Hello Ello.

Depending on how much time you spend on Media & Technology news pages, you may or may not have heard about Ello.co the new kid on the block looking to take on Facebook. Ello is still in Beta and you can’t set up your account until you’ve received an invite; either from a friend who’s already a user or direct from the site a long while after you’ve joined the waiting list. This creates a sense of exclusivity and hype. The first problem of exclusivity and hype is that you’ve really got to live up to it.

Ello home

Ello.co home page.

I got my invite from another user and then went on to offer an invite code to any of my Facebook contacts who were interested, a small handful jumped at the chance to get on board. 2 weeks on, we’re all sat around with pretty empty, inactive accounts.

A couple of the reasons for this are apparent the moment you sign in:

  1. The last time Courier New was cool was when I was writing my geography homework when I was 13 and I wanted to make it look like an official scientific report. Like in the movies.
  2. Black & White. Seriously, the colour scheme is black and white. It’s not even like there are any interesting graphics, just black text and a few rectangles; the whole thing looks like it was designed and made on Microsoft Word (or Pages; I’m sure the creators are Mac users). I have a similar problem with Reddit, but at least they have some colour.
It all gets a bit boring looking once you sign up and log in.

It all gets a bit boring looking once you sign up and log in.

These are just aesthetic issues, which I decided to look past in order to see what the site was like. But we’ll call them strike one all the same.

First thing I did once I was signed up was read the About section (trendily headlined ‘WTF’). It’s all a bit high and mighty. The main selling point of Ello is that there’s no advertising. Their Manifesto argues that other social networks (read: ‘Facebook’) regard users as ‘the product that’s bought and sold’, (I’m not going going to dwell on it, but this phrase reminds me of Stop the Traffik‘s tagline ‘People shouldn’t be bought and sold’ and I’m not sure I’m okay with that). Ello, on the other hand plans to make money by having certain features that users have to pay for. Now this is fine on a MMORPG, but I don’t know how well it will work for a social network. Examples of what kinds of features users will have to pay for haven’t been given, but I can’t help but feel they’ll either be so irrelevant to what people want from social networking that users won’t bother paying for them, or people will be so put out by having to pay for something that is free elsewhere that we’ll all decided we don’t mind being advertised at all that much. Granted this is speculation on my part, so I won’t give them a strike for this, instead I’ll wait and see if Ello’s business model has any success IRL.

So then it was time for me to leave the pages of FAQs and become a ‘user’ proper. Problem is, I still don’t really know what Ello is supposed to be for. It seems to be facing itself against Facebook, but really I think that the newbie is trying to be a bit of everything. Users are able to split people into Friends and Noise; Friends are people you really care about who you want to see detailed updates from (this is how I use Facebook), while Noise is where you put people who you just want brief updates from that you can browse through quickly (this is how I use Twitter and previously Tumblr). This in itself isn’t a bad idea, I can do all of my following on one website (if you know, anyone used it). The problem is, however, in the posting. If I choose to upload an album of photos of holiday hijinks there’s no way for me to have only people I consider Friends see this. So, every post has to be Noise-audience appropriate. Sure there’s privacy from advertisers, but there’s no privacy from every other Ello user, whether I have chosen to link with them or not. No matter the rhetoric of their Manifesto, this is not a Facebook alternative; strike two, Ello.

So, then, in my books Ello’s not out, but they’ve only got one strike left.

I accept that Ello is in Beta and it was not their intention, originally, for the site to go public at all, but they have now. I interned with a start-up social network type platform, so I appreciate that developing the look of a  new site, adding features and developing usability is a slow process, especially for a small team, but I had expected more progress to have been made since April.

Phew, this was a long one!

If you want to share your opinions on Ello.co, comment below or tweet @ElisabethShuker. If you want to check the network out for yourself, get in touch and I’ll happily send you an invite.

An almost-a-fan’s guide to the NFL International Series.

My fiancé is into a lot of sports – football, cricket, golf, DARTS – including a lot of American sports, including the NFL. A lot of these bore me, in the way that I imagine the Ballet Russes would bore him. But American Football (hereafter simply ‘football’, get over it) I can get on board with. I watched my first bona fide beginning-to-end football game when I was dragged to see the New England Patriots dominate St. Louis Rams at Wembley in 2012. Being a Pats fan, because the fiancé is and because my parents used to live in Boston, that was a fun one.

Since then I’ve watched a couple of Super Bowls a handful of Pats games and a fair few hours of the Red Zone. I own a New Era cap, New Era beanie and a souvenir sweatshirt from Super Bowl XX (thank you, eBay!) but I don’t quite follow the season as much as a real life fan might.

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Miami Dolphins 3rd & 1, way up in the third quarter.

On Sunday I went to my second live game, where I watched the Miami Dolphins smash the Oakland Raiders. Here’s short guide to other casual supporters who my happen upon a pretty decently-priced ticket to watch an NFL game at Wembley.

1. You will be surrounded by super-fans, just play along
The three games that are played in Wembley each year are the only ones in Europe, people come from far and wide for these games, regardless of whether or not their team is playing – if their team is playing this is a big day for them. You will see people wearing 30 year old jerseys of teams that don’t exist anymore; Houston Oilers, anyone? They’re all super nice and very happy to be there. If you’re wearing a hat/scarf of ‘your team’ (because you like the colours, or because of some vague connection – see above) at least find out who they played last week and who’s in their division, so that you can keep up with the friendly banter.

2. When it comes to tailgating, less is more
Despite what you’re hoping, the Wembley tailgate is not quite like the parking lot parties you see in films, or even on CNN. Sure, there’s some live music, plenty of food and truckloads of Budweiser, but if you arrive when gates open you’re going to have a numb-tarmac-bum by the time the pre-game show starts three hours later. A fun activity while tailgating is Jersey Bingo – can you spot the colours of all 32 teams?!

3. Wembley Stadium car park is not a shopping mall
If you’re looking for merch, don’t plan to buy it at the tailgate. I know we’re British, but if it’s not a rollercoaster or an amazing brunch location; an hour+ queue is just too long. Head to Niketown on Regent Street (also the location of the huge street party the day before the game) and New Era in Soho before the game and all of your NFL merchandise dreams will be realised. Online shopping after the event is possible, but your choice in the UK is limited if you’re looking for an obscure team.

4. The tailgate nachos are really good
I promise. They don’t look it, but they are, they really are.

5. The cheerleaders are so incredibly underwhelming
We’ve all seen Bring it On, so frankly I blame Kirsten Dunst for not preparing me for this. The cheerleaders are attractive, hair whipping dancers. Yes, they are good dancers and they don’t stop moving for 3+ hours; I can appreciate the athleticism that requires. But if you’re hoping for flyers or tumblers, think again. The York University Hornets were more exciting than the Raiderettes.

6. You’re on your own with the stand up/sit down ettiquette
I’m sorry, I just don’t know. If you’re up in the rafters it’s simple, you’ll just get swept up onto your feet in the event of a touchdown, but if you’re down in field-side seats it’s a bit more complicated. A couple of times a quarter, marshals will come by telling the stander-uppers that they’re spoiling the fun for the sitter-downers. I was torn, I didn’t wanna be a tool to the sitter-downer behind me, but if the person in front of you stands up for the whole drive, you have to as well, if you want to watch the game at all. Also, I didn’t want to disappoint the extremely passionate Raiders fan who seemed to really care about getting people standing up. Good Luck.

7. Leave your hooligan hat at home
The single Dolphins fan who sat a couple of rows behind hundreds of Raiders fans in our block did a good job bellowing ‘DOLPHINS’ during the ‘DE-FENSE’ chants and all it earned him in response was a few chuckles and rolling of the eyes. Everyone’s nice.

8. The tube trip back to central London isn’t that bad
I know, I know you don’t believe me, but honestly you’ll survive it. It’s kind of cool that London is full of NFL fans; enjoy the solidarity.

There are two games left in the NFL International Series 2014, stay up-to-date here: http://www.nfl.com/international
Keep an eye out for 2015 dates, which will be released in a couple of months time, there might just be four games!

As ever, comment below, or tweet @ElisabethShuker

Look Wherever You Want

Because I can guarantee there will be something worth seeing.

Let me begin by saying that I own a smart phone. I own a tablet and a laptop. I am in possession of a Nintendo Wii and a PlayStation 3. My hair dryer is digital. In short, I like technology.

So you can imagine my interest in a YouTube-hosted, spoken word piece about the pitfalls of social media. Look Up by Gary Turk was posted on April 25th but seems to have gone viral in the last few days, or at least that’s when it’s been hitting my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed on a daily basis. In case you haven’t seen it, check it out here.

The overwhelming response to this video has been support for it’s message; I’ve seen it shared with captions like ‘This is the wake up call we all need’ or ‘This is such a challenging message’. In no way do I want this post to be an aggressive response to these people, I can see where they, and Gary Turk, are coming from, but I want to take a little time to explain why this video bugs me so much.

The assertion that social media is ‘anything but’ really isn’t a new idea; digital-skeptics have been trying to tell me so for years. Look Up tells us that we’re ‘slaves’ to technology because we’re pretending that sitting and looking at a screen means we’re connecting with each other. I think what this video assumes is that there is a lack of balance, that using social media is all we’re doing. I know very few people for whom social media isn’t, for the most part, a means to and end. I use group messages to organise going to play laser tag, or I send a Snapchat of a funny experience, which I can then share in more detail when I see you in person.

Okay, so what about when it’s not a means to an end, but instead our exclusive mode of talking to someone. Should we really be demonising the technology that allows a confused teenager to talk to other people who’ve experienced an eating disorder, because their social network is just too small to know someone ‘in real life’ that they can connect with?

I don’t want to fall into the trap of idealising technology in the same way Gary Turk seems to have demonised it. The way I see it, technology is a blank canvas, which can be used well or badly, depending on the user. Just like any other inanimate object.

A lonely person may well use social media in an obsessive way, but let’s not assume that the girl sat next to me at the bus stop is lonely or anti-social  just because she’s pressing a few keys on an electronic device. Social media might well be a symptom of loneliness, but naming it at the root problem seems short-sighted to me. Someone’s lonely, let’s not jump straight to blaming their online presence and actually get to know them.

The other issue this video raises is the on-going, shameless, widening of the divide between digital-natives and non-natives. The way I live my life is not inherently different just because some of my communication is transmitted through a series of Os and 1s. You think self-editing and self-promotion is a troubling new result of social media? I will refer to to the entire Victorian period of British history and, frankly, Cicero too. I love people, all people; lovers and haters of the internet alike, so please stop suggesting that I live in a markedly different, closed off, self-absorbed way, because I really don’t.

Look up, look down, look sideways; whichever way you look you’ll probably glance someone new, and hey, you might even have a montage marriage with them.

Do you agree with me or Gary? Comment below or tweet @ElisabethShuker.

Is your fictional book not realistic enough?

After years of seeing quotes reblogged constantly on Tumblr, I finally got around to reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I am more than aware that I’m pretty late to this party. After reading the first few letters I decided to check out what Goodreads thought of it, generally speaking it was all high-praise, but every now and then a reviewer would drop in the phrase ‘It’s not believable that…’ ‘It’s just not realistic…’ ‘Nothing like that would ever actually happen…’

This really bugged me.

We meet Charlie, a teenager about to start high school, through letters that he writes to an unnamed ‘friend’. In the first paragraph Charlie tells his reader that he ‘will call people by different names…’ so already we have a ‘Call me Ishmael’ style unreliable narrator, but I’ll set that can of worms to the side. What I really want to ask, is how do we define a book as realistic?

The Literary Realism movement kicked off in France in the mid-nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century many ‘realist’ writers focussed on detail, with the idea that by giving inconsequential details that have no bearing on the plot, the world created would be more realistic. The main concern of these writers was to write about contemporary life and society as it was. This is a pretty narrow definition of ‘realistic’ writing.

Three days ago Garth Nix, author of the excellent Old Kingdom Trilogy, tweeted that ‘Science Fiction must seem intellectually real. Fantasy must feel emotionally real…’ There are, as is true of everything, many holes to be found in this statement, but in my opinion it hits closer to my experience of reading than the twentieth century realists.

One review of Wallflower that I came across suggested that is was simply unbelievable that a boy would discover masturbation at the at of fifteen. Aside from pointing out that every teenager experiences puberty uniquely, I can’t help but feel that this assessment misses the point. Stephen Chbosky doesn’t so much write about what Charlie goes through as how he thinks about it, I don’t think the details of when and what are important, masturbation could be replaced by any other teenage experience, Chbosky’s writing about how a shy, socially awkward, but incredibly smart teenager deals with growing up.

In another review, someone had observed that it’s just not believable that Charlie feels emotions as simply happy or sad. I don’t believe that this is at all what Chbosky was trying to suggest; Wallflower is a first-person narrative and so there is a clear distance between what the character experiences and what the character tells us. Charlie doesn’t feel such binary emotions, that’s just how he categorizes the myriad of emotions that he feels and can’t understand.

For me, the reality or believability of a novel isn’t based around whether I can imagine the events of the book taking place in real life. Instead do the reactions, interactions and emotions of the characters seem honest and like a genuine expression of humanity functioning.

Last week, I went with my family to see Life of Pi, so I’ve started reading that (yet another party I’m super late to), so no doubt within the next month or so I’ll write about the difference between fact and truth in fiction.

What makes a book believable for you? Comment below, or tweet @ElisabethShuker.

How big do you need God to be?

For years I’ve been praying and asking God to help me understand the cross. I wanted to really get what bearing the weight of humanity’s mess and death looked like. It seems, that over the past 12 months God has decided to start letting me know.

I don’t mean to say that I absolutely, tick-that-off-the-checklist, ‘what’s next?’ understand the power and pain of the cross, because I think that knowledge would implode my tiny human brain. Instead, in my own small personal way the last year as helped me understand the consequences of a world that is separate from God – AKA sin. I have witnessed a close friend lose her brother and seen illness developing in another. I have met and been touched by two survivors of childhoods in war-torn countries. Even the experience of watching the opening scenes of Argo inflicted an experience of tight-chested grief.

All of this, together, one after the other, left me feeling completely overwhelmed by absolute chaos. I have struggled, I have cried I have been angry with the apparently irreversible state of humanity’s suffering.

And then came Holy Week. He was mocked, tortured and crucified like a criminal, but Jesus was never small. In fact, nailed to a cross, the size of Jesus Christ was colossal. A couple of weeks ago, I started making a list of all the things in my life, and the lives of people around me, that God is bigger than; God is bigger than grief, God is bigger than unemployment, God is bigger than cancer, God is bigger even than the global financial crisis. It was incredibly powerful to accept all of these things with pen and paper.

God has an unlimited capacity to reach into the chaos, and his wings are big enough to carry us and all of our chaos.

How big do you need God to be? He really is that big.

Review: Doctor Who Episode 232

As ever, it’s hard to know what season of Doctor Who we’re on, but according the ever reliable Wikipedia Season 7 Part 2 began tonight. Any Whovians who watched the 2012 Christmas special and The Bells of Saint John prequel would have known that we were going to be joining a Doctor still on the search for the ever elusive and mysterious Clara ‘Oswin’ Oswald.

The slight shock, however, was finding him in thirteenth century Cumbrian monastery mediating over Clara’s last words. He was quickly plunged into modern-day London; the cold opening of a twenty-something apparently addressing the word through a webcam ensured this. Twitter jokes and smartphones are central to a storyline where WiFi is the predator.

It was fun to see the genius of technology playing in a world that I can understand, so it’s unfortunate that the storyline was a little less inspiring. I was never worried for a life, there was very little running and barely even a signature Smith worried gulp; the whole thing was very sedate.

The dissapointment of an unexciting plot was nothing compared to the dissapointment of a recycled concept. Both tonight’s episode and Forest of the Dead were written by Steven Moffat; uploading personalities to a computer and face-stealing robots? The whole storyline was just too familiar. As the two episodes are set 3 millenia apart this takes something away from how current and topical tonight’s episode strived to be – unless the deja vu is intentional?

Lack of originality aside, Clara Oswald’s character continues to intrigue and hopefully the rest of the season will deliver.

Review: The Child of Vengeance

David Kirk’s debut novel, The Child of Vengeance, tells the story of Bennosuke; the hopeful but shy son of the Munisai Shinmen, the Nation’s Finest samurai in 16th century Japan. We meet Bennosuke a matter of days before the return of his father following an extended absence and their strained but sincere relationship begins to develop. Bennosuke is torn between following his father into the warrior life of the samurai or pursuing the life of a Buddhist monk, as practiced by his as-good-as-his-father uncle, Dorinbo.

Kirk’s prose is stunning, the romance and majesty of the samurai is captured by wonderfully crafted and calm language rather than clumsy or sensationalist constant action. That being said, the story moves quickly and the beautiful writing continues through the grit of the battle scenes; somehow a passage in which a man’s brain is exposed by brute force and a blunt object was artistically composed.

The characterisation and development of relationships is Kirk’s real success; particularly the difficult balance of the three essentially different but equally strong personalities of Bennosuke, Munisai and Dorinbo. The character of Lord Shinmen is also intensely interesting and mysterious.

Kirk’s debut was not, however, without its downfall. The plot unfolds steadily and enticingly, but the closing pages simply do not deliver. We are lead to believe that Bennosuke’s mixed influences will lead him to be a different kind of samurai but, aside from a few vague moments of realisation, Bennosuke’s final actions in the novel don’t seem to distinguish him at all from those around him. Kirk seems to suffer from a not uncommon problem; he knows what he wants to happen, but glosses over the unfortunate reality that he’s not quite sure how to make it so.

There is hope; my dust cover assures me that David Kirk is currently working on the sequel. With intensely interesting characters and masterful prose I am simply hoping for more clarity and depth in the plot as Bennosuke’s story continues.

First Season Review: The Bar

Season one of the Bar is an 8 episode long webseries released on YouTube, from October to November 2012. Creator, writer and producer Olivia Bosek plays our protagonist, Jenny Scarsdale; an aspiring documentary film maker undercover in an apparently mafia-owned bar in Queens, New York City. On Twitter the Bar describes itself as ‘a ridiculous black comedy webseries’ and ridiculous it certainly is.

From ‘White Hendrix’ to dead bodies in sports bags to gourmet hot dogs the writers of the Bar are certainly not shooting from realism and, at times, the ridiculous is awkward rather than amusing. Jenny is joined on the bar by Sky, played by Nick Lawson and his absurdities feel more naturally funny Bosek’s, whose acting is occasionally stiff.

Similarly, the success of the ‘mafia scenes’ is fairly hit and miss; the antics of JB and Iggy are at times amusing, but hardly induce laughter. Interactions with two rivals and two FBI agents are probably their best moments.

The editing of each episode is potentially the strongest link in the series. The narrative transitions in and out of vlog-style, allowing Jenny to offer her gloss of the events. In the main scenes, annotations scrawl across the screen, once again presenting Jenny’s thoughts to us. Two ‘missing annotations’ in Episode 7 allowed the Bar to reach for the interactivity that is becoming typical of YouTube webseries. Unfortunately, a fairly low viewership limited the success of the idea.

Whilst it’s not always successful, the Bar presents us with another take on story-telling in 5-minute episodes and it certainly has enough originality and potential to shoot for a season two.

But don’t take my word for it, have a watch for yourself. Comment below or tweet @ElisabethShuker to let me know what you think!

Top Tweeter: Miranda Hart

Miranda Hart, or @mermhart as you might know her, fashions herself on Twitter as a ‘Comedy actress and writer, dog owner and wannabee pop star.’ But what is it that makes her Twitter presence so successful?

During her appearance on Frank Skinner’s Room 101, Miranda shared that her biggest concern with technology is its potential to stifle imagination and creativity in young people – “why?” I hear you ask, well of course it’s because we never look out of train windows anymore because we’re too busy checking our emails on our smart phones.

She might claim this cynicism, but it doesn’t seem to hinder her all out embrace of the Twittersphere. A month before the release of her Christmas best-seller, Is It Just Me?, Hart released a free e-book made up of the general public’s anecdotes of embarrassment. These snippets of stories were tweeted to @NoItsUsToo and the best and brightest were compiled into the promotional e-book. Someone, somewhere is sitting pretty comfortably in their publicist job.

So Hart used Twitter to make the build up to her debut book interactive, but in reality a large part of her Twitter charm, lies in the everyday. It seems that 140 characters is enough for the natural hilarity of Miranda Hart to shine through. She might, for example, muse that ‘crocs are now an embarrassing middle-aged shoe’, whilst packing for her ‘holibobs’ and I can really hear her saying it.

Following a wildly-blown-out-of-proportion comment made by Tom Ellis in a Digital Spy interview, Hart rebuked her co-start in 140 characters or less; ‘Mr Ellis is not necessarily right that there will be no more show. @tomellis17are you trying to put me out of work?!’ Much more interesting than ‘I would like to officially state that the reports in…blah blah blah’ stock tweet I’ve often seen. You see, life is never boring if you head over to twitter.com/mermhart and if you it the follow button now you’ll enjoy a commentary from Miranda Hart as she takes on her Comic Relief challenges!

Who do you enjoy following on Twitter? Comment below, or tweet @ElisabethShuker.

Top Five: Most Quoteable Films

This article was originally written for the Freshers section of the NUS Lifestyle website and the original can be found here.

When you live in the constant company of university-types your witty banter makes reference to high culture, and by culture, I mean film. I will now suggest the five most regularly and hilariously quotable films.

#5 Mean Girls (2004)
We’ll call this one a… ‘modern classic’. If you were born in the 90s and haven’t seen this film I’m genuinely shocked and a little bit hurt. This brutally honest and true-to-life (HA!) telling of American high school life is timelessly hilarious, painfully inaccurate American accents are mandatory.
Best Quote: “Four for you Glen Coco, you go Glen Coco!” 

#4 Casablanca (1942)
Okay, so this one actually is a classic. Don’t let the 1942 release date and the World War II setting put you off – this is genuinely a very enjoyable film. This film has been around long enough that it’s often possible to quote it without even knowing you are. Just think how cultural you’ll look when you know where what you’re saying comes from!
Best Quote: “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

#3 Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
This film is like marmite, you just have to watch it to know if you love it or hate it! This spoof of the 1970s tells the story of ever so humble anchorman Ron Burgundy. The ridiculous escapades of Ron and his news team provide us with a plethora of brilliant things to say.
Best Quote: “You stay classy, San Diego!”

#2 Despicable Me (2010)
So, it’s an animated kids’ film, but we love it. Gru’s plans of taking over the world are thwarted by three very cute and surprisingly fearless children. Also worth mentioning is the  incredible opportunity for fancy dress – yellow body paint anyone?
Best Quote: “Does this count as annoying?” *does something VERY annoying*

#1 Easy A (2010)
We started with an American high school film and we’re going to finish with one. The brilliance of Emma Stone means there is so much to love! Full of John Hughes references, it’s a great gateway film to some of the most quotable high school films of the 80s.
Best Quote: “The Accelerated Velocity of Terminological Inexactitude. Which really is just my obnoxious way of saying lies travel fast.”

What’s your favourite film quote? Comment below, or tweet @ElisabethShuker.