Monthly Archives: November 2009

X Factor

This week’s Net Office spot went live today. Read it raw here, or edited here.

Just who or what is to blame for the X Factor? Step up, the worldwide web. Not only is the sixth series sponsored by a broadband company, TalkTalk, but the format is clearly a desperate bid for survival by the last producers afloat in the little boat Broadcasting, cast off from the cruise ship Mass Media as it lies sunk against a great, unanticipated iceberg of new technology. X Factor and the many shows like it which now litter our schedules employ every trick last century’s one-to-many medium has over this century’s network of ends.

First, there are the stars. But even Simon Cowell tweets now. More, it is the spectacle, the occasion. The web is not made for occasions – you don’t pop corn to surf the net. Then, there is the voting. This is the fantasy interactivity of the TV executive – no messy comment pages, no trolls and flamers – this is a National Verdict. Bash our codes into your keypad, take part, you decide. But the only real choice on offer is the one to consent to this gaudy homogeneity in the first place.

Not always. The TV talent show is a franchise – another archaic channel through which the money of old media still flows – and the “Got Talent” franchise, for example, has sold to nearly 30 countries. One is Ukraine. The winning performance of the first series of Ukraine’s Got Talent has been posted to YouTube, and has attracted over 8 million viewers since the competition concluded this Summer. 8 million is the web’s version of a mass audience. At least for a video of something that isn’t a cat.

Kseniya Simonova is a performance artist who works with sand. That is, she is a sand artist. She won Ukraine’s Got Talent with a piece depicting the experience of Ukraine during the Second World War, when one in four of the population lost their lives. To a specially-commissioned soundtrack, Simonova stands at a giant light-box-table, an image of which is simultaneously being projected onto an immense screen behind her. Wearing a customarily daring outfit, she deftly weaves a succession of emotive scenes from the sand that lies scattered in front of her. The result is strangely breath-taking. If, during the run up to the X Factor final you require a little reassurance as to the delicacy of the human soul, watch it here.


This week’s Net Office spot went live today. Raw copy below. Edited version here.

“The thing is that people are complex. People lead complicated lives”. So said research scientist Dr Brooke Magnanti, when she came out in the pages of The Times as blogger Belle du Jour earlier this month. The identity of the ex-London call girl who has been blogging pseudonymously since 2003 and whose exploits have been turned into a hit TV series, has been described as one of the best kept literary secrets of the century. But if there’s one profession that should know about discretion, about the need for human beings to keep different parts of the lives tucked away in distinct compartments, it is the world’s oldest.

Identity is the biggest fault line between old and new media. Offline, the truth is not the truth until someone stands by it. Even if that someone is “a source close to the actress”, the audience is unlikely to suspend their disbelief unless there is a clear and identifiable trail leading to a named personage with whom we presume the buck to stop. Thus the fairly modern concept of the media whore, several examples of which – Rowan Pelling, Toby Young – were initially and mistakenly fingered as the elusive Belle. A good broadcast journalist will have several of these lined up in his little black book, ready to be called upon to express a point of view whenever tomorrow’s news cycle demands it. The contrast – Fox News’ “some people say” – leaves us intuitively uncomfortable.

Online, the story is different. Though we might pay brief attention when a previously pseudonymous blogger is outed by the mainstream press – the Times has the form here, the obvious case being the police blogger Nightjack – finding out the “true” identity of our favourite bloggers appears to please journalists more than it does readers. Online, we swap accountability for context. Any tale of the realities of a life – be that driving ambulances in London, working on the crime frontline, or servicing the sexual needs of rich city types – will make its own reputation, will stand or fall on its intrinsic plausibility. With Belle, most of us had nothing to compare it to anyway – broadcast journalists don’t have many high-class call girls willing to go on record should the need for a spokesperson from that community arise. And for that, we should probably be thankful that the cloak of the web allowed Belle to speak so clearly for so long.

This seems apt today:

TMobile - Life's for sharing

Read all about it.


This week’s Net Office spot went live today. Read the raw copy here, or go to the Statesman for the final version.

Even media types need holidays sometimes. But what do you do when your loyal readership demand their daily dose of desire or doom despite your destination dictating otherwise? One failsafe, is the top 100. It doesn’t matter what – movie soundtracks, lawn dressings, sausages – a list of favourites from back through the ages is easy to compile in advance, leaving you free to enjoy your break and your audience none the wiser.

The list is an online stalwart, too. It’s common knowledge among successful bloggers that the best way to get people to read your opinion on something is to break it down into numbered, headlined paragraphs and call it a list. Look up the most popular pages sent to social bookmarking site on any given day, and you’ll find at least half a dozen lists. These, though, are for slightly more specialised tastes: top ten Internet Explorer rendering tips, 9 reasons to switch to Haskell.

Eclectic Method goes Phish” is an altogether different proposition. Already viewed over 23,000 times on video-sharing website Vimeo, this 4 minute mashup consists of no less than 99 different tracks. It was commissioned for the opening of a special Hallowe’en concert at Festival 8 in Indio, California for cult jam band Phish, the University of Vermont’s greatest export (not counting Ben Afleck) and the true heirs of the Grateful Dead.

To promote the gig, Phish drew up an online list of their top 99 albums of all time, to drive speculation as to what record the band would play as their “musical costume” for the event – a Phish tradition dating back 15 years. During the countdown to the event, one by one each album was axed, until only one remained. On the night, after they opened with Eclectic Method’s video, they covered the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street in its entirety.

The video exists online not only as a testimony to the event, but to digital media’s power to turn the old into something new. Engaging and rhythmic, it plays like the life of Phil Spector flashing before his eyes, as Bowie cuts to Cohen, and images of Kiss, Metallica and The Clash strobe over a baseline provided by the Beastie Boys. As we reach the end of another decade, let’s hope the editors of our weekend supplements are watching. Because reminiscing doesn’t get much better than this.

Revenge of the Nerds

This week’s Net Office went live today. You can read the raw copy here, or go to the NS for the finished version:

At the beginning of the speech that was eventually to get him sacked, Professor David Nutt defines a drug as “an exogenous substance, something that comes from outside a person, goes into them and produces physiological changes”. By the time his well-balanced observations into the pressures that affect drug policy in the UK had been ingested, digested and disseminated by the mainstream news media, it too had undergone various physiological changes, emerging as a highly politicised attack. One can’t help wondering whether the Home Secretary re-read the speech before issuing Nutt with his marching orders.

Ministers tend to justify down-playing the scientific evidence on drug harm by the need for drug policy to “send a signal” to young people. So it’s worth asking over which network they think they’re broadcasting. The mainstream media play ball, being over 200 times more likely – according to evidence cited by Nutt – to report a death from taking ecstasy than a death from taking Paracetemol. But compared to politicians, both scientists and young people are more at home online, the former being early adopters and the latter digital natives. So how did the Government’s actions play out on the web? What signals did the sacking of David Nutt send?

The week the story broke, the US-based community news portal Reddit registered it as two of its three most popular news threads in World Politics, with support for Nutt or condemnation of the Government featuring heavily in the more than 1,500 comments each thread attracted. The story also hit the front page of Fark, a satirical community news site known to attract 4 million visitors a month. Meanwhile, on Facebook, a group demanding the reinstatement of Professor Nutt and more evidence-based drug laws was set up by Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, and attracted over 6,000 members in one weekend.

The right of reply, combined with the ease with which hypertext and search allow readers to verify facts using primary sources, means that even if “signals” do work offline, they don’t work online. If the Government really do wish to target the young, they’ll need to think up better ideas than sacking their expert dissenters. To give Nutt the last word: “The internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell [kids] the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source.”