Review 2003: Epilogue.

"I was all set to spend a few minutes to fire off some responses but then I read through the questions and realized I had absolutely no idea how to answer any of them. Like: Did anything really good happen this year? Have I met anybody new that I really liked? Was anything cool? Will next year be more of the same? So I was then plunged into a ten-minute black hole of despair. Thanks, man! I'm feeling better now but only if I avoid thinking about these questions. I'm sorry I couldn't participate.
[Joshua Allen of The Morning News]
It was the end of November 2003 and I knew that at some point I was going to have to start thinking about what I was going to do with the weblog over the Christmas period. It was the third Christmas online and since I continue under the delusion that one webpage is as important as another no matter how many hits it might get a week, I knew that like the other websites I aspired to I wanted to offer some kind of year end review.

My initial idea was to repeat the structure that I'd used the previous year, offering cultural top fives with an explaination as to why they'd been important or not. But I hadn't been completely satisfied because in some cases I'd just produced a greatest hits, essentially reprinting material which had a appeared earlier in the year. Although I had included the odd bit of new material it short changed the long term readers (assuming what I'd written had been memorable one day to the next). In the end it had also been massively time consuming to the extent that the weblog itself suffered for a couple of weeks while I pulled together the material, which was entirely self defeating. So I would have to try something new.

Then it occured to me that one of the things some of these other websites I aspired to did was to get the people they'd interviewed during the year and who had been on the radar to offer their picks of the year. So a book site might ask authors what other books they'd enjoyed and so forth. So to extrapolate this into a weblog environment I could ask the people who's work I admired and written about or who I'd met through the blog how the year had been for them. I'd use five questions which were open ended enough that they could write about what was ever on their mind and I was hoping that sometimes it might turn out a bit like a blog post. I could then use their answeres to supplement whatever I was going to write, because provided I could find some way of emailing them there was no way most of the people I would be contacting would answer some odd email from a total stranger asking some reasonably personal questions.

The following weekend quite late at night I wrote the email that I would be sending out. It was a bit raw, contained a few typos and would change slightly as time went on depending on who I was sending it to:
"Hope you don't mind me emailing you out of the blue . I'm preparing a series of short end of year review articles for my weblog ( for the festive period were I ask people whose work I've written about and enjoyed over the past twelve months how it was for them.

I know you must be really busy with everything, but I'd love for you to take part. If you've got some time I'd be grateful if you could answer the following questions.

(1) What the best thing which happened to you personally in 2003?
(2) In general, which one thing in 2003 will have the most lasting consequences?
(3) Who was the best new person you met in 2003 and what was the first thing you talked about?
(4) Describe the one thing in 2003 which made you stop in your tracks and say under your breath 'That's so cool...'
(5) What do you predict for 2004?

With your permission, I'd like to republish the answers verbatum with a credit at the bottom (eg) John Smith, generic worker. Please let me know how you'd like to be credited and also what you'd like me to link to of yours as a thank you for taking part.

Hope to hear from you soon,

The first person I sent it to (on the 30th November) was a prominent fantasy film director. Not actually to him. I found the email address for an SFX company he used and sent it to them asking for it to be forwarded. I thought I'd strike high then I wouldn't feel so bad as subsequent emails to other people were left unanswered. Next was an journalist at a national newspaper and finally that night to a prominant weblogger who I'll also keep anonymous becuase they didn't end up taking part.

Then I got cold feet. I realised that it would actually be quite time consuming to go through the blog and email list and whatever other sites I'd visited and research for an email address. I genuinely thought no one would be interested in sending anything and I didn't want to be wasting my time. I hadn't had any answers from anyone for a couple of days so I sent another email to the prominent weblogger telling them I wasn't going through with it. Then prominent weblogger got back saying that that it was a shame, that it was a good idea and that they would still answer the questions on their own weblog. Bugger. Time for a change of heart. Within seconds I was back to them saying that I was going to do it anyway. Rolled up my sleeves and got started, not really knowing what was going to happen.

I came to the conclusion that you can only ask. So over the next couple of days I asked around thirty people. The power of Google is startling if you use it properly. Amazingly just typing someone's name and the words 'email' or 'contact' more often than not offer exactly what you're looking for. I felt stupendously cheeky, especially with the people whose work I genuinely admired in a 'fan' sense. I wasn't obviously able to contact some directly because their websites didn't offer an email facility or had a disclaimer saying that they wouldn't forward on fanmail. I went to bed resolving myself to the crushing disappointment of no replies over the following few days.

The next morning I checked my email and found a reply. A really long and considered answer from the head of a media organisation. I nearly fell of my chair. Then as the day progressed I got more of them. This was becoming bigger than I thought. So I started emailing again the following night and asked a few more people (something I'd end up doing right up until a week before publication). Some sent emails (like the one above) declining the offer. For some reason I was equally happy and disappointed -- at least they'd taken the trouble. Others said that they were a bit busy, but that they would help when they had a moment.
""(My year) was like those dreams you get when you’re lying in the middle of the road and a big red bus is coming, heading straight for you, and you have to get up, you have to run, to get out of its path, but your legs won’t work, your body won’t respond, it feels like you’re crawling through molasses and the bus is bearing down on you and it’s going to hit you and you wake up with jolt, your heart racing, glad that it was only a dream."

[Suw Charman of Chocolate and Vodka wrote a lengthy introduction to her answers which I unfortunately couldn't use. Suw went on to use sections of it in her own 2003 round up the rest of which appears here.]
The emails were both personal and professional in nature, some people saying everything in a few words other in mini-essays. It was just so terribly exciting! There was the chance here of creating something very effective and interesting, possibly the best thing I'd ever posted on my humble weblog. I was to get emails from people as far afield as Baghdad and Hollywood and from people whose names I would never ever have expected to see in my inbox, well, ever.

It was a learning process. Some of the people I wanted to contact only had a web presence via their agents. I emailed them hoping that they would forward my questions on. Most of them answered the email advising that they had a non-forwarding policy but that I could try writing and they would pass the letter on. By then it was too close to the first publication date, but this was something to bare in mind for future reference. I misjudged another approach, not taking into account the feelings of the person involved (or rather not taking their original decline for an answer) and the fallout threatened to derail psychologically this thing that had rapidly become a 'project'.

Now there was so much material that I felt the need to use it all since people had taken the time. The format dropped in my lap. I would post a question a day with the relevent answers underneath. At first I began to collate the material in the order it was coming in, but it was clear that it made it unfocused and random and was a disservice to what had been written. So I realised pretty quickly that actually what I need to do was the answers like clips in a documentary shaping them to create a sort of vague narrative.

The answers for question one, "What the best thing which happened to you personally in 2003?" allowed for a kind of "seven ages of man" approach as some wrote about younger relatives, others wrote about their birthdays and someone else about their grandma. The main topic for question two, "In general, which one thing in 2003 will have the most lasting consequences?" was the Iraq war revealing a spectrum of opinion. I'd made the question a bit ambigious through, so some people took it as continuation of the first so wrote about their own life but the two somehow naturally flowed into one another. In editing the third question, "Who was the best new person you met in 2003 and what was the first thing you talked about?" I began with answers encompassing a whole village, down to individuals ending in no one at all. The fourth question, by it's very nature I found quite difficult, "Describe the one thing in 2003 which made you stop in your tracks and say under your breath 'That's so cool...'" -- the eventual result was quite random. In the final question, for New Years Eve, "What do you predict for 2004?" I managed to find a way through the definate to the relaxed to the people who take each day as it comes.

In it's own way it had become just as busy as last year which was the other lesson -- things take time. And good things even longer. No cliche truer than 'Rome wasn't built in a day'. I was going to be presenting something entirely different to anything I'd done before and for once it just felt great doing it.

The final few days were quite busy although it didn't get in the way of Christmas (which had been the idea all along). I set myself a deadline of the 23rd December. I emailed the few people who had offered their intention of writing something but hadn't got back in touch yet. The structure of the answers was such that I was able to slot in any new responses with a little bit of editing. I wrote the introduction with my best journalism cap on hoping to give an incling of what was to come without underselling or overselling.

From: Andrew Cooke []
To: Stuart Ian Burns

> 2003 isn't all that special

it's prime!

Prelude> filter (\n -> 2003 `mod` n == 0) [1..2003]

Once I published the introduction I emailed everyone involved to thank them for their participation and let them know their words were appearing. It's apparent that there aren't many ways to publicise something like this other than hoping other webloggers will like what they read and tell other people, or else taking out a textad. But I wasn't sure if I wanted everyone to read it. It would imply somehow that I did the thing for some greater reason than anything I write for the weblog at other times and that simply wasn't the case. I did get myself a mention on the Metafilter Projects mailshot which brought in some readers and led to the email above which proved yet again there are much cleverer people than me running about who know about maths and the universe and stuff.

I could have done things differently. If I'd planned earlier enough I could have written letters to some people instead of emailed. There are arguably gaps in the list of contributors, no scientists for example. But on reflexion neither of these would been the right way to proceed. Weblogging by it's nature, or at least for me, is a bit adhoc and spare of the moment and that this 'project' (still for want of a better word) was a spare of the moment thing worked just as well. And I hardly ever talk about science on the weblog and the nature of the project was to stay in keeping with my own interests.

The trouble is now, of course, that I'm going to have to live up to it (impossible) and find something equally interesting for review 2004 (equally impossible, but at least I've a year to think about it). So thanks again to everyone who contributed and everyone else who continues to read and enjoy the weblog. Hope you all have a great 2004 whatever you're doing and my inbox is always open.

[Image courtesy of James Longley, Documentary Filmmaker of Little Red Button, who is currently working on a new documentary series in Iraq.]

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