The New Patterns of Culture: Slow, Fast & Spiky

A few weeks ago, I was asked to talk on a panel about Marshall McLuhan in Bristol. One of the other panellists was Paul Morley, someone I greatly admire and who created many of the culture and ideas I grew up with in the 1980s (the first time I heard about Dada & Situationism was through his sleeves notes on Frankie Goes To Hollywood albums).

The panel was asked to discuss how relevant McLuhan was to 21st century digital culture, but quickly got sidetracked into a nostalgic eulogy for late 20th century culture, and in particularly Punk. Paul Morley was very dismissive of the landscape of digital culture, accusing social media networks of merely pandering to consumerist behaviours, and not creating anything of value or with real impact. From his perspective, the radical power of punk, and its impact on late 70s culture, was nowhere to be seen today.

Last night, Pete Townshend gave the John Peel lecture, and the people I follow seem divided between criticising his views on iTunes (which were really only a small part of the talk) and agreeing with his nostalgia for the role the record industry played in nurturing artists. The lecture was actually a pretty well-balanced view on the record industry today, with some specific insights into how the music business used to run, and how Apple and others could step up to play these roles.

But I think the nostalgia about the old days is misplaced. We are eliding a series of memories – about the way we consumed music, the role of companies in developing and distributing culture, and the physical artefacts themselves – into a set of assumptions about how culture should be supported, distributed and consumed. In doing this, we’re ignoring the fact that these assumptions were the product of a particular pattern of consumption, driven solely by the technical and economic drivers of the time.

In the late 20th Century, a world of limited channels for media distribution, achieving scale was incredibly hard, but the rewards were huge. With only a limited number of TV/Radio channels, or magazines, or shelf space in the shops, anything new had to displace the old. This led to a very predictable pattern of consumption, in which waves of ‘new’ content attempted, and occasionally succeeded, to break through into the main focus of audiences’ attention – the cover of NME, or Top of The Pops. Once there, the potential rewards from being in one of the few spotlights of attention were massive – easily enough to support artists for years, if they could manage to remain in the spotlight, or thereabouts.

This pattern – of working unknown in the shadows, and then ‘breaking through’ into the mainstream – is the thing we’re actually mourning when we talk about the last century. The media industries that were created around these patterns had the advantage of limited competition and stability, and as such could afford to indulge artists, or support bands over years, knowing that the reward of breaking into the spotlight would more than repay this investment.

If you grew up in this period, you learnt that this was the pattern of culture – a broad spectrum of niche, marginal culture, and a tightly defined mainstream that dominated attention. The positions of individual actors would periodically change, but the stage would remain the same.

The patterns now are very, very different. There are no technical limits to publication and distribution, but getting and focusing attention over a long period of time is a great deal harder. Scale is no longer a guarantee of stability. Production of culture is now open to anyone and everyone. Platforms and tools are becoming more central than publishers and distributors. None of this is new – our virtual book shelves are groaning with analyses of how the internet is changing content industries.

But in all of the studies of the technical and economic changes, we’ve missed the underlying shift that is driving these changes. The ways in which audiences’ attention can be driven to new culture is infinitely more complex than in the late 20th century, and its only been in the last 5 years or so that we’ve started to see what the new patterns of attention are. Some of them look familiar, with niche content organically (or calculatedly, in the case of shows like The X Factor) getting large amounts of attention. But these patterns are much more unstable that they used to be, and the rewards are nowhere near enough to offset hits and misses.

Alongside the familiar patterns of mainstream attention, there are a huge number of new patterns that could only exist in digital culture. Some of these patterns are very slow, with attention accruing over months or years, as social recommendation or small groups of fans gradually accrue around content. Some are extremely fast, synchronising audiences’ attention around a piece of culture within days, before moving on just as quickly. Some are driven by deliberate plans, orchestrated between broadcast channels and social media. Some emerge via the organic connections of lots of smaller drivers, from blogs and niche channels to SEO and twitter accounts.

But, regardless of the pattern itself, the difference is that they’re Spiky – there are no technical or economic constraints keeping the spotlight in one place anymore, so attention can move on as quickly as it arrived. This is the major shift that we are missing when we are nostalgic for the 20th century. We’re only just beginning to learn what culture looks like in spiky networks, and only just beginning to invent the companies and institutions that can survive long enough to support and invest in culture in this landscape.

Change no longer happens all at once for everyone, as it did with the rush of Punk puncturing the ennui of 1970s mainstream culture. In digital networks, change is happening everywhere, constantly, and the mainstream is a much more fragile and temporary consensus than it once was. There will still be moments when something breaks through to enough people at the same time to feel like Punk, but it won’t be the same thing. There are a hundred punk moments happening every day, if you look hard enough.

McLuhan would have understood this – he was, above all else, a master at recognising patterns in culture. What he did in the middle of the last century was point out that mass media was creating a phenomenal spotlight of attention through TV and other mass broadcast networks, and that the patterns of attention they created would be as important – financially, politically and culturally – as the content itself.

If he were alive today, I would like to think that McLuhan would be pointing out a slew of new patterns, and would be exploring the economic and cultural consequences as they emerged. Although McLuhan was a deeply religious man who resented the dominance of broadcast mainstream culture, his intellectual curiosity was fascinated by what these emerging patterns said about us. He didn’t mourn the patterns of the 19th century, but sketched out the landscape of the new culture, and was a prophet for the media industries of the last 50 years. We should take his lead, stop being nostalgic for the patterns of the last century, and start building the media industries of the future.

Life inside Seven Days

[This is a piece I wrote for Broadcast Magazine, about Seven Days, a cross-platform project I’m working on in my dayjob. Posted here as its behind a paywall on their site]

Something very interesting happened on Channel 4 last Wednesday. About half-way through the latest episode of Seven Days, one of the characters, Cassie, took out her laptop and started talking about how people were talking about her on the show’s website. Sitting at home, monitoring the performance of the site on my laptop, I saw a huge spike in traffic as thousands of other people logged onto the site to see what all the fuss was about. This spike was higher than we’d seen the week before, when the rush of people coming to the site on launch night crashed the servers, and even higher than the biggest peak we saw in the final series of Big Brother earlier this year. We’d clearly hit on something, but what was it?

For the last 11 years, Big Brother has been the poster-child for cross-platform projects – a show which was inextricably bound up in the interaction between the format, the audience and the ripples it caused in the outside world. But those ripples never made it back inside the house – we never saw BB contestants pull out a laptop and see what people were saying about them outside those high Elstree fences. The spike in traffic we saw in the middle of Seven Days was something new – it was an audience realising that they could become part of the conversation, part of the story, part of the lives of the people they were seeing on television. Cassie and the rest of the Seven Days cast were recognisably people living their own lives –in cafes, living rooms and bars – not the artificial tasks and traumas of Big Brother.

Seven Days has demonstrated that we’re living in a new world – a place where our audiences see their own lives broadcast to friends across networks like Facebook and Twitter, and where jokes, arguments and love affairs are conducted through comments and responses, likes and retweets, friending and tagging. Broadcasters have probably been a bit slow to create formats fast enough and open-ended enough to reflect the way we live our lives now. Seven Days feels likes it’s starting to explore what this might look like. It’s an exhausting, messy and complicated project to be working on, with a constant cycle of chatter going on between contributors, commissioners, producers and web teams. It’s hard, two weeks in, to get a grasp on what the show is, what it might be, and how we can best harness the intense spikes of attention we’re seeing around every episode.

I sat at home last Wednesday, watching my TV with my laptop, watching someone else reading about themselves on a laptop, whilst thousands of other people were doing the same. This is the world we’re in now, and Seven Days is an innovative and ambitious attempt to represent this world. Like Big Brother 10 years ago, it’s probably not right yet, but it does feel like the first step on a very interesting journey.

The common ground between TV and Gaming

I’ve just had an interesting email conversation with Nicholas Lovell, the excellent games consultant and Gamesbrief blogger, prompted by his appearance at the Edinburgh TV Festival on a panel about the cross over between TV and Games. The session left me very frustrated, partly because it seemed to assume that the only reason that TV people would be interested in games is if they wanted to license their IP to produce a spin-off game. Nicholas (and Paulina Bozek, who made SingStar) did give a different perspective, but this came after two long sessions that were pretty dull histories of Sony and Ninetendo’s histories in the AAA game industry.

Having spent nearly a decade working for broadcasters, I know that this isn’t the way to get a bunch of creative people excited about your sector. How much more interesting it could have been if there were more creative talent there – Ben from Zombie Cow, Darren from Littleloud, or Phil from Preloaded – to explain how their creative process works. Making a TV programme and making a game share a lot of common skills, from great writing to stunning visual production and a keen understanding of your audience. The session at the TV Festival would have been a lot more valuable for everyone involved if it had focused on these issues, rather than a history of the games industry.

I was particularly frustrated, as I’ve spent the last few years (together with Alice Taylor) trying to get broadcasters to understand that games are valuable ways of delivering public value projects, not just parasitical, licensed projects feeding off a linear TV programme’s  brand equity. The common ground between TV and Gaming isn’t licenses and IP – it is talent, stories and audiences. Its a pity that the panel in Edinburgh didn’t illustrate this.

Ed Catmull on Creativity at Pixar

This is pretty much everything I could ever say about the industry I work in, but said more effectively than I could ever say it:

“If I look at the range, you’ve got one [constraint] that is art school, I’m doing this for arts sake, Ratatouille and WALL-E clearly fall more on that side,  the other is the purely commercial side, where you’ve got a lot of films that are made purely for following a trend, if you go entirely for the art side then eventually you fail economically. if you go purely commercially then I think you fail from a soul point of view… we’ve got these elements pulling on both sides, the art side and the commercial side… and the the trick is not to let one side win.  That fundamentally successful companies are unstable. And where we have to operate is in that unstable place. And the forces of conservatism which are very strong and they want to go to a safe place. I want to go to the same place for money, I want to go and be wild and creative, or I want to have enough time for this, and each one of those guys are pulling, and if any one of them wins, we lose. And i just want to stay right there in the middle.”

Ed Catmull, founder of Pixar.
From Scott Berkun’s Blog

There’s a reason Pixar is the most admired and consistently brilliant creative company in the world right now. Its because Ed Catmull runs it.

5 things I’m thinking about

Following Alice and Dan, here’s my contribution to the ‘blog 5 things you’re thinking about’ meme:

1- Attention Patterns
I’ve been getting very obsessed with the patterns of attention around content and stories lately. For example, the huge spikes of synchronous attention we see around live events like Reality TV, breaking news stories or sporting events; or the binge-like, asynchronous patterns of attention around cult drama, as people time-shift their viewing with PVRs, VOD or box-sets. Then there’s the katamari-damacy style rolling balls of attention that mobile apps and social games get- huge, distributed balls of attention made up from tiny slivers of our lives. Are these patterns maturing now? Can we design projects based on these models, or are these patterns still unstable? I’m *way* more interested in attention patterns than I am in any particular platform or device.

2 – The Next 30%
There’s a big push in developed economies to get everyone online, as the first two waves (early adopting geeks, and people who use online tools in the workplace) are already well served. I’m interested to see what needs and uses of the internet will emerge over the next few years as new users come online. Will apps and gestural interfaces become more used than open web browsers? Will Facebook become the default experience of the Internet for most people? Will mobile be the most common route to access information networks? Or the set-top box? Or will new brands (ie Tesco) reposition themselves as gateways to information goods as well as ‘real world’ services?

3 – Recession Culture
I was in Art School in Glasgow from 90-94, during the last serious recession. It was an amazing moment of cultural invention, with musicians developing the strands of late-80s grunge, hip-hop and rave culture; indie film in rude health in the US and UK; and artists becoming entrepreneurs and putting on shows in derelict warehouses all over the UK. All this was driven by a DIY ethic that was the only real response to huge public spending cuts and poor employment opportunities. The current university-age generation are facing the same issues, and I’m perversely optimistic that we’ll see similar strange cultural shoots emerging, well outside of the reality-show-driven culture that has dominated the last 10 years. It may sound impossible now to imagine anything breaking through the hegemony of X-Factor and BGT, but I’m calling Peak Cowell around about* now*, and believe the influence of these global culture engines will slowly diminish. We need a few new culture-amplification engines to kickstart (see what I did there?) some of these new shoots, and a few new leaders in the shape of 90s pioneers like Damien Hirst, James Lavelle, Warp records, Richard Linklater and others, but I can see it happening already. And we didn’t even have the transformational power of the web back then, so this should be *really* interesting…

4 – The Underground Olympics
Related to the point above- if you want to reset the cultural barometer, you need something that is even bigger than Cowell to flick the switch. The Olympics is just such an event, and is important not just for it’s huge umbrella of activity and attention, but for the mutant strains that will emerge in its shadow. The art scene around the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow that produced Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley, Christine Borland and many others got its initial kick in opposition to the 1990 Glasgow Year of Culture, so I expect to see similar ground-level initiatives kicking against the 2012 Olympics. If the LOCOG team are smart, they’ll encourage it to happen. If they’re *really* smart, they’ll deliberately provoke it.

5 – Games Getting Boring
By this, I don’t mean games actually getting boring themselves, I mean the hype passing, and everybody finally getting used to the fact that games are a complex, successful and mature part of contemporary media culture. We’re at the top of the hype cycle at the moment, because some people are amazed that *shock!* just about everyone plays games, *shock!* some of them make a hell of a lot of money, and *shock!* they don’t have to involve sitting alone in a room pretending to shoot things. So I’m looking forward to the moment when the investors move on, some people lose a hell of a lot of money, and the mainstream press starts writing snarky “so what was all *that* about then?” post-hype articles. Because I remember the first dotcom crash, and it was just after that when things got really interesting, and the seeds of the current social web were born. Imagine that moment, but with *games*. I’m getting excited just thinking about it…

Hmmm. These have all ended up being a bit more big and wooly than I expected. But I think that’s because I sense the conditions are right for some interesting new trends, and I’m trying to see beyond the big changes in politics, culture etc that are currently right in front of our eyes. It’s more fun to try and look in the cracks, shadows and edges, even if you end up being wrong.

More thoughts on Six Spaces and transgression

A couple of years ago, when I started working at Channel 4, I came up with a model for thinking about social spaces online that focused on how users felt about being online, rather than the technical capacities of the platforms themselves. I did it so that people pitching to us would think about users rather than tech, but the model has stuck in my thinking, and seems more and more relevant today.

This is partly down to something that I thought about at the time, but didn’t write about. In the original post, I tried to describe a crude taxonomy of spaces in which users have relatively consistent expectations about what happened to the information they share, and relatively consistent behaviours that they expected from other actors (both real and technological) when they occupied that space. For example, if a space feels like its shared only by a group, users will share their information accordingly, and expect others to share their assumptions.

What I didn’t really talk about at the time was transgression – when a platform doesn’t meet the expectations of its users, or when other users move information from one context to another without permission. For example, Matt Mckeown’s infographic showing Facebook’s shifting privacy policy is a great example of platform transgression – a technology shifting information from one register to another without clearly signposting this transgression to the user.

Likewise, user transgression is when someone shifts someone elses information from one register to in a way that wasn’t expected. A common illustration of this is newspapers taking photographs from Flickr without respecting the copyright limitations that users had put in place when uploading the photo. Loaded magazine was recently cleared of breach of privacy by the PCC following a complaint from a woman who uploaded a picture of herself to Bebo in 2006. Over the next few years her picture was circulated widely on forums, and she became an internet meme as the ‘Epic Boobs’ girl. When Loaded magazine called for their readers to help track her down, she claimed the article had caused her considerable upset. But the PCC claimed that as the picture was so widely distributed online already (appearing in the top 3 Google searches for ‘boobs’) the Loaded article could not be considered to infringe her privacy, although it would have been a different case if they had taken it directly from her Bebo profile in 2006. It was the gradual disemmination of her image between groups of users online that made it ‘public’ – not her original act, which she probably imagined to be for a group that she controlled, but groups who could access and share her image without her knowledge or control.

What is remarkable about the Epic Boobs and Facebook transgressions is that they are gradual and hard for the person involved to track. In an analogue media world, the transgression between registers is sharp and obvious – a newspaper would have had to contact you to get a copy of a photo for them to use, and your personal photographs couldn’t become a global property without you knowing about it. We now live in an age where transgression is insidious and invisible, where users can’t understand the potential risks of sharing until it’s caused them significant pain.

Understanding trangression is going to be *the* most important thing for business and users working online in the next few years. Users will need to interrogate the services they use for potential transgressions of their information across contexts (as with Facebook’s gradual publicising of user data); platform creators will have to be more explicit to users about how information transgresses different contexts, and make these transgreses more tangible to the user (simply ticking check boxes is not enough – these transgressions need to have grain and weight built into the interaction); and large organisations will need to understand the implicit and assumed contexts of the spaces they are using to connect to their users, and how to ask permission when they take contributions or data from one context to another.

We’ve been through nearly a decade of excitement about creating and scaling these new social spaces online. We now need to focus very clearly on how information moves between them, as these transgressions are not simply about data and networks. The boundaries that users understand implicitly are defined by emotions, not software, and we need to bear this in mind when we cross them.

Story – the conference

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.


Commissioning for Attention Part 3 – Keeping Attention

[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…

Commissioning for Attention Part 2 – Getting Attention

[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]

Matt Webb, the dashing internet guru who is half of boutique design duo Schulze and Webb, has pithily described the challenge facing anyone creating content or services online:

“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.