The Big Debate – Creative Workers Unite and Take Over

Here’s my post in relation to The Big Debate event in Birmingham (2nd Nov). I was supposed to write this over on the Birmingham Post blog but I didn’t get round to starting it until the weekend before and then I discovered I lost the log-in to the Post’s blog. Ah well, here goes anyway:

big debate imageThe defining characteristic of the New Labour approach to the Creative Industries (although it’s hard to say that the previous Tory administrations had much of an approach at all) was to place the business owner at the centre of the universe. In effect to do what the Tories would have done anyway, and will do again, that is, champion the small businessman or woman over the workers.

Now I’m not intending to spark a worker’s revolt here but every aspect of government consultation on the creative industries over the last ten years concerned itself with placing industry at its heart. And quite right I suppose given the value that was suddenly placed on this set of thirteen sub-sectors (it’s worth remembering that before 1998 the ‘creative industries’ as a grouping didn’t exist). But in doing so I wonder if we kind of lost the point. I wonder if we’ve forgotten to focus on what’s creative about the creative industries.

Of course the most creative bit is the workers. Without voice at the government’s consultation table and without a union to recognise them they’re the ones feeding the machine and keeping British creative ‘stuff’ ahead of the game. They’re the ones toiling late into the night to maintain the cutting edge that New Labour traded on for so long. They kept the cool in Cool Britannia and still do.

I’m not arguing that those workers have been totally anonymous or silent all these years but given the number of creative industry initiatives they’ve really not had a chance to be heard. Yet one of the interesting aspects of the rise in social media has been to suddenly give them a platform. Everyone from receptionists to studio managers are blogging or on twitter or facebook. Their chatter foregrounds and exposes the creative process in a fascinating way. It shows the intricate web of relations that exist between what you might think of as competing companies. It reveals the kind of creative banter that makes the industry tick, gives it its heart.

Of course it doesn’t reveal long hours and low pay, not with their bosses also keeping a close watch on proceedings. But maybe that’s exactly what it could do; to galvanise and to give voice to the crucial role workers play. At the very least it demonstrates what a tight knit group there is within and across sub-sectors of the creative industries – and ‘tight knit’ is exactly what you need if and when you find you need to fight your corner.

I’ve always thought that given it’s a made up grouping we need strong sub-sectoral trade bodies rather than a single creative industries one. But perhaps what we actually need is a period where we focus less on business owners and instead value the hard work and creativity of creative workers. And given the Tories might be back at the helm, maybe what the workers need most of all is a Union.

Making my job more difficult

In case you don’t know what I do for a living I’m a kind of champion for use of digital stuff by businesses in Birmingham. And the easiest, no-cost, digital stuff to get your head round is Social Media. I’m always hunting down examples. I love the fact that Herefordshire-based Wiggly Wigglers have bloggedpodcasted and Youtubed their way out of tough economic times. I love that they dumped their expensive bought-in customer lists and built a customer base around their facebook group and twitter followers. Those are loyal, repeating customers, helping each other get the best from this company’s products. No expensive helpline needed – they help each other.

I work in partnership in my job. Trying to slip my thinking into other people’s strategies. That £17m support package for businesses announced yesterday? In amongst those big fat projects to be delivered through Business Link and the Universities is some of my thinking – there’s a sprinkling of digital stuff. I sit on the sub-group of the Birmingham Economic Development Partnership that helped draft them. I can play an influencing role there, those people in the group know me as that guy who thinks social media is useful. None of them are great users of social media themselves but they aren’t dismissive, they understand there’s a change happening, a change that might be useful for all businesses to understand and take note of.

So it’s kind of crushing to see a representative of the partner who most connects to businesses castigate social media out of hand. John Lamb’s piece in the Post is atrocious. At the end of the piece it says: “John Lamb’s views are not necessarily those of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce.” As I say on my own About page, I use the same head for work as I do everywhere else. My personal views are wrapped up in my work views. If I’m expressing a disappointment here on my personal blog then that’s how I’ll be feeling next time I go to a meeting with Birmingham Chamber.

Actually, I know the Chamber is taking an active interest in new digital tools, which is great but having a key representative take such umbrage to their use just makes my job that much more difficult and that much more disheartening.


Birmingham Post column – sporting data

Sometimes the column I write for the Birmingham Post materialises online – other times it doesn’t. When it doesn’t (not sure why it doesn’t) I’ll reproduce here (although newspaper columns are such a different tone to posts on blogs).

This one was a version of the presentation I gave at wxwm2 the other week:

‘Mileage data to Inspire’
Published Monday 6th July (hey, that was my birthday!).

“Years that end in odd numbers usually make for dull sporting summers as the Olympics and the major footballing tournaments only occupy the even numbered years. However, as well as annual tournaments such as Wimbledon we do have a World Athletics Championship and The Ashes to look forward to this summer.

But given how concerned the government are with obesity levels it’ll take more than the sight of a group of blokes throwing balls at each other to persuade a nation of sport-loving couch potatoes to do something about their own health and wellbeing

All the data tells us we’re fat and we’re getting fatter. In fact not only are we fat but our kids are fat and even our pets are fat. Given the state of the economy the only thing that isn’t fat is our wallets. So what’s the approach taken to deal with this? It’s simple – an advertising campaign to remind us how fat we are that goes out of its way to blame computer games and television as the main culprits.

I’m not denying that the Change for Life campaign hasn’t persuaded some people to get off their backside but there’s so much already happening that we could celebrate rather than just play a familiar blame game. Take running for example. On any random weekend there are about 50 organised amateur races happening around the UK with about 50,000 – 100,000 runners taking part. In total that’s up to a million kilometres covered. And that doesn’t even include all the people just running by themselves for training or those running around Sunday league football pitches.

Many runners use GPS watches or other devices to track routes and record mileage. Now imagine all that mileage data gathered on a single map – a map that instead of sending a dour message about our laziness would celebrate ordinary citizens’ everyday sporting activity. What a powerful message that would be that might inspire others to join in.

We’ve got an Olympics coming up in 2012 and so far the only mass participation angle seems to be focused around the Cultural Olympiad. Nothing wrong with that but amateur sport is something that gets overlooked too often. It’s a shame as it’s got the mass participation thing down to a tee in a way the arts can only dream about.

So why not badge up Sunday morning football games as ‘inspired by 2012’. Have every jogger blog, tweet or map their runs as part of a national celebration of sporting engagement leading up to 2012. A digital campaign that visualises mass participation could inspire us all to get off our backsides.”

West Midlands Media Top 100

This was going to be quietly shuffled off to my delicious links but I thought it worth a few extra words.

The North West has a Top 100 people in the Media in the North West list. It comes out of a site that was new to me called How-do (sub-headed: News, opinion and resources for the North West media industry). In terms of keeping up with who’s who and what’s happening in the media in that part of the country How-do is actually a very useful site. Makes the place seem vibrant and busy and connected (which of course is probably how it is).

So I’m really just wondering what we’d get out of a Top 100 people in the Media in the West Midlands list. The media has seven entrants in the Birmingham Post’s Power 50 but maybe it’s time we deemed it mature enough to get a list of its own. 

Oh and before we begin; this is the meedja I’m talking about: TV, radio, the press and publishing, film and production, new media, PR and advertising. NOT the arts. They can sod off and do their own top 100. Any suggestions? Bob Warman at number 47 anyone? And no jokes about there not being a 100 to choose from.

(pic from flickr: andreaweckerie)

Social Media’s hidden legacy

This is a cross-post from my blog at the Birmingham Post

Two things trouble me about social media. The first is that everyone I read or connect to via Twitter or Facebook or whatever, seems to be having a much more exciting life than me. It’s a world of gallery openings, launches, great nights out or simply wonderful sunny, lazy days untroubled by personal dramas or upheavals.

Not that I’m jealous of course. Well actually of course it’s because I’m jealous. I even get invited to some of the same events that my friends and colleagues go to I just never seem to get round to going to them – either through a lack of willing babysitters or, more likely, a general acceptance that I’m a long way from being renaissance man. A beer and night in front of the telly are usually all the cultural activity I can muster after a day at work.

The key thing that troubles me though is what historians will make of the social media footprints we’re leaving behind us. Specifically, I wonder what social historians will make of Birmingham and its people when they come to look back on our early 21st century twittering. I suspect they’ll immediately smell a rat – what, they’ll ask, are these people hiding? Was life really a joyous social whirlwind? What kind of lives did Birmingham people live and why didn’t they use the new media tools available to tell us about it?

If you lay out this city’s social media network in front of you it would be a bit like those formal, rigid family portraits that adorn our walls as they did our grandparents’ walls. That is, they conceal more than they reveal. The great academic Stuart Hall, himself linked to Birmingham through his time at Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1960s and 70s, pointed out how immigrant communities of the 1950s were represented by stiff family portraits, dressed in their Sunday best. What they concealed were lives plagued by prejudice, persecution and social injustice.

Of course Hall was talking about a medium that was already mature. Its rhetorical devices, particularly in portraiture, were already well established. If you popped into your local high street photographer back then the only input you had into the image-making process was what background you would be sat in front of. Social media on the other hand allows for endless choices of expression. Okay so with Twitter you’ve got a maximum of 140 characters but there’s nothing to stop you twittering all day if you want to.

Although social media platforms are in their earliest phases the historian’s gaze will inevitably turn to them as a source of evidence to tell stories about us, probably sooner than it did with photography. It took until the 1970s for academics to see value in personal photography as an area of study and immediately they realised the interesting stuff was behind the image rather that in it.

Plenty of people tell me Birmingham seems to have been quick on the uptake with Social Media. Both in terms of using and testing new services and in terms of having a small group of entrepreneurs who are trying to develop new social media applications from which there is business to be made.

But if we are at the forefront then we need to listen to ourselves now and again. At best we demonstrate the vibrancy of living in an exciting city with lots to offer but at worst it descends into a curious uncritical mush and represents our city as one with its head in the sand – too excitable to see the wheat from the chaf or tell the good times from the bad.

It’s time to think about what’s not being said. Not so much ‘Digital – More Power or Powerless’ but ‘Useful or Useless’.