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Antisocial Media

I’m an old man and modern technology confuses and frightens me. I can’t be doing with all this MyTube and YouBook and FaceSpace. We didn’t have any of that in my day. And the really frightening thing here is that I’m not that old - I’m still technically in my early forties for the next couple of weeks. So my day wasn’t too long ago. And yet everything has changed, especially in the field where I have made what little mark I can claim in this life, that of writing toot about dodgy horror and sci-fi films.

       The reason for this cyber-introspection is that my main website, www.mjsimpson.co.uk (yep, spent a lot of time picking that URL) has come to the end of its useful life. Eleven years ago, back in January 2002, a tech-savvy mate showed me how to purchase a web address and some hosting stuff and he built for me a site that allowed me to post interviews, news and reviews. It was pretty basic stuff. If you take a look at archive.org you can see it for yourself.

      I’m not claiming by any means that mine was the first website devoted to what I billed as "cult movies and the people who make them”, but you know, it was pretty on the ball and predates a lot of the sites you probably look at now, while many of the other cult movie sites from those antediluvian days have long since vanished. The world wide web has only been around for just over 20 years, and I’ve been online for more than half that time - holy cow!

      It was back in the 1990s that I first encountered the internet, just a handful of years after Tim Berners-Lee decided to see what would happen if he tried hitting control, alt and delete at the same time and magically invented the web. In the June 1996 issues of SFX, we ran a feature on ‘science fiction on the net’. That was how new it all was. It was six pages long and within that we were able to cover pretty much all the significant websites featuring Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who, movies, TV shows, comics and SF literature. What a tiny, tiny world cyberspace was back then.

      Future Publishing, despite having carved its niche by selling computer game magazines to nerds, and despite publishing .net, the UK’s bestselling magazine about the internet (which does really emphasise how primitive everything was), nevertheless still didn’t fully embrace the new era of online-ness. There was a bizarre rule that no more than two staff per magazine were allowed web access, usually the Editor and the Production Editor. We didn’t even all have e-mail addresses.

      Gradually, oh so gradually, the SFX crew dipped its toes into the online waters, initially with a pretty basic website that didn’t really do very much except say ‘buy our lovely magazine’. Actually before that, the belief among our peers was that the future lay with... CD-ROMs. Oh, you kids today probably don’t even remember CD-ROMs. They were quite the mode in the mid-to-late 1990s, mainly because they offered considerably more interaction and certainly better graphics than anything you could find on the web. A CD-ROM was basically sort of like a website, except that it was on a shiny disc and you had to put it into your computer. And it might have information, or video clips, or a game, or a load of text or photos or whatever. And you could file it in your CD rack. And never look at it again.

      Now, Future Publishing at the time was owned by a FTSE 100 company called Pearson, whose CEO was a lady named Marjorie Scardino. I remember her because there was a charming little kids fantasy film which I was sent to review called The Indian in the Cupboard. Directed by Frank Oz, as I recall without bothering to look it up, and an early big-screen role for Steve Coogan. Basically a kid’s magic cupboard brought his toys to life, except that once living they were real people from real times, so his toy ‘Red Indian’ figure became a real, if tiny, Native America who found himself magically transported to a big, wooden house where he was gazed on by a giant eight-year-old. Coogan played a British Tommy, formerly a toy soldier, and there was a brief but memorable scene where multi-toy experimentation led to a fleeting shot of Darth Vader battling a T rex.

      The reason I remember The Indian in the Cupboard so well, despite not having seen it for the best part of two decades, is that the lead actor was a boy named Hal Scardino. And I did a bit of digging (possibly on the new-fangled internet) and confirmed that he was actually the son of the Pearson CEO. So I rather cheekily sent a letter to Pearson HQ asking a woman who earned about 10,000 times my salary if I could interview her little boy about his film. And what do you know, she rang the office and put her son on the phone and I talked with the lad (who is probably about 30 by now, quite probably already earning more than me) and we ran it in the magazine. I was rather proud of my initiative.

      So anyway, Marjorie Scardino ran Pearson and one of the other parts of Pearson, which was all into interactive things, decided that the future was not just CD-ROMs, it was magazines on CD-ROM. It wasn’t unknown for magazines to have a free CD-ROM as a ‘cover-mount’. Although those were the days when it was still possible to get away with cover-mounting an audio cassette. Actually no, you couldn’t get away with that and we all felt pretty embarrassed at SFX when our cover-mount was an audio interview with Jon Pertwee on cassette tape because Future were too stingy to cough up for a CD. But no, Pearson Interactive wanted to turn this idea around so that the CD-ROM itself would be the magazine, with all the content you expect, but added stuff like video and audio and games.

      And which of Future’s many titles did they choose for this grand experiment? SFX, of course. Because our reader survey showed that about 45% of our subscribers had a CD-ROM drive (remember, this was the era of floppy disks). I mean, they could have picked, just for example, a mag along the corridor called CD-ROM Today, 100% of whose subscribers had a CD-ROM drive, but that was presumably too obvious. Thus it was that my colleagues and I found ourselves freelancing for a thing called SFX-CD, with the same logo as our mag but otherwise unrelated, which was a quite spectacular failure. I think it lasted four ‘issues’. Partly it failed because of hopeless interactivity, a user-unfriendly interface which required lots of random clicking on things to navigate around. We sometimes couldn’t find stuff that we knew was on there because there was no index, the design being based on that classic idiocy 'people will enjoy exploring it'. No they won’t.

      In order to be sold like a magazine in WH Smith, the disc had to be mounted in a bubble pack on a sheet of stiff card the size of a magazine. This also enabled the packaging to give some clue as to the contents, but ‘some clue’ is the operative phrase here. There was no proper contents list on the card, just as there was no proper index on the disc. So people were being asked to spend lots of money on something with no idea what it contained. And just as the final nail in the coffin, calling it SFX-CD and using the actual SFX magazine logo meant that most of those 45% of subscribers who saw it assumed, quite reasonably, that it was just a CD-ROM version of the magazine they already received every month.

      Really, the whole thing was just a pile of arse. It would be nice to think that those SFX-CD discs are now some sort of collector’s items because they did contain exclusive interviews and other content that would be of interest to sci-fi collectors. But since there was no way to ever know what was on there, I suspect not. I just tried googling for any mention of this unloved stepchild and pretty much all I could find was a PDF scan of a typewritten business document from 1997 reckoning that CD-ROM magazines are the future (and mentioning in the footnotes that SFX-CD crashed the first time this guy tried to run it - that was another flaw).

      Which just emphasises that you can’t predict the future (even if you work for a company called, um, Future). Predicting the future is a mug’s game. No-one predicted, back when we were running magazine articles about the web, how big and varied and detailed and utterly ubiquitous it would become. No-one predicted things that rapidly became normal, we just adapted to them and then assumed they had always been there. Take YouTube for instance (and its slightly classier cousin Vimeo). That was launched in 2005, the same year as Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Isn’t that sobering? The first three Harry Potter films (and maybe it’s my age but weren’t they made, like, about year and a half ago?) were released before it was possible to share videos online. People watched their trailers online but in very basic forms, embedded into existing websites.

      No-one predicted MySpace or Facebook or Twitter or whatever the latest thing is that everyone has started raving about since I began typing February’s blog. But I’ll make a prediction. All these things are transient. They will crumble and decay and disappear like Kubla Khan’s sacred pleasure dome. At least Khan’s dome had a point, it wasn’t just a bunch of self-serving bollocks. Because, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old git, all this ‘social media’ malarkey which bedevils the world generally - but particularly the world of movie fans - is frippery. It offers innumerable ways of sharing things but doesn’t actually create the things that are shared.

      The world will always need content, whether it’s on a website, between the pages of a magazine or scratched onto a cave wall (but preferably not on a CD-ROM which didn’t even load properly in the first place). That’s why I’ve been writing my website for the past decade and a bit: because these horror and sci-fi films (and the people who make them) are interesting. Interesting to write about and read about. I have now begun the long process of transferring my content to a new site at mjsimpson-films.blogspot.co.uk and that is giving me the opportunity to read interviews and reviews which I haven’t seen in years. And frankly, I’m quite enjoying them.

      I am still on the ‘B’s but it’s a real treat to meet again some of the people I have been lucky enough to interview: Hammer/Bond actress Martine Beswick, followed by Working Title head honcho Tim Bevan, followed by comedy star Sanjeev Bhaskar (talking about, among other things, the BAFTA-nominated sci-fi short Inferno and Angell’s Hell, a never-seen fantasy TV pilot), followed by UFO star Ed Bishop, followed by the first ever English language interview with Uwe Boll (from 2000; many years later Empire reckoned they had his first British interview but I had interviewed him twice by then). On top of which, since I tend to obsessively re-read my own work when it’s published, it’s nice to read with a fresh eye my old reviews that I haven’t seen in a long time and re-acquaint myself with films I had long since forgotten. You don’t get that level of permanency with social media, and that’s why I can’t stand it and want nothing to do with it. Which was really what I wanted to say in the first place. Stick that in 140 characters if you can.








MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.