Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Salsa & Merengue Website (Part 2): Adding Voices

In the years its been available, the site has seen hundreds of thousands of visitors; a small proportion of whom had made the effort to express their thanks, offer suggestions, and rare criticism. All of these little treasures sat patiently in a mail folder, preserved for posterity. The fact that each of these people who drank from the well of Latin America had cared enough to write, left me always with the feeling that I should be more generous than a personal response (which they each received), by finding light for their words in public.

If anything, it would be a nod to the curious as a glimpse behind-the-scenes of one of the world's most relevant internet resources on salsa and merengue.

Stories to be told..

I decided that their place would be as quotes on relevant pages, as other voices to the website's main narrative. It is a risk to take: a balance needing to be struck between narrative cohesion and diversity of prose; in relaying stories by people without teetering into the realm of commercial-style endorsements. I admonished myself for my control-freakery and forged ahead.

The first flurry of quotes are now up (the second tranche will be garnered from web references), and some trimming of position and weight is expected.

Yes, it's true that a number of the words featured come from prestigious sources; and the subtext of their place on the pages could be read superficially as commercialism. That's a peril I'm happy to face, since a more-than-cursory inspection of the site will show no attempt at 'monetising'. I think that readers would like to know that the material they've chosen to look at is highly regarded by independent authorities.

But there's a more intimate side to the story, and one that is, I feel, infinitely more valuable.

The quotes tell of how important salsa is as a personal cultural marker to the Latin American; of how the tutorials have helped people learn to dance in privacy, at their own pace, successfully, ...and that it's okay to do so; that learning to dance can be a family activity that builds strong bonds; that involving oneself in salsa can instill a strong sense of purpose and responsibility, even if the torchbearer wasn't born into the arms of Latin America.

Ultimately, the risk of losing the focus of a single voice was far outweighed by the potential of a stronger, more humane, narrative wrought by the expressions of those who'd experienced it first-hand.

Loo Yeo

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Salsa & Merengue Website (Part 1): The Big Clean

The Salsa & Merengue website has for a long time been an uncomplainingly unattended brainchild. As salsa horizons stretched, dotted with the hugely entertaining events and pithy crisis-points, this wondrous resource (words from you, the users) saw less and less of me.

High on the list of things to do was the archiving of the Spanish sections.

It was a decision weighed with reluctance, but there were increasingly fewer and fewer resources to be mobilised for human translation, and it was beginning to show. The divergence between the modern English sections and the fractured Spanish ones painted the loss of coherence as obvious. And bearing in mind what new material there is to go up, the lack of their Spanish language counterparts would push the website's identity into the realms of the unravelled.

Another minor niggle was the information section about the activities of the University of Sheffield Union of Student's Salsa Society. I'd kept that publicity avenue available to them because of our long history together, but since their move almost solely to Facebook, responses to email queries directed to them via this route had become sporadic. It was starting to hurt public perception of the site.

But the straw which stirred prompt action assumed the form of an email by a kindly concerned visitor, a Mr. Silvestre, last week:

"Your trainings are fantastic. They are helping me a lot for salsa. I started with Merengue also and noticed that the codec you used (ligos-Indeo) for compressing these videos are different and are not supported by Vista or Windows 7. No video viewer is able to display them (VLC, Gom, WMP, etc)

"I found a solution by reincoding in a different xvid codec and now I am able to watch them. Other people may be disapointed by not viewing your videos and may not find a solution.


Okay. That's a problem on a different scale altogether.

I replied expressing my profound thanks, and then set about a solution. My first inclination was to recode and re-upload - not a small task. What I found galling was that there was no guarantee against the same thing happening again, some time down the line.

Then my colleague, Paul, suggested YouTube. And it all made sense!

They'd bear the burden of band-width and future-proofing; I'd be able to integrate video inline with the text on the webpage; and there was a small opportunity to direct new-sector traffic to the website. The only downsides were a compromise on intellectual property use as per YouTube's terms and conditions (which is only a theoretical compromise, since people were free to download and use it before); and the poorer control of the playhead slider.

And that's what's been happening in-between blog posts: uploading, and spring-cleaning of files and HTML.

It's done, and I'm very much happier with the presentation of the dance lessons now that the videos are embedded on the page. The proof of the pudding, as always, will be in the responses I receive from developing dancers like Mr. Silvestre.

Loo Yen Yeo