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Saturday, 23 October 2010

Sleeping with the enemy: Hubbing

Right: Writer's Hub. Analysis. Let's do it. Open it up in a new tab so you can all read along at home.

On first glance, this is impressive stuff. My first written response, subsequently redacted was:
Seriously. Seriously. These people know their shit.

They do. But only obstensively. We'll discuss:

Already the language is promising: 'interactive web portal' - no kowtow to the print tradition here, a pox on your 'journals' and 'magazines.'

And look, lookie-look - social integration up the ying-yang. Already I am being compelled to register (which I can do manually or by direct intergration with my Facebook account) and the site is shot through with meta data - if I want it thus, I can have my cyber presence splashed all over the site. I set my profile. I attempt to set a picture - I have selected a recent one in which I look both surprised and thin:

However, the chance to smear the site with my own personal stats, online personas etc. is powered by ShareThis who beg, entreat and colourfully encourage me to share any given post on Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, Myspace, Digg, AIM Share, Stumbleupon or MSN Messenger.

However, the extent to which my interaction is countenanced is hardly groundbreaking. I can 'Like' posts in the Facebook mode and see what my friends have liked, presupposing a community based around the site, a community which clearly doesn't yet exist. If I'm reading my stats right, I'm only the 530th member. The site's forum. (Forum! Adorable Web 1.0 alert!) is a dead mackeral - why would users bother to go to an entirely different page to comment on work and blogs? Answer is - they don't and they haven't - especially not when there's a commenting feature built into each post already. The blog posts aren't that groundbreaking, a couple of comments on each, if that and a few extra 'likes' for good measure.

So, although the functionality's there, there's no real discussion going on, which is kind of at odds with their Read Write React remit. Their Twitter feed exhibits much the same problem. When will people learn that Twitter isn't a glorified events board?

Look and/or Feel

Their branding is strong, using a mix of typographies to create the vague sense of old fashioned newsprint with the brazen gimmickry of classic American advertising of the 1950s/60s.

Included too, is my old friend Dymo, (although not actually, it's a facsimile, throughly faux-mo*) to suggest a hand-made aesthetic, the work of people, who are no stranger to the hard-graft of writing. This is the link to a blog (multiple blogs, my friends!) on the construction of their print-based anthology Mechanics Institute Review. These blogs are disappointing and read more like academic assignments reposted for an online audience (like....oh....this blog for example) than an attempt at conversation.

MIR. meh.

Talking of blogs, the dedicated blogging section appears to be curated, with the majority of writers from Birbeck itself, plus a number of 'special guest stars' published authors drafted in to write 300 or so words on whatever they fancy. No images, audio or video and no linkage - these are a straight-up articles and aside from the ubiquitous comment box at the bottom, there's no way to directly contact the author. Oh, Writers' Hub, why won't you let me Read Write & React? Your parameters look so wide but this feels increasingly like a copy of Mslexia flung at a screen. There's no room for debate, no regular bloggers and so no sense of a continued dialogue.

Startingly, annoyingly, it's hellish to read the fiction pieces on a screen. Looks like 8pt Times New Roman to me and it's so difficult on the eye my contact lenses have swum round towards my retinas in protest. Also, their page separation links are so titchy, it takes a little while to work out there's more than one page of work, so much so that I began to think I was reading post after post of unsatisfying flash fiction rather than full short stories. Again, content wise, it's pure page-to-screen, some of it straight reprints from the print anthology, with no exploitation of the electronic medium.

I find this almost physically upsetting.

Still, at least there's an attempt at multimedia in WRITloud and the Audio section in which authors reading from their work is embedded (for the most part) within the blog. One of the audio extracts, a lecture by Colin Teavan, is described as a podcast.


One of the key aspects of a podcast is its portability and with the exception of one piece, the audio is embedded with some shonky dropped in flash media player and if you wanted to rip it onto your smartphone or even download it to your desktop, unless you're willing to fiddle around like an idiot, there are no dice to be had within this enterprise. The audio quality varies enormously and in the case of the Teavan lecture, there was clearly no post production clean-up process, leading to a hissy, dictaphoney experience that upsets everybody. And by everyone, I mean me. I always mean me.

The one exception to this rule is George Lewkowicz's Illumination which is still very poorly presented by Writers' Hub, with a link out to an external mp3 (which means joy! I can download it - although the most luddite of users wouldn't know it) but. But! It's a densely layered, nicely produced audio piece that situates itself in online/gaming culture. It degenerates into a straight story (in every sense) but the beginning is layered, confusing and inspiring. Verily, it is huff-duffed. Clearly, Lewkowicz's collective Tea Based Art will need further investigation.

Monetisation then. There's actually quite a nice model here in that Birbeck have clearly partnered with Foyles and any blog by a published author and/or published work mentioned, features a nice pictorial link in the site's left sidebar direct to the product page on the Foyles website. I imagine Birbeck gets a teeny tiny cut of whatever's purchased through the website. Having a little book trade experience, I can guess(guarantee) that this won't bring in much. They probably couldn't pay for the cup of tea I'm drinking right now. Foyles also have a number of super classy sidebar ads that masquerade rather effectively as literary Fun Facts:

You'll notice and welcome DH Lawrence cunt=cashcow paradigm. Super classic. You'll notice too the link (broken, by the by) to LCACE (London Centre For Art & Cultural Exchange) below the ad and I imagine this is where a good portion of the site's income has come from.

Right, I'm spent. This is a lovely looking site. Its functionality means well but is largely for the birds. It looks like its been constructed by people who are cognisant of Web 2.0 but fall short of its useful application. Social media don't brook no lip service and it shows in the lack of dialogue on the site. comments on this post. I am okay with that. Frankly, I fear you.

* With puns like this, I could be the next, fat Candace Bushnell