“Come on girls!”

I quite like this student-made advert for the Computing degree, particularly the way the typewriter (used by ‘Gran’) evolves into a computer operated with the assistance of a bearded man. But hey – I wrote my dissertation on a typewriter older than the one in the video, but I’m not a grandparent (as far as I know.) From my perspective, this evolution has happened in one generation, not three…

After I retired the typewriter, my own PC evolution (with various employers) took me to a ZX Spectrum, an Amstrad, then an early Mac that looked like a toaster. I had a later Mac at work for a while, which was a fun device (I recall the joys of adding sounds to actions – making it say ‘I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that’ (as spoken by out-of-control computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey), instead of giving an annoying bleep to tell me that clicking on something wouldn’t work, or screaming ‘And I’ll get your little dog too!’ (as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz) as files were deleted – this was heady pre-internet amusement… happy days.

Then Windows became vaguely functional, and I was lured away from Macs into the pallid world of PC adulthood: beige boxes, 8-character filenames, DOS commands… working on my old typewriter sometimes seemed like a lost golden age.

But that was then. Computing is good now that it actually works to the point where the user doesn’t need to think too much about it – the infrastructure of business, culture, social networks – what could be more exciting to study?

Don't try loading Vista on to this...

More ‘other Edge Hills’

A while ago I posted about other Edge Hills that exist out in cyberspace (and, who knows, in the real world as well.) Now that I have RSS feeds, tag trackers, Google alerts and g*d knows what else sucking in every mention of Edge Hill that occurs in the world in any medium (web pages, blogs, news, the distant dreams of babies) I’m finding a lot more if these.

How does an Edge Hill that offers ‘a multipurpose community gathering place, offering coffee, soups and sandwiches; wireless internet and computer rental; and eclectic live music several nights a week’ sound? That could describe us if you sprinkled some higher education into the mix. These keen semicolon-users are Edgehill Studios Cafe in Nashville – pack your slide guitar and get over there. And if you don’t fancy their bill of entertainment, you can always try the Tank Arts Centre in Queensland’s Edge Hill district.

Closer to home, in fact very close indeed to the original location of the institution, there was an an Edge Hill International Festival – at the Liverpool train station. The plans to create a ‘contemporary arts centre’ there sound exciting.

Perhaps most exciting of all, is a whole city of Edge Hillness – in Georgia, at 33.152N -82.624W to be precise – ‘Georgia’s smallest city’, surely an opportunity for some kind of twinning arrangement. Meet the mayor

Slow news day

Being A-level results day, I bought a wheelbarrow full of newspapers on the way in to work shortly after dawn. A quick read through of these brought some heart-stopping moments as well as a bit of wry amusement. The Times published what it called a ‘Good University Guide’… this included a list of university profiles, which had been subbed down to 53 out of 113 institutions. The choice is pretty random but we were one of the omitted ones, though the online version isn’t too bad (unjustified table position notwithstanding.) Meanwhile in the Sun, we’re cited as having exceptionally cheap beer – not a bad thing as students do sometimes drink this beverage, and may wish to purchase it economically. (This article also makes Bishop Grosseteste College sound like a latter-day Playboy Mansion.) More locally, the Ormskirk Advertiser is moving into ‘Wired’ territory with its story about a Facebook fan group for the town’s famous roller-skating grandad. After all that, a BBC story about our campus expansion plans seemed like a return to media sanity.

The day I killed the NME

My efforts to understand Facebook have been a bit like the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the apeman is bashing the ground with a bone. I could sense that this new tool did something, but couldn’t quite figure out what, so I kept thrashing around. Perhaps eventually the bone would turn into a spaceship. (Digression: If this doesn’t make sense, watch the clip – I saw this movie when I was six, a week after seeing The Wizard of Oz at the pictures – I’ve never been the same since.

(There’s a longer clip here.) Digression over.)

The more I saw of Facebook, the more questions I had.

One of these questions was: how do magazines get to have profiles, the same as people? This seemed like a neat thing to do for an organisation: have a profile that could befriend people, put neat stuff on it – videos, blog feeds, pictures; organise events… However, the T&Cs forbid one to ‘register for a User account on behalf of any group or entity’. There is a pricy paid-for advertising option to create a sort of temporary corporate site, but the magazines I looked at didn’t look like corporates such as ‘I Heart Virgin Mobile’. So how do they do it? I friended the NME, largely out of nostalgia: the NME, or New Musical Express as it was then, charted and to some extend created the musical epochs I lived through as a teenager. NME cover
I looked forward to seeing what kind of content they would provide via Facebook… perhaps reliving my leather-jacketed youth in the process.

Meanwhile, to try and figure out what kind of deal the NME were on, I asked the Facebook advertising sales guy I’d been emailling to explain the different levels; what did NME and others do differently from the heavyweight advertisers like Virgin and Apple? Were they paying or was there a class of ‘entity’ that could have a profile? A few days later, a reply came, thanking me for reporting the ‘abuse’. And the NME page disappeared. One less social networking channel for them, then…

Oh dear. Some ‘Friend’ I turned out to be…

I guess Facebook is just for people – and advertisers with deep pockets.

Facebook cyborg

Purely in the interests of researching new communications channels, I’ve been busy playing with Facebook. Really, the only way to understand a lot of Web 2.0 stuff is to have a go, so that’s what I’ve been doing… researching tirelessly on the university’s behalf. So what is this Facebook mallarkey then? Among other things, it seems to me
– It’s a seductive toy, or rather, a bottomless toybox – sharing and using an endless succession of gadgets is part of the fun. (An example: a list of movies I’ve rated, which can be compared with your ratings to see how our tastes match.)
– It’s a way of communicating – distinctively, through lots of mini-bites of phatic communication – the most basic of which is the content-free ‘poke’ function, which just tells the recipient they’ve been poked. (Honestly, it’s that innocent – no need to invoke an HR procedure…)
– It’s like MySpace – but also like the front door of someone’s house or the clothes they put on – in that it’s an expression of identity.

The final of these is interesting. Social networking has created new ways to present oneself to the online world, and Facebook is (currently) one way this happens. But the medium itself isn’t neutral… In his interesting book about PowerPoint, David Byrne (yes, the Talking Heads bloke) explores some ways in which the popular presentation software shapes what is being communicated. For instance, our thoughts don’t come in bullet points, but that’s how they’re likely to end up in a public presentation because that’s what PPT does, specially if you use the wizards and templates. Similarly, Facebook channels one’s presentation of oneself into a collage of cultural choices, a way of writing, a visual presentation with a particular set of nuances. Which is fine – I don’t wish to take a puritan stance and say this is some kind of oppressive wickedness – just that it’s good to be aware of how these things work. To me the opportunity to have an electronic ‘face’ visible to a distributed network of friends is another way for technology to augment my physical body – like my walking boots, spectacles and diary which enable me to walk, see and remember things better than I could naturally. Maybe one day I’ll have breast implants, or a pacemaker. Westerners are all living in a world where technologies extend our capability, arguably becoming part of identity in the process. To quote Donna Haraway, ‘we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism, in short, we are all cyborgs’. (A Cyborg Manifesto)

So Facebook is a handy tool – slightly interesting, somewhat useful. There’s a price to pay, a kind of toll – in that it comes with a heavy freight of cultural baggage. For instance, I just added the ‘Coffee’ application – a toy which let’s you arrange to have a boiled beverage with me (and feel free to do so.) The default venue and the application icon is Starbucks… Now if I was a developer I could make my own Facebook app with, say, a picture of a bone china teapot with a Union Jack on it, and a Lyons Corner House as the default meeting place. But, dude, it would still come cocooned in US college/IT geek/Web 2.0 discourse – it’s customisable, but only up to a point. Again, I don’t think this is super-bad – Facebook users aren’t hypnotised into becoming instant Californians. We may be cyborgs but we aren’t robots – people are highly skilled at using the tools and either ignoring the cultural packaging, or adopting parts of it, for a bit of a giggle.

As for marketing – one can advertise on Facebook, for relatively big bucks – eg Liverpool’s ubiquitous ads for online Masters. However that’s not using the medium, just piggybacking on it. I would rather try a more grassroots approach, creating groups and events, using the highly targeted and realtively unintrusive flyers and (gasp) actually communicating with people.

Got to go, I’ve just been poked…