The Returned mets Serial: welcome to Limetown

I came to the podcast Serial midway through its run—just in time to still be a bit of a tastemaker, but way behind the real cool kids—based on recommendations but without any real knowledge of what I was getting into. Now I don’t mean I didn’t know what it was about, I mean I didn’t actually know what it was: a few episodes in, I wasn’t 100% sure if it was a documentary or a drama, and I was totally OK with that.

It was, of course, a real story, well told. But what if? What if this had been a drama. Limetown is a new podcast that seems to answer that question. It’s a drama, played as a radio documentary, about a mysterious unexplained disappearance in the fictional community of Limetown. If you can imagine The Returned meets Serial then you’ve got a good sense of what this is.

The show captures the Serial style well. ‘Lia Haddock’ is your Sarah Koenig, and the show is produced for ‘APR’ (American Public Radio, standing in for NPR or PRX). The producers have captured the signature flourishes of quality podcasts well: the way Lia leads into her audio packages, the way they use music beds, and the way that they pace the story-telling. It’s all very crisp. The only places where the mask slips is in some of the dialogue. Most of the talk seems natural enough, but some of the packages/scenes slip into a rapid Q&A format which don’t really seem to fit the model. Hopefully as the season progresses and the writers gain confidence in what they’re doing, they can reel that back in.

There’s only been one episode so far, so you can get in early with the cool kids. It’s an interesting format and I hope it can deliver across the whole run.

Virtually deserted — uni campuses on Second Life

In The Last of Us a large section of the action focuses on getting to, and then exploring, the abandoned (fictional) University of East Colorado. For someone who spends a lot of time in similar settings it’s pretty haunting to walk with Ellie and Joel through classrooms, quads and student halls all long forgotten. It’s a place put on pause when the cordecyps disaster blew through, one day the students were studying, partying, living and breathing and the next… Gone. But for a more haunting post-apocalyptic experience of higher education we need to go not to our PlayStations, but to Second Life.

Less than a decade ago people were investing serious money and time in Second Life, including universities who built surreal simulacra of themselves on the virtual world’s servers. Today the last few of these campuses can still be accessed, and they make the imagined University of East Colorado look thriving and welcoming:

Most of these virtual universities are gone –– it costs almost $300 per month to host your own island –– but it turns out a handful remain as ghost towns. I decided to travel through several of the campuses, to see what’s happening in Second Life college-world in 2015

a tour of the abandoned college campuses of Second Life

I’d love us all to keep the Internet weird, I’m nostalgic for lots of dumb web ideas, but Second Life was always the wrong kind of weird for me. Truth be told though I didn’t mind people doing it as it meant I knew what corner of the web they were on and I could ignore them.

I guess someone going back and digging these marketing follies up (I’m not prepared to engage with the notion that they were serious ed tech) is a bit unfair on the organisations, as it’s a bit like getting up someone’s MySpace or Live Journal and laughing at them 10 years later but on the plus side: ha ha ha ha pirate ship class rooms? What?

I posted a version of this post on Facebook and very quickly friends pointed out that local authorities — well Birmingham City Council — were very keen on Second Life too. Firstly they created a (now canned) Birmingham Island and made some pretty utopian claims for it and then they had another go, with a Virtual Library of Birmingham (which may or not be open on Sundays).

“Support tickets” in production classrooms

I’m just doing my annual module review forms for 2014-15 and so I’m being asked, by the form, to note any examples of “good practice” in the way I’m delivering the material. Now obviously I’d hope all of my teaching practice was good, but I take the question to actually mean “what do you do that’s interesting that other people might consider doing too?” Here’s one of the things we’ve been doing that others might like to try: support tickets in production class rooms.

The context in which we use this is a skills based level 4 / year 1 module that teaches introductory HTML, CSS and a little bit of PHP (within the production of WordPress sites). It’s a large class, mixed ability, with students on very different trajectories: some will stop here, knowing a little about web production, others will go on to develop this is their main area of practice. The design of the module is 5 weeks of 3 hour workshops where we introduce core skills and then 3 weeks of 8 hour production days — open studio time where students respond to a web design challenge.

Production days are intensive. Some students are still developing core competencies and need support in overcoming barriers to their learning and attainment whilst others are racing ahead pushing beyond the core material and hungry to learn more. This means that we might have one student who is stuck writing HTML to produce a hyperlink on their page, another struggling to understand the box model and another asking for support with a WordPress functions file.

The support ticket system operates using post-it notes. Whenever a student has a query, they need to write a ticket on the post-it and then add it to the support queue. Here’s what I’ve said about this in my annual review

Students are encouraged to articulate technical queries in writing, and then submit this as a “support ticket” to a “queue” on the classroom wall.

Many times students can resolve their ticket before they submit it, simply by thinking through the problem rather than raising their hand as soon as they reach a block.

Students can also see how long it will be until their query is resolved as it is in a clear queue. This allows them to set aside the problem for a while and move onto something more productive (rather than just putting a hand up and waiting).

The support ticket system also facilitates peer support: students can see their classmates’  problems and have been known to offer solutions to one another.

Finally the support ticket system allows staff to quickly spot patterns and common queries which might be best resolved in one response to the whole class. Ad hoc presentations and workshop tasks can be designed that respond to a  clear gap in the knowledge of the class.

This system was devised and refined with my colleague Nick Moreton, with whom I share the teaching on our first year new media production skills module. We’ve run this system for three years with four class groups per year and it has proven a very effective way of supporting students in skills based teaching. And it uses post-its which, lets face it, are the best single learning and teaching technology ever devised 😉

Space is hard

I’ve been writing up the methodology section of my PhD, and in what is becoming a recurring theme in writing things up it’s caused me to go back over some things I read ages ago and get a fresh perspective on them.

Today that fresh perspective is about what everybody else has been doing in hyperlocal research, and where what I’ve been doing is different.

One of the things I’ve done differently in my work is embed myself for a while in organisations, which puts me inside the space and time reference of hyperlocal media workers and their practice. Most of my contemporaries are working the other way around: bringing the hyperlocal media people into their own timelines. And it turns out that what I did was hard, but valuable.

What am I talking about? OK, so a lot of hyperlocal media research is desk based. Some work has counted things — websites, articles, comments, that sort of thing — and that’s cool, because we can find out a lot by counting things. The most important thing about counting stuff is we can see how much of it there is and if there’s a lot (there is quite a bit of hyperlocal stuff as it goes) then people are happy for us to go find out more stuff.

Some researchers have found out some of the extra stuff by doing questionnaires and surveys, and that’s desk based too. All the desk based stuff is hard graft (there’s lots of data to get, then sort, and code) but it’s work that researchers can easily control.

In some projects the researchers wanted to get some richer data and they spoke to practitioners — normally using semi-structured interviews. Those interviews belong to a world that the researcher can control, too. Sure there’s a little bit of compromise in finding time that suits researcher and interviewee, but fundamentally this takes the subject out of their world and drops them into research-land.

So what have I done again? Well as I say, I went into the organisations and I made things and I observed and did some interviews prompted by the things happening around us that day (very loosely semi-structured as I had certain beats I wanted to hit).

And it turns out that space is hard — finding the space for this sort of research into hyperlocal is hard.

Because the thing is that hyperlocal media work isn’t very neat. Now truthfully no media work is. We’d be naive to think that a local newspaper journalist works a 9-5 day but there are core office hours and there’s an office so we could do participant observation of a newsroom quite easily. Hyperlocal though is rarely that neat. While there are some operations that have core hours and proper offices, a lot of the work isn’t like that at all.

So how do you deal with getting into the space and time frame of work that happens when it can, that happens on odd days, or in the gaps between things, or that happens at ten o’clock at night sat up in bed?

You can’t that easily. You definitely aren’t getting into that bed. But you can find some of the gaps and be there for them and that is really interesting.

Who are the hyperlocal producers?

I’ve previously touched on some of the different profiles of people who make hyperlocal media in a post I wrote a long time ago. I’ve since been off doing other things that have brought me full circle back to the question of who is making hyperlocal media.

In my PhD project my theoretical framework is strongly influenced by the discourse theory of Laclau and Mouffe. I won’t expand too much on that here, but it might help you to situate that if I told you that it pushes my work deep into post-structuralism and post-Marxism. That leads me to begin thinking about identity and the formation of group identities in particular ways. A useful summary is provided by Marianne Jørgensen and Louise Phillips (2002):

“The understanding of identity in Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory can be summarised as follows:

  • The subject is fundamentally split, it never quite becomes ‘itself’.
  • It acquires its identity by being represented discursively.
  • Identity is thus identification with a subject position in a discursive structure.
  • Identity is discursively constituted through chains of equivalence where signs are sorted and linked together in chains in opposition to other chains which thus define how the subject is, and how it is not.
  • Identity is always relationally organised; the subject is something because it is contrasted with something that it is not.
  • Identity is changeable just as discourses are.
  • The subject is fragmented or decentred; it has different identities according to those discourses of which it forms part.
  • The subject is overdetermined; in principle, it always has the possibility to identify differently in specific situations. Therefore, a given identity is contingent – that is, possible but not necessary.”

Or, to summarise that: a subject never has a fixed identity, rather it can take on a number of subject positions in relation to the discursive structures in which it operates — and those subject positions are not fixed either, because they relate to discourses which are themselves constantly negotiated.

So, a refinement of my previous way of thinking through this is to locate various discourses and various subject positions within them. It then becomes interesting to map how various subjects negotiate the terrain, which subject positions they might take and when — and also how aware subjects are of the turns that they make. So, for example, in the focus group which I reported on at MeCCSA 2013 one participant commented:

“I refer to what we do as community media but if NESTA are talking about giving us money I’ll happily describe us as hyperlocal.”

And this shows a purposeful and conscious reframing of activity in terms of different discourses, taking on different subject positions of ‘community media producer’ and ‘hyperlocal media producer’ because he recognises that there is an antagonism at play that relates to funding for his work. In truth the work has probably changed very little, but the language is adapted to describe it in the hope of deriving positive (funding) outcomes.

I’ve been looking through a number of hyperlocal websites over the past few days trying to select some more case studies for my work. I’ve got some particular criteria I’m looking for that relate to the professional backgrounds of the producers, but the way in which subject positions are articulated within hyperlocal discourse actually makes this rather difficult. For example, one website bills itself as being “brought to you by local residents of [town], [name 1] and [name 2]” and also carries the line “developed and maintained by [company] a [town] business”. The web design company and the local residents are clearly the same people*, but they have taken two subject positions. These subject positions share their relationship to [town], but are differentiated: residents and business. It is important to be associated with place as this is a key moment of hyperlocal discourse: the hyperlocale, the place being represented. What does it mean to be “resident”? This positions the hyperlocal media producers away from professional discourses of media and communication, and connects with ideas of community media or citizen journalism. The local business subject position allows them to market their business within the local frame.

An alternative story, “the website is owned and run by local communications professionals whom you can hire”, is more direct but changes how the production of the hyperlocal content is understood. It is not more truthful, both are equally true, because [name 1] and [name 2] do genuinely hold both subject positions, they are both local residents and local business owners.

So who are the hyperlocal producers? They might be citizens, residents, journalists, business owners, and they might be any or all of these things, and many more, at different times as they operate as subjects of different discourses and as the discourse of hyperlocal is articulated around them. To take this out of all that theory stuff for a second, and to provide a handy tl;dr: hyperlocal media is many things, to many people, and those people are trying to accomplish a range of things (sometimes at the same time) — to give them the best chance of succeeding we need to understand what they are trying to do because the least useful label we have is probably ‘hyperlocal media producer’.


Jørgensen, M. & Phillips, L. J. (2002) Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. London: SAGE.

* I have decided not to name either the website, the business or the individuals here. My intention isn’t to draw criticism to the website, the business or the individuals (my intention is to use this to illustrate the negotiation of subject positions) but I can’t guarantee that my intention wouldn’t be misunderstood. The link between the individuals and the business can be discerned because both are linked to the same address which is a residential property.

Collaborative Learning in Media Education

What seems like a very long time ago now indeed Paul Bradshaw, Jennifer Jones, and I ran a project we called Stories and Streams — an attempt to address a number of problems we were finding in the way that our students “consumed” their learning. In the project we sought to engage students in the design and delivery of the curriculum each week, forcing them to break out of their tendency to ask for answers to be delivered to them in pre-written chunks of knowledge.

We had a few bit of money from here and there to develop a new approach to our teaching, and to talk to other folk about it. Part of the talking about it led to Paul and I (Jen was away, iirc) presenting our work at a HEA seminar in Winchester back in May 2012.

The event, Exploring Collaborative Learning, has now become a book Collaborative Learning in Media Education. It’s quite expensive in print but you can pick it up for under a tenner on Kindle.

One of the presentations from the event, by Einar Thorsen on the use of wikis in collaborative reading and note taking, really stood out on the day and is something I’ve incorporated into my own teaching since. Einar’s chapter is probably the highlight for me, then, but I hope that if you get a copy you also enjoy Stories and Streams and let me know if there’s anything in there that you can use in your own teaching.

Fan, Fiction, and Twitter

I happened to find this piece today buried deep in my archives: it’s a case study that was included in the textbook we use with undergraduates at the Birmingham School of MediaMedia Studies: Texts, Production, Context — and it summarises the work I did with Inger-Lise Bore on the Twitter activities of a group of West Wing fans


New media create new opportunities for fans to create and share their own interpretations of media texts. For example, a group of fans of The West Wing tweet as characters from the show. In doing so, they have created a new fan activity for us to study.

Jane Feuer (2007) has described The West Wing (TWW) as an American mainstream quality TV drama series. It was created by Aaron Sorkin and originally shown on NBC between 1999 and 2006, and it focuses primarily on the lives of the US democratic president Josiah Bartlet, his family and senior members of his staff.

When we first began studying this activity we approached TWW ‘twitterverse’ (as participants call it) as a work of fan fiction, with each participant acting as a collaborating author. Their joint output has the potential to expand the timeline of the original TWW story. This is particularly significant because the show itself has finished. There will be no new episodes to provide viewers with further narrative development or background information, so this Twitter activity offers one way to fill in gaps in the original text and satisfy fans’ cravings for new episodes (Costello and Moore 2007).

Our analysis considered how this TWW twitterverse worked as a text, exploring how Twitter mediated the content creating a complex hypertext story which may be experienced differently by different readers at different times, according to who they follow on Twitter. In this sense, our object of study differs from conventional fanfic.

When we moved our attention from the text to its producers — many of whom we were fortunate enough to interview — we continued to reassess the way in which we understood this practice. Fanfic writing is believed to be dominated by female fans (Cumberland 2002: 176). However, the majority of our research participants identified themselves as male. Moreover, only one of our interviewees, @donnatella_moss, had written any other form of fanfic. Other characters who we interviewed either understood what fanfic was but rejected that label for this practice, or claimed to be unaware that such fan practices existed.

The output of this TWW twitterverse can appear to its audience as a unified story, but in fact it is formed and shaped by independent participants who have a variety of motivations for their participation. One of interviewees told us that in real life he works in politics in Washington. He originally conceived of the activity as a way to discuss politics openly online without compromising his position. Several other interviewees saw the activity primarily as an exercise in creative writing, and are motivated by their own writing aspirations. Some participants had seen other TWW twitter accounts and created a character with the hope of engaging with the established twitterverse, while others began as a solo activity and were subsequently adopted by the other users and drawn into the twitterverse.

To differentiate these practices from conventional fanfic we now tend to refer to TWW Twitterverse as an improvised simulation. The participants are simulating how these characters might come across if they existed in the “real” world, rather than in a TV show, and if they were using Twitter. Our observation suggested that the accounts can easily be read as “real” twitter accounts as they conform to the normal style of tweets – employing normal Twitter practices such as the RT, hashtagging and @ replies.

Our observation and interview data demonstrated that “staying in character” was a key guiding principle for all participants. Providing what is deemed an “authentic” performance allowed all of these participants to perform TWW fandom by displaying their knowledge and understanding of their chosen character, as well as their awareness of politics and current affairs. It also enables them to demonstrate their creative skills as they adapt that character for Twitter.

For more project links see: https://bitly.com/wwtwitter
Follow the story here: http://twitter.com/#!/joshualyman/colleagues

References:

Costello, V. and Moore, B. 2007. Cultural outlaws : An examination of audience activity and online television fandom. Television & New Media 8 (2): 124-143

Cumberland, S. 2002. The five wives of Ibn Fadlan: Women’s collaborative fiction on Antonio Banderas web sites. In Reload: Rethinking women + cyberculture, ed. M. Flanagan and A. Booth, 175-194. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Feuer, J. 2007. HBO and the concept of quality TV. In Quality TV: Contemporary American television and beyond, ed. J. McCabe and K. Akass, 145-157. London: I.B.Tauris


The work has produced two more formal outputs — an article that is primarily about the research methodology and another article that focusses more on what we learned.

This isn’t the Star Wars VII teaser review you’re looking for

Sorry to be that guy and launch another review of The Force Awakens trailer that literally nobody asked for, but I felt millions of voices cry out and I just had to join them. Hopefully soon we will all be suddenly silenced.

So a lot of people are picking apart this trailer shot by shot and asking “What does it all mean? What is the story here?” This is not that review.

Step back a bit, let’s ask instead “What type of movie has JJ Abrams made? What does this trailer show us about that?”

George Lucas was a highly literate filmmaker and very much a product of his time. Abrams is too. For Lucas that meant he was a student of classical cinema and of classical storytelling. You don’t need me to tell you this all again but that is why Star Wars: A New Hope and its sequels follow a pretty well trodden folk tale structure and why we have lots of really in your face symbolism and recurring tropes.

For Abrams, film literacy manifests itself differently. The generation after Lucas are able to work within classical cinema and to break it apart. This is, basically, postmodern film making: referential, intertextual, transmedia perhaps and always playing with symbols and signs. This force runs strong in Abrams’s work: Lost had it, his postmodern book project S had it, and… his Star Wars movies have it. It’s not postmodernism in the purest sense, perhaps, but it is craft borne out of that approach.

In Star Wars Abrams inherits a rich pool of signs, a huge Lego set which he can play with at will. What the second trailer for The Force Awakens shows me is that the film Abrams has made will acknowledge these signs in a pretty significant way.

It looks to me as though the film will directly tackle symbolism within the Star Wars universe: Abrams won’t just acknowledge the heritage through reusing tropes (though surely somebody will lose a hand and somebody will fall down a big shaft). He won’t limit himself to cheeky moments of fan service.  What he will do is put the symbolic language of the universe at the forefront of his film. That is why in this trailer we hear Luke Skywalker reprise his “the force runs strong in my family” speech, that is why we see the sudden reappearance of his long lost original blue lightsaber (that was his Father’s before him) and that is why Vader’s breathing mask is part of the story. What else do we see? Familiar faces, familiar ships, in new configurations, they are part of this too. More importantly cybernetic hands, cloaked figures and a villain who has set the geekier end of fandom alight because he has taken on the appearance of expanded universe fan’s favourite Darth Revan.

So I guess I need to put my cards on the table with a prediction? I’ll keep it broad, you can get specific plot points elsewhere that have a ridiculous level of detail. In Abrams story the symbols of the Old Republic, of the Sith Order, of the Empire are being put to use as part of a struggle to win the peace, post-Palpatine. These symbols will drive the action, as quest objects. Abrams will show off his Lego kit to great effect. And you’re going to love it.

GE15 gets a kickstart

We’ve just passed 100-day day on the election countdown, and while once again we’ll find voices calling it as the “social media election” (despite previous elections making the same claims) the thing that’s caught my eye is that it seems to be the crowd funding election.

First it was the Greens, crowd funding a candidate for every constituency in Brum, and now Labour’s PPC for Yardley has a campaign to build a war chest to help her fight against John Hemming.

Micro funding was always held up as being an important part of Obama’s success in the US, but a crowd funding campaign moves that idea to new territory: it heightens the sense of collective action, by rallying folk around the funding target. Crowd funding, so tightly wound into a discourse of innovation and disruption, also chimes with the rhetoric of UKIP earthquakes and Green surges, to the idea that we’re all activists now and everything is up for grabs.

We live in interesting times.

Night running (deserves a quiet night)

Sometimes I think “I need a head torch” but then the road opens out from the woods and I’m running across the top of Blackroot Pool. The thin slither of new moon, the stars, and I’m a mile or more from traffic in any direction. It’s just me and the road through Sutton Park, and the water and the stars and I don’t need a head torch.