In October last year we covered the story of a £22,000 website being built by the NDA DanceXchange, in Birmingham. At that time they declined to answer any questions about it but since the project is a website it had to show its face one day, and that day has come.
Westmidlandsdance.com (WMD) is intended as a platform to distribute information about what's happening in dance around the West Midlands of England. Why such a small demographic you may ask? We will give good odds on that being part of the funding agreement.
A more nebulous aim is to connect dancers and others in the region so they can become aware of one another's existence and then great things will happen......... eventually.
Upon opening the homepage what you are greeted with is something akin to the annoying special offers leaflets that get posted through your door from Ikea or Tesco.
Information is presented in randomly sized panels with no forethought given to what that information is or why anybody would want to know about it.
Performance information is presented alongside "resource" info, random collections of images from old projects and whatever else the administrators have thrown into the database to be served up according to whims of chaos theory.
If you click on a performance link you will get information about that show, so far so good. Clicking on the link for the theatre entry for that show does not provide you with a list of shows at that venue though. What you get is press blurb about how awesome the venue is, or information that nobody wants, to put it another way.
To bring some order to the chaos you can click on specific categories, like "what's on", that present you with the same randomly sized tiles telling you about performances, this time in chronological order.
From a user's point of view though you still get a massive list of shows presented in a way that wastes a huge amount of space. Even on a wide screen display you have to do a lot of scrolling and clicking in the hopes of finding something that you may actually be interested in.
The map option isn't really a map at all, it's a search option. You search for shows on the map by typing in the name of a city or town. When we tested "Birmingham" what we got in return was the screen below.
The Big Pink Dot™
A meaningless pink dot in the middle of the screen. Clicking on that dot brings up a panel for "West Midlands Dance Mike". No actual shows are listed at all, no matter how much you zoom out. This is odd because the "Tesco Leaflet™" screen showed us that there were quite a few shows to be found.
The "directory" section of the site is the "social" section where you can sign up for a "professional profile" and do whatever it is people do with social networks.
Except, this is not a very "social" network.
You can't follow people (figuratively speaking that is) or even message them. When we signed up for a demo account to test the professional profile it resembled an Arts Council England application form, right down to the "do you teach specific groups of people" question.
At the time of writing our dummy professional profile was not activated, apparently that has to be done manually by a human.
What you can do, while you wait for permission to be a professional, is "love" somebody's profile that, apart from being a bit creepy, seems to have no practical purpose.
The main directory page is not broken down into categories (people, venues, agencies, companies, etc). All you get is an alphabet menu and off you go.
Bizarrely, if you click on the "map" option in the directory it gives you a map of venues that will (with a bit of clicking) show you a list of performances at each of those venues. The "what's on" map doesn't do that.
The "collections" and "resources" section of WMD (a somewhat unfortunate acronym) are much the same thing. It looks like, in a somewhat desperate attempt to fill the site with content, that somebody has entered passages from funding applications to try and describe the project.
Example: For the entry named "Dance Transformations" we have this;
"On successful completion of the project, the artists will form the core of a regional community of practice, able to act as advocates for their art form and as champions for further opportunities for disabled dance artists as dance makers."
If that's not "application form speak" then TheImp™ will eat a bargain burger from Tesco for breakfast, lunch and dinner!
The Directory of Eternal Mystery
It is, perhaps, the "resource" section that emphasises more than anything what kind of website WMD really is. It's an information resource designed by a committee.
Westmidlandsdance.com has no purpose, no point and no personality. It's little more than a faceless collection of mostly useless information with a social aspect bolted on that doesn't provide any actual social utility.
The design is reminiscent of a "colourful shiny thing" that a government department would force upon an unsuspecting public to try and prove they "get" the internet and here's something to prove it.
Ironically, before it was changed, WMD was a simple blog. It wasn't particularly entertaining (well, it wasn't entertaining at all) but it did have the air of something written by a human being.
There is no actual writing on the new version though. Like so many websites on the internet now it thinks it can survive if everybody starts using it and adds their own material which they won't because why would they?
Who is going to read the things that might get posted and why would they use WMD instead of Tumblr or Posterous which have millions of users, are completely free and are fully customisable by the user?
As we said in "The £22,000 Question" there is nothing this website does which could not have been achieved with a myriad of free services that already exist on the internet. A little bit of work and a lot of imagination and you could bring together a regional group and share information between them very efficiently.
A far cheaper and simpler WMD could have served as the public face of such an endeavour.
Sources close to this project told us that nobody actually wanted this thing to exist. It came into being because the money had to be spent on something. Dance professionals wanted something else but DanceXchange decided to build WMD.
Now they've got it, they will have to live with it because everybody else will probably ignore it.