In conversation with... Andrew Dubber and Gary Day-Ellison

In conversation with... Andrew Dubber and Gary Day-Ellison

The changing nature of how content is created, consumed, and distributed has clear implications in terms of the perception of media. One such example is cover art, where the continuing change in buying patterns from tactile forms to digital work may have led to a change in the way in which consumers perceive and understand the importance of a visual identity in books and music.

In conversation are Andrew Dubber and Gary Day-Ellison, with strong pedigrees in music and books, respectively. We start with discussing cover art, and move on from there.

Do we still have cover art? Is there still such a thing? Do digital consumers care about packaging? GDE: It's all packaged, one way or another. Whether you have a physical package, where the manufacturing is the defining limitation. As soon as you put type together with images, it's packaged... otherwise, you wouldn't know about it, other than on a typed list. AD: The idea of cover art in music has a strong, 100-year history of being at least a reason for a cover: you have vinyl, shellac, or a CD. A lot of that has carried over into digital. Something feels like it's not finished if it's in your iTunes collection, without an image. People with music in their iTunes without cover art, often go so far as to scan cover art from a CD to make sure that the whole thing looks nice. GDE: If I don't like the cover art, I take it out and put in a picture that I do like instead. AD: There's a great opportunity to do that with online music. You don't have to stick with the cover art. There are some really interesting things going on regarding cover art as far as music production goes; there are lots of experiments at the moment, because because people find it problematic. There are people doing things like: “Here are some ingredients, build your own cover.” There are a lot of independent acts doing that. “These are the elements of visual style that represent us”. Download it and engage with the process of making cover art.People misunderstand music consumption. They think of it as being discovery, purchase and listening. What people do with music is a lot more than that. They like to collect it, organise it, talk about it, and lots of other things. There is an element of visual representation to that. I'm a vinyl collector, but I also have an MP3 player. The MP3s are for having on, and the vinyl is for listening to. It causes me distress when there's something in my iTunes library that doesn't have cover art. GDE: It's easy to put something in yourself, and I quite like that. We all used to make compilation tapes for friends; I would put my own cover art in there, from the Sunday supplements. I think that still goes on. That's about engagement. I'm all for it. You feel part of it. It's a sense of feeling involved, and people like that. AD: There's a record label in Birmingham, called Brave or Invincible. They produced a compilation cassette, that you can only buy online; they chose ten artists that they like, and each artist produced ten covers. Only a hundred of these cassettes were available. So, you had a one-off, handmade, album, produced by the artist.Cover art is not just pictures. Where things start to fall apart in the digital environment is in liner notes. They are a really important part of the experience of listening to recordings, particularly for someone like me that buys jazz vinyl. You're reading an essay while listening to the music.I'm really interested in things that aren't currently available for sale: not just from a point of view of personal consumption, but from the fact that these things are disappearing. 95% of all of the recordings issued by the major record labels, are currently not available in any form. Unless you can find a second-hand copy, or there's a revival which makes it viable for the record labels to re-press, these recordings are sitting in vaults, on magnetic tape, decaying. So, 95% of all cover art that we are ever likely to see, is inaccessible. GDE: The exclusivity is also part of it. I used to buy a lot of reggae from Desmond's in Brixton Market. It was about the size of a phone box, and two people would take turns to go in. They had ex-turntable 45rpm singles; where you could press out the middle to make the record fit onto a jukebox. A lot of these records were coming in from Jamaica as white-label, and the guy playing them would put a fat black felt-tip on the name of the artist. The point is that you could only hear it from that guy's turntable in that shop. You couldn't find out what it was. With many of these records, rather than the middle bit for the jukebox being taken out, the middle was literally drilled out, so it would only fit one master turntable. There is a balance between people wanting a past engagement and attachment.Psychologically, you love hearing bands for the first time. How many times have we heard that a band's first album captured their real essence? It's to do with holding onto something, which is about participation. AD: There's another thread to this. Some people are doing cover art as a way of creating authenticity. Brian Eno is releasing a hand-printed, box set that the fans can buy. It's making something out of the ownership of an artwork, that goes beyond the mere buying of music. To engage with something tactile that smells nice, creates scarcity out of having something which is valuable to sell. One of the things which is interesting to me about that, is the bit which decays. The bit which isn't easily shareable, is the bit which is expensive. GDE: You also have a conflict between originality of the packaging, and how rackable it is, for stores and distributors... AD: … and home collectors. There's nothing worse. GDE: Yes; companies put the product into different boxes, tins and so on; mutating the form, trying to replace the ghastly jewel box. It suggests that there's an opportunity here to become more imaginative with packaging, because we can now do great things, based on a wider experience. AD: There is that, but there's something else to it. Box sets, strangely-shaped packages and so on, are interesting occasionally, but as a standard practice, would piss everybody off, because there's no easy way to store it. What makes CD and record collections work, is that the packaging is all the same size, and they sit nicely next to each other. GDE: They [original packages] work only as exceptions. If every programme was like Twin Peaks, watching Twin Peaks wouldn't be half as much fun. AD: Absolutely. How do you then bring that uniqueness and scarcity into less engaged audiences? AD: There's one simple answer: be interesting. GDE: Given that I work with books, this is about identity. If you go back to source, and to the creative juices of the writer or the musician, and let the ideas flow from that, you will see the constraints in print, packaging, and digital. How do you design a book cover? If you sit down with someone that has never designed one before, the first thing that they will draw is a fucking rectangle. The first thing that you will do is put a fence up.The same applies with CDs; draw something that is off from the square. Go right back to what the band's about, or the piece of writing is about. Work from that, and reach limitations as they turn up. It's going to be an ongoing transition. AD: I like the idea of a rectangle, or a square – simply because you are conforming to a convention. You are conforming to a convention because it works. I don't want circular or triangular books. I have a bookshelf that works in a particular way. I don't mind different sizes, but if you are going to change the shape of the item itself, it's the wrong creative approach. There are all sorts of other aesthetic and tactile ways to make things interesting, apart from drawing a rectangle. Give me a rectangle, then make the rectangle's contents interesting. GDE: It's not about the limitations of the shape, it's thinking about formats in the broadest sense. You mentioned the liner notes; it has been possible to read lyrics for sometime, in Spotlight on a Mac. AD: Liner notes in digital music are problematic, because people have thought more about form than content. I wrote a blog post about this, three years ago, called On Liner Notes. The way in which it is presented is not interesting. Liner notes are not a method of delivery, but a type of content. I was suggesting doing a format-list presentation; XML data that anybody could write a methodology with, to present notes on the computer screen, or on your phone, or wherever. You could choose the presentation that you wanted, but the content was delivered not in a way by font or layout, but as straight XML data. You have innovation around how people choose to display it.That then doesn't create problems as was the case with the iTunes album format, which only works with iTunes. Are we seeing a change in how products are being delivered? Live performances, book signings, author and band Twitter and Facebook campaigns all change how artistic endeavours are planned. They start from someone making something, but now they are planned much more as campaigns across a range of media. GDE: The received wisdom is to tour to sell a product. That has changed. The concert is now much more in focus. Are we now missing out on content wrapped around the composition? Is there a decline in liner notes, because a place has not been set up for them? AD: The design works differently on the Internet. You see this with eBooks. I choose the font size, lines per page, and so on. With a book, if I was writing and publishing, I would be careful about the font that I chose, for example. The decision lies at different ends of the process. So what we're moving to is less of a threat and more of an opportunity, across a wider range of channels. GDE: The opportunity is fantastic. The most innovative thing that I have come across in terms of identity, was from Radiohead. It wasn't In Rainbows, but a concert where they combined footage of everyone's digital photographs and video, to be pulled together to make a concert. Radiohead contributed the music for free. I thought that was fabulous.  
  AD: There's some really interesting stuff going on. The Beastie Boys have been giving out cameras to shoot a movie. There are all sorts of new ways to do that. GDE: … and it's all about identity; the identity of the band. There's another aspect to this, where the artist wants to keep some control. When you see video awards on television, it's the artist, not the director, that collects the award. Some people want to control the minutiae of how they are presented. Susan Boyle is not going to let you make a nude collage of her. AD: But, it's not to do with what the artist wants. If you are signed to a major label, the creative control that you have is nearly nil. GDE: You need to go up and down the food chain to justify that. Madonna? U2? AD: You have, maybe, a handful of artists. Haven't these artists risen to such a level of prominence that they are able to exert a degree of control? GDE: That can also work in a libertarian way, which is why I admire Radiohead so much; that they continued to experiment after OK Computer. They made enough money to be able to do that; to experiment with In Rainbows and in their live performances. Bands starting up will not have this financial clout, or such a following, to be able to do it. AD: First of all, Thom Yorke would probably punch you in the face if you called him a libertarian. Secondly, the only reason that they had the creative freedom to do that, was because they were not signed to a major label. They have complete creative control. What makes them interesting - and problematic for major labels - is that it works. From the point of view of creative control, the only control that these people have is directly proportionate to the buying power that they have over their catalogue. Radiohead have complete control, post OK Computer. GDE: It's power, one way or another; people choose what to do with it. Some would choose the Thom Yorke route, others would simply redo the classics. Those choices are there, but in terms of the identity, there are now more opportunities for it. AD: There are opportunities there. If you take MySpace, then there are five million bands on there, and not all of them are Madonna or Radiohead. The most important thing that you can do right now, is to innovate. However, if you consider innovation as being the opposite of what people consider to be conventional, then you run into problems. GDE: But I don't think that. AD: What I am saying is that I want to make the point clear that I am in favour of convention, and I am in favour of innovations. Bandcamp is a good example; it allows people to publish music and artwork – but there's a convention to it. It uses a particular font, and the images are of a particular size. It gets over the MySpace problem of allowing people who shouldn't make design decisions, to make design decisions. The only control that [musicians] have, is directly proportionate to the buying power that they have over their catalogue. Andrew Dubber  AD: One of the problems of MySpace is that it is just so ugly. People have that option to put in background images which look awful, and so on. You have this set of conventions within which you can innovate, and that's where things start to get interesting. “Here are the parameters; knock yourself out.” GDE: You learn that as a toddler. From the minute you are told not to go up the stairs, the most interesting thing in the world is going up the stairs. Are we in the age of “mass amateurisation”? Are we seeing a greater degree of potential here for innovation, or just seeing the same old conventions coming through? Bands congregate on MySpace, but is the real innovation happening somewhere else? GDE: I have some friends in a band called Le Chat Noir, and they don't bother with MySpace any more. There are just too many bands there. AD: I don't think that is the problem with MySpace, but I also recommend that people don't use MySpace for other reasons, such as the fact that you have no control over what is advertised on your page. I don't think that there are a lot of people in one conventional online space, is evidence of a lack of innovation online.I don't completely go along with the idea of “mass amateurisation”, because “amateur” has an overtone of not being good enough to be professional. What I would go with, is “mass deprofessionalisation”. You don't have to belong to a guild, or pass exams, to be able to make music. There used to be a world of signed artists with access to an audience, with gatekeepers that either allowed you to participate, or prevented you from participating. There were massive barriers in terms of cost of production. There's now a completely smooth curve starting from doing it from nothing, and the artificial barriers no longer exist. GDE: So we should start the Master Guild of Preposterous Bloggers [!] AD: Quite the opposite! We should prevent people from being able to make those sorts of decisions. GDE: Make them wear mittens before they become designers. There are always limitations. There is software that you can't just sit down and start to use. There may be cheap versions or a Works package, but you're never going to have the ability to do what you can do with InDesign or Photoshop. AD: My point is that there is now nobody stopping you from messing around and trying. The best thing in the world is a 5-year-old can be a designer. A 5-year-old can record music and let other people hear it. You don't have these professional hurdles to get over, in order to be allowed to be able to do things which are creative. That's the greatest thing in the world.It applies to lots of other things: we have always been allowed to knit, or to cook, but the idea is exclusive to media - including books and music – that you have to be chosen in order to participate. The best thing in the world about the Internet, is that you no longer have to be chosen. You can just decide to do it. GDE: So we shouldn't have University lecturers, and have soapbox speakers instead? AD: Being allowed to do something doesn't prevent you from wanting to learn more about it. GDE: Absolutely – and it doesn't make it good, either. AD: No, the point is that it doesn't have to be. You can make crap music now, and let people hear it. You can do it for the fact that you simply like doing it, and somebody's value judgment doesn't have to come in and impinge on that. If you want to learn how to be an amazing violinist, you will want a violin teacher. Have we moved on from major record companies and publishers becoming heavily involved in rights management – protecting their existing intellectual property, and limiting consumers from what they want to do? Are we now moving towards a more open, engaging approach from artists and writers? GDE: Publishers' contracts now ensure that you sign away your digital rights, so they get a part of it. Is it a good thing? GDE: I don't think that creators are good at their own licensing generally. After a certain amount of success they can afford to engage that expertise. AD: In terms of record labels changing their approach to rights, the answer is no. They are exactly as controlling, and are keen to have as many rights as they can possibly get. The point is that you don't need them any more, and you can do all the things that you want to do with your music without needing a record label.If you're going to sign with a record label, you go on the understanding that they are unreconstructed and will take whatever rights they will get. Now, you can have whatever control over your rights as you want. The tradeoff is that if fame is what you are after, then a record label is your best shot at that, but it's still a lottery. If you want a sustainable career, and creative control, and you want to own your rights, then signing with a record label is about the stupidest thing that you can do. Do you think that designers are increasingly less interested in working with artists, because they see a decreasing value in what they do, in relation to the work? AD: I think that the most interesting designers are more and more interested in the possibilities of what's available. There are so many opportunities to do cool things with video, with physical packaging, and with digital content that incorporates the music, style, and image. I have yet to meet a designer who feels that these things take away from what they do. If nothing else, it's an opportunity to find new ways to design, and to find a new aesthetic practice. So, the call to arms to designers, is to be part of this, and re-invigorate their creativity. It's not to think about the rectangle any more, it's to openly think, “What can we do with this?” AD: It's addressing the media on its own terms. I'm not saying that all designers must make websites, because they are packaging designers, or product designers, or whatever. There is a category of designer who will look at a design challenge and think “What are the parameters here? What can I bring to it as a designer?” If all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. If you consider the right tool first, then you will come up with some interesting answers. GDE: Being a designer is a reactive activity, otherwise I would paint. The joy is working with, reacting to, and sparking off, great writers, musicians, illustrators and photographers. I really enjoy that. AD: Should all the designers “get on the bus” of the Internet? No, absolutely not. If you're not comfortable in that environment, then leave it alone. What it means is that there is more space, platforms and opportunities for creativity to take place. What we get is not a situation where designers have to move from one environment to another, but there's more designer. GDE: I won't call it design... it's visual communication. If it's visual, it's design. AD: You could even question the visuality of it. I spent my time as a sound designer, and that's a different thing from being a musician. I'm not a musician, and wouldn't want to label myself as one. GDE: You make it easier to free design from the constraints of a print tradition, by just going back to calling it visual communication. AD: Happy with that. Being a designer is a reactive activity, otherwise, I would paint. Gary Day-Ellison  Are we now moving towards a more integrated approach: where works are cross-media, with an originating intellectual item and a campaign around it? Should we be moving much more towards much more of a “planned” multimedia experience? GDE: There is certainly a convergence. In front me is a copy of the last music piece which I worked on: the music from the the Lord of the Rings. I was lucky enough to speak to the composer, Howard Shore, last week, and he was amazed at how quickly at his scores were appearing on the Internet, before they were recorded. It's 400 pages of pre-production sketches, stills, text, a CD with liner notes. I would love to see it as an ebook. AD: We seem to be talking about commercial products, and within a particular genre. So, there are things that you do in the world of jazz, that you won't do in heavy metal. There are sorts of packages that just won't work and won't communicate in one context, where they will in another. You then drill down, and then you get the differences between the individual works themselves. GDE: You do that by going back to the identity... the character of the music, the character of the author. AD: Precisely. So, the most sensible answer to the question is, “It depends”. What a designer can bring, is an understanding of what the cultural meanings are of the thing that's being communicated; and for people to whom it's being communicated, what their expectations and what their uses of it are. So, I think that all of those things are really important. We are not all “moving towards this”, as that would be absurd. What we can do is say that there are opportunities to work in a creative way, in an understanding of cultures, communication and meanings. The palette is broader. GDE: Authors can have exactly that sort of participation. They can set up a blog, and build up a community that is constantly throwing in new ideas in terms of what the community wants from the book. Some of that feedback can be integrated into the final book, which is great. So, one of the opportunities that we are now starting to see is an increasing degree of participation, in every stage of the artistic work. AD: There's one more point. These conversations always take place from the point of view of a producer, a consumer, and a medium through which the producer communicates to the consumer. The point that we made about amateurisation... I would like to think of it as participation. It's the point that I made earlier. There are no barriers to getting involved, and also it restructures the whole producer/consumer dynamic. There are not just broadcasters and listeners any more. The Internet is a many-to-many communication medium. It's a conversational medium. It's not about a centralised creator of meaning that sends out to passive consumers. The point of what the consumers do with things now, is that they can take, make, shape, re-interpret and re-spread, the cultural meanings that take place. Whether it's through remix, or putting soundtracks to home videos... whatever it might be. This idea of designing products and then selling them to an undifferentiated mass, is completely problematised by the Internet. GDE: Again, we go back to the problem of generalisations. There is a pretty large problem with the majority, that will want to buy the work as a fait accompli. They will not want a different “sauce with the meal”. They want to buy it, take it away, listen to it, or read it. There are different constraints for different people. AD: The parallel that I use, is that prior to recordings, people used to go to a shop, buy some music, take it home, and then play it badly on their pianos in the parlour. It wasn't a read-only culture; it was a read-write culture. Lawrence Lessig makes some really good points about this. The way in which he frames it, is that we are now returning to a place where we have the opportunity to engage in cultural production, as a read-write engagement, rather than just read-only.That opportunity makes things interesting, even from the view of product design. It can be intended for lots of consumers, but you could say, “How can we let consumers who want to do other things, do it?” 95% of recorded music is unavailable. We have books out of print. There is a huge quantity of artistic work that is not currently available. Given the potential in digital, do we now have the possibility of re-appropriating these works? They are not just about releasing them, but giving people who want to re-engage, the chance to rediscover and re-appropriate in their own way. AD: But copyright's broken, so it prevents them from doing that. I'm writing a book called Deleting Music, and keeping a blog of all the examples of this. There's no commercial imperative for record labels to put them out there – they're not going to lose their rights if they don't use them commercially. If it's going to cost money to digitise, they just leave it alone – but it's a massive loss to cultural history.If copyright law was changed so that works which were not being used commercially were made available to the public domain, then you would have the best open source project imaginable. You would have lawyers, audio enthusiasts, and fans, descending upon the archives of record labels, opening them up, digitising them because it's important rather than merely profitable, and making copies available – because copies are how you keep things safe nowadays. Locking things away in a vault, is the sure-fire way of ensuring that they disappear. Digitising it and spreading it around, means that whatever happens, there are always copies out there. GDE: I'd like to throw in something which is important. I'm open-minded to all the different forms and media; I see them as opportunities rather than threats. What I don't think is the case, is that when everything is available to everybody, it's necessarily going to be good. That removes the judgement calls of making things better; making standards higher.Everybody can do it, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be any good. Who the gatekeepers are, is a whole different concepts. Giving someone the keys to Sainsbury's and asking them to come out with what they like, is not going to make them a great chef. AD: No, but having an arbiter of taste that says “These are the recipes that we think are what you should use” prevents people from receiving hand-me-down recipes from their grandmother, or anybody else that they trust.I don't listen to bad music. I haven't listened to bad music for at least five years. The only reason why I haven't listened to bad music, is because I take recommendations – not from the press, but from trusted sources; friends, blogs... GDE: … but that means that the arbiters have changed. It doesn't mean that there are no arbiters. AD: But, I get to choose who the arbiters are. GDE: The possibilities of the media, as they evolve, is not the same as everyone being able to do everything. That in itself is a good thing. You still have arbiters, but you can choose who they are. AD: Obviously there are still arbiters of taste that you go to, to find out if something is any good, worth listening to, and what else they recommend. The gatekeepers – the appointed tastemakers – are collapsing, to an extent. Obviously, this is not happening completely. You still have newspapers, radio and television, but the point is that you no longer rely on what is told to you; you build your own filters.I think that people do this intuitively. You trust your friends, and when they say, “I think that you should check this out”, you check it out.That ability to accelerate that kind of recommendation and word of mouth is through things like Twitter. You follow people that you find interesting, and you don't follow people that you don't find interesting. GDE: On a basic level, it has other implications. Gone are the times when you would pick up a paperback and look at three sections of reviews chosen by the editor. You can go online and find out all sorts of opinions, if you want to; if the technology is in your hand, you can do it in the bookstore.    AD: If we frame the whole conversation around cover art, we need to consider what it's the cover of, and what the word “cover” means in context. GDE: In the context of books, if you are talking about packaging and the hard-nosed commercial end of it, you are talking about rooms at WH Smith, where people behind closed doors, with no other representation, are looking at front covers, and are giving it a scale-out. “This is how we grade it, and this is the stock volume in-branch.” You do have the fact that you are fighting for face-out display. Most books disappear in some form of spine-out display. The consumer already knows that they want that product, and are searching it out, or its ilk, before they go in.The sharp end is in getting face-out and window displays, rather than spine-out. The same goes with records, and with websites: people can't all be on the homepage. They will be judged and prioritised, where there is more than one of the same product: whether on iTunes or at Waterstones. AD: I wrote an ebook about three years ago, that people could download from my website. It wasn't available for sale; it was free. Everybody that saw it, got it. There was no promotional reason to have cover art, and yet the book that I made had a cover. I don't know why it had a cover, but also why it didn't have a spine. I know of lots of people that make music or text for the Internet, and they will always produce a front and back cover. They will never add a spine.There is something weird in the way in which we think about what packaging is, and what cover art is for, when it comes to something like a book, or a record. GDE: When I worked on Douglas Adams' books, the face-out idea was to start with one book, and build into a trilogy. When he decided to write the fourth book, we had pressure at the publisher from Douglas and his agent, who wanted to see face-outs in display bins in Smiths. At the time, Smiths had a policy of no display bins for reissues. We had three books which were re-issues, NENCs – New Edition New Cover – and one new book. We had to come up with something interesting enough for Smiths to break their own house rule. We considered covers which built up across the four books to one image, but we also considered spines. If you put the spines together of those four paperbacks in order, it spells out “42” in Lucia Colour Test colours, which means that if you're colour-blind, you've got no chance. AD: Thanks for that Gary...! GDE: Oh, right! [laughter] But, any good designer will consider the spine, and the reason for this consideration is that these are three-dimensional products. If you don't consider the spine, you're not a book cover designer, you're a front cover designer. These things are all geared to ease you slowly towards the till. AD: The kind of creativity that looks at the book as a thing in itself, and not just a picture that gets slapped on the front of it... what kind of thinking a does designer like that bring to the Internet?What is this artifact when it's on the Internet? Andrew Dubber is an Arts and Humanities Research Council Knowledge Transfer Fellow in Music Industries Innovation, a founder member of the Interactive Cultures Research Centre and a Senior Lecturer in the Music Industries at the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University. Andrew blogs at andrewdubber.com, and is @dubber on Twitter. Formerly Creative Director of Pan Books, Picador Books and Decca Records, Gary Day-Ellison is currently Art Director of Like Minds Magazine and developing book and web projects including Great Women, with Sandi Toksvig & Sandy Nightingale; The Golden Age of Illustration; and the 100 Books of David Larkin. Gary's website and blog are at day-ellison.com, and is @garydayellison on Twitter.  

Don Boyd: the opportunities of digital creativity

Don Boyd: the opportunities of digital creativity

It was Damien Hirst who said that art is good at looking back and looking forward. How art, and the very principles of creativity, expression and appreciation, manifests itself in a society increasingly driven by science and technology, remains an area of intense interest and debate.

When there is now content everywhere we go, and people can publish anything to anywhere, what room is left for artistic appreciation?

The relationship between these technological influences and artistic expression is something that interests Don Boyd. The catalogue of Boyd's films, where he has been either producer or director, is certainly one which commands a high level of artistic appreciation. Working with pioneers such as Derek Jarman, Alan Clarke, Lindsay Anderson and Julien Temple, this astonishingly creative and diverse career has spanned more than three decades.

The increased technological capability over this period has certainly wowed mainstream audiences, with this relentless advance now pushing 3D back into the mass market for cinema. However, he disagrees that digital is creating a stylistic shift, from naturalism to realism, within film. The view is given that digital has clearly offered stylistic and creative opportunities. Realism can be set up to be naturalistic.

“The artist in this sense is empowered either way. But of course, uninformed structuralist analysis can cause confusion. And the public can be duped very easily - especially during this early phase of revolutionary changes in capturing and delivery of digital media.

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Alistair Crane: apps for living

Alistair Crane: apps for living
The growth of mobile continues to be something to watch. Your handset is likely to be a very different one from that of 10 years ago, with an easy-to-use app store, a rich browsing experience, and a much greater capability for media storage. While all of these facets provide the potential for innovation and the growth of a relatively new market, there is still considerable friction and turbulence within it, particularly in the way in which applications are developed and offered. Alistair Crane, CEO of app developer Grapple Mobile, believes that the while the market for apps continues to grow, we are moving into a period which is different to what we have seen in recent years. Where growth was driven by the iPhone, new platforms and the re-emergence of well-known competitors will deliver a more open market. Crane believes that the while Apple has undertaken a heroic job in building the awareness, findability and richness of applications, this status quo is to experience many different types of threats. The first is that both new and existing players in the market will become much stronger.  While Nokia has stumbled, its scale in terms of handset ownership continues to make it an important player. So many people own Nokia handsets, that it needs to become a dominant player in apps. Crane cites the openness of Ovi's approach as something which can help both developers and end customers. “5 years ago, if I said that Nokia would not be number 1 in any market in 2010, no-one would have believed me. They didn't listen to what people wanted, and continued to pump out the same kind of interfaces and hardware. People got tired of it, and had nowhere to go until Apple turned up. They're now rethinking their position, so I will expect to see more and more challengers, trying to take a chunk of Apple's share.” Unlike iTunes, Ovi is not the sole distribution channel for the handset. Grapple uses cloud hosting for its apps, delivering simple URL connectivity with platform sniffing. This means that a single URL can be given in campaigns, with your browser automatically being directed to the right place to download the app. In Ovi's case, you are taken straight to the app, without having to launch an intermediary store first. This flexible approach is very different to what we have seen in recent years, which is a rush to offer app stores in an effort to copy the iTunes model, rather than to offer something genuinely compelling. Crane sees the prevalence of app stores as the process in reverse: “You can end up with more than app store on your phone, which is nuts. You can get the Ovi app store, the Orange app store, the O2 app store... everyone wants to get a piece of this real estate, but they are not doing it with the consumer's interests at heart.“The app stores right now are just ghastly to navigate through. It's wonderful that Apple keep on releasing figures about how many apps are in their store, but there's no really intelligent way of searching through them. App downloading is hit-and-miss, which is why there's so much of an onus on Top 25 or Recommended lists. I would like to see more power going back to the people that build the bloody things, and allowing people to market apps freely and distribute them wherever they want, with success being based on that. That surely makes the best sense." Crane credits Apple's phenomenal achievements in driving adoption, albeit at the expense of an open approach. Until a fundamentally better experience is offered, it will remain top of the pile, although it is clear that many competitors are hungry to eat into its market share. The view is that over the next 3 to 5 years, there will be 5 broadly equal chunks of market share owned by different players, catering for different tastes. The next phase after the land-grab of proprietary app stores, in Crane's view, will be a small number of very good multi-device marketplaces. One way to deliver such an offering will be to lead consumers through “mission-critical” apps, where it becomes important for handset manufacturers to offer a small number of key applications that their customers will want. RIM, for example, offered neither an app store or BBM pre-installed onto earlier Blackberry handsets. For consumers to use BBM, they had to download the app store first. While somewhat unwieldy, it then offered a conduit to apps that would otherwise have been undiscovered, simply through the “Trojan Horse” of a critical application. The app stores right now are just ghastly to navigate through.  Alistair Crane  While many apps provide significant entertainment value, massive potential remains in the development of more functional, transactional applications that both answer the more direct needs of specific customers and audiences, while generating transactional revenue. “Years ago, if you had told me that you had booked a plane ticket to Australia through the Internet, I would have thought that you were nuts – are you sure that you are not going to get ripped off?“But, it's not dissimilar to mobile right now. If you had told me that you had bought a plane ticket in an app, I would be inclined to say that you had probably lost your money. But more and more apps and interfaces are going that way. M&S recently reported that as well as groceries, consumers were buying items such as sofas through their mobile website.” The example of buying a sofa illustrates the simple, more environmentally-aware use case that the market is increasingly addressing: a real-world interaction, to which the end result is driven through mobile. Grapple's recent work with Blockbuster and T-Mobile delivered an app to which customers were enticed to visit their local store. When inside the store, they could scan DVD barcodes with their phones, through the app. Discount vouchers and content was then provided automatically, based on these scans. The result is that the consumer is given exclusivity of an offer based on their scans, and the retailer gains customer insight and a greater understanding of how to market to customers based on their scan and purchase history. While these developments take place out-of-home, it is inside the home that apps can take advantage of an untapped market. “It's always been beyond me that people get so excited about the iPad. People say that they don't have to carry their laptop around anymore, when in fact they haven't had to carry a laptop around for ages. People will come to expect connectivity, and will use their mobiles much more than their computers, including when they are in the home.” The domestic environment lends itself to a specific number of uses, which are probably less than those in diverse retail environments. Internet access as a “small-screen tablet” may be one; another is home gaming. Console manufacturers are starting to pair consoles with mobiles; games are increasingly sending dummy text and voicemails as the start of what will be a longer, deeper level of integration. “It's all about extending experiences. Can I continue watching the TV show, listening to music, or gaming? Mobile will extend all of those.” For apps to continue this advance into more domestic environments, a greater awareness of consumer behaviour will be critical. Similar to the evolution of app stores, will be an evolution of user understanding, away from a more subjective, judgmental belief of who uses particular types of applications and handsets. “The man or woman who created this application: were they thinking about testing in the build process, or were they thinking about it being genuinely useful to the end consumer? Apps are often over-engineered, just to prove that the technology is there, and that it can be done, rather than how they can make life easier for the consumer.My whole raison d'etre is to create applications which drive business and drive use: they have to be of relevance and benefit. It can't just be about something cool which happens when you turn your phone upside down. That to me doesn't stand of a good example of when you build an app. How can you bring additional value to people's lives through mobile? Apps happen to be the richest way of doing that right now.” Crane believes that it's important to develop apps with target customers in mind. It is perhaps surprising that the concept of pre-testing, which has so (rightly) permeated the development of large-scale B2C websites, has not sufficiently trickled down into the UX of applications. The point is made that Apple's model doesn't necessarily lend itself to such a concept, due to its closed distribution method. The shift to a greater emphasis on customer pre-testing in itself will drive Apple to adopt a different methodology, as it is not as easy to test iOS apps with pre-test groups. As mobile matures into a more open market, it is important to get the basics right, irrespective of the platform. Many have learned this the hard way in web development; it is important that the same issues of audience assumptions, closed development, and proprietary technologies are understood at a sufficiently early stage to build a more sustainable and open market for everyone. 

 

Alistair is CEO of Grapple Mobile. Alistair and CTO Ed Lea will be holding an immersive workshop on “How to make the killer app” at Like Minds on Thursday 28 October. For further information and to book, visit the Like Minds website. 

Mediengruppe Bitnik: challenging media

Mediengruppe Bitnik: challenging media

What is the role of media within society? How can digital technology and media challenge how we view and operate within society, and how does society enable us to change our view of media?

Mediengruppe Bitnik is a Zurich-based new media collective, whose exhibitions and installations are shown worldwide. Their first major UK exhibition, Too big to fail, Too small to succeed, recently held at Space Studios in Hackney, is based on something which has affected everyone: the global financial crisis. The size and scale of the collapse affected both ends of the financial spectrum, toppling the biggest companies while tearing apart those most in need. Too big to fail, too small to succeed continues Mediengruppe Bitnik's practice of “intervention in systems”. The group aims to get an idea of how a particular system works within society, and how it functions once something is taken out of it. An earlier work involved the “bugging” of the Zurich Opera, and provides a useful example of how the group works. The opera is, of course, a closed space, based on an old art form: you have to be there personally in order to fully appreciate the performance. How can a more democratic use of media help to connect with it? The group's answer was to feed the captured audio into the Zurich telephone system. They would call random people, and invite them to listen for as long as they liked.  
  Thus, a re-appropriation of the performance was made: you didn't have to be at the opera, and were free to generate the imagery in your head, instead of what the audience directly experiences when being there. With this in mind, the group wanted to undertake a similar intervention. The financial crisis of recent years had driven their interest in this sector, with an idea being formed of “re-appropriation” of the financial districts in Zurich and London. The self-contained nature of such districts was of particular intrigue. Carmen Weisskopf from the group explains why. “We were using the old situationist system. With a psycho-geographical wandering through the city, could you re-appropriate these closed areas, and find out more about these centres than you would by not being there?” The installation uses audio clips of “followings”: volunteers following city workers around each financial district, recording the event as it happened. Each volunteer was free to take their own approach. Clips are played back, with particular observations replayed in vision on a bank of two screens, digitally synchronised with the audio track. One screen shows these “followings” in London, the other in Zurich. These highlights read like frantic status updates. The installation invites the viewer to examine and consider our interpretations of technology, advertising, and the meaning of openness within society.   If people think about their media uses, they may not feel constrained by them. Carmen Weisskopf, Mediengruppe Bitnik  Carmen sees some possibilities for digital media to contribute to more “disruption” in society, but a greater possibility simply in opening up devices and channels for re-interpretation and re-appropriation. “By suggesting uses which are not everyday or common, you can try to reinterpret what the device can do. With the opera, we could have retransmitted the feed to a radio station, but we tried to use the media in a very precise way. Calling people at home means that you can insert art into a space which is not there for art, not in that sense... it was similar in that the telephone just becomes a recording machine for subjective viewings.  “By listening to these recordings, people will be surprised at what you can see in the city, if you're just walking. The recordings have an intense quality, as they are done quickly.” Technology needs a certain setting to become something else. The mobile phone in Iran became something of a Utopian machine: a device operating within a given medium, that can become something much greater. “In certain parts of Africa, because people could not always afford mobile phone costs, they would have the phone but not top it up. They wouldn't use the phone to call each other, but have elaborate systems of how long you let the phone ring. In European society, we forget about small, creative ways of using something.” These “small, creative ways” are often prohibited by a top-down and locked-down view of what you can do with it, which is paradoxical with the view of technology as an enabler of personal freedom. “If people think about their media uses, they may not feel constrained by them. I don't think that there's a way from getting away from a certain level of media use. People need to decide for themselves, what ways are good for them, without having a company dictate to them.”  Issues surrounding the legalities of digital media use have certainly increased. Carmen gives the example of the Sony Aibo, with its community of people running “home-brew” programs on the firmware. This called into question the intended use, and the freedom of the customer to do what they wanted once the item was purchased. Carmen makes the point that it was ultimately futile to prohibit the use of the Aibo by the community: those enthusiasts that had a genuine interest in the machine's capabilities. The Aibo example, although almost ten years old, draws many parallels with the modus operandi of some contemporary tech companies, and their view of how communities should use their equipment. “With the iPhone, it's the same thing. People are making apps for the community, but it's becoming more professional. These issues are becoming more and more important.” Leading up to Too big to fail was Parasite's Delights, concerning participation in media. Carmen explains the thinking. “Parasite is a Greek word, meaning someone sharing your food with you. This questions our point of view of media, the way in which they can be used and way in which they stand in society as having a parasitic 'other side': the side you can plug into and use differently. What we've been trying to look into, is: who else is at the table? What else can it mean, in search for other representations?” The work is inspired by Professor Michael Serres, whose Parasite theory suggests that there is always noise in communication, and that noise itself is part of the communication. A contemporary example of this might be the signal-to-noise ratio inherent in Twitter streams, or Facebook status updates. Seeres thinks about how this noise can lead to other ways of listening or interpreting a certain message in a certain channel. Parasite is also a French word, meaning “white noise”, a double meaning which Carmen appreciates: there's always something additional in the “channel”. You can't get around it, and it's not part of the message. It's a different message. There are only certain messages you can have in certain media.”  “I do think that it is good to think about how we use these technologies. In our artistic practice, we are very interested in how else you can use a certain device. Can you just do with it, what you are told? Are there other uses?” These other uses will continue to intrigue the group for a long time to come, as digital media provides a rich seam of artistic challenges and engaging practice. Mediengruppe Bitnik's website is bitnik.org. 

Ivy4Evr: Interactive writing with SMS

Ivy4Evr: Interactive writing with SMS

Ivy4Evr is a new SMS-based interactive drama from Channel 4. It is created by interactive artist group Blast Theory, and written by Tony White. Here, Tony tells of his experiences of working on Ivy4Evr.

For the past year or so I’ve been working with internationally renowned and BAFTA-nominated artists Blast Theory on Ivy4Evr, an interactive text-messaging drama for young people commissioned by Matt Locke at Channel 4 Education. A pilot episode for up to 5,000 users, drawn from marketing across T4 runs for a week starting on 10 October 2010. You’ll need to register to take part.

 Ivy4Evr is commissioned by a major broadcaster, but the drama takes place entirely on the users’ mobile phone, enabling them to interact directly with Ivy via text messages (SMS) and substantially influence their experience of the story as they go along. I have followed Blast Theory’s work since the since the early 1990s. I visited them in Berlin in 1997 as they were conceptualising a new work which predicted the TV innovations of Big Brother by framing consensual incarceration and surveillance as a new kind of drama and celebrity. Since then they have led the way in using mobile technology and high-end, mixed-reality computing to create new kinds of dramatic and gaming experiences across both real and virtual worlds, sometimes simultaneously.Now we’re all having to think in this way. In recent years I have been actively exploring the possibilities offered by new forms of distribution, new contexts and new platforms such as ebooks. Since 2007 I have pursued this through collaborations with established but innovative institutions such as the Science Museum, London, where I was writer in residence and we revived their disused publishing imprint for a one-off, free giveaway of Albertopolis Disparu, a specially commissioned new work of fiction; and more recently by collaborating with James Bridle and his experimental Artists’ Ebooks site, where three short stories of mine are currently available as free downloads in the EPUB format and (as of last week) from iBooks, too. Like all writers (and publishers) I’m interested in anything that helps introduce my fiction to new readers in new ways. Colleagues at the Science Museum put it nicely, framing the Albertopolis Disparu give-away as a means to offer ‘a quality experience’ to thousands of visitors. For me it is also about demystifying those developments and getting a feel for them, and alongside that working in innovative ways to reach huge audiences almost instantly — whether through the vast footfalls of the Science Museum or the enormous reach and popularity of  T4, Channel 4?s 16-25 scheduling slot and website. Which is why it has been so exciting working with Blast Theory on a truly interactive piece of writing. For more than a decade they have been exploring not only interactivity but also mixed reality computing and the ways that fictional worlds can overlay the real world around us; creating dramatic potential where the two collide. Tapping into this unique collective knowledge as we’ve experimented with the kinds of stories that it might be possible to tell through an interactive SMS platform has been an incredibly rich experience. It has forced me to think differently about writing and about storytelling. At times I have joked that I feel more intelligent when I’m in the same room as Matt, Nick and Ju; as if by some intellectual osmosis or a variation on the Burroughsian ‘Third Mind’. Channel 4 Education have been behind some really interesting commissioning for young people since their strategic change from TV programmes ‘that went out in the mornings’ to new kinds of content; things like games, alongside some landmark programming such as Stephen Hawking’s Universe. There is an informative presentation about this strategy by Matt Locke, Acting Head of Cross Platform at Channel 4 here. It is great that Ivy4Evr is part of this move. I’m wondering if it is significant that this project has been created outside the book trade. In light of our work on Ivy4Evr it was interesting to follow the Twitter feed yesterday from The Bookseller Children’s Annual Conference at the British Library.  As you might expect there was a lot of tweeting about apps, and Matt Locke’s presentation about focusing on content rather than platform is reported in The Bookseller. With Ivy4Evr though, creatively as well as in terms of making the story accessible to as many young people as possible, it has been essential to forget about apps and ebooks for a while, and here’s why: Working on Ivy4Evr forced us to acknowledge the basic fact that most young people don’t have expensive smartphones. Maybe they will at some point, but not yet. Not the groups that Blast Theory surveyed and we ran workshops with. Their phones were rubbish old hand-me-downs and the kind that you can buy for a tenner in a bundle that includes a ten-pound top-up. But the phones they do have are always switched on. We also found out that they answer their phones in class and they (almost) never use cliched text speak (‘L8r’ etc).

Learning from this enabled us to push past current preoccupations with apps and ebooks for this age-group in favour of the familiar and more ubiquitous medium of text messaging. The really exciting thing about Ivy4Evr has come from combining SMS with some amazing new technology so that my script, with its endless permutations and possible pathways, is at the heart of a new kind of interactive and personalised storytelling; one that is created not just by what I have written but also by how participants respond. As it says in the blurb: For a week Ivy will tell you **everything** but can she trust you and what will you tell her?

Channel 4 is inviting people to take part in an exclusive preview of the pilot episode of Ivy4Evr, which runs for one week from the 10th to the 16th of October. Full information is available at www.ivy4evr.co.uk. 

TV: refusing to give up the fight

TV: refusing to give up the fight
The age of linear TV as a linear, mass experience is over. We are entering a new world, where it will be possible to explore content rather than channels, interacting with friends in real time, on-screen: in short, a total reinterpretation of what TV is, and means, to viewers.  Professor Patrick Barwise would disagree. Professor Barwise is Emeritus Professor of Management and Marketing at London Business School. His previous publications include books on television, brands, advertising and strategy, as well as numerous papers and articles on marketing, management and media. His view is that the time spent on linear television viewing has not dramatically changed in forty years, and is not likely to significantly change, any time soon. The average aggregate duration of linear viewing is around 28 hours per week. Thought leaders in digital and broadcast media have often suggested that this will decline as more social, malleable, and diverse forms of content across a wider range of devices start to make an impact. Barwise is strongly of the view that is fundamentally inaccurate. “One set of things they said was that media would converge, in that the distinctions between different media would go away. People like me come at it from a consumer perspective. To people like me, the differences between media are quite deep, because they meet different needs. Those needs are not going to go away. It is not a black and white distinction.  Supporting the evolution of the visual experience, is the evolution of how televisual content is delivered. Broadband, rather than over-the-air, helps to create an open market for content, ranging from expensive productions to UGC. However, Barwise sees asynchronous, non-linear viewing such as UGC as having a complimentary, not a competing, need for attention. This complimentary arrangement between live and on-demand TV is evident in the VCR, which turned out to be a marginal part of television viewing; even now, the PVR is still only used in around 15% of homes. “What is going most wrong now, is that large numbers of people, including the previous Government with Digital Britain, have a wildly exaggerated idea of the scale and speed of this transition away from linear television.”  People's willingness to view cheap television is very low. Professor Patrick Barwise

 

Viewing has also been historically skewed towards quality of content; it's human nature to appreciate quality productions. This is a real challenge for those making cheaper television, in meeting expectations of quality. “The audience is used to very high production value content, and therefore there is no such thing as good, cheap television, for anything like the 28 hours a week that people watch TV. People's willingness to view cheap television is very low.” Again, this creates something of a paradox for content providers, in terms of finding that sweet spot between value and volume. Value is much harder to crack.

Social and VOD

Barwise is also sceptical about the concept of social TV.

“It comes back to costs, but in general there isn't really a significant consumer benefit to putting it all on the same screen. Viewing has increased in the past few years, with almost all of it on the main set. [Social TV] is such a marginal application, and not something which has enormous resonance with consumers.” Such a transition from the current model is unlikely to happen anytime soon, claims Barwise, with data suggesting a rapid evolution being “invariably from biased sources, and bad data collected from atypical samples.” The point is made that “proper” data suggests that true Video on Demand is not sufficiently viewed in a way that threatens linear television. According to Barwise, this is due to deep reasons which are unlikely to change anytime soon. VOD vendors will be faced with a hard time extrapolating a sufficient level of revenue from their customer base. Revenue will be a challenge, simply due to what VOD is, according to Barwise: a rather superior replacement for video rental. If the price of renting a video is $1 US, then there will be little margin for bandwidth-hungry applications. VOD is therefore complimentary to standard TV viewing, as the PVR is. Overall, both VOD and the PVR act as useful ways to watch good content when “there's nothing on”. While future VOD revenue will be a challenge, some existing business models need to be preserved: specifically, that of the BBC. Barwise expects to see a sustained licence fee, based on a general consumer acceptance of the BBC. He acknowledges that while the BBC makes mistakes, it is generally held in high esteem by the public, particularly once the value of the licence fee is explained. “I am very worried about what the current Secretary of State has said that because it's part of the public sector, the licence fee has to be cut back. That's completely going against the consumer and citizen interest, but it's very popular in some places.” Economic models to support national initiatives are roundly criticised. “As well as local TV, the other thing that the Minister has got religion about is superfast broadband. I'm enormously hostile to the idea of any significant amount of public money going into superfast broadband. I think that the benefits - insofar as they have been spelt out at all - are pretty much entirely nonsense.”Advertising in a digital world

TV advertising is, according to Barwise, over-regulated; specifically, the Contract Rights Renewal model supporting ITV advertising is particularly outdated. CRR has become outdated, because the amount of money going into original UK content has been going steadily down, but, overall, the money going into British TV has been going up.

Barwise is bullish in terms of TV advertising, although he also sees a rosy future for digital advertising. Comparing TV to the Internet in advertising terms is academic, as their continuing complimentary nature will be at the expense of other media. The mass-market, rich proposition that television offers, is something which Barwise considers as being an enduring proposition to advertisers. Therefore, the mix of stabilising marketing budgets and sustained investment into digital advertising, means that the Internet will continue to draw revenue from other sources, notably print classified and display. The Internet will continue to evolve in this area. “With social media, Google and others are determined to make the Internet rather better at display and push... but the great strength of the Internet is that it is the consumer-dominated medium. If you are going to push things into the consumer's face, you had better make them highly relevant and entertaining, very well targeted, and very compelling. TV is very good at that, so there will be a greater emphasis on making TV even more relevant. The issues are with TV addressability.” As a result, revenue from 30-second spots will still be around in 2020.  All of the agencies are fed up with people geting religion about [digital advertising]. and wanting some sort of magic. Professor Patrick Barwise  Barwise is adamant that digital display is not of massive potential for most brands. “All of the agencies are fed up with people getting religion about it, and wanting some sort of magic”. Mid-sized brands with cheekiness and imagination will reap the rewards, with Will It Blend cited as being a landmark campaign. Supporting this is the ability to harvest an increasingly rich seam of consumer opinion and feedback, with natural language processing used as an example of how marketing technology continues to evolve. 
Planet Silicon Valley

In Barwise's view, TV is probably the medium that technologists understand the least. Silicon Valley has driven a blurring of distinctions between TV and the Internet, with the result being that the experience would become highly interactive. This will simply not happen. “Very few people believe that today. That was pretty close to 100% nonsense... they were pretty close to 100% wrong about that.”

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In conversation with... John V Willshire and Philip John

In conversation with... John V Willshire and Philip John

The rapid increase in hyperlocal websites has delivered some challenges to the communications sector, including competition with established local media; a greater depth of audience engagement; and a local, focused approach to advertising and media buying.

With the last point in mind, we caught up with PHD's John V Willshire, and Philip John of the Lichfield Blog and Journal Local, to discuss how to develop a converged view of the new world of local advertising - between advertisers, media planners and buyers, and hyperlocal owners themselves.  Is hyperlocal on the media agenda? JVW: I have been thinking about this from the perspective of what media agencies used to think of as being “local”. We have local teams, who have dealt with local press for years. What you see in the local paper is a compendium of all of the things that people want to know and do. They want to know about the performance of Kidderminster Harriers; who has something for sale; a sense of community. Hyperlocal has fostered fragmentation: Kidderminster Harriers has a fan site; local selling is on eBay; the sense of community is in small sites. Where I live, there's a community site for four streets. That notion of the “local paper” has fragmented right down into the paper's sections. From our [PHD's] perspective, how do you buy into that? It's impractical to buy that, individually. No media organisation is geared to deal with hyperlocality, because we used to be able to bulk buy. From that perspective, we have to change the way in which we do things. The model, as it stands, cannot deal with that fragmentation across lots of communities of interest, in lots of different places. Has it been something which PHD has looked at, in terms of internally restructuring to meet the configuration of hyperlocal, or has there been a view that it's far too fragmented to build business? JVW: It comes down to the model of the creative agency making the ads, and the media agency placing the ads. If we're being asked by the creative agency to place some ads, contextually, that fragmentation doesn't work. It's too hard, and not the best way to connect people with companies. What we are trying to do is reframe the purpose. As a media agency, what we always have done, and always will do, is connect people with companies, for the benefit of both. We used to do that through the mass media model, because that was the best way to do it. Now, we're re-considering the best way to connect people with companies. So, we might offer a suite of things on a quid pro quo basis: we could fund your hyperlocal website by having relevant advertising, but we choose the ads for you. Rather than us having to engage with every hyperlocal website owner, we could act as the marketplace. PJ: There are a lot of hyperlocal website owners now considering that they can't do everything on their own. A lot of owners started their website as a hobby, and now realise that it is taking up a lot of their time. They're looking to other hyperlocals for support, and that's why you're getting sites like Talk About Local and little networks starting to pop up. I think that there are a lot of hyperlocal site owners that are interested in joining a network that would enable them to go to advertisers. So, if they all have a sports section, they - or their agency - could go to the advertisers [with a collective proposition]. Sky, for example, could place an ad for their sports package. There's a movement towards that now. Addiply is creating a network which is focused on local, and is now moving into other areas, such as media blogs, so they are now going into subject areas. If you combine hyperlocal with topics, then you have something [compelling] to take to advertisers. The top-down and bottom-up models are moving towards each other. JVW: It's really interesting that you pointed out the topic areas. Before the hyperlocal movement, you were stuck in your locality. You talked to the same people in your street, and were with the same people at work. You were constrained within your location and social class. You would talk to each other about what you had in common: the big, generic things. For example, if you were really interested in 1960s architecture, you couldn't find anyone to talk to, and there wasn't a newspaper or radio station covering it. So, you can now go online, and talk to anyone in the world about 1960s architecture in the UK, or across the world. PJ: The example that I always use is Chasetown FC; we have a lot on the Lichfield Blog about them. The editor has now started to go to matches, and do some little vox pops. There's a lot of people on the web and on Twitter, interested in Chasetown FC. The thought occurred to me that they might not be interested in the rest of the Lichfield Blog, so why are we serving them ads that are site-wide, for things like web designers? Why not ask Chasetown FC's sponsors and ask them to advertise Chasetown FC stuff only? It lets the advertisers get to their target audience more effectively. If they sponsor Chasetown FC, it's because they want Chasetown FC supporters to look at them. So, obviously the supporters will be looking at the blogs, and you build up a market. It's little things like that - becoming a little bit more clever on how you advertise. It's really simple to do. From a publisher's perspective, is this a case of “tanks on the lawn”? The pre-Internet world produced fanzines, for example, which were often poor quality. Fanzines would never have a voice with advertisers of Chasetown FC's programme. But, now, you're bringing in a high readership that is possibly equivalent to Chasetown FC's website, so in volume terms, you have an equal voice. PJ: It makes advertisers more accessible, and it's ultimately cheaper, as wastage for the advertiser is minimal. Previously, whatever you did had so much wastage attached to it. If you've got a bunch of hyperlocal websites, and you can target really well - which is easy, with targeting on tags for example - then you cut out so much wastage, then it becomes so much cheaper. Multiples shrink, and hyperlocal websites become a much more attractive proposition.Do you think that there's still some way to go, in terms of fragmentation? The size and professionalism of the Lichfield Blog is a shining example of that. Is it only a matter of time that this fragmentation evolves, and we see collective operations, or even Newsquest just coming in and buying sites up? JVW: You see it elsewhere. Big companies come in and think “I can scale this”. What if it doesn't scale, and is the perfect size of site for the perfect amount of people? Advertising is still about millions, not thousands. Community and hyperlocal websites are about being small and valuable. If someone comes in and tries to scale, covering wider issues or a wider area, then it loses relevance. PJ: The people that create hyperlocal sites do so because they are passionate. That's why they do it for free. You can see a clear difference between these bottom-up hyperlocals and the top-down networks. I don't think that the top-down models get the same audience, or have the same feel. You just don't see it. The bottom-up models are generated by people in that community, who go out and talk with people. There's a real connection, and that's why it works so well, even thought it takes a lot of their time. The only example that I think does work, is the Guardian Local project. That's fantastic, and down to probably down to the fact that Sarah Hartley is in charge of it, and knows the bottom-up model of hyperlocal. There are four of them - one person in each city. Unless that approach is taken, I don't think that it works. You're still going to have to get the bottom-up hyperlocals into some sort of cohesive network, in order to make it work on a bigger scale. So, instead of taking a site and scaling it up, you have to take a site and do it again. JVW: It's not about taking one site and scaling it, it's about taking the principles and scaling them. “This works really well here, how can we take the lessons that we have learned and use them over here?” It's like what you saw in Internet advertising, with networks. You would have network buys, and websites had to be on the network; the network would then say “We have the websites, now send us some ads”. This is different. PJ: It's almost like web rings - lots of websites that all decide to get together. There's not a lot of that going on at the moment, and that's what I'm doing with Journal Local. But, how do you make it worthwhile? Is it money, or a need to get advertising? It's a Catch-22, as to get advertising, you need to be in the network, to make it a good proposition to advertisers. To get [hyperlocal] advertising, you need to be in the network. Philip John  JVW: The advertising model works on economies of scale. So much effort would go into making an ad, that sending it to 4000 people wouldn't be worthwhile; it needs to go to 4 million. In the hyperlocal model, you can't serve the same ad to all of those communities. The beauty of it, is that hyperlocal owners have sites which are personal, within their community, and so on. So, I waste my time just by sending the same ad - and it's too expensive for me to produce 50 ads. I wonder if the solution is for the advertisers to let go, and say “What I've got is a toolkit of stuff that's going on in my shops, and I have shops in all of your locations. Take this toolkit, and put something from it onto your site, if it's of relevance and your audience is interested, may click on, or may buy” - and this could be a partnership, rather than just on an advertising rate basis. But, the advertisers aren't very good at letting go of control, and creative agencies aren't very good at letting go of control. It's against the grain, and it's hard work. It's a different model. JVW: It is taking the network principle, but rather than bombard the whole network with one ad that kind-of-works, it's about working in partnership, rather than as a supplier. PJ: You can still go halfway, though. What I'm really excited about, is the potential to use data to help to target. When you have a network of hyperlocal sites, and you know what postcode areas they cover, you could tie it into something like healthcare. Addiply is on JournalLive, a hyperlocal network of 22 websites. One of the sites had a massive leaderboard for BUPA. We saw it and wondered who is going to click on it; that ad was a waste of time and BUPA's money. That got me thinking: what if you could get health data, and the NHS wants to target heart disease in certain areas? You could hack away with some data, and produce a list of sites that have a high rate of heart disease in their area. What you have is a target market. You then make it easier for the advertiser, because you're targeting for them; cutting their wastage, rather than a blanket campaign everywhere, just to get the people you want. You are removing control of where the ad is displayed - because you are telling advertisers where to display them, but then you give control to the publisher, saying that we should advertise here, where there is a high rate of heart disease. It makes perfect sense to both. So, there's something here about publicly-accessible, open data, and adding that to the mix, to validate the context. JVW: Then the network becomes smarter and self-aware. As an advertiser, I can then put things into this, as the network is helping me to steer content. I might have twenty things or one thing, but the network decides your relevance. There's so much data around, and what you see now is Government departments saying “This data that we collect and hold: we shouldn't be scared of letting it go. As long as people aren't being nefarious with it, let's see what good things can be achieved.” TFL, for example, has realised that they can't do that [internally]. The way in which their organisation works and how their projects work and are billed for, means that they cannot cost efficiently do that with their data. It's free and open. You made the point [Philip] about people running hyperlocal websites for love; people also spend weeks creating stuff with TFL data. From your perspective within PHD, do you see value in this freely-available open data? JVW: Yes, but everyone's trying to change the model. The media agency, the ad agency, and the client, want to change. You will find a few people in each agency, trying to pull everyone out of this - because it's a machine. It's a machine that has been created over the past 20 years, ever since media agencies split from ad agencies to create two separate entities. Up to the end of the 1990s, the machine was really humming. The famed years of the “media lunch” used to involve “doing some media planning” - to decide what the split was between TV, posters, and whatever - then going for lunch. Guttingly, it's the era that I missed [!] We've always used Mosaic, ACORN data and so on, so I think that it will be something which is good. If I compare this data against someone taking the time and effort to look at all of the publicly-available data... can I beat that? If you streamed all of that data into a system, it would be better, more flexible, and more “alive” than commercial data. It will be continually updated; if you built it right, it's feeding a live, changing picture of the UK.PJ: Openly Local does a really good thing; there are 300 hyperlocals on there now. You can go on and see the latest news from all the hyperlocals. I helped to create a Google custom search for hyperlocals. You could repurpose all of this - as Openly Local does with government data. It scrapes local government websites, and repurposes it as government data. If you did that with hyperlocals as well, you would have the Guardian Open Platform for hyperlocals. You can then grab that, mess with that, and create some great stuff. JVW: Going back to your health example: if you had that system in place, scraping all of that data - government and hyperlocal - it would spot things quite quickly. If you set the network up to alert you on a local health scare related to cleanliness, you could match it to a product that helps to clean surfaces. All that I would need to do, is set up this query, and leave it there, so it's almost a minesweeper: I just wait for it to erupt. It's a passive action for me. PJ: It could also become a newswire. If you're sitting in the Birmingham Post and Mail, you could mine hyperlocals in the West Midlands. JVW: It's in one place. It would tell you a very interesting story about Britain - area versus area, and so forth, which becomes a very interesting resource for everything: media planning, comms planning and newspapers, who love “stories with a difference” - people in the north loving something more than people in the south, and so on. It becomes a really interesting, live picture, rather than the top-down perspective of a national survey of 500 people. This is based on live movements: things happening from the bottom up. Has access to open data been beneficial? PJ: It has, but the problem is that most hyperlocals are started by active citizens, who have enough nous to set up a site. But, beyond that, they don't always know how to set up how to use this data, how to use Yahoo Pipes, and so on. We've got a great system on the Lichfield Blog, where I'm the techie, the editor is a trained local journalist. He produces the articles, and I look after the back end. It's a great relationship, but most hyperlocals don't have that. I can play around with data, but they can't. It's great, but it needs someone that has the time to do something interesting with this data. I'm sponsoring Hacks and Hackers in Manchester. Its aim is to get such a relationship going between developers and journalists, to help journalists to tell stories from the data. That's really important, because I blogged on this yesterday. One of the issues regarding open data is whether someone will use it for other purposes. There was a recent situation regarding land ownership data in Bangladesh; property companies were going in there and marginalising poorer parts of the community. They were able to use this data, and the community wasn't. Hacks and Hackers is there to make sure that data is used effectively. Even though the data is coming out, and it's great, it's of little use unless people can make it usable for hyperlocals. Openly Local is trying to repurpose council data, in order to add context to stories. If they are talking about a councillor, for example, and they are tagging through Wordpress, it adds on a bunch of information about the councilor, beside the article. If someone in that ward is reading the article and wants to talk to the councillor about the issue, they get a fact file right there, next to the article. That's really helpful, but it takes time for people to do, and there's not enough of that out there. So, if hyperlocal owners don't know much about technology, does it follow that they won't know much about advertising? PJ: Yes. We put Addiply on the Lichfield Blog, and our ads were snapped up straight away; all of the inventory was taken up. There are quite a few sites running Addiply, and they have no advertisers. Those site owners may have the view that they don't want to go out to advertisers; they're not salespeople, and would feel a little weird, going out to their community, asking them to advertise. There is that problem.

It goes back to those sites needing to be part of a network. Because there is then more collective resourcing, there will be more resources to pull advertisers in, and the network is more attractive to them.

Is there a perceptual thing here? If the hyperlocal owners see themselves as “deliverers of information” and not involved with ad sales, how can they compete with newspapers if they see themselves more as being a public service? PJ: There are very few hyperlocals that see themselves as a replacement to local media. Hyperlocal is in between the community - people that journalists might want to talk to - and the media. So, all that hyperlocal is, in many cases, is the community simply making its voice heard online. Without this, they would have to phone the local paper. Hyperlocal informs the media what the community thinks. JVW: It's something that's so easy to organise. Before, you would have had a meeting at the local parish hall, that wasn't necessarily open, and you had to invite a journalist to attend, and someone had to go to that journalist and brief them. The media was in control: what they published, how they published it, the context in which they placed it, whether they were interested. Now, you wouldn't necessarily care if the media was interested: hyperlocal is the place to put a view across. PJ: It also gives a voice to people that previously couldn't attend those meetings. JVW: It's a great leveller. People are happier giving their opinion on a hyperlocal site than public speaking.  We're much happier buying things with tall potential than long potential, because long potential is less proven. John V Willshire

 

 

Do you think that there will be a perceptual thing here, for media buyers? It's not a newspaper, it isn't This Is London, it's a thing in the middle for 4000 people. JVW: This is it. It's that 4000. There's something really interesting in behavioural economics, about the impact of numbers. If I can talk to 4000 people about an issue, then that's brilliant. But then, by putting it into a newspaper that reaches four million, then 4000 doesn't look as good - but not everyone sees the newspaper ad. It's just reach. JVW: It's just reach; it's about tall potential, and long potential. The tall potential is the reach of four million people, but only 4000 people will do something. Community models have long potential: if you start something with people, then you could reach 4000. Media agencies are bad at selling that to clients, because everyone's interested in tall potential: the big numbers. It's a problem. We're much happier buying things with tall potential than long potential, because long potential is less proven, and gives you smaller numbers. There's a potentially massive benefit here to hyperlocal owners: they should go to advertisers and convince them that they should be changing the game from tall to long, in this context.  JVW: An example might be Sainsbury's, who is a client of ours. Through the tall model, we would place an ad on every hyperlocal site.PJ: The reach would not matter to us [in Lichfield], as the nearest Sainsbury's is 20 miles away!.. so there's wastage. JVW: Exactly! You just reach lots of people. The long model with Sainsbury's is finding the hyperlocal sites relevant to the stores - using their data. We could then run a project where store managers are put in touch with the hyperlocal site, and work together to deliver benefits to the community. Is there client interest in making locally relevant advertising, in either buying or content? JVW: There is interest around it. CEOs consider it to be very important, but the way in which organisations have been constructed, means that responsibility sits in different departments. The marketing silo is all about those big numbers, where local issues can be with HR, field sales, store managers, and anyone else. Hyperlocal offers a solution to something which is a bit like marketing, a bit like local management, a bit like HR, and a bit like CSR. It doesn't work in one silo, so it's not always easy to get buy-in. With Cadbury Spots v Stripes, it was clear that it was not just marketing: it was business. So, we needed to talk to HR, about bringing it into the company first - which makes it a lot easier to help that story to travel. And, extending that analogy, all of the other department doors then open up: marketing and HR talk together, then IT become involved, and so on. There is extreme interest from companies which are not in silos. But, companies were organised before communication technology, and most are still in silos. Departments do one thing, and do it well. We, as an agency, work with not just the marketing teams, but find other people within the organisation, and bring them in... and everyone's really receptive. That's the key. Everyone wants to make their company better, and everyone wants to break down the silos. It's about providing the 'grease' to make that happen. Hyperlocals probably couldn't get to chat to Justin Rose or Terry Leahy, but they could chat to local store managers. Does that mean that aggregation, whether as a group or network of hyperlocals, is necessary to have such a voice in the market? PJ: Definitely. At the moment, you can't really advertise on hyperlocals if you're a big company - and a lot of hyperlocals might turn round and say that it doesn't make sense for them. With the Lichfield Blog, unless an ad is really well targeted, we might say no. I want to attract national advertisers to hyperlocals and to the Lichfield Blog, but it has to be really targeted. JVW: It has to be right. From our perspective, it's more interesting doing projects [with hyperlocals] than just advertising. Projects are in partnership: this is something that we are doing, rather than something that someone designed in the London office and published to the site. It's getting our industry out of the habit of just serving an ad. PJ: We do that a lot. With the Fuse Festival, our photographer and I spent all weekend there. We captured as much as possible, including all of the meetings that the Fuse board had over the year - so we were actively involved in organising it. Tesco had a presence there, with children's activities including papier mache and cardboard models. I thought how great it would have been to have the corner of the car park, with this big thing that was produced in association with Tesco, with kids joining in... but we didn't know about it. If we did, we could have phoned Tesco. JVW: But, that probably slips in the gaps between the PR silo, the marketing silo... PJ: If Tesco know that this stuff is going on, then they simply get a store map, and cross-reference it with a map of hyperlocal sites, which they send to store managers. If they know that it's going on, it makes the whole process easier. That sounds like a really quick and easy thing to do. PJ: Hyperlocals would put themselves on the map, draw a circle around their area, and with the stores, you would then create overlaps. There are your target areas. It goes back to what we were saying: moving away from display ads, to co-branded projects. Tesco colleagues painting a primary school has a greater contextual relevance than a display ad that may be quite targeted, but not as rich and inviting. JVW: It's about moving advertising away from the age of information: “I'm going to tell you something about our products”. I have information available: I can search on Google. There's not really much point in advertisers simply telling you something, as people can find out for themselves. Advertising has to be more about stories of things that we've done. Does that have to be part of an organisational step change within the client: opening the doors between silos, throughout the organisation? JVW: You have to hand over this control. It's no longer about matching luggage, with everything looking and feeling the same, and the brand onion dictating that we are chatty. It's ceding that control throughout the organisation. In The Wizard of Oz, the bogus Wizard is the giant glowing head at the end of the room who tells them to do stuff, and they begrudgingly go off and do it. They don't get anything out of the relationship. Brand can be these giant glowing heads, shouting at people. When they find out that it's a guy behind a curtain, they then talk on an individual basis. On that conversational, one-to-one basis, it's easier to sort out problems. You could do the faceless brand thing in certain local environments, and it would work to a certain extent. But, if you ceded control to the guy behind the curtain - the store manager - and it became part of community engagement, then there's a very specific voice, which would be very different in every town across the country. PJ: It's like hyperlocal - you know the people behind them, because you've seen them. We get out so much, that people are now starting to recognise us. It's those connections. JVW: Brand is increasingly becoming shorthand for the people within the company. What you have when you talk about a brand, is a community. "Those people over there did that thing; I'd quite like to talk to those people over there". It's picking apart the notion of a brand tone of voice. People are increasingly used to being able to do that in other aspects, in their world: to talk with individual personalities. You would still have brand cues around that, because the community needs shared values. Talking in the same way in the same tone of voice is still likely, but it's not as prescribed, or as top-down.·John V Willshire is Chief Innovation Officer at PHD Media. His blog is Feeding the Puppy. Philip John is part of the team behind The Lichfield Blog and founder of Journal Local, sponsor of the first Hacks and Hackers Day in Manchester on 15 October. 

In conversation with... Toby Barnes and Marcus Brown

In conversation with... Toby Barnes and Marcus Brown

 

 As part of Imperica's media partnership with Interesting North, we are running a series of interviews with conference speakers. The first article in this series features Toby Barnes, whose talk is entitled "James Bond: architecture critic"; and Marcus Brown, whose talk is about spending a week in a mental hospital.The conversation starts with Toby and Marcus telling us about their Interesting North talks in detail. TB: Russell asked me to speak at last year's Interesting. It was the most nervous that I have ever been. It was the most difficult talk, and I have talked in front of lots of people, mainly because I didn't have an agenda. I did a talk around cheating: why I think cheating is important, and why we should be allowed to cheat. Russell said to me that I shouldn't talk about anything concerning video games, so I stood up and started by saying that I have cheated in games, and I was going to talk about games, but really it was about cheating. I was so nervous, that I did the whole thing in about five minutes flat; Russell told everyone to keep it short. I sat down, and realised that everyone else after me had ignored Russell, and did their talks in about 20 minutes. I wanted to go back on and do it again, so when Greg asked me to do it again for Interesting North, I jumped at the chance - and this time, I'm going to take about 45 minutes to ramble through my talk, whether he likes it or not [!] 

{slideshare}[slideshare id=1994577&doc=interesting09v3-090914063708-phpapp01]{/slideshare}

 

I'm doing a talk this time about modernism, and the lack of any real thought around modernism any more. It ties into my thoughts around futurism and futurists, and the common feeling that we don't have much of a confidence about the future, necessarily being driven by any form of fiction. We look at it these days as a nostalgia piece, as science fiction is fun - meals in pills, jet packs - rather than either a horrible JG Ballard world that we have to live in, or a beautiful utopian let's-all-have-sex-with-the-aliens type of thing. However, the talk will start with architecture, and around the lack of any direction, from trying to develop new buildings, physical places, or anything that feels like this is going to be the future. I am going to use the example of James Bond, blowing up lots of modern buildings. These buildings house the guys who employ thousands of people, but they are working hard to give people a job... and Bond, in his Savile Row suit, is going around blowing up this Barratt Homes architecture. MB: I am going to talk about something that was difficult, painful, upsetting, and scary. It was about 5 years ago, when I walked out of the front door of our house. I turned left, and woke up 12 days later, on a camping site, with a tent and a bicycle... and I didn't know how I got there. And I hate camping. That was really very scary for me... I not only scared myself, but my friends, family, acquaintances - who didn't know where I was. I saw a doctor, who suggested that I spend some time in a very special hospital. I'm going to be talking about my time in the mental hospital, and what it's like to discover that I wasn't actually mad. When something like that happens to you, it's very traumatic, and you think that you're losing your mind... and then you go into a hospital with a whole bunch of other people, and discover that you're actually you're pretty close to sane. It's a whole bunch of stories about people that I met. It was a mirror of society. There was a self-imposed segregation; there was a group of Turkish people who didn't really interact, groups of German people, and then you had men who didn't interact with the women. The Turkish guys played cards, and I managed to break down that social barrier. I wanted to play cards, and it took me about half an hour of serious negotiation. Playing a game of pool with someone that suffers from panic attacks, is probably the funniest thing that I have ever done. I had to play badly, just to ensure that the guy didn't have a nervous breakdown in front of me. When everyone knows everything about you through Twitter or Facebook, do we have spaces for freedom any more? Toby Barnes A connection between your talks appears to be around the harsh realities of the present - whether at the hospital, or living in the now, rather than in a utopian world. Do you see an optimistic future as being something which we need to get a grip on more and more, given the mundanity of the present? TB: It's about being able to jump far enough ahead. I don't know who this was, but someone said that 2010 is the last date of the future. Because everything is speeded up, it's very hard to make the leap, and no-one is brave enough to make a leap and for people to go “I think that's probably where we should go to”. One of the things that Marcus was saying, was about the issue of freedom. Waking up and not actually knowing where you have been for the past 12 days actually sounds rather blissful, even though I don't actually know how bad that was. When somebody tells you that you are insane, that you don't have to play by the rules of what somebody tells you to do... it can give that jump of freedom. When everyone knows everything about you through Twitter or Facebook, do we have spaces for freedom any more? One of the things that we are trying to do with Chromaroma is not to make a game; it's to do something which adds a tiny bit of imagination to people's lives. It's something that I see in your work, Marcus, and it's something that we did with Such Tweet Sorrow. It's about adding little tiny bits - little droplets of magic - but it's antithetical to what Hollywood is trying to do at the moment. MB: The diagnosis of what I had, revealed disassociative fugue, which means that in my head, I ran away. It had to do with a number of stressful situations in my life, as well as being “middle-30”, which is the blandest of places to be. When you turn 30, you can moan about being 30; when you turn 40, you moan about being old... but the middle-30s is about being bland. TB: I'm 37, and one of the things that I was talking to Russell about is the belief that you can only introduce yourself as one “thing” when you're at a party: “You're the guy that did that”. If you did something great in your mid-twenties and then don't keep it up, you're the guy that did that thing 10 years ago. MB: I hate that “What do you do?” kind of stuff. Normally I say that I'm a dentist. I have made a real effort over the last six years to ask “Who are you?” not “What do you do?” TB: There's a gentleman that works in the studio. Whenever anyone asks “What do you do?”, he says that he is a musician - he has produced a couple of albums, and is in a couple of bands. However, he worries about it, because if anyone Googles him, it turns out that he works at Mudlark... so, was he lying about the music, or was he lying about Mudlark? It's all true, and he works at Mudlark to have the money to do those things. He always says that I am renting his brain. I am paying him money, to rent his brain, to do stuff. Google would be interesting, if you could Google the future. Marcus Brown  MB: My whole stance on this, came out of my experience... in hindsight, it was actually quite frightening. It was extraordinarily painful at the time, but now, I can see that there are some funny parts. All of those responsibilities, and the pressure, triggered the disassociative state. While going through the process of “fixing it”, I realised that anything is possible, and that's the theme of my talk. I was toying with the idea of finishing it with something spectacular, like getting ELO on stage to perform Mr. Blue Sky, just to make the point that anything is possible. That whole thing happened before I started telling stories online. I had given up anything creative that was important to me about twenty years ago. I sold my brain to do paid work... a suit, a consultant, a marketing robot. Now, if you Google me, because of the way that our culture is developing, the future isn't really that important anymore. Our possible pasts are now more important. Google would be interesting, if you could Google the future. But, you can't. You can only Google the past. You have a talented guy working for you, Toby, and he's concerned that somebody might find out that he crunches numbers... which is very sad.We've gone through the future. I can distinctly remember when we celebrated 2000, I was really fucked off that there wasn't a Mekon floating in the front room. That was really disappointing. All those Vikings, back in the day... they forgot to keep on writing stuff about 2050. What if we could Google the future, and it was just a slightly modified version of where we are now? We still have terraced Victorian houses, after all. How are we going to facilitate that change? TB: We're at this really strange point where the nostalgia for the past is so strong. If I look at my desk, there's an old leather chair, an old leather bag, a notepad made to look like a 1930s field notepad, and pencils. There's a real nostalgia for craft, and at the same time, my bag is filled with an iPod, iPad and iPhone. We're in this strange transition between the two. It's Russell who talks about the nostalgia of the past and the novelty of the new. It will become interesting when we create networks for buildings, and things start automating. Buildings can change, or will be constructed in such a way that they perform relevant functions; so they can be a library in the daytime, and a club at night. The speed of change in some things has accelerated, but the speed of change in others has decelerated. In architecture, the structures that are currently in place to enable somebody to think bigger than they would have wanted to, are just not there. Architects are paid to put a building up, and as soon as the front door opens, they bugger off and do something else. That's quite a sad place, as they're not paid to make it live. It's like making babies, then chucking them out of windows. That's one of the things that we need to focus on, in terms of what the future is like: to create systems to enable people to “do stuff”, not just get them out the door. MB: I live in a completely different country, and I live in a city which is really old. Large chunks of it did survive the war quite well, and they have rules in Munich about how high a building can be. It's not like Frankfurt, where you can put a skyscraper anywhere you want. In Munich, I think that they're not allowed to be higher than the cathedral. You don't really see new buildings. I'm trying to think of new buildings that I have seen here in the past year... and I can't think of any. If any were built, they must have blended into the overall aesthetic of the city, so it doesn't disturb this urban picture.   TB: If that's true and stays being true, it's like that Munich will never get beyond a certain year. The future has been cut off, unless somebody, somewhere, says “Fuck this, it's not going to work”. Either the city gets flattened and starts again, which is unlikely, or someone will say “This year, we really need to put this hotel in, and let's bump up the height”. I know that to be true of some cities in the UK, and especially different parts of the UK, that are the same. They argue about conservation - and about conservation areas. But, conservation is something else. What they're talking about is preservation: preserving the past, which is different to conservation and conserving a certain feel. It feels strange that this is the “right thing to do”. MB: I'll give you another example. In four-and-a-half days, the Oktoberfest kicks off here, the world's largest beer festival. A couple of years before I moved to Munich, it became fashionable to wear traditional dress when you go. So, all of a sudden, young people would turn up in lederhosen. It's been a real renaissance for tradition. Bavaria, and Munich in particular, clings onto to the past - really quite charmingly, sometimes quite sickeningly. Imagine an 18-year-old hoodie that you see in the supermarket, hurrying to get home as he has to change into his lederhosen and go off to the Oktoberfest. That's what happens. It's Mr. Benn. MB: Mr. Benn is very important in what I do. Mr. Benn is the absolute benchmark... emotionally, he is so important to me... the whole “As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared” is just huge. TB: You alluded to “Clinging onto the past”, and it does seem that people feel threatened. It's like people talking about too much information... that there's too much going on, and they can't keep up, and they want to cling onto the past. It's a physical thing. It's like a hoodie turning into a morris dancer. You wonder why we cling onto the past like that. MB: We have to be careful here. I was in a beer garden the other day, and there must have been 800 people there, but I was the only person that checked in on Foursquare. I am constantly trying to remind myself that there is a bigger world out there, and this is one of the reasons why I am walking to Hamburg. In general, the present can be so overwhelming. Ben Terrett wrote about the fact that you can't escape news. You walk into a building to go into a meeting, and there's a TV in the lobby, with the BBC News, and there's a ticker on it. You go outside, and there's a ticker on Piccadilly Circus. You're in a pub, and the bloody news is on. If do use Facebook and Twitter, and you're on the tube... by the time that you have come up, you have missed forty minutes. FB: A friend recently went through some anxiety issues, and she became obsessed about 9/11, amongst other things... and she “escaped the news”. We live in the Peak District, so she doesn't spend time in meetings, in pubs, or on the tube, but she doesn't buy newspapers any more, and doesn't watch the news. So, now, she has “delayed news”: she uses Facebook and Twitter, but only hears about something if it bubbles up from her circle of friends. It is possible to escape, but also not possible. I have started to take up things that I can't learn by reading. So, I have taken up sailing, because it's physical. You can't read about it. If people were a third as nervous about new things as I was [sailing] at the weekend, it's no wonder that people are trying to escape society. At the end, I had a break, and I was nearly in tears, so shocked by this experience. We take for granted, that people can keep up with this stuff. MB: ... and there is no space for the future, in all of that. The future for us when we were kids, was a magnificient, big thing, that was so far away, that it didn't seem possible that it would happen. I can remember being 7, when my older sister gave me an A1 calendar for 2001. There were spaceships on it. I used to have it over my bed, and thought that it was so amazing. 2001 was so far away, and that “so-far-away-ness”, and the amount of space that I had in my life... I had a CB radio, and a TV, and mates around the corner, and that was it. Those were the factors in my life, but these days, my kids are so busy. They're so busy telling other people that they're so busy, with so many different ways to tell them, and to read about how busy their friends are, that the future for them is different. Asking them what they want to be when they grow up, results in the answer that they just have homework to do. TB: There is a really good Ian Brown quote. He fears for culture, because there is no boredom any more. Most good music and film makers, made works because they were bored, and everything was a bit shit, so they started to fiddle with things. Now, because of Twitter, Xbox and so on, they always have something to fill their time with. There's no boredom any more. There's no space for people to create, because they are never bored. Do you think that this lack of boredom will give rise to less radical thought? If you're never bored, you won't have time to try to change the world.Have we also replaced tension with subtlety? I remember the nuclear arms race, Two Tribes at number 1, that dystopian view of the future... but now, we may be in an age where things just aren't as radical. MB: I distinctly remember When the Wind Blows, and being seriously afraid of the future. We're all going to die, just not today. The Iran situation, where everyone started wearing green... nobody really thought about that in terms of the future. It was all about what it means now, and reporting on what is happening now. That is a very Twitter-esque phenomenon. Two years earlier, everyone would have blogged about it. It's all about now. TB: The media are also still trying to blow everything up into something bigger. Marilyn Manson said that all of society is driven by consumerism and fear. I remember the Swine Flu outbreak; we're all going to die from it, then Pakistan was going to attack India... there's always something which represents “the end of everything”.   And, the Y2K bug, of course. TB: Yes... and it's still happening. The next disaster will be the one that ends it all. The Daily Mail writes always writes its headlines in cataclysmic form.As a child, I was always very positive for future, and also watched When the Wind Blows, but I was too much of an optimist, and wanted to grow up, living in space, like 2001. MB: It didn't happen, did it Toby...! TB: Perhaps I should just stand up on stage and be really pissed off! I won't have anything interesting to say, and instead exclaim that I'm pissed off because I thought that the future was going to be bright, and we were all going to be in space, but we're not. Whose fault is that? There must be somebody that I can complain to. Write a letter to a newspaper, telling them how disgusted you are. MB: “You've stolen my childhood dreams, because I'm not living on the moon. I want my money back.” TB: Tim Wright won a BAFTA for Online Caroline. When he was a kid, he wanted to play golf on the moon with David Bowie, and nobody would ever stop him doing that. He has set up the British Space Association, and has a space suit from NASA, and has contacted David Bowie on a number of occasions. He still believes that he can do it. If he thought that he could do it at 7, then why can't he do it now? Maybe I should just live in the future. MB: Blogs are great for that sort of thing. I had started to write a blog in 2009, but managed to trick Wordpress. So, all of the posts were dated 2011. It really fucked up Feedreader. TB: One of my favourite things is trying to find something in iTunes, only to find that it has been metatagged as being in 1972. I have these drum and bass tracks which are supposedly from 1972. MB: Writing non-science fiction prose in the future, was really quite interesting. The written word is grossly underrated. At the moment, it has lost a lot of its value. It doesn't move, it doesn't do anything special. TB: I value it more now. One of the things that I cannot do, is write very well. I have tried 6 times, get three months in, and run out of steam. You're right, the written word is so powerful, and I read people's blogs and they move me and change me, more than any fucking cats jumping off a piano. 
 Anyone that can write anything that makes sense is a skill that I hold in high regard, and we need to develop that in everyone. In looking at where the written word is heading, it was something that was not foreseen. Flying cars were predicted, but not necessarily the blog. However, the iPad has been compared to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; the iPad meets Adams' vision.Science fiction doesn't equate to artistic fiction; if we have the ability to do this from a technical perspective, then it should also give rise to a new flow of creativity. Maybe the ability to publish to anyone has raised accessibility of the written word. MB: But, they need the framework to do that. Millions can't afford a computer, let alone an iPad. The euphoria which frequently bubbles up over the democratisation of culture, just staggers me. It's not true. Where we were recently, was to have bored, middle management getting their rocks off on telling everyone that they were going to be in a bar, telling everyone to pop by and have a drink, and it becoming a Tweetup. That's not the democratisation of culture, that's just boring marketing gurus showing off. TB: I had an argument last week with a film director. She was saying that the Internet has produced the 'age of the amateur'; the Internet is full of shitty filmmakers making shit films for their friends. You have middle management tweeting about what bar they're in; she was saying that you also have art students with iPhones, still making Blair Witch. My argument was that it doesn't really matter. Middle management tweeting in a bar, doesn't really matter. It just increases the ocean... it increases the size. There will be more crap out there, but it shouldn't impact the good stuff. MB: It's dangerous to say that “this is it”. I did an interview a couple of weeks ago, and said that there are more people without access to clean water than there are on Facebook. It needs to be in context. Yes, it is important, and I could not have done this stuff that I have done in the past 4 years without this technology, but I am in a privileged enough position to have a computer, buy my own video camera, and have a partner patient enough to let me sit in front a computer until the early hours, cutting videos of me sitting on a toilet reading other people's tweets.But, you're right, there is a lot of shit out there, but it is incredibly important. Over the next 2 years, we are going to see some stunning work coming from places that we, currently, cannot possibly imagine. You only need to spend 5 minutes on Vimeo, to find staggeringly good work on there. Do you think that we should be excited about the future? MB: One of the worst Pink Floyd albums of all time, is The Final Cut. There's a song in there about possible pasts. It describes a group of old men, complaining about what could have been, and that everything has been taken away from them: people without future. The bleakest thing that can happen to any of us, is to wake up one morning and think of the future as not being exciting. TB: In a very cheesy way, I was going to say that of course we should be excited, because it's going to be great, and leave it at that! It's a Brutalist thought process - a big concrete block that says “Hold tight”. MB: Take it to Interesting North. “It's going to be fucking ace!”  Toby Barnes is Managing Director of cross-platform production company Mudlark, whose latest project is Chromaroma, a location-aware online game which uses Oyster cards. Marcus Brown is Director of the Black Operatives Department. His latest project is I Walk for Dr. Peter Figge, which starts on 1 October.  

 

Simon Scarle: serious simulations

Simon Scarle: serious simulations

The concept of serious gaming predates the mass adoption of silicon-based technology. Wars have been led, fought, won and lost based on simulation. Indeed, one could argue that the fundamental concept of gambling is based on the win or loss of a theoretical game.

Dr. Simon Scarle is part of the Serious Games Institute, an organisation housed within Coventry University. The role of the Institute is to design and develop intellectual and practical solutions to some of life's interesting questions about the past, present and future – through the fairly recent phenomenon of computer gaming.

Scarle's interest in the topic comes from a combination of, as you might suspect, an intellectually scientific approach – in this case, working with computational simulations as part of his Theoretical Physics degree – and a subsequent role at Rare. The techniques that Scarle used at Rare had a foundation in his earlier university work to simulate cardiac movements. This fusion led to a role as the senior programmer for a serious games project at Warwick, before his recent move to Coventry.

 

The trade show environment... shows a desire to engage. Dr. Simon Scarle

This new role focusses on a project called Vtrade, which is a virtual shopping environment. The creative idea of a virtual shopping environment has been addressed many times: from Barclaysquare in the mid-90s, through to Fashionmall and a host of similar companies. What makes Vtrade stand out is that rather than being akin to a shopping mall, it is attempting to virtualise a trade fair.

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We fucked up: How tragedy of the commons and journalistic Stockholm syndrome are killing web 2.0

We fucked up: How tragedy of the commons and journalistic Stockholm syndrome are killing web 2.0

We fucked up. Not just you, but me too. The gates to digital Eden were flung open and we were free to run in and take anything we wanted.

Newspapers tore down paywalls, fragmented content and hired people to splurt it out across the web for anyone, anywhere to do with it as they will. Forget about charging, we said, as we gave away the only thing that paid our wages. Not only this, but as our office walls came tumbling down, we paid out even more money to hire extra people to write about and promote the very tools and technology that homogenised our content and destroyed our institutions – what You Are Not A Gadget author Jaron Lanier calls journalistic Stockholm syndrome.  We knew some of us would have to be the paying minority to support the non-paying majority, but tragedy of the commons thinking made sure that everyone thought someone else would pick up the bill as we rampaged across the web, taking what we liked without a care for who would pay for it and clean up our mess. We’ve done the equivalent of a digital supermarket sweep. But now the fun is over. We are facing a bill for far more than we actually wanted or needed.  James Seddon

Give anyone too much freedom and they will quickly give you cause to erect walls of rules that ensure such a mess doesn’t happen again. Up go the paywalls and subscription walls. Down goes the power of the link – what good is a key if the door is boarded up – and down will go our consumption.

 Like an all-you-can-eat buffet that switches to a normal menu halfway through the meal, we’re facing a bill for far more than we actually wanted or needed. We’re used to constant consumption of sub-par wares, and we’re going to have to get used to only eating when we’re hungry. Really hungry, as no one could afford to actually pay for every newspaper article they read online. Gone is the Pizza Hut buffet, in are canapés. The sad thing is, it could have been so different. But like a teenager trusted to look after the house while the parents are away, we threw a party and are facing consequences that were so avoidable. Which is a shame, because we had it so good for so long. I’ve read the same books as you, where digital evangelists like Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky talk about how knock-off handbags and piracy have actually helped increase demand for paid products, but we have to admit this just hasn’t worked for journalism. News trades in facts and information, which has proved tough to nail cash to. It’s difficult to own a fact, and without ownership – whether by an individual blogger or a big mean news org – there can be no profit. In fact, monetising content seems to be the 21st century’s answer to Karl Dunker’s famous candle problem, which has been used by economists to show that financial incentives actually inhibit our problem-solving abilities when the answer is abstract. Perhaps monetising content is doomed to failure by definition. But now is a time for empiricism and not idealism. The wrong solution is much worse than no solution because we stop looking for what we think we’ve already found. Our only hope is that a news company behind a paywall doesn’t need to serve up homogenised rot and can finally focus on the very same niche content the evangelists say we need. Henry David Thoreau once referred to much-touted technological marvels like the Transatlantic cable as “improved means to an unimproved end.” And I think he’d say the same thing today if he looked at what the connections of modern fibre-optic cables have destroyed.

James Seddon's website is jamesgseddon.com.

 

Building brand advocacy

The recession has taught many companies that agility, to face both upturns and downturns, is a key differentiator. Agility is becoming increasingly important for both customers and employees, and these groups share the same view: that with fantastic execution, agility becomes a differentiator.

Building that differentiator requires a shared vision of the future. This shared vision, again applicable to both customers and employees, can manifest itself as internal advocacy of the company's brand. Building an internal understanding of the brand, as companies are increasingly starting to understand, is vital if employees are to be led on the journey that the company will take, rather than be forced into travelling it. Brand advocacy is core to the future of any business, according to John Smythe. Smythe is one of the UK's leading thinkers in employee engagement.  Facilitating advocacy - and creating a positive workforce with a shared vision - cannot be undertaken by diktat. It requires an open working environment. Companies must start to consider how their internal processes and systems encourage expression, diversity, and the freedom to create and share ideas. Successful companies need to have cultures which are engaged; a system of self-government; and senses of disciplines, direction, democracy, and liberty, where, according to Smythe, “there is trust by the leaders in the workforce, and vice versa.”  Smythe gives an example of Google as a company with such an “engaged culture”, and one would indeed imagine Google to be a natural leader in these fields. However, he also gives the example of Gore-Tex, a company with deeper - and more industrial - roots. Gore-Tex also needs to be at the top of its game in a highly competitive market, and its diverse workforce clearly benefit from alignment behind the brand, what it does, and the benefit that the product offers to consumers. Another positive example of a larger, more established company, is Goldman Sachs. According to Smythe, Goldman's culture has helped to build a highly conversational, highly-motivated workforce, with a very personal style of management. The trade-off is that such an environment can be quite brutal, which comes with the territory of needing to be process-driven, as investment banking lends itself to be - particularly under greater regulation mechanisms driven by the recession. Companies often only get this half-right, and attempt to build behaviours into employees without the brand values backing them up, which provide context and support. BAA is cited as an example of this half-right approach: “There is no sense of service ethos, and it's a machine.” Smythe's view is that a customer-centric approach is admirable, but must travel through the DNA of the organisation to deliver a fully engaged, motivated, and committed workforce, whether facing the customer or not.People and process

Smythe sees the way in which brand becomes manifest, as being a choice of two concepts.

The first concept is that brand is simply an expression of business strategy. “Corporate leadership needs to grasp that [brand] doesn't just happen in marketing.” The second concept is that people are an expression of the brand. Smythe's example is of hotel chain IHC, which provides employees with a “checklist” of the types of customer interaction that employees will expect to experience. This ensures that the brand effortlessly flows from its customer-facing employees into all of its touchpoints. The result is that employees are “being themselves” - as, in this sector, it's all about the right balance of personality and “polite intrusion”. To customers, this delivers a friendly, attentive, personal service, which is far from false; after all, no business wants its employees to appear to be just acting. Therefore, leaders must recognise either concept as being a conscious choice, understand what their “line of sight” is within the business, and then understand their role within it. Smythe's choice is that brand should either be an expression of strategy, or a contextualised expression of people. Although it is a choice, there are fundamental points relevant to either concept. To make either effective, companies need to instill relevant brand concepts within every member of staff, infuse the brand into every direct and indirect touchpoint, and address the differences in experience across its external and internal customer base.The workplaceFor brand to be an expression of people or strategy, the workplace needs to be “intellectually healthy”. A culture of internal democracy must operate within it, as should “good engagement" - a sufficient level of trust between employees and the employer. The alternative of this environment is centralisation. Corporate cultures with little discretion to contribute – featuring process-driven, automated roles and functions, and no de facto internal communications – augment a related theory: that the social role is becoming centralised. Smythe compares this configuration to modern aircraft, where the aeroplane “knows” where it is going, but the pilot controls have been removed. Obviously, organisational culture varies hugely. Sectors with a high number of customer touchpoints, such as retail, inherently have a more relationship-oriented culture, as the brand often becomes the obvious “glue” that unites disparate groups under one umbrella. As Smythe suggests, “If you have people for a short time, you have to internalise the brand.” The “empowerment debate” in the 1990s really kick-started a re-examination of the concept of of job security: what it is, and what it looks like, to employees. For many, security and loyalty were paramount, and an unwritten contract was in place between employer and employee to this effect. In most institutions, according to Smythe, this has now broken down, with the mass withdrawl of final salary pensions being a good example of this breakdown. This relationship has also changed through the changing nature of social ties in wider society outside of the workplace.Delivering leadership through democracy

The Quaker founders of Cadbury adopted a value of employee welfare from the inception of the company. In an industrialised century, this increasingly became the exception to the rule. Smythe is now starting to see something similar from an increasing range of leaders: the re-consideration of the relationship between employee and leader. Who is serving who?

“Over a century later [than Cadbury], what I am seeing is individual leaders – not just the CEO – consider why they govern”. In this re-consideration, leaders are re-addressing not just this relationship, but also their own role. Leaders can be developed, with Smythe suggesting two paths. The first is to consider what the decision-making approach or style is, when it comes to dealing with crises. After all, crises are all about personal decision-making. The recession has built the reputation of some leaders, but destroyed others. The second is to simply refine or develop a personal style, based on an index of 14 types developed by Smythe, including Sniper, Flirt, Arbiter, and Visionary. Although content can be drowned in such performance, an awareness and suitability of performance style can be developed to overcome this initial oversight. Another of these 14 role types is the court jester. This type can satirise, and bring out the lunacy – in an authentic way. Perhaps less suitable to leaders than to those elsewhere in the business, good consultants can undertake this role, identifying blockers and patterns which can be overcome. (The bad consultant is simply obsequious.) The court jester plays a valuable role, one which has recently gained a fresh approach within more creative organisations, such as the Chief Creative Insurgent role at US group MDC Partners. Ron Heifetz at the Harvard School of Politics has talked about a requirement for leaders to step off the dancefloor – where employee activity takes place - onto the balcony, and observe the dance. Leaders have an opportunity to deliver a new context, and a new partnership with employees, within a shared understanding of what the brand means to them, and their customers. They have an opportunity to change the music.  John Smythe is a partner in corporate engagement consultancy Engage for Change, and the author of Chief Engagement Officer.  

 

On Clay Shirky and cognitive surplus

I was a huge fan of Clay Shirky after reading Here Comes Everybody, but after watching his recent cognitive surplus talk at the RSA, I have to say I don’t buy his new theory one bit.

 

 

While his argument sounds nice – people are watching less TV, so they’re creating more, thanks in no small part to the Internet – it doesn’t actually make much sense.

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Kicking it like the Kaiser

Kicking it like the Kaiser

Throughout the history of the Internet - though most notably in recent years - it has been possible to re-characterise one's self. Indeed, it is likely that many of us have conversed with someone online that is actually someone else, an experience that may have ranged from talking to a “character” from an advertising campaign, right up to a group of people – or a separate organisation – developing a full campaign based around a single person, such as a politician. The development of a range of characters is something that Marcus Brown is known for. Working over several years on this range, spanning the godly to the downright evil, Brown – and his audience – has enjoyed using the multitude of outputs that the web now offers. Brown performs many of the characters in real-life stage shows, as well as online, where perhaps his most well-known character is advertising commentator, the Kaiser. This model of rapid creativity is now set to take a new direction, with the launch of the Black Operatives Department, Brown's project to co-create campaigns and projects for the benefit of both the group and the agency. The project is open-access, and is offered under a Creative Commons licence, meaning that the group's work is there for all to see. The background to the Black Operatives Department is two-fold. The first is the story behind its development. Brown's original idea was to create a covert, shadowy group: an “underground creative network”, that could be employed by an agency to undertake a piece of stealth creative work, if they were struggling with a brief. The Black Operatives Department's work would therefore be rapid, highly creative, and highly productive. As one would expect from a shadowy organisation, the members would never disclose themselves, and the group would never disclose its clients. More recently, Brown came to the conclusion that the development of all of his characters, and projects such as the original Black Operatives Department, were all self-created. While this might seem to demonstrate an incessantly imaginative mind in action, it can – of course – also become rather solitary. Brown wanted to co-create: “...to do it with other people, to share the process, for ideas to become better by sharing, and to let people have a look behind the scenes in terms of what I do, so they could benefit from it – and have fun.” These principles gave birth to what is now the Black Operatives Department. All of the members' ideas go onto the blog, which acts as a central hub for group activity and productivity. Core to the development of these ideas is the regular online workshops, which last for a week. Developed with volunteers from the group, the first workshop asks members to think about a particular character, in a particular context. This first character is a commuter, with the members briefed on the workshop objectives and tasks. This is designed to facilitate the creation of concepts, while also creating a highly specific context and framing to drive creative development over the course of the week. According to Brown, a fundamental part of undertaking this kind of creative work is having a character that is on Twitter, interacting with people that he doesn't know, but ends up becoming part of their life. “He's becoming part of their experience.” The sharing of ideas, content, and materials takes place on Friendfeed. This open, inclusive approach means that anyone with a creative mind and something to offer, can join in. All of Brown's characters have led a totally online existence. They have components and specific functions. The Black Operatives Department is at the early stage of character development: play. Members are getting into the mindset of how an online character works – something very different from just writing scripts.

 

 

If Sisyphus would have been alive in 2006, he would have been a blogger. Marcus Brown

Brown's experience with online character development has led to the development of a robust framework, with the selection of online “components” fulfilling a clear, well-defined function. Twitter, for example, is seen in this context as being a facilitator of digital improvisation, in that character tweets cannot really be scripted; the characters are effectively telling stories, and reacting in real time. “You're acting digitally. I perceive all of the things that I've done, and all chars that I've created, to be digital acting.” Further, characters have a finite lifetime, making Brown interested in character “seasons”. Characters will disappear, with their blogs deleted, only to return later.

Multiple personalities

Digital characters, like digital companions, have the potential to add a very clear, human, almost tactile personality – both inside and outside of the Internet itself. Although Brown sees the Internet's growing anthropomorphism as an opportunity for characterisation, humanisation wasn't the original motive. “Breaking things is a huge motivator. When something new comes out, such as Foursquare, I think: 'How can I break it? This is what they are telling me that I can do with it, but what can I really do with it.' I find it fascinating. It's motivational, not malicious." Complimenting this motivational power of “breaking things”, is the power of being sufficiently irritated by people and their actions, to mock. The Twitter mime artist, for example, is a character that “mimes” responses to the views of people in the industry. “He is one of those characters that fade in and out, as and when people piss me off. I am holding up a mirror to self-important people... 'I am talking about you. Doesn't it make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, when I'm sat on the toilet, deconstructing your tweets?'” Cross-referencing the evolution of communications media led Brown to make the observation during the interview: “I think of the Internet as CB radio with pictures.” Shortly after this interview had ended, Brown's rapid get-on-and-do-it attitude swiftly led to Citizen Brand Media – a CB-like Twitter hashtag lookup service, where Twitter users can subscribe to one of four “channels”. “I loved CB, and still think of it – to turn it on, be on air, and you know where people were: which channels. You had the language. Twitter has a similar language – retweet, tweetups... I was always interested in cheap, fun methods of interactive broadcasting." This history led Brown to re-analyse his own view of the web in the latter part of the last decade. “I have been active on the Internet for many years, and fell out of love with it. I came back in 2006, and everything was lovely, and different. I got swept away in the blogosphere scene. Everybody was writing, and linking to other people. There was a huge noise of loveliness. I was looking at this, and writing, and thinking: when will this stop? You blog and you blog. I felt chained to a lifetime of blogging. If Sisyphus would have been alive in 2006, he would have been a blogger.”

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A youth well wasted

A youth well wasted

It’s the Summer of Love, 1991. Ian Brown is hawking a bit more than Fool’s Gold around Manchester’s nightclubs and Liam Howlett was just starting to take De La Soul’s happy hip hop and amp it up into solid advice from Mum’s friend Charly. Raving became a phenomenon that flared up faster than a teenage growth spurt and threatened to destabilise the country if the authorities were to be believed. But just how did so many people come to be sorted for Es and Whiz in a field off the M25? The story is the birth place of a bigger revolution that would take another 20 years to germinate – the social media revolution.

In the early 90s I lived in Oxford. In fairness, life was pretty awful. I’d left home and was living in shared accommodation in one of Oxford’s unfashionable cheap areas, Cowley Road. My house mates included a girl who’d been thrown out of home at 15 because she reminded her mother too much of her now-divorced father, an Ecuadorian immigrant and a large Alsatian left to us whilst his traveller owner was in jail. Of course on the average night there were bodies littered all around the house, yet only a few us were actually residents liable for the rent. Sometime in December the washing machine in the conservatory froze over night, sealing with it most of my clothes. It would be almost March before we could release them. 

There was little food in this house and little cash in the neighbourhood, yet there was an abundance of dealers. Many were simply trying to get a bit of cash to pay for themselves and the student population made that easy. There were plenty of reasons to want to get out of your head and forget it all if you lived in Cowley.

This side of Oxford is not the side Morse fans are familiar with. Most recall it as the the city of dreaming spires; a city of splendid education, fine buildings and intellectual pursuits by riversides. And yet, Oxford bares a second name given to it whilst it was the King’s capital after he was ousted from London during the Civil War. That name which any from Cowley, Blackbird Leys, Barton or any of Oxford’s other sprawling council estates may feel to be all too true of Oxford: the City of Lost Causes. 

Oxford is unusual in that it has a large youth population, due to students. Maybe that’s why it has the fourth highest rate of drug abuse in the country; a statistic far greater than the size of the city would suggest. It is home to some of the biggest council estates in Europe, and home to some of the brightest young minds in the world. One thing connects them – the desire to party.

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In conversation with... Heath Bunting and James Kennard

Heath Bunting and James Kennard are two of the UK's most well-known net artists. Based in Bristol, and with a track record spanning some 20 years in physical and virtual art, their work spans and addresses a range of social, technological, physical, political and cultural issues.

Bunting and Kennard's latest work is currently taking place at Bblackboxx in Basel. Focusing on the role and socio-political perception of the mobile phone in society, they are running a series of urban survival sessions for “mobile phones and their human companions”.

Given the supposed freedom of mobile phones, their piece at Bblackboxx has a focus on migration and the concept of physical borders. It features a scheme for refugees to take photos - with their mobiles - of their originating country, to bring back and show to others. It concludes with the showing of a film of the journey taken by asylum seekers from north Africa.

We spoke with Heath and James just before they set out to Basel. Please introduce the project: how you have developed the idea, and the background to your thinking regarding the use of mobile phones. JK: The Bblackboxx project emerged from a workshop we gave in Rowsley for the Tracing mobility programme. The objective was to take teenagers supposedly caught in a virtual trap, playing computer games compulsively and out of touch with the physical world and re-integrate them, using their own pervasive means to wean them off digital in a controlled manner.

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Connected TV - the death of the channel

Connected TV - the death of the channel

Our remit at Imperica is to cover a range of disciplines. The burgeoning world of "Connected TV" is one of them. Connected TV, delivering the benefits of Internet connectivity with web-like features to a TV screen, is starting to become understood by advertisers and broadcasters, and desired by audiences.

When I met Ian Valentine, Founder and Technical Director of Miniweb, it was in a meeting room at the company's offices, just off the Great West Road. Warm, friendly and highly conversational, Ian proceeded to ask about Imperica, before I asked him about Miniweb.

Formerly part of Sky's technical leadership, Valentine set Miniweb up in 2007. The Miniweb platform is very much in the spirit of connected TV, in that it provides an interface which allows viewers to discover content at programme level, rather than channel level, through content discovery - UI techniques broadly similar to web search. The Miniweb platform alslo allows for a degree of interaction which could appear on the screen in real time. It amplifies the shared experience.

Because the platform allows for this, the first challenge is to consider whether the current, generally-held definition of connected TV, such as MSN Messenger on a TV screen, is correct – and does the term justice. The concept of form following function doesn't naturally lend itself to such services on TV, in Ian's view: "The problem is that people take the paradigms of other connected devices that they use, and think that those functions are going to automatically appear on the TV. Users choose the best device for every function.” The development of connected TV is therefore the development of what we are able to make better, and to continue to align (or re-align) the matching of form with function.

A further definition which requires re-analysis is the concept of “lean back / lean forward”. This is one which has been used for a number of years within both the digital media and broadcasting industries to mean the convergence of both. As Ian explains: "The whole lean back/lean forward concept has been around for a long time - since the beginning of digital. The thing about digital is that it did two things: it produced more content through multiplexing, and to control that content you had to interact, because of the volume of channels. The second was the ability to roll out functionality that you engaged with: the concept of lean-forward. Picking up the remote, and leaning forward.”

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Are we holding the next generation back?

If you've heard of the term “educational technology”, then you probably have a pretty good idea of what it means. A whole industry has been created around it, particularly from the early 1990s, where vendors such as Apple and RM focused on such a market. At the time, such a market – of students using computers both in classrooms and in the home – was in its infancy.

Professor Matthew Allen considers the term to be bogus. Allen is the first Professor of Internet Studies at Australia's Curtin University, with an approach is transforming both the views of students under his wing – covering many different angles of media – and that of the University.

There's no question that Allen is a sharp, passionate operator, with a deep understanding of the pedagogical impact of media, particularly digital media. His views are sharp, observant, and derived from years of personal insight. To first explain what educational technology is, you have to go back over several decades of media evolution – before and including the birth of the Internet itself.

“TV is a pedagogic tool to education the nation. Universities and schools saw it as educational technology. Now, of course, it's not called that. But, more people know more from TV than they would ever have done from university. So, how is something not called educational technology, so educational?

“The Internet was usefully called educational technology for some years, but now, in developed and developing nations, infrastructure is advanced. Therefore, teachers need to stop constraining the term.”

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Alt/1977: Alex Varanese

Alt/1977: Alex Varanese

Reinventing the past is a series which runs through the summer and autumn on Imperica. We will talk with people and groups using creative technology to develop fictional versions and iterations of notable, generally-accepted events in the past.

For the first in this series, we talk with designer Alex Varanese. Based in the Bay Area of California, Alex's clients have included Nike, CBS, and agencies including Publicis and Sapient Nitro. 

His project, Alt/1977, re-imagines four common products as if they were invented in 1977, developing fictitious print advertising campaigns for them. 

Tell me more about the project, and what led you to develop it.

Years ago, while working as a web developer, I passed a restaurant with a particularly 80's-looking sign and was struck by how out of place it looked. That concept of anachronistic design made me wonder what the web, for instance, might look like if we had the technology of today in the 60's or 70's; color LCD monitors running at 1920x1200, broadband internet connections, HTML-based browsers and all that, but combined with those drab, yellow-tinted color schemes, flower power patterns and new-age hippie sensibilities. There was something so wrong about that idea, almost to the point of revulsion, that I never quite got it out of my head.

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Internet companions

Internet companions

Companionship is part of what makes us human. It drives our need to be with and around people; to converse; to share, and to debate.

The digitisation of companionship is a phenomenon that has obviously been increasing in its absorption into everyday life. Two words sum this up for many people: social media. And, with social media, comes the concept of lifestreaming: the sharing of the important and the trivial, the good and bad, onto digital media. It's the status update, the sharing of photos, and the liking of links. It's an increasingly important part of who we are. With the digitisation of companionship comes the possibility of developing technological answers to socio-technological questions: principally, how companionship could be replicated artificially. The concept of automata understanding humans is, of course, wider than companionship itself: it covers Machine Translation, conversational systems, and other areas which have surfaced into everyday life as translation services, chatbots, and so on. Professor Yorick Wilks is an academic within three organisations, a winner of many computer and linguistic awards, and founder of the Institute of Language, Speech and Hearing at the University of Sheffield. His recent work has included the development of two companions, with relevance to two stages in a person's life. The first is the Senior Companion, which provides companionship for elderly people. It can provide comfort through a shared reminiscence of the past, and plays a role that Professor Wilks calls the “furry handbag”: something warm, cosy and dependable. Such companions validate photographs through the Internet, and allows for the labelling of people to provide conversational cross-references: in other words, a more elaborate form of photo-tagging. Dialogue tags the photo with discourse.

 

 

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In conversation with... Scott Gould and Andrew Pickering

In conversation with... Scott Gould and Andrew Pickering

It was a Talking Heads album cover that contained the rhetorical question “Where do good ideas come from?”

Technology, and the increasing socialisation of communications technology, supposedly allows us to create, develop, refine and deliver ideas in ways and speeds that have never been the case before. From niche startups to scientific breakthroughs, the power of the idea is becoming increasingly met by the power of silicon.

For this “In conversation with...”, Imperica visited the beautiful surroundings of Reed Hall, part of the University of Exeter. Talking about ideas and the socio-technological flow of them, are Scott Gould, and Professor Andrew Pickering.

How can the systems and processes that we now have, from a social and technology perspective, help to foster and generate ideas? Is it easier than ever, to take an idea and make it happen?

SG: It's easier to get access to ideas today, that's certainly true. A great example is TED; you watch a talk, and get inspired. It doesn't really matter which one you watch - they're so inspiring that you want to actualise their idea in your life.

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