The Rise and Fall of Facebook Events

The second episode of the GFSC podcast

In the early days of Facebook, the Events feature was the bedrock of a lot of community organising. It was free, all your friends were on it, and it worked well. Events you were organising showed up right in the stream of pokes, icanhazcheezburger and failblog memes, and commenting on your friends’ “it’s complicated” relationship updates.

Fast forward a decade and it barely works. Facebook’s insistence on video content, the effective closure of their APIs for community groups, and increasingly exploitative business model means it’s harder than ever to get small community group’s events in front of people’s eyeballs without paying Facebook a hefty sum for the privilege. As a result we are seeing a mass exodus from the platform and feel like the impact of this for community organising is not fully felt yet.

In this podcast, Kim talks to two highly experienced event organisers: David Hayward, founder of Feral Vector festival, and Rachele Evaroa from The Old Abbey Taphouse in Hulme who was recently voted Manchester’s most eccentric landlady. We discuss what the future could look like and our plans for our own PlaceCal platform.

You can listen to it in the player above, or on anchor.fm. You can find it on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Podcasts, and Amazon by searching “Geeks for Social Change”.

“The really weird and slightly esoteric thing about all those platforms is that they can generate shareholder value by making life harder for their users”

– David Hayward

“One of the big issues I have with tech is it’s making it harder and harder and harder to do something that used to be quite simple

– Rachele Evaroa

“How are you gonna scale this [innovation] to a million people? I don’t know actually, I’m just doing it with my neighbours first.”

– Kim Foale

Episode information

References

Credits


Transcript

[Intro music] 00:00:20

KF: Hello and welcome to the Geeks for Social Change podcast where we talk about tools and processes for community liberation.

I’m Kim from Geeks for Social Change and I’m joined today by David Hayward and Rachel Evaroa to talk about the rise and fall of Facebook Events. 00:00:36

[Intro music] 00:00:42

KF: Sweet. Hello. I’m Kim Foale and this is the second episode of the Geeks for Social Change podcast. It is the 6th of July, I’m in the Old Abbey Taphouse which is a wonderful social enterprise pub that does lots of cool things in Hume, that you’ll hear about in a little bit. I am joined with Rachel Evaroa and David Hayward. Today we’re gonna talk a little bit about some of the new work we’re getting up to and where we’re at with PlaceCal and how that’s all going but first I’ll get my guests to do a little introduction. So do you want to introduce yourself Rachel and tell us who you are and the kind of things you like to do. 00:01:18

RE: Hiya, I’m Rachel Evaroa. I started off as a kind of person who didn’t really know what they wanted to do in their lives and I still don’t and I manage to make a living out of putting on events and working in the community and five years ago me and my best friend Craig managed to open a community pub, which is a social enterprise, in Hume and alongside that I’m also very passionate about music and community. 00:01:42

DH: Hi, I’m David Hayward. My background is in events management for the video games industry. For the past ten years that was largely about trying to create culture within an extremely blinkered capitalist environment. 00:01:59

KF: Cool, so yeah, we’ll get onto some of the details of this shortly. I think the topic for today’s podcast, so the idea for this podcast is to talk about tools and processes for community liberation, is how we’ve been describing it. I think anyone who’s been sort of reading the stuff we’ve been putting out for a while will know about something we’ve been working on called PlaceCal but I’ll do a quick description again. So PlaceCal came out of some work we did, starting in 2017 with Manchester School of Architecture, working with local Age Friendly Partnership in Hulme, Moss Side and some other Age Friendly Partnerships in other parts of Manchester. They found out there was a real issue where all the people just simply didn’t know what there was to do in their neighbourhoods. So we sort of dug down and did some research and we found this kind of, these three main issues. So one was to do with, uh, people just weren’t working together. Like every institution had its own platform, that met its own needs with its own categories that, and these were mostly, seemingly for the institutions benefit rather than the community groups they were working with. Then the other side of it is there’s the big platforms like facebook that are kind of really just selling advertising space for the most part and especially this has gotten a lot worse in recent years. The second issue was that, there wasn’t any sort of integration between the social and technical so, like, people weren’t going out and training community groups up in how to list events and what that means and engaging people in a larger network and that leads onto the third part which is people are very digitally excluded. Most of this software isn’t actually designed to make your life easier, it’s designed to sell off adverts. We found a lot of people were actually already using something like Google calendar or Outlook, or Facebook but often they didn’t know how to use them or they saw them as more of a burden and they didn’t really see the benefit. And we found out generally that they were right because people weren’t working in connected ways. So we designed this three tier approach to fixing this which was, working on a strategic level with the partners together to try and fix the problem, we trained partners up to list events using the software they already had - so you’re Google calendar, Outlook, you know, things that were generally already on people’s phone or in their workflow and then we built this PlaceCal platform to aggregate all of this, to add in the extra data about where it was and all the rest of it. So you can read a lot more about this, we’ve got other articles about it that I’ll link out underneath with the context for this. So we ended up building this platform that worked amazingly well. We did a really solid prototype. When we were at our peak we had about 250 events a week in Hulme, which is about ten thousand people who live here, which blew everyone’s mind. And we organised a couple of winter festivals where we managed to put flyers through people’s doors that events from, I think, you know, up to 16 local community groups. The funny thing that happened then was we found out this went down amazingly well with community groups and front line workers but we just couldn’t get it funded. We were basically hitting this same issue that because there’s a lack of joined up strategy, there wasn’t joined up funding. So a lot of the funding we were going for, it was like “Oh no, it’ll go to that person, go to that person”. We then kind of hit Covid and everything obviously ground to a halt, we were a platform about getting older people to hang out in real life. That wasn’t very popular for those few years. We’re now back on the road. We’ve got some funding to really expand this idea again, over the next couple of years. We’ve been funded by the National Lottery. David and Rachel here, who are both really good friends, I’ve known for a really long time, they are both working on this project, along with Carol Freeman who is shortly to be helping for the south of England but we all live pretty near each other in Manchester so it’s easy to do this podcast today. And I think, the rest of this episode, really what we’re going to talk about, a bit, is sort of this failure of - it’s not even necessarily a failure, but you know, these big tech companies like, you know, the Facebooks, the Microsofts, the Googles, they don’t really care about you, they’re there to sell their software. And it’s increasingly feeling like something that is just there to extract data, the models are getting more extractive. So it’s really no surprise that I think event promoters are finding it kind of harder and harder to sort of like, know what to do. So I was going to headover to Rach, here who has been promoting events for a really long time on a range of platforms. I don’t know if you want to talk about, like, when, how you did stuff, how stuff’s changed, what you like now, what’s really annoying. 00:06:29

RE: Yeah, so I have to say, I think I probably made my career because of Facebook events. So I started putting on my first gig when I was 16 and when I was 21 I opened up my first bar and that was just when Facebook was kind of kicking off with Facebook events and the way it worked then was that it was really easy to see the events your friends were going to and then once you were in a subculture, kind of network, of different events with different promoters, you’re events would get flagged up so it created really good subcultures to begin with, Facebook. And then when I was really good at it, I would have to read the blogs every week and there was all, there was all these talks about the different algorithms, cause each week Facebook changes its algorithm and you’d have to read up on the blogs to work out how to share your event to the most amount of people. And then, I think it was about, maybe it was 6 years ago they, Facebook completely changed their algorithm and it was the death knell for lots of different people and since then Facebook events is still one of the main ways for live music and club nights to promote their events. TikTok and Instagram don’t really cater for events, even though you can share your events on there like a flyer, you can’t really get a sense of who is going to your events. And the last few years Facebook’s made it harder and harder and harder to list your events on Facebook and get them noticed so I don’t know if you’ve noticed, even if you share a birthday party for your personal friends it’s really hard for you to find out about your friend’s birthday party. So we’re all struggling using Facebook events but nothing else has really come along to fill the gap. And then when Facebook went down, last year, we had a massive panic here at the Old Abbey Taphouse because again we list our events on Facebook and there was a feeling at the time of “what other platforms can we use?”. In the last five years, lots of platforms have sprung up but they’re about selling tickets and they take a percentage from you. So five years ago, or no, about seven years ago, I decided to build myself my own website to sell tickets so I could keep the data and I could keep the revenue and I did really well out of that for a bit but I needed to use Facebook to then advertise to send people to my website and Facebook is making it harder and harder to have links that go outside of Facebook.So for example if you share a YouTube video on Facebook it’s really hard for that to get traction but if you upload the video to Facebook then you’ll get more traction. And the last few weeks we’ve had to pivot mainly to videos so we’re not even really listing our Facebook events, we’re just doing videos that we have to pay quite a lot of money to marketing on Facebook to get them seen. So within the live music and club night industry there is a big issue with how, with selling tickets at the moment, there’s a huge issue with attendance to gigs, people are pulling gigs if they can’t sell the tickets, which we didn’t use to do, people would still go ahead with gigs and hope for people to turn up at the door but the rise in costs means most people can’t take that risk. And then all these other ticket sellers that have jumped up, so we’re using FIXR, it’s pretty good but it takes a decent cut. I’ve seen some other apps come up, like Dice. Dice, I’m not against it but it really annoyed me, I bought some tickets with it the other day and you had to download the app to get access to the tickets and I think we’re moving into this really dangerous zone where people who don’t have smartphones who might like live music or just wanted to pop out to see some live music will be put off because of all this technology that you have to access to be able to get a ticket when it’s quite a simple process. And the other part of it that I don’t like about it is that it’s removing the personality. So when people buy tickets to come to my venue the more steps in between them and me, the more it removes that, the experience that I’m giving them. And of course if you have a third seller, if you have any issues then it has to go through the third seller and people can’t contact you directly. So just for example we’re on UberEats. That’s one of the worst platforms. If someone orders something off UberEats I can’t talk to them directly, I have to talk to someone in India who then talks back to the customer. So this is one of the big issues I have with tech is, its making it harder and harder and harder to do something that was actually quite simple and tech always says that it’s the solution to make things simpler but at the moment within events and events world, it hasn’t actually made our lives easier, it’s made it harder. 00:10:43

DH: It’s kind of hilarious that all the big platforms have run out of ways to copy each other so Facebook are just doing pivot to video…again! Like, I was doing a freelance gig news writing for a magazine in 2015 around the first time they pivoted to video. 00:11:00

DH: And it was really interesting to get to see inside that whole dynamic for a few months. Like, that magazine has a publisher who is very into online advertising and figuring out those systems but everything changed every week and I ended up quitting because the overheads of actually writing news to exist online just kept going up and up and up. Like, every week I’d get to work and be told - “Oh, every post needs this much body text now and this many images, and for this platform they have to have captions but for this platform they can’t have captions so this week we’re prior…” and it was just a mess! And over time you could see Facebook just eating this magazine publisher’s business. Like, you roll up and at first your videos are getting loads of engagement, which apparently they were, allegedly they were lying about anyway, and helping you build a massive audience. Their page was like getting close to five hundred thousand followers but they found every big milestone, the rate at which they acquired followers had slowed down and it was just so much being toyed with behind the scenes and they got to the point where they were having to pay Facebook to access their own audience whereas before they had been independent, had it all running through their own website. And they had to really fight to rebuild their audience on that website and through their own channels rather than be dependent on Facebook. ‘Cause the really weird and slightly esoteric thing about all those platforms, I think, is that they can generate shareholder value by making life harder for their users. 00:12:41

RE: On that point too, as well, I’ve worked on so many events where, on Facebook or Instagram, we’ve had thousands of likes but the actual engagement in real life doesn’t happen. So it’s not actually a good indicator for anyone running an event of how busy it’s going to be. You may get thousands of people sharing your video or your event but they’re not necessarily in Manchester. They’re not necessarily gonna come down. It’s easy for people to share things, it’s actually harder in real life to come down. So, it’s weird how if you’re in that sort of job where the publisher is more keen on the likes rather than actually how many people have read the article. Cause you can get a lot of likes but it might not translate to reads. Yeah, it makes this weird world where you’re, kind of, pandering to an audience that’s not really real, if that makes sense. 00:13:28

KF: I was also just going to add, I think, it’s interesting all this stuff too because, you know, because I don’t think any of us here are really doing what we do for the money. That’s like how we have to exist in the world. And the events we’ve talked about so far, all, they have a money aspect right, you sell tickets to an event cause that’s what you need to do if you want to put on a party. But the vast majority of the events we’re looking at in PlaceCal, they didn’t have that, they were a coffee morning, they were a mutual aid group, they’re a special swimming club for older people. Like, so, it’s no wonder, really, that like, even for the people who are doing it the way the platform is designed to be used are struggling so how is anyone else got any hope if they’re, if they have, if they don’t care about, they just want people to know about it, to be able to find out about it. It’s like it’s literally made impossible. 00:14:09

DH: Yeah

RE: Totally agree with you on that. Like, my, one of the reasons I was most interested in PlaceCal is about twenty years ago my mum had a listings magazine called The Family Grapevine. It had all the schools, all the school activities, the nurseries, the playgroups and it went to social workers, schools, doctor’s surgeries, it was in the local supermarkets and it was free but it would go, as soon as my mum put it out it would go because everyone loved it because everything was in one place and you could just sit there and see everything and where they missed out is, they had a website designer build a website but he didn’t give them access to the website and they couldn’t put online listings and they got locked out of this website for three years and in that space of time Facebook came along and it kind of killed their business. But if they’d been able to move their listings online and publicise it, I think they would have done really well. But I think there’s a gap again in the market from what I’ve seen for a new events platform. 00:15:10

DH: Yeah, everything I’ve seen through events over the past sixteen years has either been really open to abuse or really difficult to use. 00:15:20

KF: Do you want to talk a bit more about your sort of background in events David and the kinds of things you organise? I know we’re all pitching our projects a lot and it may be good to hear. 00:15:27

DH: I think that a bunch of the non-commercial stuff I’ve done is more interesting, or definitely more aligned with what we’re doing in terms of community groups. So, sure, I have a background in commercial video games events and still do a few of those but mostly I’m bored of them. Industry oriented conferences tend to just be on this repeating loop of survivor bias and copy the rich person. None of that’s interesting, none of that improves anything, none of that builds community, none of that advances culture or advances creative meaning in any way I don’t think. But as well as that I’ve been involved with hack spaces and things like board game nights. Do I need to explain what hack spaces are, if I’m going to mention them? 00:16:13

KF: Yes 00:16:14

DH: Ok. Hack spaces are member-led community workshops and the model that functions on can vary but the idea is basically everyone has a single workshop where they can go to do stuff and use big tools they might not necessarily have at home. So like, laser cutters, plasma cutters, CNC mills and so on. The one, in fact I’ve set up several with friends, one in Nottingham that is now pretty huge. They have nearly seven hundred members, I think, and another one somewhere smaller, which seems to fluctuate around a dozen members. It’s a really interesting contrast to have been, like, setting both of those things up. And along with the games nights, software is a really weird thing for those groups to deal with. Like, every group develops its own way of doing that kind of stuff and there’s this huge disconnect where any big platform or service meets those groups. So like, games nights I’ve run, it would be like we had a wordpress blog and the event is on the third Thursday of every month. Like, it literally has to be that simple to keep any kind of stability. Whereas, the bigger hack spaces I’m involved with had a sufficient number of people that it would, bespoke software would basically spring into being to achieve stuff. Whereas a smaller hack space, it tends to be people will, has people just technical enough to commit to software development projects that they’ll never finish and everything ends up a bit broken but there’s nothing out there that really caters towards these kinds of groups or has the flexibility required for all those different things.00:18:03

KF: I think the other thing you just brought up, it’s something we think about a lot too. I think, a lot of the original funding and the design behind PlaceCal was sort of about social isolation was the main thing and there’s a lot of funding about that. Like, social isolation and loneliness is a big one the funders love and they’re quite interesting concepts to really think about because, you know, you always get questions about, like, “Oh well, how many socially isolated people has it reached?” And it’s like, well we don’t know because they’re socially isolated, like, we don’t have a meaningful definition of this. People don’t just tell you and actually if you want to make things more inclusive the key barrier to overcome is getting people to go to their first thing. Because, like we’ve said a lot of things are, once you start going, it’s the third Thursday of the month, but you need to go the first time. So we actually hit this, one of the sites we’re working on with PlaceCal is called the Trans Dimension, which is a group of Trans groups in London, and it was honestly pretty far through this, we had a page that was resources that we were trying to put up and it was like, it wasn’t really clicking and then we realised that actually the thing people need the most, that obviously wasn’t at the front of anyone’s mind who has been working on this, we’re all trans people, we’re all out, we all work at trans led organisations, was just going to your first thing and how terrifying that is and it’s hard to remember you know, you fall in with a group of people and all of a sudden you don’t really need these network sites anymore because you’ve found people and they’ll tell you on other networks but, and I think especially over Covid, the way we theorised a lot of the PlaceCal stuff is there’s kind of, communities of place, which are your natural neighbours, the people you walk past every day, the shops you go into, your local coffee shop, right? And then, there’s communities of interest which are kind of, your DnD group, the kind of music you’re into, it might be based around a fake group or something like that and I think, especially over Covid, these communities of interest have become much easier to become a part of and communities of place have become much harder to be a part of and we’ve now seen, you know, students especially who all come and the architecture in Hulme, that they’re literally fenced off from the rest of the population, so those connections are hard to make at the best of times, but we’ve now got students who have kind of come, done a few years of uni but not been able to make these physical connections. So it feels weird now, feels very segregated, it feels like, I don’t know, and I think we need to get back to this community of place thing a little bit because that’s often where the actual, you know, cross pollination happens and we don’t all just stay with our own friends and our own annoyances getting angry at each other. 00:20:32

RE: I think that’s one of the reasons me and Craig opened up pub, those pubs were the traditional spaces where people got to meet their neighbours and if you think again, people living in smaller, smaller houses and smaller and shared houses where its harder and harder to socialise at home but there’s less and less spaces for people to just meet naturally and I think in Hulme there’s three pubs left, we’re the only ones, well we’re open the most out of all of them, there’s no community centers left. We get approached about wakes and funerals and eighteen year old birthday parties because there’s no - these natural spaces where the community used to meet. So even figuring out where these spaces are to go to, cause quite often, churches are doing quite good at renting out their community halls and putting on events but yeah, it’s really, really hard to figure out where you actually go to meet anyone.00:21:19

KF: I feel like there are community centers but they all seem really closed and I don’t know if that’s real or not but it’s like, you know, or a lot of them, like the big one’s in Hulme, like, they just, the Big Life Centres, they just don’t seem like somewhere approachable. It seems like that’s where the health authority and all the providers go to do their events, it doesn’t feel like somewhere, where, I as a resident, would go and book a room. I don’t know why that is. 00:21:41

RE: I did some work on this two years ago and they put in these weird conditions which aren’t that hard to overcome, so like, they won’t let people use the kitchen unless they have Level 2. Level 2 takes, costs ten pounds and someone can do it on the internet but they make it out to anyone hiring the venue that it’s this really hard qualification that you can’t get and they also put on big fees onto the hire fees which didn’t used to be there I think. Yeah 00:22:07

DH: I found a lot of that is about who is in that place as well. Like, who is able to meet people there and kind of guide them into whatever is going on. I’ve run a range of events for people from student age to kind of like, middle age, are usually middle class people and it took me a long time to kind of be able to state this and a lot of the friends running things with me didn’t get it and in fact one event no one really understood what I was doing but as soon as I left the whole thing just collapsed within six months. And basically, a lot of people have this self-image of like, I’m a good person, we’re all good people here and at worse that will be a thing where they use that to be like “Why do we need a code of conduct we’re all good people here” and then something really terrible happens and they learn that actually we weren’t all good people here and then maybe they do put some rules in place and then, without thinking through, like, “what do we do next time?”, they just write the rues up then they think, “ok, now we’re all good people here” but there’s a more subtle level of that which is about inclusion and unless you have someone involved in your event who is willing to make the effort to meet anyone who turns up halfway, you will develop this dissonance between the “we’re all good people here” self image of the group and what actually happens when someone who doesn’t automatically fit in turns up. So one example was a board game night a couple with learning difficulties turned up. And no one wants to be the prick who doesn’t want to sit and play a game with a couple who have learning difficulties but at the same time a bunch of people have turned up, they want to relax and chat to their friends, they don’t want to be doing anything that feels like work, so someone has to be willing to kind of, create a bridge across that divide. And once someone does and you introduce them to some people, they make some friends, everything is fine from that point on pretty much but its just having someone who is able to spot those kind of situations and stop them from becoming problems is a huge part that software basically can’t help with. 00:24:24

RE: Yeah, totally agree with you on that. There’s all these people skills you need.00:24:30

KF: I think this comes down to something we’ve been thinking about a lot recently around that, you know, the other big trendy thing people are talking about at the moment is digital inclusion. But actually like, I just increasingly don’t see any difference between digital and social inclusion. ‘Cause usually the model is, we have a physical service that we provide at the center and there’s a human you can talk to who is nice - “Yeah, we’re gonna fire them and we’re gonna make a shit website instead and then we’re going to tell the people who don’t like the new service that they’re digitally excluded” and it’s kind of like, you know! 00:25:02

RE: I went to one of our own XR museum and it was about making museums more inclusive to people but then they digitised it and you had to have a virtual reality headset. So how does that make it more inclusive because the people who couldn’t physically go to museums, I don’t think, would also be the people who could afford a virtual reality headset. And then it’s removing that, it’s taking away more physical spaces, which, where people meet each other and get to learn and feel like part of the community.00:25:28

KF: It just feels like there’s some real big category errors going on, do you know what I mean, it’s like, “Oh, do you want to be inclusive? Download the inclusion app on your phone”. 00:25:35

RE: Well this is, well with tech they, tech could be good or bad depending on how its used but they never seem to come up with any useful ideas, so that’s why I thought PlaceCal was so interesting because it’s actually useful and something that’s needed and is not going to be evil. 00:25:50

DH: There’s also just the hype inherent to tech and the tech industry in general, like, I have exhibited VR games at a bunch of events over the past decade and sure, people make interesting things with them but the tech in itself just puts up huge social barriers. Like, you have to be willing to put yourself into a form of partial sensory isolation in a room full of strangers. And like, even at one point, I lived in a place that had a big barn attached and someone sent me a HTC vive and I borrowed a PC that could run it and we had room scale VR set up for two months. Everyone I put into it kind of, noodled around, for an hour and went - “hm”, and even living with it I think I used it twice in those two months and it’s like, I literally couldn’t be bothered to walk upstairs and put the special headset on to play a game. I’d rather sit down and do it but it’s, it’s subject to this constant hype and boosterism of like, VR is the greatest. I have a huge rant brewing about like, video games and immersiveness, where the industry idolises this quality of ‘more immersive’ but they mistake that for being more photoreal, more in your face, louder and that’s not it at all. Like, there are people within the video games industry for whom the concept of a book being immersive is unthinkable. Like they don’t understand it’s about which bits of your brain are engaging with any given thing rather than the tech itself and after so long of people hyping VR I saw some research last month that delighted me, which was studying the use of VR in education and it’s a first finding obviously it needs to be replicated and so on, but they basically found that the spatial reasoning requirements of being in VR undermine learning. So this games industry concept of this is immersive, therefore it must be better at teaching people stuff is just wrong but it’s like, its like if I was just shouting really loudly at you, I’m not shouting, I’m just making the conversation more immersive. 00:28:05

RE: I went to a festival at the weekend and at a certain point they have a silent disco and it really really kind of knocked me and my friends heads a bit cause, you’re there, with your friends, trying to dance but then you put those headphones on and then you just become very internal and you can’t hear what anyone else is saying to you and you could be dancing to different music and I ended up having to think about it for a good couple of hours of why it sat so weirdly with me and it’s like, what is this point, to have this moment where I’m worried that they’ll be like building these virtual reality festivals, where maybe they’ll have like the stages but then you’ll go and put on a, the headphones and a thing, but then why are you going to go to these events because you could just sit at home? It just, like, it made it very individual and that’s the opposite of the experience that you want when you’re out socialising. 00:28:54

DH: So like, you’re cutting sound and vision off when you put a VR headset on so the only way it works at events like expos and so on is if someone is running the actual VR game and is sat there with you. Or you’re in a private room with it but just putting it on in a crowd of people is a no for most people. 00:29:13

KF: I think all this probably goes into the, maybe this, I’m trying to think of a way to segway this back to the events, not that we have to obviously -

RE: Oh but there’s kind of like tech -

KF: I think it’s the more -

RE: - individual -

KF: yeah -

RE: we want the complete opposite, we want to be together

KF: It’s all the idea that what the point of tech is, is to have more of it, right?

RE: [unclear] (A VR headset is?) one per person so everyone has to have VRs.

KF: So yeah, there was a tweet I saw, I think it might have been Mar Hicks who did it, who was saying, you know, Mar Hicks they’re a professor of Science and Technology Studies but they said that, you know they get all these guys saying “Aw technology’s neutral, it doesn’t have anything” and then they’re saying, “Well think about the difference between a potato peeler and an atomic bomb”. They’re both technology, right, but you can’t say they’re not political. And I think all these things we’re talking about come down to this, it’s like, what the tech industry wants is more. “That thing that was really simple? We’re going to make that really complicated and have loads of things in an app and tracking cause that’s our business model” but actually most people don’t want any of that, they just want to go and get pissed in the pub.

RE: Yeah. And also with rising electricity costs, I always think, can anyone afford to have a VR and a projector and a Playstation 4 and three computers and a flat screen tv, like I just, and the amount of energy, no one seems to talk about the energy the games community uses. We’re talking about sustainability and carbon neutral-ness. No one’s mentioning…VR must do a lot of electricity. 00:30:38

DH: I mean it’s built out of conflict minerals and yeah there’s huge issues with the global south in terms of the physical product of the games industry. 00:30:46

RE: I’ve only heard one person talk about that, that side of the tech industry or the gaming industry, about that side. Even though it’s big on the agenda of lots of other people. 00:30:55

DH: Yeah, I probably know maybe four or five people in video games who talk about that. There must be more thinking about it but they’re the people I’ve seen actually mentioning it publicly. 00:31:05

KF: I mean, I think, yeah, and video games is mad now. I saw like, cause you know, first person shooters have always been sort of, like, low key, like, army stroke gun propaganda, right but like I saw a tournament the other day for Valorant I think it was, and it was literally sponsored by the US army so I was like they’ve obviously seem like, “Ah yeah shoot people in video games? Why don’t you do that in real life? And it’ll even be the same gun you know from your favourite games!” 00:31:28

DH; I mean yeah they’ve been doing that about fifteen years and yeah, it used to be you could kind of, I mean you still can get away with, sort of like satorising brands, but all the car and gun manufacturers are in there with license agreements now. So any, any real world technology you put in your game, if you don’t license it you’ll have the manufacturer’s lawyers chasing you. 00:31:52

RE: I heard that the drones they use in Afghanistan to kill people, the controllers are almost like PlayStation controllers. 00:31:59

DH: Oh, it was the same during the Iraq war. A lot of bomb disposal robots and things would use XBox 360 joypads to control them. ‘Cause it’s an interface soldiers in their early twenties knew. 00:32:10

KF: And they’re cheap and high quality and mass produced. 00:32:12

DH: And robust. 00:32:14

KF: But yeah, so maybe it’s a scaling back you know and I think this sort of potato peeler vs atomic bomb thing is interesting because whenever people talk about technology now they do always mean VR and even like the School of Digital Arts that’s just opened, you know, I don’t know if it still is, but their website, their flyers, their kind of like very thin, attractive people of colour wearing VR headsets. Like, that’s all the publicity they put out as if that is what technology is and when we talk to people about saying, you know, I think there’s a principle in engineering that’s the principle of least power that basically says the simplest and easiest way a job can happen will be how it eventually ends up happening if it can. And there just seems to be, it has to be literally violated for anyone to have these massive empire-like monopolistic models. Like, you can’t, you know, Facebook’s model relies on putting all this cruft around us, they have a load of interactions that they can turn into an AR model (Transcribe: Autoregressive, not Alternate Reality) so they can sell to someone else and it’s just mad how much it’s worked! Like it’s maddening. 00:33:10

DH: It’s also interesting how that technology is sold versus how it’s used. So like, I knew people who worked on the original Connect for Microsoft. I shouldn’t say who they were but basically, everyone was excited when they first saw Connect about the kind of, wavy arms style interface, that looks like a piece of science fiction. Even the engineers working on it said to me, like, “yeah we were really excited about that at first but to be honest, after the first five minutes your arms get tired and you just kind of want a joypad again”. But someone waving their arms and stuff swooshing around on screen looks really exciting in a trailer, that’s a great way to sell some technology to someone. But actually, what works is something you can use fine motor control with and very little energy cause that’s, that’s kind of one of things we’re designed to do as humans, is minimise energy use and do things efficiently. Well, you know, whatever we think is efficient. 00:34:09

RE: I don’t mean to disrespect either of you, you work in tech right but sometimes I -

KF: Disrespect us! Disrespect us!!

RE: When I hear about these tech ideas it feels like maybe the people who haven’t got the biggest imagination and maybe the biggest life experience? Do you know, it feels to me sometimes the people who kind of had quite a sheltered upbringing, maybe who were quite geeky, so didn’t socialise a lot, went straight to uni, again, hid in their bedrooms quite a lot, then went straight into a tech job, so they were never that bothered about social life - and it’s not a bad thing, some people are set up differently, and then all of a sudden they’re the people deciding the technology for everybody but everybody’s different so you have a small group of people kind of projecting what they want and they’ve read a lot of sci-fi so I see - and I love sci-fi - but quite a lot of the ideas, sci-fi used to be so exciting you know, if you read Ursula Le Guin, she was dreaming of different worlds but the sci-fi we’ve had in the last ten, twenty years, like The Circle, is very short sighted and seems to be reflecting our society. So there’s not much imagination in tech. 00:35:14

DH: It’s so much worse than you think.

All: [Laughs]

DH: There’s someone else I did some work with a really long time ago around a feature on a game development website, where he’d interview a game developer every week and ask them “What’s your inspirations?”. He got depressed doing that because in two years of doing that once a week he had two game developers bring him, like, a really diverse set of influences, like, here is some painters I like, here an obscure 30s Jazz musician, all of these things are things I build into my video games work in one way or another. Absolutely everyone else, when asked ‘what’s your inspirations?’ said “Uhh, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings”. So it’s like, “Ah, the two flavours of video game” and that’s it. It’s like so much is just recycling concepts from those or that sort of - 00:36:11

KF: I remember you telling me too about when Nintendo bought out the Labo which is like this cool, cardboard cut out kit of like these models and you put your bits in and they had all these cool things you could make like a piano and the demo looked really fun and then there was someone on, did you see the Reddit thread where someone was like, “I found out how to make a gun” and it’s like - 00:36:30

DH: Oh some of the jobs I do where you’re like, looking at two hundred video game trailers and picking a line up for a show. It gets really jading when you open like the thirtieth trailer in a row and it’s some beautifully rendered scene full of people beating the shit out of each other. It’s like “Ah, cool, our collective imagination, great stuff”. 00:36:49

KF: I think too like, cause obviously I think, what you’ve said is totally right and it’s kind of weird right cause if we didn’t live in this horrible capitalist world that, then it wouldn’t matter that those people lives are making other people’s difficult, but the problem is that we’ve got this situation where there’s this thing called California Venture Capital and those people because they’re twenty-something, white, rich people can go and get someone to give them millions and millions of pounds to develop these prototypes cause there might be money in it and there’s a whole economy based around sort of like, you know, white men giving other white men money for gadgets that they might quite like to have but then this has taken over the world economy like, quite literally. It sounds like an exaggeration and now we’re in a place where, if you want to make an app, or if you want to make anything technically, that is like the standard that people are thinking of in their head. So you know, I’ll freely admit, like a lot of our software is rough around the edges, we’ve got issues, we’ve got stuff we need to work out together but its like, yeah because, because we’re all immersed in this and we have all these things, you know, Uber is the example I keep coming up with right, like Uber’s business model requires Uber, if they want to make a profit, they have to be the only form of transport on Earth and like, and every Uber, the reason it’s cheap is cause it’s hugely underwritten by some Saudi investor who thinks they’re gonna make money one day. Uber picked one of the lowest hanging fruits there is, which is, it’s quite annoying isn’t it, to sort out hailing a taxi and paying the driver, that’s annoying and they’ve still not made money. So even with these, like, ultra simple, bottom of the things we want, it still doesn’t work and it’s and to do this they’re kind of like, you know they’ve had this black ball system and they’ve also developed this app to sort of underwrite labour markets and underwrite unions and do all this union busting stuff but then like we have all these charity, if you work in web tech, there’s all these charities and they’ve got twenty grand and they sort of expect something that’s at that standard and there’s just something that’s not adding up right now, you know. 00:38:50

DH: I think my favourite is WeWork managing to go bankrupt by trying to be landlords. 00:38:56

RE: I loved the We Crash. I remember cause we’ve had the pub for five years and we’re based in the science park and we came through the Innovation Hub so I’ve been up against the graphene people, WeWork, not directly but all these people who were branded as innovators and disruptors, is that the word? DISRUPTORS! INNOVATORS! GAME CHANGERS! And I laughed because my little pub that me and Craig had set up, with our amazing team, we’re still going. We beat quite a few companies. But UberEats is horrendous and Uber is horrendous and they just want to flood the market, don’t they. 00:39:30

KF: And it’s funny cause then the thing you usually get right, and we found this too like, every time I’ve tried to make a tech product, we’re always trying to make it, and I think, you two have actually been great at getting me to slow down, like we go slow and you guys have gone slower but it’s like, you’re launching it and people are already asking you about like, “oh, so have you got, like, this visualisation or that visualisation?” or “How are you gonna scale it to a million people?” and it’s like, “I don’t know actually, I’m just doing it with my neighbours first.” But it’s like this mentality and I imagine with the pub, no one sees you as, like, amazing innovators cause like, “Well how are you gonna scale that?” As if like, and I think that is the real sort of like, capitalist cancer kind of thing, right. It’s like, people aren’t interested, if they can’t take what you’ve done and stamp it in other places, but the thing is, you probably could, if someone invested in you, right? 00:40:46

RE: The thing is you can replicate this model in other pubs around the country. 00:40:20

KF: Maybe talk about this a bit cause I think it’s really important. 00:40:23

RE: Oh yeah. So we’re trying to open a second space and what we’d like to do is be like a holding company and we could take it on and we could train up members of the community and then you can run your own pub and we’re getting to that stage, it’s just, it’s so hard to find property in this day and age. And say we do a lot of innovation. We all use, sort of, apps and I’m always trying to use technology to take away boring, mundane jobs that I could pass on and I think one of our successes in lockdown was working with Geeks for Social Change. So we decided we’re going to feed all our neighbours and it was us, ACORN, Geeks for Social Change and Gaskell [Garden Project] and we all worked on different parts of the project but the phenomenal bit is Kim built us a database and we were sending out texts and ringing people and loads of people who set up these food projects thought it was only going to be a couple of weeks. So if you’re feeding people for two weeks you don’t really need a system, you can kind of do it ad hoc. We’ve been running that project now for two and a half years and you definitely needed a system and it was so amazing because those seeds were there at the very beginning and Kim had given us the right tools we needed to build off that and these are the tools I want to give to the community because they were so, I mean it would take maybe, half a day maximum to train someone up to use it but it’s been phenomenal and one of the insights I had from it is that we could kind of get a, capture how the community was feeling that week by, ringing round, texting people. But, I’ve lost my train of thought. 00:41:49

KF: No, I was gonna say, it’s funny because this was just an example we say a lot where it’s like, it didn’t take a lot of tech. We used Airtable as off the shelf. It just needed someone who knew how to write up a service design and put that bit of rigor in and this is again, like, this could be what tech looked like, it doesn’t have to be these big apps. It could be, and it’s funny because we’re in Manchester Science Park, there’s probably like, a thousand coders within two hundred metres of here and what, where are they? Why don’t they help out? Why are they never in the community spaces? It’s kind of wild. 00:42:18

RE: But then this blew my mind because when we were in this, these tech spaces, with the pub, everyone talks about community and then I talk about community and for me, I’m an activist and my community is literally the local people around me and it took me two years of talking to the Science Park to realise they meant the business community and even the way we use the word community, like you were saying community of locality, community of interest, that’s a new one for me. I don’t think even community, community people even think about the theory so much, I think, sometimes you get to this layer where tech people are maybe more academic so, thinking about the theory of community rather than just, doing, the community. 00:42:56

KF: I think, as I was going to say too, the real hard work that went into this which you guys like, ringing people, that was the cornerstone of the whole project. It was ringing this list of people who really needed the support, well some of them didn’t, most of them did, some of them didn’t, every week and just checking in and the amount of stuff that came through that and it’s been wild because this project, Rach doesn’t say it, I like to say it all the time, has like, zero support from local institutions, the council don’t get it, some of the other institutional partners we’ve got don’t get it and it’s just wild to me because it’s like, this should be your gold dust, this is the thing you wanna know, like you know, we keep having these projects about social isolation and loneliness, like, we know the people are, we know what they want, they’re right here, we have the data and no one wants it! 00:43:33

RE: I have to say, it was a combination of tech and community because we needed the tech to send out the text messages, which would have taken hours, to send out emails, to collect the data and make the spreadsheets and make the delivery lists and that would have been a pain in the arse job for anyone. No one would have enjoyed doing that, would have been very stressful. The tech made that really simple but the most important bit is the people side. So you had me and Ella at the beginning ringing everyone up, Shakira and the CIC staff have been running it, but we’ve been sending the same delivery driver every week and nobody feeding back to me or Shakira about how that person feels, so you can get a real sense that week about how that community feels. And you know sometimes you have a bad day and then you see your friend and their having a bad day, that is the sense that I get in communities. Like, one week everybody will have a cold and be a bit run down. The next week everyone will feel really positive and in all my community work it’s how people feel, if I feel amazing, I can get up, I can access a service, I can try and sort my debts out. If I feel like crap that day I’m not going to get out of bed, I’m going to ignore all that stuff. I feel like where the council, the institutions, tech is missing is that bit about how people feel and so tech is useful but you always still need that person to check in on that person’s feelings which tech can’t seem to capture. 00:44:44

KF: Well actually, we have an algorithm which will process it…

RE: Oh god

All: [Laughs] 00:44:48

KF: The apps are telling you you’re suicidal and…oh god! 00:44:51

DH: There are a few clients who I’ve worked with who, like, they’re trying to do stuff with communities or local delivery in a rural community in one case and firstly what they found was, like, for all those deliveries in a kind of hilly, rural area, all the route building software they could find was built around the premise of - you are navigating a city, and not only that, that you’re doing it in this specific type of vehicle and like, they’re riding up and down hills on cargo bikes, like, the entire, everything is backwards in that sense. But what they found was, there are so many edge cases in an environment like that, that you just need people who know what they’re doing to work with the software but still there was this mindset of - we want someone to build an app or some sort of back end that just does it all for us. And sure, that’s the dream but actually when you’re dealing with a really complicated environment or a complicated community the software can’t, you need people to fill in those gaps. 00:45:48

RE: We did actually have that as, Kim has designed this amazing system but it wouldn’t give me, the chef, the chef just needed the numbers for the meals and we couldn’t make it do that so in the end I’ve gone to Google Docs and the same, we’re still using Airtable so, I totally get where you’re coming from. I feel like tech seems to be built very generically as a one-fits-all solution and you kind of need that - 00:46:09

KF: To be honest, that was the other good thing about doing an Airtable in regards to [tech] closing doors perhaps, was just like, there was a point where I got ill and like, I couldn’t do any more and you’d also, you’d simplify the use case and the Airtable wasn’t up to date, but because I’d just, we’d designed it using these simple tools and not a close piece of software you could take all of the design and then make what you’d wanted without needing me or someone else and that, now that feels like a skill that you have and you can teach someone else. And I was going to finish this with a sort of thought about, there’s a concept that Ursula Franklin, whose one of our favourite Geeks for Social Change authors, has about reciprocity and the idea that like, you know, how you make equitable systems, as things need to be reciprocal, like we both need to have input in them. It shouldn’t be one person just decides and to the other person, it happens. It should be that, I say something, you can feedback, we work together and that feedback loop is what keeps things going. And this is the fundamental thing that all these big tech platforms violate, right? Like, you can’t even talk to, like, I had a YouTube channel got hacked and taken down, you can’t even talk to anyone about it. They don’t even care about you, unless you’ve got, like one hundred thousand subscribers. You’re, like, an irrelevance and I think with a lot of these systems we’re talking about you know, like UberEats. The description you just had, like, the big problem with UberEats, one of the many problem is like yeah, the drivers are designed to be anonymous, replaceable parts. So even if they want to, they can’t become, meet you and become part of your community and talk to people and get that feedback. But just by doing it ourselves and having our own people who go there every week, we’ve straight away got that reciprocity, where there’s a loop being made there and these systems are designed to remove it. So I thought just to wrap up, maybe we could talk about this a little bit if anyone’s got any thoughts? 00:47:51

RE: I have got a story. So, I think what I find with the big tech companies, they’re designed so no one takes responsibility and in community, one of the first things, one of the biggest issues, is you have to take responsibility. If you’re a community, you take responsibility, you look after people, regardless if it’s your fault or not. And we had a problem with UberEats drivers selling drugs outside my pub and I rung up UberEats, they wouldn’t deal with it, they said the drivers don’t work for them but you know, it’s my pub, it’s my license, if they’re seen doing that I get in trouble and it seemed to be no one’s fault and they only seemed to take it seriously when I threatened to go to the press with it. And I had another issue where a UberEats delivery driver peed in someone’s living room, peed in someone’s hallway and then threw the pizza around so, yeah, it’s about taking responsibility, I think and I think what I would like to see and what we’re trying to do with PlaceCal is, we’re kind of taking responsibility ourselves. We wanna map and find all these community groups and help them share their events and train them up and give them the skills that other people aren’t going to give them. So it’s taking responsibility. 00:48:48

DH: Yeah, I guess, that lack of reciprocity is also in how these platforms present themselves as tools for doing things but only for doing things in a very specific way, or for doing one specific thing that they’ve optimised to make them money. So you know of course, the platforms that aren’t open source but they’re not even editable in any kind of user friendly way or customisable. It’s just like, you can change your picture, or you can add events but you’re doing, you’re operating to their agenda. The biggest thing I found out through hack spaces, but also some of the festivals I’ve run, is you don’t need to train someone for eight weeks in a new tool for them to become competent with that tool necessarily. What they actually need is to just see it being used for ten minutes and have a quick go of it themselves. So like, I used to run hack space tours of a two thousand, at the time a two thousand square foot hack space. There were some people doing that who kinda needed a script. Like they saw it as this pitch they had to give to everyone who walked through the door. Whereas I would just take people for a walk around the hack space and be like, there’s the laser cutter, here’s all our woodworking tools and just look for like, what piqued their interest and then get them talking about their projects. Cause all people need is not some kind of info dump, they just need to see the potential, or register like, “Oh, there’s that tool I’ve wanted to have a go at” and again like, you only need to train them in it for ten minutes. Unless it’s something really safety critical, like a lathe or a laser cutter, which, you know, you can make some poison gas with. But beyond the safety it’s just a matter of letting people mess around with things. And like, Feral Vector is a festival I run, the venue is quite restricted, like, running any kind of classroom set up there takes out a huge amount of the venue for quite a lot of the day. That usually means we don’t get to have a production office or something and we actually found it way more productive to just ask people - “What can you teach someone in ten minutes, sat at a table?” and suddenly we had game developers learning to do lino printing, or all kinds of different stuff and it’s just having the facilities there for people to drop in and use, where they could engage with it for five minutes, or they could sit there for four hours chatting but either way, it’s that people find the level that suits them in terms of learning a tool or using a thing and that adaptability is a really productive thing to build into things. It is absent utterly from most tech. 00:51:25

KF: I think what you described to me too, and I guess what I was getting at here, is that you told me that you know, you have those experiences, you teach people how to learn a tool and then it changes how they think. 00:51:31

DH: Yeah, I mean once you are aware of how a particular tool works it becomes part of how you solve every problem from then on. At least potentially. The most extreme example I’ve seen is, a laser cutter is just dangerous enough that you need to have an induction to use it cause you know if you put the wrong material in there it will make chlorine gas or something but once you have that generally I saw that people who had learned to use it would come up with a laser-cut solution to every single problem they had about physical making for the next few months. Which is like this really interesting drive, because then they explore all of the affordances of a laser cutter and laser cut materials and they may do a load of quite shoddy experiments in that time but through an entirely self driven process they figure out exactly how that tool is useful to them and it becomes a part of how they think. 00:52:25

RE: That is a point though, the internet’s made everyone think that everything’s perfect straight away. You know, social media, like, you’re just perfect, everything’s perfect and actually loads of times you have to mess around and not make perfect things to get to there and so that illusion from the internet is on that too. 00:52:40

DH: It’s kind of a sore point I have in hack spaces with any kind of digital manufacturing tools, is like, people love laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC mills especially because they think the process is - you design a thing in a piece of software and then you feed it to the machine and then your finished object comes out. Perfect. Actually the nicer things people make with those are when they view them as part of a process. So sure, you laser cut some plywood components but you also sand and finish them. Or you combine them with some other process. That’s how you end up with a really lovely object but a lot of people do just want that experience of, like, push the button, get the thing. 00:53:23

KF: It’s funny that we’ve got the expression about, you know, when you’re holding a hammer up everything looks like a nail, but I think, I think you just, the one that’s come to mind for me is usually like, the satisfaction of having a staple gun, or a glue gun, like that’s the stuff. You know, you hold a staple gun, something’s getting stapled. You know. 00:53:37

RE: That’s kind of a good metaphor for PlaceCal. 00:53:39

KF: Is it?! 00:53:42

RE: Like the 3D printer and the sander, do you know what I mean?

KF: Cool, well, maybe we’ll leave it there. So thanks both for coming on that was an ace episode and yeah, we’ll see you all next time.