Surviving Black Wednesday - and checking out the Big Four

Nicky Woolf's first Edinburgh diary.

 

Wednesday, August 8. Day One.

Today, auspiciously for my arrival, is “black Wednesday”. This is the day when shows will statistically report their lowest audience figures. It's the first serious day of the festival, after shows have been offering two-for-one deals and press previews; cast members are getting serious, punters are just arriving and getting their bearings. Black Wednesday is the bottom of the mountain. If you can make it today, you can make it all the way – but a bad audience today will be very bad for morale. Black Wednesday, it is said, separates the men from the boys.

At the 2012 Edinburgh festival fringe, there are more than 257 performance spaces in the city, some of them grand old theatres, some of them tiny rooms above pubs or prefabricated huts in car parks, hosting more than 2700 shows or acts every day. During the festival the entire city – already one of the world's most beautiful, its ancient tenements crammed together in the lee of Arthur's Seat or in the shadow of the castle on its dramatic bluff – has an indescribable buzz about it. Excitement pours through its streets like honey. The Royal Mile is crammed with performers making their pitches to the innumerable groundling throng who seethe the cobbled streets.

The Festival is dominated by four big companies that each run clusters of theatres, bars and performance spaces. These are Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Pleasance, for example, takes over the University of Edinburgh Students' Union buildings and runs a total of 214 shows in 21 venues ranging from the 750-seat Pleasance Grand to the 46-seat Pleasance Hut

It's nearly ten when I step off the train, but before bed I pop out to check out some of my old haunts. My favourite place to hang out, and my first port of call, used to be the outdoor bar at the fifth of the so-called “big four”, C Venues. C is commonly thought of as a little smaller and less slick than the big four, a little less polished, and I have always found it to be a lot more fun. It is also more willing than the big four to take a chance on unknown or student companies or unusual concepts. “C venues,” a friend said to me unkindly, “will take anything.” His show is at the Pleasance, and there is certainly a pecking-order, though some individual companies transcend it.

C also had a lovely outdoor bar area called SoCo; but I am in for a shock. The area it used to occupy, on Cowgate, in the centre of the old town, is now a building site. Doors I used to go through are shut, and the building has a forlorn, empty look. The upstairs bar at C is still buzzing, but it's unusually hot for Edinburgh in August, and I want to be outside, so my next port of call is the Udderbelly, an outdoor garden and stage run by Underbelly venues that has been available London's South Bank. 

There, at the exclusive and exquisitely-decorated Abattoir bar, I have a nightcap and ask around for show recommendations before turning in. Tomorrow, for me, the festival begins.

Performers arrive at the Edinburgh Festival. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496