Jobs I love: blog writing

I’ve got a few interesting clients at the moment and the work I do for each of them is very different. Currently I am writer, editor, proofreader, designer, branding consultant, content migrator, content strategist and user experience consultant for a variety of people and organisations.

So I thought this might be a useful point at which to take a snapshot. (Meaning that, hopefully, this post will be the first in a series!)

This post, then, is about the work I do for my main client: blog post writing*.

Gateway Family Services is a social enterprise whose work includes pregnancy outreach, health and wellbeing consultations and employment training. They’re the organisation I’ve been the most involved with for the longest period since I went freelance. You’re not supposed to have favourite clients, I know, but [stage whisper] they’re my favourite

I work with managers and staff at Gateway to write regular blog posts about their work, particularly around vulnerable people and clients whose stories wouldn’t otherwise be heard. We use audio and video to show how Gateway’s interventions and support directly affect people’s lives. We use clear, simple language and write in a way that we hope is as relevant, interesting and accessible to Gateway’s clients as it is to those in the city council and the health service. Links to the blog are circulated via Twitter and Facebook but they’re also sent directly to service commissioners and other influencers in a weekly “Friday story” email.

I call this sort of writing “ghostwriting”, because the name that appears on the blog post isn’t Emma Wright; it’s the name of whoever I work with to write the story. It’s something that we used to do on 4Homes all the time, with articles and guides written on behalf of presenters, but at Gateway I have a much closer relationship with the credited author.

I don’t know what you think when you hear the term “ghostwriting”. It’s possible that you assume it’s a bit of a cheat – perhaps even unethical – but that really isn’t the case with Gateway. The fact that the credited author “has a bit of help” is no secret and the blog posts we write are truly collaborative.

Every week I visit the Gateway offices and immerse myself in their culture for a few hours. I sit with pregnancy outreach workers and hear what they’ve been up to. I chat with health trainers about the latest fad diets. I dig through anonymous reports from clients to see if there’s anyone it might be interesting to hear more from.

Usually, though, Gateway’s managers come to me directly with story ideas. Sometimes the story is written already and just needs a tidy. Often, though, there’s just an acorn of an idea – a client whose story they think needs to be shared, something in the news they’d like to comment on, or a new aspect of their work that they’d like to publicise. It’s my job to round out the ideas and give the story a focus, or an angle, as well as making sure there are common themes and a bit of a strategy behind the timing and frequency of the topics covered.

Just a few weeks ago Gateway’s CEO Vicki Fitzgerald came to me after she found out that there was a proposal to decommission the Pregnancy Outreach Workers Service (POWS). She wanted to use the blog to educate people about the benefits of the service, so we wrote a story that emphasised the financial savings the service was making for the city. We called it POWs save Birmingham money.

The following week, after taking into account the conversations that Vicki was having with Councillors, commissioners and other service providers, I suggested that we should go in harder and directly question the decommissioning process itself. That week we published Budget Consultation: is it asking the right questions?

A week later, the proposal to decommission the service was withdrawn.

I really enjoy writing blog posts in this collaborative way and it seems to really benefit the organisation, too. For staff and managers who might have found the idea of blogging a bit scary, it allows them to be creative without having to worry about “the techie stuff” (or their spelling!) The repetition of key themes not only hammers the message home but is good for SEO. Involving staff at all levels with a single blog post is an engaging internal communications tool.

Everyone’s a winner.

*Yes, I’m aware of the irony, given the little I write on my own blog.

Postscript: Despite my best efforts, writing this blog post has given me an earworm. And an earworm shared is an earworm halved, or something, so…

Empathy as a career strength

As part of my journey into freelancing, I recently took the Clifton StrengthsFinder test.

I was simultaneously surprised and not-at-all-surprised to find that my main “strength” – according to Clifton – is empathy.

What is empathy?

From the book:

People who are especially talented in the Empathy theme can sense the feelings of other people by imagining themselves in others’ lives or others’ situations.

To empathise is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Not just understanding their view, but understanding how it feels for them to have that view.

Understanding someone in this way means you can use the knowledge to inform how you interact with them, because you can intuitively predict their reactions and behaviour.

It’s important to note that empathy is not the same as sympathy. You can deeply understand how someone feels (and might therefore act) without having to agree with, or feel the same as them. Someone who sympathises too much can end up taking on the world’s woes, or even excusing bad behaviour.

And, at the other end of the scale, a person with psychopathic tendencies can read others’ emotions very well but remain emotionally unmoved. This way, they can use their “understanding” to manipulate and control. Of course, this is not empathy either.

Empathy as a strength

I already knew that I tend to empathise with people, but I was surprised to see it as a strength in this context. I hadn’t really thought about the ways in which being empathic* might help my career.

In fact, “empathy” is becoming more and more sought after as a career strength. A LinkedIn article by George A even suggests it will be The Number One Job Skill in 2020.

The truth is: businesses need empathy. We hate “faceless corporations” (indeed, upon learning I was writing this blog post, a friend commented, “isn’t corporate empathy an oxymoron?”) So over the last couple of decades, marketing – especially online marketing, with the advent of social media – has been growing more and more “human”. Companies are forming quite personal relationships with their customers. Products “speak” to their consumers directly (I’m thinking not just about Facebook pages, but of the smoothies with “stop looking at my bottom” printed on the underside of the cartons). Our favourite organisations on Twitter are those who appear the most authentic.

When we interact with a business these days, we want to have as genuine and human a conversation as possible. So it’s easy to see how empathy is actually a very important trait for a copywriter or content editor to have.

How I use empathy at work

Firstly, I listen. I might come across as “quiet” initially, but I always prefer to take in as much information as possible before venturing any opinions. And I’m big on body language; I believe that you don’t always have to speak in order to communicate. Non-verbal cues are as important as what people are telling me.

It’s not something I do consciously but, by listening and observing carefully – and often trusting my instincts – I am able to understand, and so reflect, a client’s needs.

Instinctively comprehending others’ thoughts and feelings, often “reading between the lines” a bit, means I can see how situations may evolve. I can manage expectations more easily with this information, which makes for smoother client relationships.

As a copywriter, empathising with the reader means I tend to know instinctively what sort of language will resonate with an intended audience. Knowing all the ways in which a piece of writing could be interpreted is pretty important.

It also means that I get a feel for the sort of language that an organisation or brand should be using, and can build that into the creation of “tone of voice” guidelines that reflect the company’s ethos.

And as a content editor, I find that I have an instinct for web usability: the ways in which people get around websites and behave online. Predicting behaviour based on an empathic understanding of the user – and thus being able to anticipate how people will react to certain cues and types of signposting – is really useful.

In fact, the things that involve empathy are the things I like most about the sort of work I do. It’s why I love writing instructions and user guides; I loved creating the “How To” guides on the 4Homes website, and writing what has turned out to be the most popular blog post on this website: How To Clean Your Washing Machine. Rewording error messages on the National Express booking website, and seeing ticket sales go up as a result, was one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve ever done! Having the ability to “get” people is incredibly pleasing.

There are negatives to being empathic, of course. I don’t hide my feelings very well. (And I have a lot of feelings.)

I find it hard to start something without understanding everything about it. So I research everything – not just the subject areas involved in a project, but the people. I sometimes spend a bit too long worrying about how to approach someone or something instead of just being forthright and taking control of a situation myself. I often have to tell myself to JFDI.

And – of course – I’m sure I don’t always get it spot on. I’m not a mind reader, after all (although I have been accused of that in the past).

Luckily, though, the second most popular theme to arise from my assessment is adaptability: the ability to respond quickly to change and put things right.


*Empathic or empathetic? My New Oxford English dictionary tells me that both are acceptable; I prefer the former.

editorialgirl vs Editorial Girl

The time has finally come. Someone else has set up a company called Editorial Girl – providing copywriting and editing services, albeit from a base in the US – with the corresponding .com website address.

Obviously I feel a bit strange about this – but the fact it’s happened is not very surprising. The .com domain had been available when I first started using the name editorialgirl but, at that time, I didn’t identify with it as strongly as I do now. Had I known six years ago that I would one day answer to the name ‘editorialgirl’ in public (yes, sometimes people recognise me from Twitter or Flickr but don’t know my real name), then perhaps I would have registered it then.

I have already written about how and why I came up with the name editorialgirl to use online. What I wrote then still stands:

These days, I identify with the name editorialgirl (all one word, please, and all lower case) as much as my given name. I might even prefer it a little, since it’s virtually unique. I feel complete ownership over it. It’s my name on Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and b3ta (to name a few*) and if ever I find someone else using it – and there have been a couple – I feel absolutely indignant. I love editorialgirl.

So, we’ve established I have an emotional connection to the name, but does it really matter?

Objectively, I suppose the answer is “probably not”. Despite the fact that it refers to my work as an editor and writer, I don’t use the name editorialgirl (or Editorial Girl, or any combination of the above) as an official business name – so I can’t really begrudge someone else taking it up.

Or can I? When does an online name become a “personal brand”? Should I even think of it in those terms? Do I have any right at all to feel as though editorialgirl is my intellectual property?

I feel… discombobulated.

Partly, of course, I’m a bit embarrassed that I didn’t register the .com domain years ago. Then there’s a little bit of … well, I don’t know what the word is, but it involves not appreciating what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, or wanting the best of both worlds… or kicking yourself for resting on your laurels, or… something. I had the choice of using editorialgirl as my company name when I registered with the HMRC as a sole trader / freelancer… but I didn’t. I chose to just stick with my ‘real’ name – now Emma Wright. I saw the name editorialgirl as a bit too frivolous. But now I’m thinking… well, you know; “Google” is hardly a sensible, serious, businessy word.

Now I’m trying to think about it professionally. Although I don’t use the name for work, I do find it odd that someone planning a start-up would just go ahead and use a name that is already taken on pretty much every social media tool. Even if you weren’t planning to ply your trade online, you’d surely check Facebook and Twitter, just to make sure your search rankings weren’t going to be too diluted… wouldn’t you? Just in case you wanted to branch out and do some web PR at some point in the future? I wonder if the woman behind Editorial Girl googled it and decided that it would be fine, as none of the results pointed to a company name?

Perhaps Editorial Girl (US) already has a large offline following. After all, I doubt that not having the Twitter name will matter to them when the .com name starts to come first for every Google search – as it inevitably will if the business takes off. And they already have a Facebook page, with fans, even if they don’t have the “” URL. [EDIT: They do now! See update, below]

Completely co-incidentally, someone retweeted this blog post from ‘Shoeperwoman’ just after I found out about the Editorial Girl website. Although it’s not a retail site, Amber makes money from “Shoeperwoman” – she refers to the blog as her livelihood – but had never trademarked the name. Now someone else has applied to use “Shoeper-woman” as a trademark for their retail blog.  I bristled as I read her post. How dare they? I’ll be very interested to find out how that goes. It seems absurd that years of use and a large blog following may not protect a name.

As for Editorial Girl and editorialgirl – well, I guess I’ll just have to see how this goes, too. Perhaps it’s the start of a silly battle, where our weapons are SEO and useful blog content (er… dammit. They’ll win). Or perhaps we’ll live peacefully – side by side online and on opposite sides of the Atlantic in real life – for the foreseeable future.

And perhaps this is the kick up the arse I needed to finally get serious about my freelancing work. Well, you never know. Keep your eyes peeled for a page about my editing and copywriting work appearing here on this blog over the next few weeks…!

* I had a bit of fun this afternoon trying to remember every site on which I use the name editorialgirl – and when I signed up to each one. If I was using editorialgirl as a business name, would I have a case? (June 2005) (July 2005) (January 2007) (October 2007)!/editorialgirl (April 2008) (July 2008) (June 2009, when username URLs became available) [EDIT: Not any more. See update, below]
skype name “editorialgirl” (April 2011) (April 2011)

(Well, OK. I have to admit that I only signed up to those last two after talking to someone about online profiles last week and realising they were still available. Petty, moi?)
Oh and on YouTube I’m editorialgirlUK – editorialgirl is taken by someone else (but not, surprisingly, by the ‘new’ Editorial Girl).

UPDATE 26.09.2011Just got back from a week’s holiday to find that I couldn’t log into Facebook. Why? Because my username – editorialgirl – “violated username policy”. Huh? After changing it to “emma.editorialgirl” I was able to log in again and find out more: apparently one of the ways a violation might occur is when a username conflicts with a (Facebook) page of the same name. So, despite the fact that I’d been using editorialgirl on Facebook before ‘pages’, or this new company, even existed – they get the username, just like that. Thanks a bunch!

Questions, questions…

I’ve been answering questions on this week, as I’ve found it a good way to “just keep writing” (which would be a new year’s resolution, if I did that kind of thing).

The questions I’ve been asked so far have been quite thought-provoking. I’ve found myself writing a lot more little memoirs, on and off the site, which is the sort of writing I like to do.

But one question took me a while to answer: Of friends you’ve lost who do you miss the most? Am I alone in thinking this question was a bit… I don’t know, sinister?

Anyway. If you’d like to ask me a question – although if you ask me something as thinky as this I can’t necessarily guarantee an answer! – please go ahead.

A bit of a moan about Twitter’s new “retweet” function

I’m not happy about the new Twitter retweeting system. I’m blogging about it now in the hope that in a couple of weeks I’ll look back and think “what was I moaning about?” It takes time to get used to anything new, so I’m hoping that’s what will happen here.

Up until now, Twitter has watched and understood its user activity, then implemented new features based on that user activity. For example, the evolution of @ replies. Twitter noticed that people were interacting by putting an @ symbol before a username, and built on it to create the replies feature that we know today. However, the new way of retweeting doesn’t actually replicate or build on what users had been doing.

How it used to work

Retweeting had evolved to work like this: you copied and pasted the tweet, including the originator’s username, into your update box. Then you added RT at the beginning (eg “RT @username1: Have a look at this funny thing!”).

It had its flaws, of course. Often, including the RT and the originator’s username would take the character limit beyond 140 and you’d have to edit the original tweet down (sometimes this was done badly). Then there was the problem of retweeting something someone’s already retweeted. Do you include both usernames (eg “RT @username2 RT username1: Have a look at this funny thing!”) or just the originator’s username? Or just the most recent retweeter’s name? Or scrap all of that and reword it, adding a “via” at the end?

But, despite its flaws, lots of clients (including Dabr, the client I use on my phone) and add-ons (including the greasemonkey script I use on the web) include a retweet feature that works in this way. It puts the whole tweet, including “RT @username” at the beginning, into your update box – you then edit it where necessary, and update. And these client ways of retweeting work well, in my opinion.

How it works now

But the new “retweet” doesn’t work like that. Now you press “retweet” and it posts the original tweet, wholesale, into your followers streams. It has the originator’s name at the beginning with a small symbol to show that it’s a retweet, and it shows your name underneath, in small letters: “retweeted by @username”.

I don’t like it! I know they had a big job on their hands trying to come up with something that took into account the flaws with the old system, but I don’t believe it works. Here’s why:

  • No ability to add context. This is my biggest gripe. Under the new system, you can’t add anything to the message you’re retweeting. What if I wanted to retweet an opinion that I found, say, distasteful – but also wanted to point out that I didn’t agree with it? What if I’m retweeting something as part of a bigger conversation I’m having with a group of users, and wanted to add a message about how it might be useful to that conversation? On Friday, one person I follow wrote “any scriptwriters on here?” I wanted to retweet her message, but to direct it to a couple of people I know who are scriptwriters, by adding their @usernames in brackets at the end. Instead, I had to just retweet the message and hope that my scriptwriter buddies might spot my retweet in their stream, instead of having the insurance of it appearing in their @replies. Not having the ability to add to a retweet is going to have to change the way I tweet, which is a shame.
  • No way to judge context. When my eyes scan the stream and see a (new style) retweet, I find I need to know who is retweeting it before I can fully understand the message. I’m thinking “who wants to show me this?” I find I need to see my friend’s name first – that’s what tells me why I’m seeing it. “This is going to be funny”, “this is going to be serious”, “this one is interesting to photographers”, “this one is political”. I find myself looking for the “retweeted by…” first, before I read the tweet.

    Perhaps it’s something I’ll get used to, but this lack of context means I’m finding it more difficult to scan my stream. It’s like following someone new, but all the time! When I follow someone new, it always takes time to get used to seeing their name in my stream. For a while I am thrown and, on seeing their tweets, have to give myself a moment to remember who the person is and how come I’m following them. Now I find I’m having to do the same for retweets. It’s an extra “think-layer” that I wasn’t expecting to have to go through.

  • No quick way to see how many of your friends retweeted something. When it says “retweeted by [your friend] and 4 others”, why can’t I click to see who those others are? Using the “old method” I could gauge a tweet’s popularity within my social circle. I would see the same message three or four times in my stream – which, yes, could be seen as a flaw, but also served as a popularity-meter for the tweet. Now I get it once (which makes sense) but I don’t immediately get to see how many other friends wanted me to see it (which removes a level of context). Yes, I can go to the “retweeted by others” link to find this out, but again, it’s an extra click and an extra “think-layer”.
  • Your retweets don’t appear in your own stream. It’s as if they’re not real tweets. Using the old method, you are effectively saying “I want my followers to see this message” and your followers are treating the message in the same way that they treat other messages from you. Now the message bypasses you and just appears in your followers’ stream. Yes, it means that tweets can’t get mis-attributed, but now your followers not only have to judge the context for themselve, but they can’t reply to your retweets. I guess this is a combination of the first two problems in that I can’t use someone else’s tweet to begin a conversation or make a point.
  • Tweets of yours that have been retweeted don’t appear in your @replies. Looking at your @replies is a quick way of seeing what sort of feedback you’re getting, both via people replying to your tweets, and people passing on your tweets – but now, the two forms of feedback are separated by two or three clicks. To see who’s retweeting you, you have to go to “retweets”, then click on “your tweets, retweeted”. Not intuitive and not part of your overall Twitter conversation.

I guess I could sum up my discomfort thus: I feel that, rather than build retweets into the loop (as users did, then Twitter clients built upon), Twitter has taken them out of the loop. Now, you’re simply pushing other people’s content to your followers. Twitter is a conversation – but retweets aren’t part of that conversation any more.

Stephen Fry vs BrumPlum (or: Celebrity + Mob Mentality = News)

Last night saw yet another debate on Twitter that the news outlets, unbelievably, deemed worthy of report. For example, these two articles from BBC News:
18:10 GMT, Saturday, 31 October 2009: Fry ponders leaving Twitter site
09:55 GMT, Sunday, 1 November 2009: Fry ends row with Twitter critic

The tweet from @brumplum that started it all In summary, the “news” is that Twitter user @brumplum said that he sometimes finds Stephen Fry’s tweets “a bit… boring (sorry Stephen)” and Stephen, who admitted he was feeling “low and depressed”, decided that now might be a good time to take a break from Twitter.

Big wows.

Having been an admin for various internet groups (not always successfully, I might add), I can tell you that this sort of thing happens all the time in online communities, especially once the community has started to “bed down”. It certainly did on our old Yahoo group, Moseley Free, where a deliberate lack of moderation meant that every disagreement and misconception caused days of jaw-grinding discussion. What happened on Twitter last night has been happening for years.

The difficulties of online conversation are well known: it’s easy to make a comment in haste and then to have to repent in leisure, as it stays on the web, cached for eternity. It’s also easy to misinterpret a comment when there’s no body language, facial expression or tone of voice to accompany it. So it’s no surprise that misunderstandings and bickering are starting to happen on Twitter, especially now that its honeymoon period (perhaps even the “enthusiasm”, “evangelism” and “growth” phases in the classic life cycle of mailing lists) is over.

The difference with Twitter, of course, is that most of the “evangelists” of this community are well known names. That’s why it’s got so big, so fast. And its unprecedented size is why the sort of comments that would have caused days of debate and side-taking on our little Yahoo group five or ten years ago causes mass hysteria in a much shorter space of time on Twitter now. Within an hour, Stephen Fry’s fans were not only tweeting to ask him to stay, but sending some really quite vicious comments BrumPlum’s way.

This heady mix of celebrity and mob mentality is why, to the journalists from every single news outlet that I’ve looked at this morning – including the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Mail, Sky News and BBC News – Twitter must seem like a godsend. When someone like @stephenfry takes issue with a posting from someone, this gives an insight into a celebrity’s personality that is at least as newsworthy as, say, what Cheryl wore on X Factor this week. It also gives rise to a large number of people taking sides and giving their point of view. It may not have mattered if it had happened anywhere else on the web, but on here, the biggest online community anyone’s ever known, it’s news.

A cynical question, though: are these reporters and news agencies really just lazy, or do the pound signs light up in their eyes when they see anything remotely controversial happen on Twitter? After all, commercial websites – including online news – are all about the hits. The more traffic, the more their advertising space is worth. Even if that goes slightly wrong (cf the Jan Moir incident, where advertisers asked to be pulled from a Daily Mail feature), the numbers are still way up and the stats look great on the books. The “Fry ends row with Twitter critic” feature has been on BBC News’ “most read” list all day today. News outlets are getting more hits than ever, simply by running features about Twitter, knowing that people love to read about themselves. Is that a deliberate ploy?

@alandavies1's twitterstream, until earlier today Finally, the biggest surprise to me during last night’s debate was Alan Davies‘ contribution (left, now deleted from his stream). Within about half an hour, he’d replied to every user he could find who’d dared suggest that Stephen Fry might have been over-reacting, calling them tossers, pricks, prats, halfwits, morons, dickheads and idiots. I’m all for free speech (and I’m aware that he might have been may have been rather “tired and emotional” after celebrating the Arsenal win earlier), but, especially given that the last time he was in the news was for biting a tramp, I think his agent might want to have a word.

Explaining Twitpanto

It was Christmas day with the family and I was telling my mum what I’ve been up to over the last couple of months. After covering “the cat”, “work” and “having two colds”, I was struggling. Then I remembered. Of course! The most exciting event to happen for months – and it had only happened a couple of days before Christmas. How could I forget?

“I was in a pantomime!”

As the words left my mouth, I realised it was a mistake. Don’t get me wrong; I was in a pantomime, but not one it would ever be easy to explain to my officially pensionable mother.

TwitpantoThe fact is, I played Dandini in the first ever Twitpanto. The brainchild of Jon Bounds (whose brain, to be fair, has a lot of children), the Twitpanto took place on – where else? – Twitter, with a cast that included MP Tom Watson and Guardian writer Jemima Kiss, as well as the usual Brum Twitter suspects. See the full cast list here. (I told you it was exciting, didn’t I? Dandini is Prince Charming’s right hand man, no less!)

So how did it work? First you need to understand what Twitter is and how it works, which is where the idea of telling my mum all about it fell down somewhat. I’ll take it as read you at least understand the principles, because Twitter is notoriously difficult to explain, even to those who have “given it a go”.

Cast members were given an outline of our character (our “motivation”, if you will) and a script to follow – and we all followed a private Twitter account set up by Jon, where he could act as director and prompt without being seen by the audience. “As far as I know it’s the first time someone has attempted live drama on the microblogging service” said Jon on his blog “…and it might fail spectacularly (it’s very much an experiment).”

Those who wanted to watch the pantomime could follow Twitpanto in a number of ways, with varying degrees of success. You could just follow all the cast and then try and pick out the panto from amongst your Twitterstream, for example, or you could use Twitter’s search facility to look for #Twitpanto and keep refreshing.

Another tool, roomatic, did the job a lot better, allowing us to follow everything tagged with #twitpanto in real time and in reading order. But because of the sheer number of people using the tag, it was still very difficult to separate the cast – saying lines from the panto – from the huge amount of audience chatter and participation. This was solved when Matthew Somerville (Dracos) hacked the roomatic script and created a version with all the cast members highlighted in blue. It made it loads easier for everyone and you can read a final transcript on Matthew’s site.

As I sat watching the pandemonium unfold (or rather, scroll) on my screen, waiting for my cues amongst the rowdy #twitpanto stream, and trying to cut and paste my lines in time to keep the flow going, I did experience a strange, mild form of stage fright. Given that roomatic crashed a couple of times and I had to resort to following the panto by refreshing the #twitpanto search page, I found it nigh on impossible to improvise. It didn’t help that several of my colleagues were also following, watching my fingers hover over the ctrl+V keys and saying “are you on soon?”

So, did it “fail spectacularly”, as Jon feared it might? Of course not. Like every good pantomime should be, it was silly, chaotic, funny, rowdy and … well, tiring. It involved lots of audience participation – oh, yes it did! – and even made page 11 of the Birmingham Post (nothing to do with the Editor playing the part of Cinderella’s coachman, of course).

Being the last day at work, it was a great way to get into the Christmas spirit and, ludicrous though it sounds, I felt like I’d really been part of something big. I may not have been able to explain it to my mum (in fact I resorted to mumbling “it was on the internet” which turned out to be enough) but she gave me a hug and said “wow, well done!” anyway. And surely that’s what Christmas is all about.

Why I love Flickr: A Detective Story

Back in May, a woman named Rhonda was travelling on the West Coast of Scotland when she found a camera. Like any good citizen, she handed it into the police.

Three months on, the camera hadn’t been claimed and Rhonda got it back. It was a nice camera – an Olympus digital point and shoot, worth about £200.

Story over? Finders keepers? Well, no.

There were loads of photos on the camera’s memory card. Taken over the second half of last year, the photos included a wedding and lots of touristy pictures of a young couple in various locations around Europe.

Rhonda worried that she’d found someone’s honeymoon snaps.

…Which is where Flickr came in. Rhonda posted a note in the Flickr help forum. The Flickr community jumped on the idea. Yes, it was okay to share the photos in the name of investigation, so she posted the whole lot onto her photostream – and amateur detectives all over the world started to get to work.

The main focus of sleuthing was a house which looked like the couple’s base for part of their trip. Was it a holiday home? Their own home, even?

Someone from the help forum spotted a car number plate with a Birmingham prefix outside the house, so Rhonda joined the Birmingham Flickr group and started a new discussion topic. “Does anyone recognise the road, she asked, “or even the people?”

A breakthrough. A man on the Birmingham group, known as Capo2, recognised the house as being typical of the area where he’d spent the first few years of his life. Not Birmingham, though. Aberdeen.

So Capo2 posted a new topic on Flickr’s Aberdeen group, with a link to the photos, asking for confirmation of his hunch. Meanwhile Rhonda posted on the Scotland group and she and others began contacting newspapers across Scotland.

It was on the Scotland Flickr group that things got really interesting, really quickly. Flickr member Greg recognised the road and, the next day, drove down it to make sure. Amazingly, he was able to pinpoint the house in the photograph and gave out the address in the thread. Another Flickrite, Andrew, googled the address and found a planning application for replacement windows on the local council’s website. (I know. Isn’t it mad?) It gave a phone number for the council member dealing with the application.

From this – presumably through phoning the council – Rhonda was able to contact the owner and landlord of the property and gave them a description of the people in the photo (and their dog!). The landlord recognised the couple straight away and passed on Rhonda’s number.

Less than a couple of hours later, a message has appeared in the Scotland thread: “Hello everyone! I’m the guy who lost the camera!!!!!”

And that’s why I love Flickr.

Farewell Facebook?

Being a fully fledged Twitterer (Tweeter? Twit?), there’s only really one reason I go on Facebook these days and that’s to play Scrabulous. But it looks like the threats of removal have finally been carried out.

At least, I think they have…

ScrabbleHasbro, who own the rights to Scrabble in the US and Canada, had asked the makers of the game to pull the Scrabulous application from Facebook in those two countries; but as far as I’d read, there was no word from Mattel, who own the rights in the UK.

So I was surprised when, at around 11pm last night, the app had totally disappeared from Facebook in the UK. There were no links to it from homepages or profile pages and going directly to brought up an error page.

However, this morning, all seems okay again. The application is back (together with the games I was in the middle of playing, which is a relief). Was this a mistake, or were Scrabulous just pre-empting being asked to take it down? I haven’t found out yet, but I guess it will become clear soon enough.

It certainly looks like the future of the Scrabulous app is in doubt, not least because two replacements have popped up over the last couple of days.

Hasbro (or is it Mattel?) have added a new application: Live Scrabble but it’s not popular with users at all. It’s got an average of 1.6 out of 5 stars. “Nasty” music which plays by default and no ability to play with users in the US or Canada are just two of the main gripes.

Meanwhile, the groups and forums are awash with talk of a “new” game, Wordscraper, designed by the same guys who made Scrabulous. It has a board that is suspiciously familiar and apparently allows you to make up your own rules – Scrabble, anyone? – which neatly gets round any potential copyright problems.

I’m sticking to the Scrabulous application while it’s still there – I am winning my current games, after all – but it will be interesting to see whether any of the new versions hold my interest when it does finally go.

If not, then – sorry, Facebook: I’m afraid it might be the end of a beautiful friendship.

Ambient intimacy

I’m hearing the phrase “ambient intimacy” a lot these days. Ambient intimacy is a term coined by Leisa Reichelt last year to describe the kind of relationships that the internet allows you to have with people. She describes it as “being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.”

I’ve been wondering how to describe these types of relationships for a couple of years now. I like “ambient intimacy” but I think it’s a bit of a mouthful. But there are people that I only know like this, so it’s becoming more necessary to find a phrase.

Take my relationship with Pete Ashton. Pete’s always been on a couple of the same local interest internet groups that I’m on, so his was one of the first blogs I knew about. When I first started reading regularly, though, it surprised me with its openness. He kept a record of not just interesting links he’d come across, but where he’d been, what he was up to and, more importantly, how he felt about things.

A short while later Pete and I became contacts on flickr – so I got to put faces to names. We met on a flickrmeet and commented on topics that we’d already discussed online elsewhere. After that, we became “friends” on facebook, even though we’d only actually met once.

Now that we follow each other on Twitter and mix in many of the same circles at work, there is a real sense of the ambient intimacy Leisa talks about.

I feel like I know Pete pretty well and yet, when I found myself next to him in a queue at a cafe one lunchtime, I had to look twice to be sure it was him. (Then, of course, I had to introduce myself as “editorialgirl” rather than Emma – which felt a bit silly, but elicited an “ohhhh!” and a big hug, which was lovely).

So I don’t think that having ambient intimacy with someone means that you know them. Pete knows a lot of people and I can guarantee he’s met them more times than he’s met me. If someone says “do you know Pete?” it feels slightly stalky to say yes and realise that I know what he’s listening to, what he’s working on and what he had for dinner. Because we don’t know each other.

So I need a phrase or a verb to describe a relationship that’s been formed almost entirely via the internet. “I know him, but only ambiently”? No.

Really; it’s getting tricky. I met my current boyfriend online. I read his website religiously and we chatted on various groups for a good six years before actually meeting up and gedding it awn. But when I tell people “we met on the internet”, people make assumptions of dating websites or seedy chatrooms. “I got to know him ambiently“, I want to explain. The truth is, I got to know him bit by bit, through websites and forums, comments and groups. But there isn’t an easy way to say that.

Perhaps it will become so commonplace that I won’t need to worry about it. Perhaps friendships like the one I have with Pete will become the norm and everyone else will meet their partners online, just like I met mine.