student money management and the unfolding pandemic crisis: an examination of the university experience

The world descends into crisis as pandemic takes a choke-hold on the lives of billions. Leaders must decide the fate of nations—how to save a dying economy, a dying population, and a dying way of life.

As Australia shuts down, a generation of university students must begin to tread unknown waters. The shift to online classes is a minor inconvenience compared to the imminence of unemployment. Whilst rent and other bills remain the same, income for young people is stifled.

As a university student, one of my biggest worries is money. How much money will I earn this week? How much money will I spend this week? Where can I save? And why did I just blow my whole pay cheque on a shopping-spree?

Now, with no income, job prospects or eligibility for welfare payments in the face of this crisis, my worries have trebled; and I don’t have to look far to see these concerns echoed by my peers.

I see my reality reflected in the work of Williams and Oumlil (2015). They note that vulnerable groups such as students are more likely to be financially excluded from mainstream financial service provision. This lack of resource access is compounded by irregular income; consequently increasing a university student’s vulnerability to external financial shocks and uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am interested in learning about other university student’s spending practices. Perhaps a focus on student spending habits at university alone would have been appropriate in healthier times. However, I am now in the unique position to compare the aforementioned spending norms, and how they have changed since the switch to remote learning and social distancing.

The question I propose is twofold: how do university students spend and save? Are these habits adequate to survive a global crisis, such as the COVID19 pandemic?

An informal, exploratory poll I designed for Twitter yielded the following results:


Though not conclusive, the results of the poll demonstrate that students may be very concerned about their money amidst the current crisis. Yes, a large 38% of respondents are ‘somewhat confident’ about staying afloat financially over the coming months, but a majority 56% lack that confidence to variable degrees.

That only 5.6% of respondents are confident about their money? It does not bode well; hence the need for deeper research to understand why this may be and how this vital aspect of the student experience can be enhanced.

Given the relatively narrow focus of this topic and its front-of mind position in potential target respondents, I believe this chosen task to be achievable within the allotted timeframe of one semester.

Further Research

A review of existing literature regarding the finances of young people highlights that most studies are older and therefore obsolete. Given the dynamic nature of the economy, one could assume that modern student finances have evolved since the early 2000s when research on this topic boomed.

Roberts and Jones (2001) early work suggests that consumer culture and consumption are an epidemic to young people; they link our depression, anxiety and low self esteem with compulsive buying. This source may be out-of-date, but it does start us out on an interesting path to uncovering more about student finances.

A more recent 2017 study by Sundarasen and Rahman concurs with the idea that young adults are drowned by the temptations of a consumer culture induced lifestyle. They identify students as being saddled with debts and unsettled credit cards. This study goes further to suggest that for students, money management/literacy can bring about financial freedom. This study inspires my inquiry into how students save and invest their money, as opposed to only how students spend their money.

Bramforth and Guersen (2017) look into the notion of student savings in their small Melbourne study of university students. They identify three distinct approaches to student money management: conservative, creative and entrepreneurial. An examination of what these money management strategies look like in the UOW cohort may be an interesting pathway in understanding how student finances will be impacted under the pandemic crisis.

Continually, the economic, social and psychological factors affecting undergraduates’ money management behaviours, as identified by Bamforth, Jebarajakirthy and Geursen (2017), will provide greater depth to understandings about student money management both in normal times and during the pandemic crisis; particularly compared to the traditional and two-dimensional focus on undergraduate financial literacy commonly seen in academic works in this field.

In my own research, I will tie these insights together in a comparison of university student money management before and during the pandemic crisis. I hope to highlight the very real monetary struggles faced by students in their university experience, and the consequences of this on our lives and livelihoods.


References

Bamforth, J & Geursen, G 2017, “Categorising the money management behaviour of young consumers”, Young Consumers, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 205-222.

Bamforth, J, Jebarajakirthy, C & Geursen, G 2017, “Undergraduates’ responses to factors affecting their money management behaviour: some new insights from a qualitative study”, Young Consumers, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 290-311.

Roberts, J & Jones, E 2001, “Money Attitudes, Credit Card Use, and Compulsive Buying Among American College Students”, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 35, pp. 213 – 240.

Sundarasen, SD & Rahman MS 2017, “Attitude Towards Money: Mediation to Money Management”, Academy of Accounting and Financial Studies Journal, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 1-13.

Williams, A & Oumlil, A 2015, “College student financial capability”, International Journal of Bank Marketing, Vol. 33, pp. 637-653.

the second pitch

I have previously established that I am to conduct an ethnographic case study of the Sydney restaurant, the Grounds of Alexandria.

I will be looking at the symbiotic relationship between tangible, constructed spaces and the intangible mediascapes which they shape.

The ethnography

I am to be a participant-observer and experiencer both in the physical restaurant and in the online spaces where this phenomenon has etched its culture. These online spaces include but are not limited to: the official Grounds of Alexandria social media pages and website; the Grounds of Alexandria Instagram hashtag; third party content such as articles on Timeout; and customer reviews on websites such as Trip Advisor.

This project will involve a high degree of collaboration from a number of different sources; my approach will align with Erik Lassiter’s (2005) ideas about collaboration that avoids ‘othering’. To effectively be a participant experiencer I will need to be accompanied by at least one friend or family member when I visit the restaurant. Whilst here we will need to engage with the space as other patrons are, this may include: ordering and photographing food and drink as well as photographing each other in various places around the restaurant.

I will also need to record my observations of the other restaurant patrons, effectively turning them into my collaborators as well. Additionally, I plan on conducting unstructured interviews of some of the employees present at the restaurant, such as my waiter. Their comparatively high level of contact with the space may provide other insights that can not be not gained from participants alone.

Regarding the study of the online mediascape, I will again need to be a participant experiencer by sharing my own content in the same way that others have when engaging with this phenomenon online. I also will need to observe the media I find online and plumb it for information regarding the influence of the physical restaurant and how they work together.

Key details

Stakeholders for the project include the Grounds of Alexandria themselves, but also other restaurants and marketers. These groups would be looking to leverage their brand’s physical spaces to create publicity in paid, earned, shared and owned media forms.

It is important that I conduct myself in accordance with the MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics. This highlights the importance of ‘honesty’, ‘fairness’, ‘independence’, and ‘respect for the rights of others’. I will commit myself to these values throughout my research to ensure I do not cause distress or harm to others. I will avoid naming specific participants, especially if they are employed by the restaurant; and I will ensure I have consent to take photographs and publish interviews.

I will communicate my final project on a dedicated website, likely produced through Wix. The primary inspiration for this comes from Sarah Pink’s study of Energy and Digital Living (2014) where her research was laid out in a digestible format across a single website. Additionally, I may take inspiration from Marsha Berry’s thick description conveyed through her use of vignettes. These were constructed based upon her participant’s interview responses and observations about their media use. 

From preliminary research, it is my understanding that the online mediascape surrounding the Grounds of Alexandria phenomenon is highly visual. I will therefore also need to include pictorial elements across the presentation of my findings.

Dear readers,

If you have not been to the Grounds of Alexandria, what have you heard about it? What have you seen about it online?

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References

Lassiter, E 2005, ‘Defining a Collaborative Ethnography’, in Lassiter, E (eds.), The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 15-24.

LEEDR 2014, Energy & Digital Living, viewed 27 September 2019, <http://energyanddigitalliving.com>.

Media Entertainment & Arts n.d., MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics, viewed 27 September 2019, <https://www.meaa.org/meaa-media/code-of-ethics/>.

the first pitch

The Grounds of Alexandria is popularly known for its design not as a restaurant, but as a social media backdrop. Word of mouth suggests that its atmosphere is abuzz with the chattering of lens shutters more so than the clanking of cutlery. 

As a food-lover, I find this situation to be highly intriguing.

My purpose

To perform an ethnographic case study on this phenomenon by examining the symbiotic relationship between the tangible, designed space and the intangible mediascape which has subsequently, and quite intentionally, arisen. 

Background research

A forerunner to my research is the work of Marsha Berry (2015). She explores Hjorth and Pink’s (2014) notion of the ‘digital wayfarer’ as an individual who engages with media perpetually as they move through their lives. This lifestyle gives rise to the entanglement of contemporary life with media production and digital spaces. As such, the conceptualisation of space is re-examined to encompass the notion of place and non-place in synonymous existence.

Ingold (2008) also provides valuable insight regarding emplaced visuality and sociality. He highlights that mobile technologies allow users to contribute to a ‘bigger picture’; that is, the user is pivotal in contributing to the foundations or sustention of a digital culture through their media production. Hjorth and Gu (2012) expand on the idea of emplaced visuality by noting the overlay between place, ambient images, and geographic locations.

The ideas explored in these texts provide an invaluable springboard from which I may begin to traverse my research. Berry’s (2015) study is particularly useful because it takes an ethnographic approach. 

Ethnography in action

Berry (2015) states that interviews were a significant part of her research process. She invited individuals who were heavily involved in her area of study, via social media, so that she could then probe them for their knowledge. She then went deeper by observing their public interactions with others on social media.

My personal experience as a researcher has not been so complete. I have been a participant observer and experiencer when inquiring into the cinema experience, media use on trains and the use of technology in a shoe store. I have also conducted a reflective form of auto-ethnography when looking at a critical TV memory from my life. However, I have not yet taken the opportunity to conduct collaborative ethnography through memory conversations and interviews.

I will conduct my case study on the Grounds of Alexandria by drawing on my own experiences whilst also considering Marsha Berry’s approaches to research. Participant observation and experience will be pivotal in learning about the tacit details of the relationship between the engineered place and non-place. Additionally, interviews will also enrich the findings by providing unstructured and spontaneous information that may be unattainable from overt and covert observation and participation.

Dear readers,

Have you been to the Grounds of Alexandria? If yes, what stood out to you most about media production whilst you were there?

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FIND THE SECOND PITCH HERE.

References

Berry, M 2015, ‘Out in the open: locating new vernacular practices with smartphone cameras’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 53-64.

Hjorth, L & Gu, K 2012, ‘The place of emplaced visualities: A case study of smartphone visuality and location-based social media in Shanghai, China’, Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 26, no. 5, pp. 699-713.

Hjorth, L & Pink, S 2014, ‘New visualities and the digital wayfarer: Reconceptualizing camera phone photography and locative media’, Mobile Media & Communication, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 40-57.

Ingold, T 2008, ‘Bindings against Boundaries: Entanglements of Life in an Open World’, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, vol. 40, no. 8, pp. 1796-1810.

immersed in understanding

BCM241 class of 2019, we are an odd bunch.

We all, it seems, are very particular about our cinema tastes. We have a favourite seat. A favourite snack. And a devotion to whatever it is we’re watching.

We hate talkers. We’re afraid to crunch on food out loud. And we have no qualms with getting up and leaving mid-movie should the situation call for it.

After a closer ethnographic examination of our cinema rituals through participant observation, we now also are more aware of how Torsten Hagerstrand’s (1969) constraints of coupling, capability, and authority unconsciously impact our cinematic experiences.

When Mikayla Stott of Generally Unimpressed tried to see ‘The Lion King’, her experience was ruined by unexpected capability problems, culminating in her taking early leave of the movie.

It took Taylah Ide-Miller of TayTay’s Blog three attempts to have an ideal experience when she tried to see the much-anticipated ‘Avengers Endgame’ movie. Mostly thanks to a series of authority and capability issues.

Such deep understandings would not be possible had these researchers not observed these experiences from the inside-out through participation. 

This immersive approach distinguishes itself from anthropology in accordance with Erik Lassiter’s reflections in his article ‘A Brief Guide to Collaborative Ethnography’ (2005).

He notes that ethnography avoids the harmful phenomenon of ‘othering’; of portraying the observed culture as separate, merely a shallow curiosity. When applied to the ethnography of the cinema, this form of research places ourselves in the context of viewer/experiencer-culture and our understandings are enriched.

I hope to use these insights about the power of participant observation in my capstone research project. 

One of my ideas revolves around the retail space; how different the discourse surrounding retail employment is between ‘real-life’ and online spheres, such as the subreddit titled ‘Retail Hell’.

Another concept I believe will be interesting is the interaction between the built environment and the digital world; how one prompts action in another and vice versa.

Whatever I choose to explore, I know that I must dive deep into the experience because adventure awaits.

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a friendship across the ages

I vividly remember my dance teacher, Miss T, telling our class not to worry about going to high school. Not because it would be okay, or anything that was actually comforting. But because we wouldn’t have to be concerned about staying in touch with our primary school friends. She told us that we would find better friends. That that the friendships we had in that moment were irrelevant.

She was not my favourite teacher.

When I first began high school, I lost touch with most people from primary—I didn’t much like them anyway. There were, however, a few select friends who I was sad to let go.

Opportunity came knocking with the launch of the social messaging app Kik. Introduced to me by the one primary school friend with whom I had maintained contact through dancing; I decided it was the perfect opportunity to re-establish contact with the few people I missed.

From there it became a regular after school activity to sit on the couch and message back and forth with this group of five (including that friend from dance). Our friendship was reaffirmed when a few of us started attending the same youth group for a couple years—all organised over Kik; a semi-long-distance friendship.

These girls became my closest friends.

We lost a few along the way. Falling outs, differing interests. Until there were just three of us left—Steph, Tara and myself.

Around year 10 we made the switch to Facebook and Facebook Messenger. We were able to share more of our lives and communicate more authentically. It was easier to organise ourselves and we were motivated to do more together.

It was great to have people who were always there to talk to—they wouldn’t get annoyed with the all-hours messaging. We stuck by each other and pushed each other to be better people as we dealt with the troubles of growing up.

They were my closest friends, even more so than the ones I had at school.

Year 12 was the most stressful time of our lives. We moved from messaging each other to Skyping each other so we could study ‘together’. It was far more motivating to sit down and do work if you were amongst friends, even if it was only digital.

We’re still friends now. It feels like all those years of partially separated friendship prepared us for the long-distance kind.

Our lives now are crazy and time-consuming. It’s impossible to maintain the high constancy of social media contact that we once did. Though there may now be gaps between when we talk, our bond is still just as strong.

Looking back it’s amazing to see how social media has been the glue that has held us together. How it has impacted everything from our nicknames—Stephy, Taz, Chrissy—to what we wore when we went out.

Take that, Miss T.

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alone, together

The term ‘networked home’ elicits two-dimensional images of an entranced someone, their face always awash in cold light generated by 0s and 1s. We imagine a person whose first hello every morning is their lock screen, and last goodnight is their social-media-night-cap of choice. This person ignores the “real world”, and is always grafted in some way to a digital device no matter where in the home they are.

Such surface-level evocations may unwittingly lead us down a dystopic garden path.

As someone who frequents the digital spaces of social media as much as I do my own bedroom, I find it difficult to reconcile this chilling image with the dynamic reality of the networked home.

Sherry Turkle argues that social media and the networked home makes us distant from people in the “real world”. It is her belief that we are prevented from developing the social skills necessary for navigating relationships. Thus, we miss out on the human connection we inherently crave.

I disagree.

Since moving out of home, my life has been enriched by the capabilities of the networked home, because social media is really the ‘heart of contemporary culture’ (boyd 2014).

An ethnographic snapshot of my networked home:

socials ethno

  • Me, tagging my roommate (who is sitting in the next room) in Facebook memes, to prompt various outbursts of reaction, that to the outside onlooker would appear unprovoked.
  • Conversations over Snapchat about random and entirely hilarious subject matter—these visuals add nonverbal cues that are often feared to be lost in digital communication.
  • Finding and RSVPing to nearby events that my friends and I can attend together, e.g. concerts, trips and uni nights.
  • Video-chatting and texting my friends and family in Sydney whom I miss and wish I could see more often.
  • Scrolling through the #SurvivorAU and #BachelorAU feeds to feel gratified in stranger’s reactions.
  • Using Pinterest to inspire my real life and to find content to entertain when I am at my most bored.

For me, an enhanced life from the use of social media in the networked home comes down to its ability to foster real-world interaction/strengthening of relationships, and its ability to connect us when we feel lonely or are isolated.

Turkle makes an additional point of reclaiming ‘sacred’ spaces for “real world” conversations. Spaces like the kitchen or the dining table.

Her pleas in this fashion are a reflection of her time. In 2019 we are increasingly aware of the impact that technology use has on physical interactions in the home.

We sometimes have these purist sacred spaces or moments where technology use is banned in lieu of physical conversation. However, more often (and most true in my home) we multitask between the two spaces. Using one to reinforce the other rather than to escape it.

The still-image of my networked home is an injustice to its complexity. It doesn’t demonstrate the strength of relationships it has allowed me to build, nor the sense of belonging it has fostered. It doesn’t acknowledge that we are all bettered by it.

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boyd, d. 2014, Its complicated, Yale University, e-book, accessed 26 August 2019, <https://seeingcollaborations.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/itscomplicated.pdf>

Turkle, S. 2012, Connected, but alone?, online video, TED, viewed 29 August 2019, <https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together/transcript>

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

in times of broken-hearted trouble,​ the television comes to me

As a child, TV was more than just convenient leisure. I felt like more than just a consumer. I find it strange that Nick Couldry in his ethnographic article ‘Theorising media as practice’ (2004) identifies these as some of the key qualities of a child’s television watching.

As a more-lonely-than-not child, I survived on a steady diet of other worlds fed to me directly from the ‘hands’ of the TV. To me it was an escape; an adventure all laid out for me.

And it always had a happy ending.

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I do however find that Couldry’s remarks upon the diminishing parental mediation of their children’s television viewing are relatable. I am thankful that my parents were relaxed in this sense as it allowed me the space to experiment with my watching habits and find content that I enjoyed.

Couldry observes that parents would decreasingly regulate the length of their child’s TV screen-time. True for me.

He also points out that parents would not evaluate what their child was watching with so much stringency. Again, true for me—I was watching Lord of the Rings before I was watching Disney (and I still love it).

Lastly, he also notes that co-use of the television with children declined, meaning there was less discussion about the programs. Also true.

Of the few fragmented memories of my childhood TV watching, these are clearest:

After school. Come home, find a snack. Sit in front of the TV, channel on ABC Kids/ABC3; don’t move until Rollercoaster ends at 6pm and the news starts.

School holidays. I stayed in and watched all ten seasons of Stargate SG1. Then all five seasons of Stargate Atlantis. It was addictive; I did this way too much. I still do this sometimes (don’t judge me).

As I grew older my relationship with TV changed. In high school I would only switch on for reality TV.

The other memory I have is unique against the rest.

I had just come home from school, probably my last day for the year. I got a strange text from my dad, something along the lines of ‘Don’t go into Sydney’. It confused me. Some instinct that told me to turn the TV on like I used to all those years before.

What I saw filled me with dread. A terror attack. Martin Place, Sydney. Hostages, snipers, telephone demands–a siege. Endless loops of news reporters saying the same things. Waiting for new information and hoping something would change. Praying.

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Picture: Channel 7 Source:Channel 7

It was in that moment I wished that my parents would come home from work and sit with me. Turn the TV off, change the channel, talk to me about it, mediate what I was doing somehow. But they wouldn’t.

What had once been a security blanket had become a window into the darkest parts of the world. And I didn’t like what I saw.

Without at first realising it, from then on, I chose for my media consumption to come from a controllable place on my computer. From streaming services and social media.

But I’ll never forget what it was like that day. The sun blaring through the window; my legs sticking to the leather couch. My eyes burning into the screen, and my fear ice-cold.

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Couldry, N 2004, ‘Theorising Media as practice’, Social Semiotics, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 115-130

Photo by 阿江 on Unsplash

Photo by Ramon Kagie on Unsplash

i’m good, thanks for asking

I’ve been replaced.

By, of all things, the not-so-humble smartphone.

Maybe not in the literal sense. Nonetheless, it is hard to grasp the fact that as a sales assistant I was once trusted with dishing out sage fashion advice. Now, I am merely the grunt that greets customers and scans shoes with a sweet-as-candy smile.

It is a replacement so seamless that nobody notices it has happened. After all, I am still *technically* here.

Let me explain in Marsha Berry‘s (2015) ethnographic vignette style:

Jess and Stacy are on the hunt for a pair of shoes for their Year 12 formal. Once they’re shown to the size 8 section, they wave away any offers of help from the store person. Jess intently scrolls through her dedicated Pinterest board, trying to see if any of her saved looks match what she sees on the shelves. Stacy wades her way through the store’s website, attempting to locate the shoes that she fell in love with a few days earlier.

Indecision sets in as they try on their choices. Jess takes some photos of herself wearing different heels and posts them on her Snapchat story. Within minutes her friends reply, all touting advice and admiration. Meanwhile, Stacy FaceTimes her dad—a fruitless effort as Stacy finds his opinions to be stylistically misguided. She then holds her phone up, squinting. She displays a picture of herself wearing her formal dress in her bedroom, envisioning what the shoes would look like as part of the ensemble. Do they match?

The answer—it seems—is yes. The girls pay, one with their Apple Wallet and the other with Afterpay. In politeness, they thank the lady behind the counter and move on to the next store, phones still clutched tightly in hand.

Marsha Berry’s article ‘Out in the open: Locating new camera practices with smartphone cameras’ (2015) highlights the interrelationship between an individual’s daily routine and technology—particularly social media. She describes how these connections between the human and the network are “complex and messy” and enmeshed in our everyday comings and goings.

She observes how our digital interactions “evoke [in others] a sense of what it is like to be here and now in the physical world in a visceral multi-sensory way.” The contemporary experience of space is atomised as places become unbounded and transitional—able to be shared with anyone.

The individuals who engage in this ecology are labelled ‘digital wayfarers’. They share their explorations of the real world on social media with people in their network. Almost everyone now participates in this ‘virtual co-presence’ as it has become a “key factor in our daily encounters with physical places.”

As Jess and Stacy demonstrate, the digital world is now spliced to our lived experience.

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Berry, M 2015, ‘Out in the Open: Locating new vernacular practices with smartphone cameras’, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 53-64

Photo by Ramon Kagie on Unsplash

ritual cinema

Twenty films in, seeing a new Marvel movie at the cinema has become a ritual. Everything is planned out like clockwork and done with the same feeling of fevered excitement.

Every action is unconsciously molded by Hagerstand’s theory of space and time in geography. The constraints of capability, coupling, and authority guide its logistics. Each of these factors contributes toward a shared social experience, elevating patrons beyond mere ‘spectator’ status.

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The sacred rite of Marvel-Movie-Watching can be understood in my most recent experience watching ‘Spiderman: Far from Home’.

My roommate, my friend and I chose the closest location, Wollongong Cinema. We were so keen (as always), we HAD to go on the opening day—but were forced to choose the evening time slot because we were all busy during the day.

Every time, we arrive at least 40 minutes early. We park next to McCabe Park to avoid paying in the centre parking-lots; my roommate drives because I don’t own a car. We do this because Wollongong cinema is very popular and doesn’t have assigned seating. Being early allows us to be first in line outside the cinema door.

This aspect of the ritual relates to ‘capability’. My movements were limited by the lack of local cinemas (a physical factor) and the willingness of my roommate to drive us only so far (an environmental factor).

The next part of the ritual is the candy bar. On this one occasion, we scored $9 tickets, and I also got my usual packet of overpriced peanut M&Ms (the tour-de-force of cinema snacks).

Once we’re stocked up, the real wait begins. We camp in front of the door, marking our territory at the front of the line. I use the bathroom twice to prevent my bladder from forcing me to bail out of the 2-hour 9-minute extravaganza early. (The twice part is a tried and true method.)

The ticketing relates to ‘authority’ held by the cinema. They own the screening and can, therefore, allow entry only whom they choose. The aspects of lining up and taking a bathroom break relate to the constraint of ‘coupling’. They establish ideal conditions for myself as I will need to be ready for the movie to begin at a specific time, and prepared to be there for a length of time there-after.

We rush in once the doors open. Our seats are always near the front—in the first row after the door. Far enough back to see comfortably and with no view of the door lights or people entering/exiting.

Nobody talks during this movie. The only motions are hungry hands pinching up more popcorn. The only sounds, our laughter and cries in unison as the movie hits the right chords of emotion.

We don’t simply watch the movie, we are enveloped by it; together.

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‘again, but better’ is everything your YA book-loving heart desires

Shane has been doing college all wrong…

Her life has been dorm, dining hall, class, repeat. Time’s a ticking, and she needs a change—there’s nothing like moving to a new country to really mix things up. Shane signs up for a semester abroad in London. She’s going to right all her college mistakes: make friends, pursue boys, and find adventure!

… She is soon faced with the complicated realities of living outside her bubble, and when self-doubt sneaks in, her new life starts to fall apart.

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (4.5/5)

I was cringing with doubt when I first saw this book. YouTubers have a rough history with the publishing world—its always either hit or (usually) miss.

Christine Riccio may have been the first Booktuber I ever watched, but that did nothing to abate my nerves. Even Booktubers, despite their many opinions on others’ writing, are prone to the same mistakes as their digital contemporaries.

I was quite surprised to find that Again But Better is everything that makes YA rom-com so addictive and well-loved. All rolled into one (fairly) neat package.

ABB 1

Riccio even managed to breathe new life into tropes I constantly see overworked (and underpaid) across the genre. It was a delight to stumble upon these moments in situ, so I won’t spoil them for you.

This book is a fun read, peppered with early 2010s pop-culture references. And the distinct notes of Taylor Swift made the story more contextually believable (speaking as a long-time fan).

Riccio’s relatable characters are the stand-out in this story. Even against such star-studded settings as London and Rome.

Shane, the MC, is all of us who feel the pressures of young adult life weighing in, yet struggle to produce the diamonds of success we’re told we need to be fulfilled. And Pilot is all of us who grapple with the temptation to go the ‘safe route’ when faced with tough choices.

It was also refreshing to see so many distinct side characters and adorable friendships. I could easily care about these individually because they each had their own purposeful trajectories. They didn’t just two-dimensionally prop up the protagonist—a huge pet peeve of mine.

This story, these characters, are for the people who want to make more of themselves. Who want to define their own happiness. It’s for the free-spirits who are trapped within themselves; and the lovers who feel lost and alone.

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A warning to everyone who picks up this book: it will make you feel inspired.


 

SPOILER WARNING: do not read this if you haven’t read the book

Other things I particularly enjoyed:
  • The banter between Shane and Pilot: often with books and movies I question what the ‘endgame’ couple have in common. The author is frequently too focused on writing their romantic moments to develop each character as individuals with likes, dislikes and anything that makes them distinct. Shane and Pilot had their own complexities first and foremost. It was believable for them to be romantically interested in each other because they actually had common ground based on their individuality. This meant their relationship wasn’t superficial and avoided being hallmarked by the apparently charming (yet actually annoying) arguments witnessed in many other fictional relationships, see: Noah and Allie in the Notebook (sorry!).

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  • Blogging and travel inspiration: this book is supercharged with travel, blogging and well… travel blogging. As a new blogger, it was really interesting to explore another blogger who I related to’s journey, even though it was fictional. It made me remember how much I enjoy writing in my own style, and how rewarding it is to produce work that I’m proud of. I wonder whether this particular experience was something other readers felt/related to?
Concerns:
  • The magic/time travel isn’t really explained and makes no sense: I know I’ve been really positive up until this point, and I love the book in spite of it. But honestly, for the briefest moment, I was tempted to put the book down when the transition between timelines happened. Until that point, the book had exceeded all expectations, and when this happened a little part of me died. It was just so convenient! We got no real explanation as to why the time travel happened to Pilot and Shane beyond their being stalked by a weird red-headed woman, who also really confused me. It made me anxious to see Shane and Pilot messing up their meet-cutes with all their dorm-mates, and I’m surprised no real negative butterfly effect happened as a result.
  • Why did Atticus vanish from existence in part 2? He just disappeared with his plot a loose end, and I can’t help but wonder why.
  • Why didn’t Shane invest in Apple or Bitcoin or something when she went back? She could have been RICH, it would have been smart and she would have gotten away with it.
  • Is Shane just a reflection of the author? The Taylor Swift, the nerd stuff, the online content creation, the username, the London exchange…these are all things we know Riccio likes, does or has done. So many authors like to write themselves into their MCs so that they can have some weird second life where all their dreams are fulfilled (*cough cough* Sarah J. Maas). Its kind of creepy to be honest. Not to mention very unoriginal. In an interview with LittleBookOwl, Riccio stated that Shane was not a duplicate of herself, but I wonder whether she doesn’t notice it because it was perhaps unconscious.

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  • Lastly, some variation of ‘cackle’ was used at least 17 times, pick up a thesaurus someone, please! Surely this thing was edited that many times someone could have picked up on it.
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