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.
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.
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.”
Choosing not to undertake a lifetime of unrelenting blogging led Brown to play with the idea of deleting a blog - just stopping and deleting, and coming back as someone else. This idea led to the development of Brown's first character, Sacrum, which initially attempted to “break” the Plannersphere website.
A major point in the development of Sacrum was a blog post on the website of Wieden+Kennedy UK. The post talked about an unsuccessful job application, which Brown felt was harshly – and openly – treated by W+K. This unhappiness with how agencies dealt with inexperienced applicants, led to Sacrum breaking cover.
Sacrum is an employee of a garden centre in Germany, but wanted to get into advertising. Brown sees Sacrum as symptomatic of the scene at the time: “... and this is what was happening. You had professional advertising people, and a sphere of people around them talking about advertising, but working in garden centres.”
Sacrum applied for a job at W+K, in the same manner as that of the original applicant. This led to applications at more agencies, and a little sprinkling of crumbs around the web, containing eager but rather over-exuberant Powerpoint graphics "produced by" the character.
The development of Sacrum led Brown to consider more social, current issues in subsequent characters, with one perennial issue being privacy. This made Brown consider what might happen, if a psychopath decided to use the Internet to stalk people. That issue drove the creation of Jack The Twitter.
An abundance of free, networked, digital services means that Brown can add more components to a character than ever before. Jack The Twitter is the most complex in terms Brown's characters: you see what music he listens to, what articles he's reading, and what he is generally interested in. You can talk to him, be attacked by him, and with Google Maps, see who he has attacked.
Jack's objective is clearly designed to be rather frightening, a feeling which is amplified through the ubiquitous tools now available. On Twitter, Jack follows people that Brown would not normally follow, so there is no preconceived idea of how to react to this character. That said, Jack's profile usually comes with caveats, to clarify that he is fictional.
This palette of websites and media for each character is thoroughly planned, and clearly some services make sense for a limited range of characters. The Twitter mime artist just uses Video, Twitter, and Chatroulette. “It's more about what do I want to do and how do I want to do it – and what makes sense.”
Both creation and deletion of a character's presence is part of the process. The Kaiser's Twitter profile was not renamed, but totally deleted. Brown sold his first Twitter account on Ebay: “I can sell stuff that doesn't belong to me. How fucking crazy is that? So, it's all about mischief... breaking stuff, although I haven't worked out how to screw LinkedIn yet.
“I'm sat in the car thinking 'Fuck! LinkedIn is a big pile of shit. How can we show people that what they're doing is a big pile of shit? How can we make it funny and entertaining, and cheer people up for a week?'... it's for people that appreciate the humour. It's social criticism done funnily and creatively. If they're interested, they will think about how [I] did that.'"
Another character, Charles Stab, was the producer of a podcast: “Charles Stab – my shit life and business horoscopes”.
The theory of a world overrun with experts being a hollow one was discussed in “Embracing mediocrity”, an article by Brown in character as the Kaiser. The article describes the decline of desktop publishing, and the growth and democratisation of software. “It's the whole Walter Gropius proletariat artist thing – just because people go to art school, it doesn't make them an artist. I would say that was true in 2007, but in 2009 I tweeted and said 'when real people turn up here, we're fucked'. Real people have turned up, and we're kind of fucked. We're not, but the experts are.”
“People on Facebook chatting and posting photos of hen nights are not interested in looking at a brand onion and how social media plays a part in that brand onion. There are 500 million people on Facebook, but 800 million people don't have access to clean water. When real people turn up onto this, they think that they are going to watch TV. They're going to be really pissed when they find out that this isn't TV.”
Brown's ability to develop through a combination of curiosity, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and rapid invention, has enabled his portfolio of characters to live and flourish online. The Black Operatives Department, a group project with exponentially greater potential, will allow members, as well as anyone else, to have a greater understanding of character development, narrative, and management across online channels. It will be exciting to see where and how these new, co-created characters, stories, and conversations will develop.