Robin Brown

Doing journalism. Teaching journalism.

Archive for April, 2009

The really, really simple guide to using Twitter

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There’s a lot of absolute bollocks written about Twitter, usually by self-styled social media evangelists, clueless hacks on rubbish newspapers or self-important ‘communicators’.

In addition, I’ve noticed a lot of friends I’ve recommended Twitter to use it for a few days and then drift away, clearly non-plussed.

I don’t blame them, it took me a couple of goes to get Twitter, and I’ve lost interest in a few other social media sites before getting to grips with them, but Twitter really is worthwhile.

So, I thought I’d compose my own guide to Twitter that isn’t filled with self-promoting nonsense. It won’t make you rich, get you a better job or guarantee you 1,000 followers, but you’ll gain a valuable and interesting tool to play with when you’re supposed to be working.

I’m sure there are other, much better guides out there, but hopefully any old dunce can understand this one.

• Decide why you want to use Twitter. If you only want to post about your breakfast, your trip to work, your dislike of work, your vague feelings of alienation, your illness, your tea and your bath I’d suggest you try Facebook instead.

If you want to make contact with people in a particular profession or interest, Twitter is definitely for you.

If you just want to promote yourself, that could work too, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

• Create your profile, and bear in mind the kind of the image you want to project with your handle, picture, bio and website link. This is how you’ll be judged when people decide whether to follow you in return.

If people don’t follow you, you can’t interact with people, which is the whole point of Twitter.

• Do not, under any circumstances, protect your updates. What’s the point? This is social media. No-one will follow you.

• Search for 50-100 or so people in the area you’re interested in. I followed people in journalism, motoring, Liverpool, sci-fi and music.

• Watch what happens for a few days. Get to grips with the rhythm of things, and particularly the etiquette. Work out how direct messages, @ messages and retweets (RTs) work.

• Post a few introductory tweets explaining what you’re doing on Twitter and why you’re there. Post a few interesting links, RT those of others and offer some comments.

• Start to interact with people: asking questions, praising links, offering comments.

• Don’t ask for more followers or for others to retweet your links. It just makes you look like a bit of a twat.

• Celebrities: Don’t expect them to follow back or reply.

Where you take it from there is up to you. I use Twitter to promote links, to build networks, to tout myself around for freelance work and make connections, but in the main I use it because it’s fun and informative. It helps me in my job, and it amuses me in equal measure.

If you take the same approach, I reckon that’s more than half the battle.

I don’t claim that this is the be-all-and-end-all, and if you disagree that’s fine. But I reckon it’s a good primer for the social-media novice.

If you want to follow me I’m @robinbrown78 and @motortorque.

Other posts of mine on Twitter:


Who is behind Twitter denial-of-service attack?

Is blogging dead? Why do I blog?

Americans confused by Mrs Slocombe’s pussy

Twitter bums Daily Mail Online

What would my Twitter page look like if I were a social media evangelist?

Written by Robin Brown

April 29th, 2009 at 11:21 pm

Posted in Other stuff

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Pandemic 2.0 (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Swine Flu)

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In the good old days any crime spree, natural disaster, assassination or horrific disease outbreak (remember ebola?) would result in a media frenzy.

These days, as well as the media climax, there’s a collective social media jizzing over such events, so desperate is everyone to be the one to break the news, or offer their inevitably dull and/or self-important musings. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony).

There’s a faintly obsessive need on Twitter, in particular, to report on the slightest aspect of any new detail of what can actually be a stultifying unimportant or irrelevant event.

There are a number of watershed events of late that have broken Twitter to wider masses, and the G20 protest earlier this month showed how social media can change the game, but I suspect what looks like a forthcoming flu pandemic may be the first ongoing global event that has covered so comprehensively by the web and so-called ‘citizen journalists’.

Whether welcoming the zombie apocalypse, the inevitable ‘I have swine flu’ post, posting endless links to FAQs around the web, collecting conspiracy theories, posting Google Maps mash-ups, creating unfunny LOLpigs images, or just spewing out pointless jabber on it, Twitter is awash with swine flu.

This raises fascinating possibilities for the media scholar, but it also prompts the horrific possibility of a never-before-seen insight into what it’s like for huge numbers of people to die while struggling gamely to complete their latest tweet.

Depending on your point of view, or the severity of the outbreak of swine flu, this is either something out of a horror film or potentially rather amusing.

Already on Twitter there’s a kind of unofficial punology on swine flu, with Guardian technology bod Charles Arthur collecting bad puns, and Liverpool music type Jonathan Deamer suggesting songs that reflect the latest global apocalypse (here’s mine).

Meanwhile an old friend of mine on Facebook suggests:

If you’re ACTUALLY worried about contracting swine flu, I’m sorry to tell you, you’re an idiot

On a geeky forum I frequent I read this from someone who works in public health and has ‘contacts’ in the World Health Organisation:

I’m involved in a couple of projects that would help to stockpile vaccines within two weeks or so of an outbreak of a new strain of flu, but the lag time is several months using current manufacturing systems.

The traditional media has gone into its usual Four Horsemen mode, with exactly the kind of OTT graphics, music and doom-laden voiceovers so lambasted by the likes of Shaun of the Dead and Charlie Brooker. Dave Quinn notes that reporters have now absurdly taken to wearing masks.

Swine flu mask

Meanwhile PRs everywhere – oblivious to the absurdity of their activities at the best of times – have started putting out press releases on the back of swine flu that don’t bear the vaguest relevance to their core businesses.

A press release from the Road Haulage Association winged its way to me today, assuring me that everything the freight group could do was being done. Phew.

Ragan, PR experts who I generally admire, sent me no less than four emails today on how to talk to my staff about swine flu.

And another journalist friend of mine put other hacks on notice that the next few days could be a good time to bury bad news, a la Jo Moore.

So, the whole world, media, Web 2.0 and the bloke next door has gone swine flu mad, even though the calmer reports I’ve read seem to suggest that it’s probably nothing to worry about.

Of course, this could all turn out to be a huge joke at our expense. I don’t sense the panic that these things used to bring, I remember being chilled to the bone by the prospect of ebola and its horrifying symptoms, because everyone on the web is so inured that being vaguely diffident and jaded is de rigeur.

Let’s just hope that the optimists and the calmer voices are correct, and the human race isn’t wiped off the face of the earth. All those smug tweets are going to start looking pretty stupid if so, and I’ve no desire to read the first tweet consisting solely of a death rattle.

And I didn’t even make a swine fever joke.

• Picture by Dave Quinn

Written by Robin Brown

April 28th, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Posted in Media

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The Secret Chamillionaire

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Another daft ‘What if…?’ mock up.

Chamillionaire about to donate £5,000 to a youth club in Swansea

Chamillionaire about to donate £5,000 to a youth club in Swansea

Written by Robin Brown

April 20th, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Thoughts on the death of JG Ballard

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“…the mystery of multi-storey car parks…the poetry of abandoned hotels”

“In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom”

Ballard exhibition

Ballard exhibition

I was sad to hear of the death of JG Ballard, certainly one of my favourite authors, if not the favourite. In fact, oddly, I’d only just dusted down a previously-lost copy of High Rise when I heard of the rumours of his death on Twitter.

Since Ballard himself described his early life – framed by hardship and tragedy – in Empire of the Sun and his dalliances with booze and drugs, odd fascinations and exotic lifestyle are well documented, there doesn’t seem to be any point in repeating them here.

Suffice to say the one thing I found most fascinating about Ballard was that he lived most of his adult life in Shepperton.

Despite the fact that the London suburb seems like the apotheosis of suburban boredom, Ballard was well-travelled, well-versed and seemingly experienced in all aspects of life.

His devotion to, and fascination with, Shepperton seems to me to be indicative of Ballard’s peculiar talent to see the everyday in a way completely at odds to others.

The dull descriptions of Ballard’s work as science-fiction or ‘cult’, which the BBC has bafflingly decided to label Ballard’s canon, don’t really get to the nub of what made Ballard tick.

Environmental and apocalyptic disaster, surrealistic dreamscapes and societal collapse certainly form the basis of much of Ballard’s early work, but he increasingly turned towards thrillers that were really concerned with psychopathology and society through a prism of uniquely Ballardian murder mysteries.

His latter realist works, including Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come concentrate on people struggling to come to terms with technology, architecture and a civilised society that counterpoint unconscious base desires and instincts.

All of Ballard’s work is intriguing, challenging and unsettling. His worldview has given rise to the adjective Ballardian, generally used to describe dystopia and recently used by myself to refer to Liverpool One, the city’s new inner-city retail and leisure complex.

With Ballard gone, I wonder who else there is to describe our everyday lives and society with the same weird, unsettling insight as that of JGB.

• There’s an entire website devoted to Ballard, his work and that inspired by the man at and another at JG Ballard.

• Image by conde_erlette via Creative Commons from the exhibition JG Ballard: Autopsy of the New Millennium.

Written by Robin Brown

April 19th, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Posted in People

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The Guardian pulls apart the Met’s account of Ian Tomlinson’s death – and changes all the rules

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It’s gratifying, albeit grimly, to see the Metropolitan Police being brought to account over the death of Ian Tomlinson, a blameless newspaper seller whose only fault was to wander in front of some trigger-happy policemen during the G20 protests last week.

In a series of moves that will be depressingly familiar, the Met has gone through a number of versions of its story concerning what interaction its officers had with Tomlinson. I’m not going to go through the sequence of events, as they have been exhaustively covered in the press and wider media.

What is clear is that, even accounting for some likely confusion about what originally happened, the Met has been lying again in an attempt to cover up the over-zealous violence of its officers, and been embarrassingly caught in act of lying once again.

Police at G20

Those who witnessed the squirming that went on during the Jean Charles de Menezes inquiry will have a weary sense of deja vu alongside justified anger that the Met is ultimately responsible for the death of another innocent civilian.

What is heartening about this case, though, is how the explosion in civilian media has brought the police to account and, frankly, will be an increasingly significant threat to police cover-ups in the future.

By all accounts Tomlinson was attacked twice, with several witness accounts corralled by The Guardian and amalgamated into a step-by-step account of the minutes leading up to Tomlinson’s death and the brutality of the police.

The clinching evidence is a video showing a masked, shield-bearing Met police officer shoving Tomlinson hard in the back as he is walking away from a group of policemen. Minutes later he died.

The Guardian’s case is watertight. Having located a dozen witnesses, most of whom took photos showing the sequence of events, as well as a businessman with the key video footage, it has been able to construct a timeline with a previously-unthinkable level of detail.

I’m not immediately aware of such a game-changing development in media in recent years.

Whereas previously press photographers and cameramen from news organisations would be the only chance of capturing something like this, the number of people using media tools will have possibly the most radical effect on police accountability ever.

It’s tragic that this incredible development has been highlighted by the death of Ian Tomlinson, but this event could be a watershed in the way the media, and the public, are able to hold police forces to account.

The Guardian is rightly proud of its scoop and investigative work, but at one point today it had at least four stories that were slight permutations on the same report and the video, in what was an obvious attempt to capitalise on traffic and stuff the website, via url strings and headers, full of keywords.

A distasteful facet of a sad story.

• Image by zongo69 via Creative Commons.

Written by Robin Brown

April 8th, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Obama appoints William Shatner as new GM CEO

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This is my April Fool’s Day post from I expect I’ll have to take it down before long, so I intend to have it on here in perpetuity.

Shatner is new GM boss

Following the departure of Rick Wagoner as General Motors CEO and Chairman, US President Barack Obama has moved quickly to appoint actor William Shatner as new GM boss.

Shatner is known primarily for his acting and singing career, and has no known experience in running global automotive OEMs.

Obama said the 78-year-old Shatner had the ‘right stuff’ to take GM into the future, and backed the former Star Trek actor to rescue the General from the edge of bankruptcy.

“William Shatner is an American hero whose appeal transcends political, religious and cultural boundaries.

“His ingenuity and calm head in difficult situations is well known to Americans, and I know Mr Shatner has the right stuff to turn around a global behemoth with $100bn of debt and transform it into a formidable enterprise.”

In his inaugural address as new GM CEO, Shatner gave a lengthy and detailed explanation of GM’s proprietary Voltec powertrain technology, outlined a 15-point plan to return GM to profitability within twelve months and attacked former Star Trek co-star George Takei.

“I spent most of the 70’s living in a truck thanks to typecasting,” laughed Shatner, adjusting his hairpiece. “I know the car industry inside out.”

Shatner went on to field questions from the press regarding next-generation battery technology, the intricacies of the VEBA agreement with Chrysler, Ford and the United Auto Workers and his memories of the Columbo episode ‘Fade in to Murder’, in which he guest starred.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” mused Shatner, before leaving for the Renaissance Centre.

Written by Robin Brown

April 1st, 2009 at 6:24 pm

Posted in Other stuff

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