Ceefax and the end of a technology era

So the venerable television text service is no more in the UK, as the BBC closes Ceefax. The ITV and Channel 4 alternatives closed back in 2009, so it’s the end of a UK -developed technology that began in the early 1970s.

The end has been coming for a while. I can remember using the BBC service to check the football scores, and also the ITV alternative for video game coverage. But a few years ago I started sitting in front of my laptop reading the scores to my dad before the pages could cycle through.

Obviously between new interactive services, laptops, and particularly the ‘second screen’ duo of smartphones and tablets, there’s probably a very small minority who will be affected by the demise of Ceefax, which increasingly resembled a pixel art vision of the future.

But the news did bring back some happy memories of the Disposable Media project I worked on. Assembled from volunteers either already working in the media or hoping to break into it, the DM online magazine was produced entirely online via a private forum, and was available as a PDF download which managed to reach tens of thousands of people each issue.

And one memorable issue featured a cover by ITV’s teletext video game legend Mr Biffo

Disposable Media

The scary thing is that it’s almost 5 years since that issue was produced. Since then some of the Disposable Alumni have gone onto work for a range of companies, with many in the media in some senior positions.

And even this week there has been debate about yet another venerable print title switching to digital distribution only. We knew it was happening years ago!

Online collaboration isn’t always an easy option…

There’s a tendency to look at User Generated Content and online collaboration as an easy way to create content, products and services without some of the hassles of a traditional business.

And it’s easy to understand why: No ground rent, no equipment or infrastructure costs, no limitations on who can be involved etc. And no need to necessarily pay contributors.

But it isn’t an easy option, and there are several major risks to any online collaboration which requires more than one or two people:

Trust: How quickly do you place your trust in people to deliver on their promises, to deliver them on time, and not to take good ideas elsewhere?

Management: Is there some kind of leadership or guidance to keep things moving, and to clearly articulate the vision and strategy etc – which may have been decided democratically. How do you keep momentum going and inspire people to continue even when things can be tough?

Politics: How do you deal with disagreements? Infighting? Rivalry?

Reward: How do you supply a justifiable return to contributors for their time? Financial or otherwise?

Communication: How do you keep people updated, and make things simple and easy to contribute?

Those are just the first few problems off the top of my head. The reason they come to mind is that I have basically decided to cut all responsibility for Disposable Media, leaving only the possibility of contributing the occasional blog post or article at some point.

It’s been a lot of fun, particularly when I was given the honour of being Editor, and we had a fast growth in audience – all from a group of people working for no financial reward and contributing articles, designs etc via a forum. In my time on DM, I only ever met two of my colleagues in real life in the space of two years!

But having realised that I don’t have the time and energy to drive DM forward, I stepped down to take a back seat and a more advisory role. And what then happened was quite painful to watch, as some infighting and sabotage began, communication became worse, trust was lost, and many people started drifting away.  I don’t place all the blame on the Editor who replaced me, as there have definitely been people who have used a period of change for their own agenda.

Hopefully it will rise from the ashes, as over the years it’s had some very talented people, and some great articles and content. On the bright side, it’s shown me that although I was far from perfect, and made several mistakes, I did achieve a lot in keeping things going, and always trying to drive more organised and efficient systems to make life easier for everyone – and it also highlighted the need for communication and rewards, which will hopefully help me on other projects.

To be honest, the real risk to online magazines isn’t just the problems of collaboration – it’s also the arrival of new aggregated delivery services in a magazine format – i.e. systems that take your favourites from services like Last.fm, and then produce a custom magazine around them, like Idiomag. It plays on a simple philosophy of mine which is becoming more and more realistic and reinforced – ‘The most effective targeting of an individual, is the targeting they do for themselves

The biggest Twitter mistake you can make…

I’ve been using Twitter for quite a while (@badgergravling if you’re inclined), and I’ve found it an invaluable place for communication, debate, and refining ideas.

And I’ve also got used to both the concept of following 1000s of people, and combining real conversation, and the growing number of automated blog/website feeds using services like Twitterfeed. But whether you’re Disposable Media or The Guardian, if you’re not responding to direct messages and @ replies, then you’re really missing the point, and not getting the best benefit. Having set up the Disposable Media feed, I’ve been guilty of leaving it too much already, as I’ve concentrated more on my personal endeavours…but even with limited time, everyone is guaranteed a reply eventually – better than The Guardian manages.

Some services – The BBC, The Guardian, etc can offer enough interesting content in specific enough areas to get away with it. Just. But if you’re not a leading news agency etc, you’re better off using Twitter for personal discussion rather than relying on an automated feed to do all the work…

Changes, they are a-coming…

Three things are going to have an effect on my somewhat erratic blog posting regime over the coming month, so I figure it’s time to share…

Firstly, impending fatherhood is likely to have major implications for my work-life balance, and particularly anything I do in addition to escaping from the house 8 hours a day. So forgive me if posts tend to stop for a while during the adjustment to not being the biggest baby in the house, or they tend to be posted at 2am, and cover the topics like nappies, not being able to sleep, and the merits of microwave baby bottle sterilisers!

With that in mind, and after a great 18 months or so, I’ve decided to step down as Editor of Disposable Media. Having had our first ever real life meeting about DM, there’s a clear vision of what we want to achieve over the next 12 months, and I’ve got a lot of confidence and faith in Keith Andrew, the new Editor of DM. However, my escape hasn’t entirely succeeded, as I’ve somehow found myself volunteered to become Editor-in-Chief! It’s not quite the right title, but will do for the moment, as I’m now basically looking after the strategy, direction, marketing etc, and more longterm stuff, and letting Keith do all the hard work of getting each issue out!

And lastly, I’ve got a stinking cold/flu and possibly a chest infection. Which is nice…very helpful when I’m trying to get as much sorted as possible before paternity leave – including several presentations etc… Try evangelising about social media when you’ve got tears in your eyes from trying not to sneeze!

Friday thoughtfulness

Sadly my attempts to blog more frequently have been slightly inhibited by impending fatherhood, some pressing tasks at work, and what I suspect is a lurking chest infection. So I’m falling back on some quick thoughts and some quick links to share some half-baked ideas before the weekend.

  • Firstly, the idea of a ‘music tax‘ is an abomination in so many, many ways, I probably don’t need to add to the outcry. But just for the record, it sounds like the dying cry of the dinosaurs before the meteor hits.

And there’s probably a certain irony in the fact both @brendancooper and @jemimakiss either linked to their own, or someone else’s article about how Twitter shouldn’t be just a newswire/RSS feed, and for whatever reason missed/ignored/didn’t have time to answer my responses! I don’t blame them, as it can be hard to keep track of @ messages without an external service, but it made me laugh a bit. Especially as Jemima’s article is for The Guardian, which commits exactly the same crime: e.g. @guardiantech.

And now to home and either bed, blogging for Disposable Media, Rainbow Six, or a combination of the three. Tomorrow will be the first annual meeting in real life of some of the DM team, which’ll be quite interesting, as I’ve know them virtually for 18 months, produced about 5 issues with them, and now I’m going to have to buy them some beers as we decide how to make progress for the next 12 months…

The easiest way to website and blog success!

Whenever I look at websites or blogs, there’s one key ingredient which is essential 99.9% of the time. It’s so obvious it can easily be missed, and isn’t down to technology or snazzy design. And, despite my slightly misleading title, it can be the easiest and the hardest thing to create and maintain.

It’s focus.

To clarify, I don’t mean a dogmatic clinging to one aim or proposition set in stone for all eternity. In the social we we now inhabit you’ll need to change and adapt to the needs and desires of your potential and actual audience.

But there’s an overwhelming amount of ways and means to achieve your goals – and a similar amount of things you might wish to cover. No matter how big your team or organisation, by trying to be all things to all people you’ll end up spreading yourself too thinly, and doing everyone a disservice.

It’s a lesson I’ve sometimes struggled with in the past, and one that reappears with my current employment, my blog, and Disposable Media all asking for my time – in competition with my life offline.

That’s why I have to prioritise my work first, then my blog, then Disposable Media, and then anything else online.

It’s also why the blog I started to look at anything online which interests me is now increasingly about social media marketing, community marketing and social networks. It’s my work, my main interest, and the thing it makes sense for me to focus on.

It’s also why I value the reminders about priority from a colleague of mine, and why I’ve already seen how much value comes from her work in establishing clear propositions on some of the titles I work with.

As another example, compare Pandora.com (If you’re in the U.S. and still able to) with what I thought would be a good substitute, Meemix. Both have a streaming radio station of your preferences at their heart – but where Pandora was incredibly quick and easy to get going, Meemix is prettier and yet less satisfying. Meemix has games, profiles, and all sorts of lovely graphical interfaces – and yet for me it crashes, cut outs, and fails to load. And whilst I can understand their need to differentiate themselves from Pandora in the past, now that non-U.S. residents are looking for a quick musical fix, they could be serving the millions now searching for a replacement. Instead, it’s just as quick to go to Last.fm, and gain the extra social context it offers.

Free online magazine: Disposable Media Issue 10 out now…

The latest issue of free downloadable online PDF magazine Disposable Media is now available online at www.disposablemedia.co.uk

Highlights include our exclusive interview with Mr Biffo on the current state of Kid’s TV, an exclusive interview with The Stone Gods (the reborn Darkness), Suda51, a look at both Battlestar Galactica and Californication, Manhwa (the comic genre of South Korea), and much much more…

There’s also my own column, and my retrospective look at a legendary comic – in this case, the Kevin Smith penned Daredevil….

Quoted in The Guardian!

It’s not often that my blog and I get a mention in The Guardian, or linked to! Funny what can happen when you install a widget without being suspicious!

Anyway, the full article is located here.

My job title is slightly inaccurate, as I was working for Emap Consumer Media at the time the article was being written, but the division has since been acquired by Bauer, so is now Bauer Consumer Media.

And editing Disposable Media is very, very much my hobby in my spare time, and one which I’m very fortunate my employers have allowed me to indulge up to this point. It has benefits for the company, in that I tend to be more experimental, and can understand community from two viewpoints…but my main role with Bauer is my employment and main focus..

Engaging the social network – and publishing a magazine

It’s been an interesting day today.

One reason was the mobile internet seminar organised by Emap co-blogger Dave Cushman, to encourage debate, discussion and understanding about the mobile web. It was one of the most interesting seminars I’ve been to, as it also included Tomi Ahonen, co-author of Communities Dominate Brands, and Jonathan MacDonald from new mobile network Blyk, which only officially launched yesterday. Oh, and Jon Williams from ad agency Beattie McGuiness Bungay.

Plenty of great ideas, inspiration and some workshops that proved we could engage the network when we get the time and space to do it…Plus a run through of Blyk which definitely looks likely to change the mobile internet. I don’t expect it to happen overnight, but I think it will grow to be pretty darn significant. It certainly seems to have everything in place to offer free mobile usage in exchange for a level of engagement which users could actually enjoy, rather than being irritated by…

If that wasn’t enough for one day, the great team on Disposable Media have once again put together a superb issue of the free online magazine I’m honoured to be Editor of… Please do take a peek and let me, or the team, know what you think… Espeically if you have any feelings about how advertising could be implemented, or we should be engaging the DM community…

When to be social?

I’ve been debating part of the new Disposable Media website with a colleague, and it seems to be a topic that will apply to any new website/social app.

Is it worth having a forum? And how do you stop it staying empty?

My feeling is that it’s always worth having a forum. Although they have been supplanted by social networks when it comes to publicity, they are still immensely popular, easy to set set-up and use, and drive a different sort of interaction than many social networking sites. It’s a place for visitors to browse, hang out, and even if 95% of your audience are unlikely to contribute, you can bet a significant proportion will still pop in to have a look.

Getting it populated is trickier. I’m listing ideas below, but feel free to add more in the comments, or contact mcndant at hotmail dot com if you’re shy.

1. Encourage, help and bribe staff to post often. Being able to interact with the people running a forum/website is critical. It means you can judge what your most vocal audience think, and then respond. It also gives you a chance to explain why things may take a long time, get feedback on new changes, and improve things.

2. Keep it simple and grow. It’s pointless starting 200 seperate forums with 1 post in each, when you could have one vibrant forum. You can always split out into categories later, so why force restrictions from the start? And monitor which bits get a decent level of interest. Most cities grew from villages and towns, and weren’t just invented overnight. The same applies to forums.

3. Treat it with respect, and allow users to make it home. Think of the forum like a village. Your job is to provide the gas, water and bricks for building. It’s not to restrict your users. Let them upload avatars and signatures (Images as well if you have the bandwith). Make changes to the navigation to let them craft the way it looks and feels. If you show you’re ready to listening to your forum users, they’ll be far more likely to listen when you have something to share.

4. Rule with a light hand and consistent rules. Noone wants a telling off from a moderator, but the way it’s delivered will make a big difference. And having clear, straight-forward rules which apply equally to all makes life a lot easier for everyone. Noone likes it when the rules can change on them. The flipside is that the best forums all have some form of moderation by owners or users to stop the worst excesses of offensive posting and spamming.

5. Don’t make it different for the sake of it: The majority of forums are based on one or two of the most popular free forum software providers. Which means people know and understand the way those forums work immediately. Throw something different in their face and they’ll have to figure out how it works, before they figure out how to make the most of it.

Those are some obvious, but often missed observations. But really this is just to get the ball rolling, so please do add your thoughts and suggestions. Either comment below, or email mcndant at hotmail dot com.

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