It’s been a busy few weeks. This coming weekend Grant and I are headed to Melbourne to run Spirits Walk with Pop Up Playground. We’re headlining at the Fresh Air Festival, a yearly extravaganza of interesting live games, street games and creative play, and I’m hugely excited about it.
Spirits Walk is going to be a strange game. It’s a game about transgression, about crossing lines in public, about deliberate strangeness and feeling uncomfortable and doing interesting things anyway, because you want to know what happens next. There are spirits hidden in plain sight around the city, and each of them wants something from you: each has a task, and if you complete it you get a token of their esteem, or approval, or even affection. Your tokens open doors to another world, hidden just behind the real one: a place of symbolism and pageantry and a little bit of magic.
It breaks some new ground for us as designers and game makers, and we’re relying a lot on Pop Up Playground’s resources: craft and art and costuming, and the awesome actors who’ll be bringing our spirits to life. The game’s also very much Grant’s baby, in the same way The Trial was mine: he’s taken the lead in crafting and creating it, working with Rob and Sayra at Pop Up to make the whole thing happen. There are lots of moving parts, lots of elements working together, and it’s going to be an interesting challenge to make it all cohere. It’s also going to be a great deal of fun. It’s free to take part, and if you’re in Melbourne and you’d like to come along, you can reserve a space here.
After that, we’re going to try and be on holiday for a few days. It’s been a busy few weeks, after all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 night before my parents arrive, I almost do not go out for dinner. At midday I send the email I dread sending but that seems to be required regardless, at regular intervals: hello, I am a little mad today and may be unable to participate in our scheduled social interaction.
Those emails don’t really get easier to write. Every time it is a disappointment. It means I tend not to commit to seeing people, because I would rather avoid the shame and stress of pulling out, admitting in front of friends that yes, I am still mad, I am not better yet and I may never be, even though I do what I do and I seem so terribly together and efficient, and so on. It is still galling. There is still shame. I still hate letting people down. So I send the email just in case, because cancelling six hours ahead is better than one, if I don’t improve.
In the end I go out, but not before a minor emotional meltdown in the street after I leave the office. Grant holds my shoulders and reassures me the world is not an awful place. I take a deep breath or three and board a train and then I am committed, and in the end it is an excellent evening and I am not too mad after all.
I am up to my waist in sea water and Grant is standing in front of me, holding my shoulders, reminding me that the world is not an awful place. We can see the beach from the villa we have taken for a week just north of Cairns, just past Deadman’s Gully nature reserve, past the signs that warn of crocodiles and the pole full of vinegar in case of marine stingers. There is a white-bounded net that bobs up and down on the water and, in theory, keeps out the monsters that might twine tentacles around your legs and hurt you. The water is thick with sand and I cannot see my feet below the surface. Grant is in front of me and I take one step at a time, deeper into the water. Eddies swirl around my knees.
The panic hits me in waves. Thick clotting brain-scrambling panic, the sort that makes you strike out for shore and say cruel things to make the fear end, followed by lulls of maybe-time. Waves of no — no — no — I cannot, then it eases into a chorus of well — perhaps. I can imagine myself leaving the house. I can picture myself dressed, opening a door. If I can imagine that much perhaps — perhaps I can be a normal human being for a night. I can imagine myself swimming in this warm, cloudy water under such astonishing sky. I can.
The lull occurs. I say: “Follow me. Now. Before I change my mind.” And I turn towards the far edge of the net and I swim. Powered by panic and perseverance I kick harder and faster than he can keep up with, and I make it out to the net, a monstrous thing that catches at my legs but that I am expecting and so do not scream about. I turn and I make for shore as the panic begins to rise again, catching a wave and putting my legs under myself and striding out of the sea.
The water off Green Island is clear blue and warm in the morning. It takes me a few tries to successfully breathe through the snorkel, as I keep holding my breath and expecting to drown. Then I manage, eventually, to duck down and hold myself steady, kicking slowly and gliding through water clear as air, parting a shoal of fish the size of my palm that kick alongside me out to the deeper water. Grant calls me over and shows me a hermit crab, scuttling along the bottom; there are big broad fish in ones and twos. I am thinking: this is pretty awesome, all these fish right here.
Then we go deeper, out to one of the dark patches that litter the sea floor. First it is seaweed and a few scattered fish, then suddenly it is like flying over a forest. There are more fish than I can see in one go. I have to compartmentalise, looking first at things on one side and then on the other, else I will miss something. Yellow and black, orange and blue. An electric blue starfish the size of my arm. Beneath it all, the coral: branches and balls, limestone structures built for monsters to live in. When we swim to shore Grant chases a manta ray between the waves.
In the afternoon, though, the water is deeper. Colder. Currents rush across our bodies, eddy around my knees. A raft of seaweed floats on top of the waves, which are bigger now, clouding the water and making it harder to see. I get frightened. I stop trusting my body to carry me and I stop trusting the sea. Soon I am struggling with my snorkel, because hyperventilating through a tube underwater is even more problematic than doing it on dry land. I make it out to the coral but I am scared of the seaweed clinging to me and dragging at my skin. I try but I do not succeed in seeing much else of wonder; I am too afraid. Grant holds my shoulders and I cling to him in the water, scared of moving, scared of not moving, willing myself suddenly to become able to teleport or levitate or simply not feel this ridiculous rushing chaotic gut-wrenching panic any more. Eventually I am just saying the word “phobia” over and over into my snorkel as though by naming it I will be able to make it stop. We decide to swim back for shore.
And then there it is. I duck my head under the waves and there it is: a turtle the size of Grant’s torso, perhaps a metre below me, sculling one fin at a time out to sea. I make the sort of strangled yelping noise that generally denotes drowning but manage to signal to Grant that, no, I’m OK, but look: turtle. TURTLE. Through a snorkel, I explain. And we turn tail together and, holding each other in sight, we follow the turtle. We swim back out into deep water, through the mass of surface seaweed I could not break before. I am terrified, but the turtle is more important. We follow and follow until looming out of the dark water beneath there is another turtle, treading water, patiently waiting, and the two of them together slowly, gracefully paddle their way out to sea.
I used to blog all the time. I used to have a serious writing work ethic. I’ve blogged in many formats under multiple names since 2004, or thereabouts, which makes me a bit of a youthful whippersnapper in terms of some of the internet. But it’s nearly a decade now, and that’s too much waffling on the internet to throw away just because I’m busy.
I’m out of practise. I’m rusty. I used to write for a living; now I’m more on the production side, and my writing is suffering for lack of daily use. This is not a muscle I should allow to atrophy.
Side projects are brilliant, and I like to have at least six on the go at the same time, because there is something wrong with me. My blog hasn’t been on that list for far too long.
Writing things through is a superb way to refine an argument, distill an insight or open a debate. Writing makes me better at thinking.
I used to yammer on about how important it was for a digitally-savvy journalist to have a blog and get themselves out there on the wide wide interwebs. Just because I’m happy with where I’m at, and pouring a great deal of energy and inspiration and activity into my day job, doesn’t mean that advice doesn’t still hold true.
I know a whole bunch of stuff about some extremely esoteric internet subjects now. Maybe some people might find some of that useful. I should share.
I have a whole bunch of opinions and knowledge about games and other culture, about storytelling more broadly, about politics and events. I have a lot of experience of making game things in liminal spaces. Maybe some people might find some of that interesting. It can all share space together with the media stuff here and cross-pollinate, the way it does in my brain.
One of the things making Detritus has viscerally re-taught me (more on that in a coming blog post!) is that what actually matters in my personal work is making things. If they’re well received and widely read, that’s absolutely brilliant. But what matters more is that they exist at all.
I didn’t want to do ten days of blogging every day on my own, so I sort of challenged Grant. He’s a far, far better and more entertaining writer than I am, and I really enjoy reading what he writes. I’m basically just doing this so that he writes more. It’s entirely selfish.
Next day it hit 45,000 views, and broke our web hosting. Over 72 hours it got more than 100,000 views, garnered 120 comments, was syndicated on Gizmodo and brought Grant about 400 more followers on Twitter. Here’s what I learned.
1. Site speed matters
The biggest limit we faced during the real spike was CPU usage. We’re on Evohosting, which uses shared servers and allots a certain amount of usage per account. With about 180-210 concurrent visitors and 60-70 page views a minute, according to Google Analytics real-time stats, the site had slowed to a crawl and was taking about 20 seconds to respond.
WordPress is a great CMS, but it’s resource-heavy. Aside from single-serving static HTML sites, I was running Look Robot, this blog, Zombie LARP, and, when I checked, five other WordPress installations that were either test sites or dormant projects from the past and/or future. Some of them had caching on, some didn’t; Grant’s blog was one of the ones that didn’t.
So I fixed that. Excruciatingly slowly, of course, because everything took at least 20 seconds to load. Deleting five WordPress sites, deactivating about 15 or 20 non-essential plugins, and installing WP Super Cache sped things up to a load time between 7 and 10 seconds – still not ideal, but much better. The number of concurrent visitors on site jumped up to 350-400, at 120-140 page views a minute – no new incoming links, just more people bothering to wait until the site finished loading.
2. Do your site maintenance before the massive traffic spike happens, not during
Should be obvious, really.
3. Things go viral in lots of places at once
Grant’s post started out on Twitter, but spread pretty quickly to Facebook off the back of people’s tweets. From there it went to Hacker News (where it didn’t do well), then Metafilter (where it did), then Reddit, then Fark, at the same time as sprouting lots of smaller referrers, mostly tech aggregators and forums. The big spike of traffic hit when it was doing well from Metafilter, Fark and Reddit simultaneously. Interestingly, the Fark spike seemed to have the longest half-life, with Metafilter traffic dropping off more quickly and Reddit more quickly still.
4. It’s easy to focus on activity you can see, and miss activity you can’t
Initially we were watching Twitter pretty closely, because we could see Grant’s tweet going viral. Being able to leave a tab open with a live search for a link meant we could watch the spread from person to person. Tweeters with large follower counts tended to be more likely to repost the link rather than retweeting, and often did so without attribution, making it hard to work out how and where they’d come across it. But it was possible to track back individual tweets based on the referrer string, thanks to the t.co URL wrapper. From some quick and dirty maths, it looks to me like the more followers you have, the smaller the click-through rate on your tweets – but the greater the likelihood of retweets, for obvious reasons.
Around midday, Facebook overtook Twitter as a direct referrer. We’d not been looking at Facebook at all. Compared to Twitter and Reddit, Facebook is a bit of a black box when it comes to analytics. Tonnes of traffic is coming, but who from? I still haven’t been able to find out.
5. The more popular an article is, the higher the bounce rate
This doesn’t *always* hold true. However, I can’t personally think of a time when I’ve witnessed it being falsified. Reddit in particular is also a very high bounce referrer, due to its nature, and news as a category tends to see very high bounce especially from article pages, but it does seem to hold true that the more popular something is the more likely people are to leave without reading further. Look, Robot’s bounce rate went from about 58% across the site to 94% overall in 24 hours.
My feeling is that this is down to the ways people come across links. Directed searching for information is one way: that’s fairly high-bounce, because a reader hits your site and either finds what they’re looking for or doesn’t. Second clicks are tricky to get. Then there’s social traffic, where a click tends to come in the form of a diversion from an existing path: people are reading Twitter, or Facebook, or Metafilter, they click to see what people are talking about, then they go straight back to what they were doing. Getting people to break that path and browse your site instead – distracting them, in effect – is a very, very difficult thing to do.
6. Fark leaves a shadow
Fark’s an odd one – not a site that features frequently in roundups of traffic drivers, but it can still be a big referrer to unusual, funny or plain daft content. It works like a sort of edited Reddit – registered users submit links, and editors decide what goes on the front page. Paying subscribers to the site can see everything that’s submitted, not just the edited front. I realised before it happened that Grant was about to get a link from their Geek front, when the referrer total.fark.com/greenlit started to show up in incoming traffic – that URL, behind a paywall, is the place where links that have been OKed are queued to go on the fronts.
7. The front page of Digg is a sparsely populated place these days
I know that Grant’s post sat on the front page of Digg for at least eight hours. In total, it got just over 1,000 referrals. By contrast, the post didn’t make it to the front page of Reddit, but racked up more than 20,000 hits mostly from r/technology.
8. Forums are everywhere
I am always astonished at the vast plethora of niche-interest forums on the internet, and the amount of traffic they get. Much like email, they’re not particularly sexy – no one is going to write excitable screeds about how forums are the next Twitter or how exciting phpBB technology is – but millions of people use them every day. They’re not often classified as ‘social’ referrers by analytics tools, despite their nature, because identifying what’s a forum and what’s not is a pretty tricky task. But they’re everywhere, and while most only have a few users, in aggregate they work to drive a surprising amount of traffic.
Grant’s post got picked up on forums on Bad Science, RPG.net, Something Awful, the Motley Fool, a Habbo forum, Quarter to Three, XKCD and a double handful of more obscure and fascinating places. As with most long tail phenomena, each one individually isn’t a huge referrer, but the collection gets to be surprisingly big.
9. Timing is everything…
It’s hard to say what would have happened if that piece had gone up this week instead, but I don’t think it would have had the traffic it has. Grant’s post hit a chord – the ludicrous nature of tech events – and tapped into post-CES ennui and the utter daftness that was the Qualcomm keynote this year.
10. …but anything can go viral
Last year I was on a games journalism panel at the Guardian, and I suggested that it was a good idea for aspiring journalists to write on their own sites as though they were already writing for the people they wanted to be their audience. I said something along the lines of: you never know who’s going to pick it up. You never know how far something you put online is going to travel. You never know: one thing you write might take off and put you under the noses of the people you want to give you a job. It’s terrifying, because anything you write could explode – and it’s hugely exciting, too.
Yesterday I gave a short talk at London IA, about one of my side projects: zombies, LARP, morris dancers, demons, creativity, delight, verbs, NERF guns and (ostensibly at least) user experience design. Slides – expertly drawn by @gshowitt – are here, and my notes are below the fold.
Tomorrow, I’m going to be doing some Proper Public Speaking for the first time since I was a precocious 7-year-old. I’m speaking at The Story, and I’m privileged to be speaking alongside a host of amazing storytellers, artists, builders, makers, photographers, creators and other folks who do awesome things with narrative.
I’m going to be talking about Zombie, which last night sold out its ninth event in just five hours – talking about how we generate emergent stories, what systems we use to encourage and nurture and later curate stories born from player activity, in a community-oriented and word-of-mouth focussed way. The talk is called The Story Machine. I’ll post up my notes and slides after the event, but here as a teaser is one of my favourite images – drawn by the lovely and long-suffering @gshowitt.