solely on digital memory? Wouldn’t we have lost more than we had gained?

Clearly a thought experiment, he added the caveat that as only fragments of our experience are captured digitally, this cannot actually happen in totality. The problems right now – as mentioned with the careers, relationship and holiday examples – come when it happens on a piecemeal, ad hoc or imperceptible basis.

Solutions proposed by Mayer-Schonberger, include:

(1) Reintroduce forgetting by technological means – an expiration date put on information that we are prompted to input when we add time and GPS co-ordinates to data (or more simply, when we save it). The pitfall of this approach is if it’s public it can be copied by others and stored elsewhere.

(2) “Digital rusting” – a closer approximation of the tactile and receeding nature of memory. The issue with this is how we can know at the point of recording how we might feel about the material in the future. This might be a workable model for some public data, but personal information (and creation) has different implications, and personal and public often overlap. Ultimately, I feel current and future historians might beg to differ with this approach.

(3) Go back to forgetting by default. This means either we cease to record and save information (not gonna happen), or that we forget we have done so – which is a much worse nightmare! The key I think is that information, however private or public, somehow needs to be understood and placed in differing temporal and social dimensions.

(4) The dark side of the network – and the downside of the end of silos – is that because social conventions lag behind the increasing openness of information it’s easy to find “personal” information about “impersonal” connections, and once this data is exposed and fed into to impersonal judgements it’s not so easy to get a second chance. The solution? We should promote the exercise of judgement [privately and publicly, I presume], argued Mayer-Schonberger. Guy Parsons shared an optimistic twist on this at Chinwag Live: The Dark Side Of Social Media, an event I organised back in 2007. But not all elements of society will consistently act this way, so the risk remains.

If the wisest survival response is then self-censorship, how far should you go? Even private use of search engines is not immune. Mayer-Schonberger cited AOL’s now infamous search query datastream release c*ck-up in 2006, wherein the supposedly anonymized data of search records was rapidly traced by technologists at the New York Times to some of the individuals who’d created it. What if it you had been one of them? In turn, how much does constant watchfulness really benefit public and personal development? Is it right that privacy is being eroded so much that we need to be so careful?

Nico Macdonald made the point that you can’t code the solutions to social problems. This seemed uncontroversial as I don’t think much store has been put by the “expiry date” solution in responses to the book. We shouldn’t be “subjected” to technology but be more active in shaping it, he inferred. Perhaps that’s what we really need reminded of.

Much was said about search engines and the Internet Archive even got a namecheck. But the cash-strapped Internet Archive is shrinking not growing I’ve noticed. Google is dependent on the trust of its users, and that trust is tantamount to its business model Mayer-Schonberger stressed. But a recent remark by Google’s Eric Schmidt tells us this is changing. Facebook now faces the same issue. Despite their recent announcement about the Open Graph API and their latest privacy settings swerve, most people expect privacy from Facebook. Whether or not that expectation is foolish, Facebook could still be wrong-footed by being too open.

Returning to recall for a moment, timelines are something I’ve always thought that, conversely, digital content could do with more of but their genesis requires some subtlety and serious forethought. Fear of interrogating the past could diminish us as much as it might protect us. Surely it’s a function of human enquiry and maturity to be able to embrace our past, to reflect on and dwell in it on occasion without becoming paralysed like AJ? Why would the digital storage and referencing of past information stop us from being able to interpret it wisely and still live in the present? This is really where Mayer-Schonberger and I part paths.

Flexible and reliable privacy settings are just a feature that should come with such services. The first one I came across was Rememble, which enabled you save and store selected text messages, blogs, tweets, photos and other content in a visual timeline. Creator Gavin O’Carroll likened it in 2007 to a washing line for your digital bits and pieces. It was a narrative-led yet accessible framework for piecing together fragmented content and reconstructing memories, conversations and events at the personal level.

If you’re looking to place stuff in a larger historical context, a landmark project – sadly no longer existent – came in the form of Miomi. It was an exciting melding of content from different sources to create user generated history that I saw demoed at the Minibar start-up event in Brick Lane in 2007. Miomi allowed the user to zoom in and out of particular years and decades over the last century and a half and see relevant content (eg. from Wikipedia and public digital records) relating to that time, and also location, as well as annotating and adding their own. Unsurprisingly the more contemporary part was already very detailed. I’m doubtful it would have scaled well in terms of moderation and accuracy, but its ambition was refreshing. I’m sure it’s next-gen version is being cooked up somewhere.

So digital permanence was the dish of the day at the RSA. But the opposite view – that digital is an extremely fragile and ephemeral medium for so much of human culture and activity to be engraved and invested in, and that we should make far more effort to selectively and robustly archive it – wasn’t voiced at this event. Paradoxically digital content is both brittle and persistent, transitory and important. There is no black or white answer to seek refuge in.

Finally the context question. In his talk Mayer-Schonberger seemed to side with the view that personal digital content – in the very act of being accessed beyond me and forwards in time – always lacks a contextual ‘je ne sais quoi’. Granted he may say much more than this in the book (I have it on order) but this is where the story both begins and ends.

While I can’t talk with any depth about the brain’s gradually evolved ability to remember and recollect, surely the digital overlay is just a new frontier for the human ability to record and sometimes simultaneously interlace experience with another layer of data?

We’ve done it before. We drew pictures, told stories and wrote books. These things took time to permeate our cultures but they enriched them. In the last century we had social panics about radio, recorded music, film and then television being available to the masses (just as we had panics about women voting and going to work, for instance). More recently, there was somewhat more minor fretting that people listening to walkmans walked this earth as if in a bubble. It’s funny when you look back on it now – because it’s y’know, recorded – and remember…

Now the context is evolving. That’s why creative projects such Britglyph and Open Plaques are intriguing, using the medium as a canvas to help us collectively discover, trace and find new ways to map meaning and think about human activity back and forth in time. This is what Bill Thompson was driving at when he described Britglyph as “a fascinating example of what is possible when you work with the grain of the internet, building something around the things the network makes possible.

So rather than disgorging personal data to the network, we should always be curating and shaping. That’s the trump card digitally-augmented context – mastered and done well – is bringing to the table.

Are we really so incapable of adapting to and interpreting new contexts that this growing layer of digital information augmenting our lives will render us personally dysfunctional? Or worse still, divided into slaves to “one ring that rules them all” (whether that’s Facebook, Google or your friendly local authorities) on one side, and savvy digital invisibles on the other. Or is this just the messy late-teenage phase of the unfolding web canvas? It seems like it could go either way.

Last words, for now, go to Chris Stein circa 1978.

…watchful lines vibrate soft in brainwave time.
Silver pictures move so slow.
Golden tubes faintly glow.

Electric faces seem to merge.
Hidden voices mock your words.
Fade away and radiate.
Fade away and radiate.

Beams become my dream.
My dream is on the screen.

For a reverse panopticon of the event itself ;-)  Neil Perkin has provided a good write-up, the event was recorded by the RSA (MP3 download) and Mayer Shoenburg was interviewed by Reuters beforehand.

Apologies and thanks to Stein et al for the title.

Being Don Draper

If you’re a fan of Mad Men, who wouldn’t want to be Don, even if just for one wheeling dealing afternoon or rollercoaster nocturnal session? What’s begun to happen with fictional characters on Twitter in 2008/2009 is heading in this, and other equally interesting directions.

Mad Men vs me at a Mad Men party

Mad Men vs me at a Mad Men party - courtesy of Laura Brunow on Flickr

It kind of started when digital planner and strategist Paul Isakson donned the guise of early 1960’s adman Don Draper on Twitter in the summer of 2008,  unbeknownst to Mad Men programme makers AMC. As of writing Don/Isakson now has 8,880 followers. All the other Mad Men characters are on Twitter too (my current fave is Roger Sterling). From what I know, they too are mostly unofficial.

Isakson came clean as to his ownership of the @don_draper account in November and to their credit it seems AMC didn’t demand that Isakson hand it over. Now the chance to be Don (or at least that particular Don, for there are now multiple Dons on Twitter) is up for grabs – and the deadline is today.

Whoever is picked – by a combination of a forthcoming audience vote on the finalists, laced with Paul Isakson’s editorial judgement – will be Don Draper on Twitter for the remainder of Season 3 which began transmitting 16th August in the US. What’s more, if folks don’t rate the new Don’s performance, he can be fired and replaced by the runner-up at any point during the season.

I’m not even going to go into the aptness of all this given Don’s very particular backstory, because if you haven’t yet followed Mad Men that would be a heinous spoiler.

Looking at his blog post today, I’m not sure Isakson got enough entries (I’m guessing some went via the back door of email and the side entrance of tweetbacks). But as an exercise in crowdsourcing an audition, and expanding the kudos Mad Men accrues by layering multiple, more permeable Dons around actor John Hamm’s TV incarnation, it’s a Stars In Their Eyes/X Factor mashup for the transmedia generation.

Of course it’s all somewhat jarring for Mad Men fans not in the USA, but y’all know these transmission lags are a major reason why TV torrents are hugely popular in the UK and why the old school TV distribution model is declining.

Concerns of brandjacking and Twitter-squatting aside – and increasingly these concepts seem hugely over-simplified if not redundant – unofficial is often good if not better. Characters are being liberated, authorship is be re-shaped and unforeseen talents are taking the reins. Simples  :-)

In fact the Twittersphere is now awash with fictional personae. I’ve already been following “Gene Hunt” from the BBC’s Ashes To Ashes for a few months. Daft but bolly good value.

Peep Show is going down the same road, with Mark getting the most interest. All of which feels oddly natural given that a year ago it would have been freakish; and a choice counterpoint to the dreaded real-world insistence that we must “be who we say we are online”, an exhortation that incites me to commit unspeakable acts.

In short, it’s exciting territory and ripe for more quality excursions. To take a very random and subjective sample of arresting characters, imagine if you could have been, or be able to converse with:

John Rebus in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels

Teddy Hoffman or Richard Cross from Murder One

Renton, Begbie or Spud or from Trainspotting – chapters of which were first published in the groundbreaking Edinburgh-headquartered Rebel Inc magazine.

Henry (“helicopters!”), Karen (“Henrrrry!”), or Tommy (“guns”) from Goodfellas

Pembleton or Munch from Homicide: Life On The Street

Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction

Caleb Temple in American Gothic

Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

(Rita Hayworth as) Gilda in Gilda

Nick Carraway or Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby.

All so moreish…

Elsewhere this month author Philippa Gregory (working with digital agency Blonde) created a Twitter feed for the main character Elizabeth Woodville in her latest novel The White Queen – all the better, you see, to reinterpret the story through a series of tweets in the week prior to the book’s publication.

For one week only? Hmm, not a lot of time to become really hooked or intrigued you’d think. But no, with very little fanfare she garnered 700+ followers, and the feedback in @ messages was equally potent from numerous viewpoints: the author herself, marketer and publisher intelligence gathering, online PR of course, and practitioners of transmedia generally.

After the first week of this project, we were able to read the tweets in more traditional narrative order on this Flash site. Analysed per-tweet, the quality is variable but from a birds-eye view the concept’s overall execution is quite beguiling.

A central challenge for The White Queen project lay in matching the quality of the source material, and in the transition of perspective and literary skill from print page to ambient digital flow. A big ask, but sometimes (if not this time) the Twitter offshoot is even better than the original fabrication.

In that vein (to lower the tone for a minute and head over to present-day adland), while I don’t set much store by comparison websites, I’ve lately followed CompareTheMeerkat.  As always with creative marketing, the risk is that we’re merely delighted, and this doesn’t translate to sales. But that’s nothing new, and as part the perennial tug of love between advertising, marketing and branding, largely immaterial to this discussion. What’s compelling is the character and @Alexsandr_orlov is a highly diverting creation.

This particular clutch of character extensions are also textbook transmedia shortcuts. Is it just me, or do you ever get tired just thinking about all those Facebook pages connected to the YouTube channel connected to the SEO strategy connected to the website connected to the email sign-up form connected to the mobile campaign, etc, etc, ad infinitum..? All these rinky dink agencies trying oh-so relentlessly to herd our weary eyeballs round some archetypal loop of media integration. Like it was all orchestrated for some slick presentation designed to wow lazy executives at whatever new media conference, ugh.

Oh no, wait, what we should *really* be doing is aggregating them all in FriendFeed or one of its ilk for a full-fat, 360, planned to the nth degree social media experience. Oh, Facebook just bought Friendfeed, umm, well then just wait for 12-18 months, add semantic web – and bada bing! What, the semantic web thingy will take at least 5 more years you say? No, just stop it. It really doesn’t work like that.

Instead, how about we park the whole 360 shizzle, look at the shortcuts that are working some magic and think about the implications? Being @Don_Draper and its Kaufmanesque cohorts are entry points to the future of storytelling. If fictional prototypes like these are the prelude to a new era of character development and narrative interplay, I can’t wait to see what unfolds over the next decade.

Some hero magic on Ada Lovelace Day

It’s all about the “now” and the “next” in media and technology; but in the headlong, often mind-numbing rush for mindshare, followers, whuffie or whatever is this week’s shiny nu nu thing, what has gone before is equally important.

That’s why, to mark Ada Lovelace Day I wanted to write about someone who inspired and mentored me directly.

I’d already edited a web site for the Edinburgh Festival and covered technology and multimedia culture for the likes of The Scotsman newspaper and .net magazine before I touched down in Londoninium in July 1998.

I was starting as Web Editor for the international website of Ernst & Young but – I was informed on Day One – there was a month of handover between me and the freelancer who’d previously been editing the site part-time.

On the morning the freelancer was due to come in my nerves were ratcheted up another notch from their already high levels. There was me *way* out of my comfort zone working in corporatesville when in walks this stunning woman: pixieish hair, jeans and a biker jacket. And when she removed said jacket, ooh, the tattoo on her arm was just gorgeous. She smiled and extended a hand: “Hey! I’m Lizzie”. And that was Liz Bailey. I’ll never forget it.

It was less of a handover, more of a crash course in ramping-up my html skills, and getting the ultimate outsiders insider’s guide to my employer, interspersed with some scrumptious Chinatown and Soho lunches and lots of hilarity. The full-spectrum introduction :-) But more than that it was finding – in this most alien of environments – a kindred spirit, because Lizzie was my entry point into London’s embryonic web scene.

A freelancer who also wrote and did web editing, design and production for Wired UK, The Guardian, BBC Online, the FT, Demos, Wallpaper*, McKinsey, The Telegraph and more, Lizzie knew everyone who was doing anything interesting web-wise in London.

Missing my own familiarity with Scotland’s web scene, I was happy to take a cue from my new mentor. If it wasn’t for Lizzie, well I would’ve been fine, but she allowed me to bridge both worlds: the corporate but innovative focus of my everyday work, and the creativity, excitement and bone fide madness of the first dotcom boom.

I’d seen a black and white A4 newsletter once in Glasgow (when someone in London posted it to me) called New Media Age – it carried four pages of news on the nascent sector and no ads! But it was Lizzie who tipped me off re a packed mid-week party in Great Titchfield St dubbed ‘Boob Night’ where I met the editor of the then fully-fledged magazine, a young fella by the name of Mike Butcher who I managed to out-argue . He says he doesn’t remember it, but back then nights of mayhem where the champers flowed gratis were ten a penny for the current TechCrunchUK editor  ;-)

At Lizzie’s 30th Birthday party I also met Phil Gyford (then at BBC Online I think), and a guy she was working with on ‘New Media Creative’ magazine called Paul Murphy. Later she introduced me to hotshot new media reporter Polly Sprenger who was fresh over from Wired News in San Francisco (Mike Butcher once described Polly to me as “the Red Rum of technology reporters” after they worked together on the shortlived Industry Standard Europe magazine).

It reaffirmed I wasn’t just working in a “job”, for a “company”, but part of of something game-changing and amazing.

But this melange of web culture, innovation and merriment paled next to Lizzie’s own formidable focus and grit. A web grrrl to the core, Lizzie would magic up websites to die for whilst relentlessly promoting the causes of usability, innovation and the visibility of women in the web design and technology sector.

That movement for change – and celebration of talent – has latter day embodiments in UK-founded networks (some of which have gone global) like She Says, Girl Geek Dinners, Women In Mobile Data, and the briefly existent Digital Womens’ Club – all great initiatives I’ve actively supported.

Three years flew by, and when I was two jobs on from Ernst & Yong working as editor in chief of a VC-funded music website, the entire sector imploded. After a barren several months I decamped to the TV industry back in Belfast in 2002. But Lizzie hung in there. Multi-talented and entrepreneurial to a tee, she was surely the woman who knew most about new media in London. She was praxis.

And just when I came back to London in 2004, as the first timid signs of hope were visible in the sector (I’d been waiting, watching and biding my time you see), Lizzie switched careers and started studying to be a barrister.

Now she’s qualified and doing well, but her influence in web culture and technology still resonates for me. I’ve often been at conferences like SXSW Interactive, FOWA, Changing Media – and the NMK and Chinwag Live events I’ve organised myself – and thought “damn, Lizzie should be speaking at this!”. But looked at in a broader way, she has been…

I don’t know if I’d have dared come back to digital if I hadn’t known Lizzie. There were too many talented people flushed out of the sector back then. As it turns out while digital certainly has been affected by the current recession, compared to the rest of media – and jobs more generally – it’s still *relatively* resilient. In short, it’s nowhere near a dotcom bust Groundhog Day scenario.

Tons and tons of people inspire me of course, but in reality it’s hard to say what it all will mean and which parts will be valuable 10 years hence.

So raise a toast to the inaugural Ada Lovelace Day and sample some vintage Liz Bailey (NB. it’s an internet hazard that most of Lizzie’s work from then – like most of mine – has not been archived):

Boo gets booed – The Guardian 11th November 1999

Britgrrls No Bark and No Byte? – 1999, trAce

Demos publications by Liz Bailey

Who was Ada Lovelace?
Born on 10th December 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife Annabella, Augusta Ada Byron (now known simply as Ada Lovelace) wrote the world’s first computer programmes for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine that Charles Babbage had invented  »read more

Credits
Thanks to Suw Charman for co-ordinating Ada Lovelace Day on Tuesday 24th March 2009. The first of it’s kind, it’s “an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants. The list of tech-related careers is endless.” »Ada Lovelace website

Join In!
You (male or female) can still register your pledge to write a blog post celebrating your technology heroine on this day – Tuesday 24th March – at the official »2009 PledgeBank page