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When Celebrities DON’T Network! Andrew Collins

Henry Elliss
Henry Elliss
Managing Director
6 October 2008

Regular readers of this blog will remember back in June we ran a series of short interviews with a selection of famous types about their use of Social Media – Dom Joly, Danny Wallace and Gabby Logan to name but three. One of the people we interviewed was comedian Richard Herring, who fans of his will know does a regular podcast with writer Andrew Collins. Well, Mr Collins as it turns out is not such a fan of Social Media, so I thought it would be interesting to balance the scales and ask him his thoughts on the matter. It’s a bit of a long one, but I didn’t like to edit it because Andrew is so eloquent that it seemed a shame to cut it down. I was especially impressed that he uses Google Analytics – he might hate Social Networks, but I have a feeling he might love SEO…!

Andyhome05_07_07You have a reasonably well publicised hatred of Social Networks – what is it about them that you dislike so much?

Firstly, my dislike of social networking sites does not extend to other people who choose to use them. I have no problem with them per se – if that’s what people want, then fine – I just personally feel uncomfortable about having a presence on them. I joined MySpace during the first big boom in May 2006, but only really because Richard Herring had, and had started amassing "friends". Because he was a weekly guest on my 6 Music radio show, it became a funny topic of conversation: our "race" to amass more friends. Naturally, he overtook me, then doubled my total, and left me in the dust. I cancelled my MySpace page in December 2007, having reached 1,624 friends. It still seems surreal to me now that I could have spent so much time messing about with it. How quickly the jolly fun of accepting or rejecting friends curdled. Because I was a radio DJ, I was flooded with requests from struggling indie bands wanting their records played. My inbox became clogged with group bulletins from these bands. When my most recent book was first published in May 2007, I sent a bulletin out of my own, thinking: if you can’t beat them, join them. To my knowledge this had no appreciable effect on the sales of my book whatsoever. That served me right. I announced the cessation of my MySpace page with great fanfare on the blog on my own website. I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom. No more checking for friend requests. No more plugs from bands. No more illiterate messages from people. I don’t hate social networking sites as much as I hate myself for ever having joined one. I feel happier on the outside. As for FaceBook – I know for a fact that all it does is obsess people. Sensible, intelligent, grown-up people. I have no room for it. If I’ve got any spare time, I’d rather spend it looking at the birds in my garden.

Whilst you clearly have no love for Facebook and MySpace, you’re a relatively savvy Social Media publisher – you have a blog and a podcast, how did they come about and what is your motivation for doing them?

I started my website in 2003, named after my first memoir, Where Did It All Go Right?, as a platform for people who’d read the book and wanted to share their ordinary childhood memories (which is what my book is about). Between March 2003 and March 2007, I was inundated with stories, some short, some novel-length. I took a lot of time editing them and illustrating them and posting them up. As an ex-magazine editor, it appealed to my instincts. The archive still exists. This was the engine behind the site. Then, in April 2005, I started writing a weekly blog on my 6 Music webpage, when I moved from a daily weekday show to the weekends; this was a way of staying in touch with my small fanbase at 6 Music. It may seem twee, but it was fun to do, albeit with the usual BBC restrictions about political affiliation etc. In February 2006, I moved the blog to my own website, and since then it has been the focus of the site. The other bits are peripheral. When I left 6 Music in March 2007, many of the regulars stayed with me via the blog, which was nice. I enjoy the process of communicating with like-minded folk. That said, I’ve had a number of instances of abuse, and a couple of spells of orchestrated lobbying from a pro-science website forum, which have caused me to rethink what I write about. Even though, away from the BBC, I am free to express any opinion at all, I keep many of them to myself now, as much as anything because a long, involved debate takes up way too much of my time and my head space, and winds me up. I suppose my main reason for doing a blog is to have an outlet for my writing. If I see a TV programme, or read a book, and want to write about it, I can. No need to hang around and wait to be commissioned, or sub-edited. I also enjoy the "conversation" of the comments section under each entry. Some draw a handful, others spark a lengthy game of tennis, mostly good-natured. According to Google Analytics, I’m getting 10,310  pageviews and 3,681 visits a month, which peak in the week and dip at the weekend, suggesting that it’s people at work. (Also, I blog more in the week.)

The podcast was started simply as a way of recreating the fun Richard Herring and I used to have on my 6 Music radio shows, reviewing the newspapers. It’s more fun now, obviously, as we have no restrictions, beyond the libel laws, over what we say. The hour we spend each week rambling and not knowing what we are going to say next is a highlight of any week. The fact that is costs nothing to do, and pays us nothing is what makes the experience so pure, and fulfilling. The reactions we get are generally very positive, and that’s encouraging. To be in the Top 25 comedy podcast charts on iTunes just about all the time, without sponsorship or branding, is so gratifying. People within the media listen to it, too, so if it serves any purpose professionally (beyond generating material), it’s that it keeps our "radio" profile up. It’s like running our own radio station that broadcasts for an hour a week.

MySpace began as a forum for musicians to spread their news, and in a similar vein Facebook seems to have become the medium of choice for comedians to spread their ‘message’. If there were a social network specifically for journalists / writers, would you join?

No. Not interested. I hate the fact that I had to "join" Blogger and YouTube and Flickr, and various forums like the Mighty Boosh and NotBBC and Guardian Unlimited, but it’s the only way of using those sites. Any chance I now get of not joining something, I jump at it. Like most people, I’m part of the wired world, and very easy to track down. I don’t mind being accessible to people who are interested in my books or radio and TV work, but I like to limit it. If anybody at all, in the world, wants to get in touch, they only have to type my name into a search engine and they can find my website. That’s sufficient. That does the job. I’m not sure I could use social networking as networking. I’ve been in the media for 20 years, in various branches of it, and I’ve made it my business, in social situations, to be nice to people and turn up on time and provide clean, usable copy/material/footage. I’m hoping that has stood me in good stead in terms of work opportunities. I don’t need Facebook to be employable. The fact that there is a "fan page" about me on Facebook amuses me, because I can’t access it, and actually have no wish to. But I wish it well, as long as the people on it play nice.

How has your use of ‘online’ media changed over the years, considering you have seem to have had a variety of jobs which are very closely tied in with the use of new technology (publishing, broadcasting, journalism etc)?

I was the editor of Q magazine when email and the internet started to become unavoidable, in the mid-90s. I oversaw the first Q website, which was typically crude. In those days, nobody knew what to do with it, but paper publishers were scared to be left behind. When I wrote my first book, the biography of Billy Bragg, in 1997, I had no email or internet connection at home. That’s inconceivable to me now. I did all the interviews by phone or fax, and all the research by sifting through plastic bags full of cuttings. I had to go round to Billy’s assistant’s house to look at his website and print some pages off! Those were, for me, the final days of innocence. I remember radio when there were no message boards. By the time 6 Music started in 2002, these were de rigueur, and ever since then I’ve enjoyed a love/hate relationship with the instant response they engender. I’ve been on-air and had an email from someone telling me to shut up and play a record – that’s most disconcerting. I tended to email listeners back immediately if they had a go at me, or made a complaint. That almost always drew an apologetic response from the listener, who had dashed off the email and pressed "send" without thinking I’d actually read it. I still hate the way the internet draws vitriol from sensible people. I’m glad I was able to find my feet in radio and TV before all that started. It’s an ugly world out there.

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