Is Shrewsbury Talking?

As we get towards the very end of the Shift Time Festival, I am beginning to wonder what has happened to the Blogging Project. In particular, what has happened to its stated aim of ‘getting Shrewsbury talking to itself’?

Oh, I’ve already got a lot out of it personally. It’s provided a kick in the pants to get my own blog up and running , replacing my old Tortoise Loft website (I was planning to do this anyway, but the Project brought it forward by at least a month or two). I’ve been grateful for Pete Ashton’s practical help and advice and answers to my beginner’s questions. The Festival has provided something specific and time-critical to write about, photograph and get very much involved with. And it has been great fun doing the Festival photos and articles for the blog. The kind of brain-stretchy challenge that does me good. 

I would almost certainly have wound up involved in the festival in some way if the Blogging Project had not occurred (probably stewarding things), and would have been attending at least some of the same events, but it would have been a more passive involvement. I wouldn’t have pushed myself in the same way to communicate, rather than just take part. The organisers can show a pretty impressive body of work that has been created on the various blogs, and on Flickr, to justify their Arts Council grant.

But.

     But.

          But.

The previous post was a part of the Project. A meeting time and place was arranged, the people involved gave up their time after a busy afternoon of rehearsal. I worked hard that evening to get it online as soon as I could, so it would be of some service to the Project and to the Festival. I transcribed, editied, wrote and re-wrote to make it as good as I could make it. When it was done, I immediately emailed the Project Manager, and a few other people for good measure. Not because I was trying to get publicity for myself (I’m not that fond of the sound of my own voice), but because the event was happening this evening, Saturday 11th, and I assumed it would be good if people could read my piece before the event, and then attend if they thought it might be an interesting evening. (I think it will be. I’m not just saying that — I want people to hear this performance at Theatre Severn because it’s going to be really worth hearing.)

The Blogging Project on the Shift-Time site has (as I write this) not been updated since last Sunday. (I’m not on Twitter, but I can see that even the most recent Twitter comment is from before I went to do the interview on Thursday afternoon!) In a few hours, the event I am talking about will be over. Where is everyone?

One could almost suspect that nobody from the Festival cares about the Project as long as they can justify the grant. I hope that’s not true.

I like living in Shrewsbury. I’m proud to be a citizen of this town, although I wasn’t born here and I don’t intend to die here. Part of the attraction is that interesting things happen in Shrewsbury: talks and lectures and exhibitions and music. We get free events in the park, in the museum or in the Square — lots of things throughout the year. I know most of these events have the aim of attracting people to Shrewsbury as a holiday or as a day-out destination. I am lucky — I get to see them too. Because of this, I believe in doing my bit in return, when I can. Whether it’s helping lost tourists find their way around the town, talking to people about things that are going to happen, places they can visit, volunteering for a bit of stewarding at a Darwin event or being more actively involved in something else that’s going on.

Writing the last blog post was a part of that repayment. And nobody knows it’s there (except the very few people involved in the Project who have bothered to look, and perhaps one or two of my own friends who read my blog, but who are not local and so wouldn’t be potential audience for this evening’s performance). I’m not the only person who has been doing a lot of work for this Project. other’s have done even more — Martin Smith, in particular, has been giving us terrific coverage of the events. But who is coming in? Who is being brought into this from outside?

Did the organisers of the Project really think that you could get a bunch of people to start blogging about the Festival, most of them starting from scratch, and that they would automatically link into a new, vibrant social-network hub for Shrewsbury? Er, isn’t that expecting a lot? However good the writing and photos and videos are, however hard these people have worked to create interesting material. These things take a lot of time, input, hard work, organisation (and possibly money if you want someone to co-ordinate things in Shrewsbury properly on a regular and frequent basis).

While I am happy to do my own thing on my own blog, and will still be writing the remaining two (or maybe three) articles about Shift-Time that I have already said I would write, and definitely still want to write, it does feel like I’m talking only to myself on these pages. By the time my blog has established its natural readership, the Shift-Time Festival articles will be lost way back in the blog archives, as will this rant about my frustration.

You are welcome to prove me wrong. The Comment link is at the foot of this article.

Advertisements

7 Responses to “Is Shrewsbury Talking?”

  1. Thanks for writing this. It’s really useful and important and I will try and answer your questions soon, hopefully Monday afternoon when I’m back at work.

  2. Rebecca Owen Says:

    Hello Sue

    You’ve made some fair comments. I await to see what Pete has to say. One of the aims of the project was to train me up to perform that editorial function, to keep an eye on what bloggers were saying and do a round up on the ‘home page’. This didn’t happen due to lack of time and some reluctance on my behalf fearing that my lack of knowledge of on-line social networking and ‘voice’ would be revealed (which is has now). Your comments will definitely be taken on board as part of evaluating this initiative. We will be organising a debriefing / evaluation meeting in next couple of weeks when I hope we can also look at ways of sustaining activity, how we could continue to develop a Shrewsbury hub and what other means of support could happen in the future.

  3. suetortoise Says:

    Thank you Rebecca. It was noticeable how the all the blog-links ground to a screeching halt as soon as Pete finished his stint. Keeping the Project, and the whole ST Website, as up-to-date as possible, should have been a top priority — because that is where you were sending people for basic information. Stale pages and a lack of clarity put people off. If you couldn’t have done the updating, some delgation should have happened — fast!

    Information is more important than video interviews and window-dressing: clear sensiblly-laid out information about what is on where, when, how. Both the brochure and the website were confusingly presented and lacked a simple, clear time-place-event matrix.

    The blogging section on the website could have been formulated so that permitted people (Staff, Artists, Bloggers) could keep it up to date themselves – adding their OWN links to articles, videos and galleries. It doesn’t have to be particularly ‘pretty’ as long is it is being used. An editorial ‘X has a great article about Y, here’ could be a nice addition, but it’s an effective hub that will bring people into this. Think: ‘human-powered, local event search engine’ and you might have an idea of what was missing from what happened. Post-event reviews and feedback are good, but should be secondary to build-up pieces and plain Useful Information — until the festival is over. And then you can leave an online scrapbook of good stuff to inspire people for the next event.

  4. I’ve started writing a reply but it’s getting out of hand. Looks like it’s going to be a long one as I have to go back and unpick the origins of the project, how it developed as more people came on board and what happened over the last week. But it’s important I do this so thanks again for the prompt.

    I’ll try and have it finished tonight.

  5. I was going to write this on the Shift Time site but I think it’s better to do so here since this is where the conversation is happening. I’ll link from the blog when I’m done.

    First, the mundane reasons why the blog wasn’t updated last week. Having spent a significant amount of the previous week focussing on Shift-Time I had to concentrate on other projects I’m working on. I also developed a tediously sore neck which put me out of action for a while, or at least forced me to stop for a bit. Then it was Thursday and then Friday and then the weekend when I went to visit family. Not an excuse and no sympathy please – just that I took my eye off the Shift-Time ball because there were other balls.

    On the one hand I was contracted for a sum of money which covered a certain amount of my time. Without going into details (as much as I want transparency I probably shouldn’t publish things like budgets since I’m just a contractor) Shift-Time got a pretty good deal for my time before the festival. From a purely numbers perspective I did my time and more.

    On the other hand I laid out the plan for this project and I should see it through no matter what. So I guess I’d better explain why the plan was.

    Please remember I’m writing some of this from memory and the project itself evolved over time as partners and funding requirements were put into play. I may be wrong about the details but hopefully right about the original spirit

    The project came about when festival director Anna Douglas ask me for a chat about what they could do with this “social media” stuff, if anything. If I remember rightly she’d allocated a sum of money for making a mini film about Theo Jansen and Umerus but was having second thoughts. I said for that sum we could do something much more interesting. When I blogged about it in May I said:

    “We’re going to get Shrewsbury itself to report on the Shift Time festival. The buzz phrase here would be “citizen journalism” but I’d like it to be more interesting than that. I want to see this event act as a catalyst that will help grow Shrewsbury’s local blogging scene and embed social media skills in groups and organisation that don’t already have them. And I want to see them take full ownership of this on their own sites in their own voices and not as part of some ill-conceived massive community website.”

    Anna liked this idea and brought in Jon King from Shropshire Council and also festival director. A funding bid was put into the Arts Council’s Digital Content Development fund which exists for arts organisations to experiment with digital media – the organisation in question being Shropshire Council’s Arts division who were putting on the Shift Time festival.

    I’d don’t want to unpick it all here, though rest assured I intend to unpick it all soon as part of my report which will be public. Suffice to say I was contracted by Shropshire Council to devise and run an experiment in social media. The outcomes included helping the council to understand how people use this stuff and to encourage people to use this stuff.

    So this project is an experiment. Putting it crudely we put some things in motion to see what would happen. How would people in Shrewsbury react to the offer? Who would take it up? What would they publish? How would the festival organisers react to what was published? How would the project relate to other work being done by the festival? And, ultimately, how might this affect the future development of Shrewsbury’s online community?

    And this potentially huge project with massive scope and potential was to be delivered by myself and Rebecca committing a relatively small amount of our time. Oh, and we had about 6 weeks to do it.

    It’s probably best if I address your points here rather than try and write the full report in this comment.

    what has happened to its stated aim of ‘getting Shrewsbury talking to itself’?

    I hope I was fairly clear that this aim was long term and rather optimistic. On the “about the project” page on the site I wrote:

    The impossible goal (and all projects should have an impossible goal) is for the town of Shrewsbury to have a vibrant, active and comprehensive network of online communities that complements and strengthens the traditional means of communication and news distribution throughout the area. We’re not going to achieve that over the time of this project but hopefully we can plant some seeds.

    Planting seeds is the key part. I’d hope that folk like yourself would see that top-down funded projects like this are not the way to develop sustainable online communities. That has to come from the Shrewsbury itself and the tools to do so are readily available and free. If Shift-Time isn’t able to do it because it’s trying to force everything through a bottleneck, and if you think it’s something worth doing then it’s up to you (you being the community, not a specific individual).

    One could almost suspect that nobody from the Festival cares about the Project as long as they can justify the grant. I hope that’s not true.

    That’s a question worth asking. I can’t speak for the festival but I’d suggest it might be a time thing (being in the middle of running the festival doesn’t leave much time for checking the blogs), a culture thing (the publicity machine not really knowing how to deal with material coming from outside traditional media) or something else. Maybe more time should have been spent ensuring the festival team were able to understand and process stuff coming from the project.

    The second point about culture is something I want to investigate more. I have a suspicion that I’d like to see refined if not disproved that the council saw this project as producing a cohort of citizen journalists they could mould into a tame media machine. That would show a massive misunderstanding as to the point of the project.

    It’s also worth considering that this project was a relatively tiny part of Shift Time to which Jon and Anna may have already given a disproportional amount of attention to. Again, it’s a capacity issue.

    Did the organisers of the Project really think that you could get a bunch of people to start blogging about the Festival, most of them starting from scratch, and that they would automatically link into a new, vibrant social-network hub for Shrewsbury?

    No. As I quoted above it was an impossible goal and I tried to temper that in the weeks before hand, probably not successfully. I wanted people to keep that scenario in mind but didn’t in my wildest dreams imagine we’d see it by the middle of July.

    By the time my blog has established its natural readership, the Shift-Time Festival articles will be lost way back in the blog archives, as will this rant about my frustration.

    I must say I was astonished at the quantity and quality of work you and others produced over the last fortnight (even though I wasn’t able to read and blog it at the time). It was way more than I anticipated would emerge. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have done it or it was a wasted effort – far from it. Just that maybe expectations should have been moderated. I’m a bit concerned that there’s a sense or “repayment” though I might be reading too much into that. I’m pretty sure I said a few times at the meetings that the point was for you to think about your blogs, etc in a different way (conversational, networked, etc) and to use the festival as a starting point – a thing to play with and to learn from the experience. The really interesting stuff would come later.

    Of course that’s my reading of the point of the project. The councils (Shropshire and Arts) may well have had a different point in mind. I shall investigate what that might have been. And if they did maybe I should have been more proactive in tempering that.

    Keeping the Project, and the whole ST Website, as up-to-date as possible, should have been a top priority — because that is where you were sending people for basic information.

    Indeed. But the festival didn’t hire me to advise on their main website – just the blogging project stuff. Maybe the distinction should have been clearer. Maybe I should have worked more with the web team. It certainly did look confusing with the main festival page looking bloggier as more content was added. And compared to most arts/festival websites it was incredibly progressive and up to date, but that’s because most festival websites are rubbish. Did some of the spirit of the project leak over to the main site but without enough focus or understanding? Big lessons to be learned there.

    The blogging section on the website could have been formulated so that permitted people (Staff, Artists, Bloggers) could keep it up to date themselves – adding their OWN links to articles, videos and galleries.

    My concern with that approach is it would codify the “cohort of bloggers” mindset and, to be frank, I’d expect you to be paid for that sort of work. Which turns the project into something completely different. (Not necessarily a bad thing but definitely a different thing.)

    That said, I’m liking your “human-powered, local event search engine” idea. There’s been much work on how to capture stuff about events before they happen and while a few have gotten close I’ve not seen anyone crack it just yet, although I’ve mainly seen it attempted in large cities like Birmingham where the number of events is unmanageable. Would love to hear more thoughts on how this might be done in somewhere smaller like Shrewsbury.

    I’ve written far too much but didn’t want to fob you off. I probably haven’t answered your questions properly and there are many other things I want to address but, as I said, I will be writing a much more detailed report when the dust has settled and I’ve had a chance to talk to the people involved.

    I’d welcome any more questions about the project from yourself and anyone else involved – they can only help me process what’s happened. I’ll do my best to answer them.

  6. suetortoise Says:

    Thank you for that very full and comprehensive reply, Pete. Let me make clear that I am not trying to apportion ‘blame’, I’m not trying to be negative. I just make sure that problems are discussed – and lessons learned from what went wrong. Which I am sure is alrady happening.

    You say “I’m a bit concerned that there’s a sense or “repayment” though I might be reading too much into that.” In my case, there was a wish to see the Project succeed, and to give something in return for the help I’d received, but mostly I have done more than I expected because: a) I was enjoying the challenge of doing it, as a personal project; b) because I kept finding interesting and inspiring things to write about; and c) because I particularly wanted the Festival as a whole to succeed — especially when I’d discovered all the good stuff that was going on. And the reason for my rant above, was sheer frustration when I was trying to help achieve c), but there was a jam in the pipeline and time was running out.

    For the purpose of the Festival (not so much for the aims of the Project), perhaps ‘codifying the cohort of bloggers’ would not have been so bad an idea? Something more of a forum-style page rather than (or, better, as well as) a linear editorial blog, would have allowed links grouped under topics. Coupled with a good, clear events matrix, you’d have something useful to the general public for the run-up and the Festival, and perhaps something that could turn into a local arts/sciences/events resource afterwards, lightly moderated to keep out junk and removed dead material, but essentially a free for all.

    I didn’t ever think that a genuine blogging community would emerge from the very small group of disparate people who did the festival blogging, not in the short term. And perhaps that’s not what Shrewsbury needs so much as a focal point community space for brief event announcements and links to places to read or see more. Blog-biased, ordinary-people biased, rather than the usual links just to performers’ websites, venue websites, etc. Those fit in there too, for the basic info, but with the reviews, opinions, photos, and all sorts of matters-arising coming from the blogsphere, and artists/organisers highly encouraged to provide some added-value for people willing to blog the events (tickets, interviews, whatever), as the Project provided.

    I feel we’ve learned a lot already, and I think the Project has been well worthwhile, even with its problems and weaknesses. Perhaps we’ve learned a lot more useful things than we would have found out from a perfectly smooth experience! And it was fun — great fun!

    Anyway, enough from me on this subject!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: