Twisted City by Chris Singleton - album sleeve

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Entries in internet (5)


The Leveson thing

So, the Leveson report has finally arrived. As far as I can make out, the noble Lord is proposing that newspapers sign up voluntarily to some sort of regulatory system that is technically overseen, albeit at arm's length, by the government. Doesn't sound madly frightening to me (and seems very similar to what has been going on for decades without issue in my home country, Ireland, via the Press Council of Ireland) but cue cries of outrage from the press barons and their lacky Trevor Kavanagh - it's the end of free speech as we know it, yada yada.

I'm not sure however that the lack of an effective regulator of media content is really why the British press is so awful. I think said awfulness has more to do with the issue of media ownership - too much of it is concentrated in too few hands (mainly those belonging to a certain Mr Murdoch), meaning that certain media groups have become so large and influential that they are in a position where they are, in real terms, above the law. As Jeremy Hunt's dalliances with News Corp's Frederic 'Papa' Michel highlighted rather too well, such groups can effectively dictate government policy (or certainly dissuade governments from taking actions or policy positions that are not to their liking); and when a media group like News Corp feels confident enough to interfere so extensively in government, it's no wonder it isn't that bothered about interfering in the lives - or with the voicemails - of ordinary people too (even dead schoolgirls).

My tuppenceworth - not that Lord Leveson is likely to ask for it - is that if politicians are serious about tackling abuse of power by the media (questionable), they should look at how and in whose hands that power is concentrated, rather than trying to tame a media beast with a state regulator (not that I have massive qualms about the latter, providing it's set up correctly). My feeling is that if there was greater plurality of ownership in the UK media, there would be less abuse of power, and potentially more free speech going on, due to editors of multiple newspapers, magazines and TV shows not all having to toe one proprietor's line. A few right-wing tycoons owning most of the media is as much of (if not more of) a threat to free speech as light-touch government regulation designed to protect individuals from inappropriate press intrusion.

But maybe this whole discussion about the press behaving badly is a distraction from what's really going on: printed newspapers, however naughty or nice they've been, are currently in their death throes. They are going online, and as we all know, a national government trying to regulate what goes on online is going to face one hell of a headache. Even if newspaper sites could be regulated to some extent, it would be incredibly difficult to lay down the law to the blogosphere and social media.

One thing is fairly certain however: in this new digital age, owners of heavily-visited sites will be in serious positions of power, and - just like their offline counterpart, ye olde newspaper proprietors - many will be happy to abuse it; again I feel that rather than all this being a question of regulation of content, it boils down to a question of regulation of ownership: how much of the internet's big news / entertainment sites should a government allow one individual or company to own? You'd need an even longer inquiry to begin to get to the bottom of that one...

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The 3-D internet

There's been a lot of talk about Google Streetview of late (the UK version of which launched recently). Most of it has been about privacy issues. The press focussed on the fact that people were likely to get caught out (or perhaps burgled) as a result of that black car with the Googlecam on top doing the rounds. Love affairs blown. Joints cased. Dudes walking into sex shops in Soho being highly embarrassed.

Well, perhaps that may be so. But the real story is far more interesting.

What Streetview does is give us a hint of the way that the internet is going: 3-D. With Streetview, you can walk down a street, take a left turn, swing around, cross the road, have a look at something that catches your eye - all rendered beautifully. It's extraordinary.

If I may be so bold as to make a prediction, I reckon what will happen next is that certain businesses will allow users to 'go into' buildings - to click on them and be taken inside. At the moment, using Streetview, you can just 'stand' outside say, WH Smiths at Kings Cross. But in time I reckon you'll be able to click on it, go in, stroll down an aisle and order some books. Or click on a Domino's Pizza, have a bit of a stroll around and order, well, a pizza. Go into a HMV and buy a record. Walk sheepishly into the aforementioned shop in Soho and order something for the weekend. Or perhaps you might do something slightly more cultural and explore the exhibits of the Tate Modern - yes, you might one day be able to look at a urinal and a pile of bricks in an entirely new way altogether, and from the comfort of your own home.

If this comes to pass, we're going to be looking at a 3-D internet, where sites are no longer flat pages but virtual places to be explored (and most likely, shopped in). In fact, some of this has already been happening to a degree: the Second Life community is a 3-D online world which can be explored in the manner I'm describing. And people spend millions in its virtual shops. But so far, its userbase is still only a small percentage of internet users.

A more 'general' shift to 3-D seems like the logical next step for the net - where the 3-D, virtual world becomes the default browsing experience. Websites are still, generally speaking, flat pages with text and images on them, but the creation of Streetview gives us a glimpse of an internet which is really more of a virtual world; where websites could be housed within virtual buildings; where a chatroom is a virtual bar.

And technology being what it is, all this could get very sophisticated, and fast. Virtual reality isn't just about a visual experience; there are a host of devices - from headphones to helmets to 'wired' gloves - which all serve to make the virtual experience more physical. If the internet goes 3-D, computers get very fast, and physical devices are made available that let everybody 'touch' the virtual world, we are suddenly in the realm of science fiction: the holodeck from Star Trek's Next Generation.

Captain Picard aside, in the not too distant future, the internet could well morph into a virtual world that is indistinguishable from our own. It sounds far fetched, but so did the motor car, electricity and a mouse that grew a human ear on its back.

So bizarrely Google Streetview raises an existential question. If the internet goes down this route, it will become a man-made universe, perhaps one day turning into a digital dimension running in parallel to - and feeling just as 'real' as - our own. This points to the obvious: is 'real' life actually just a digital, virtual experience? After all, pretty much all life in our 'real' universe works like a computer program, built by a set of coded instructions in our DNA. And (okay, paraphrasing a bit here) physics is basically all about electricity and numbers - just like the internet.

Damn, it's The Matrix. A Keanu Reeves film explaining the meaning of life. What an annoying conclusion to have to come to. But believe me, not as weird as you might think.

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The continuing rise of the blog

My girlfriend has described my new-found love of blogging as me loving the sound of my own voice. She may have a point: not content with recording vocals incessantly I now seem to be intent on regularly giving voice to opinions on the internet.

My new blogging fad has got me thinking about the differences between voicing opinions online and voicing opinions in print. Armchair journalism versus professional journalism, basically.

I'm well aware from talking to real, talented journalists like my good mate John Downes, that far more thought and effort usually goes into print journalism than blogging. There are things that you seem to get away with in blogs -- unsubstantiated claims, lack of sources, lack of notes -- that you could never even contemplate doing in print (Andrew Gilligan excepted). There generally isn't an editorial process either. However, unless you're one of the more popular bloggers out there, you are fairly unlikely to have a large number of readers to lap up those unsubstantiated claims and lack of notes.

But according to a very interesting article in the Observer last Sunday comparing the work of blogging critics to the traditional print types, it appears that bloggers are starting to make a significant impact in the area of opinion forming. Some bloggers are becoming 'tastemakers', setting trends amongst a growing readership that turns to internet writers rather than their print counterparts for an authoritative opinion on fashion, politics, music, food (and pretty much anything else). This seems to have led, in the US at least, to a lot of professional journalists -- particularly critics -- losing their jobs. It's also led to some PR firms sending press releases to bloggers before they approach journalists (I heard that one from the horse's mouth: a head honcho of a big UK PR firm).

On reason put forward for this shift away from critics to bloggers concerns trust: there is a theory that bloggers are gaining influence precisely because they are not print journalists, and can therefore be trusted not to toe a paper's line in their articles. In the UK, where practically all the big newspapers are run by a small number of rich, powerful, white, male and right-wing individuals, there may be some grounds for thinking that readers might view bloggers as being more independently minded than journalists working for titles that at times resemble little more than propaganda. (If you don't believe me on that, try a diet of tabloids for a week. You will come out of your diet hating immigrants, thinking all welfare-recipients are scroungers and knowing a disturbingly large amount of trivia about Prince Harry).

I'm not sure that I buy into the notion that bloggers are to be trusted more than journalists though. For a start, just like any political journalist or rock critic, they have agendas: they like certain things and they don't like others. I think that's fairly obvious from my blogging efforts so far: I've been rude about Mrs Thatcher, James Blunt, Scouting For Girls, Boris Johnson or anybody else who generally isn't to my political or musical taste. Think Hitler was in there too, and probably in the same sentence as James Blunt.

In the Observer article, an attempt was made by one commentator to differentiate between opinions and informed opinions. The implication being that bloggers had the opinions and the journalists had the informed opinions. I'd go along with that -- to a degree. On the whole journalists do have to research a topic more than (most) bloggers before their copy sees the light of day. They probably do know more about their subject before they bang on about it. But the problem is that when you talk about an informed opinion, you're opening a can of very subjective worms. One man's informed opinion is another man's ignorant attitude. And what about 'badly informed' opinions?

For me, the interesting -- and possibly alarming -- thing about blogging doesn't come down to the opinions expressed. It's about who is getting to express them, and how. The internet is good at occasionally putting people who would otherwise not have the power (or perhaps the interest) to influence opinions in a position where their opinions are avidly and widely read and consumed. In many cases, it seems to happen not by design but by accident, when an individual becomes well-known for something other than writing, and then starts blogging.

I'm thinking of stars like Lily Allen here. Whilst I'm actually a bit of a (closet) fan of her music, I'm not particularly impressed by her as an individual, and I'm certainly not a fan of her writing. Yet when she got famous, thousands upon thousands of people subscribed to her blog, and she acquired, in a short period of time, a readership (and debatably, influence) that it can a journalist takes years to accrue. Not only that, but information she posts in her blog frequently ends up in print, as newspapers look to her blog for celebrity scoops. In days gone by, stars like Lily, although famous, would not have had the means to directly communicate with thousands of people by writing - they would have to had secured a book deal or been commissioned to write newspaper articles. Which, even when famous, is a much trickier proposition than signing up for a free Blogger account and hitting the 'publish' button on a blog.

If the thought of certain pop stars gaining large readerships from blogging is unappealing, a more positive aspect of blogging concerns how people with specialist interests are now able to communicate and share knowledge about them very easily. Readers benefit too, because they are now able to access writing on topics that the mainstream press routinely ignores. You can find blog posts on just about anything now, from model trains to the kind of guitars that Hank Marvin played. The quality of writing varies, but if you are interested in getting an opinion on or a review of something a bit obtuse, chances are you'll find a blog that will meet your needs.

And blogs get big. When the content of a blog is compelling enough (and particularly if it involves 'niche' topics), the blog in question can experience a sort of 'organic' growth. A well-written blog on an interesting topic can start out with one or two readers but develop, as people search for content, into a popular online column. You could mutter something here about blogs 'democratising' journalism but I'd be hesitant to describe the phenomenon in those terms: perhaps it's more a case of the man down the pub who has an opinion becoming the man on the web who has one.

Whatever about the popularity of blogs, and the impact of this on print journalism, I think most bloggers would much prefer to be writing in newspapers -- as a blogger interviewed in the Observer article concludes. But maybe that, in time, will change; as papers move their content online, journalists are slowly turning into bloggers anyway. But I'm not sure that bloggers will turn into journalists: there is a very distinct set of skills and practices that journalism still requires (all that note-taking stuff) that distinguishes journalism from blogging.

In any event, the one overwhelmingly good thing about blogs is this: they provide yet another opportunity for me to pontificate.


The story of stuff

Being somebody who spends far too much time on the internet, I don't often come across sites that blow me away. But this one did:

Check it out. Make sure your sound is on, wait for the video/animation to load and click play.


The future of rock and roll

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to put out a physical cd in the UK and Ireland recently. Happily, it picked up good reviews, some national airplay and I got on the telly doing quirky gigs on London public transport. But the lack of a marketing budget, big-budget video, TV plugger, print advertising etc. meant that it was going to be very hard to compete with records from established acts. Whilst it's safe to say that the critical reaction to the album was very positive (this was much to my relief), with my resources -- and even with the PR help of a major in Ireland -- I simply couldn't reach enough listeners to sell the cd in big quantities. I hate admitting that, but there you go. I still fly on budget airlines, in other words.

Now that all the singles have been released from the album, I reckon I've sold as many copies of 'Twisted City' as I'm likely to, in the UK and Ireland at least. But I'd still like the distribution of the album to continue in some shape or form, and I'd like to keep introducing the music to new ears.

This is why I've embraced what may become known as "the Radiohead model" of distribution: offering a download of the album to listeners at no financial cost.

Commentators made much of the fact that Radiohead allowed people to pay as much or as little as they liked for the download of 'In Rainbows'; I think they missed the point. Radiohead were after email addresses as much as the donations. Think about it: as a result of their experiment, Radiohead probably now have the means to communicate, entirely free, with their ENTIRE fanbase. And sell future products, tours and merchandise to them direct (which is the most effective way of selling). There are companies who would absolutely kill to have their entire customer base on a database, and spend vast quantities of time and money trying to achieve this; in a matter of weeks, Radiohead compiled a massive mailing list and, incredibly, made money in the process of doing so (through the 'honesty box' aspect of the exercise). Very clever stuff.

With the advent of 'free album' distribution, I can't see paid-for music continuing for much longer. It's so ridiculously easy to copy and share music that paying for it seems arcane. Once somebody has an album, everybody has it. When an album is just a set of files, there becomes no effective difference between a paid-for set of files and a free set of files. I hate thinking of music in these terms, and I always pay for albums, but the reality of the situation is that most people are looking at music in this clinical way.

It means that the income which pays for new music (and salaries...) is going to have to come from other sources. I see two main ways in which artists and labels are going to make money in the future:

1) By selling band merchandise / gig tickets direct using the email addresses gathered during 'free album' releases. Only stuff which can't be 'copied' electronically will be worth selling.

2) By making albums available for free on sites on which paid-for adverts are displayed.

The second scenario worries me somewhat, as we may end up in a situation where, like commercial radio, advertisers dictate what is and isn't "acceptable" (this is why there is so much Celine Dion on the radio).

The bottom line is that musicians are going to have to get a lot smarter about how they get their music out there. In the future, it may be the case that instead of musicians fighting for the attention of majors, we'll fight to get the biggest database, or to get more of our 'free albums' out to people than the other guy. It's going to be as cut-throat as ever, regardless of the internet revolution. That's why I want to get in early with the whole free download experiments.

As for the free Radiohead album, with the exception of one song, 'Body Snatchers', I don't like it. I paid for The Bends and OK Computer; they were much better. Or maybe I just think that because I parted with cash?

You can download Chris Singleton's 'Twisted City' album free at