The Contributoria Tapes: Burn your house to the ground: why you need to kill your darlings to maintain your independence.

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

Article background

This was the first of three* collaborative articles that I worked on for Contributoria under the pseudonym of Howard Wilkinson. And boy did we get in trouble.

Howard is a character that we invented on Paradise Circus. Howard is equal parts Alan Smithee and Grant Naylor — either a cover story for when nobody wants to own up to something, or a gestalt for when a number of us have collaborated on a piece. Jon Bounds and I had been working on an academic paper about our work on Paradise Circus and we saw the independence theme of the September issue as a perfect place to publish some of the work (whilst raising a few quid towards projects we wanted to run together). So again, this piece is sort of stealth-academia, dressed as journalism, though in this case the feature writing comes much closer to reporting on our actual research project. I’m really interested in this interface between academia and media so getting the chance to work like this twice in one month was really useful.

So how did we get in trouble? When we came to get paid, Contributoria realised that Howard was two of us and said we’d gone against the spirit of openness on the site. I think I can sort of take their point on this one. We had mentioned in the article that Howard was a group of people, but nobody had spotted it. Our bad. For a moment there there was a sense that we were going to get binned straight off but we were given a reprieve and some rules for how to conduct collaborative writing under your pseudonym in the future. I think we were the first co-authors, possibly the only ones, and so we’d caught people at Contributoria towers off guard — the nature of experimentation I guess.

For the benefit of doubt, this bit was co-authored by me and Jon Bounds and can also be found on Paradise Circus.

*sort of, two got published and the other one got binned by legal — more on that soon

Burn your house to the ground: why you need to kill your darlings to maintain your independence

I’m Howard. I’m part of a Birmingham miscellany called Paradise Circus – an ongoing love letter to a battered city. Paradise Circus writes, films, photographs, draws, makes and records things about Birmingham. I am, we are, Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman, Craig Hamilton and Danny Smith, and a number of other people who want to contribute to a conversation about what the city is, was, and could be. We weren’t always Paradise Circus and we used to be famous. We could have been contenders, but we threw it all away. You should too. And in this article, I’m going to tell you why.

Birmingham: it’s not shit

There was a website once, called Birmingham: it’s not shit. It started out as a few flash animations and a web forum, like the ones they used to have, and become a blog, which is sort of like an online diary. That was us, and that was me: Birmingham: it’s not shit. We call it B:iNS for short.

The site began in 2002 as a reaction to official discourses about Birmingham. Marketing Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, bidding to be the European Capital of Culture for 2008, wanted to sell an idea of Birmingham as a sort of preppy, trendy loft apartments and lattes kind of town. But my kind of town wasn’t and isn’t like that; Birmingham wasn’t all women laughing and eating salad in canalside bars. The local media went unquestioningly with this idea and we stepped up to push back at it. We wanted to tell a story about the other parts of Birmingham that real people cared about and could connect with.

Originally we were just Jon Bounds. Jon took his lead from sites like Popbitch and b3ta; pieces that played on a sort of Brummie race memory were layered with pop cultural references and internet memes and often took a satirical twist, knowingly subverting the traditional conventions of news writing. Jon gave B:iNS a self-deprecating personality and a tagline (‘mildly sarcastic since 2002’) which both set the tone for the work and spelled out our own take on the Birmingham mind-set.

B:iNS was a psychogeographic account of an unofficial Birmingham and it existed at the centre of a series of situationist moments through which alternative narratives could be constructed. Jon encouraged people to ride Birmingham’s famous 11 Bus route for 11 hours on the 11th day of the 11th month; B:iNS and the things in orbit around it existed to force those who engaged with it to disrupt the Spectacle of officially sanctioned daily life in Birmingham. Yes, by riding buses without going anywhere. That’s how it works.

But then something strange happened: B:iNS became successful at being successful. It became if not popular, then notorious, and if not well read, then at least celebrated. Proper grown ups, with titles like Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Creative Industries name checked it in public speeches. Lesser grown ups, like local politicians did too. Suddenly Jon Bounds, our founder, was a local media hero with his celebrity measured and weighed, assayed and registered as the 14th most powerful person in the West Midlands. As his influence didn’t extend a millimetre into Sandwell or other boroughs, he must have been even higher in the second city.

Burn your house to the ground

Strange things happen when you are co-opted to the mainstream.

People send you things, mostly press releases, not actual things, sadly. Your project becomes a channel, your community an audience, your work a target for indiscriminate marketing messages. There is a system, a well oiled machine, that exists to poorly match products to publics and to push messages indiscriminately through media outlets. Once you are in this machine you cannot get out of it. It becomes exhausting. We were drowning in stories, of offers to write us highly targeted blog posts (about jacuzzis, about travel, about anything) that would surely help boost our SEO rankings. We’d each of us sit down, at the end of a day, after doing our day jobs, to work at this project and we’d be hit by the firehose of PR opportunities. When you’re drowning in this stuff you can’t see your purpose anymore. It’s easier to close the computer then it is to work through the mail and get on with the project.

People invite you to things too. Silly PR things, but important things too in civic buildings with wine and with nibbles. What can you do when you’ve become so co-opted into the official city that you are ranked in terms of power and you’re invited to the sort of events to which you are supposed to provide a critical foil?

The Situationists have a term for this: recuperation. Recuperation is the process by which radical work is neutralised and becomes incorporated into the mainstream, bourgeois world. We’re going to look at this through their prism of their (Debord’s) Spectacle, because we (the Jon B weat the time) considered B:iNS to be a work after their theories.

B:iNS got lumped in with hyperlocal media which is a sort of clearing house for recuperated alternative media: all that difficult stuff about communities and about local democracy and accountability that community media groups have struggled with for years neatly repackaged and then reframed in terms of commercial viability, sustainability, and technology.

So we were exhausted by the spectacle, forced to conform to it, and then represented to ourselves as one of its objects.

We weren’t the only ones. Dorothy Kidd, one of those clever media theorists they have these days, gives a really clear account of this recuperation happening amongst community media groups in California. Kidd suggests that, more than just relocating alternativeness within something mainstream, the mainstream is recuperating alternatives through actually appropriating their language. BiNS got swamped, patronised with faint praise and made to reflect the mainstream. Some alternative media are sold false ideas of legitimacy: encouraged to chase grants and revenue streams which don’t have any longevity, these then have to bend their ideas to the funding. Some are swamped by the promotion of their activity to different interest groups which are not motivated to continue: Journalism students create tens of hyperlocals: all shortlived. ‘Civic good promoters’ create sites supposedly staffed by and sold as outlets to neighbourhood managers, these then disappear in local government reorganisation and cuts. In short, everything is nudged by the Stituationist’s Spectacle: memes are bred in the environment that soon infects and kills alternative voices.

We, perhaps uniquely, noticed it happening to us. So we got real. We got tough. It was time to kill our darling, it was time to burn down our own fucking house.

Burn your house to the ground

And that’s just what we did. We took the only damn thing we’d done that was good in this world and we threw it away. B:iNS was destroyed through an elaborate online performance only to be reborn as Paradise Circus – our ‘ongoing love letter to a battered city’ which seeks to challenge both the official and mainstream media record of Birmingham and the neutered and diminished nature of the city’s alternative public sphere.

Only through removing B:iNS altogether were we able to create a space for ourselves to work. We removed the noise, we uninvited ourselves from the official parties and we drew a line in the sand.

At the heart of it all is the Manifesto, a clear set of guiding principals that keep us true and tell the world who we are. The Manifesto says what goes in the work, and provides a framework for rejecting things that are of no use to the project. And being deliciously rude to those for would attempt to recuperate us.

If you are an independent media producer we urge you to always be clear about your project, to resist recuperation and never be afraid to set fire to the damn thing and just see what happens.

Paradise Circus – A Manifesto A Global City with a Local Miscellany

  1. Birmingham is not shit.
  2. That’s not to say everything that happens in it is not shit.
  3. Each has to decide what bits are and aren’t shit for themselves. We decide here, this is Paradise Circus.
  4. Birmingham is not shit but that doesn’t mean we have to churn your press release.
  5. Birmingham is not shit but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send the press release about your band or your art happening to all the other really good blogs that might like it, like Created in Birmingham (which is not shit, a lot of the time). Just don’t send it here.
  6. Birmingham is not shit, is not shit. It’s also not a news source, hyperlocal blog or anything of that sort. It’s now Paradise Circus.
  7. We write, film, photograph, make and record things about Birmingham. That is all.
  8. You have the right to respond, we have the right to ignore you.
  9. We wish you nothing but love (if you’re not shit).

The Contributoria Tapes: Tell your own story

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

Article background

My third pass through the Contributoria process was during the July pitch / August writing window, where the theme was “Independence”. Independent and alternative media has been one of my personal interests since my undergraduate days, and a lot of the work that I did back then informed the eventual direction of my PhD project on hyperlocal media, so I jumped at the chance to pitch something that went in this direction.

The premise of the pitch was that I’d try to find someone and help them to make something, the final angle of the piece was that you can’t just go out into the world with a bag of good intentions. I got an editorial rebuke for not finding someone to make media with (it’s in the now deleted draft comments), but I think the angle that I have here is much more important than yet another puff piece that celebrates what “citizens” can do with the phone in their pocket. Crucially for me I achieved something that I set out to do which is to take the things we teach and think about in the university and package them as a piece of journalism. This isn’t research but it is an academically led piece of non-academic writing — and it’s something I can use with my students as background reading when we talk about media independence and technology.

A final side note, I copied the text back from the Contributoria page as my personal copy was missing a conclusion (I remember filing this right up to the deadline) and I spotted a glaring typo in the last par. There are probably more typos in there. Articles did get edited and subbed but often typos were missed. It was probably a weakness in the month by month process that the Contributoria  staff only ever had a few days to get everything polished — usually the copy deadline was 3-4 days before the launch day on the 1st of the following month. Another problem with this process comes when we think about the much vaunted “openness” of Contributoria as a collaborative process. As much as members could view writers’ drafts and leave comments whenever a writer pushed them to the review stage, the sub-editing process was rather clandestine, and there was no chance to review or discuss any changes that were being made.

Tell your own story: an adventure in media independence

What we mean by media independence is always hard to define and something that can be argued. In its purest sense, independent media would be a story told by its own actors, in their own words, on their own terms, for their own ends. Responding to this month’s Contributoria call around independence I decided to give my words to someone else.

The pitch was simple: instead of finding something out and telling you the story as framed by my experiences and prejudices, I’d find someone and give them this page to tell their own story. I’d give them my platform and also my experience; I’d help them to craft a story.

What is independent journalism?

There are many ways to commit an act of independent journalism, and every act will have its independence called into question because journalism is inevitably a process of compromises: the deadline, the column space or format, the money – these are just three factors external to a story that drive it and give it shape.

Our commercial media – the TV, radio, newspapers and their associated online platforms – are the most tightly regulated and managed forms of storytelling in our day-to-day lives but there have always existed alternative media, where producers work with fewer restrictions, with greater independence.

Media researchers have been interested for some time in these alternative media practices, charting them back to the radical press (which, as media scholars like Susan Forde argue, predate what we now think of mainstream journalism) and through a series of movements and moments throughout the 20th century to the present day.

Alternative and independent media take many forms, both in terms of the thing created (films, newspapers, photographs) and the manner of the practice itself. When teaching about this I explain to students that independent media workers operate in three main modes: auteurship, enablement and collaboration. Auteurs find a story to tell. Enablers find a story that needs to be told and empower those affected to tell it. Collaborators combine authorship and their production craft with a level of enablement for the actors in the story.

To share your skills and knowledge with others is a wonderful thing and to do it with tools of communication is an act in the redistribution of power. To go beyond that and to give up control of your platform is an even more potent political act. That’s why so few people do it, that’s why I needed to do it.

What’s the story?

As soon as I was backed the first and most obvious thing I needed to think about was: where do I find a story? Or rather, where do I find someone with a story to tell?

If we look at the history of something like community video in the 1970s and 1980s for an answer we see one immediate difficulty. In his 1980 book Street Video, Graham Wade describes a series of video workshops. The workshops had a presence; they had some space and facilities. Although they did have to actively go out and engage with people, people could also come to them; there was something there for help with telling stories (and those stories were told through video). Wade co-wrote another book, Community Media, with Heinz Nigg, which looked a little broader than just video but again told a similar story; community and participatory media in the 70s and 80s revolved around collectives that existed to facilitate storytelling for those who needed it and that existed as beacons to which people with stories to tell might come.

I didn’t have a place where people could find me and I didn’t have funding (except for the promise of a cheque from Contributoria at some point in September). I didn’t even have a specific technology through which I was framing my work. I’d need to go out and find somebody who had these things, to try to work with them.

Get yourself a stall

I thought some more about the idea of a signposted place, the place you can come to and someone will be there to help you make something. There’s something I’ve volunteered at before called the Birmingham Social Media Surgery. The surgery has a time and a place and operates on a drop-in basis. The idea is for those who can do interesting things with the internet to help other people to do them too. It seemed to be just the sort of thing that would get me out among people who could use my help. There was just one problem; the surgery runs on an ad hoc basis, and there was nothing happening during the month I had to write this piece. Is that problematic, in the big picture? That help is there but only occasionally? I think it may well be.

So what other spaces are there that I could work with?

I struggled to think of anything local to me where I could just sit and stuff would happen. There used to be a place in Tamworth that I worked at called the Palace Media Centre but that’s gone (the website for the live music venue that took on the building seems to be down too). We used to offer support on a number of things there, including offering formal training courses in media production to people from the community. It was council-run and it closed long before the current run of austerity cuts.

Pete Ashton used to do something interesting where he’d sit in a café and you could just come and talk to him. It’s an interesting model. Pete would make his availability known via Twitter and people would pop down to pick his brains. I thought about doing this, about advertising an open surgery that was just me, ready and willing to help you tell a story. How would I advertise such a thing? To advertise online would skew the audience towards internet people, which meant, I figured, I’d get a lot of people who just want “help with the internet”. That’s certainly what Pete’s intervention was about. That’s not quite what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people to tell a story. I gave some serious thought to putting a sign in the newsagent’s window to see if anyone would want any help. I figured that taking the offer offline might put the focus on the story.

I did it, just to see what would happen.

Get yourself a technology

I was shying away from making this a project about the web. That was, perhaps a mistake. It’s almost inevitable that in contemporary media practice “the internet” will become a part of an intervention – the affordances of web-based tools (cheap to produce on, with potential to scale distribution at near enough zero cost) make them an obvious choice. There was a chance to set up shop and say “here I am, I have the internet”.

For the video workshops the medium, video itself, was an important part of their work – as important perhaps as the stories told with it. New forms of media (and yes, kids, video used to be new) are often invested with utopian potential (to tell more things better, to be democratising). So the pitch for the video workshops was “here we are, we have video”. Successive periods of alternative and independent media can be marked out by technologies that allowed for reductions in the cost of production and distribution of messages; so lithography produces a wave of work, as does the photocopier, the rise of video and of course the rise of the web. I didn’t have that: a technological novelty to sell, perhaps that’s I needed? Perhaps I needed to lead with the internet?

What is the web’s equivalent of a video workshop? A collective of people who try to help people use the internet for communication? Those social media surgeries I mentioned offered something quite close. Social Media Surgery+ is a network of events loosely organised on similar lines to one another, to which people might come to learn. I’ve been to social media surgeries before and the sort of assistance given varies and is needs-driven; I’ve helped someone register accounts on Twitter or set up a WordPress site, and I’ve even helped people to design a collaborative back-office for their group using Google Drive and Dropbox. This does have that community media workshop vibe, but the models aren’t exactly the same. A video workshop was a constituted group in a known place whereas social media surgeries are more ad hoc both in the times and places where they run and in their formal constitution. The overarching organisation is linked to a company and has been given recognition for its work but at the local level the delivery of activities is not guaranteed and is temporary.

Get yourself a cause

While workshops and groups were constituted media first, the other place where alternative media comes from is from social movements or as a responses to social problems. Again, historically, alternative and community media are full of examples of projects emerging as a direct response to a problem. Often hyperlocal websites are constituted in this way, with the classic origin story being “the local media just wasn’t speaking about this community so we set up our own alternative“.

I’d had no replies to my advert. I needed to find a cause.

I rescued the local paper, the freesheet, from the recycling. What are the issues of the day, the pressures in my community? Adverts for houses and secondhand cars, press releases about charity events. I’d drawn a blank again. Where are the stories? Where are the problems? Who is telling them and how?

Where did all the independent media go?

I tracked down Heinz Nigg, one of the writers of the book Community Media. In it, Heinz and co-author Graham Wade describe the workings of community media groups back in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Now based in Zurich where he continues to have an interest in studying this field, Heinz and I sat down for a long chat via Skype about his work and about community media.

Had I got it right, the way I’d characterised those workshops as beacons where stories could be told? “Yes, your perception of that community and radical media landscape of the 70s and 80s is correct”, Heinz told me. So what exists now that fills that sort of space? We talked about the Community Media Association, which is a membership body that speaks on behalf of community media organisations to government about policy. While the CMA charter has a requirement for members to be engaged in training, I pointed out to Heinz that within 25 miles of where I live in north Birmingham the members of the CMA were exclusively community radio stations with particular remits; training within these organisations would be quite instrumental towards maintaining outputs, to filling dead air.

I mentioned the notion that social media surgeries might be the heir apparent to community media workshops. Heinz raised some important questions: “What is the ideological and political context of these surgeries? Who should be profiting from it and for what aims? Is it a Tory approach of self-help or a more radical approach of counter-information? I think it is important to reflect this societal context of different do-it-yourself media approaches. Otherwise it becomes very vague and a bit nebulous.”

We applied this as a thought experiment, not just to social media surgeries but other contemporary alternative media. So social media surgeries allow people to learn more things, but are apolitical in a way that community media workshops perhaps were not. Similarly the incorporation of a hyperlocal media project is a political act but sustained hyperlocal production tends simply to ape the texts that would have been produced by a commercial media operator. There are radical moments that activate individuals and enable them as producers but there is not necessarily a sustained political action through the work itself.

There are people now having access to all kinds of equipment but do they make use of it?

Heinz told me about some of the social movements he’d worked with around Europe and how they are documented through a combination of banal personal media production and professional documentary making. The former is cheap and plentiful, but only tells a story through fragments, the latter is expensive but is crafted.

“I was in Brussels this June for a big demonstration of illegal immigrants. There everybody was having their iPhones up and filming and documenting. But is it coherent? Is there a concept involved in it? Or is it a one off activity? Are those films being edited? Is there a story being told? Are they being shown again live? Or is it just made?” Heinz said.

All media are shaped by their determinants, the limitations and structures placed upon them. I only have a month from commissioning to delivery to turn around a Contributoria article, a newspaper writer only has so many columns to tell you a full story and we can all only produce within the limitations of our knowledge and our tools.

It is easy to capture moments, but harder to tell a story. Yet, I think, we’re increasingly telling ourselves that we are all storytellers. There’s a danger here that we hide behind our tools and forget to tell stories. There’s a danger that we are so enamoured by the potential of our personal media devices that we don’t ask for help. We don’t expect there to be places where we can go for help. We just upload, and we hope.

The Contributoria Tapes: A great fresh tax for your local coffee making indy?

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

Article background

For my second Contributoria piece I ignored the editorial theme about the future because I don’t do futurology (though I might, in the future, you can’t draw me on the issue). It turned out that the editorial theme was not an enforced part of the pitching process. Essentially we could pitch anything we wanted, the theme was just a prompt to encourage some people to come forward.

So I know very little about economics, yet I decided to try to write something about local economies and tax. Pretty riveting, huh? Well I thought so. The story came from me seeing an advertising board for a coffee stall and spending days worrying about what it said. So I decided to think it through and call it journalism.

This was probably the straightest, hardest piece of journalism that I did for Contributoria. There was no background trolling here, no subtle satirising of the process. I had to look at several angles, talk to real people I didn’t know. A lot of my other bits were fluffy and opinionated and I was much more comfortable off in feature writing land. For this I had to work hard with things I didn’t really know anything about. It came out OK, even though I still don’t know what “the answer” is to the debates around independents and corporates.

One thing that’s worth noting is that though this was a straight up piece and I was hoping to prompt debate, I did think a little about how it would play as a pitch. My personal network was always the place where I could get backing for things, never the Contributoria community, and if there’s one thing my personal network like to bore on about it’s independent coffee shops: this would always play well to my people, and it was an easy one to pitch.

A great fresh tax for your local coffee making indy?

The tax paying little guy may not be as great for your city as that chain coffee shop that does all the sticky coffee milkshakes. Over a flat white or three, Jon Hickman finds that when it comes to coffee tax is actually very taxing.

“Great fresh coffee from your tax paying local indy” the sign said. And do you know what? It really was great fresh coffee. The sign is on the pavement outside my work most days and it points you into our lobby where a hard working guy called Rich serves flat whites, lattes and cold brew coffee from the back of a tuk-tuk.

Rich’s sign plays on one of the most well known narratives of austerity Britain, Cameron’s Britain: that big companies don’t pay tax, but little ones do. So I got my coffee from him and it was great and I knew that he was a tax paying local hero. I felt good. But as I made my way upstairs I started thinking a little more about that sign: “your tax paying local indy”. I started thinking about tax, where it comes from, where it goes, and what that means for a local community, for a city like Birmingham where Rich is based (and me too).

A few months earlier a popular local café in Birmingham shut down citing increased costs of trading from their location in an increasingly desirable part of town. The public discussion about that also touched on the battle between the tax paying indies and the tax dodging coffee chains. There were suggestions that Birmingham City Council should do something about this by reducing business rates for independents. But business rates are a tax, aren’t they? So if an indy can’t afford to pay business rates, or wants to not pay them… is that a tax dodge?

It turns out tax actually is pretty taxing because the more I thought about this the messier it got in my head. A national or international chain might have some clever tax scheme set up that allows them to reduce their corporation tax, but surely they don’t have a way of avoiding paying business rates on the premises they use? An independent on the other hand might be paying out corporation and income tax, but if they’re operating as a mobile unit or seeking rate reliefs then they’re shifting their overall tax burden around just as much as a chain. Could it be that actually everyone is paying out about the same thing but into different buckets? Thinking deeper into this, what does it mean to pay more into the rates bucket as opposed to the corporation tax one? If we are paying rates to our council, do they get to spend that money? Because if they do it means that a chain paying lots of business rates on a big premises could be worth more to a city than an independent that asks for their rates to be waived or which operates from no fixed (and rateable) abode.

Business rates and cities

The first piece of this puzzle is to understand what business rates are and where they go. Business rates, actually called National Non-Domestic Rates (NNDR), are a tax collected on non-residential properties that have a commercial use.

So where do they go? Rates are collected locally but flow towards the central government from where they are then redistributed back to councils as part of their grant funding which is carefully allocated to budget lines (for things such as the emergency services, the roads, social housing, education, etc.). The distribution of business rates back to councils is calculated using a system called ‘formula grant’. The formula grant for funding local government is complicated, but is based on needs for expenditure rather than on revenue generation; historically there has been no incentive towards generating more revenues from business rates purely for raising money to run a city. However, the Local Government Finance Act 2012 has partly changed the way this all works. Under the Act some money is retained locally – the ‘local share’ of business rates under the Business Rate Retention rules is currently 50%. That means that half of the rates collected by any council flows to central government and is then returned through a formula grant, but half stays under local control in the place it was raised. For a city like Birmingham suddenly there is a financial incentive to collect more business rates, and there is a financial risk too for any council whose NNDR receipts decrease.

Rethinking the ‘local tax paying independent’

It’s not as simple as I first thought, but there is still a significant incentive for councils to fill business units. More than that, there is an incentive to fill them for the best return, and with the lowest risk. The Local Government Association publication Business Rate Retention – The Story So Far considers both the opportunities and risks that rate retention poses for councils, risks such as rate avoidance, rating appeals and becoming overly reliant on income from less lucrative rate payers (charities receive 80% relief on their NNDR, and councils are looking for ways to challenge charitable relief). So, is my local tax paying independent a desirable business for a council? Is my latte producing a good deal for Birmingham?

Simply put the incentive for our cities, towns, and villages is to fill space; councils can afford to be neutral to issues related to corporation tax and income taxes. The ideal business to set up in any council area would be able to take on long leases on high rateable value buildings and with as few NNDR reliefs as possible. Hypothetically, for a finance officer in a council the ideal business to want to set up in your town is a Starbucks on the most prestigious street, or a huge Asda superstore; pay as much corporation tax or PAYE as you like, but if you’re a small business with an uncertain future and your response is to ask for a cut in NNDR so that you can operate from prime real estate then you’re not contributing to the city’s coffers in quite the same way as a chain would in the same place.

‘The city does nothing to help’

On the main pedestrian route from Birmingham New Street, the second city’s mainline station, to The Mailbox, an upmarket shopping centre fronted by Harvey Nichols and gateway to the canal side bars, restaurants and clubs of Brindley Place and Broad Street, Café Blend propped up one corner of the Orion Building, a residential development that made a splash at launch with interiors by John Rocha. Soon ‘New’ New Street will be open, bringing with it the Grand Central Mall and Birmingham city centre’s first John Lewis, while on neighbouring John Bright Street long neglected Victorian buildings have become a new hub of nightlife, led by the arrival of craft brewers Brewdog and a city centre branch of local indepdent Cherry Reds. Business is booming in this part of town, optimism is high, and yet Café Blend has closed – a fact that Sophie Highfield, the former proprietor, puts down, in part, to business rates and to a system that favours larger chains: “if it were not for business rates, if they were not in the equation, I would have had a profitable Café Blend” she told me. “Each year you wait for that invoice and know that, for someone who sells something at £3.50 per head on average, well it does not take a genius to know what how many more customers you need to cover an increase of thousands of pounds a year just to pay for business rates”.

Although the exact story behind Café Blend’s rise and fall, from 2009 to 2014, is complicated and quite personal for Sophie, battling to pay NNDR bills are a major part of it – as is her sense that there could be a large competitor waiting in the wings to take over the space. She started the café when the area was much less desirable and says she developed it through some very tough times, only to lose it just as the area was coming to life.

“In March I had appealed for the rates to be reduced based on hardship because of the impact of the closed retail section of The Mailbox and to this day, despite chasing them (Birmingham City Council), I have heard nothing. But, if they had reduced it (the rates), I could have paid the landlords some rent and we would possibly not be having this conversation. I tried everything I could over four years to keep it afloat with the costs of being in that location.”

Of course the setting of rates are outside of a council’s control as they are set nationally along with the rules for applying relief and hardship funding, but nonetheless Sophie’s story does strike a chord and speak to this problem of taxation and independence. Whilst we need to be careful not to leap to conclusions as to who might be about to take on her old premises, her story is an example of the difficulties faced by independent retailers in taking on the costs associated with larger premises, and of the risks now faced by councils as they try to increase their income from business rates; the idea of a national chain being lined up to take on the unit may just be conjecture at this stage but if they were to come in they would have the capital behind them to operate, and to contribute rates, without difficulty.

Coffee – without the bean counting

Of course to look at the value of independent retail purely in economic terms is to overlook other things that a vibrant indie scene can add to an area. Tim Wilson runs Coffee Birmingham, a blog that is “raising the profile of Birmingham’s independents” in the local coffee scene. I spoke with Tim about the other benefits that the city gets from its local, tax-paying, indies. He points to “independent coffee shop culture” as being a valuable thing of itself. That culture is about a community of people, an ecosystem of traders in an independent and predominantly local supply chain, and the provision of valuable public space for meetings and co-working. Talking to other brummie coffee drinkers, this last point, about space seems something that’s on a lot of people’s minds.

Laura Craven told me “the independent coffee scene offers an awful lot to the city, over and above just being somewhere to go for a really good coffee. Independents, and not just the coffee shops, tend to be more open to allowing people to use the space to build a sense of community and they offer a relaxed alternative to a pub for an after-work drink.” This idea of a third space – beyond pubs or a public hall in a faith building – almost pushes the humble coffee shop into the role of a public service. In a multi-cultural city like Birmingham a non-faith meeting space that isn’t focussed on alcohol sales does seem important and worthy of support, as another user of the indie coffee shops, Marc, told me “before the coffee shop boom semi-public spaces where people could meet and mingle where primarily pubs or other alcohol-centric venues. Coffee shops provide a more inclusive, welcoming alternative.”

The champions of the independents also see a vibrant, mixed high street as being a draw that brings people to towns and cities: “identakit cities full of chain store coffee shops and clothing brands don’t encourage people to come from further afield and spend time in them” Laura says, “whereas independents give the city more flavour and help reflect its population. Independents seem more willing to open up their space to events and exhibitions, creating and nurturing much more of a community – and I can’t think of a reason why the city wouldn’t want to encourage this.”

Against this all is a sense that this is just a shallow exercise in hunting cool. “They serve coffee” web developer Mark Steadman told me “and, if we’re not careful, snobbery too”. It’s not hard to see why anyone who just wants “an ordinary coffee with milk” (seen on the menu at a mobile coffee stand at Lichfield Trent Valley railway station, below the usual espresso, flat black, flat white, etc.) would accuse their local tax-paying indie of being “a homebase for hipsters”, as Laura reflects “I think that’s incredibly dismissive”. “There are plenty of articles out there that go someway to explaining the economic benefit of small businesses on local economies” Tim adds.

The council perspective

I put the specific issues that Sophie had raised to Birmingham City Council, but they were not able to respond to the individual case of Café Blend and its application for hardship. I also asked if the council showed a preference to work with larger organisations who are simpler to manage as they do not need support and are seen as lower risk in terms of paying rates. No answer was forthcoming by my copy deadline.

The council spokesman was however able to outline a raft of support that Birmingham City Council offers to local businesses. This cocktail of funding and support includes the business rates hardship which Sophie had applied for as well as funds for specific types of activity, or to support businesses to operate from specific locations. The spokesman said “Birmingham City Council places great emphasis on the importance of enterprise”, which is a very broad statement. The devil, then, is in the detail, and within the detail we should note that there is no specific mention of retail, or of independence.

What contributions are chains making to cities?

The idea that a chain might be better for your town then an independent is a hard one to even begin to engage with because we are now so used to the narrative them being critiqued for their tax affairs, and for being symptomatic of the problematic homogenised, identikit high streets of British clone towns.

When I spoke to Starbucks I don’t think they believed me when I said that I was going to give them a chance to claim the moral high ground in a conversation about coffee and tax.

“Starbucks pays corporation tax. We listened to our customers who were really clear with us about their expectations. We took away some of the deductions we were allowed and were then able to calculate how much tax we would owe over the next two years. We are now paying that amount and as the business moves into profit we will continue to pay corporation tax” a spokesperson told me. Really I wanted to know how much they were paying per year in business rates, and how much to Birmingham itself as half of that was money that they directly put into the council’s pockets through the local share. How many school places had Starbucks funded last year? I could work that out, if they could tell me how much NNDR they’d paid. Sadly my spokesperson couldn’t provide that sort of information. They could well be missing a trick by not being able to promote their value to a community in terms of their contribution to local share.

I wondered more generally what other contributions Starbucks made to the city. “We employ 241 partners in the Greater Birmingham district” I was told (all staff are called partners at Starbucks). So there’s a contribution in terms of employment. Some of those partners will be on work based training, such as the Starbucks Apprenticeship programme, which also has some social value. I wasn’t told how many of those apprenticeships might be in Birmingham, but its the sort of thing that can operate only because of scale – it’s the sort of thing that an independent might struggle to provide.

Real variety – indies and chains together

Although some independent coffee shop owners are keen to play an “us v them” line with the chains, during this work people I spoke kept pushing against this idea; most people want a mixed economy in their high street and actually see a chain as a viable choice, as a part of a real, genuine mix. “I love the indies, but I think there’s room for chain coffee shops too.” Laura Creaven admits “They offer a comfortable reliability – you always know what you’re getting in one, even if it’s never going to rock your coffee-shaped world.” Tim Wilson agrees “I think there are different marketplaces at play here. I think it’s important for independents to shout out load about the benefits and positives of what they do and not focus on or adopt an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality, especially when getting into issues of tax or rates terms. I don’t think that’s productive. We should support individual business with custom based on its merits, not on an over-simplified notion of ‘indies good, big business bad’.”

Laura actually on certain things chains have a slight edge: “I think they tend to be a little better for the more ‘disco’ coffees with syrups and added flavours. I love a good gingerbread latte, but adding a syrup to one of Urban Coffee Company’s single origin filters would be a complete waste. And sad as it is to admit, I think chains are often better for dietary requirements…several of the chains have embraced same-price for soya milk in coffee where a lot of the indies are still charging.”

Of course an occasional coffee flavoured drink as opposed to a complex and expertly crafted chemex brew, doesn’t mean that Laura has abandoned those other things she really values: those semi-public, third spaces, the coffee making craft, the community. Sometimes you just need a coffee, as Stuart Harrison reflects “When I am in town in the day, I tend to be shopping, so will generally go for a Starbucks, mainly because the independents are tucked out of the way.”

And why are they tucked out of the way? Because the rents are cheaper, because the council is allowed to (and has to) offer reliefs on buildings that have been out of use, and because those rateable values are cheaper in the first place. The map is drawn on these lines. It does mean that the playing field is uneven, that Starbucks can survive near a shopping mall or mainline station where an independent might struggle. We could ask to review the tax burdens, and start to redraw this map but then we risk pushing out the cash cow chains by subsidising artisanal drink stops on the main high street. The genie is out of the bottle now, councils have to generate hard cash and the best way to do that is to charge bigger companies full rates for premium property whilst hoping that independents will rejuvenate secondary and tertiary retail premises, making them productive once again.

Like most of the people I spoke to, I’m pretty happy with that mix. I’m happy to head slightly off the beaten track and invest time in something a little better, and I’m glad that people are doing interesting things, creating communities and new public spaces meanwhile the chains can push money into the city through the spaces that get more footfall. There’s something for everyone, the mix is about right and the city gets a good deal. Sophie’s story though, at Café Blend, should be a cautionary tale for us because we might see more things like this in the near future: if independents head to the cheaper parts of town, they regenerate the buildings and they bring a district back to life then eventually those districts reach a tipping point where edgy and hip becomes premium real estate with a culture ready to be absorbed into the economics of the high street. On paper this is just a simple recalibration as the independents roll out again, pioneers heading to the next regeneration spot, replaced by the settlers, the chains; in the real world though of coffee, community and relationships, groups disperse and hard working, tax paying local indies are put under huge financial pressures. Human stories get lost in the spreadsheets. The mix of business might stay the same, and the revenues for the city might grow, but real people who tried to contribute something get lost, get squeezed, get hurt. As Sophie told me:

“Please remember that within those walls is a person with a vision; a vision that offers local economy, employment, training and opportunity – not to mention a great place that no chain could ever provide in the same way.”

The Contributoria Tapes: Can you really live on ‘social capital’?

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

Article background

This was my first piece for Contributoria — a response to that month’s suggested editorial theme “The Future of Money”. It was a gentle troll, as quite a few of my pieces were, of the very basis of the website. I flagged this up in my proposal (which used to be in the public domain but has already been hidden from the “archive” version of Contributoria). I can’t remember what I said in the proposal but it was something along the lines of “I may not prove that you can live on social capital, but if you back this I’ll have used it to pay for my summer holiday”. And I did. And I had a lovely time.

This piece got a lot of “feature” attention from Contributoria — the editors chose certain pieces to highlight that exemplified… something. Feature pieces were promoted through tweets, page positions not he website, inclusion in email updates and in a printed newspaper edition of each issue. To be honest it was never clear what they editors wanted form us or how they chose what they pushed and what they didn’t. One of the key challenges I had in dealing with the Contributoria staff was trying to deal with their very opaque editorial processes. There was a real irony to this: their public voice very much championed ideas of openness and collaboration and yet their processes were very closed. I’ll get into this more in later posts, but it’s worth establishing the point here.

Lloyd Davis, my main interviewee, was an absolute star. His story is really fascinating and, for me at least, quite challenging. Go read more about it — but not until you read what I say about it.

Let them eat social capital: what the hell is social capital anyway? And can you live on it?

You’ve probably heard of social capital. What you think social capital is will vary according to who explained it to you, but let’s start with the idea that it’s something a bit like money: it’s a currency we can trade or barter in, it’s the value of our networked selves, it’s a measure of worth.

Growing up in the 1980s on a diet of space operas, sci-fi comics and computer games, I was never in any doubt that in the future we’d move away from pounds, dollars and francs to unite behind one currency: Credits (or Creds, for short). You can only imagine my disappointment when the Eurozone missed a trick and chose to call their single currency the Euro. Sci-fi has moved on and while the Credits cliché is still doing good business, the future of money has moved on too. In Cory Doctrow’s Down and out in the Magic Kingdom, characters trade in Whuffie, a future currency pegged to one’s social capital:

“I’d get him to concede that Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented — your personal capital with your friends and neighbors — you more accurately gauged your success.”

Obviously we’re not quite there yet; you can’t go to the bar and “piss away” most of your Whuffie as Doctrow’s characters can but social capital is increasingly talked about and valued in contemporary society. In the same year that Down and out in the Magic Kingdom was published, academic researcher Qihai Huang noted that academic interest in the term ‘social capital’ had exploded through the 1990s and into the start of the 2000s. This academic interest isn’t just abstract, ivory tower work, rather it informs and reflects contemporaneous public policy work from local level initiatives to the decision making and operations of the World Bank. The rockstar academic of this field is Robert Putnam who, building on the work of James Coleman, provided a model to measure social capital; in the bestselling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Putnam linked the membership of clubs and societies to the amount of social capital in a community – and he found America’s cupboards to be pretty bare. His book’s title comes from the observation that, in the 90s communities he studied, people went to bowling allies in small family and friendship groups, not in community leagues as they might have done earlier in the 20th century. Putnam was concerned with the decline of public engagement in all aspects of civic life and measuring social capital gave him a bellwether to track it. If you follow Putnam’s logic then the development of social capital, by encouraging networks to develop, can lead to improvements in civic life and better outcomes for communities and for the individuals within them. Indeed, this is the thinking that the World Bank is using: by actively developing social capital they can build communities that are more resilient and better able to function (in the way that the World Bank needs them to).

At this point it is useful to ask ourselves again: what on Earth is social capital, anyway? The origination of the term ‘social capital’ is most commonly attributed to the French scholar and public intellectual Pierre Bourdieu who defined it as the:

‘aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’

Or put another way, social capital is the value of your access to a set of collectively owned resources that you have in common with a group; it is the value of the network (which is what Putnam and his heirs are trying to measure) but it’s also an individual measure of one’s ability to access and make calls on the resources. Doctrow’s Whuffie is a measure of the latter: it’s the esteem that allows an individual to draw upon the shared resources. In a sense Whuffie is already here because every time you ask a group of people for help you are drawing on social capital and you’re spending against your standing with that group. We all do this every day, every time we ask for help and that help is given with no expectation of payment. But would it be possible to live on social capital alone? Lloyd Davis, a social artist and community builder, has tried.

Lloyd started a networking group for people interested in the social web called Tuttle Club. In 2010 a group of Tuttle Club members took an extended trip to the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. The group took a longer than needed route, documenting things as they went and planned the whole adventure by asking their network for ideas and to help them raise funds. For his trip to the festival in 2011, Lloyd had a much more ambitious plan: to get across the USA, coast to coast, relying solely on the power of his network.

“The inspiration for it was that I was fed up with having theoretical conversations about what you might be able to do with this stuff that you accrue from participating in online social networks” he told me. “Some people like to term that as what’s the ‘return on investment in contributing to social media’. And so I was flippantly saying the return on social investment is social capital.”

Lloyd flew to San Francisco on the 1st March 2011. What followed was an odyssey that was part Phileas Fogg, part Dice Man: Lloyd had no itinerary, no accommodation, very little cash but he did have a plane ticket home from New York on the 31st March and he did have his network.

“I had no idea how I was going to get from there to New York and I certainly didn’t have enough money to just buy a plane ticket. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to see what would happen if I just showed up in a town and said ‘OK I’m trying to get from here to South By Southwest. Which way can I go and who can I go stay with along the way?’”

Lloyd’s trip relied on his network planning and guiding his route for him, sending him to see and do interesting things and finding places for him to stay. In this way he was able to test the social capital of his network: could they really get him across the States, just on the power of their connections? In the end they could; Lloyd made it New York and he made it South By Southwest too but strangely it was at South By Southwest, that Mecca of the Digerati, amongst his own people, the people who should really have understood his project, that things nearly came undone for Lloyd: he got stuck at South By.

“I’d get leads of people who were supposedly driving from Austin to New Orleans and would be happy to take me and then when I actually got onto them they’d say ‘No. I don’t know who you are. This is a bit weird. Leave us alone please!’”

In the end of course, he found a place to rest and regroup in Texas and he did get to New Orleans where, with excellent narrative rhythm, Lloyd went from a dramatic bottoming out to have his most memorable moments of the trip right there in Lafayette.

But the kindness of strangers can only get you so far; cash was needed for Lloyd’s trip too but social capital can manifest as money. For Lloyd it was simply a case of asking, though learning to ask for things, and to take them, was, he says, a big part of the journey. He was able to raise money through a crowdfunding drive to cover a wide range of things: flights, a rail pass, sundries but also the capital needed to sustain his domestic situation back in the UK.

Reactions to his funding call were mixed at the time. Some people were only to happy to contribute, others accused Lloyd of simply begging money to fund his holiday and his whims. Lloyd puts a lot of the negative reaction down to jealousy, and I can see how that might be the case: it’s a neat idea, it’s a great adventure, and there’s definitely a book in it. There’s something else though, something which I remember thinking at the time: asking people to fund your entire life – your rent, your bills, all of your commitments – for a month while you put that life on hold and go to America blogging is hugely provocative. We can react to that with excitement and awe, but we’re as likely to push back at it because there is something fundamentally challenging about boxing off life, putting a price on it, and then asking for that price to just go away for a while. I put that to Lloyd: how could he ask for those things? How could that possibly be acceptable? “I call myself a social artist and part of that is about asking for things that are unacceptable” he told me. There’s something in that, I think: we won’t ever find the acceptable limits of behaviour unless someone pushes at the edges.

Lloyd’s trip was a brief adventure in living precariously but afterwards he continued to live a nomadic life in the UK, taking on projects and moving across the country to anywhere he was needed, so long as they could find him a bed. Social capital was at the heart of this, but it’s hard to sustain yourself on that alone. Lloyd talked about his adventures with living through his network as being about “a money economy plus something else”. “I do live in the money world” he told me “I haven’t completely opted out. I haven’t had the balls to do that basically”. So you can’t live on social capital alone, it would seem but if you are happy to live precariously it can get you a long way: it can get you across a continent.

So, we may be a while off living in a world where we can spend freely on our reputations, but in the meantime we can live in “the money economy plus” and if you know how to work the network, you could maybe get a little richer. I spoke to Nick Booth whose company specialises in showing organisations how to use social media for social good about some of the more day to day ways in which focussing on social capital might help you to become better off: “a big part of my work is persuading public services or charities that if they concentrate on getting relationships right regardless of what they’re for, when they need to make something happen it’ll happen better.”

Nick’s idea then, his concept of social capital, is that it needs to be built over a period of time so that it can be called upon and used for action; it’s an ongoing process that builds a network and what Nick terms “a stock pot of social capital”. “I talk quite a lot about groups like Birmingham Bloggers and the Grassroots Channel as accidental mechanisms by which people in Birmingham acquired social capital” he told me “and they went on to do things with it. But they didn’t set out to acquire it to do those things.”

So a network can build social capital overtime and then can be pushed towards an action that wasn’t known at the outset. Nick offered some case studies: “Jon Bounds doing the Big City Plan Talk website or Stef and other people doing the BCC DIY website or me and others growing the Social Media Surgery network they were only really achievable because of the times people had spent getting pissed together or dicking around together. So they were built almost entirely on social capital. All of those three things happened without any money. They were built on individual will and social capital.”

When Lloyd Davis started talking to people about the social web, was he playing a long con just to get the network to pay for him to cross America? I don’t think so, but nonetheless that’s an outcome he got from working hard to run events for people. Lloyd built a network and he developed a right to call on it to do things. Although what he asked for, a month of travel paid for by friends and strangers, sounds like a lot, he’s probably still in credit; Nick Booth suggested to me that Lloyd’s Tuttle club has helped dozens of people to meet the right partners at the right time and to push forward with new businesses and so, he suggested to me, the value, in money terms, that others have taken from the network is much higher than anything Lloyd has ever taken out. That’s a good point. I feel a little bad now for asking Lloyd if he thought he was a “social capitalist”, extracting surplus value from his network, taking a social profit as dividend. That question surprised Lloyd a little, but he conceded that it could look like that.

So that’s social capital then: a possible future for what we now call money, but also real now and able to enrich your soul if not your bank balance. Though of course, if we are cynical about it in the “economy plus” of money and Whuffie, we can lever our network towards a profit. Here’s a final example: you’re reading this work because it was backed by Contributoria’s members. This is a growing community but within it are groups of people who know each other already and have a track record of communal action. It took me three direct messages to people in my network to get enough points to flow in to back my article. I couldn’t live on my social capital as Lloyd did, but it can help me to achieve an outcome and in this case it’ll pay for my summer holiday. I’ll be sure to send you all a postcard to share.

Lloyd recorded our interview in full and it is available on his blog

You’ll find a summary of some academic literature on social capital and a list of references on my work blog

Unbacked: to the future

I’ve done quite a few bits now on Contributoria (an experimental sort-of-crowd-funded journalism experiment from The Guardian). It’s an interesting place, a pretty eclectic collection of writing that people are getting paid for. The deal is if you get enough people to back you with the fake money of Contributoria points in month 1 then you get commissioned and if you turn in your article by the end of month 2 it gets published on the first day of month 3 — and then GMG send you a cheque that’s linked to the number of points people gave you.

After a run of hits I failed to make my target for January for an article I pitched about the futurology of Back to the Future: Part II. In a way it might be a good thing. I hadn’t anticipated quite how many other people would roll out articles about this. I mean, there are a lot of articles about the technology of BTTF’s 2015 kicking around. The only shame is most of them are pretty crap and, because Contributoria goes out first thing on the first of the month, I’d have been first. So how would mine have been different? Well I’m pretty lucky to work in a building full of clever people who know stuff about things and I was going to interview them to find out how close we are, really, to hover boards, flying cars, and, er, fax machines. So far all I’ve seen is shitty listicles. Talking of which, this month I’m working on a shitty listicle for a Contributoria piece. That’s where the money is folks.

Oh, journalism.