Friday, 29 October 2010

Blasted (Lyric) - review

Why would anyone want to kill you?
Revenge. Things I've done.
I read a lot of "pre-match hype" about Sarah Kane's Blasted, and found it difficult to shake off the stereotypes of it being a "cry for help" shortly before her suicide, and didn't know what to make of the hypocrisy (there is no other word for it) of critics, who denounced it as "filth" (among other things) at the time of its first production, but lined up to laud its genius after her death. Sean Holmes takes it on at the Lyric.

I went in braced for an onslaught of harrowing visual imagery. Blasted isn't as simple as that, however. It's a series of rather disjointed tableaux, darkly comical at times, post-apocalyptic at others, with shades of everything from Greek tragedy to Wilfred Owen to Kafka along the way.

Ian and Cate are spending idle time in a hotel. The hotel is plush but bland: perhaps a Hilton or Marriott. The nature of their relationship is never fully revealed; it is mainly sexual, abusive, domineerin on the part of Ian...but Cate does not walk away. Ian's foulmouthed misogyny and vices clearly have some sort of appeal. The dialogue is framented. Many questions are unanswered at this stage: why does Ian carry a gun?

The tone darkens as scene two opens: Lydia spits "Cunt" and it is clear that she has been violated in the night. Even now, the conversations are broken and ambiguous, Ian's paranoia ever more apparent. A soldier bursts into the room, and enages in philosophical debate about the nature of wartime atrocities with Ian. From then on, the surrealism, graphic brutality and black humour crescendo to a grotesque endpiece.

Danny Webb and Lydia Wilson take on the lead roles with mixed success. They are fearsomely difficult parts to play, and the uncomfortable chemistry that is inevitable between a foul-mouthed, abusive, paranoid alcoholic and an attractive introvert thirty years his junior, is clear to see. Webb, despite a rather bizarre accent, was excellent for the most part, although he took a while to warm up. His central conversation with the soldier (it reminded me of Owen's Strange Meeting) crackles with tension, coinciding with some of the best dialogue in the play, while his descent into the tattered rags of a man towards the end reminded me somewhat of the central character of Paul Theroux's deeply disturbing The Mosquito Coast - paranoid, self-destructing, hideous. Wilson, meanwhile, plays her part bravely, but rather surprisingly is let down by technical basics rather than a lack of depth: her hammy stutter, unconvincing movement, and inability to deliver the humorous lines, are all surely details that could be ironed out, as she tackles the uncomfortable role fearlessly.

In truth the script left me rather cold. The soldier dialogue, Ian's complete mental collapse in the later stages, and some of the black gags are terrific, but ultimately I didn't find the play particularly thought-provoking as a whole. Is it shocking? Yes, the material is pretty graphic, but again, I found it all leaving little emotion on me. Much of the attention is understandably on Ian's grapples with the morals of suicide, but these are only really interesting in the context of the playwright's situation - little original thinking is presented. Meanwhile, for truly horrifying rape scenes, look no further than The Paper Birds' In a thousand pieces or Biuro Podrozy's Carmen funebre which are both infinitely more harrowing, without an explicit scene in sight. (The Paper Birds take their latest show Others to the Camden People's Theatre in a couple of weeks). But the shocking truth for me was that it all left me feeling a bit nonplussed.

Sean Holmes left me feeling pretty flat with his Three Sisters earlier this year. This time, his production is terrific, with only irritating details from the actors letting the side down. The post-holocaust latter scenes are quite brilliant, and the final scene rightly had the audience gripped in horror. A special mention to Paule Constable's lighting, which was particularly good.

Finally, a gripe. I was running late, and charged from the tube station, thrust my tenner at the box office staff, and hurried upstairs, sweating, into the auditorium at a minute to seven. It was practically empty. I had to check my ticket to confirm that it was indeed a 7pm start. Only ten minutes later did the press night audience start wandering in, seemingly under no pressure from staff to hurry up and get to their seats, and some even wandered out again to refill their drinks. The show finally got under way at a quarter past, seemingly because the becocktaildressed PR team couldn't be bothered to chivvy the critics inside. Now, I know it's press night and there are whims to be pandered to, but that strikes me as discourteous and disrespectful to the paying punters. If there's an advertised time, there should be no reason (technical hitches apart) not to stick to it.

Verdict: a brutal but disjointed script is overhyped, but neither that nor stilted acting can spoil a thoughtful production of this post-holocaust vision. Worth seeing.

Until 20 November. Tickets from £10.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

An open letter to Foxtons, Willesden Green

Mr Andrew Weir
Area Director, Foxtons
Willesden Green Sales
2-6 Station Parade, London NW2 4NH

Dear Mr Weir

Thank you for your fourth letter in as many weeks which plopped on my mat this morning. In your most recent unsolicited communication you encourage me to sell my home for free. I understand that I should "seize my chance". You assert that "there is no catch" despite your offer sounding "too good to be true". Yet something is holding me back.

Ah, that's it: I'm not a homeowner. While the prospect of selling a property that doesn't belong to me tickles me greatly, it is also illegal, as a certain Mr Anthony Lee found out to his cost recently. A five year jail term does not appeal. More than that, however, and how shall I put this...I am getting mighty cheesed off with the incessant stream of paper (posted locally from Andover, I note) clogging up my hallway.

I believe I am not the only person to have such sentiments. I understand that the Willesden Green office has been in operation for three weeks now, and already you are making your mark on the community. Alas, I suspect the local reaction will be one of intense irritation at being bombarded with ceaseless junk mail rather than ecstasy at the too-good-to-be-true-ness of the promised offer.

Incidentally, you boast of your "cafe-style" office. Why on earth do you expect this would be of benefit to anyone? If I have to deal with an estate agent there are certain criteria I look for: (1) ability to get things done efficiently with minimal screwing me around, (2) that's it. To think that either as a landlord/seller or buyer/tenant that my fees or rent would be increased by the fact that my estate agent wants to install some sort of fung shui in the office leaves me cold, to be honest. Offer me a cup of tea if you like - a common courtesy to a client in any form of business - but I couldn't give two hoots what your office looks like.

Mr Weir, you are probably younger than me and may not have worked for Foxtons four years ago when BBC's Whistleblower exposed your company's vile, scurrilous, low-life business practices for what they really are. I have not forgotten the programme. If you don't know what I am talking about, then take a look at this article. It is not for the faint hearted (also anyone in the process of buying a property through Foxtons should read it with a health warning attached).

In fact, on reflection, perhaps you are an experienced estate agent, as you were giving quotes to national newspapers in January 2008. While your manager will doubtless have praised you for showing such public confidence in the market at the time, it doesn't say a great deal for your credentials: 11 months after you confidently gave the opinion that "I don't think we will see house price falls...I just see no reason for it", the Halifax reported that house prices were down a record 16.2% year-on-year. Oh dear.

Yours ever


PS. In case I forgot to mention, or in case the message didn't come across, pretty please, with sugar on top, never ever write to me again. xx

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Richard Feynman, the celebration of doubt, and some horribly clunky and tenuous parallels with consumer research

Richard Feynman is the scientists' scientist. He was one of the greatest physicists of all time (seventh in Physics World's 1999 poll, behind Einstein, Newton, Maxwell, Bohr, Heisenberg and Galileo) - brilliantly explaining the relationship between photons and electrons in a fundamental area of particle physics called quantum electrodynamics which he basically invented. His squiggly pictures, now known as Feynman diagrams, can help explain complicated particle interactions in a non-mathematical way to the extent that someone with only a basic knowledge of physics could understand them.

The Feynman diagrams were a classic example of what made him not just a boffin, but a great scientist and educator. Feynman's approaches and attitudes were second to none. One of the best £90s I ever spent was, as a student, when I splashed out for the Feynman Lectures on Physics. If any physics undergraduate (or even A-level student) happens to read this, do yourself a favour: the three volumes are utterly inspiring, although beware - his methods are frequently unorthodox and can sometimes become ferociously difficult. I had a love-hate relationship with physics, but keep coming back to the Lectures time and time again.

Feynman has always been a bit of a hero of mine, and so when the latest batch of books I ordered online plopped on the mat, rather than consigning The meaning of it all to the end of the rapidly expanding backlog, I gobbled it up over a couple of days on my commutes. It is a collection of three lectures he gave in 1963 on the relationship between science, religion and uncertainty. It's a slim volume, but essential reading whether you've made up your mind on metaphysical and ethical questions, or whether you have an open mind. In an era dominated by shouty shock-jocks like Richard Dawkins, Feynman's quiet reflections really do stand out. Furthermore, I'm convinced that his opinions will be relevant to commercial research of all sorts as well as pure scientific work.

The general thrust of Feynman's argument is a celebration of uncertainty. The claim that ignorance and uncertainty are not something to be ashamed of, but quite the opposite - an exciting problem fresh to be solved - is quite refreshing. He comes across as a pure scientist: tackling problems for the problems' sake, yet appreciative of the practical implications of scientific research. One aspect that it's enlightening to hear from the mouth of the great man is just how "unscientific" the scientific process can be: rather than "Eureka" moments, scientific research is an iterative process, slowly proving the old rules wrong; Sherlock Holmes knew what he was talking about when he said "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth." Slowly building on established knowledge, confirming and disproving different strands by experiment (trial and error, if you like), is the way knowledge is furthered.

While Feynman, of course, is concerned primarily with things that can be measured and evaluated quantitatively (or even qualitatively), he makes the point that it's not only measurable aspects which are important:
But if a thing is not scientific, if it cannot be subjected to the test of observation, this does not mean that it is dead, or wrong, or stupid. We are not trying to argue that science is somehow good and that other things are somehow not good. Scientists take all those things that can be analysed by observation, and thus the things called science are found out. But there are some things left out, for which the method does not work. This does not mean that those things are unimportant. They are, in fact, in many ways the most important. In any decision for action, when you have to make up your mind what to do, there is always a "should" involved, and this cannot be worked out from "if I do this, what will happen?" alone. You say "Sure, you see what will happen, and then you decide whether you want it to happen or not." But that is the step the scientist cannot take. You can figure out what is going to happen, but then you have to decide whether you like it that way or not.
What of consumer research, then? To me, that implies that the business decisions which are made as the result of research still need to be bold ones, and that no matter how robust the research methodology itself may be, if the research brief is lousy or pointless then the research is wasted. Nothing new there then. But also that the research in itself might not be enough to show clearly whether the benefits of international expansion, or introducing a new product line, or scrapping dress-down Fridays, outweigh the side-effects. The research might demonstrate what the benefits and side-effects are, and even quantify them. But as for making that instinctive judgement? Market research's usefulness might be limited there. What Feynman is saying is that even from a scientist's point of view, that instinctive judgement isn't something to sniff at.

Having recently read Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, it occurs to me that there are a lot of parallels between the two - and can be summed up as "common sense". Objectivity. Looking for ways to disprove your work rather than proving it. These are basic groundrules.

More on uncertainty:
...doubt and uncertainty [are] important. I believe that [they] are of very great value, and extend beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.
Feynman is a pure scientist, through and through. He asserts that
work is not done for the sake of an application
which I agree with 100%. But, since I'm corrupting this post horribly with comparisons to commercial/consumer research which would probably horrify the great man, I'm not sure that I agree that this statement is true for market research. Sure, if MR and consumer research help boost the pool of knowledge surrounding consumer behaviour, then great. But while the foibles and complexities of consumer behaviour are undoubtedly fascinating (whether the research is conducted by market researchers or academic psychologists), the implications of its results are more important. Market research is definitely an applied science. A MR project is generally undertaken to fulfil a purpose - is that something to be ashamed of? It is a tool that provides insight into consumer behaviour and attitudes so that decisions can be made based on the findings. To paraphrase Feynman, the scientist (or market researcher) can provide the answers to questions like "what will happen if I do X?" or "what should I do in order to achieve Y?" Of course, whether Y is a desirable outcome or not, is outside the researcher's remit, and only the decision-maker can tell. But it's the transition from pure research to marketing applications that is where research is so exciting, for me.
To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.
That sounds like the sort of thing one of those "inspirational" business blogger "gurus" like Seth Godin might say. It wasn't. It was something a Buddhist monk once told Feynman, who, rather than making a sweeping statement based on it, interprets it in the context of ethics: top-level scientists have the capability to do something really dangerous with their expertise. Feynman should know: he worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.

He says that whilst making vague claims is next to useless, making bold assertions, which can then be proved either wrong, or correct until proven wrong (as with Newton's laws) is the way to go about scientific research:
The more specific a rule is, the more powerful it is, the more liable it is to exceptions, and the more interesting and valuable it is to check...doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great value.
More generally, he lauds risktaking in research, saying that with such risks, reputations may be put on the line, but the greatest discoveries are made. must be willing to stick your neck out...make a specific rule and see if it falls through the sieve.
The risk, of course, is that you are barking up the wrong tree completely. The parallels with the commercial world are obvious. Those researchers who try an outlandish methodology, or make a bold hypothesis, might end up getting nowhere. All kinds of agencies are experimenting with neuroscience, text analysis, eye tracking and all sorts of techniques with varying levels of sophistication. They sound sexy and therefore generate coverage (and thus sales), although there are a lot of sceptics who doubt the value of such techniques, particularly as, given their youth, by the sounds of things many of them are doing little more than floundering around in the dark.

I would argue, however, that is is the duty of big brands to invest in risky research - to invest in a hypothesis or methodology that could be badly flawed and provide zero ROI. But the likes of Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nike can afford to take such risks once in a while, and if the gamble pays off, that new methodology might give them deep consumer insight which rapidly gives them ROI and an edge over the competition. Perhaps more importantly, they should feel compelled to make these contributions to marketing, because brands as a whole may be able to benefit from the latest techniques in neuroscience, say, that would be too expensive for smaller companies to invest speculatively. Of course, this would rely on providers not flogging dud research.

Yet to invoke the spirit of Feynman requires that little spark, that little wow factor. There are plenty of case studies out there at the moment which just make you sit up and take notice. One example is this from Brainjuicer's John Kearon:

Crumbs. I don't know where to start with that one. Maybe it deserves another piece in itself.

The other piece of research, and this is something that REALLY made me sit up and take notice, was an academic study by researchers from Indiana University, entitled Twitter mood predicts the stock market. I've read the paper in full and will write a piece shortly - until then, if your imagination is running riot and you can't bear to wait, have a look at Wired who have covered it.

These analogies are horrible, I know, but I'm reading a lot about MR developments at the moment so forgive me for making comparisons.

And so to religion. Dawkins and his crew have made a lot of noise in the last few years with dismissive sweeping statements (the same, of course, can be said about the religious right). Feynman (who, let me reiterate, was one of the greatest scientists of all time) doesn't mince his words.
I agree that science cannot disprove the existence of God. I absolutely agree...belief in God and action in science [are] consistent.
For someone so mild, cannot is a strong word. It's a bold claim, an absolute claim. (It's also something I happen to agree with, but who am I to comment on the great man's veracity). He describes the wonder of seeing the mysteries of the universe come alive as
an experience which is very rare, and exciting
A young scientist, Feynman continues, may find
the religion of his church" inadequate to describe that kind of experience. The God of his church isn't big enough. Perhaps.
And the walls of belief might start to crumble. But at the same time, he argues that people who are not religious, by and large, share the same values as religious people:
It seems to me that there is a kind of independence between the ethical and moral views, and the theory of the universe.
Feynman splits religious thought into three: metaphysics, ethics, and inspiration. On the metaphysical aspect, he argues that scientific beliefs are perhaps less strong than religious ones (the principles of dogma and infallibility spring to mind here). Meanwhile
the uncertainity that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith, which is usually associated with deep religious belief.
 This goes contrary to conventional wisdom, which says that it is science which provides absolute answers, and religion which leaves questions unanswered.

Feynman died in 1988 but the most obvious as yet unanswered question which still lingers regards the origin of the universe. As science and technology become ever more sophisticated, we know what happened closer and closer to the Big Bang. Minutes, seconds, tenths of seconds, millionths of seconds...we're not that far away from having a pretty good idea of what the universe looked like at one Planck time after the Big Bang (which I don't have time to explain...ho ho). But as for the Big Bang itself? All analyses seem lead to a singularity (infinity or impossibility if you will) - something which we cannot measure, cannot decipher, and it seems as likely as ever that it will be something that we can never understand. And what is so wrong with that?

Richard Feynman - what a hero.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

NewMR Festival - my "main stage" picks

Just a very quick post. Ray Poynter's Festival of NewMR takes place in early December, and in true co-creative style, prospective attendees help choose the programme. Dozens of submissions have been put forward, and I've had a very enjoyable hour perusing the synopses with less than an hour to go before voting closes.

As a non-practitioner, some of the more complex proposals didn't interest me, but in general there are stacks of papers that look fascinating. I only hope that the ones that don't get voted for do end up being presented in some format, either as a "fringe event" at the NewMR festival, or elsewhere.

As someone who is to an extent "looking in from the outside", papers with a strong practical element or ood case studies appealed to me, although some of the more abstract papers look great too. The format for voting for papers was great (and really made you think about the papers in turn). The only thing I would quibble is the wording: I must confess that in answering do you think this presentation is likely to be of value to the audience I acted purely selfishly - clicking "yes" only to those papers that were likely to be of value to me. 

I ended up with 24 papers on my shortlist, and picking three was nigh-on impossible. Some highlights for me included Brian Fine on research through computer games (Tom Ewing had something similar); Alison MacLeod on brand evangelists and the difficulties of filtering out respondents desperate to give their opinions; Jon Puleston on encouraging RESPONDENTS to think creatively; Nick Coates of Promise Communities on co-creation, and Tom De Ruyck of Insites on a similar theme; Betty Adamou on young researchers and how the game is changing; Fiona Blades with an overview of recent innovations; papers on sampling issues in social media research - firstly Sue York on the blurring of quant and qual borders as sampling "rules" are torn up, and Christine Walker more specifically on Twitter sampling implications; and plenty of good looking practical online papers from the likes of Robin Shuker, John Griffiths and Ray Poynter himself.

But I had to go for three and the ones I plumped for in the end were Brainjuicer's Paul Roberts with a practical study of emotions at point of transaction; Nigel Legg with a social media listening case study; and Marty Gage on multi-sensory stimuli. This last one has the potential to be really interesting - I reckon these holistic approaches will become all the rage in the next decade or two of we are to really get a sort of Steven Hawking-style "Theory of Everything" related to all the different heuristics and components of a consumer's decision-making process.

But whatever comes out on top, there are likely to be loads of goodies. I can't wait.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Twitter shines in Liverpool coverage

Extraordinary scenes in the last couple of days at Liverpool FC, with the club rapidly imploding as the disastrous owners use increasingly destructive tactics in an attempt to get a better return for their shoddy and unwanted investment. As chairman Martin Broughton and his sidekicks attempted to sell the club to John Henry and his New England Sports ventures, George Gillett and Tom Hicks slapped down an injunction in a Texas court preventing further activity, despite teh move having been approved at the High Court earlier the same day. Yesterday the (London) High Court threw that Texas judgement out, effectively forcing H&G to lift he injunction.

The injunction was lifted at about 4am Texas time, prompting a race between the board and Hicks to see who could sell first, as Hicks now wants to sell his stake to shady hedge fund Mill Financial, who already own Gillett's stake. Clearly there's an absolute deadline of 4pm to sort this whole mess out before RBS take the club into administration; aside from that, there are legal questions as to the validity of the transfer of funds and debt, from the point of view of the board, Premier League, English law, Texas law, and so on.

Hicks has become a wrecking ball, determined to destroy any sort of deal which would be in the positive interests of the club. To anyone who hadn't realised before, it has become abundantly clear that Hicks's interests are only his own, and have been since the start. He has behaved disgracefully throughout this whole process, and deserves nothing more than to take a heavy loss. If there was any question that he had any love or interest for the club whatsoever, those questions can be put to rest now.

Along with the Chilean miners' rescue - surely one of the most extraordinary human triumphs of all time - the Liverpool story has been the most incredible news story of the year. I have been gripped, mainly because the pace of change has been electric. From minute to minute the situation has changed; you might think that changing the ownership of a £100s-of-millions organisation would be a cumbersome business, but the lurches of power have been abrupt.

Perhaps it's a cliché to say this nowadays, but the LFC story has been a classic example of how social media is the best way to stay up to date with fast-paced news stories. The Guardian website has had excelletn coverage, much of it aggregating other journalists' views, but for the most timely updates, Twitter is the place to be. The #LFC hashtag has a lot of noise and commotion, but I found that the best way was to make a list of the top journalists involved with the case (Ben Smith of the Times; Rob Harris of AP; the Liverpool Echo; Oliver Kay of the Times; Dan Walker and Dan Roan of the BBC; Owen Gibson and Steve Busfield of the Guardian; and Paul Kelso of the Telegraph) along with a small handful of the most knowledgeable commentators with their ears to the ground. Basically they are mostly tweeting real-time updates of what is going on - and so you can see, at a glance, what is being said and done, and all the murmurs and rumours coming through. The TV and websites can't keep up; to see updates from a variety of sources, in real time, Twitter is the only place to be. It shows the network at its very best.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


A nice example of the stalker stalked: Big Brother aka Google Analytics threw up this yesterday. The answer is: yes I do, but I was tickled to bits, of course.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Weak ties and social media: Malcolm Gladwell is partly right

Philosophical discussions surrounding the reach and power of social media are all too often tedious and predictable, but the news that Malcolm Gladwell has written a piece in the New York Times which fiercely doubts the extent to which social media can effect large-scale social change, got me interested.

Basically Gladwell's point is that mass behaviour such as the civil rights movements in the 1960s, took place perfectly naturally without the need for social media. Furthermore, he points out, social media encourages a culture of "me too" in so far as clicking "Like" or "RT" is concerned, but our activism tends to be confined to words rather than deeds these days. In short, social media encourages lazy activism.

Social media evangelists, some of whom often cite Gladwell as their hero (hi Xavi), are up in arms, and apparently feel a bit betrayed. There have been numerous discussions on all sorts of blogs in the last few days since the article as published -  including an interesting riposte here. I'm in two minds, but tend to agree broadly with much of what Gladwell says where social change is concerned.

An example is Justgiving. A few years ago, if someone was climbing Kilimanjaro or running the marathon for charity, they'd call up their friends and relatives, go into their local newsagent, do a whip-around at work. These days, it's merely a quick page on Justgiving and that's it. Most requests for donations completely pass me by because they're two-a-penny, impersonal requests; if someone called me up and asked me to sponsor them, I'd do it! Then there are the "awareness" campaigns. While I'd agree with Leo Mirani that awareness campaigns are vitally important in many cases, and that social media has indeed revolutionised the way that causes and issues can explosively reach a mass audience, at the same time there are plenty of examples of limp, "passive activism" through social media.

An example was World Aids Day earlier this year, when any tweet with the hashtag #red changed colour. It took off in a big way - huge numbers used the hashtag. But there was rarely any context; I didn't actually realise the significance of the hashtag until the day was nearly finished, having seen dozens of tweets referring to it. Having fun with colour-changing tweets is all very well, and I'm sure the HIV-positive millions in south Africa would be touched, but commitment levels were clearly minimal.

Another social media example, this time on Facebook, was the viral spreading of Facebook status updates by women, who posted a colour (it turned out to be their bra colour) - apparently men weren't supposed to know what it meant. To that extent it worked: my at-the-time-all-male office were puzzled for days. (It transpired that it was something to do with breast cancer).

Just this week, a new breast cancer "update your Facebook status" campaign has appeared. If any of your female friends have posted something saucy ("I like it up on the kitchen table) in the last 48 hours, that'll be it. Harmless fun, but what good does it to cancer sufferers? I nearly fell into a fatal trap: I posted a cynical update to my own Facebook status, and was shutting down the machine...when the realisation of my own hypocrisy hit me.

The examples posed by Gladwell were concerned with activism, but to what extent does social media, more generally, have the power to change behaviour? Can social media affect our decision making processes, which in turn might affect commercial or other enterprises? The debate, I think, is far more wide-reaching than merely political campaigns. To what extent can the connections people forge via social media channels change their behaviour, compared to connections made by more "traditional" means? What are the political, social and commercial implications?

The crucial sentence in Gladwell's article simply states that "The platforms of social media are built on weak ties". Yes - but aren't those the ties with the most potential? Close family-and-friends bonds are immensely powerful, restrict yourself to your usual social circle and it's all too easy to find yourself associating with people from similar cultural and economic backgrounds, with similar outlooks on life. By throwing caution to the wind (the relative anonymity of social media can help throw off the shackles - a bit like alcohol for losing inhibitions!) and getting involved with a range of conversations, minds have the potential to be changed. I'll never have a bad word said against my closest friends, I love them all, mates for life and all the rest of it, but our conversations tend to be limited to rugby, women, poker, alcohol, and how much the rest of them are earning. My loose connections in social media allow me to have active discussions on all kinds of offbeat topics.

The internet has facilitated this since its early days. Whether it's an interest in obscure music or bizarre sexual practices, the internet has allowed people to come together and spread ideas; the fact that Facebook and Twitter have come along and made the process a bit more personal and one-to-one haven't "revolutionised" this, rather they are an organic extension of internet culture as it was in the early 2000s. And what of the ultimate in extreme views, the cult? It's far easier to join a cult now than it was in the 60s, and many people are doing more than just spreading words and ideas, but going ahead with actual deeds.

Just a little aside about weak social bonds. They can be misleading. I was at my ten-year school reunion over the weekend; catching up with people who have little in common except that we spent six years in the same building. The general impression beforehand was that the evening would be a cringeworthy affair where we put on plastic smiles, exchanged the usual pleasantries, tossed up a few memories, and left. That couldn't be further from the truth. Many of us came away open-mouthed about how much those long-distant memories meant to us all. Old school friends are classic examples of those sorts of casual Facebook relationships - but a reunion demonstrates just how those apparently flaky, throwaway "friendships" can be astonishingly powerful.

One of the great things about social media is that it's possible to converse on an equal footing with world experts in a particular area. People at the top of their game within a profession or interest area mingle with dabblers on a hashtag or discussion forum. It's something which Andrew Keen rallies against in his book Cult of the amateur (I haven't read it); apparently the thrust of his argument is that there's an obsession with sharing knowledge, even from people who are clueless, so we see a false sense of gravitas created by an individual based on participation levels, social skills, or other interactive means. This week Andrew Marr launched a tirade against bloggers for similar reasons. It's true that it's possible to exude a false sense of gravitas on forums and social networks based on participation levels or social skills. It's also true that many heads are not always better than one. But at the same time, crowdsourcing and wikis provide collaborative efforts unheard of before. (One of the most interesting articles on Wikipedia is actually about the reliability of Wikipedia). There's no longer a top-down approach to knowledge - a point also made by Ben Goldacre in his excellent Bad Science. Yet he "top" of "top-down" might not be experts but rather a media, government and commercial elite who form opinions almost by brute force. As Goldacre points out, when the small media elite get things wrong, there can be disastrous consequences, as with the MMR "scandal".

Lively discussions now occur in frameworks as diverse as Amazon reviews, Wikipedia talk pages, and comments sections on mainstream media publisher articles, notable on the Guardian and Daily Mail websites (not to mention Guido Fawkes's blog comments, although tread there with caution). Of all social media, I find forums the most fascinating. Unlike most social networks, forum users tend not to know each other when they join up initially, but bonds and cliques naturally form over time, while all sorts of interesting social undercurrents start to manifest themselves. Inspired by Tom Ewing's excellent Confessions of a Moderator, at some point I will write a little piece comparing forum dynamics of the ones I've known. For a rainy day, though.

In my own personal experience, social networking has allowed me to participate in discussions (often arguments) with people I've never met, sometimes halfway around the world. The flow of inbound information and content is far more varied (and just more abundant); no longer are we restricted to what we read in the Metro in the morning, and watch on the ten o'clock news. With minimal effort we can subject ourselves to some rather extreme views from all sides, evaluate them, spread our own ideas around.

Postscript: the bank called me the following morning, alarmed at an unusual payment on my card the previous night to Cancer Research that "didn't fit in with my normal spending habits". That's me told!

***Update*** I've just become aware of this piece in Wired which references a paper from 1973 about weak ties. I haven't actually read the Granovetter paper yet, but I'm hoping it'll be an academic viewpoint similar to my own amateurish daydreams!

Friday, 8 October 2010

Autumn theatre: Jack the Knife / Enlightenment / Barbican shows

Gatecrashing a party always feels a bit weird.

And so it felt last night when I went to the Drill Hall - a venue new to me. They have two spaces - it was in the cosier studio space downstairs that I went to see Jack Klaff perform Jack the Knife. Klaff himself was there, shaking hands and greeting the audience: it was the first night, and the entire audience comprised friends and acquaintances. In answer to "Hello, who are you?" I could only lamely retort "just paying audience..."

But the handshakes were deliberate, as Klaff later explained: they are a manipulative technique, sucking you into the performer's inner circle, making you part of his life. For this is a piece about performing itself: the tricks, the subtleties. It's also a personal retrospective of Klaff's career. The combination of not being familiar with his work, there being plenty of theatre industry in-jokes, and surrounded by his mates, all added up to the feeling of being at someone else's party.

None of which detracted from the quality of the show.

It is certainly a show designed for people who are regular theatre-goers - if you're a twice-a-year Blood Brothers-and-panto person, then I might gently point you elsewhere. But Klaff is a natural storyteller in the oldschool sense. The kind of bloke you can imagine holding centre ground in the pub. The show begins organically - you barely realise it's started - and we dart between childhood tales, to outrageous impressions of South African academic colleagues, explorations of philosophical concepts like choice, tongue-in-cheek digs at the theatre industry, Elgar, Paul Schofield, and anecdotes of his foul-mouthed mother. Fiftysomething Klaff had an old school friend in the audience, who tutted and hilariously put him right every time he used artistic license in embellishing old stories (this only added to the experience!)

When I was about eighteen I watched Woody Allen's Sweet & Lowdown and was intensely irritated to discover it was about a fictional character...but, over time, I appreciated the quality of the film. I also read a biography of Kerouac without having read any of his works! Despite being a personal retrospective, Jack the Knife will appeal even if you haven't come across Klaff before. I meant to see it in Edinburgh over the summer (it was at Assembly), definitely glad I was able to put things right. Highly recommended. Final night tonight.

There are plenty of promising things coming up, too. Hampstead Theatre have Enlightenment. The Hampstead have a new Artistic Director in Edward Hall and this is his first production in his new role. He has a good pedigree, having worked with Propellor, and anyone who's directed an episode of Spooks gets thumbs up from me! Enlightenment promises to be a psychological thriller about the lengths to which people will go to find the missing pieces of their lives. The trailer is here - the show looks promising and worth checking out. I've already spotted that local councillor Andrew Marshall has been and loved itUntil Saturday 30 October.

Talking of directorial movements, it's a great shame that Michael Grandage is stepping down from the Donmar Warehouse. Hopefully this will just mean he's off to do even greater things but he's been responsible for some spectacularly good productions over the last few years - notably Othello and Hamlet, although his Ivanov and Twelfth Night were also excellent (only Danton's Death was lame). Big blow for the Donmar, but I'm sure they'll bounce back.

Meanwhile there are all sorts of tasty treats at the Barbican. Black Watch, although it's exorbitantly expensive, is actually one of those rare things that justifies the hype. There's enough of that around already so I won't add to it, everything that needs to be said has already been, just get a ticket and go. It's astonishingly powerful. Lullaby sounds intriguing (Reuters report here), while the excellent Song of the Goat Theatre from Poland bring their own version of Macbeth. Finally, Complicite have Sun-Kin which also promises to be worth trying.