Monday, 14 May 2007

Pick Me Up (Again)

How many people can say an email changed their life?

Probably quite a few these days, actually - and some with more dramatic stories than mine. But, for what it's worth, the email in question was Pick Me Up - a weekly newsletter of stories, events listings and requests, run by volunteers and held together by a DIY approach to life.

Made up of two or three line snippets, each with a link to a longer article or a website, it married culture and activism with a hopeful, playful attitude. Nothing got written about unless it involved someone actually making something happen, then telling the story in their own words. Over two years, that included:

- providing air hostess service on the London Underground
- grazing cows in the city
- stealing a concert hall from the Sarajevo mafia
- installing a street piano in Sheffield
- and naming at least one baby!

So did it really change my life? Well, by the time I became an editor for Pick Me Up, I already had form as a journalist and an activist. But working with Charlie Davies - who started the email after the demise of The Face - challenged me to raise my game, and to push at the limits of those roles.

If I hadn't got involved with Pick Me Up, I'd probably still be working in a BBC newsroom. I certainly wouldn't have left to start the School of Everything, since it was through the email that I met three of my co-founders.

Charlie Davies (right) with Sebastian Mary HarringtonPick Me Up founder Charlie Davies (right) with sMary from the School of Everything

After reaching its hundredth issue last summer, Pick Me Up went to sleep for a while. As editors, many of us had become busy with new projects. It felt like we'd graduated from the email, and to keep it going out of a sense of duty would have been missing the point.

Still, I was excited when a brand new issue arrived in my inbox earlier this year - and recently, it seems to be returning to something like its original frequency. (As you'll gather, I'm not directly involved at the moment.)

My only concern is that, where three years ago Pick Me Up felt incredibly fresh and distinctive, today the attitude it embodied seems to be all over the place! Every time I pick up an issue of Time Out, I find stories like this, about the "Guerrilla Benchers" who reinstall seating where local councils have taken it away. Where our relationship with our readers - who often provided the best stories - felt like a contrast to the cynicism of some BBC colleagues, now "user-generated content" is all across the media. Such cynicism is hardly dead, yet just tonight I was struck by BBC2's new series Power To The People, in which a Newsnight reporter turns activist - in the first programme, leading the villagers of Lanteith on an invasion of Islington, complete with echoes of Eike's urban cows.

I'm not saying we started it all - and I'm certainly not saying it's stopped being cool now everyone's at it. But I am curious as to what Pick Me Up should do next. (Any suggestions...?)

As it happens, I'm speaking on a panel with Charlie in Sheffield this Friday, so I shall ask him what he's got planned! (If you want to come along, it's a discussion called 'Free vs Open', as part of the Lovebytes digital arts festival - and we're on at the Showroom cinema at 4pm.)

You can sign up for future issues of Pick Me Up here.


treacle said...

I haven't heard of Pick Me Up before but it sounds like a great tool for spreading inspirational news. I understand what you mean about "user generated" content being available everywhere now but I'm not sure if the content is all that genuine ie. are the users not guided by the people controlling the channels?

Anyway on another note, I saw the doc you refer to and I thought it was interesting how the guy convinced the villagers that they should protest using their children etc and at times sat back to watch the outcome... what do you think about that?

Dougald Hine said...

Hi Treacle - thanks for the comment!

I think you're basically right that there's a problem with "user generated content" on TV and other "old media". There's a tension between the message and the medium - however much you start channelling viewer's voices/actions/etc through TV, the medium still tends to give a small number of people the ability to massively amplify their ability to communicate, while relying on a far larger number of people playing an essentially passive role. (In other words, the people who control the channels can hardly help controlling the viewers.)

For the viewer, interactivity seldom goes much further than voting for who to evict from Big Brother - the medium just isn't suited to anything like the degree of interactivity that people are increasingly used to on the internet. (Though some bits of the internet are more TV-like and passive...) Meanwhile, in the hands of the broadcaster, the concentration of power tends to corrupt. The most obvious recent example is the scandal over telephone voting fraud... More generally, though, there is a tendency - not universal, but widespread - to treat the audience with some degree of contempt. (Martin Amis satirises the extreme version of this in 'Yellow Dog', where the staff of a fictional tabloid refer to their readers at all times as 'wankers'.) To the extent that this happens, I don't think it's simply because people who work in the media are especially nasty - it's more of a structural phenomenon.

Phew! Hope that rant wasn't too impenetrable... Having said all that, I thought the Louis Theroux-esque approach adopted by the presenter on Power to the People struck a decent balance - given the imbalance of the medium itself. I've always been mildly sceptical about the convention of impartiality and the pose of not influencing the events you're documenting. It's more honest to show how you're engaging and influencing them, than to pretend that things would have happened in exactly the same fashion if there hadn't been a camera crew present.

I haven't caught any of the rest of the series, though. Anyone else seen them?

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