Hipstamatic, Plumpton Mornings, and echoes on the internet

This is a longish post, but given it’s about a longish project, that’s probably fine.

We moved to Plumpton, Sussex in April 2011.  It was just before Smithery started, so after a long weekend of lifting, unpacking and discovering, I had to go to back to work up in that London to PHD.

As I crossed the bridge at Plumpton Station over to platform 2 for the first time, I looked back down the line, towards Lewes, East Sussex, the coast and beyond.  It’s a rifle-straight track, accompanied on its way by a guard of honour of trees and fields.  If the Romans had built train lines, they’d have been proud of this one.

I took a picture on that first day to mark the occasion in some small, transitory way, and shared it on a wee social network called Instagram.  I used the hashtag #plumptonmornings for it.  This is that very first one…

 

I’m really angry with myself for how bad this picture is.  I’m nowhere near the centre of the bridge.  The horizon is wonky.  It’s rubbish.…. when I invent my time-machine, that’s the first small thing I’ll fix…

But anyway, then I did it again the next day I travelled up to London.  Then the next.  Then the next… everyone appearing on Instagram.

Back then Instagram was just a small startup in the Valley with about 5 milllion users (yes, I know, small…).  Nowadays it’s part of the Facebook empire, having been bought for a billion dollars.  Or a billion dollars ’worth’ of Facebook shares, which turned out to be a different thing entirely.

Yet despite it’s cornucopia of filter options, I didn’t use Instagram to take the picture, however.  I used their now failing rival, Hipstamatic.

Hipstamatic are a company who were one of the first to the ‘nostalgic photo app’ game, but who’d misread the winds of business models – why bother building a business which makes money, when you can build one who gathers users?  Don’t sell things to users, sell users to companies who need more users.

I wonder if in 2012 the best way to make lots of money from the internet is to sell your business to people who think they can make lots of money from the internet?

On that note, if you haven’t already you should really read this three part story on Hipstamatic’s woes from Fast Company.  It highlights, in part, how it all started to go wrong for Hipstamatic when they started trying to build a social network into their business.  When what they were better at was making a good product….

The product is why I like Hipstamatic.  I have bought a lot of upgrades to extend the functionality as far as I can.  I may have bought all of them.  Perhaps I am one of the 100,000 users an ex-employee refers to in the Fast Company piece ‘who will buy almost anything’.

Which is an ugly turn of phrase for a company about customers, perhaps, but nobody said the Valley was a pretty place to work.

Exactly why do I like it though?  I’ve thought long and hard about this, and come to the following conclusion.

It’s not about a misplaced sense of nostalgia.  I’m not looking for a “vintage” camera app.  I don’t like the photos the app produces because they remind me of photos as I used to know them.

Can I be nostalgic for a style of photos that I’ve never taken or developed?  Or is it some sort of secondary nostalgia, like twenty-year olds who spend their Saturday nights at fifties rockabilly shindigs?

 

No.

I think the retro-window dressing that veils Hipstamatic could be replaced by anything else.  It could be a robot theme, it could be alien theme, it could be a high-fashion theme, it could even be a New Aesthetic theme… it wouldn’t really matter as long as the functionality remained.

It’s not that I want a quick way to take photos that look like they were taken on a Polaroid camera in 1982.

I  want a quick way to make photos look more interesting than they do when using an iPhone camera in 2012.

If anything, I think the vintage theme holds Hipstamatic back.  I primarily value Hipstamatic for what it does for me.

Perhaps in the wild west of app land, function is permanent, form can be temporary.  And the retro thing is cooked, overdone.  People will play around with the past.  But they will buy into the future.

What future for Hipstamatic then?  A good one, maybe, if they keep focussed on what people actually use the app for.  In short, it’s labour-light, talent-light photoshop.

I could spend hours playing with every photo I’ve taken on Photoshop, retouching and filtering them myself to make them interesting, different.  I was always a sucker for the ‘filter’ section in Photoshop, randomly experimenting to see what would happen to photos if you overlayed lots of stuff on them.

Filters (be they on Photoshop, Instagram or Hipstamatic) are like the guitar effects pedals of photography.  I see no point being all purist about them.  It’s a bit like the acoustic folk lot who decried Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar.

Yet I have not the time, patience, nor inclination to spend every waking hour doing that to photos.

Hipstamatic lets you swap control for serendipity, like the lucky dip of photo manipulation.  It has a ‘shake to randomise’ function, so rather than knowing what combination to choose of ‘film’ and ‘lens’ (yes, really means ‘border’ and ‘filter’), you just click and hope.

For Plumpton Mornings, I’d shake the camera on the way up the steps on to the bridge, so that I didn’t know what combination it has loaded, and take the photo at a precise point on the bridge; one foot either side of a thin tarmac join, one foot away from the rail, phone at chest height.

By the time I was at the bottom of the steps on the other side, all the filtering and processing has been finished.  It would take about 120 seconds of every day to take, process and upload each picture.

This laziness means that I have much, much less control than I could have over every picture.  But it actually pushes it out the other side of ‘control’…

The photo of that day is set by circumstances out of my hands.  Some great sunrises and bizarre cloud patterns have been made to look particularly ordinary, and some fairly ordinary mornings have been transformed by the digital trickery buried in my phone somewhere.

The best pictures were the ones when the natural elements and digital elements conspired to make some spectacular images.

It’s officially finished now though.

The capturing stage of the project lasted for a year and a day – 26th April 2011 – 26th April 2012.  There are 179 #plumptonmornings pictures that I would consider to be part of the official canon….

 

I still take the pictures of #plumptonmornings, but I don’t consider those part of the project… they’re nostalgia for the project itself.

All the subsequent pictures, like the one this morning, are just echoes of the idea… ghosts of a project I did for a year.

 

Plumpton Mornings is a project that’s representative of the changing nature of photography.  Where there is no scarcity, as we endlessly click click click with no consideration, we must find ways to create other types of scarcity.  I will only take this once a day, when this happens, when I see this, or pass that, or use this, or shake that.  Cultural projects need creative restrictions.

And there are lots of these photo projects around, because we’ve all got the tools in our pockets to capture them, and some folks find an interesting creative restriction to work with, be it sleeping commuters or IBM tills…

 

It’s a point reinforced in a snippet from this  Verge article (“Everyone shoots first: reality in the age of Instagram”) –

“Culture is no longer made for us by others. Increasingly, ordinary individuals are able to roll their own”

In part, people are making more cultural things that they’re interested in at the start, rather than the end… we’re moving back through the culture factory and making stuff, not just consuming it.

And it serves do to what culture has always done, in that it reveals a bit more about who we are.  But here, it tells us exactly who we are, because we made the cultural thing rather than just sought meaning in someone else’s vision.  It’s a cultural interpretation of our past.

Plumpton Mornings was a small memento of every commute up into that London across the course of our first year in Plumpton, a randomly generated visual interpretation of that morning, a way to store other data (such as the time and date stamp of when each photo was taken).

But even ‘storing data’ in this way is risky… Tom Chatfield’s piece on the decaying web hints at this…

“one year after an event, on average, about 11% of the online content referenced by social media had been lost and just 20% archived. What’s equally striking, moreover, is the steady continuation of this trend over time. After two and a half years, 27% had been lost and 41% archived.”

 

What I’ve found myself doing is making permanent things, which will decay with more grace (decolouring, patina etc) than their digital counterparts, which will one day simply flick from there to not there, as an errant line of code is put where it shouldn’t be, or a server in the the middle of an ocean somewhere crashes…

Hermann Iterations – Postcard Set

Tiny art book on tiny coffee table

 

And the last piece is here, a picture that Helen, my wife, asked for.

It’s one of three square pictures that are just under a metre long, the other two having been auctioned to raise money for local charities.

 

I think this picture represents the last act of the Plumpton Morning project, and by that I mean it’s the last physical execution I’ll do.  I want to end the project before Hipstamatic disappears, because that would be weird in some way.  Plus, ending things is hard.

At the MakerFaire in Brighton last month, Tom Armitage mentioned something in a talk he gave about being “bored with not finishing projects”.  I know that feeling, I have various unfinished things lying around.

But I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to consider that you have finished something if you’ve done it away a significant part of it away from the internet.

The internet is endless, waiting to be filled and filled with as much and as many things as you can produce, and it will still beg for more.  Whereas you can freely introduce scarcity again by moving things off the internet, and into the real world.

So, come Friday moring, if you still see me taking pictures that look like Plumpton Mornings, and are tagged #plumptonmorinings on Instagram, that’s fine.

They’re just echoes.

Field Trip Report – Heatherwick Studio at the V&A

Wherever I’ve worked, I’ve always been keen on getting out of the work space, and more importantly the work flow, and learning new things.

Field trips, as we would have all might have known them at school.  Though you don’t need a permission slip from your mum.   Unfortunately, you probably need to ask you boss for one.  Which is usually fine… ish.  Up to a point.  It’s doable.

Now, of course, I’m the sole body of ‘one-man studio’ Smithery… (Thank you to PAGE magazine for that description, it has become increasingly useful of late).

I am both boss and employee.  Field trip agitator and agitatee.  There is stuff to be done, says the boss.  But after field trips the stuff will be better, says the employee.

The employee wins out.  He’s alright, my boss.

So, I’ve had my eye on the Heatherwick Studio exhibition at the V&A for a while now…

I think Ben Terrett put a photo on Instagram commending the Heatherwick ‘Making’ book about three months ago, which I subsequently bought and immersed myself in.

Having read most of the book already, I suppose the creations weren’t as much of a surprise as discovering them fresh, but of course they were still a delight to see in the flesh (even if they were largely scale models of final projects).

What was most valuable was the audio interviews that were part of the exhibition; exhibition curator Abraham Thomas interviewing Thomas Heatherwick, his collaborators at the studio and the commissioners of his work.  If I could recommend anything to you at this exhibition, it would be to pick up each and every last black telephone at an audio station and listen intently.

So anyway, some things it’s made me think about…

 

i – Experience or Expertise?

In one of the audio interviews, Heatherwick talked about the importance of designing and making things together, and how above a certain scale (especially buildings) the designing and making had grown apart.

In big traditional architecture firms the designers of buildings don’t really learn anything about the qualities of the materials that will be used, because it’s not a requirement of the modern architecture craft.  Nobody makes you go out and build a wall with bricks, or bend some steel.

He talked about how it’s much better to have a conversation with a welding firm if you’ve done a fair bit of welding yourself; you don’t try to pretend you are a better welder than them, but if you have some understanding of the craft you can talk about potential ways to approach a project.

It’s not expertise you must try to convey, but experience.  Enough experience to know what the basic physical laws of a material are, and help the expert solve a problem in new ways.

I think it’s always valuable to know the limitations of your ‘expertise’.

I spent eighteen months once doing a lot of investigation and experimentation with game design, and by the end of it recognised that I was certainly not a game designer, I just knew about game design.  But I could spot the spaces where expert game designers were needed, and talk enough about the ‘material’ to help form the ideas.

Unfortunately, other partner agencies didn’t quite take the same approach, blundering into the “sure, we can do that, how hard can it be?” trap… quite hard, as it turned out.

It’s the Yosser Hughes approach – the unemployed character from Alan Bleasdale’s ‘Boys From The Blackstuff’ who, desperately seeking work, looks upon any opportunity with the words “I can do that… gizza job

For various reasons, usually financial, there’s pressure on companies whose old model of business is breaking down to position themselves as experts in something new, and start building the walls and bending the steel where they are quite unqualified to do so.

Getting experience of working in with new ‘materials’ is very useful.  Just remember the gap that exists between experience and expertise.

 

ii – The making is part of the story

This obviously chimes with a big part of the Make Things People Want manifesto which is increasingly the way I talk to people about what Smithery does, or can help them do.

Here Heatherwick was talking about the way they worked with the Haunch of Venison gallery, and involved the director there, Rebecca Davies on the journey of projects and ideas, rather than just display it at the final stage.

She said that she was just ‘market research’ for them, she would react to the pieces which would give them an idea which parts were right, and which parts needed more work.

It’s an increasingly valuable way to think about products and the marketing of them, I think.  The fear is still there in a lot of companies that if they show people what they are doing too early, competitors will see it and steal the ideas.

My personal point of view is that if a competitor has so little creativity of their own that they’re sitting waiting to copy your ideas, you’re probably not going to have to worry about them for long anyway…

So things arrive in the marketplace in their final form.  But if something is finished and unchanging, there’s not going to be a lot to say about it.  Which is why a lot of companies struggle to talk about products – “we need new content!” cry the social marketers, “because that’s the way we communicate now”.  Which means investing a whole lot more money in inventing content around products and companies.

I think as the decade progresses, we’ll see a shift from  companies who look at the way that the likes of Supermechanical have documented the story of TWINE, and start building in making that is part of the marketing.

 

iii – What is the communications equivalent of Tessellation?

There is a repeating theme in the studio’s work of tessellation – “a way of introducing complexity and richness to the monotony of right-angled buildings“.  This is achieved in all sorts of different ways; tiles, cladding, mesh, crinkled steel, and so on…

The problem it solves is a challenging one – how do you create something that works in the same cost-effective way as mass production does, so you make the same thing again and again, so you’re not hand-carving every inch of the building to make it look interesting.

Now, think about this in a communications mindset.  Mass media is mass production – make one thing (TV ad, poster etc) repeat endlessly, but in the modern marketing pantheon are the equivalent of the monotonous right-angled building.

But the ‘social campaign’ approach is the equivalent of having medieval stone masons carving out every message… the human cost of having all those people working constantly to create new messages stacks up.

So what does tessellation in this context look like?

I don’t have any answers yet, mind, but it’s an interesting problem to ponder…

 

iv – What is innovation?

A final quote, from the Head of Innovation at the studio, Stuart Wood.

I found this in my notes, it’s from one of the audio posts, and I believe he was talking about what innovation means in the wider context of what the studio produces…

 

Heatherwick Studio at the V&A runs to Sunday 30th September 2012

So, @LOCOG – what IS a real flag anyway?

I get the feeling that the Olympics are going to throw up lots of interesting talking points over the next few weeks.  Such as this:

 

That’s LOCOG Chief Exec Paul Deighton apologising for the South Korean flag being shown next to the North Korean players’ photos on the big screen at Hampden Park last night.

And he does say ‘we made a mistake’, which always good to see.

But then adds that interesting caveat:  it wasn’t a ‘real flag’.  Does that matter?  Why does that matter?  Do the atoms of a cloth South Korean flag offend more than the pixels of a digital one?

Because the flag no longer ‘exists’, should the offence diminish?  Would a cloth flag have trapped the offence for longer, woven that offence into the fabric of its being?

There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening around this space at the moment.  I don’t want to start a long ol’ exploration of that just yet.  But this recent piece from Mr Bridle is as good a rabbit hole to fall down as any…

This division, between online and off, is a mental illusion, one we propagate to keep ourselves sane for lack of better metaphors

James Bridle

A nation of shopkeepers

Today, I opened the Smithery Shop to the general public.

Which is quite exciting.

 

The first thing in there is the limited edition Artefact bundle (2 boxes of cards, pens, instruction booklet, badge, sticker).

Artefact cards, as you’ll no doubt know if you read this blog regularly, are a card-based thinking system, to improve how you craft you own ideas, how you work with others, and how you share stories and structures.

They’re born of my massive dislike of post-it notes (transitory, disposable flimsy nonsense that no idea worth its salt would be seen dead on) and frustration with the ‘stickiness’ of digital working (it’s much harder to live inside ideas, move elements around, create new connections and so on).

Artefact Cards help you craft ideas that have a greater permanence, and find their own perfect shape a lot more readily.  “Like playing with ideas on an air hockey table” as James Box from Clearleft said.

 

 

 

It’s brilliant to move out of the concept testing stage of the project and into a real thing.

Of course, there are still many things I want to do with Artefact as an idea (quarterly subscriptions, different patterns & devices on cards, bulk orders for partnering companies etc etc), but this really the first stage to fuel those next ones, a proof-of-concept to myself that this really is a useful thing that other people buy into, and get a lot of value from.

To get here, it’s been through the hands of lots of people already.  I’d like to thank them all publically, actually, because all of their feedback and assistance has really helped shape this next iteration.

Thank you, you clever, generous people:

Tom Abba, Toby Barnes, Ben Bashford, David Bausola, James Box, Kevin Brown, Rachel Coldicott, William Corke, Russell Davies, Graeme Douglas, Mark Earls, Mark Elwood, Stefan Erschwender, Mel Exon, Chloe Gottlieb, Robin Grant, Tim Hamill, Anthony Harris, Henry Hicks, Kala Horvitz, Adam Hoyle, Mo Husseini, Clare Hutchinson, Curtis James, Gareth Kay, Deb Khan, Matthew Knight, Peter J Law, Matt Locke, Ben Maxwell, Matt J McDonald, Matthew McGuinness, Tim Milne,  Johnnie Moore, Anthony Nelson, Neil Perkin, Cara Poirier, Damian Proctor, Anjali Ramachandran, Ben Richards, Ian Sanders, Matthew Scott, Philip Shepherd, Matt Sheret, Dan Shute, Sarah Sutton, Ben Terrett, Clare Townhill, David Wilding, Faris Yakob

 

What’s also been really apparent over the last week or so in making the shop (using the excellent Shopify) is how easy it is to be a shopkeeper nowadays.

Which should suit our national psyche, surely?  After all, wasn’t it Napolean who called us ‘a nation of shopkeepers’..?

Well, it turns out no.  It’s from Smith’s Wealth of Nations, originally (back to Adam Smith again, eh?) –

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers.  It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

In short, the empire existed to great a big enough customer base.  Britain is just a small island, so finding lots more people elsewhere means that the products we create can find a bigger audience across the globe.

We don’t need an empire nowadays.  The internet provides a global customer base.  Maybe the ‘shopkeeping’ thing was only a means to an end.  I think we’re more of a nation of tweakers and tinkerers that Gladwell referred to in his review of the Steve Jobs bio.  We only needed the shop front to sell the ideas.  Britain had to build an internet of customers by using wooden ships and vast armies, rather than superfast broadband and next-day delivery.

Anyway, I digress slightly.  The empire can wait for another day.

Pop on over to the Smithery Shop and have a look.  And please, if you feel inclined, share it with the world.

 

The car boot sale

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There’s nothing like an idle walk around a car boot sale to get a sense of a our shift in consumption over the past decade or so.

There’s nothing inherently valuable, just the things that are on the edge of having value. They live or die by a pound coin rattling around in somebody’s pocket.

There are lots of CDs and DVDs most notably. Hanging around like former high-class prostitutes who’ve lost their looks to time and use, and must ply their trade on a street corner somewhere. Or a dusty car park, more fittingly.

It’s strange seeing the trappings of high end entertainment design, crafted on old macs somewhere in California, peeking out from dusty plastic sleeves.

And to think that a decade ago, even today for some people, we’d throw a whole bunch of fivers at just one disc.

What’s going to populate the rickety trestle tables in another decade, I wonder?