For three years now, Michael Phillips has had a dream that he hopes will someday spread to the rest of the world: to create “sense of place” with video. It seems the tech world has helped set the stage for that dream, incorporating video functionality into everything from mobile phones and music players. With his website and blog, iGuidez, Phillips provides a template for capturing and sharing special sites for netizens everywhere to enjoy. In this interview, Michael Phillips talks about how he developed iGuidez, and the challenges of running a heritage website.
Welcome to the Voices of the Past podcast. I’m Jeff Guin, and today I’m talking to Michael Phillips of the heritage travel site, iGuidez.
Guin: Michael, welcome to the podcast. I was wondering if you would just start by telling us what iGuidez was designed to do.
Phillips: My experience as a traveler has been that guide books only ever give you a paragraph or two or sometimes even a few sentences about a famous sculpture or a church or anything like that on a local level. And therefore, I was always one that I wanted more information, I wanted to know more about what I could go to see rather than think, “Oh, this is really those three stars or four stars, so I have got to go see it,” whereas maybe it’s not in your taste at all. So I’ve been trying to get more concentrated information out about single items that you can go and see on a local level.
iGuidez is all about local information. I am trying to explain things better with video and photos and written text all in the one page as you see on my website.
Guin: Alright, well, how did you come up with the name for your site?
Phillips: Ah, that was easy. It was a fluke. I mean, as you might appreciate yourself, trying to get a name for anything on the Internet these days is virtually impossible. So it took me a long time at the previous name I had was JungleJam.tv, basically because I couldn’t find another name. And then one day, I just had upon iGuidez with a zed, you know so, it just came. It just happened like that.
Guin: Obviously this is a mission for you. You’re kind of looking at this as your calling. What experiences in your past led you to create the site, just the concept for iGuidez?
Phillips: Well, as I have said, I have traveled a lot. I am interested in the history, but not interested in history for history’s sake. And I am more of a–I suppose you could say–history in a social context, and that when I go around to see things, I want to know what was the artist thinking when they created something, or what was the designer or architect thinking when they designed a building or such. So it kind of evolved initially from a point of view of traveling somewhere and letting other people know what’s there. The most difficult thing about iGuidez that it took me a couple of years to create is how do you put so much information about one thing on a website, on a web page. So, it’s taken a year, two years to develop that method. And as I said, it all comes from traveling.
Guin: Well, were you a web designer in a previous life? Is that what you do professionally? Are you a tech person?
Phillips: I am actually an aircraft engineer, but that had nothing to do with the website itself. No, I just picked up basic HTML code as I began three, four years ago and various different websites. But then as it got more complicated and because it was video, I then had to employ certain people along the way. So the website now, I pay somebody to develop it to my ideas and designs. It’s a very expensive option. I mean, I wish I could do it myself because I would save a lot of money. I am only doing it because I can’t sit down and learn the website coding and also be out and making videos because it just doesn’t go. A lot of people have always said to me, “Why don’t you learn the coding then?” But then of course, who would be making the videos?
Guin: Exactly. And we know that the web is about the content, it’s not so much the look of the site, although good design is important, but there are some just very basic blogs that are very, very popular using the standard default WordPress template. It is about the content. What’s your experience with videography? Is it something you have done professionally in the past or is it something you have taken up as a professional hobby?
Phillips: Actually no. I have had no experience whatsoever in videography or photography or any of that at all … Having lived in Italy for four and a half years, in the world’s center of art, it’s hard to describe. You can’t write about art. You just can’t. It doesn’t translate as well, no matter how good a writer you are. So you have to show photographs; you have to show images, you know? So again, it was just playing around with video and thinking. Video is also much quicker. You put one photograph up of a piece of art and that’s it. Now you have to say something; write something about it. Whereas if you use a video, you can take much more art in and you can talk about it at the same time. So you are letting the images speak for themselves. So it was really just trial and error.
Guin: OK, well, you’ve got your blog established and your website, and they look great and they are very informative. But have you branched out to other forms of social media and using the web tools to communicate with your audience as well?
Phillips: Yes, I use Twitter as much as I can. I did have Facebook account a while ago, but I gave it up because you have your normal email and then you have the social media and then you have say the blog and the website, and it just gets so complicated and then you lose track of everything. I had to streamline everything. So I just use my blog on the website and Twitter as I can.
Guin: OK. Well, what does Twitter do for you as far as being able to promote your site and communicate with people that are interested in your blog?
Phillips: Well actually, that is a very good question. I asked myself that question when Twitter was all the go many months ago. I looked at it several times and I couldn’t think how am I going to use it because I’m not one of these people that I want to blog about me or my experiences. I wanted to use it for my website and I couldn’t figure out how. And then it just occurred to me one day: “I know what I’ll do, every time that I see something interesting or I make an interesting video or I add something to my blog, I can then update it on Twitter.” I do and sometimes it catches on. Sometimes it can be very useful, not always of course. And plus, the benefit of Twitter, as you have realized yourself, it is very quick. You just say what you have to say and press return and it goes out to everybody and that’s it. You don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to, like a blog, you don’t have to sit down and concentrate what you’re going to write or what you’re going to do. You just get on with it, and that’s again the advantage of it.
Guin: I am sure you spend some time on the Internet using resources on the web other than just your site or something directly related to it. What sites do you most enjoy?
Phillips: Well, I really enjoy TechCrunch. And I use a few similar sites. One called NI Tech Blog, which is a local one in Belfast. What I use them for is just to keep abreast of any announcements or anything that comes up similar to my website … just to know what technology comes online, or who’s moving or who’s doing what on the travel industry. And sometimes I do contact people through those websites to ask for collaboration and things like that.
At the beginning when I started of a couple years ago when I was getting more into the research and the information, I used to use Wikipedia a lot, but then I suddenly realized it has a very very short life span because there’s not a lot on Wikipedia with regards to specific information on local things. Now if you are talking about famous landmarks or points of interest, there is plenty. But not on local things. … There is one local website at home, the historian website that occasionally I use if I am back home and I am researching information.
Guin: As you demonstrate, there are different types of heritage sites and heritage blogs, and there can be photo blogs and there can be video blogs as well, and I’m amazed at all the content that you’ve got on your site. How long has it been in existence?
Phillips: Just over three years. I kind of kicked in again about travel. It was travel-oriented. And then in the last year, year and a half, it got really concentrated with information in that I want to show the information that I’ve researched about the particular subject that I happen to be videoing. That’s where I’m at today.
Guin: OK, well, explain how the site works. Is there anyway that people who enjoy your site and kind of connect to your mission can help you create more content for the site?
Phillips: Oh yes, definitely … One of the points of this website is to create a model. Again, if I hark back to that model of Wikipedia, I want to try to create some way so that I have the model to show other people how to do this, and of course, yes, I’d love people to copy what I’m doing. Again, just as in Wikipedia, there are rules and regulations. There is no point in just going around and videoing something and then talking about it, because that may not make a lot of sense. So I am looking to collaborate with people, and I am contacting travel organizations and travel websites and various technology companies even to explore ways how to develop this further. Not just from my point of view, but also in trying to get other people involved. So certainly, I mean, that’s an open question. Yes, I would love help because as much as I’d love to do everything myself, I can’t.
Guin: I understand completely. OK, then let’s use for example, let’s say there is a small Main Street organization here in the US, and they want to do some video or landmark documentaries on their particular town. Do you have any pointers for actually undertaking a project like that?
Phillips: Yes I do. In fact I occasionally have a blueprint of instructions for how to do it. For example, the videoing is not a difficult thing to learn how to do. And what I mean by that is, where do you start when you go into a room to video? Now I can explain that very easily. You just say: start at the entrance and you walk around in a clockwise direction or a counterclockwise, it doesn’t matter, and video as much as you can. So there are basic things like that you can explain with video. The much more difficult thing to explain is how do you get the information? Where do you get the information? Because if it is quite a popular thing or a famous landmark then it is not a problem. There is plenty of information out there, and even, for example, guide books, local guidebooks can even tell you as much as you need to know. But it’s things that aren’t well known that are probably even more historic; that have more value in a historic sense, and it’s trying to integrate that information onto the video in a way that makes sense.
Guin: Alright, well, if someone is interested in doing this, is there a place on your website they can go for more information or can they contact you?
Phillips: They certainly can. If they contact me, I’ll be happy to collaborate with anybody on this theme. I will certainly help anybody as much as I can because it’s in everybody’s interest to develop this, not just mine of course.
Guin: Tell us what your grand vision is for the future of this site, either in the next year or going into the long term. What do you hope for?
Phillips: Well … this is my calling, I think. It certainly feels like it. Although, with most personal missions, they never pay. So, I need something for that to change because it has taken everything off me. So I need some sort of commercial backing to help me along. I am trying to work with certain city councils in Belfast and also in Bologna because I have those two cities are very well covered. One other ambitious task at the moment is that I have made contact with the tourist board in Rome quite a few months ago, and they were very enthusiastic about my project because, I have covered Bologna (15:53) so much now and I have so much content on Bologna that I can’t really do much more. So I want to expand to the likes of Rome where I can actually meet more tourists myself when I’m on the street and they have taken us on board and have now passed it on to one of the government ministers.
Guin: Where are you from? I’m not recognizing an Italian accent there.
Phillips: Oh no, definitely, Belfast.
Guin: Do you consider Bologna your home base?
Phillips: I use Bologna as a model to create my video guides, and then of course I copied that over to Belfast every time I went home. So now that I have completed my mission there in Bologna, I need to move somewhere where it will have a greater significance and that will be the likes of Rome or in fact, it could be any big, any major city, but I know the Italian way now. I like the culture there obviously, and the standard of life, so I am happy to just to move to another city.
Guin: Well, is there anything else that you need to say about iGuidez or do you have any other web endeavors that you’re pursuing?
Phillips: God, you know, this is enough at the moment. Let me move forward with this before I go on to another one.
Guin: Alright, you kind of actually, if you have been doing it three years, you kind of got in it about the time that social media was just hitting. It is kind of the dawn of the revolution so to speak. So a lot of these social media tools weren’t even in existence then.
Phillips: Exactly. In fact, I was one, if not the first, to start making video guides. I draw a lot of inspiration from Wikipedia; drew a lot of inspiration from that then and thinking, there’s a lot of people collaborating together on knowledge. And I thought, it took me a while to think, well how could I create something that could be also equally valuable to somebody, you know? So again, that is what I want to do as well to draw upon other people’s experience and knowledge and try to put them all onto one database, so that other people can actually learn from it and actually see and experience it more. Whereas Wikipedia is text-based, not to devalue it in any sense or criticize it, it is just text. And how do you move that on to the 21st century? And that is what I think video is all about.
Guin: Well most people are visual. There have been a lot of studies about that and especially in today’s world with all of the digital distractions, that’s the only way to really capture the imaginations of anyone, but especially the younger folks. And those are the ones that we need to instill the heritage values into.
Phillips: That’s right. And there was even just a last point: there was an article written by the Times, the Sunday Times here in London about six months ago. In fact, I even have it quoted it on my website in the about page, and it says that the journalists find that everyone appreciates that Google is the number one search engine, but what few people expected was that YouTube became the second biggest search engine. And what that translates as that people are looking for videos for information now. They are looking into video websites for actual information, and that’s an extremely powerful thing if you think about it. Which means that anybody who actually has relevant information in a video, that someday is going to be worth a lot.
Guin: Alright, well, I think I am going to go ahead and wrap it up. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Phillips: And to you as well.
Guin: And that was Michael Phillips of the heritage travel site, iGuidez. Now if you would like to learn more about Michael and iGuidez, you can check out our shownotes site. That’s Voicesofthepast.org. You can find a transcript of this interview. While you are there, check out our 2.0 tips for how to use social media to advance heritage in your part of the world. Until next time, this is Jeff Guin for Voices of the Past, and we’ll see you online.