On ten years of Custom PC

I’d like to do a post of great social and political import.

Ten years ago, I helped start a magazine. It’s still going, and the people running it now asked me to write a little bit about it. I was a staff writer on issue 1 of Custom PC and by issue 60-something, after five years, I’d become editor. I left two years after that, in 2010, so it’s been a while since I thought about CPC. But I got issue 1 down from the shelf and was reminded of the things we did I’d definitely do again, and of course, the many things I’d avoid if possible.
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On Snowfallen, and pollen for readers

Bobbie Johnson wrote a good critique of Snowfall, and I wrote a riposte on the work blog:

“Johnson assumes there’s one type of reader, the dedicated long-hauler who will diligently read 8,000 words about your topic. There are indeed some of these people. But there are many other types of readers, many skimmers, who will likely not be that entranced by your topic, or your opening line.

It is for these types of people that “magazine-style design” (for want of a better term), where you have a core story of flowing text surrounded by many box-outs, pull-quotes, maps and sidebars developed. These act like pollen to bees: they’re attractive, interesting and sticky. They provide a different take on the topic the article is addressing, and different entry points.”


On Quora, empathy and editorial value

One of the things I wanted to do more of this year was write about digital products. I’m going to start with Quora, because it’s a site I keep coming back to you, and yet I don’t think they know what they’re doing.

Their announcement of a blogging platform this week is a good illustration of how lost they are. Quora hasn’t given a compelling reason for it to exist, so it looks like the main motivation was the momentum behind Medium and Branch. It’s a shame Quora feels so lost, because part of what has been created there – by both the team and community – is brilliant. I also think Quora is worth studying because it exemplifies both the thinness and the brilliance of many shoot-for-the-moon start-ups with digital products.

“Quora connects you to everything you want to know about,” says the site’s About page (though they just changed it to “Quora is your best source of knowledge”).

Lofty. That’s shooting for the moon. And of course, a terrible curse to place on your product.

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A Terrible Beauty

Published in 2000, A Terrible Beauty is defiantly a pre-internet book(1). In under 850 pages (under 775 if you discount the index), it gives the reader a history of the twentieth century’s defining ideas, from Marxism to Nazism, from Feminism to fusion. Not just the ideas, but the people too – Satre, Picasso, Orwell and Janet Leigh and thousands more. In the words of its own subtitle, it is a history of ‘the people and ideas that shaped the modern mind.’ The idea of any book – any mere bundle of paper – attempting to do that thing now would seem weirdly futile.

Yet it’s the reason why this is the case, the one that’s on the tip of your tongue – yes, Wikipedia – that reading A Terrible Beauty brings to mind. The book is divided into four parts, and within these, 42 themed chapters. They are roughly chronological, but if a later development, discovery or idea fits a theme, it will be mentioned ahead of time, giving a beautiful sense of the uneven march of history. That said, so far, so traditional narrative. What’s very Wikipediary (!) about the book is that the people mentioned are all picked out in bold type when they first appear, enabling you to zip through the text and start reading when someone’s name catches your eye. Despite the fact it all ties together very well when you’re reading sequentially, it’s startlingly easy to just open the book and start reading. That’s how I first got into it; I was staying at a friend’s house, and it sat on the bedside table in the spare room.

The page I opened it at was 530, with its piece on Germaine Greer, immediately presenting one of Greer’s killer lines:

“Her book, The Female Eunuch, did not neglect women’s economic condition, though only one of its thirty chapters is devoted to work. Rather it drew its force from Greer’s unflinching comparison of the way women, love and marriage are presented in literature, both serious and popular, and in everyday currency, as compared with the way things really are. ‘Freud’, she writes, ‘is the father of psychoanalysis. It had no mother.'”

So it continues, brisk but not hurried, economical without being threadbare:

“Greer is withering in her criticisms of how men are presented as dominant, socially superior, older, richer, and taller than their women (Greer is very tall herself). In what is perhaps her most original contribution, she demolishes love and romance (both given their own chapters) as chimeras, totally divorced (an apt verb) from the much bleaker reality.”

The conclusion to this section has stayed with me since I first read it, a sentence that completely embodies the book’s title:

“As with all true liberation, this view is both bleak and exhilarating.”

It was this line that came to me today as I read two pieces about the future of computing and the internet.

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Virtual reality, then and now

In the 1980s and 1990s, the term ‘virtual reality’ was understood to mean the creation of reality inside the computer – and thus we would need to experience it using complex imaging and interaction systems (3D googles, cursors mapped to the movement of a glove etc.) The implication behind this was the reality itself would be untouched. The real world would simply be a home for the VR equipment: Star Trek imagines it holodeck as a big empty room, for instance. Moreover, since VR ran inside the computer, it only worked when you turned it on – and in movies such as The Lawnmower Man, the nightmare scenario was not being able to get out.

Few people imaginged that when VR came to pass, it would actually involve computers altering the way we acted in reality. The video below shows 100 dancers in central London recreating the dance from Beyonce’s music video for her song ‘Single Ladies’ (which Peter Sagal called ‘a wonderful, brilliantly performed dance number set to an irresistably catchy pop tune’). As a piece of PR in reality, it holds very little value – few people would have the chance to actually see it, as it the dancers and organisers take pains for it to appear to happen spontaneously on the street. It’s over in three minutes, and few of the people who happened to be walking by would actually be able to make sense of it because it only works if you’ve seen the original music video. Indeed, the behaviour of the dancers only really works if it’s watched as a video, passed around virally on the web. It is, essentially, VR: actions in reality that are targeted at, and only make sense when experienced virtually.

Too much Photoshop

When is too much in Photoshop? This article (translated from Danish) tells the story of a photographer who entered a competition, and was then asked to send unedited samples of his images. The article reproduces the pictures – before and after – so you can judge for yourself if there’s too much editing going on.

Those images are mostly landscapes; Photoshopping on humans is much more widely discussed (both behind the scenes, and in front of camera, as in the Dove ‘real beauty’ adverts), but Shakesville’s series, ‘Impossibly Beautiful‘ does a good job of showcasing what, post-software, is considered beautiful.

Update: Co-incidentially, this month’s French Elle is not only Photoshop free, it’s also dispensed with make-up for its female cover stars, who include Eva Herzigova, Monica Bellucci, Sophie Marceau, and Charlotte Rampling.

Digg and the art of the headline

Tony resigns

[The entry has been cross posted from my work blog]

When it comes to the web, there really aren’t many ways in which to gain readers for your site. Not that many practical and legal ones, anyway – sure, I could pay a dodgy bunch of Eastern European types to knock up a virus that sets everyone’s homepage to custompc.co.uk, and I could hire a team of skywriters to put our name above London.

Increasing readership online is fairly similar to increasing readership of a magazine in real life – although at first glance this isn’t the case. The New York Times has run stories about how search engines are changing the dark art of writing newspaper headlines. Instead of witty puns, the story goes, the importance of appearing high up the Google rankings means simplicity is more important. There is a truth to this: Google drives a lot of traffic, and while humans will understand a punning, tabloid style headine when they see it on the page, when people Google, they Google in simple, explanatory language. The headline in the picture above is a good example: I know it’s about Tony Blair’s resignation announcement, but if I was searching for that story online, I wouldn’t necessarily Google “beginning of the end.”

However, while Googlers prize simplicity, the art of headline writing lives on: submit a story to online news aggregators such as Digg or Slashdot, or even to one of the big blogs such as Engadget, and you tend to find that plainly worded stories die an obscure death – unless of course, the story itself, even worded plainly, is powerful enough to draw people in. I don’t think you’ll find anyone going through these sites extolling the virtues of the headlines in the way people do for the Economist or the Sun, because I don’t think the bulk of the submitters to Digg and Slashdot have honed their skills in the way sub-editors on big publications do; but the big stories on these websites do tap into their audiences’ interests in the same way ‘Gotcha’ et al engaged the Sun’s readers in the 80s.

The reason headline writing is still important on the web is that increasing readership in the online world, as in the offline world, basically comes down to increasing visibility and word of mouth. A good headline – which is both hook and synopsis for a story – does both. It pulls the reader in (visibility) and by reducing it to a soundbit, makes it easy to share (word of mouth).

That said, while headlines are important for getting noticed on sites such as Digg, there are a lot of other considerations which go into why a story makes it big or dies. Some of them tally with media experience in the real world. Stories on Digg stand a much better chance if they have a well-known source – large US sites such as Engadget, Gizmodo and mainstream media titles such as the New York Times contribute a lot – and stories will do better when they’re back by a well known digger. Case in point, our “10 Hardest Games” feature. I submitted it and garnered a woeful 4 Diggs; almost exactly 24 hours later, another Digger submitted it using very similar langauge, and it attracted 1,234 Diggs. To some extent, this mirrors what happens in print – if the Daily Telegraph prints a story, people will pay it more attention than if it appears in Bedfordshire on Sunday.

The audience on Digg is, despite the site’s efforts to expand its topics of conversation, generally very focussed, too: iPhone stories, Ubuntu plugs, anti-RIAA pieces pop up time and time again; but likewise in print, successful titles learn what their audience is interested in and generally tap into that.

And yet all this reasonable talk, is little consolation for the fact that so few people Digg our stories – or at least the ones we ourselves submit. Perhaps it’s just the case that we just need to get Custom PC more – tough, I think, because there are no shortage of tech sites out there (although most are a load of cobblers), because there’s a US-bias to the Digg, and because there’s always something that looks obscure and dull to me that’s hoovering up all the Diggs.

Still, we need to persevere I guess. If you fancy helping out, add me as a friend on Digg 😀

It’s finally here: the new CustomPC.co.uk


And I am so relieved. For the past 18 months or so, helping create a new website for Custom PC has been something of an obsession for me. I’ve talked endlessly about it on flights, in bars, in many, many meetings and bored the Jesteress to tears with all my ideas and frustrations. I’ve scribbled brainwaves in notebooks and written thousands of words to try and get the ball rolling and convince people/the company that what Custom PC needed was a really, truly, good website – and that what this would entail would be a very different site, organisation and approach to the one we already had.

One of the biggest problems Dennis has had (and it’s one shared by many other publishers, I think) is that when taking its print brands online, in the rush to ‘get down with this new thing called the web’, a lot of the good ways of working that we had developed on the magazine editorial side were thrown out – although they were of course accompanied along with some ones that did need to go. Baby and the bath water etc. So the creation and maintence of the sites was made largely separate from the print editorial side, etc etc. It is easy to see why; the web is, after all, very different to print. To some extent it’s true that a magazine should not work on the web – that’s why it is a magazine. A
website should not work if you print it out or disconnect it.

However, good magazines do tend to be produed by relatively small, dedicated teams who are passionate about both their subject and the medium in which they are working. In any good publication, there’s an awareness of how style, form and content can be blended together. The same is true for good websites. Make the teams too large and too dispersed, go for an approach that’s too generic, too rule-based and disconnected with what the content relates to and you get a site – or a magazine – that lacks any sense of life. So what you want is a magazine and the website to have shared DNA –
shared editorial values, perhaps some shared content
(depending on the project) and the same overall quality – but, crucially, this all needs to find a different form of expression in print and on the web. The DNA needs to create two seperate, independent, unique characters. Brother and sister, rather than two clones.

We work hard to produce a magazine that makes best use of the printed format (for instance, see this post),
and it became obvious to me that we needed to take a similar approach
online, and make a site that really, genuinely worked as a website. Not just a repository of text and picture content,
but a resource for PC hardware and news, a place for people to discuss
their computers, mods, tips and tricks: a flexible tool that could be
the hub of a techy community.

With our new site, I think we’re starting to get towards this nirvana: it’s all written by the same team as the magazine, it has both articles from the mag plus web-specific stuff (particularly the news, which my colleague Ben is doing a great job with), lots of RSS feeds, sensible URLs for ease-of-use, plus WordPress-powered blogs for both staff and readers, complete with file space, so you can chuck up your pictures, benchmarks, CPU-Z screenies and mod shots and not worry about hosting.

The next big upgrade will come when we start writing our copy using a database and then we’ll be able to do very smart things with benchmark data and tech specs. This is just one of the improvements scheduled to be added – we tinker with the magazine every issue, trying new things, improving it, honing it, and now that we’ve rebalanced the editorial team so that we all work across print and web, this should also be the case with the website.

In terms of inspirations, personally, this post by Information Architects Japan was what convinced me of the need for ‘big, clear text’ (although IA probably wouldn’t like the bright colours of the rest of our design), while the excellent Journerdism provided a constant stream of challenging, thought provoking discussions on the way print media was working (or not) online. Wordblog, Modern Life, Publishing 2.0 and MagCulture have all given me great ideas, too.

The editorial team and the project team at Dennis Interactive (DI) has worked really hard on making the site happen. The project has been a huge learning curve, because not only has it involved a lot of technical engineering for the coders and designers of DI, it’s also required a re-engineering and re-balancing of how editorial and interactive work together, and a reassessment of many, many aspects of the company’s old approach to the web. There is still a long way to go, but the new site is a good first step.

And, so without further ado, here it is. www.custompc.co.uk. I now have a work blog, www.custompc.co.uk/blogs/alexwatson, and if you want to subscribe to it the RSS feed is here.

Also, the Media Guardian has written up the site launch.