As part of the "Internet and Society" section of this blog, we will be conducting a series of interviews with people whose lives have become intertwined with the internet in some way.
To kick-start this series, what follows is an interview with Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole fame. As the Wikipedia article on Slugger O'Toole puts it:
[The blog is] focused primarily on news and comment about Northern Ireland. From the beginning it has drawn its readership from a wide spectrum of opinion both inside and outside Northern Ireland.
Mediajunk:What is your own background?
Mick Fealty: I trained as a Youth Community Worker in Belfast , then worked in Community Arts in England for about 10 years. I got used to exploring problems through open-ended participation. My work took me around Europe to a lot of schools and colleges.
I then ended up working for a knowledge consulting company based in Dorset. We were working with NGOs and government agencies such as the British Council.
Mediajunk:Were those skills to prove useful in facilitating dialogue on Slugger?
Mick Fealty: Yes. One of my roles when working as a consultant was to moderate a series of e-debates between ethicists and scientists; people in NGOs and people and commercial research, who lived in different parts of the world, and logged on at different times.
I learned that when people get passionate, particularly online, they often get very personal. Routinely, I found myself stripping out the first paragraph of whatever anyone contributed to a debate, to remove the personal remarks.
And, even though the respondents didn't know that I had stripped out the first paragraph, I would have to do the same with their replies! Nevertheless, I realised that if you can sidestep people's passions, some genuine debate is possible. Some of the basic rules on Slugger arose from that.
Mediajunk: So how did Slugger O'Toole come about?
Mick Fealty: The company I'd worked for downsized in 2002. I continued to work with them as a freelancer, but it gave me time to think about what I wanted to do. While I'd previously worked in Community Arts in Northern Ireland, I'd never really made a political "intervention".
I looked at the political situation. My analysis was that the Peace Process had the potential to deliver historical outcomes. But we had two partners: one was very confident, another was reluctant and looking over its shoulder.
I decided that I would deliver some intellectual capital into the unionist community, because I felt they needed it most. The idea was to write a paper, based on interviews and other research.
Blogging was taking off and it seemed to me that blogging was the perfect research tool for capturing the narrative up to when the paper would be published.
So, on June 5th 2002, I started Slugger on blogspot.com.
I had no idea that my research tool would turn into a dialogue tool, nor that I'd have to use some of the moderating skills I'd learned before.
Mediajunk: What is the significance of the name?
Mick Fealty: Before the redesign, the blog was called 'Letter to Slugger o'Toole' [a reference to the Irish Rover ballad, where Slugger O'Toole is 'drunk, as a rule'] because trying to explain NI is like trying to talk to a drunk man. You have to be prepared to repeat yourself over and over again, and to talk in small chunks.
Mediajunk: How long did it take for Slugger to take off?
Mick Fealty: I was new to blogging and it had the site up and running three weeks before I figured out how to read the visitor logs. I discovered there the blog was getting around 90 visitors a day, yet I hadn't told anyone about my it, apart from three work colleagues.
So I bought the sluggerotoole.com domain. By the following February we had got some funding and a writing team in place. My company helped redesigned the blog, and moved it from Blogger to Movable Type, which had better commenting features. The design that we created then is pretty much the design that's there today.
Mediajunk: Comments -- and visitor participation -- have become a very important part of Slugger. Was it always that way?
Mick Fealty: At first, none of the visitors published comments. They started when we published the transcripts of interviews and focus group reports, mostly with the unionist community, which we were doing as part of the initial research effort. Normally you wouldn't publish your research until it was all completed but we thought it was the right thing to do in the context of this evolving, emergent communication channel.
So lots of comments started coming in, even from people who had participated in the focus groups.
Mediajunk: Did you ever publish your final research paper?
Mick Fealty: Yes, it is called, "A long peace: the future of unionism in NI" and is available for download as a PDF on Slugger.
Mediajunk: Your original objective for the blog was as a research tool. Once you'd published your research, what was the new objective?
Mick Fealty: Blogs are emergent technologies. Blogging as content is the similar to blogging as technology -- both of them grow and build. As you iterate the material, you get a better sense of how the blog as a whole will expand.
Originally, we were perceived as a unionist mouthpiece. When David Trimble lost the election, the focus shifted to nationalism, because the crisis of confidence moved to the nationalist side -- although it is not as deep as the crisis unionists had.
So, the blog is continually evolving. For example, I believe that the way we use Flickr is unique. About two years ago, a colleague of mine set up a Northern Ireland photo group on Flickr and made me the moderator. That group now has an umbilical relationship with Slugger -- you'll notice that there's a NI-related photo on the top of each page.
This is a visual interpretation of Northern Ireland through the eyes of its citizens. Sometimes the picture is of a flower in a back garden; sometimes it's a cityscape; sometimes a political mural; sometimes graffiti, sometimes a shipyard, a Georgian building. People get together and talk about these pictures, and about Northern Ireland, in their own sub-groups on Flickr.
This is an example of something emergent, something we never anticipated.
Incidentally, we are doing our first ever Slugger audio broadcast. It's something we're going to run with through the election campaign.
Mediajunk: Best of luck with that Mick, and thanks for your time.
You can participate in the live broadcast on Sluggerotoole.com at around 9pm tonight, or you can listen to the archived version after that.