13 moments, 2013

The Trial

Cards from The Trial I am wearing a blue polo-neck shirt and a charity shop brown cord skirt and I am Fiona, a spotlight shining in my eyes, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in the Science Museum in London, being interrogated. Maybe three or four hundred people have interrogated me so far today, and I have answered the same series of adversarial questions with the same series of answers and the same series of hand gestures, pleading my innocence.

Then one woman with brown hair and a serious face sits down in front of me, her face level with mine or even a little below it, to ask her questions without interrogation. I can see her eyes. She is concerned and gentle. Around her, one by one, the other adults who have come to discover this world sit down too, like five-year-olds at the feet of a schoolteacher, and I lean down and tell them Fiona’s story, but this time with relief.

The call

My dad has come to visit me. He is in London for a few hours for a meeting that has him dressed smartly, suit and tie, but he looks smaller than I remember him. He has cancer. That word circles in the air but we do not speak it. I show him the wall where the next day’s newspaper is beginning to take shape, the room where we have morning conferences, the newsdesk. Someone asks if he is lost and I say no.

We are sitting in the cafeteria and talking about surgery and my phone vibrates on the table between us. I can read enough of the email to know that I need to open it. I open it and I am going to Australia. My dad looks at my face and asks me who died. I tell him I have been asked to go to Australia. It is the first time his smile reaches his eyes.

The partingsFriends

We take a break from the planning, the packing, the preparations. More people than I can count turn up to wish me happy birthday and to wish us both safe travels. Friends from five cities come. I cannot spend time with everyone I need to see. We empty out the 20-kilo bag of boiled sweets left over from last year’s games onto the varnished table in the upstairs room at the pub at the end of our road. We talk endlessly. I know I am going to miss these people, the family I have chosen. I have no idea how much.

The landing

It is ten hours since our plane landed. It is thirty-five since it took off. It is fifty since I last slept. I am standing in an underground room with twenty other people who have had much more sleep than Grant and I. I am at a university with a cup of tea in my hand looking at a grid map of London made from rope and nametags on the floor, working out which bits need water before they burn. Later I will make a paper sculpture before a new friend drives us to a new home and we eat kebabs and fall asleep on the sofa.

LorikeetsRainbow lorikeets

I am standing in Sydney botanic gardens in front of a tree full of rainbow birds that I never in my life thought I would see in the wild, and I am weeping.

Moving in

It is dark. The new ninth-floor flat has windows on two sides and outside the city is tall and filled with wonder. We turn off our lights and stand with music playing, his arms around me, looking at the bright windows in the tall buildings and the lights glittering on the far side of the harbour. I fall asleep still staring out of the window and dream I am on a ship.

LaunchChocolate echidna

On the way to work I listen to Run Boy Run. All day it rings in my ears.  We are in the morning papers roundup, despite not being a paper. Kath is on TV and I know before I see it because the graph spikes. People welcome us. By teatime I have more messages than I can respond to, than I can even read. The numbers tick up and up.

On the way home 15 hours later I listen to no music and hold a chocolate echidna in my hot hands. Grant meets me in the park and I give it to him to eat.

SaturdayThe Guardian

One week after the election. Last week we went out in 30-degree heat to a local school, where instead of dusty booths and queues there was a fair and saxophonists and bouncy castles and four different options of sausages in buns. The campaign is over. I am taking a day off, or I would be, but we have a story. I sit in the corner of our too-springy sofa while Grant plays a console game and I push buttons and pull levers and post messages and watch as a 4,500-word essay published on a Saturday morning becomes our most read story thus far, and I am proud.

Freeplay

I am on a stage talking about Detritus and class and gender, and no one heckles me. All weekend no one tells me I should not be there. My games count as games. My journalist’s background does not exclude me from any conversations, nor does my live game design work, nor do my many other backgrounds. I am a whole person who does and is many different things and none of those things must be excluded for me to participate, here. I eat sushi with people I only know from the internet and play games projected onto the floors and walls. It feels like coming home. And people play Detritus and tell me it moves them, and I am proud.

Octoberbeach

The work days begin to blur together, starting early and finishing late, too many exciting moments and too much to do, all of the time. It becomes routine. At times – between fires that blot out the sun and the screeching of the enormous bats – I almost forget we are on the other side of the world.

Then for a brief week the routine stops. Our closest friend visits, impossibly, and we take him to visit our Sydney: sunshine, the gardens, the beaches, the roof. We wake up each day with a new plan. Walking Darling Harbour, dumplings in Chinatown, kebabs in Manly, the ferry; a day doing nothing but sitting in, playing games, like old times when we used to live together. When he leaves I am broken, as though we have just left home a second time.

CairnsGreen island

There is rainforest. There is birdsong and the beach and my parents visit. My dad is walking well. We swim and eat and watch the great blue butterflies lazily flap along the gully. There are turtles.

Valkyriesride1

Everyone in this smoky room is intensely serious. We are all holding cardboard swords and axes, held aloft, pointed at one another: a battlefield. As the music begins and the Valkyries ride – plastic helmets, blonde wigs, cardboard hobby horses – we battle heroically in slow motion. I dodge a blade, twirl low, bring my axe up to strike as my opponent leaps sideways out of the way. I am tapped on one shoulder, called to die, and I die in the most epic fashion I can muster at the hands of a giggling 12-year-old boy, gurgling on the smoke-covered floor in a small room in St Kilda.

Christmas

There is no turkey. It rains too much to go to the beach. We play Netrunner for hours, eat smoked salmon sandwiches, visit new friends, talk endlessly in the rain. Three days later, in short sleeves and flip flops, we walk from a friend’s house to the bus stop. The pub opposite is festooned with ridiculous Christmas lights. One looks like a car on fire. It takes us five minutes to work out it is Santa, in traditional summer gear, handing out gifts from the back of a truck.

The Guardian has a new URL

We’re now over at theguardian.com. There’s a handy explanatory blog post over here, which also contains a very happy-making phrase including the words ’10% uplift’ about the work we’ve been doing over in Australia.

I’ve been involved in this project at various stages over the months – involved enough to be acutely aware of the complexity and scope of what’s happened today. Massive congratulations and kudos to all involved.

Hopefully now Australians will stop asking me why we have .co.uk in the link…

Upping sticks: moving to Sydney with Guardian Australia

I’m moving: not away from the Guardian, but with it. I’m going to be moving to Sydney for a secondment with the Guardian’s new Australian team. My role is editorial audience development, and will encompass SEO, analytics, community coordination, social media, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t know about yet. It’s a small, brilliant team full of interesting folks, with lots of exciting opportunities ahead; I can’t wait to get started.

It’s also literally half a world away. I’m lucky – we’re lucky – to be in a position where Grant can come with me, and can hopefully work and live alongside me, rather than having to be apart for what’s likely to be at least 9 months. We’re at a time in both our lives where upping sticks to somewhere with wombats and wallabies is not just possible but sounds like it could be bloody good fun. It will be hugely sad to be so far away from friends and families, but it will also be a very big adventure.

It turns out I own an awful lot of things I don’t need. And an astounding number of Nerf guns, which I clearly need to keep somewhere till we get back, along with the fire axes and the smoke machine and all of the books. If I owe you a coffee, a beer, an email or a chat, now’s a very good time to cash it in, while I’m still hunting for paperwork and trying to get our lives stowed away before we leave. Also if you’ve seen my birth certificate, I need that back.

And, in unrelated news, I’m hosting The Story conference next Friday. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there.

#jcarn: Dear Santa, please bring us all more time

Given the recent dearth of posts on here, my request in response to this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt is probably not surprising, though it may be impossible.

Dear Santa, for journo-Christmas I would like more time. Not just for me, but for everyone.

I was lucky enough, recently, to be part of a Guardian hack day. As a result, some awesome tools got built, including three that I started using inmediately. They’re still very much in beta, being improved and worked on occasionally, but I use them constantly. They’ve changed my job. Not by giving me new things to do, but by automating some repetitive, tricky, admin bits of the job and therefore making them require less time and attention – so I can spend more time and energy focussing on the bits that really need it.

That’s wonderful. It’s a gift of time. It means I can work smarter, not just harder. I wish, if I have to be limited to one Christmas wish, that every journalist and everyone involved in making journalism – including developers – could have at least one tool, in 2012, that makes the tedious admin bits of their jobs faster. I hope that every tricky CMS for journalists that contains unnecessary time-consuming admin processes releases an update that makes it no longer so.

And, because this isn’t a one-way process, I hope that every journalist takes the initiative to go find out where their techies live and actually talks to them, in person, about the problems they have. There’s no point griping only to each other about the difficult bits, or in keeping quiet and carrying on doing things that don’t make sense: tell developers what’s wrong, because otherwise they won’t know it needs fixing. Sometimes what looks like a tech problem is actually a communication issue, because the people who need to know that something’s broken haven’t been told.

These fixes often aren’t the big, sexy, exciting projects for devs. They’re the sort of thing that, if it exists, you very quickly take for granted. Things like, say, a spellchecker that also flags up common house style violations, or a geolocation module that understands when you type “Norwich” that you want the geographical area defined by the boundaries of the city of Norwich, not a point at the centre of its postcode area. They’re often small niggles that you’d only notice if you’re doing these processes day in, day out, many times a day.

In an age of cutting costs, one of the most precious resources we have left is our time. Anything that saves it, that means it can be spent doing journalism or making tools that journalists can use, instead of busywork, is a wonderful thing.

Oh, and if you work in a place that has admin staff, go say thank you to them. They deserve it.

Stealing the story: the death of the News of the World

The News of the World is dead, Rebekah Brooks has so far survived, Andy Coulson has been arrested and the British media is in overdrive, hunting down the next revelation about phone and voicemail hacking, covert surveillance, police bribery and political corruption. That’s the story that’s been obsessing me since it began to break on Monday night, with the Guardian revelation that murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by News of the World journalists.

Today the final edition of the 168-year-old News of the World hit the stands, and 200 people woke up without jobs, thanks to the decision by News International on Thursday to close the paper.

Killing the News of the World, along with its many other possible benefits for Rupert Murdoch, is an attempt to grab control of the story back – or at least to dilute it. Suddenly, instead of dissecting past issues of the paper to look for more evidence of illegal (or at least immoral) behaviour, journalists are dissecting the final issue. Instead of the possible guilt of former editors, the result is to introduce a discussion about the relative innocence of Colin Myler and his current staff. [Edit: see also Roy Greenslade's look at the final edition.]

The gesture also attempts to make martyrs of the newspaper and of its existing journalists.  Suddenly it’s almost churlish to write furious diatribes about the past, when 200 forlorn journalist faces are staring out at you from the last ever newsroom photograph. The urge now is to eulogise, to sum up the 168-year life of the paper – and that means the narrative turns from exposing the illegal and immoral activities that have taken place over the years to a gentler summation of the paper’s life – lauding the good as well as discussing the bad.

It’s a hugely expensive and risky smokescreen to throw in front of a hungry set of journalists, but the result is still to change the terms of the narrative. The focus has shifted.

The political implications of this scandal are immensely complicated and far-reaching, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that the Murdoch empire had an interest in keeping politicians corrupt. If your power rests in part on your ability to unmask corruption – in selectively dishing dirt on those politicians who don’t do what you want – then in fact you have an incentive to ensure that there is a skeleton in everyone’s closet, and that you have the ability to expose it. You have a vested interest in building up the careers of celebrities whose secrets you can use to sell papers. The more corrupt the people at the top – the more dirty secrets you have on the most powerful politicians and policemen – the more control and power you wield.

Thanks to its 2.7m circulation and an estimated readership of about 8m, the News of the World was a kingmaker and a kingbreaker. But those readers won’t just disappear into the ether. The media landscape in the UK is undergoing seismic change not just because of the newspaper closure and the potential damage to other News International titles, but also because we don’t know where those loyal tabloid readers will end up. Presumably a Sunday edition of the Sun would snap them up immediately – so long as it wasn’t dead in the water from the News of the World fallout. But it will be very interesting to see whether the other Sunday papers see a circulation bump in the wake of the death of the Screws – or where the paper’s online readers will migrate to other mainstream titles, or disappear off to celebrity blogs or fragmented new media.

If the mass audience fragments, that could permanently reshape the hierarchy of power in this country in ways that are impossible to predict. We have already seen the power of the network in driving the story forwards. We have already seen a massive shift in power, with politicians openly attacking Rupert Murdoch, a man who seemed untouchable this time last week.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.

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Somewhere in the middle of all this, I start at the Guardian tomorrow as SEO Subeditor. I don’t know what next week holds but I’m immensely excited to be part of it – sad to leave Citywire, hugely so, but so excited.

Braindump: just add points

Interesting presentation by Sebastian Deterding looking at what user experience designers can learn from game design.

Although news orgs face very different challenges from UX designers, the basic messages about shallow vs deep engagement, using multiple interacting points/currencies and measuring achievement, effort and attainment in a meaningful way are very relevant. Take a look:

It’s interesting to look at the Huffington Post’s community moderation badges in terms of this presentation. My gut instinct is that they fall, along with Foursquare, into a category of too simplistic game-like systems (“Just Add Points”) that don’t actually tap into the power and fun of learning that is one of the fundamental building blocks of good game design.

It’s also worth checking out this post on rescuing princesses at the Lost Garden. If you click through to the slides (PDF) there’s a thoughtful discussion of the differences between app and game design, and a very useful breakdown of STARS atoms – essentially, small chunks that introduce players/users to new skills, let them discover how to use them, and ensure they have mastered them.

Between them, these two posts and the thoughts behind them make a mockery of the idea of game mechanics as simple point systems you can pop atop pre-designed apps or comment systems or whatever it is you’re already doing. You have to design with exploratory learning in mind, with a learning curve that doesn’t flatten out horizontally or vertically and with end goals and nested goals to maintain engagement.

I wonder how the Guardian’s crowdsourced investigation into MPs’ expenses would have gone if they’d added this sort of rich game-led design? As well as giving long-term and short-term goals/rewards (like Twitter translator levels, perhaps) with status bars to show progress, perhaps they could have rewarded people who found something of real import with a status bump, or added exploratory learning elements by advancing users towards the goal of signing off on things other people had flagged as interesting. Or teaching basic maths, or collating data into a wiki-style “what does my MP spend” database, or encouraging/letting users learn to create their own visualisations of the data. Hard to say how well or whether that would have worked, but it’s easy to see wider possibilities in projects like that.

/end braindump