#Twespians bloggers’ seminar (part 1 of 4)

I’ve been going to Twespians meet ups (or, in the more practical parlance, ‘piss ups’) for some time now. As the name suggests, the meetings are generally for people involved in the performing arts industry who use Twitter. Tonight saw the first of a planned series of events that focusses more seriously on a given topic. And only then goes down the pub.

The theme for the evening was ‘theatre blogging’. Unfortunately, struggles in finding a venue for the serious part meant that this event had to be rescheduled at fairly short notice, so attendance was well down on the initial estimates. However, the four short sessions are potentially interesting to a number of people, so my notes (based on the live tweeting I was doing while others were listening more intently), along with some of my own commentary in italics, are below. (Parts 2 to 4 will follow)

Session 1: The many faces of blogging (@lurkmoophy)

  • Bloggers are becoming as important as ‘traditional’ press in terms of media.
  • Why blog? Amplification of voice, community, inspiration, shared learning, expanding horizons, etc.
  • Differing opinions of theatre bloggers from mainstream critics: “Bloggers don’t have the restraints theatre critics do” (Gardner) vs. “I’m not aware of bloggers championing the important, the new or the unexpected” (Coveney).

Personally I think it’s a bit rich for press critics to imply that they’re the only ones who promote new work. Just as theatre bloggers are incredibly diverse in what they cover rather than being a homogenous mass, many critics rarely go outside the narrow confines of the National and the West End, while others cast their net far wider…

  • Theatre bloggers can broadly be split into three groups: reviewers, those giving opinion & commentary, and theatre companies (with some having a foot in two or three groups rather than just one)
  • Some self-marketing tips: when you’ve posted a new blog entry, as well as publicising links on your Facebook and Twitter feeds, consider a Posterous and/or Tumblr account too. No need to post the whole thing – a short summary and a link will help.
  • If reviewing, absolutely essential that the title of the show and the venue appears in your HTML page title – and ideally the word “review”, too
  • Good semantic markup will help a lot. Not only using <h1>, <h2>, etc., for headings, but microformats, RDFa markup and/or HTML5 microdata. Google’s Rich Snippets – which provide more detailed, structured information in the basic search results – use such markup to discover and track structured information. See Luke’s article on Ubelly.com – “An Introduction to RDFa and the semantic web”

This is a huge subject in itself and is one for the people who enjoy getting their HTML hands dirty. In brief, all three systems referenced above are ways to give search engines additional context for the text you have on your page, from “this string of numbers is a phone number” to “I am giving this production a rating of 4 out of 5”. Microformats markup text using CSS class names, RDFa uses XML attributes, while HTML5 has defined specific new attributes to hold contextual information in a structured way.

  • Where you host your blog can help or harm your credibility. A blog that is created as a subdomain of blogspot.com or wordpress.com can have a harder time gaining credibility than one that has its own domain name
  • When going for a design, nice and/or simple always works best
  • Build a network by intelligently commenting on other people’s blogs

These days, your site will most likely not get any boost to its ranking in search engines purely as a result of you linking to it from your comments elsewhere (so don’t indulge in comment spam!). But those comments will help other humans find your blog, and if they then link to it, those links will help your ranking

  • Be consistent. Consider making yourself a writing template for your reviews – e.g., opening paragraph of context, two paras of talking about the cast, two paras on your personal opinion, conclusion. Your readers will expect a consistency of tone and structure

If you do go for a template approach like this, it goes without saying it should be one that works for you. If nothing else, giving yourself a word count to work to, and relentlessly subediting your work until it fits that word count, will help your writing get much tighter

  • An editor is essential. If you can’t get somebody else to look over your work, you’ll have to wear that hat as well. It can be easier to switch roles if you take a break of half an hour or more between writing your work and then editing it.
  • If you want to be a thought leader in your field, blogging can be extremely useful. For example, @MarcusRomer of Pilot Theatre has done this very effectively
  • For theatre companies, blogging tends to be a value add rather than a solution in its own right. It probably won’t drive ticket sales on its own, but can support other networks and reinforce existing marketing messages
  • Place some thought as to what blogging platform is best for you.
    • Blogger possibly easiest (and tends to rank highly in Google, which owns it), but is the most limited
    • WordPress.com blogs have more modern look, you get more features in the back end, and the option of premium upgrades (although these can mount up)
    • Self-hosted WordPress-powered blogs offer immense flexibility, can be a fully-fledged CMS if need be, but can be a lot more work as you do need to know what you’re doing
    • Posterous and Tumblr have great organic search & virality, but their simplicity can be a downside. They work well as supplements to more fully-functioned blogs
  • When it comes to social media, don’t just join a network (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) because you can. Go where your existing & potential audience is
  • Twitter is for communication & conversation rather than just pushing out notifications. Obey the 80/20 rule – spend 80% of the time conversing & engaging, and people will accept the other 20% being self-promotion
  • Some tools for Twitter include Tweetdeck for managing & monitoring multiple accounts, CoTweet for allowing multiple people access to the same accounts, The Archivist for analysing brand performance, and bit.ly for tracking links and clickthroughs

Session 2 was primarily about SEO, but overlapped with the above points in several places. But that’s for another post. (Update: read part 2, Six tips for great SEO)

The i’s #iTwitter100: generally accurate, but missing the point

The Independent’s 20p little sibling, i, today published its Twitter 100, listing “a definitive who’s who of the UK’s tweet elite.”

As with any top 100 list (e.g., The MediaGuardian 100, or The Stage 100) there’s inevitably a minor flurry of people huffing and puffing about why so-and-so is in the list and they’re not, or why person A is higher than person B. For the most part, the rankings seem to be based upon PeerIndex’s algorithmic evaluation of how each tweeter interacts with their followers, ensuring that the metrics are a little bit more intelligent than just how many followers you have.

Algorithms which take into account engagement rather than link acquisition will always be more useful. And they can act as a source of encouragement, too: demonstrate to people that they will find Twitter more useful not by accumulating more followers, but by entering discourse with the ones you have, and Twitter will be more valuable for everyone.

But generally, the scope of the i’s list, of “all UK Twitter users”, is ultimately too broad to be of any particular value — except, perhaps, to the newspaper itself (some short term publicity) and those who made the cut (some brief ego-plumping). What’s more important for your average Twitter user is connecting with people that matter to them — and I’m not sure that there are many people for whom “based in the UK” is the only criterion for relevance.

PeerIndex’s pages do seem to be rather more intelligent than some of the other Twitter analysis tools I’ve seen. It does at least attempt to quantify not only an overall score for your Twitter account, but tries to identify whether you’re stronger in arts & entertainment coverage than in politics, for example. But still, the sort of metrics PeerIndex provides are better for judging how you are tweeting — and how you could be doing better in terms of engaging with those who follow you — than working out who is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than anybody else.

Disney Epic Mickey, Nintendo Wii

Back when I was growing up, the weekly Mickey Mouse comics by IPC Magazines were a constant companion. While my sister was reading Bunty and Judy, I was getting lost in a world where Scrooge McDuck was either swimming through his piles of gold coins, or protecting them from being stolen by the incompetent Beagle Boys; where Huey, Dewey and Louie were forever trying to get extra Junior Woodchuck badges; and where I would see comic strip adaptations of the summer Disney releases from Pete’s Dragon to Candleshoe before the films themselves had even hit these shores.

The bulk of each issue consisted of a number of short strips, reprinted from various US and European sources, which included some characters who were born from Mickey Mouse’s back catalgoue of shorts from 1929’s Plane Crazy onwards. As a result, the likes of Clara Cluck, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow were characters that I knew well. They may not have been as close to my heart as the likes of Mickey, Pluto, Donald and Goofy, but they were never far away.

As far as the public at large goes, though, I suspect that many of the peripheral characters have long since been forgotten. And that’s part of the premise of the new Nintendo Wii game, Disney Epic Mickey (Wii).
Continue reading “Disney Epic Mickey, Nintendo Wii”

How I built the Greatest Stage Actor website

Today, we at The Stage launched a new microsite to support our 11-week print series, The Greatest Stage Actor.

We have asked a range of industry experts to propose actors – from any era, any country, male or female – who they think deserve the accolade of being named the greatest theatrical performer of all time. Their nominations have resulted in a shortlist of ten being drawn up, and we are opening votes to the general public.

From now until the beginning of December, we’ll be profiling each of the ten shortlisted actors in the paper each week, and adding more content to the website throughout.

At its heart, the entire site is driven by WordPress 3.0 and the page design is based upon the enormously extensible Hybrid theme framework.

With Hybrid, as with the (non-free) Thesis theme that I use on this blog, the theme makes extensive use of WordPress ‘hooks’ – a series of callback points that get referenced at particular points on the template page. Most WordPress templates use a few callbacks defined in the WordPress core, but then create brand new templates for the home page, for pages hosting individual posts, for archive pages, and so on. In contrast, Hybrid provides a huge array of template pages, each of which is highly structured to allow CSS to address nearly everything really easily. In addition, the number of the callback hooks that the framework adds is huge, meaning that it’s possible to supplement the framework with additional code without having to rewrite whole template pages.

Using Hybrid saved so much time, although better documentation (always a bugbear with open source software where the developers have to double up as the technical writers) would have cut down development time even more.

The site also uses a jQuery plugin called jCarousel to create the rotating banners across the top of each page. After trying a few different carousel options, this one seemed to provide the greatest versatility with the least amount of additional markup.

The only non-Wordpress native elements involve the voting mechanism, which was built by The Stage’s former web developer James Squires (and, after James moved jobs a couple of weeks ago, completed by Aaron Brown). This allows votes to be validated by email address or using a Facebook account, using code built in-house (we’ve expanded WordPress’s built-in commenting features to Facebook accounts using Simple Facebook Connect).

The final technical bit is the web font we are using for our body text on browsers that support custom fonts. We’re using Old Standard TT via Google’s Font API, which gives us a typeface look that’s more similar to the typeface we use in print than the ‘websafe’ Georgia.

In its first few hours since it launched, discussions on Twitter and the like have concentrated on who’s not in the list (and, of those who are, the emphasis on 20th and 21st century actors from the British Isles). Over the course of the whole campaign, I hope that discussion will widen out into what makes a great actor stand out from a good one.

Visit the site now at www.thestage.co.uk/greatestactor.

My top 5 WordPress plugins

Earlier today, Tim Ireland (@bloggerheads) asked over Twitter:

Hello, hive-mind. What are your top 5 must-have WordPress plugins?

I’ve tried out several plugins since moving this blog to WordPress, so coming up with possible suggestions wasn’t difficult. Keeping it to five was, as was deciding on an order for them. I’m not sure the order I eventually went with was the correct one, though, so here are my top 5 plugins, presented in alphabetical order.

NB: Not all the plugins mentioned below are, at time of writing, attested by their authors to work with WordPress 3.0, the most recent version. As with any software, use is at your own risk: all I can say is that they work with my WordPress install.

Custom Post Limits

I first blogged about this plugin almost exactly a year ago, but it deserves another outing. The plugin allows you to fine tune any page where WordPress would normally show multiple blog posts, be it the main index page, monthly archives, lists of posts tagged with a certain phrase, etc.

With the default WordPress installation, all such pages must show the same number of posts, which isn’t always helpful. I’m no longer using the template that initially made me start using this plugin, but it remains in use because it offers setting that should, quite frankly, be a standard WordPress feature.

Google XML Sitemaps

One of the best ways of ensuring that search engines including (but not limited to) Google can find all of your pages, and not just the ones linked from your home page, is the use of an XML Sitemap. This is a file that effectively lists all the unique URLs that exist on your blog, and can also give hints as to which ones you consider the most important, and which ones the search engine spider can poll for changes less frequently.

While most modern WordPress themes are designed well enough to include some best practice methods of search engine optimization (SEO), having an automatically-updated sitemap can really help ensure your posts get the best chance of being indexed accurately.


As its name implies, the Redirection plugin can help you implement page redirects. This can be especially useful if you’ve previously run your blog with different software that used different URL building schemes, for example.

If anybody follows a link from a third party website to an out-of-date URL on your blog, normally they would see an error page (in the parlance of the HTTP specification used by web browsers, the status code of the error is number 404). This plugin allows you to intercept that error before it’s shown to the user, and instead ask their browser to redirect to the new, more appropriate location.

As a result, your readers are happier, search engines (which include the number of successful links coming into your site as part of their ranking algorithms) are happier. It’s a win-win.

The user interface of this plugin isn’t the greatest, to be honest, but once it’s set up correctly you will rarely need to access it too often. It’s worth keeping an eye on the logs it creates to check that you haven’t missed any pages, though.

Theme Test Drive

Everybody wants a little bit of individuality for their blog. Finding the right visual theme can sometimes be the most daunting part of setting up a WordPress blog. While WordPress 3 makes it easy to switch between radically different themes, the last thing you want to do is to have your audience on the web watch you try out theme after theme until you find the one that fits.

Theme Test Drive allows you to apply your new theme so that only you can see it. Regular visitors to your set will continue to see the old theme until you’re ready to switch.

It’s the WordPress equivalent of having a fitting room to try on new clothes, rather than having to strip down and parade about in your undies in front of the other shoppers. Which is just as unpleasant for them as it is for you. (Don’t ask me how I know.)

Yet Another Related Posts Plugin (YARPP)

Back in August 2009, I recommended a plugin that allowed you to automatically build a list of related blog posts. This one’s better. The algorithm takes more of the blog’s content into account, it allows for extra customisation and caching if you need it, and can include the related links in your blog’s RSS feed if you want it to.

If you’re logged in as an administrator and view your blog posts while this plugin is switched on, each of the recommended links also displays a relevance score. In theory, this can help you identify if you need to use a cut-off value to eliminate links to posts which aren’t quite as relevant as you’d like. In practice, I’ve found that YARPP is reliable enough not to need any tweaking at all.

My first iPhone app, a week in

Earlier this week, I blogged about how an iPhone app I’d written was now live. A week in, and things are moving on quite quickly.

Midweek, The Stage Jobs & Auditions was selected as a “staff favourite” on the UK App Store, which meant that it got a slot on the App Store main page within iTunes, albeit one well below the fold. Still, that certainly contributed to an increased number of downloads and a peak of number 3 in the “free apps” version of the Business apps chart.

At least, I thought it was a peak…

Continue reading “My first iPhone app, a week in”

My first iPhone app

UPDATE, 2 July: the app has been added to Apple’s ‘Staff Favourites’ list, and is currently no. 2 in the Business charts for free apps!

Over the weekend, my first iPhone app went live on the App Store. A free download, it’s a simple little app that allows users to browse The Stage’s jobs and auditions that are advertised online (and, in most cases, also in our weekly print edition).

The Stage Jobs and Auditions app (which we call just Stage Jobs for short) is free to download and use (save for your own 3G/internet connection costs). It briefly hit number 3 in iTunes’ chart of free business apps, which probably says more about the small number of downloads in that category than any soaraway success.

The bulk of the app takes the data from The Stage’s recruitment section, served up as XML via a private API (thanks to our web developer James, who implemented the server side of the API). This is converted to the iPhone’s standard drill-down format of clickable lists which, when clicked, slide off to the left to reveal more information – either a list of subcategories, a list of adverts, or the advert detail itself.

Going from proof of concept to a workable prototype was remarkably quick – a matter of weeks – thanks to a few things.

Continue reading “My first iPhone app”

Such Tweet Sorrow: website-specific theatre that works

I have to admit that when I heard a modern day version of Romeo and Juliet was to be ‘staged’ on Twitter, I was sceptical. Not necessarily that it would be possible to play out a series of characters posting online as if they were real — that has been done before. YouTube had lonelygirl15, which continued for some time before being revealed as fictional. On Twitter itself, the characters behind web-only crime thriller Girl Number 9 conversed with each other in the run-up to the release of the first episode online.

That latter experiment didn’t really work for me, because it involved characters I did not know talking to each other about a crime case I knew even less. As such it proved hard to get drawn in.

And I thought the online Romeo and Juliet, punningly entitled Such Tweet Sorrow, might actually suffer a reverse problem. The story of Verona’s two houses both alike in dignity is so well known that it couldn’t possibly work.

Not for the first time, I was incredibly wrong. Such Tweet Sorrow (aka @Such_Tweet) is an utterly compelling retelling. But the kicker is that for it to work, you have to have it playing alongside your existing Twitter conversations. If you dip in via the official website, it just doesn’t work.

You may have heard of site-specific theatre, a “performance which can only be done in a particular place or site”. Such Tweet Sorrow is the first, truly successful, online version – website-specific theatre.

In its first few days, it was hard to adjust to some of the representations of the characters we know from Shakespeare’s play. Most of the characters’ names have been retained from the original — but apart from Juliet @julietcap16 (and, to a far lesser extent, Romeo, @romeo_mo) none of the characters’ first names really work in a modern context. When was the last time you met a Tybalt (@Tybalt_Cap) or a Mercutio (@mercuteio)?

That disparity, between medieval names and dialogue that fits in naturally with life in 2010 London, provides an initial barrier to suspension of disbelief. Some of the other characters’ integration to the storyline required more massaging. Friar Lawrence becomes @LaurenceFriar (not the most common of surnames), an internet café owner and small-time drug dealer. More successfully, the Nurse becomes Jess, Juliet and Tybalt’s older sister, who had to take on a more matronly role towards her siblings when their mother died ten years ago (explaining her @Jess_nurse username)

And just reading the characters’ tweets, either on the Twitter list page @Such_Tweet/such-tweet-sorrow or on the official website timeline, doesn’t really present the story in the correct light to get over that feeling, because it removes from the narrative the most important aspect of Twitter — that it’s a real time messaging system.

Instead, I elected to follow each of the characters, so that their tweets would show up in my own Twitter timeline, jumbled up amid those of everyone else I follow. It means that events play out at a more believable pace: Romeo had to be coaxed onto Twitter because he was too busy playing an online game with an American girl called Rosaline, and didn’t even show up in the ‘play’ for the first couple of days. A brawl between some of the Capulet and Montague boys saw abuse being hurled long after the event, just as it would in real life.

Throughout Friday, Juliet started to stress about her 16th birthday party that night (coincidentally, the youngest Capulet shares her birthday with the Bard), while the Montague boys debated whether to crash it. It may sound trite, but with events unfolding alongside your own friends planning their own Friday evening jollities, it works surprisingly well.

The story has bled out onto other websites, too, just as non-fictional conversations on Twitter do. Sites devoted to sharing photos and videos via Twitter make regular appearances, while a Tumblr-driven blog provides some insights from @Jago_klepto, a classmate of Juliet’s who provides some additional commentary.

As it stands, Romeo and Juliet spent the night together after bumping into one another at the birthday party, so we can expect the fall-out any day now. Which brings another factor into play. In the latter stages of the play, much of the tragedy comes about through the main characters’ ignorance of the others’ intentions and motivations. Juliet fakes her death; Romeo, believing her dead, poisons himself; a waking Juliet, seeing her dead lover, stabs herself.

Given the way the play has unfolded so far, I feel sure that the people planning Such Tweet Sorrow have worked out how to cope with such big secrets in an arena that is intrinsically open to everyone. It’ll be a test of their creativity, for sure — and if that closing act fails online, it will have an effect on how this venture is remembered. Right now, though, to steal a phrase from one of Shakespeare’s other masterpieces, Such Tweet Sorrow is a palpable hit.

Brevity is the soul of wit, and the bane of the feature writer

I wonder – does nobody buy Sunday papers any more because their contents are drivel, or can those papers only afford to commission drivel because nobody buys them?

Thankfully, the Independent on Sunday puts ‘editor-at-large’ Janet Street Porter’s column online, so we can read it for the cost of what it’s worth — approximately nothing.

I don’t suppose we can blame Street-Porter for the startlingly unoriginal headline, [Twitter ye not, for it will not change the world](http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/janet-street-porter/editoratlarge-twitter-ye-not-for-it-will-not-change-the-world-1772833.html). I mean, it only shows a healthy respect for the oeuvre of Frankie Howerd by the subeditors’ desk, albeit a respect that others [have shown before them](http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/feb/22/wikipedia-internet). However, the resulting spew of words can only be put down to her.

It takes 730 words for Street-Porter to demonstrate that she has no idea what she’s talking about when it comes to internet messaging service [Twitter](http://twitter.com).

> If I want to know whether a show is worth going to at the Edinburgh Festival, or if Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album is worth buying, I certainly don’t want a 140-character Twitter; I want an intelligent review written in real sentences, not some bastard lingo that’s the ugly love-child of texting and abbreviations.

We can do that. For the Fringe, _The Stage_ is providing notifications of each one of its 350+ reviews through the [@EdinburghStage](http://twitter.com/EdinburghStage) account. Each review is, as Street-Porter requires, intelligently written by one of our six full-time (or a couple of additional, part-time) festival reviewers. The Twitter notification consists of the name of the production, its location and a link to the full review. If there’s room, we also include a short summary of the review but nobody’s under any illusion that this is the review in its entirety.

> Interestingly, teenagers have already sussed Twitter is crap and aren’t taking it up. According to a Nielsen survey, only 16 per cent of the people twittering are under 25, while a whopping 64 per cent are between 25 and 54. The largest group of users are aged 35 to 49 – and that’s enough to deter the young. The use of social networking is already dropping among teenagers as the number of 25-34 year-olds using sites such as Facebook increases. In fact, ITV might have sold Friends Reunited in the nick of time, because at this rate the only people trying to meet up via websites like it will be so middle-aged, dreary and dull that no one will bother logging on.

This is the same Janet Street-Porter who, five years ago, was saying [Yah-boo to the youth cult](http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/janet-street-porter/editoratlarge-yah-boo-to-the-youth-cult-555138.html):

> For a long time now I’ve been writing that this country’s obsession with youth is ludicrous, when it’s the crumblies who have all the power, the disposable income and the ability to vote Labour in or out at the next election.

“Yes, this obsession with youth is disgraceful. Except when I can use it to justify whatever conclusion I’ve decided I need to come to in order to fill this week’s page of newsprint.”

Back to today’s article:

> Twitter panders to all that is shallow and narcissistic in our society, reducing lives and experiences (like childbirth and death) to missives that last even less than the average British male’s attempts at foreplay.

“You see what I did there? A pop at masculinity, by implying every man’s bad in bed, just to prove a point about a service I don’t really understand. What’s that you say? By doing so, I’m being as shallow as I imply Twitter is? The very idea!”

The closing sentiment of Street-Porter’s diatribe really takes the biscuit.

> It makes me angry that we’re so keen to stop talking in sentences, and are swapping having real conversations for knee-jerk reactions. If this is the future for politics, we’re in trouble.

Forgetting, of course, that Twitter is a conversational tool, whose _component elements_ are limited to 140 characters. Those elements can then be built upon to build greater conversations, either on Twitter or diverging off onto blogs, message boards or the real world.

The knee-jerk, of course, is the bread and butter of the newspaper columnist, as shown here. And in an environment where journalists are paid by the word, brevity is far from being the soul of wit: it becomes the enemy of the purse.

To paraphrase Street-Porter herself, if columnists like her are the future for print journalism, no wonder it’s in trouble.

WordPress Wednesday: Efficient Related Posts

* Update: I now recommend [YARPP](http://wordpress.org/extend/plugins/yet-another-related-posts-plugin/) for related posts instead. Read why in my post [My top 5 WordPress plugins](http://matthewman.net/2010/07/29/my-top-5-wordpress-plugins/)

WordPress is a great blogging platform. And because it’s built on PHP, it’s possible to include lots of dynamic code that gets evaluated and run whenever one of your website’s readers loads a page.

Too many such dynamic elements, though, and it can seriously degrade your site’s performance, especially if those elements require complex database access. A case in point is any plugin that calculates related posts ‘on the fly’. The more posts your blog has, the longer any such calculation would take. And given that every reader will be shown the same related posts information, recalculating that information on every page view doesn’t make much sense.

A caching plugin (for example, WP-SuperCache) would help, but it makes more sense to maintain the related posts links in the database, and only recalculate the network of links when posts are created or edited.

That’s the intention behind Efficient Related Posts. Every time you create a blog post, the plugin will store links to other posts — so when you view the post page, no expensive recalculations have to be made.

Of course, if you calculated related posts only for new posts, the only links that would be created would end up going to older posts. Efficient Related Posts gets round that problem by selectively recalculating other posts’ links too. So if you create post A and the plugin determines that it’s related to posts B, C and D, those three posts’ related links will get re-evaluated.

In a blog with thousands of entries, there’s a possibility that the evaluation loop could cause some serious delays. At least by containing those delays to the admin side, your readers will gain the benefit of the related links without any delays in their preparation.