What’s the point of CiB?

I’ve been looking after Created in Birmingham for a while now. ‘Looking after’ being an odd but instinctive way of describing it. I didn’t set the site up, it wasn’t my idea in the first place and after my first stint I handed it on to someone else. Nevertheless, I’ve now been running CiB for over half its lifetime.

I’ve been having a bit of a think recently about what the site is, what is does and what I might do with it. The following is an unfinished chunk of that thinking.

Where CiB is at

Since it started almost five years ago, things have changed. It was set up to do a job and prove a point – that there’s plenty of interesting stuff going on in Birmingham and that a good way to show that off would be to spend pennies on the website and invest in the editorial. It worked although I don’t think enough people have taken the lessons on board yet.

Job done, then. From here on, anything else is a bonus.

In its first days there was funding available so time could be set aside for it. I think that was pretty much vital for getting it established but it’s had a life beyond that. Depending on your point of view, CiB is now either a hobby that I do in my spare time or it’s subsidised by my employer, Made Media. It’s probably most accurate to say that it’s a bit of both.

Thing is, quite a lot of people don’t treat it like it’s my hobby. That’s fine and I certainly don’t mind being asked to attend shows, launches, press calls, backstage tours, to give advice, do pro bono work and have chats over cups of coffee.

I’d love to do all of that but I can’t, interested as I am and no matter how much it might benefit me/them/others. I can only do what I can within the limits of my own spare time and interest/energy levels. At the moment I’m trying to manage peoples expectations of what I can do. (Side note to marketing/PR types – your time for that kind of thing tends to be paid for, mine’s not).

That all sounds a bit woe-is-me. It’s not meant to, but I think it points towards an appetite for something that CiB can’t currently fulfil.

This also ties in with something else I’m quite mindful of. Jon quite rightly pointed out that CiB is more preview than review. He’s right but I don’t think that’s a bad thing if a balance is kept.  I want to give context, tie things together, host discussions around important points and occasionally just point at things and say ‘look at that’. CiB has to be more than just an inefficient listings website.

A related pointed is that CiB is less exploratory than when I ran the site the first time round – in that I don’t discover things that are totally new to me so much – and that’s just because I know the landscape a lot better now.

CiB used to be an outsider’s view of the arts and culture scenes in Birmingham and that’s an interesting position to take. I’m not quite such an outsider to it these days. It means I’m able to give more context and background but I don’t tend to explain things so well to those who are less familiar with things.

Where our audience is at

CiB’s audience is more scattered than it used to be. Our web traffic dropped by two thirds between my two stints and has stayed roughly around that level. However, we’ve got 1500ish RSS subscribers (on a good day) and a currently dormant mailing list with 1200 people on it.

The main difference, which may well account for that dip in website traffic, is that we have 3900 followers on Twitter and 3400 on Facebook. A large chunk of people are getting their info via those social networks, not that we use those channels as well as we could or that each update/tweet reaches anything like the full extent of those audiences.

Point being that there’s plenty of ways for people to get their arts/culture news online and although the CiB blog underpins our activity it’s not the preferred/usual point of consumption for many.

Side note: I know this sounds very ‘push/broadcast’ and that social media is meant to be “all about the conversation, man”. Spout that rubbish at me and I’ll come at you with a brick.

My Twitter/Storify experiment

This is the thing that got me writing this post. On 2 June I wanted to write a post but was struggling for something to write about. It occurred to me that there was plenty on Twitter I could dip into.

So, what I did was I embedded Storify in a post and occasionally pulled notable tweets into it. I billed it as ‘A day in the life of a creative city’.

CiB Storify

We got what I expected we’d get: news, announcements, whimsy, pictures, self-promotion, requests for help, peeks behind the scenes and people talking about shows they’d seen the night before. There was more there than I could ever cover in a month of blogging and I thought it was great.

What my Twitter/Storify experiment showed is that ‘everyone’ is publishing their own information now – with varying degrees of dedication and to varying audiences.

And when I say ‘everyone’ I mean the the full-time artists and the aspiring part-timers, the marketing teams and the audiences. That last one’s perhaps most interesting. In many cases they won’t be tweeting exclusively about art and culture in Birmingham but it was possible for me to draw a line around all of those things.

I acted as an aggregator (not, for goodness sake, a curator), applying a bit of an editorial steer by picking the stuff I wanted to make its way onto my website.

I should also add that I was looking at Twitter but it’s equally true that people are publishing information via (RSS enabled) websites, Facebook Pages, YouTube account and all sorts of other things.

Given all of this, what’s the point of CiB?

Pete always said that if CiB ‘worked’ then many more people would copy it. He said something along the lines of:

when there are 100 CiB’s, CiB will have done its job and won’t be needed any more

So everyone’s publishing arts and culture information online in Birmingham now. Everyone’s in a position to subscribe to the stuff that they find interesting. What’s the point of CiB? Have we reached the point that Pete was talking about?

I don’t think so and I don’t think we’re likely to.

Twitter’s great in many ways but it’s limited in its format, demographics and transcience. Finding all that information amidst the general noise of Twitter’s not that easy either. Widening things to all the other blogs and social networks, how many people will want to roll their own arts and culture news service?

People gravitate to established, trusted sources of information. CiB provides that. It’s been around long enough to collect people. It has a history. Having asked around, it seems it’s different things to different people:

  • news headlines (to the folks who like the links round-ups especially)
  • their homepage
  • somewhere to get their events and activities promoted (or at least noted)
  • a ‘daily ray of sunshine’

And all sorts of other things. So again, what should CiB do? Should it look to record and amplify the information published by others around the city? Should it be another (albeit probably slightly louder) voice amongst many? Should we try to cover things that nobody else will have access to? Should we scale up to better serve the organisations around town that are looking for an outlet for all their stuff?

Or should I really not stress it and treat it as a little blog that I use to talk about interesting arts/culture things in Birmingham and leave it at that?

What’s next?

Two things really. It’s CiB’s 5th birthday towards the end of this year and I know Pete’s been thinking about the effect the site has had in that time. He’ll approach and digest that thinking in his own way and I’m sure that’ll be really interesting to read.

For my part, I’m looking at how CiB can evolve into something a bit different. Maybe a bit bigger. I think it’s moved past the role it played in its early years and it needs to do something different – not better, just different.

Like I say, these are just some fairly unformed thoughts that point the way to the kind of things I’ve been thinking about. Any input from anyone would be gratefully received.

Some other stuff

Consider this the DVD extras. Here’s some other stuff about CiB which has figured into my thinking:

  • We don’t chase hits. I could do that but at the moment I don’t want to go down the linkbait/SEO/content strategy/traffic building route. Why not?
  • I could do better on the analytics side of things too
  • If we shut tomorrow, what would the effect would be?
  • I really enjoy running CiB but I’m going to leave Birmingham at some point (maybe soon, maybe not). What then?

Published by Chris Unitt

I work at One Further, doing digital projects with cultural organisations. Follow @ChrisUnitt or find me on LinkedIn.

9 replies on “What’s the point of CiB?”

  1. Interesting, Chris. The stuff you say about it not being treated like your hobby I can relate to. I used to get paid for reviewing, but even then we were constrained by budget (travel expenses for example) and relevance to the readership, and sometimes I was on the receiving end of rants from PRs about why I hadn’t come over to have meetings with them about their new season. I just don’t think people realise what kind of time and money pressures journalists are under, or the importance of serving a particular readership. But as my mother would say, this will all come out in the wash – we’re undergoing a transition into digital publishing which is raising a lot of problems at the moment – especially in terms of to monetizing blogs and websites. I personally don’t think we’ll see quality journalism emerge without a paywall model. This isn’t a popular opinion, but if people can’t make money from journalism, how will they be able to maintain a level of quality; how will they be able to cover all these events that PRs are pushing and write critically about them (with legal protection in place if necessary)? I think CiB is a rare success story in the world of arts blogging, and long may it continue, but as you say, if you leave Birmingham… then what?

  2. I have to admit, again and again I find myself wondering what the point of Birmingham Alive! now is.

    Originally, in about 1998 when I first set it up it was because I was aware that I had become out of the loop of going to concerts because I wasn’t working in the industry anymore, and there was no single place online to find out what was going on – so I set up the site to serve my own personal need, bringing together all the various venue listings into one place, so I could then know what to go to.

    A bit later, the reviews and previews section came in when it was suggested that if I had such a section, venues and promoters would be wanting to give me press tickets to attend!

    And so it ticked along quite nicely for about 10 years, the only game in town – until first whatsoninbrum (as a student project) and then livebrum (as Josh doing it for part of his living) came onto the scene. We all managed to co-exist quite well, but then about two years ago my job radically changed meaning I didn’t have nearly enough time to keep the events database up to date, and the design itself was looking very tired indeed.

    I was on the verge of dropping it entirely until I realised there still wasn’t much online by way of reviews, and I also realised a gap in the market for aggregated, curated news about the city centre – so I persevered.

    But I’ve realised again the last few months I’ve dropped the ball with it again, rarely getting round to doing previews, barely getting round to reviewing the events I attend, and I’ve not aggregated the city centre news for ages either.

    I feel I want to give it life again, but even though I know it’s still in a position to serve a purpose that little served elsewhere, there’s an awful lot of me feels I’ve done it for 13 years now, which is a long time to do anything. I guess I most want to share it around to let other people get the benefits I’ve had from it, but it’s surprising how few people are interested in free entry to events in return for a few words about it afterwards!

    So I too I’m in a state of wondering, ‘what’s its point now?.

  3. Really interesting article Chris. Totally understand what you mean about not everyone understanding it’s a hobby, I’ve encountered similar pressure sometimes with http://digbeth.org – like you say the opportunities you get to do and see things are great but I think sometimes people loose sight of the fact I’m putting in my own unpaid time and it’s not my main job, which takes up most of my time!

    Be interested to see where your thinking on an exit strategy goes and what happens to CiB if you leave Brum. I’ve been having similar thoughts – all my family are in Cardiff and I’ve been musing on whether or not moving back might be a good idea, and what to do with DiG if I did.

    Cheers, Nicky

  4. Just wanted to say that I think CiB still does have a point, is still useful (and could be more so) and so on. Things need to be regularly challenged though.

    Nicky – I seem to remember that Jon Bounds’ talk at WXWM2 (or whatever it was at the Spotted Dog) was about the hassle that goes with running a big website and how the odd thank you wouldn’t go amiss.

    Also, you’re in Cairo – stop reading rubbish like this! Go climb a pyramid or something!

    Annette – I’m always hesitant about comparing or equating what I do with what newspapers do. Possibly quite wrongly, but I think I need to work with that distinction. CiB has never made any money, so if quality is driven by money we have nothing to lose!

    Simon – my overall feeling on the whole thing is that there’s generally no point doing something on a free/voluntary if it causes undue stress, or even just a niggling feeling like you should be doing more. Life’s just too short.

  5. Chris, you should get an MBE or something for CiB – it is an awesome publication. But I think the difficulties of doing it all on your own is really giving a lot back to the comunity, with limited personal gain in the long term (I felt like this after 6 months of Creative Nottingham)
    . Creative Nottingham continues to be a struggle to bring people in to write, and runs as a collective of about 5-7 people involved in different ways but the turnover of people creates a rich seam of new ideas and new perspectives, so the editorial is always different and fresh.

    My sense is that others need to take ownership to allow you to take a step back, and breathe some new life.

    Also rather than covering everything, using CiB’s substantial audience as a platform for guest writers, bloggers and focusing on just a few highlights (less is more) is another way of adding value to the (largely) creative sector audience rather than trying to replicate listings sites, other service.
    Perhaps a section on site can aggregate RSS feeds of some of the best ‘other’ blogs so CiB still has a status as a linking, connecting destination site?

  6. Thing is, I do CiB because I like it, not because I’m at all obliged to. If it was more hassle than worth I wouldn’t bother but happily I’m nowhere near that point.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a struggle to run, so much as expectations from certain quarters can be a little elevated. Luckily I’m fine telling people to piss off if I need to.

    I’m torn on the guest posts. I’ve seen it work well and I’ve seen it be a complete shambles. With March’s guest posting experiment we found it was trickyish to manage – getting submissions in and dealing with stage fright, tone, self-publicity and all sorts. I also like the idea that CiB shouldn’t be the only game in town – instead of everyone contributing to one thing, people should be able to build up their own sites so we have a healthy ecology of these things. That’s not to say it can’t and doesn’t work elsewhere, obviously. There are pros and cons with both ways of doing things. If we were scaling up then maybe a guest posters thread could be worked in somehow.

    The aggregation thing’s interesting. I’ve been wondering to what extent CiB should do that and that’s a big part of what the Storify/Twitter experiment was about. I’m not yet sure what the best way of doing that would be and I don’t think I’ve seen anything that’s impressed me enough to want to steal it for CiB. It needn’t be complicated – basic as it was, the old blogroll was a good feature and helpful for a while (until it became unmanageable).

    Hmm, cheers Susi, some good food for thought.

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