Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

February Update

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Fast Cars Robin Brown

My first book, Fast Cars, is in shops now. It looks like this.

I have completed an article on Jack The Ripper for All About History magazine and will be commencing my latest article for Professional Manager Magazine this month, probably on crossover SUVs.

I’m teaching at the University of Sunderland over five modules this semester. Most of the modules I’m teaching on revolve around digital and social media, including MAC114, MAC296, MAC297, MAC299 and MACM69 at Sunderland.

I am also teaching digital media at the University of Salford.

I’ve finished at the University of Westminster, where I delivered a module I wrote on News and Feature Writing.

I’m currently working on editing a magazine for the International Festival of Business, which will be held in Liverpool this Summer.

I recently attended launches for the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso and Volvo D4 engine range. I recorded podcasts at both with Gavin Braithwaite-Smith. You can hear the former below. I recently updated a page on my automotive experience too.

Written by Robin Brown

February 4th, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Robin's News

Myleene Klass, Letters Pages And The London Evening Standard

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Occasionally an email arrives, offering some work. Sometimes it’s a one-off piece, sometimes it’s a book (out now in all good bookshops, well, some bookshops, possibly). Sometimes it’s someone asking me to work for free. You can probably guess which I prefer.

Often I’m asked to contribute a paragraph for use in a wider piece – or interviewed on the subject for the same reason – on the basis that I’m quoted as an expert of some sort, or a chump who happens to be both available and able to feign wisdom. I’ve been on the radio talking about cars, cricket, beer, Liverpool – and quite a few other things (most recently how social media has affected my sex life). Examples of the former include a piece in the Guardian by Jon Henley about Twitter and a radio interview I recently did from the toilets of the Royal Court Theatre.

I don’t expect payment for these things – they take five minutes and don’t really require any effort on my part. I can talk off the top of my head and am not served content guidelines nor deadlines. So when, on a Sunday night at 10.30pm and neck-deep in work, I get an email from a guy at the London Evening Standard asking me for 200 words on the Christmas John Lewis advert (he’s read AdTurds) by 9am the following day, the first question I’m likely to ask is ‘how much’?

At the time I queried whether he was after quote fodder or commissioning me to write an article, pointing out that while AdTurds – where he’d seen my comments on the John Lewis advert – is a blog, I work as a journalist. The intended implication being that I wouldn’t be writing anything for free.

Josh, for that is his name, replied that he wasn’t in search of a ‘piece’ – just a ‘comment’. In fairness he apologised for approaching me, having assumed I work in advertising. Though he went on to say that he was still keen to hear my views. Noting that Josh had mentioned on his initial email that he was writing “from Letters at the Evening Standard” I sought more clarification – was he basically asking me to write an article for no fee that would appear on the letters page, as if I’d penned an Annoyed Of Hartlepool missive?

Yes, came the reply from Josh, who went on to add that a variety of celebrities, including Myleene Klass, had contributed letter in the past. “No thanks Josh,” I replied, assuming he’d move on to another blogger. I was a non-plussed but would have left it there, were it not for his reply:

“Okay, sorry we’re not good enough!”

This annoyed me. The implication was, surely, that I was getting a bit above my station to refuse to write an article for free when such luminaries as Myleene had consented. So I sent this back:

I’m not being funny Josh but that’s quite a strange passive-aggressive little snark considering you just asked a journalist to write you an article for nothing. You might not have known that initially, which is fair enough, but you did after my first reply. 

Those people you listed are not journalists and even if they do make their living from writing I don’t suppose that Myleene Klass or Nick Hornby are knocking out 800 words on cars for fleet managers as we speak. Simply put they probably don’t need the money. Had you asked Myleene to come and do a little solo gig in the office, free of charge, and had she consented I might have seen the relevance. 

I Googled Josh. There are about half a dozen blogs floating about detailing varying degree and forms of annoyance with the way he approached them. Six months ago, Josh accidentally asked a respected Australian film critic to write a letter for him.

The critic, Lynden Barber, took the story to his newspaper, The Australian, who wrote it up in the media section, detailing an exchange that seemed to get pretty snippy and including Barber’s thoughts on the affair. Josh subsequently sent an apology to Barber and the media correspondent, which included the following line:

[A]s an occasional writer myself I understand the irritation felt by freelancers when asked to contribute articles for free.

Uh-huh.

The notion of proactively seeking content from non-professionals – and clearly professionals from time-to-time – seems fairly dubious on a few levels to me. That they’re presented as letters – thereby invoking some idea of amateurism and presumably a desire to contribute without expectation of recompense – doesn’t really cut it with me.

If I wanted to write a letter to the Evening Standard I wouldn’t wait for an invitation and set of writer’s guidelines. If they’re not receiving sufficient letters to pan out a letter’s page, I’d suggest they don’t have a letter’s page. Why not replace it a DPS sourcing some decent writing from good bloggers. Making profits of a million quid or so a year and owned by a billionaire I’m sure they’ve got a few spare pennies knocking around.

Either way, if you’re soliciting for informed, authoritative, well-written content within editorial parameters it’s work that could – and should – be done by journalists.

Josh – if you’re reading – I’ll happily write you 200 words on the subject, for publication in the Standard. At my usual rate. In the meantime, consider this an open letter you can have for nothing.

Written by Robin Brown

November 30th, 2013 at 7:34 pm

Posted in Journalism

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October 2013 update

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My first book, called Fast Cars, is out this month, published by Igloo Publishing. It’s a rundown of a 100-or-so of the fastest production cars ever made. I wrote it in two weeks earlier this year.

SevenStreets.com – the site I co-edit – is publishing the Almanac – a monthly print publication in Liverpool concerning food, drink, culture, entertainment and life in Liverpool.

I’m teaching News and Feature Writing at the Media, Arts and Design school of the University of Westminster. I’m teaching MA students.

I’m not lecturing at the University of Sunderland this semester but am currently scheduled to teach there next semester. In Semester 2 this year I taught social media to first year and MA students; plus Magazine Production to 2nd-years students.

I’m currently slated to teach digital media at the University of Salford in Semester 2.

I write a quarterly column for Professional Manager Magazine, the official publication of the Chartered Management Institute, on cars for the fleet sector. I also write all of the publication’s car reviews.

The latest PetrolPod podcast is up. I recorded it with Gravin Braithwaite-Smith at the launch of the Vauxhall Insignia in Munich last month.

If you want to read more about hit up About Robin Brown. Email robin “at” robinbrown.co.uk to get in touch.

Written by Robin Brown

October 22nd, 2013 at 10:48 pm

Posted in Robin's News

Blocking people for using auto-follow software

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autofollowers

The internet, like real-life society, only really works if people refrain from behaving badly; if people are prepared for a little give-and-take, a little co-operations, politeness and common sense.

When they don’t the internet doesn’t work – or you get these ghastly corners of the internet like Comment Is Free, The Huffington Post or Youtube comments section. Revenge porn websites, hate-filled fora and, perhaps worst of all, those people who spam Twitter with proclamations of loyalty to Justin Bieber (as an aside, could Justin Bieber seriously mobilise an army to mount on attack on a government of his choosing?).

autofollow 3

Twitter is often the battleground of choice for outbreaks of bad behaviour on the internet. Spam is hardly unknown on the platform, it frequently degenerates into a bitchfest in angry 140 mouthfuls and it’s full of shameless self-promoters (I’m definitely one of them, but it’s cute when I do it).

The most egregious thing on Twitter, however, is the rampant use of AutoFollow technology. The concept is fairly simple: you give your Twitter login details to some dodgy plugin, set your parameters and fire it off, like a chain letter wasting everyone’s time, patience and goodwill.

The idea behind this is that people will be flattered by the follow from someone they’ve never heard and follow back. So far so harmless? Well, perhaps, but it also reduces Twitter to a pointless scrum to gain followers for virtually no reason whatsoever: followers gained like this haven’t been earned, they’ve no loyalty to you or interest in you and will be disinclined to click on your banal links to get-rich-quick schemes and marketing wibble. They’re fundamentally followers that have no value to you. What’s more it reduces your stream to total nonsense – a cacophony of incoherent babbling. So it renders Twitter fundamentally useless to autofollowers as a communication tool.

autofollow 5

It get worse, though. If you don’t follow back within a certain period of time you will be probably be automatically unfollowed; there’s a good chance you’ll be unfollowed even if you do follow back. It’s taking without giving.

The reason for this virtual arms war is simply to get as many people to follow you as is humanly – or robotically – possible, so you can wave your Twitter count at the ingenuous like an artificially-inflated virtual willy. This is frequently for reasons of simple vanity, but it’s also used to fool other followers into thinking you’re important – and this is where it becomes obnoxious – as opposed to simply idiotic, selfish or a bit rude.

There are a lot of people who have no idea how the Internet works. And that means there are vast markets for the unscrupulous, the bullshitters, the snake-oil sellers and the fast-buck merchants. I have been asked by many PRs and marketing execs whether I can give them some tips on getting ‘a Twitter’ or on getting to the front page of the SERPS (‘being high up in Google’ in their parlance).

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I have, on occasion, run social media campaigns for clients, but it’s always come with the proviso that it needs to be part of an overall, long-term digital strategy that includes some genuinely useful and engaging content and is run in alignment with existing on- and offline strategies. People rarely like to hear that something is difficult and could be expensive, which may explain why I’ve never made a career out of it.

Making a career out of this axis of nonsense where SEO, digital marketing and social media intersect would be a piece of cake however, as there are simply so many companies out there who have a vague idea that they need to spend money in this area, without the slightest idea of how or why. Where there are clueless CEOs there are fat cheques for doing fuck all.

autofollow

Which is where autofollow technology comes in. People who don’t understand Twitter may be impressed that you have 30,000 followers; they may believe that it shows that you know what you’re doing. “We want 30,000 Twitter followers,’” they think. “Perhaps @SEObiz2013 is the person to get me there; then we will have a Twitter and sell many more industrial heat-exchangers.”

Needless to say, this is totally bogus reasoning. But in the kingdom of the blind the 30K-Twitter account is King. And now that the arse-end has fallen out of SEO as the online chancer’s favoured hunting ground, the untapped landscape of social media is next up.

Blocking autofollowers

That’s why I will be blocking anyone I suspect of using autofollow technology. It reduces Twitter to a pointless popularity contest where everyone follows everyone and no-one interacts meaningfully any more. It ruins something that I happen to believe is a potentially brilliant medium, far more than Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or many others at present.

There may be reasons for using autofollow plugins on Twitter, but I can’t think of any good ones. Some innocents may get blocked in the process, some people who might genuinely be interested in what I have to say and share on Twitter might miss out – and I might miss out on whatever they have to say – but that’s what the thoughtless deployment of these witless widgets do. They ruin the internet for everyone.

Want to join in? Have a look below at how to spot people using autofollow technology – I recommend that you do the sensible thing and give them the virtual finger. It’s the only language they understand.

Follow these simple rules and we can make Twitter a better place for us, our children, our children’s children and… well, you get the idea.

How to spot autofollowers on Twitter

Never interacted with you

Excessive use of hashtags in bio

Excessive blind links in bio

Keywords in bio likely to include SEO, SEM, content marketing, content strategy, digital strategy, online marketing, maven, networker, hero, incubator, investor, guru

Closely similar amount of following and followers OR vast discrepancy between follower and following

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Tens of thousands of tweets

Post links to vague ‘how to’-style videos or articles

Links posted are often via share buttons direct from websites, rather than manually entered

Use Twitter client to autopost, generally on the hour

Banal positive-thinking quotes posted on daily basis

Unlikely to have significant interest in what you’re tweeting (ie. they’re a Californian tech gadge tweeting about marketing, start-ups and their coffee; you live in Sunderland and tweet about football and TOWIE)

Live in a different country

Don’t interact with followers

Tweets include many variations on sharing the same link multiple times

Follower count at or around large round number (eg. 1,000 or 10,000)

No mutual followers

Dull logo, obvious stock portrait or Californian sunset as avatar

Header or background = generic aspirational image

• The images used in this article are from genuine Twitter accounts who recently followed me (apart from the one at the top) and I suspect of using autofollow software. No further implications are intended. It’s also come to my attention that there’s an actual website under the URL digitalsnakeoil.com – no association intended there either.

Written by Robin Brown

April 23rd, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Posted in Twitter

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Social media newsgathering in action

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Tyler Wakstein’s video of the finish line at the Boston Marathon didn’t get a huge amount of traffic. For horrific reasons his graphic still of the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing did.

Shortly afterwards Tyler was bombarded with shocked, dismayed, bewildered questions. And a lot more from news gatherers asking if they could use his picture online, in newspapers and on television.

As of 11pm on 15 April it’s had over 4,000 retweets and Wakstein has been appearing on broadcast media all day.

Should you – can you – use social media pictures in this way? If you’re a journalist the upside to getting eyewitness reports and media via Twitter is obvious. It’s more evidence of my belief that of all social media platforms Twitter is by far the most useful – at once a live ticker tape, media source, RSS feed and crowd to be sourced at once.

The wherefores and hows are still rather more nebulous – here’s a couple of guides from Journalism.co.uk and The BBC on using social media for reporters – and a guide to the likely fees that people may charge if you want to use their photos.

Written by Robin Brown

April 15th, 2013 at 10:03 pm

Posted in Journalism,Twitter

Embedding tweets: Ed Balls

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I love Twitter as a platform, though I occasionally despise the way that people use it. Still, I find it a fascinating and genuinely useful platform and have been evangelising to my social media students on its uses recently.

Let me count the ways: As a means to source opinion, quotes and contacts; as a platform from which to broadcast; as a much better replacement for RSS readers; as an unparalleled and unprecedented forum for following news and events live (more quickly, even, that 24-hour news channels); as a jumping-off point for all sorts of ideas for blog posts and articles.

Twitter is pretty open about sharing and its API allows for all sorts of uses – as a result there’s loads of functionality – embedding tweets has been quickly taken up by all sorts of news sites. I’ve previously used Hootsuite to embed searches, but Twitter also allows users to create a widget for particular phrases.

I couldn’t remember how to do it today, so thought I’d look it up. Here’s a Twitter search for #edballs using Twitter’s proprietary widget, followed by the Hootsuite widget:




Embarrassingly, the Twitter widget doesn’t work and the Hootsuite widget does. Moreover the Hootsuite widget is easy to create and the app even gives you prompts to save your searches as a stream. So, while I take my hat off to Twitter for allowing people to use data in this way, the Twitter client is far more user-friendly.

Browser software? Flash issues? Incorrect mark-up? Who cares? It doesn’t work. And who can be bothered to figure out why something isn’t working in these impatient interweb days? Not I. The moral? Use Hootsuite.

Anyway, why this search term? Well, I don’t think I’ve laughed quite so much at a tweet as the one below, released into the Twittersphere by the Shadow Chancellor today. Epic.

Written by Robin Brown

February 23rd, 2013 at 1:26 am

Posted in Twitter

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People telling The Sun to fuck off on Twitter

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Twitter isn’t all bad. Here’s a live stream of people telling The Sun newspaper to fuck off.



Written by Robin Brown

August 23rd, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Posted in Twitter

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Twitter: A parliament of tits

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I find myself making an effort these days to use Twitter. I never used to. Twitter used to be something I did so I didn’t have to do something else; work, take the bins out, confront terrifying existential angst, that sort of thing.

But the novelty has worn off, partly because so many people use it now. Watch sporting events and you’ll get the Twitter handles of presenters and commentators popping up on screen in much the same way that other unwelcome and unnecessary things pop up on screen. Red button alerts, adverts, Piers Morgan.

And not just in sport. Newsreaders ask us to follow or tweet them our news. Question Time wants us to hurl abuse at the goons on its panel. Things reached an absurd low recently when the Twitter handle of Batman massacre perp James Holmes was flashed up on screen whenever court reportings featured him on the news (that didn’t actually happen).

So, there are many more people on Twitter these days than there ever used to be. And Sartre tells us about other people. As Twitter’s usage has exploded, its IQ has imploded. Idiots like Chris Brown are routinely retweeted by thousands of people. A wife-beating, woman-hating, talent-free wankstain has a team of people bigging him up for any conceivable action – walking unaided, respiration, continence etc – ensuring that his every move is broadcast to millions of others who have no interest in him whatsoever.

Elsewhere a man who has been in a film has been cheated on by his wife, who is also in some films. Hence thousands of people who have never met them, and never will, firing invective at one another, and their respective idols, as a kind of surrogate poison dwarf.

My most recent experience of Twitter idiocy was a lot closer to home and on a rather smaller scale. In a moment both awkward and clumsy, a Scottish man known for running quickly and inventing lycra in the 80s made a reference to his skin colour in front of a man of a different skin colour.

I’m not quite sure what made Allan Wells, completely unprompted, observe that he was the last white guy to win the men’s 100m in the Olympics (back in 1980 in Moscow with no Americans around). It was a bit odd and understandably felt a little weird, especially with Johnson sitting alongside him.

But there are very good reasons why he might have introduced the topic, which is central to the modern paradigm of sprinting and athletics. Black men rule sprinting and have done since Wells’ victory 32 years ago. More and more research has come to light about the physiology of black athletes of certain origins that suggests an unusual biological quirk that concerns things like fast-twitch muscle reflexes and the like. Put simply, if you’re black and carry certain DNA you’re a lot more likely to be able to run fast than a little Scottish feller.

I thought it possible that Wells was referring to this – “It was very special,” he said; “You’re in a very select group,” replies Gaby Logan, which is surely the piont he was making; Michael Johnson doesn’t bat an eyelid – and was making his statement as a source of pride: I am biologically inferior to the best black sprinters, as are most white men, but I nicked that one.

Wells’ Olympic gold may also be seen as the last hurrah of an era of athletics where people became sprinters almost by accident. No widespread funding for athletics; no wide take-up of the sport in certain parts of the world; no modern training, facilities, dieticians or biokinetics.

Like with many things, TV brought fame, money and professionalism, for want of a better word. The game changed. The best physical specimens in the world were genuinely competing against one another after 1980. Look at Alan Wells, a quiet bloke from Edinburgh and then look at his successor as Olympic champion, Carl Lewis. The difference between them is symptomatic of the enormous change between athletics in the 70s and the 80s.

I find it not unreasonable that Wells may have been attempting to invoke this paradigm shift in the history of sprinting. Either way it was clearly not malicious, pointed or prejudicial. Did Twitter consider these inflections, these subtleties, these shades of grey and give Wells the benefit of the doubt? No, there was a deluge of sniffy, disapproving tweets, many of which essentially claimed that Wells was being racist.

Wells did not help himself when he later appeared to call a Chinese weightlifter ‘horrendous’, but it was again unclear what his intent was. On rewatching it it sounds like he’s claiming that receiving a massage from the weightlifter would be ‘horrendous’ – a reference to the fact that she is very strong, in all likelihood.

Yet the die was cast. Wells was not only making racial comments, he was a misogynist too! Complaints would be made; blowhards apologised to Johnson on behalf of Brits everywhere; the Twitter frenzy was upon us once again.

This is all rather boring and a little depressing. The faux outrage, the smug sniffiness and willingness to judge was insufferable. And worse, the other side defending Wells for his glorious ‘un-PC-ness’; revelling in what they took to be a blow for outspoken iconoclasts (translation: racists).

The whole affair made me question what I get out Twitter. But it made me feel sorry for Wells too; a man who, I suspect, would be mortified by the way his comment was taken by both sides. A man who – like sprinting when he was at his peak – is of a rather different time and may speak artlessly about race and more besides, but without any prejudice or intent whatsoever.

Hell may be other people, but Twitter is the dimensional aperture beaming it into our homes. And what a terrible vision it is. A cacophony of nothingess. A chasm of self-satisfied yawning. A parliament of tits.

Written by Robin Brown

August 6th, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Twitter

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How to exclude images from a gallery in WordPress

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Having just had what I was determined to the last ever battle I ever have with WordPress over excluding certain images from a gallery that I wanted to embed in a post I went and looked it up.

Why on Earth WordPress, which has my unstinting support in every other regard for its brilliant platforms, still hasn’t addressed what amounts to the biggest ballache for me (any many, many more gathering from a quick Googling) is beyond me – and their support forums are full on inane ‘how to create a gallery’ videos or baffling technobabble, assuming they’re not telling people to go ask their questions somewhere else.

So, having twatted around with this for absolutely sodding ages, here’s my tutorial:

  • Upload all of your images – galleries and non-gallery images
  • Insert the gallery link
  • Preview the post – then mouseover the images you want to exclude (put your cursor over the offending images until a pop-up, er, pops up.
  • Make a note of the number that pops up – it should be a number between one and whatever you’re up to on numbers. It’s not the name you gave the file, or the name the image had before you downloaded it. It’s a numerical, plain and simple.
  • Insert this code: [ gallery exclude="your number here,your second number here"], remembering to include the numbers of the images you want rid of. If there’s just one then just exclude that one. (Remember too to close up the space between the opening bracket and the ‘g’ of ‘gallery’ – or it won’t work).

Jesus, why is this stuff so hard?

Written by Robin Brown

February 27th, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Posted in The web

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Everyone wants to be the Huffington Post

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News that the Huffington Post – the current Death Star of journalism for reasons outlined here – is now generating twelvety billion impressions a day has obviously enervated the UK’s newspapers.

Well, the online versions of them anyway. The Daily Mail adapted first – and is a recognisably different beast form the print version. Put simply, it has a lot of tits down the iconic right-hand sidebar that virtually stick your fingers to the mouse – metaphorically and, quite possibly, literally depending on the photo.

The Mail Online also writes what might be the first ever article it’s ever done virtually every time it mentions a topic. So, for example, if I were to write an article on the Mail – in the style of the Mail Online – I’d go into how the long the website has been live, how many redesigns it’s had, what it’s raison de’tre is and any recent newsworthy items relating to it. Let’s say, um, Jan Moir’s vile columns or Twitter poll karma. Basically you can expect to read a mini Wikipedia entry about the topic on every different article; like a pen picture for the stupid.

I expect that, combined with lots of other tics, this is an SEO exercise – as the entire site is, really. 3.2 million articles can’t hurt, mind.

The reason for this image will be revealed later on

The Mail also a internet dog-whistler – even going to the trouble recently of winding up its own audience with a ‘lefties are more clever than righties’ article – and it borrows a trick from its print self in stoking up people’s irrational fears and disgust.

The Mail and the Huffington Post have been duking it out for some time for traffic. Other papers have their own versions: The Telegraph has a frothing twat by the name of Jams Delingpole whose only purpose is to wind people up. The Guardian has an entire section devoted to that purpose in the shape of Comment Is Free. The Indy writes millions upon millions of ‘top ten’ articles – it’s almost pitiful.

But I’ve noticed something else in the last few weeks that I did not notice before – something I can only put down to the clear success off The Huffington Post. Namely, idiotic galleries designed to keep users clicking through dozens of pages, getting trillions of eyeballs on display ads and ensuring they’re shared on Facebook and Twitter.

Is Cheryl back with Ashley?

Today the Torygraph has dozens of images of Steve Coogan’s various alter egos – something that amounts to 24 press stills assembled with approximately ten minutes’ effort writing captions. Last week the Grauniad had a load of photos of dogs swimming underwater, for crying out loud.

Somewhere else the Grauniad is following the Huffington Post is into the free resource market. I say ‘free resource market’. What I really mean is ‘using bloggers and media professionals who can’t find employment to churn out high-quality work for no money’. At least the Guardian asks – the HuffPo gets its free labour to take stuff from the web, rehash it vaguely and throw a link back to the source, buried among a million ads and calls-to-action.

I find this fairly egregious, but symptomatic of where the web is heading. Shorter attention spans, sites wielding their Page Ranks like weapons of mass destruction and a brainless mix of celebrity flesh and diverting pictures.

In celebration of the New Journalism, here’s a top ten of internet facepalms I’ve collected from around the internet that other people have taken the time to mock up.

Faceplams are an internet meme popularised by an image of Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Patrick Stewart holding his head in hands. They are meant to typify frustration or disbelief at the behaviour of others (my own genuine facepalm is above).

Star Trek: The Next Generation is a US TV network show that was broadcast between 1987-1994, starring Patrick Stewart. Patrick Stewart is a Shakespearean actor known for his bald head. Baldness implies partial or complete lack of hair. Stewart had a famous public with roly-poly funnyman James Corden at an awards ceremony in 2010.

Written by Robin Brown

February 27th, 2012 at 9:14 pm