The internet and Brighton, our digital city

The Argus, our local paper here in Brighton, asked me to write a piece on the social networks.

Earlier in the week I’d had an enjoyable conversation with Jo Wadsworth of that same newspaper about how I felt their news was disappointingly negative.

I really respect Jo’s opinion, and I felt I got a good drubbing and ended up the sad little optimist, defeated by a healthy dose of ‘reality’.

This summed up the conversation for me (click to biggify):

Conversation about news between Jo Wadsworth and Will McInnes

Good news doesn’t work – bah, grrr and nooooooooo!

Anyway, I wanted to write something that did address the dark side of the social web – the reality of snark, bile and polarised opinion. But maybe also highlighted some things we can do, some reasons for optimism.

It’s a bit long. I wouldn’t read it 🙂


Let’s start with the dark side.

Perhaps it’s the grey weather, but I’ve been thinking recently that there are times when nowhere is darker or more negative than the web. A quick trawl of the comments on any newspaper website, videosharing or social networking space usually quickly reveal the very worst of our collective bile.

That’s tough for those on the receiving end.

The kind of specific, personal sniping previously limited to politicians, celebrities and other public figures is now reaching into all of our every day lives. Schools – see Varndean’s spat with a mocking if fairly benign student campaign in Facebook and now Twitter – and teachers, event organisers, colleagues and mid-ranking bosses, shop keepers, hoteliers, mums in the playground – are all at the wrong end of digital sniping.

The things is, most of us don’t really want to live our lives in the public eye – it’s not what we signed up for in life! But one effect that online social networks have is to enable gossip, leaked memos, photographs and general “snark” to spread instaneously and with much less hassle and effort than before. One dodgy photo uploaded and we could be Tuesday morning’s unwitting internet superstar.

A number of the web’s characteristics seem to lend themselves to skewing this aspect of the web towards the darkside, but anonymity is usually cited as the most influential. The fact that any of us can pretty easily conceal our identities online removes inhibition in a big way. No holding back! And for many this has evolved into a daily pursuit – ‘trolling’, the act of deliberately starting arguments online, and the constant invocation of Godwin’s Law (Google it).

Even so I remain resolutely positive about the impact that the internet can and already is having in society. Despite the bile and negativity, positively world-changing things are happening both generally and specifically in this city of ours.

If we play our cards right Brighton can really come into its own in the next decade. This funny little city of ours has somehow grown a community of digital businesses and organisations that stands out in Europe and perhaps beyond.

This community includes video game companies, creative agencies, digital marketers and a thriving sector of independent web freelancers and expert practitioners. It is a marvellous and mixed party pack of “internetty” talent.

In 2009 an HSBC report picked Brighton as one of 5 ‘Super Cities’ set to thrive in the emerging knowledge economy. With 11% of our workforce employedin creative industries versus a 3% national average, this isn’t a foamy marketing claim – this is real.

So what now? Given the shocking and continued impact that the recession and its fallout is having on many people’s livelihoods, I believe this is too serious an opportunity to be relegated to the ‘nice little media sector’ box.

This isn’t just a business or a ‘creative sector’ thing. It is and can continue to be a city-wide thing. The city council is making positive noises about both supporting this growth and also harnessing the power of the web to improve its own shape and performance. (When you have to reduce your budget by as much as they do, there’s a real imperative to change – but their kind of change is incredibly painful and wide-ranging in its effects).

Other associated movements in the city are gaining momentum and need to be nourished and celebrated.

The Open Data project, kindled by Greg Hadfield of Cogapp, describes itself as “a collaborative project to transform Brighton and Hove into a world-class open-data city, in which all citizens can together lead more rewarding, more prosperous, and more fulfilling lives”. That might sound a tad ambitious for us slightly sceptical Brits, but I do believe in this project. If we can embrace the disruptive changes that the internet will wreak anyway, and consider how city-life can be improved by opening up and joining up information sources, and show the rest of the world an example, then we will all benefit.

Take, for example, the link between information about public transport (like when the next bus is coming) and the challenge of creating healthier habits around exercise and reducing carbon emissions. Or the opportunity of matchmaking the time and experience that older people have, who are also often lonely – which is a significant health risk – with school-age kids whose reading ability is behind where it could be. If we can find city-wide ways to helpfully connect, we can truly improve lives.

The second and closely-related initiative worth joining in with is CityCamp Brighton. Again, this is a free, volunteer-driven effort to apply the skills and ideas of Brightonians to the goal of making the city better. With a sleeves-rolled-up ethos, open participation and serious attention from city leaders, this is your and my opportunity to get stuck in to the job of creating a more enriching future for Brighton & Hove.

By way of explanation and disclosure, we believe in the City Camp format enough to have ‘sponsored’ it through the leadership and hard work of Max St John in our team, working with The Democratic Society and Public-i, two other progressive organisations that care about this goal. I know they are actively welcoming involvement so do get on board.

When I think about the web, it can be overwhelming in its many facets – good and bad. Nevertheless, today the real potential of the web to make life tangibly better is slowly emerging, and with it is our chance as a city and a society to take a big step forward. The time for action is now: get involved.


5 thoughts on “The internet and Brighton, our digital city

  1. Great post Will,

    I second your points.

    To be honest one element media pundits tend to forget is that other media have delivered very little value to feed back community inputs.

    I believe the Internet, mostly in an unwanted way has shifted even a tiny bit the focus. It does not have to be a good or bad situation.

    Even looking at marketing on other media you can tell the dull and predictable nature of them. There is some value in talking about customer service over Twitter, there is some value in trashing brands who only talk the talk and it does not have to be humanitarian at all costs.

    I guess the point I am trying to make is that there shouldn’t be a justification for the awesomeness of the internet as greatly explained by this piece

  2. Uplifting post Will. We have a lot to look forward to in Brighton and a reason to believe we’re at the vanguard of a new politics/society thanks to you guys, Greg Hadfield, Publici, Demsoc, the city council and others – but, sadly, despite 60-80% of the politicians.

    Re snark, people who deliver broadsides anonymously should be ignored.

    But in defence of snark: if it is done with charm and good humour without deliberately wishing to hurt, if the recipient is the ball, not the man/woman, if its showy, attention-seeking sniping is outweighed by its serious points – then it’s welcome.

    That said, ‘charming snark’ is possibly an oxymoron.

    Yes, ad hominem attacks are nearly always bad. Nearly, not always.

    But we should not shy away from criticising that which deserves criticism. Emphasised and dramatised disagreement can attract participation in the conversation. Challenge and counter challenge moves the conversation on as the weaker arguments fall to the wayside.

    One of the biggest barriers to change is often the time-consuming tip-toeing that goes on upon the eggshells of bad ideas.

    Re the Argus, Jo Wadsworth is right. No-one needs or wants to know about planes that land safely or trains that arrive on time. So I don’t begrudge our local paper its doom-mongering. It’s the negligent factual inaccuracies I’m not keen on. (Cheer up, Argus reporters! I’m only teasing).

  3. Hi Will…good stuff…we happen to live in Wilbury Villas Hove and are sure you must be aware of the fantastic development (at what used to be Lorna House) namely The Dock ” the all new digital creative hub for Brighton & Hove”.

    I have no commercial involvement with this fantastic project, just happen to know a few of the dudes who run it.

    Just check it out on the internet or better still pop in to see Mel or Ian who run the place along with the ab fab dock cafe!

    Regards, Bob

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s