Tom Barfield's blog

Personal musings of a young journalist in London

The book the world doesn’t need right now

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A piece on CNN.com the other day titled “The novel America needs right now” managed to conflate two wildly separate phenomena that I thought deserved separating back out. Mark Bauerlein writes that:

Adolescence used to be a condition you escaped as soon as you could, but these 20-somethings want to prolong it.

We need to counteract them, to restore embarrassment to adolescent habits, and books are a key weapon.

(go ahead and read the whole article, it’s at least interesting)

The trouble is, these two things have almost nothing to do with one another. It’s all very well bemoaning the endless YA fiction that’s stolen the literary limelight, but saying that its popularity is all down to “pre-adults” seems wilfully blinkered. Books like Harry Potter and Fifty Shades of Grey have been seized on not just by twenty-somethings but by their parents and by the newspapers and other cultural outlets that guide their reading choices. You could buy Harry Potter hardcovers with “grown-up-looking” dust jackets so that your fellow commuters on the train wouldn’t know you were reading a kids’ book, for Christ’s sake.

Now there’s a perfectly good discussion to be had about why so many people are reading YA fiction at the moment (in my case I mostly blame boingboing) but it’s clearly not just down to the “Twixters” (awful word that makes it sound like 20-somethings are all sitting on the sofa stuffing ourselves with Twixes). I’ve grown pretty tired of YA stuff myself (The Hunger Games was the last straw) and gone back to reading Stendhal for a bit.

Bauerlein’s wider point, though, about the idea that “pre-adulthood” needs to be “exploded”, its “creep” halted, its “trendy pose” “taken down”, is pretty unfounded. Who’s to say that it’s a bad thing that people are living with their friends, trying out different jobs and relationships, and (horror of horrors) playing video games well into their 20s?

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Scandalous behaviour. Image credit: NBC

After all, what’s the alternative? Settle down into the late 20th century paradigm of a marriage that’ll most likely end in divorce supported by a job that’s whatever someone told you about that sounded just about bearable at a careers evening in your last term at school?

There doesn’t seem to be any recognition on the part of the pre-adulthood bemoaners that times have changed since the 1950s, when “most people completed their translation to adulthood – finishing school, finding their first job, marrying and having children ‘by age 21 or so'”. Apart from anything, life expectancy has gone up about 10 years in that time. Women’s lives have changed beyond recognition. I don’t know any women my age who would have been anything other than horrified to be pregnant at age 21. I don’t know many people who have a job now that they’d want to be doing until they’re into their 70s either (that is, if any of the jobs that are around now still exist when my generation hits 70). In the cold light of what’s actually happening in the world rather than patchily-remembered 1950s fantasies of the good life, the idea that indulging in a bit of pre-adulthood is anything other than a reasonable response to how the world is looks a bit laughable to me.

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Life expectancy, or “Stop those people! They’re enjoying all those extra years progress has given them!” Image credit and key: Wiki

Let’s not forget – the people complaining are the people who’ve made the world this way. They’re the ones who sat back while Western economies gambled themselves off a cliff, leaving us to pick over the unsatisfying bones for gainful employment, who made Friends the defining cultural phenomenon of our childhood and early adolescence, and who struggled for the freedom to not be a kitchen-bound housewife that women are now enjoying.

So three cheers for pre-adulthood, long may it continue. But I’m all in favour of someone sending up the Twilights and the Hunger Games of this world. There’s plenty of puffed up mediocrity out there posing as culture that needs deflating. Sharpen your pens, people.

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Written by Tom Barfield

January 7, 2013 at 1:15 am

Most fun translating German… ever? Interview w/German 2-man bob team for CNN

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Translating the interview with these two characters was great fun – there were a lot of laughs! I’m not sure how many of them come across in the video, but you do have to make some compromises with the subtitles. Spent a very enjoyable day sitting in with the editor for this piece and getting the subtitles pitch perfect.

Written by Tom Barfield

December 27, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Interview with President of Hertz International

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I produced this shoot for CNNI’s business show Marketplace Europe – did lots of background research on Hertz for reporter Jim Boulden, accompanied the camera crew down to Heathrow and so on.

Written by Tom Barfield

December 13, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Interview with President of BT Global Services

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I conducted background research for reporter Max Foster for this interview and accompanied him up the BT Tower for the shoot – quite the opportunity since the Tower isn’t open to the public! Great views of London that you won’t get anywhere else (and the interview is pretty interesting too).

Written by Tom Barfield

December 6, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Helping out with Bond 50th at CNNI

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Thought I’d post a few of the stories I worked on this month while I’ve been at CNN. I was pretty lucky to start work just when the Features department were doing lots of Bond-related stuff for the 50th anniversary. Many thanks to Neil Curry for getting me involved with all these pieces!

This piece on Bond vehicles saw us taking a very early morning road trip down to Beaulieu to the National Motor Museum. The curator had been doing interviews all week so he had his patter down just about perfectly.

This piece featuring Bond stuntman Vic Armstrong was the first time I’ve been sitting behind the camera asking the questions. I also got to sit in one of those film-director canvas folding stools, which was pretty fun. Vic’s autobiography┬áTrue Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman is a good read if you’re a fan of Indiana Jones, James Bond, Star Wars etc. – he’s worked on all of them and more.

Visiting Bond theme composer Monty Norman’s house was great fun as he had the original James Bond theme score and some great stories about the early days of the franchise. I didn’t horrify him with my rendition of the theme on the piano.

The interviews with the Bond girls from the premiere of Everything or Nothing are from my first day at CNN. I wasn’t expecting to leave the office but ended up sticking a mic in Charles Dance’s face at the premiere (I managed to sneak in some questions about Game of Thrones too!).

Written by Tom Barfield

October 30, 2012 at 10:26 am

Posted in Broadcast, Reporting

Two weeks of tech writing

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I’ve been working at the Telegraph for a couple of weeks to get my hand back into news writing after a year as community manager at Demotix. I was a bit rusty for the first couple of days but I think I soon got back into the swing of things.

I thought I’d round up the stuff I’ve been doing for future reference, so here’s 10 days’ worth of tech articles. Some of these (ok, especially the video game review) were particularly fun to research and write about.

Tablets one of the fastest growing technologies in history

New search engine aims to Google the real world

Facebook members desert Zynga’s Farmville and Cityville

Apple’s Siri sued for failing to live up to hype

Computing GCSE to focus on programming

Habbo Hotel to reopen chat rooms after sex scandal

Microsoft tablet surfaces to mixed reaction on Twitter

Nigerian email scams deliberately implausible

Internet activity could help diagnose depression

Tribes: Ascend review

BBC iPlayer to let viewers rewind live TV

British businesses ‘not keeping up with technology

Twitter turns on Jimmy Carr over tax scheme

Written by Tom Barfield

June 21, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Newspapers, Reporting

What’s in a Community Manager’s Toolbox?

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A quick writeup of last night’s London Community Managers meetup for the benefit of anyone who wasn’t there. Props to Elana Zak for organising and moderating the whole thing, and for coming up with the questions for the panel.

On the panel were @BlaiseGV (hereafter “Blaise”), @Ninja_Bytes (Ngan), @MAJohns (Mark) and @lucaben1n1 (Luca).

What CM tools do you use?

Blaise gave the first and most pragmatic answer – “use the tool that’s right for the job”. Since there are plenty of free tools around it’s easy to find one that suits you – just make sure you can export data easily and watch out for API changes that could leave you scrabbling to fill a sudden hole in your workflow. Ngan namechecked Tweetdeck for Twitter, Gremln for monitoring cross-platform conversations and posting short URLs, and Facebook Analytics – “really useful for a free tool”.

Mark pointed at HootSuite – “simple and powerful enough” to introduce journalists to participating in social media, and SocialFlow for its valuable scheduling and publishing from RSS features. He also took the opportunity to big up The Economist’s own commenting system – “we prefer to be in command of our own destiny” is how he explained the choice to stay away from Disqus or similar.

Luca works for BuddyMedia. He explained what the company does (building off-the-shelf multiplatform tools for community and social media managers). He highlighted (as others already had) the ability to export data as critical for a really good tool.

Free or paid apps – remember, CMs (usually) have a limited budget!

Luca pointed out that agencies have a particular need for paid tools – managing thousands of client pages at once is another step up again from the in-house community manager as power user. “What brings you as an individual to use TweetDeck… brings large organisations to go another step with technology that works at a different scale.” Ngan agreed, but pointed out that for an in-house CM a paid app might only become worth it when it has a feature that will have a big impact on your work and that you can’t find elsewhere.

Mark agreed, saying “The time you know you need to upgrade to a paid app is when you realise you’re not getting what you need [from a free one].” He pointed out that paid apps also mean there’s a chain of accountability – they’ll generally keep track of who’s doing what if a tweet about breakfast goes out on the company account. Blaise took this a step further, saying that big businesses are almost certain to pay for reliable data and accountability when something goes wrong. On a personal level, his rule is “if it’s going to improve your productivity, it’s worth paying for – your productivity is stunted by being active on social media anyway!”

What tools are definitely worth paying for?

Ngan advocated for Omniture with its in-depth analytics and data – she’s been using it at EA, but she’s looking forward to playing with Radian6, Sysomos and BrandWatch at her next job. Blaise noted that brands will be worried about libel on social media, so a tool like Conversocial could keep the lawyers off your back by surfacing otherwise-hidden postings. He also mentioned SproutSocial for making FB Analytics pretty, and the “very expensive” Tableau for making pretty graphs fast.

Some audience members chimed in on the various advantages of Sysomos’ tools, such as Heartbeat, discussing different use cases. This is when the conversation came back around to APIs, with Luca pointing out that “as a tool provider, you’re very much reliant on what’s open for you to innovate with” – citing the few third parties invited to work with the G+ API. He did point out, though, that in Russia or China platform providers are “completely unused to the idea” of providing an API in the first place.

Mark got some laughs by saying that he would murder for a tool to bring together all the conversations happening on-site and on different social media platforms – “whether that even makes logical sense or whether people will look at it and shake their heads I don’t know!”

What tools do you wish could be developed to make your jobs easier?

Luca lamented the lack of a reliable way of defining sentiment for listening tools, remembering that many attempts end up with your tech being as reliable as a coinflip. “The best listening tools are humans,” is the conclusion for now, something Ngan agreed with strongly.

An audience member shouted out that there should be a tool to prove the ROI of good community management – Blaise agreed and noted that too often CM activities are divided into buckets that should really all be part of the same flow. Luca suggested that this was an avenue BuddyMedia would be exploring in future, but Blaise sounded a note of warning, saying “we’re stepping further and further away from the actual people who we’re supposed to be interacting with.” Mark agreed – “we should never get carried away with our own cleverness, it’s about hard work too.”

Wrap-up

And that was that, apart from some quick discussion about best sources of info for new tools (names thrown out were TWitter, Mashable, Engadget, Crunchbase and 10,000 words) and a quick 2-minute pitch from SoDash, a company that hopes to solve the sentiment problem using artificial intelligence from Scotland.

Hope it was useful and thanks for reading!

Written by Tom Barfield

May 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized