Right then. It looks like I’m going to actually have to do this.
I tend to go to a lot of conferences, and most of them are focused on specific business sectors or platforms. At the Edinburgh TV Festival this year, I had a chat with Emily Bell and Dan Hon, bemoaning the fact that these conferences attract silos of people who would never go to each others events – the delta between Edinburgh TV festival and something like Dconstruct is tiny, for example. In fact, I think it might just be Dan Hon.
There’s obvious reasons for this, as most conferences are commercial events aimed at a certain sector. But at the Edinburgh TV festival, loads of people were raving about David Simon’s talk about The Wire, mainly because he wasn’t talking about platforms, distribution models or business models (well, he did talk a bit about the latter) but because he was talking about storytelling. Then Jeremy Ettinghausen and I were asked to do a talk about storytelling at PICNIC in September, which seemed to go down well. So I started to think more seriously about organising something around Stories and Storytelling. Then I tweeted the barely-baked idea this morning, and got such an overwhelming response, with loads of good ideas, so I’m going to actually get around to doing it.
The ideas i’ve had from people on Twitter include – Storytelling in UX design, storytelling in music, murder ballads, the Hakawati master storytellers of Syria (might be a big ask, that…), Marina Warner and the Scottish Storytelling Centre, using boardgames to teach computer game programming, projecting stories onto 3D paper-mache maps, the stories companies tell about their culture, storytelling in user research, the work of brilliant collaborative storytellers like coney/punchdrunk/hideandseek/et al, magic and storytelling, transliteracy in digital storytelling (might have to get Meg to explain that one to me), storytelling to explain complex theories/ideas, storytelling and data (obviously). I’ve got a personal wish list of a few friends who I want to ask along (like Tim Wright to talk about his Kidmapped! project), but I’ve been overwhelmed by the good ideas i’m getting in, and offers of help. So i’m getting really excited about it already…
This won’t be a big, expensive conference with loads of sponsors and keynotes flown over from the US of A. In fact, I’ll probably go down the Interesting/Playful route of hiring the Conway Hall, a tea-urn and some bunting. It’ll probably be around February/March next year, as I have a day job, and it will take me that long to organise. Here’s my current plan:
1 – write a blog post to capture lots of good ideas from people [done! always good to start a to-do list with something you’ve already done…]
2 – Check out the Conway Hall at Playful and find out if its available in Feb/March
3 – Start soliciting speakers and hassling friends and friends-of-friends to speak
4 – Work out how much its going to cost and set up eventbrite to let people buy tickets
5 – Build a page for the event and get tickets on sale [note to self – persuade wife to do some illustrations for the site]
6 – Panic
7 – Ask Russell where he got the tea-urn from
8 – Panic again
9 – Get the bunting up
10 – Have a really fun and inspiring day that makes me want to get excited and tell stories
11 – Take the bunting down
12 – Stop panicking
So – if you’d like to come to an event like this, or have ideas about who/what you’d like to see/hear, then let me know in the comments here.
[This is the third part of a short series, based on a talk I gave at MIPTV in March 2009, sharing some insights from our commissioning social media projects at Channel 4 Education]
We’ve had a couple of projects this year – like Yeardot and Battlefront – that run live for 9 months to a year. It’s incredibly hard to keep hold of people’s attention over such a long period of time, and to be honest, we didn’t expect to. The web is a smorgasbord of distraction, so you have to be realistic about how often people will come back to your project. This poses real problems for an ongoing narrative project – do you start a project with a big bang to capture attention? How do you deal with people coming late to the project? What if people drift away for weeks and then come back to the project again?
Designing a narrative structure that can cope with such diverse patterns of attention is really tough. Its probably easier for factual projects than fiction, partly because we’re used to drifting in and out of our friends’ online streams, so its simple to replicate this in factual/documentary projects. Its no accident that the first popular fiction projects – like Lonelygirl15 and its early precursor Online Caroline – used self-authored video and text to tell the story from the protagonists’ point of view.
Most users now carry with them a strong conceptual expectation about how stories are ‘read’ online, developed from their experience of following their friends’ lifestreams on Facebook et al. So it makes sense to follow a few simple principles to take advantage of these assumptions, rather than working against them and confusing your users:
Keep it simple, and signpost clearly
We massively overdesigned some of our projects when we first launched them. We tried to create too much atmosphere through strong designs, and the general response from user groups was “this looks great, but what *is* it?”. Through many iterations, we ended up simplifying all our sites a lot, with clear explanations of what the project was, who was speaking there, what you could do, and what was new. You probably have only a few seconds to engage someone before they move on – don’t risk being enigmatic, unless you’re dealing with a brand or project that the audience already knows and loves. If its a completely new thing, explain the project clearly and keep the navigation simple and consistent – most users will probably not come through the main site/home page, so the project’s purpose needs to ring clear from every possible interaction.
Have a clear voice for the project
Erika Hall’s Copy As Interface rightly points out that most navigation of the web relies on text, not images or video. For social media sites, this text is not the neutral voice of a machine or nameless authority, but vernacular, oral speech, written as if it were a conversation with a friend. As Erika puts it – “we’re not writing, we’re speaking with text”. Again, this is inherited from the fact that most of our interactions on the web now are with friends, not ‘sites’, meaning that we respond better to projects that use vernacular language. We find such language more engaging, approachable and interesting – as Erika Hall quotes Walter J Ong – “Orality knits persons together into community”. The single most effective thing you can do to engage your users and keep their attention is to have a clearly identified, oral, vernacular voice for the project. Ideally, this would be a named person, real or fictitious. On Battlefront, we have the excellent Orsi, who blogs for us on Bebo and generally gives the site a sense of idenitity. Incidentally, I think Battlefront’s tag line – ‘You’re Already Involved’ – is one of the best bits of copywriting on any of our projects.
Make it easy for people to leave footprints in the project
There are two good reasons for this – if users contribute to a project, no matter how small, then they’re more likely to remember it and come back. Secondly, a site with lots of user activity looks busy and active for other users – just like restaurants, people are more likely to stick around on a busy site than one that feels like you’re the only visitor. There is a third aim – to get some personal data that means you can regularly communicate with the user, but this can be a real barrier until people have spent a fair bit of time with the project and feel like they’re getting value. You can use promotional competitions as a shortcut to get user data, but I don’t think this is that valuable, as it drives a wave of attention that mostly just drifts out again like a tide once the competition is over. Ideally, you want your users to gradually increase the size of the footprint in the project as they get more immersed. This could mean initially clicking a simple vote or poll, then friending on a social network, subscribing to a newsletter, commenting and finally creating or embedding content in their own social spaces. On the home page of Battlefront, we’ve got a really simple interactive word-cloud with issues that users have uploaded for others to vote on, creating an immediate call for participation to new visitors. In fact, most new visitors seem to come through Facebook, meaning that they’re responding to specific call to action from the individual campaigners. On Yeardot, we deliberately tried to move users through to the individual contributors pages on Myspace, thinking that this is where the real conversation would happen. But we underestimated the complexity of this journey, and also the social barriers many feel in leaving a comment on a total stranger’s Myspace page, so after a few months we redesigned the main hub site to encourage commenting there as well. I don’t think we’ve really explored this yet, though, and we’ll be looking at the entry and exit routes through these projects to understand more about how to gradually encourage and feedback on activity from users – the user journey needs to start from their streams, not our site, and end up back in their streams again.
Or, you could just make games…
If you really want to engage people, get them to participate, and get them to return again and again, you might as well make games. As Aleks Krotoski pointed out in her talk at Dconstruct last year, there has been a baffling lack of communication between web design and game design, although this is now happening, and quickly. My fellow commissioning editor, Alice Taylor, knows far more than me about games, and is commissioning some excellent projects, such as Bow Street Runner, Routesgame, and a project with SixToStart that i’m incredibly excited about that will launch later this year. I hope Alice will write about her experiences commissioning these projects more on her blog in the next few months. But we should all learn from how the best games drag you in without having to read a manual; encourage early, simple interaction which is rewarded out of proportion to your effort; and then sets you iterative challenges that get the balance between effort and reward just right. Amy Jo Kim and Jane McGonigal have both written inspiring accounts of how gaming metaphors can be applied elsewhere on the web, and in real life. Sometimes I think its only a matter of time until gaming becomes the main metaphor for most of our social interactions. And then sometimes, I think its already happened…
In the next essay, I’ll talk about the holy grail – turning users’ attention into valuable interactions. For many, this will mean getting money out of them, but as I work for a public service broadcaster, I’m going to talk about more intangible things – how you know if people are learning about themselves, their lives, the world around them; and whether they’ve been inspired to act upon and change things as a result. Not too much to aim for, then…
[This is the second part of a short series, based on a talk I gave at MIPTV in March 2009, sharing some insights from our commissioning social media projects at Channel 4 Education]
“2008 is the year we hit Peak Attention. You can either carry on encountering as much as you do now, giving every input less and less attention every year, or you can start managing it, keeping some back to take long-haul attention flights. What are the consequences of living post-Peak Attention? Nobody will be able to understand anything hard unless they make sacrifices.”
When I started at C4 in 2007, the first challenge we faced was how to get the attention of the 14-19 age group we were targeting. Up until Jan 2008, C4 Education made (brilliant) TV programmes that were broadcast in the morning schedule, during term time – a throwback to earlier Education programming that was aimed directly at teachers and classrooms. About 6 years ago, the strategy shifted to trying to reach teens directly, making this morning slot an anachronism, as most of the target audience would have been in work, school or college. Janey Walker took over C4 Education in 2006, and realised that TV just wasn’t the right platform anymore, at least not for this audience, with these slots. This led her to make one of the most radical decisions in UK broadcasting – she decided that from Jan 2008, the entire budget (about £6m) for the department would go on cross-platform projects, trying to reach teens in the spaces where they spend their attention, rather than this rather empty part of the morning schedule.
A major broadcast channel like C4 has a number of routes to getting attention – a prime-time slot, an established programme brand, hiring a major talent/celebrity, or a massive above the line marketing push. We didn’t have any of these, so had to go out into the wild web and try and drum up as much attention as we could in whatever ways we could. Over the last 18 months we’ve tried a number of things – partnering with spaces where teens are paying attention, like Myspace and Bebo; distributing content over many different 3rd party networks; making content available for download to podcasts and mobile phones; seeding content in existing special interest communities; running competitions with glamourous prizes – to be honest, I’d fly a plane over a city with our project URL on it if I thought that would bring it to people’s attention. Not all of this worked, obviously. The traffic to our sites isn’t anywhere near the kind of traffic that C4 gets for Hollyoaks or Skins. But here’s a few things I think we’ve learnt.
Design for streams, not for sites
Most people using the web, especially in younger age-groups, now experience the web as streams, not sites. It might be the stream of updates in Facebook, or their contact’s Flickr photostream, or a string of results on Google, or in an RSS reader.
The average number of sites people regularly visit is generally reckoned to be 5 or 6, and most of these are services that organise and stream information to you – email, social networks, search engines, media libraries (ie Youtube or Itunes) etc. Every now and then a new site emerges that takes its place in this hallowed pantheon, but I wouldn’t bet on your project being one of them. Much better to design content that plays nicely with streams – content that can be interesting and enticing as a one-line text result in a search query, and that doesn’t mind being broken up into small pieces (Cf Matt Jones’ reference to the coke bottle in my earlier post). This is much harder for narrative projects than functional projects, as storytelling tends to rely on controlling the context for its impact – think of how the audience is controlled in a theatre or cinema, or how television has built its aesthetics around its ownership of the living room and the strictures of scheduling.
I don’t think we’ve really got this right in any of our projects yet, but its the thing I’m most interested in exploring and playing with. Funnily enough, I think I was playing with similar ideas in a project with Tim Etchells in 2000, called Surrender Control, which assumed that we had no control over the audience or context at all, and tried to create an intriguing piece of theatre using just 40 SMS texts. But maybe this is going too far – maybe you need to base a story in a solid context, but let it be manipulated, ripped up and shared around the web as much as your users want to. Dan Hill summed this up beautifully in a post about the social media ‘ripples’ around LOST a few years ago. In the end, I don’t think there’s one model here, just a set of principles – design your content to play nicely with streams, or to be ‘spreadable‘, in Henry Jenkins’ terms.
Don’t be snotty about marketing
This is a simple one, really. Too many people in the storytelling business look down on marketing. Some people I know in web startups think that marketing is a tax you pay for having an inferior project. Bollocks. The reality is, in a post-Peak-Attention world, sitting there expecting people to discover your genius is frankly naive. We’ve had our digital agencies and TV companies working as one team, making decisions together about casting, shooting, web design and marketing. Its all the same project, and it should be the same people making decisions about everything. Marketing now is just another way that people find out about you – another ripple in the stream. Its too important to draw an imaginary line that fetishes some activity as ‘creative’ and some as mere ‘marketing’. If you do that, you’ll miss the opportunity to be really creative with marketing, and will fail to market your creative genius. Think of the coke bottle again – every fragment and shard of the project should be as beautiful, enigmatic and thrilling as the whole.
One last piece of advice – take your time. Trying to mimic TV and get millions of people online to look at the same thing at the same time would be hugely expensive and a waste of time. In a spreadable media world, it will probably take weeks or even months for people to find your project. Designing something that has to be experienced within a certain period or synchronously with thousands of other people is a nice idea, but it plays against the asynchronous nature of the internet. Unless you’re building a site that works alongside a major piece of event TV – think X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing – just relax, and don’t worry about overnights.
Instead, launch the project early, and often. Put out lots of little bits of content over time, and reward people who stick with you. Take the time to listen and work out why people are coming to the project, and more importantly, why they’re not. Make it easy for newcomers to pick up the story at any point, and to view content in any order if they want to. Attention is far too precious a resource these days to act like a bouncer and pull across a velvet rope if people turn up too late. The dirty secret of the web is that, although its never been easier to publish, its never been easier to be ignored. Worship every bit of attention you get from your users, as it’s their gift to you, not the other way around. Which brings me to the next issue – keeping attention. More on that in the next post.
I’ve just presented at MIPTV on the theme of ‘commissioning for attention’, a phrase I’ve been using for a while to describe what I do at Channel 4 Education. I hate phrases like ‘360 content’ or ‘multiplatform’, as these encourage people to get hung up on technology or to have a box-ticking mentality to where ideas can exist, rather than really focusing on users and understanding what they’re doing. We’ve learnt a lot from running projects like Yeardot, Battlefront and Routesgame over the last 18 months, so I thought I’d write up some notes on this blog from the presentation.
But before that, these ideas have been massively influenced by friends working in game design, agile website design or service design. Narrative media is still (outside of gaming) light-years behind the curve compared to the work going on in these disciplines, so a lot of the time I’m trying to act as a translator – taking concepts and ideas from more functional design disciplines into narrative/editorial contexts. When I speak to indies or producers, there’s a set of blogs/presentations that I tend to refer them to, so I thought i’d start by sharing this reading list:
If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead – Henry Jenkins
This is an incredible series of 8 blog posts, from a report commissioned by a consortia of US media producers. In this series, Jenkins elegantly skewers some of the terminology and assumptions in discussion of ‘viral’ media, and proposes a new set of concepts that beautifully illustrates how people share and participate in social media. In particular, he’s really insightful on the interplay between the commercial world of commodity media and the ‘gift economy’ of users’ social networks, and how ‘spreadable’ media works in the overlap between the two.
Tiny Social Media Objects – Jyri Engestrom
Jyri explains how social sites have at their core a ‘social object’ – eg photographs, music, second-hand goods – around which users congregate and act. The loveliest part of this presentation is his recommendation to start your site by defining its social object, and then to think about the verbs that people will apply to them. Eg in Ebay, the objects are second-hand goods, and the verbs are ‘buy’, ‘sell’ etc.
Native to a web of data – Tom Coates
Slightly earlier than Jyri’s presentation above, this is a fantastic clear and articulate presentation of how to design projects as flows and visualisations of data, rather than documents and sites. Tom elegantly reframes designing for the web using an ecological data model – design to create good, clean reusable data, that other services and users can benefit from.
Designing for the coral reef – Matt Jones/Matt Biddulph
This is a hilarious transcript from the Dopplr team’s talk at Dconstruct last year. I don’t think you had to be there to get the jokes, or to imagine what the slides were, as their descriptions are pretty good. In this talk, they’re building on some of the ideas that Tom Coates used in ‘Native…’ and bringing in Matt Jones’ interest in time/space and how you tell stories to people about their activities over time. But the great insight for me here is in designing a project so that users can engage through lots of different access points, not just a monolithic site. Matt uses a great analogy with a coke bottle – “Martin Lindstrom said, “The genius of a coke bottle is when it smashes into a thousand pieces, you still know it’s a coke bottle”. Designing your project so that its still recognisible from a fragment as it is whole is a lovely challenge.
Putting the ‘fun’ into ‘functional’ – Amy Jo Kim
My fellow commissioning editor – Alice Taylor – saw Amy give this presentation at GDC (I think) a few years ago (the link above is to the 2009 edit). Many of the design and interaction metaphors we use from the web were inherited by traditional software design, mainly from productivity software like Office. In this presentation, Amy looks at interaction concepts from game design – such as collecting, points, feedback and customization – and shows how they can be applied to social software design.
Copy as Interface – Erika Hall
I’ve not seen Erika give this presentation, but its so fantastically clear and well designed that you can get the gist of it through the presentation alone. Erika demonstrates how the web is largely navigated and understood by users via text, and how the kind of language used on web 2.0 sites relate to oral vernacular (paging Walter J Ong!), rather than more formal professional language. This is just a great presentation to give to people who think their site is about shiny flashy images or video. Its not. The cheapest and most effective thing to get right in a project is its ‘voice’ – the language and style you use in the text of the site and your other interactions with the user (email, twitter, etc).
Everything you know about ARGs is wrong – Dan Hon
As a pioneer in the world of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) Dan has earned the right to call the top of the market, and skewer some of the cliches and lazy assumptions about audience interaction that have built up around the genre. Anyone that can show a presentation slide saying “WE SUCK” in 40pt type to an audience of peers and get away with it must be doing *something* right…
And here’s a couple of more specialised presentations that I also recommend:
Content is not King – Andrew Odlyzko
Working in the content industry, its really hard to get people to understand that historically, social technologies have been more commercially successful than content technologies. Social media is potentially the first space that mixes the two (as Jenkins illustrates in his work on gift economies and commodity culture in “if its spreads…”) but most people coming to social media from broadcast forget this, and see these networks as pipes to shove content through. Odlyzko’s essay starts with a plain assertion of fact – “The Internet is widely regarded as primarily a content delivery system. Yet historically, connectivity has mattered much more than content” – and then proceeds to show why this has been true for every communication network since the telegraph. Written in 2001 at the cusp of the dotcom boom, he calls out the telcos who convinced themselves they were in the media industry rather than the ‘dump pipes’ comms market, and points out that the real money is in facilitating gossip, not commissioning ‘rich media’. Replace the comms companies with todays social media stars, and its still true.
Startup Metrics for Pirates – Dave McClure
Containing some of the most bafflingly designed slides I’ve ever seen, I think I understand just enough about McClure’s presentation to know he’s a genius. I saw him give a version of this presentation at Seedcamp in London last year, and it nailed an issue I’d been struggling with for a while – how to create a simple metrics model for complex interactive projects. His one-page buisiness plan (slide 11) is a masterpiece of clarity and simplicty, elegantly allowing you to track complex user behaviours with just 9 metrics. I’ve adapted the categories, but kept the same logic and purpose in our metrics models for Channel 4 Education. The real insight here is getting people to use the same set of metrics for both reporting and agile design. This is obvious for geeks, but for TV people raised on Overnight Ratings that happen after the project is put to bed, its a revelation.
So – that’s it for influences. Over the next few days I’ll write up some of the ideas and concepts that we’re using in commissioning at C4 Education.
Our teen campaigning project, Battlefront, is reaching the end of its first run in May, and the 20 campaigners have been working around the country on events and publicity for their causes. Here’s a run-down of some of the stuff they’re up to:
Zuhal Sultan from Baghdad will be playing at Wigmore Hall in London on April 2nd at 1pm, her first concert in the UK, and giving a talk about why she wants to set up the first ever National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Please come along to hear her perform and support her campaign!
On 31st March at 8am James Greenhalgh is using an amazing machine called a flogo to send pound shaped bubbles over the Houses of Parliament. Watch the Flogo demo video – they look awesome! Then on April 1st he is putting on an event at the House of Commons in front of 50 MPs and invited guests, launching a consultation report on why tuition fees should be capped.
On April 25th Tom Robbins (who spent Pancake Day giving away free pancakes in Soho) is putting on his Kindival at the Chelsea School of Art. This will be talks and debates about different aspects of kindness medical, social, financial benefits etc, plus interactive performances, plus an art exhibition. He’s also planning to set a UK record for the biggest group hug at a football stadium in a few weeks time. Brave man…
Alexander Rose has had The Mirror back his campaign against Gun and Knive crime, and launched the latest stage of his campaign – involving keyrings made from melted-down guns and knives handed into the police – with a huge event at the Ministry of Sound this week .
Siobhan and Becky promoted their Make A Big Change With Your Small Change campaign by travelling in a campervan to Oxford, Birmingham and London and meeting musicians, dancers and street performers in different busking spots across the cities. For the finale, Vincent and Flavia from Strictly Come Dancing performed with them in Covent Garden. Flavia kicked open a piniata of pledges the girls had been collecting from the public during their trip, with over 1000 names of people pledging to make a big change with their small change
Finally, all the Battlefronters are meeting in London on Monday, March 30th to be filmed for the final episode of the next series for C4. They’ll be sharing their experiences in the past year, meeting the mentors who have helped them with their campaigns and also getting the support of celebrities and MPs, including Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families.
There’s lots more going on across all the campaigns, so please go to the site and support the campaigners in any way you can. We’re already planning to run Battlefront again, and to build a tool set for campaigners to co-ordinate their campaigns and share experience with other campaigners. We’ll still be following a group for the TV programme, but will have more capacity for teens to upload and run their own campaigns.
Oh, and finally, we’ve been nominated for an International Digital Emmy! The ceremony is on Monday, and i’ve brushed up my tuxedo just in case…
Taking part in Suw’s excellent Ada Lovelace Day initiative has presented a bit of a dilemma. I’m lucky enough to work with a lot of really inspiring women who are inventing the future of media and technology. At Channel 4 alone, there is Louise Brown, Jo Roach, Margaret Robertson, Jen Topping and Azka Malik; all of whom are role models for any one of any gender interested in working with technology.
But after much deliberation, I thought i’d write about Alice Taylor, my fellow commissioning editor at C4 Education. I’ve worked alongside Alice at the BBC and at C4 for about 6 or 7 years now, and I’ve known her for probably over a decade. Her work has stretched from developing one of the first (and most elegant) sites for social avatars (I’m still using mine on all my social networks) to an ongoing passion for gaming and its potential to change the way we think about entertainment and education.
She has a well-earned reputation as a witty blogger and expert in her field, all the more important when working in gaming, a traditionally male-dominated industry. I always get a kick out of seeing Alice traipse through the office with a group of 20-something indie game geeks in her wake, all of them in awe that they’re in the presence of Crystaltips. Even better, the fact that she’s on her 2nd or 3rd level 70 WOW avatar, when casually dropped into conversation, elegantly punctures the ego of any male game geek who thinks they’re dealing with a ‘girl’ who doesn’t really understand games unless they’re about horses and packaged in pink. Trust me, she could probably kick your arse as well.
But the main reason for writing about Alice is that I think she’s just about to really hit her stride. Most people who really change things, who genuinely set new standards in their field, have a moment where they seem to blossom and fill the spaces they’ve been rehearsing in their heads for a long time. They have an energy that seeks out talent, a passion that makes people want to commit their effort to the cause, and a clarity that makes everything seem obvious.
I see all of this in Alice right now, and for that reason, she’s one of the most inspiring women I know working in technology at the moment. I can’t wait to see what she will achieve in the next few years, and how this will change things for future generations of women wanting to make their own spaces, and futures, in technology, media and games.
I’m very pleased to say we’ve launched our latest C4 Education project – Routes – which is a massive cross-platform-video-game-arg-thingy (we’re gonna need a bigger category…) looking at genetic science and the impact its going to have on 21st Century life. Its all good, but my favourite bit at the moment is the lovely Breeder, a delightful multiplayer mini-game in which you have to try and breed with other creatures to reach a desired end-state. Although most people I know who have played it just spend all their time cruising for people they know and breeding with them. I sure that’s educational in some way, though…
And to encourage Breeder activity all over the web, you can install a widget of your breeder on whatever flavour SNS you prefer. I’m off to my long-neglected Facebook account to give it a bit of Breeder love.