Online drama

I’ve been thinking about online drama recently.

There are traditional online video productions, which are essentially video made for the web. Good examples are Dr Horrible and The Remnants. Both high quality videos made to be distributed online, both created during the writers strike last year. (No coincidence there I think).

Then you’ve got your Alternate Reality Games. I’m going to assume you already know (or will quickly learn) about The Beast, Majestic, Starlight Travel, World Without Oil, Why So Serious, The Lost Ring etc. Three specifically interesting examples…

I Love Bees‘ (2004) was ostensibly a radio drama, but one distributed using payphones around the world which the ‘audience’ became players of a game in order to follow the story. Implausibly difficult for anyone to follow alone, it worked as a community experience with players working together to find, record and share the fragments of story being played through payphone around the world. It was commissioned as a viral campaign for the Halo 2 game.
Hear the story from start to finish here, and read more about the background from 42 Entertainment or the predictably detailed Wikipedia entry.

Perplex City‘ (2004 – 2007) was
“A city obsessed with puzzles and ciphers. A game that blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality.” An ambitious treasure-hunt ARG project, supported by the sale of collectable puzzle cards. Though not necessary to play the bigger game, the cards did provide some of the clues and integrated with the imaginary universe of Perlex City. Particularly of note is the fan-run wiki which the developers ended up relying on as the canonical record of what had happened in the story.

We Tell Stories‘ (March 2008) was ‘Digital fiction from Penguin’ built by Six To Start.
“Penguin UK is launching its most ambitious digital writing project to date. In collaboration with fêted alternate reality game designers Six to Start, Penguin has challenged some of its top authors to create new forms of story – designed specially for the internet. … But somewhere on the internet is a secret seventh story, a mysterious tale involving a vaguely familiar girl who has a habit of getting herself lost. Readers who follow this story will discover clues that will shape her journey and help her on her way. These clues will appear online and in the real world and will direct readers to the other six stories. The secret seventh story will also offer the chance to win some wonderful prizes…”. This was most interesting

Incidentally, there’s a long history of Alternate Reality Games being used to extend and enhance TV experiences too.

Online drama using social networks are an ever growing field. Here are a few that have caught my eye:

lonelygirl15‘ (June 2006 – August 2008) was “the first of many shows within the fictional LG15 Universe, tells the ongoing story of a group of young adults fighting against a mysterious secret society called, The Order. … On the LG15 website, community members can interact with the characters and each other in the forums, chat rooms and comment boards, and can create their own community generated videos and storylines that add to the ever expanding LG15 universe.” (If you’ve always wondered what it was about, there’s a 300 word plot summary you might enjoy. Also worth knowing that in its early stages it was a perfectly believable story of a normal girl, and there was a fair bit of controversy and discussion when it was discovered that she was an actress. Easy to miss, when looking at the story now, but it was controversial at the time). LG15 also involved a small amount of product placement (sorry, product integration), though this was taken a lot further in later spin-offs…

Kate Modern‘ (July 2007 – June 2008) was “an interactive online drama which ran from July 2007 – June 2008 and was produced by the creators of lonelygirl15 – EQAL. During it’s highly successful year long run it was nominated for two TV Craft BAFTA awards, a Webby Award and won the Broadcast Press Guild Award for Innovation 2008”. A spin-off from lonelygirl15, Kate Modern ran for two seasons. (Review). Product integration apparently allowed Kate Modern to turn a healthy profit. (Season 1, 2007, was supported by MSN, Tampax, Pantene, Gillette, Orange, Paramount Pictures UK and Buena Vista International UK. Season 2, 2008, by Toyota Aygo Platinum, Cadbury Creme Egg, Warner Bros & Skittles.)

Sofia’s Diary‘ (March 2008 – June 2009) has run for three seasons on Bebo, was broadcast for about a year on ‘Fiver’ but recently dropped Sponsors have included Sure Girl and Transport for London. (More info)

The Gap Year‘ (May 2008 – August 2009) “The brand new daily reality show, from the makers of Big Brother”
(another Bebo production, this one in conjunction with Endemol. Sponsors include Sony PSP, Trident and Doritos).
Freak A Freemantle co-production with MySpace. ‘The first UK online drama from MySpace’. Launch date: 20th July. Brand partners include Tampax and Red Bull.

Hollyoaks: The Morning After the Night Before‘ (July 2009)
Is an online video drama made by Channel 4 in partnership with the Home Office to promote the Know Your Limits sensible drinking campaign. Character profiles on Bebo and episodes online at “Hollyoaks: The Morning After the Night Before is a brand new Hollyoaks drama … It’s all happening here on All of the episodes will be online, and you can find out behind the scenes gossip right here too – with exclusive interviews, spoilers, photo galleries, behind the scenes videos and more. Make sure you check out Josh , Sasha and Dave ‘s Bebo profiles, keeping you up-to-date with what the gang are getting up to in between episodes… “ (The 12 episodes will be released online every Monday, Wednesday and Friday through July)

What has the BBC been up to? A couple of recent examples:

Proper Messy‘ (January 2009) A teen drama from Switch.
“Proper Messy was an exciting new interactive drama where YOU could influence the story … As well as weekly episodes on BBC Two there was loads of stuff on bebo and extra exclusive vids online each week. If you were aged 13-17 you could have also signed up to get texts EVERY DAY from the two main characters Imogen or Jake. … This is where things really got exciting – if their texts stirred you into action you could reply and your comments could have influenced the decisions they made. And, what was even better is that it was all free!” (Review)

‘The Well’ was announced just yesterday. “BBC Switch has commissioned digital production company Conker Media, part of Lime Pictures (whose credits include Hollyoaks), to create and produce an interactive, digital drama thriller for its teen audience. The Well will air in the autumn in the Switch zone on BBC Two (Saturdays 12noon-2.00pm) and extends online at where the audience can immerse themselves further in the story, exploring a spookily atmospheric recreation of the main drama location in a multi-level game.”

‘Psychoville’, exploring the possibilities of comedy on the web, have strategically dropped a few website addresses into their episodes and site, and encourage viewers to explore the web looking for answers to a weekly question.
“The mysterious stranger knows what you did: stop your secret going public by answering the messages below. Keep an eye out on TV and scour the internet for character websites you will need to visit. Answer the questions correctly to continue and come back after each episode for a new question.”
So, not quite an ARG (and actually, I notice that I’ve drifted away from Drama too. Maybe I’ll make another post about Comedy soon), but it is a great way of exploring the world of Psychoville and discovering things like Mr Jelly’s homepage. The results are every bit as darkly funny as you might expect.

Going back a bit further, CDX (2006) is an ‘interactive film experience’. (Read an article about it from DigitalArts or a review in Joystiq) hough some thinking about games from the BBC is a post I’ll save for another time.

What else? More BBC online dramas: Signs of Life from 2007 (“Buffy meets Horoscopes“), Wannabes from 2006 (” an interactive web-based soap opera“).  Torchwood did an ARG and Dr Who didn’t (even though a prominently placed phone number made many of us think they might have).

So what about the future? Only time will tell of course. I’m interested to hear of other examples though, and what you think works.

How teenagers consume media, apparently

There’s a bit of work-experience-as-research from Morgan Stanley doing the rounds this week. It’s called “‘How Teenagers Consume Media’ by Matthew Robson (Aged 15 yrs & 7 months)” and if you want to read it you can download the PDF from the FT or the the Evening Standard. (Incidentally, isn’t that weird? Where’s the download from Morgan Stanley themselves? I can’t find one.)

If you want to know what a teenager and his friends think about the media, ask him. Fair enough. It is an interesting read too, giving an honest no-holds barred account of Matthew’s perspective on everything from radio, TV, games, internet music, cinema and mobile phones. However, when I read an executive director at Morgan Stanley quoted in the Guardian as saying that “the note had generated five or six times more responses than the team’s usual research” and the Telegraph claiming that it has “become a sensation among City analysts and media executives desperate to discover the habits of younger generations”, I think it’s time to get some perspective about a piece of writing that is purely anecdotal. Suw Charman-Anderson is particularly eloquent on this:

“The City, and sections of the media, are getting a touch over-excited by a “research note” written for Morgan Stanley by Matthew Robson, a 15 year old on work experience … He has written a very well thought out piece which describes the media habits of him and his friends. … But one has to put this research note into context: This is one teen describing his experience. It is not a reliable description of all teens’ attitudes and behaviours, yet both Morgan Stanley and the media seem to be treating it as if Robson has Spoken The One Great Truth. … The important thing about businesses like Morgan Stanley, and the journalists who write about them, is that they are supposed to be able to tell the difference between data and generalisations. Yet they don’t seem able to sort the wheat from the chaff.”

And as Suw points out, it’s not as though there hasn’t been any actual research into teens behaviour before now. Suw’s post links to danah boyd a Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research whose papers are well worth reading her for her well researched and respected insights into teen behavour.

There are plenty of other studies too. Nielsen’s report on ‘How Teens Use Media’ [PDF] from last month.

The notion that teens are too busy texting and Twittering to be
engaged with traditional media is exciting, but false

Teens are NOT abandoning TV for new media: In fact, they watch more TV than ever

Teens love the Internet…but spend far less time browsing than adults

It focuses on U.S. and while it covers much of the same ground it backs it all up with, you know, numbers.

Going back a bit further, Forrester conducted a survey of European teens for DIUS last year, and wrote it up in a report called ‘How are young people using social media‘.

Regarding Teens and twitter, of course some teens certainly do use Twitter (according to Sysomos recently, 31% of Twitter’s users self-disclosed age is between 15 and 19) but here’s Nielsen again:

“Twitterers are not primarily teens or college students as you might expect. In fact, in February the largest age group on Twitter was 35-49; with nearly 3 million unique visitors, comprising almost 42 percent of the site’s audience.”

Meanwhile, CNET reported last month on a survey from Pace University and the Participatory Media Network:

“While 99 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have profiles on social networks, only 22 percent use Twitter, according to a new survey from Pace University and the Participatory Media Network. … 85 percent of them follow friends, 54 percent follow celebrities, 29 percent follow family members, and 29 percent follow companies”

Derek E Baird’s Barking Robot blog (‘musings on Generation Y educational and kids media, online community and youth culture’) is a great resource for people working in those fields. Recently, a post about teens and twitter gave a great summary of various studies and reports too.

If the personal touch appeals to you though, consider getting a few different viewpoints. Particularly interesting was the Guardian’s publishing of two more British teenagers responses yesterday:

Izzy Alderson Blench, aged 16 years, 11 months:

“Matthew claims that teenagers don’t have time for television or reading a newspaper. Maybe that is because he is too busy chatting to his friends on Xbox Live 360. Living in a rural area, Virgin Media is not available and the vast majority of teenagers I know use Sky. Instead of using BBC iPlayer or 4od, teenagers will record programmes on to their Sky+ box and watch later.”

The music program most popular with teenagers I know is Spotify. With (Matthew’s choice) it isn’t always possible to listen to exactly the song you want; with Spotify, it is.

teenagers DO read newspapers. Real ones, not just freesheets (you don’t get thelondonpaper in East Sussex, funnily enough). Even if it is just the weekend section or the magazine, the majority of teenagers will read an interview or feature in a newspaper regularly. Some even read the news.”

and Eloise Veljovic, 17 years, 1 month:

“As a teenager who lives in a small town in Kent, I feel some of his comments to be unfair on the general population

I believe that the radio culture is thriving among the younger generations. With popular presenters such as Chris Moyles and Fearne Cotton spilling over into other genres, teenagers are keen to keep up to date with their radio shows, even if only for the 10 minute car journey to school

As a teenage girl who cannot tell Ronaldo from Ronaldinho, I tend not to spend five hours a week watching football.

I also disagree with Robson’s take on the BBC iPlayer and his correlation to less television viewing time. Most teenagers live with the comfort and reassurance of Sky or Sky+ and will be informed whether their programme is about to begin or when it will next be on. Therefore, the use of services such as 4od or iPlayer are irrelevant and unnecessary.”

The full article is well worth a look and helps balance some of the London boy centric points.

Update: Kevin Anderson follows up with further discussion and more links to useful studies.

My annual appraisal, my inbox and me

I’ve just submitted by appraisal for 2008-2009. Based on some great feedback, it says lots of nice nice things about being “a credible expert … working effectively with everyone from producers to channel controllers” and so forth.

The more interesting bits, and what I want to share here, are where I admit failings and suggest fixes. Most importantly, I’ve realised that that I need to prioritise the important stuff:

I need to free up additional time to focus on the more important things. Although I’ve been learning to delegate and escalate, I know that I’ll need to do more of both next year if I want to make a significant impact on the bigger projects

I’ve come to understand that I can’t do everything without going mad and I’m finally ready to admit to myself (and you) that I can’t realistically respond to every email:

I will respond to fewer emails, prioritise more and realise I’ll never reach the very bottom of the pile. I will especially avoid weekend working

For the past few months, I’ve been getting better at managing my inbox using an ‘inbox zero‘ approach, whereby I aim to finish every day with an empty inbox, even if it means a long – and growing – folder full of email to action. It’s better, I’ve found, than suffering from having read and unread email intermingled, or even (and feel free to slap yourself if you do this) marking email as unread in order to be reminded to come back to it later. That way madness lies.

  1. If it needs a response…
    1. respond immediately if it takes less than two minutes
    2. …or file it as an ‘action’ for later.
  2. Delete everything that can be deleted.
  3. Archive everything that is needed for later.

The bits I specifically need to get better at are:

  • Starting the day with those actions rather than the inbox so I spend more time doing the most important thing rather than the most recent thing.
  • Sticking to a routine of processing email at regular intervals (and not at the weekend), rather than constantly checking my inbox as frequently as I can humanly manage. I like what Merlin Mann says about this: “Checking email every 59 seconds is tantamount to washing rice one grain at a time”

I sort of miss the pigeons

Trafalgar Square

Visiting Trafalgar Square still brings back childhood memories of feeding the birds. Fifty pence (I think) for a spray-can-lid full of seed, rather than the more traditional tuppence a bag.

Filthy winged rats they may be, but I can’t help feeling sorry for the children who don’t get to experience that terrifying thrill of finding themselves surrounded by a sea of pigeons.

Recent reading


Recent reading (May)

  • 31 Songs, Nick Hornby – meh
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz – hmm
  • The Robots of Dawn, Isaac Asimov – gah
  • Have I Got Views For You, Boris Johnson – yawn
  • Moondust, Andrew Smith – yay


Recent reading (June)

  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer – passable sci-fi. Apparently it’s the first in the ‘Riverworld’ series, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering to find the rest. Hermann Göring is the one-dimensional bad guy? That’s pretty lazy.
  • The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga – this is brilliant. Man Booker Prize winner, 2008. It’s everything ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ should have been.
  • The Corner, David Simon and Ed Burns – it’s like The Wire in condensed, dead-tree form. Brilliant.
  • Arcadia, Tom Stoppard – watched this play recently and enjoyed it so much I immediately wanted to buy a copy. Choice quotes: “It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew was wrong” and “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind”
  • Microserfs, Douglas Coupland – I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this. Every time I do, I get a little bit more annoyed about the writing (caricatures of geeks, clunky ethnography, twee unsubtle affected nonsense throughout) but I do cry a little bit harder at page 369.
  • Labyrinth, Kate Mosse – I don’t really know where to start here. I’ve been describing it as “Dan Brown for girls” and honestly, it’s dreadful. Often whole pages go by before you’ll see an adverb or an adjective while similes and metaphors appear to be rationed at about one per chapter. It’s relentless in telling you something has happened, but the language is so dry and empty that it doesn’t ever make you care. It’s a bit like running across the country with only a bag of Weetabix to keep you going, and no milk; plenty of things will happen, but you won’t enjoy any them.

Guardian Activate 09

I went to Activate 09 today.

“an exclusive one-day summit providing a unique gathering for leaders working across all sectors to share, debate and create strategies for answering some of the world’s biggest questions.”

Activate 09

I was there for most of the day today, though I sadly had to miss a chunk of the afternoon. Here’s a taste of what I saw:

Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon talked about Amazon Web Services:

  • Last century, all sorts of companies had to invest in generating their own electricity just to be able do business. Quickly re-fitted to take advantage of electricity as a utility when it become available.
  • The same is now becoming true for computation. Moving from capital expenditure to variable cost model.
  • Cloud computing: reduces risk, reduces startup time for new ideas, lets you pay for what you use.
  • [sales pitch for]

Clare Lockhart, co-founder and CEO, Institute for State Effectiveness, co-author with Ashraf Ghani of book ‘Fixing Failed States’, talked about government:

  • Re-rebuilding Afghanistan: the UN has no manual for building a government, and the World Bank has no manual for building an economy
  • An army and police force, paid for by tax, paid by a population who has security and justice, which requires… (it’s a circle)
  • Problems with Afghanistan: no money went to police (because it wasn’t ‘poverty-reducing’), railways (because the country was ‘too poor’) or higher education.
  • Many failed states are offline and off the grid. many won’t have electricity for > 50% of their population for 10 years
  • Citizen centered design. Citizens are interested in using the net for market pricing and the transparency of putting budgets online

Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief, The Huffington Post talked about business and politics.
Arianna Huffington at Activate 09

  • Raw data can’t be viral. You have to translate it into something that people will share, that will ‘catch fire’.
  • Were it not for the internet, ‘Obama would not be president’.
  • Mainstream media suffers from attention deficit disorder. New media suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • You consume old media sitting on your couch. You consume new media galloping on a horse.
  • The cost of launching a new business is now so low that sometimes it’s indistinguishable from starting a new hobby
  • The next interesting business to watch will be one which… ‘connects in order to disconnect in a hyper-connected society’ (e.g unplug and recharge, remember the value of sleep..)

Nick Bostrom, director, Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and founder of the world transhumanist foundation, talked about post-humanity and existential events. i.e. being wiped out by extinction or being left behind by the singularity.
Nick Bostrom at Activate 09

  • Some options for humanity: extinction, plateau of development, recurrent development and collapse, or advancement to post-humanity
  • Most significant dents in human population have been caused by ‘bad germs or bad men’ all the biggest risks are anthopgenic (i.e. caused by humans) rather than natural
  • 99.99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct
  • The Toba eruption 75,000 years ago may have reduced the population to ~500 reproducing human females
  • A ‘rather arbitrary definition’ of post-humanity: population reaches > 1 trillion, life expectancy becomes > 500 years, near-total control over sensory input for majority of people most of the time, psychological suffering becomes rare, … or something comparably profound
  • Singularity: an artificial intelligence explosion which leaves mankind behind. Proposed by John Von Neuman in 1958, developed by IJ Good in 1965 and subsequently by Ray Kertviel et al

Ed Parson, Geospatial Technologist (‘in-house geographer’ at Google) talked about mapping.

  • Ambient location finding, “the choice to know where we are”.
  • Our children will probably never know what it’s like to be lost. They will take this for granted. It’s no longer a big deal to know where you are.

Jon Udell, evangelist at Microsoft talked about an aggregation tool he’s been building at which shares local communiy events from eventful, upcoming etc, with links back to source.

Tom Steinberg, founder and director of mySociety threw away his talk about MPs expenses last night, and instead talked about new media vs old media: “this new media revolution is not the reolvution you’re looking for”

  • Joke: do you know the difference between the fall of the berlin wall and the twitter revolution in iran? The wall fell.
  • Amazon didn’t change the publishing industry by writing in industry journals about how the publishing industry could be better. It just starting doing things better.
  • What could change politics and society? 1 – the next generation of public servants could refuse to comply with current norms and conventions. 2 – or, radical change in computing which makes it harder to keep secrets. 3 – some sort of law that smuggles new ways of distributing and allocating power
  • Highly usable and simple credit card forms. (how did I buy that book? that was so easy! More people donating to obama because it was easy)

William Perrin, founder, Talk About Local talked about local campaigning using simple (and ‘unfashionable’) publishing tools

  • gets 300 unique visitors per week, but considering it’s intended readership is one small part of london, it has the proportion as a national audience of 1M+. i.e. getting the same audience proportion as Newsnight in his community/ward.
  • Perfectly normal people publishing effectively using unfashionable technologies, which percolate out into wider society. More examples: Sheffield Forum,, Digbeth is Good, Pits ‘n Pots.
  • Funding from C4 to train and support local community networks

Thomas Gensemer, managing partner and founder, Blue State Digital talked about how his agency ran Obama’s digital campaign:

  • How do you know you were effective? Because 80% of donations were raised by the online campaign
  • simplicity of giving, simplicity of volunteering
  • Blue State Digital previously worked on Ken Livingston’s mayoral election, and have worked with various trade unions, but contrary to some press reports, isn’t currently under contract for Labour
  • Ask yourself: if you had 100 of your supporters in the room, what would you ask them to do for you today? If you can’t answer that, forget about twitter, facebook etc
  • faking it is much worse than not doing it. Ted Kennedy isn’t on Twitter but it doesn’t mean he’s absent from online spaces. He participates in ways that are authentic and comfortable for him

Adam Afriyie, shadow minister for science and innovation on the role of technology in democracy, [and was the only speaker to read from a prepared speech]
Adam Afriyie at Activate 09

  • internet empowers citizens, raises expectations and reveals secrets
  • it’s not about whether you’re from the left or right, it’s about whether you ‘get it’ or you don’t
  • we need to meet expectations of transparency and connectedness without compromising privacy and security
  • conservative party has more friends on Facebook than labour and lib dems combined [useful metric?]
  • social media won’t clean up politics on its own.

Tom Watson, former minister for transformation

    Tom Watson at Activate 09

  • only 60% of government statistics are published [I’m not sure if this is a fact, an estimate or a joke]
  • civil servants who want to be on Facebook, Twitter etc at work should be able to be. It’s useful, and it shouldn’t be up to an IT or HR manager.
  • it is ‘totally unacceptable’ for the Ordnance Survey not to provide maps suitable for the digital economy
  • agrees with Adam Arfiyie that adoption and acceptance is a ‘generational issue’

Matt Webb, CEO, Schulze and Webb, as part of a panel, talked about design of digital and physical objects. [I always find Matt to be consistently quotable]

  • when my phone rings, it’s like a baby crying. I want my technology to be gossiping with me. I don’t want my washing machine to be a shitty flat-mate
  • we need to think about inviting products into out lives like inviting friends into our lives. Maybe our digital cameras are nosey. Maybe I have an abusive relationship with my email.
  • our consumption is out of proportion to our creation. This can start with putting on plays for friends and family, and knowing when our friends are around us so we can talk to them. I try to reinforce relationships with friends rather than meet stranger.

Charlie Leadbeater, founder, Participle / author, We Think / fellow, Nesta talked about African education and ‘learning from extremes
Charlie Leadbeater at Activate 09

  • we’ll learn more about the future of education not by going to where schools are, but where they aren’t
  • the biggest challenges will be in developing world cities. Cities with > 1m people, 86 in 1950, 550 in 2015
  • developing world says that Education (+ Technology) = Hope

Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology, ECLS, Newcastle University talked about his hole in the wall experiments

  • children don’t need to be taught how to use it, or even the language: “you gave us a machine that worked in English, so we taught ourselves English”
  • clustering around a shared computer proves more effective than having a laptop each. Discussion and sharing key to learning. ‘self organised mediation environments’
  • “I’ve put some interesting information which is in English and very hard in the computer. Will you look at it?” 2 months later, they’d looked at it every day, and claimed to have “understood nothing”, but when pressed admitted “apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease, we haven’t learnt anything”
  • children’s understanding of their own learning is different from our understanding of their learning

John Van Oudenaren, Director, World Digital Library Initiative, The Library of Congress talked about the World Digital Library though I failed to take more notes than that. The site looks interesting though.

Dr. R.K. Pachauri, chairman, IPCC & director general, TERI talked about the scary reality and significant risks of climate change. [and it turns out that it’s worse than we thought, thanks to James for the link]

  • internet is estimated to represent 5% of world’s total electricity consumption (more than half of which comes from computers). ICT sector contributes 2.5% of greenhouse gases
  • energy efficiency and changes in users’ behaviour can reduce these numbers significantly
  • but ICT can have positive impact: remote sensing, information dissemination, …
  • Ghandi: speed is irrelevant if you’re going in the wrong direction

Bradley Horowitz, vice president of products, Google talked about
Bradley Horowitz at Activate 09

  • Google Apps is ‘NSA’ (Google-speak for ‘not search or ads’)
  • There is no master plan for the internet. It’s made up of billions of contributions. It’s a gestalt. It’s more like an ant colony than anything else
  • Ideas (or ‘memes’) are being selected for in natural selection. Great number of web 2.0 startups have not survived [see Meg’s excellent post which illustrates this]
  • To double your success rate, double your failure rate” – Thomas Watson (IBM founder)
  • The importance of killing projects (the time wasn’t right for Google Lively) and protecting them (Wave team was ‘given free reign to develop a platypus’ outside the normal development constraints)

One of the interesting features of the day was having Twitter on-screen on the stage at various points during the day. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been fascinated by backchannels and how they’re used at live events. The tool the Guardian were using today (developed in-house?) and the way they were using it is probably the most mature and best example of using Twitter at a conference I’ve seen to date, for three reasons.

Firstly, it wasn’t using a totally automatic feed; it allowed for local moderation, i.e. the stream was curated, with spam, off-topic and overly negative or offensive content all weeded out. The aim was to publish everything that enhanced the conversation. Meg Pickard explained the approach: “Curation for public view applies a filter which helps signal v noise” because “open access publishing to public screen is a red rag to plenty of bull“.

Secondly, several Guardian staff were present in the room and on Twitter, informally ‘hosting’ the Twitter discussion by answering questions, re-tweeting key points and generally being interesting and interested participants.

Thirdly, the Twitter stream was not shown on-stage continuously, and was only switched to when the main screen wasn’t in use with another presentation. This worked very well, with the gaps between sessions and the during questions became the obvious and appropriate moments when the comments and observations from Twitter came to the fore for the people without open mobiles or laptops.

Twitter at Activate 09

This meant a totally open back-channel continued as normal on Twitter, while the appropriate stuff was also highlighted for the hallowed ground of the stage at the right times.

I didn’t ask which, if any, of the Guardian staff twitterers were doing it formally, and which were just volunteering and helping out because they were there and it felt like the right thing to do. Perhaps a bit of both? Either way, it all felt pretty natural and was very effective. Meg, Chris, Kevin, Simon (and probably others I’ve missed) were all able to answer questions and either provide or relay additional info from the room (nice example from Simon regarding when the video will be online).

Regardless of whether you think the culling of one particular negative comment was justified and sensible or just an overly knee-jerk and defensive moderation decision, the fact that Chris and Meg were willing and able to join the discussion undoubtedly stopped the issue from escalating and overtaking the backchannel, and I noticed that it was immediately appreciated too.

Overall, the use of Twitter was excellent, and has given me plenty of ideas. Most of all, I’d like their code. :-) Instant update: Chris says they’ll be open sourcing the Twitter code next week. Hurrah. Oh, and says it again in the comments below. Double hurrah.

More links:
Guardian Activate 09 [programme, speakers]
‘#activate09’ Twitter hashtag
‘activate09’ tag on Flickr
‘#activate09’ images via Twitcaps
my photos

Notes from C21 Social Media Forum

C21’s Social Media Forum said that the event would provide

a creative workshop that defines and develops how the producers channels and rights owners can work with social media platforms to develop business and extend creativity. And generate new revenue streams today!

Despite not being desperately bothered about generating new revenue streams,  I was sufficiently interested by the rest of the description to book a place. Of course, I wasn’t really expecting it to deliver on its promise of being a ‘creative workshop’, and it didn’t. The event was more of a traditional conference, with speakers and time-for-questions. Overall, it was quite useful though, especially the morning sessions. Here are selected notes from some of the more interesting slots:

Opening keynote: Building brands with social media, Ann Longley (Digital strategy director, Mediaedge:cia)

  • how do we use social media, and what it means.
  • “You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice Twitter these days”
  • “What’s happening in Iran shows the power of social media beyond entertainment|
  • “press coverage of Twitter signals the ‘mainstreaming’ of social media”
  • What is social media anyway? Quote from MEC Guide to Social Media – “all online activities, tools, platforms and practices that allow users to collaborate, create, …”
  • “Traditional broadcasting model is breaking down”
  • social media is dominated by UGC: creating, sharing and remixing content
  • campaigning – e.g. NUS vs HSCB, M&S bra size cost, 13k on FB. There’s no such thing as local news any more.
  • organising protests has never been easier
  • finding out what people are saying about your brands online: “Many brands have fans online, even without actively cultivating it. It happens naturally.”
  • “smart brands cultivate their fanbase”
  • “smart fans influence brands” (or at least, influence brands which listen)
  • (while brands can avert crises by listening (Sony Bravia defusing negative story around Paint advert by monitoring online before it turned into a problem)
  • “…and invite their customers to help them”
  • What makes a good social media strategy? At the heart of any campaign you need a good product or service. Examples: Obama – being everywhere, T-mobile – UGC, Skins – energising their fanbase, Sony Ericsson – pocketTV, Dell – going from Dell hell to Idea Storm
  • content, communities and conversations = conversion (to £ or eyeballs)
  • social entertainment: social media enriching experiences. creative industries engaging audiences across channels
  • some examples of Alternative Reality Games (“it’s kind of a geeky thing, seen as quite left-field and not compelling for a mainstream audience…”, but interesting anyway) – cited McDonalds’ The Lost Ring, Superstruct, Penguin’s We Tell Stories
    A Swarm of Angels….
  • earned media: word of mouth from friends and trusted people
  • Whuffie: in a post scarcity economy, reputation and social capital rule.

How to work with Joost to extend your entertainment brand, Henrik Werdelin (Chief creative officer, Joost)

  • people are increasingly consuming an audience online, but how do people find the stuff to watch?
  • social discovery is underdeveloped. The whole internet seems to be centered around Google and SEO
  • the web is bad at helping people find stuff they didn’t know they wanted to watch
  • new content discovery methods are algorithmic (amazon, joost, iplayer)
    and equivalent to zapping / channel-hopping (i.e stumbleupon)
  • “you should watch this show about pandas” vs “28 of your friends really love this show…” – Joost uses FB connect to help with this sort of social discovery
  • ‘ behaviour generated content’ AKA ‘social triggers’: generating user content without having to do anything. e.g. FB activity feeds from status changes. Going from single to married used to be just a metadata change is now an item of activity in a feed. And an important one.
  • personalisation: subscriptions & data visualisation
  • realtime-web: co-watching. what are your friends doing right now?
  • 2% creators, 8% particpators, 90% lurkers/passive viewers. How do you move the 90 into the 8 and 2?
  • Paradox of Choice
  • Joost design based on ‘freedom from choice’, i.e. preventing people feeling overwhelmed.

Using online narrative and social media to drive commercial value, Andrew Piller (Fremantle Media)

  • new media strategy: recycle, extend and create
  • era of self-expression & the rise of the prosumer
  • audience is broader than you think (not just 16-24 year olds) and niche communities are valuable
  • rules for content: personalised, participatory and narrative (if there’s no story, how will the audience engage?)
  • ingredients: linear narrative (lean back mode), non linear (lean forward / real-time), interactivity, community
  • “all of our experiences are underpinned by community”
  • Freak (goes live July 20th.) is a Freemantle co-production with MySpace currently in production (story from Broadcast Now) is the first UK online drama from MySpace. “We’d never let the audience decide the story but how they get there, the everyday decisions, can be affected and influenced by the audience”.
  • Lead character is a girl gamer. Brand partners include P&G (Tampax) and Red Bull. Brand opportunities for music, fashion, games, …
  • producer from Coronation St, director from Hollyoaks, creative prod from serial drama, AP is very young, we have a community manager.
  • Brands want new ways to talk to their customer
  • Brands (think they) want community “but don’t know how to create it”
  • Q: where did the idea come from? A: In house creative team for d
  • Q: how do you work with other social networks? A: YouTube platform where you can view the content too, but the experience is bespoke to MySpace. In the dream world you’d hyper-syndicate and use it to drive back to MySpace.
  • Q: do you need MySpace? A: Brands are nervous about the space, so it’s easier if you have a distributor on-board. Industry needs a gamechanger to prove the model. Kate Modern & Lonely Girl were good examples, but the scale and production values were not there.
  • Q: how does the international model work? A: Not geo-blocked. We’ve cleared the rights internationally, but we’re not going to promote internationally. We think we can take the format to US market or European territories later.
  • Q: who owns the content and format? A: Intellectual Property is owned by Freemantle, but the UK series is co-owned by MySpace.
  • Q: is a TV series on the agenda? A: It’s not the on the agenda, but it’s talked about.

How Xbox used the social media space at E3, Maurice Wheeler (co-founder and planning director, Digital Outlook)

  • Microsoft asked us if we’d go out there and create a social media explosion around Xbox at E3. With 3 weeks notice. Gave us a view of what they’re presenting and announcing at E3.
  • we wanted to get the interesting info to social media power users / mavens / connectors
  • aggregation: wanted to focus people on our conversations. Listening to what people are saying. Consolidating to a stream of content which comes out of the social media cloud. “Sucking out the interesting and exciting content”. Feedback loop
  • providing content to a social media savvy audience in a way that they’re happy with an comfortable with
  • flew 5 influential gamer bloggers and 5 social media power users (including Charlie, to E3).
  • primary platforms: twitter, youtube, audioboo, kyte, flickr
  • secondary platforms: qik, 12 seconds, facebook, seesmic, bambuser,, moblog, and many more
  • Q: how much of that would have happened without you? A: we can tell from the hashtag we used that we affected it [I’d agree. Just. Compare xboxe3 vs e3]
  • tips: create a #tag, have a distribution channel established, pick the right people, understand local technology constraints (e.g. make sure you’ve got wifi coverage), have a plan B, C and D

Inside the brain of Adam Curtis

I don’t often talk about work projects, but I cant hold my tongue about this one. I’ve been rather excited about it for a while, and it went live today.

Adam Curtis blog

Adam Curtis is the documentary filmmaker behind ‘The Power of Nightmares‘, ‘The Century of the Self‘ and more. Recently, he’s done some pieces for Screenwipe about the rise and fall of the television journalist and another about ‘oh dearism’ in the news for Newswipe.

Well, he’s going to start blogging about his work and ideas on the BBC. In fact, the Adam Curtis blog launched today at Hurrah.

Adam writes: “This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.”

All rather exciting. Of course, the rights issues with some of the clips, and especially the music, make it hard to publish them all for an internet-wide audience and sadly some of the content has to be restricted to the UK for right reasons, but the plan is for as much as possible to be globally available as the blog goes forward.

Some related links:

While I’m pimping BBC blogs, other recent-ish blog launches you might have missed:


[image: skooal on Flickr]

I went to a BAFTA event tonight, cunningly titled ‘3D: the next dimension in TV and Games?’. It served up a panel of Andrew Oliver (CTO and founder, Blitz Games Studios), Colin Smith (Technical Analyst, ITV), Brian Lenz (product design and innovation, Sky), chaired by Guy Clapperton (freelance journalist who has been writing about 3D TV for the Guardian).

The event began with a chance to learn about the three major approaches to full-colour 3D display today, and a chance to try out a couple of them. They are:

  1. Active LCD shutter glasses darken one eye, then the other, in sync with the alternating image being shown on a standard display. This halves the effective frame rate by sharing the display across both eyes, and being an active system requires power to operate the shutters and also to be in sync with the display. Expensive glasses, but off-the-shelf (though high-end) screens or projectors. [more on wikipedia]
  2. Passive polarised glasses work much like the old red and green glasses, but using polarised filters rather than red/green means you get a full colour experience. It means cheap, passive glasses but complicated and expensive screens and projectors. If you’ve seen a colour 3D movie, this was probably the way it was delivered. [more on wikipedia]
  3. Autostereoscopic display is a stupid name for a screen which displays 3D without needing glasses by use of a lenticular or ‘parallax barrier’ layer in front of a specialised (usually LCD) display, presenting a different image based on viewing position. No glasses, but a very limited viewing angle. [more on wikipedia]

Of the three systems, all have benefits and drawbacks. There were no autostereo (i.e. glasses-free) products on display in the room, but the one I tried a couple of years ago was far lower quality than the two passive and active glasses systems I tried tonight. Both worked beautifully well, and in my quick test it was difficult to distinguish between them in terms of quality. Perhaps I need to see a more recent example of an autostereo display. (Any suggestions?)

For the other two, it’s really a tradeoff between cheap glasses and an expensive screen on the one hand, and a cheap(er) screen with expensive glasses on the other. Scale matters too; fitting out a cinema for an audience of hundreds is obviously a very different problem to kitting out your personal games computer, with equipping a living room TV (for broadcast or games) for a family of 4 falling somewhere in between. Does anyone out there have enough experience with the two technologies to have a preference for home use? I would have lived to see the same source being shown on both systems to compare them properly.

Technology: tick. What about the content? Starting with games, it’s simple enough for existing 3D games to be rendered in ‘real’ 3D rather than being flattened to a flat screen. It’s rendering problem, and since the graphics card in your computer already knows where the various objects are in three dimensions, spitting out the required output for any of the available 3D display systems is already possible.

To prove the point, Nvidia had provided an Nvidia ‘3D Vision’ equipped PC running Burnout Paradise in stereo 3D, and I must say it worked beautifully.

While rendering 3D games in 3D may be a more or less solved problem technologically, Andrew from Blitz pointed out that it’s also a design issue. Existing games have not been designed for 3D display, and while it works for some, Blitz wanted to start with a simple game designed for 3D and explore from there. They have a commercial release coming in the next couple of months; a console game which is a platformer with the 3D limited to just a few planes. It’s an intentionally simple first stab at a form in which they know they have a lot to learn. Andrew’s point was that games designers, like cinematographers, now have a new toybox of tricks, techniques and conventions to start playing with to get the best results out of 3D displays.

In television and film, stereo 3D content is equally easy in the case of computer generated (and hence a great many 3D movies so far have been CG), so perhaps it’s unsurprising that ITV’s biggest exploration of 3D TV so far seems to be building on Headcases, a satirical computer animation created in 3D, which obviously translates to stereo 3D telly very nicely (as I can confirm, having enjoyed a few minutes of it tonight).

Sky, meanwhile, have been using their existing infrastructure and experimenting with shooting everything from boxing to ballet, Gladiators and Keane in 3D.

The idea of taking existing 2D content and adding 3D perspective to it was mooted. Colin from ITV and Brian from Sky were both eloquent on the subject, saying that the filming and editing techniques used in creating good 3D content are not the same as in creating good 2D content. Eye strain is caused by making it difficult for the eye to resolve what you’re seeing, and cutting between shots forces people to re-focus, so 3D content will probably involve fewer cuts. The phrase that (I think Brian) used was “linger longer”. Taking what works well in 2D and simply 3D-ising it was repeatedly compared to Hollywood’s fad in the 20s of ‘colorization‘, something everyone seemed keen to avoid.

Brian (Sky) seemed tantlisingly close to wanting to announce something. He talked about getting past the experimentation phase and into the production phase: “we know exactly how to get there, it’s just a question of timing and conversations with TV manufacturers. You’ll see things happening in the next couple of years, for sure”. And later, “We’re not at the point right now of announcing a launch, but if the possibility of being part of another revolution in the way people watch TV is there, we want to be part of that, and we will be there, sooner rather than later.”

Other random points of interest…

  • Someone from the audience pointed out that the idea of a fixed ‘ocular distance’ of 2.5 inches (to match your eyes) between the camera lenses, is a myth. He pointed out that in fact, 2.5 inches is one of a myriad of distances that you’ll need to create depth, depending on what you’re filming. The panel agreed, saying that anything from a few millimeters to thousands of miles could be used, depending on the scale and distance of the thing you’re filming.
  • Where do you put subtitles? Andrew (Blitz) – found that ‘Hollywood 3D’ (‘things jumping out at you’ from the screen) can be too much, and they like to limit it so things very rarely seem to come out from the screen, especially because subtitles, heads-up displays etc, work well at the 0 distance, ‘on the glass’.
  • Colin (ITV) – “this is a significant evolution”. He adds that in the film industry they say it’s the biggest evolution since colour. A bigger jump than SD (Standard Definition) to HD.
  • The DTG (Digitial Television Group) is leading the first consultation into 3D TV, is the consortium of consumer electronics manufacturers and broadcasters that will probably be responsible for bringing the industry together around common standards for 3D TV.
  • There are some great terms in this 3D TV business: ‘inter-ocular distance’, ‘decreasing binocular disparity’ and ‘multi-view auto-stereo’ were just three that I wrote down.

Great event. Fascinating stuff. Glad I went.

Update: Alan Patrick was there too and took much better notes than I did.

Update 2 – disabling comments on this post for now. Too much 3D TV spam.

Second screen: this works for me

It’s Wednesday, so it’s Apprentice night again. Tonight I’ve been using Visible Tweets on an open laptop next to the TV.

Apprentice - second screen

Ray was complaining about motion-sickness with Twitterfall running in the background. Visible Tweets (thanks to Andy for the tip) is a nice alternative.

Eye-catching, simple and beautiful in full screen mode, it’s less comprehensive than Twitterfall but does show a selection of recent tweets at a pleasing pace. Here how it looks: