Is my Twitter username mine forever?

imageI’ve just been reading about the fate of Tom Armitage’s @towerbridge Twitter account.

Back in February 2008, Tom registered the @towerbridge username on Twitter and built an automated bot that tweeted details about London’s famous bridge. The account detailed when the bridge opened and closed, which vessel was passing through, and in which direction the vessel was headed. The Twitter account quickly became popular, and in due course nearly 4000 interested people were “following” the account, watching every move of this iconic London landmark.

Earlier today, however, Tom got an email saying that his bot had disappeared; without warning, his @towerbridge account had been taken away and reallocated to the operators of the Tower Bridge tourist attraction. Tom had not been informed in advance that this was going to happen, and in the process of transferring the username, all the historical data that the account had accrued also disappeared.

Now, clearly some will say that Tom had no right to own the @towerbridge account; after all, he has no official connection with the Bridge, and merely happened to register the account first. It does pose a question, however, about the extent to which our Twitter handles are our own.

I’ve been the proud owner of the @simonlucas handle since May 29th 2007. If, however, a more famous Simon Lucas should come along, perhaps a big Hollywood actor, is my username safe? Or is there a risk that ownership could be transferred to him, simply because he is better known and has more clout? Could he or his agents suggest that me tweeting from @simonlucas could cause confusion?

I hope that this is not the case.

This incident is nevertheless a useful reminder that we do not own our usernames; they are held by a private company and could be taken away from us at any time. Perhaps we should make sure we don’t get too attached to our online identities!

Debunking the myths of the Twitterverse

image-1-2I’m amazed by the consensus that has formed around some rather bizarre ideas on Twitter and Facebook recently. Fed by the traditional British tendency to knock success, heightened by television programmes such as “10 O’ Clock Live” and “Mock The Week” that foment negativity, and repeatedly conveyed through Twitter, Facebook and blogs, many have found themselves embracing ideas that normally would be considered preposterous.

Let’s try and debunk some of those negative myths that abound at the moment:

There’s (probably) no global conspiracy (and if there is, there’s nothing you can do about it);

We all have rights, but we also have responsibilities. Our responsibilities are just as important as our rights, if not more so;

Your rights do not take precedence over other people’s. We are a society, not a collection of individuals;

The government don’t want to take all your freedoms away. They are trying to balance protecting the citizens of the country against threats from within and outside the country;

Politicians are for the most part honest, hardworking people who want to serve their country. For every one who makes the news for behaving inappropriately, thousands of others across the UK are working hard to serve their constituents;

The police are not a bunch of law-breaking fascists. For every officer who makes the news for behaving inappropriately, there are thousands quietly doing a very difficult job;

The ultimate aim of a business is to make money for their shareholders, not to provide you with a service. The loyalty of any business lies with their shareholders. Any service that they provide to you, the consumer, they provide in order to make money;

You might not like the way a company conducts its business. Provided they are adhering to the law of the land, however, they are free to conduct their business how they wish. If you don’t like how they operate, shop elsewhere. Don’t be so childish as to try to prevent others from carrying out their legitimate and lawful business;

In the realm of ideas, there is a multitude of different possibilities. Whether it’s the best way to run the NHS, the fairest way to elect our politicians, or the right way to tax our citizens, there are no “right” or “wrong” ways. Which is “better” is a personal opinion;

The joy of living in a democracy is that we are free to express our opinions. We also have to respect the rights of others to have their say, even if we disagree with them;

You think you’re right. But guess what, I think I’m right too.

“I Can’t Be Arsed”

image-2-2I recently spent a day teaching Maths at a school in Sussex. I’m not quite sure why; I am a History teacher, and Maths has never been a great strength. It turned out, though, that teaching Maths to bottom set GCSE students is not particularly difficult. Even with my limited mental arithmetic skills, I was still streets ahead of the fifteen and sixteen year olds that I was teaching. The reason? Whilst I recognise that Maths is not something that I enjoy or am good at, when I’m asked a question I know that with a little effort on my part, I can normally come up with an answer. The kids I saw in Sussex lacked any willingness at all to even attempt an answer. The response that I heard time and time again during that day was, “I can’t be arsed.”

There was one particular student sixteen year old student who was struggling to calculate what 3 x is, when x = 3. I explained that to get the answer all that was required was to multiply three by three. When that simple equation left him baffled, I suggest that we looked at it another way, 3 + 3 + 3. I asked him what 3 + 3 is, to which he responded that he didn’t know. I advised him to think about it rather than simply saying “I don’t know,” because with a little bit of thought, he might come up with the right answer. His response was, “I can’t be arsed.”

I’d love to say that this attitude is very rare, but as a teacher I have seen it far too often. During that single day in Sussex, I must have heard it a dozen times. Whilst working at a “difficult” school in south Essex, I heard it a similar number of times every day for six months. Even teaching at a “posh” exclusive boarding school in Sussex, I often heard it. Rather than stopping, engaging their brains, reflecting on what the answer could be, students simply come out with “I can’t be arsed” in the hope that the problem will go away, or that someone else will simply tell them the answer.

Even when teaching intelligent, hardworking students, the perception often seems to be that my role, as teacher, is simply to provide my pupils with knowledge, to tell them the answers to the questions that will confront them in a future examination, to minimise the amount of effort that they have to invest in discovering knowledge, reflecting on what that knowledge means, and critically analysing the data they have before them.

I find this situation very worrying indeed. Whether it’s as a consequence of poor parenting, inadequate teaching, or the tendency to spend leisure hours engaged in mind-rotting activities such as playing computer games or watching trash on television, the number of people who have no commitment to basic thought seems to be rapidly increasing, particularly amongst our young people. Schools, private and state, “good” and “bad” seem to be failing in their responsibility to help future generations to think.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps in a service society such as the one we have in the UK today, it is best to prepare our young people for the mundanity of a life stacking shelves in Tesco according to a plan devised by someone sitting in an office somewhere in Hertfordshire. Perhaps there is no need for someone who works in a call centre to have the ability to think for themselves when their job simply involves following a script that appears on a screen in front of them. Perhaps by encouraging thinking we’re actually harming our young people, since when they encounter the realities of life they’ll find it much easier if they don’t think.

Perhaps drumming free thinking out of people in these circumstances is a good idea. But if we want to drag our economy out of recession by promoting entrepreneurship, if we want to encourage scientific research, if we want to encourage a new generation of film makers, writers, and artists, if we want to ensure that our society does not simply stagnate and die under an enormous cloud of apathy, drumming free thinking out of people is the worst possible thing that we could do.

It’s not free thinking but this “I can’t be arsed” attitude that must be drummed out of our children, and the sooner the better. We must not drip feed them answers. We must not do everything for them. We need to make life more difficult, not easier. When they can’t answer a question, we must press them to think about it and come up with a response, to take a risk that whilst it might not be correct, it might be. We must raise our expectations of what all of our children are capable of, and continually press them to do better. Teachers – poor quality work should never be acceptable; students should be made to do it again, to invest more time and effort in producing their homework to come up with something that they can be proud of.

We must encourage our young people to take up pursuits that encourage rather than hinder thought. Throw away the Playstations, switch off the television sets, and start encouraging a love of literature, (perhaps if we could encourage people to read, the libraries would not now be under threat), of art, of music, of theatre. Yes, Shakespeare or Mozart might be difficult to understand, they might require some thought, but does that mean we shouldn’t bother with them? Let’s get our children involved in Scouts, or Guides. Let’s invest the money we would have spent on computer games in piano lessons, or ballet classes. Let’s encourage our children to join the orchestra at school, or the debating society, or the French cultural society.

Above all, let’s challenge our children. Let’s encourage them to think, to take an interest in life and the world around them. Let’s show them that thinking is not difficult, and is never too difficult. And let’s drum this “can’t be arsed” attitude of them right now, for the good of our society.

Why I’m writing for the Kindle

People test a Kindle 2 after a press conEarlier this year, I moved house. That involved packing my books into eight large boxes. I lugged those boxes out of my house, into the back of a van, and then into my new flat. It was crippling work, and I decided there and then that there had to be a better way of owning books. Whilst I have always been a huge fan of physical books, they just take up so much space. Whether it’s moving house, or going on holiday, it is clear that even paperbacks are heavy and take up a lot of space.

This summer, I visited the USA. Whilst in a Target store, I saw, and fell in love with, the Kindle. I bought two straight away, and when I got back to my hotel room, opened one. What immediately struck me was the quality of the screen. I thought that a printed sticker had been placed on the screen, because the text looked just like print. I was shocked – yes, shocked – when I realised that what I was seeing was not print at all – but the actual display of the Kindle. The text was so sharp, crystal clear, and, well, black!

The next task was to begin buying books. It was just so easy. I turned the Kindle on, clicked through to the store on the device itself and began selecting books. When I found a selection I wanted to buy, I clicked once, and within seconds, the books were on my device.

And it was so compact! By the end of my three weeks in the States, I had purchased about twenty books. Ordinarily, I would have needed a suitcase just to get my books back to the UK, and it would have cost me a fortune in excess baggage. Not with the Kindle, though. I had my light, slimline device, which I just dropped into my carry on bag. I was then able to sit on the plane reading to my heart’s content. The battery life is just so good that a long haul flight is no trouble for it at all.

By the time I returned home, I was convinced that I had seen the future of reading, and became positively evangelical about the Kindle to the extent that my friends began asking if I was on commission! (I was not, and am not!)

Then I began thinking of the implications of the Kindle for me as I writer. I had just finished writing a book, and had begun the arduous process of trying to secure an agent. My heart dropped, as I had been through this exact process with my first novel, Beyond the Door. I had tried for months and months to find an agent, had sent off a huge number of letters and opening chapters, and met with no success at all. Having not managed to find an agent, I tried to find a publisher. This time I sent out literally hundreds of letters, all of which came back with a negative response. I had just about given up hope when I finally secured a publisher.

I was lucky, and Beyond the Door was moderately successful. It certainly did not make me enough money to live off, but I made a few pounds. The problem is that once a book is published, there is no guarantee that it will ever reach a bookshop. There is to all intents and purposes only one ‘proper’ book retailer in the UK now, and that is Waterstones. If an author is extremely lucky, Waterstones might buy a book in bulk and place it at the front of the store as part of a three for two offer. More likely, though, it they even decide to buy it, is that it will sit in the “A to Z by Author” section at the back of the store for a few weeks, until the manager decides it won’t sell and it gets sent off for pulping.

Even if a book makes it into print, there is no guarantee whatsoever that it will sell. Even if it does, there’s not a lot of money to me made. I made £1 a copy on Beyond the Door. At that rate, an author has to sell an awful lot of books in order to make anything approaching a living.

Writing a book can take years of hard slog. (It took me four years to write Beyond the Door). Trying to get a book published can take years. Getting the book onto the shelves of a retailer can take years. Once there, it might sell a few copies and earn the author a few pounds before it disappears to make room for a newer book.

With the Kindle, though, or more particularly the Kindle store, I see a revolution in the process of buying books. Amazon enable anyone to submit a book to the Kindle store. At a stroke, the publisher disappears from the process. An author can write a book, stick it on the Kindle store, and within days of completing the book, it is available for sale and potentially making money for the writer. What’s more, with no costs to produce a physical book and no publisher to take a substantial cut, an author can potentially make more money per copy through the Kindle store than through a traditional retailer. An author therefore needs to sell fewer copies to make more money. What a fantastic situation to be in!

Of course, there is still the problem of promotion. A good publisher, who recognises the talent of an author, will help to promote a book, providing publicity and opportunities for the author to meet the general public. With the Kindle store, it is very much down to the author to promote their own book. And promotion is of vital importance. By making it so easy for anyone to sell a book, Amazon have ensured that hundreds of new books are hitting their metaphorical shelves every day. That means that if you and I submit a book, we find ourselves jostling for sales amongst many other authors, some of whom will be better than us, many of whom will no doubt be considerably worse writers than us. I firmly believe, though, that as with anything, the cream will rise to the surface, and, if our books are any good, they will sell.

As an experiment, I uploaded the text of Beyond the Door to the Kindle store. It had been out of print for several years, so I had nothing to lose. I’m not arrogant enough to claim that Beyond the Door is the greatest work of children’s fiction, but it did do moderately well in print form. Would it sell in the Kindle store? Well, with practically no promotion whatsoever, it is indeed selling. Not in huge volumes at the moment, and not enough for me to make a huge amount of money, but it is selling nevertheless, and I am earning money as a result.

If that’s possible with an old children’s book (I wonder how many children even own Kindles? I suspect not many), then I wonder what the potential is for selling fiction for a more adult market.

This month, therefore, I have decided to put to one side my literary masterpiece. If I am going to be successful as a writer, I need to earn money to pay the bills. (I can’t live off my wife’s earnings forever, after all!) Writing a masterpiece, finding an agent, securing a publishing deal, getting a book into print and into bookshops could take years – during which I will not be earning money. I decided that there must be a better way. I have therefore begun writing a novel specifically for the Kindle (and other eReaders). I’m going to write it as quickly as I possibly can and, as a consequence, try to make it topical. As soon as I have completed it, I will get it proofread, tweak anything that needs tweaking, correct anything that needs correcting, and get it out there for sale as an eBook as quickly as I possibly can. Then I’ll begin the process again, and get another eBook written and onto the store, and then another, and another, and another, the theory being that the more books I have available, the better. If I have one book in the Kindle store, people might buy it and like it. If I have five, or ten, or twenty, hopefully anyone who buys a book I’ve written and enjoyed it will buy another. Hopefully they’ll also tell their friends. The hypothesis, then, is quite simple. The more books I write, the more I sell, and the more money I make. I don’t expect to be a millionaire anytime soon, but it would be nice to make enough money to pay the bills.

That all depends, of course, on my books being any good, and people actually enjoying them. I’m currently thirty per cent of the way through my first new novel, however, and I am absolutely thrilled with how it’s going. But more on that in a future post.

I really do believe that I have seen the future of publishing, and it is the eBook. Why bother with a traditional publisher when it is possible to publish books quicker and easier without them, whilst also making more money? It looks to me like it’s going to be eBooks all the way from here on in.