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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In conversation with... Molly Flatt and Richard Gray

In conversation with... Molly Flatt and Richard Gray

As communications technology becomes increasingly social, it is important for brands to understand the potential of how they can also become more social, and the potential of reframing their perception within society. This “In conversation with...” is about brand anthropomorphism: the current and future potential of human characteristics of brands. In conversation, in a sunny Soho garden, are Molly Flatt and Richard Gray.

How can brands start to adopt more human characteristics? RG: I think that brands have been doing this since the year dot, and do a whole host of things to feel – to become – more human, to their audiences. These range from having icons for their brands, like Marlboro Man and the Churchill Dog, to communicating in a much more human way, such as the Gold Blend couple.

Brands are all about association, so you create an environment which feels more human, and by that, there is an association with the brand. The main point is to create these actual icons that have very human characteristics, or trying to give personality and human attributes to your products.

The classic one recently is Apple, with its advertising of Mac and PC, as human “products”. So, I think that it's very much the territory of brands to create that human association, because we have stronger connections with people and their psychological characteristics, than we do with functional characteristics. While those are important, you have to go beyond that, and create a longer lasting sense of loyalty.

This is very much the heart of what brands do – they create that association. I think that the interesting thing is where brands are creating a more conversational dialogue, as part of demonstrating their human side. MF: We never really confirm what we mean by human, and by “human” we use it as a euphemism to mean lovely, personable, warm... which is all great, but if you're talking about human characteristics, then those aren't necessarily human characteristics.

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