Data+Time=Story; or how Facebook turned from a wheel into a carousel

I’m not a big user of Facebook. Not because of its ubiquity, or because of the privacy issues, but because I never really found a way of using it that stuck for me. A few years ago, I was playing around with Nicholas Feltron’s Daytum, and wrote a little piece about why Facebook felt like constantly being in the present, and was unsatisfying as a result. I suggested, slightly flippantly, that nostalgia is a fundamental element of storytelling, and personal data services need to remember that Data+Time=Story. The ever-brilliant Matt Jones included this in a talk he gave about designing with time as a material called ‘We Have All The Time In The World‘.

Two years later, and Nicholas Feltron has joined Facebook, and they’ve launched the Timeline feature, which is a retrospective tool to join together the little vernacular moments in your life into one story. Its the first time I’ve really got excited about Facebook, and wanted to play with a feature on the service, and the first time it feels like Facebook is something you can use to tell a story, not just ping around in a constant now. Of course, its yet another trigger for us all to give Facebook more and more of our data, but this time it feels like there’s something more valuable, more tangible, in return. Facebook always felt like a ‘chugger‘ – stopping you in the street and asking for your personal data with no real sense of reward. Timeline feels like something I’d like to play around with, something that could reward me with the slow pleasure of nostalgia.

The video on the Facebook page introducing Timeline reminds me a lot of the classic scene in Mad Men when Don Draper pitches Kodak a campaign for their new slide projector. Over a series of slides of his family life, he says there are two ways of connecting with people in advertising. One is to be constantly new, to promise the audience that your product is the next thing they can’t live without – to create an itch, and then be the calamine that soothes it. The other is to appeal at a deeper level, to appeal to our nostalgia, which Don describes as “the pain from an old wound; a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone”. He finishes the pitch by saying the new feature of Kodak’s slide projector “is not a wheel, but a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, round and round, and back home again, to a place where we know we were loved.”

It strikes me that with Timeline, Facebook just built its first carousel, and moved from creating itches to provoking deeper, more powerful emotions. Its not just data anymore, but stories.

Worknote #1 – Attention problems

(Worknotes are a bit like weeknotes, but not as regular. We’ll publish them when the stuff we’re doing seems to coalesce into thoughts worth sharing)

The Faber & Faber project is halfway through, with an interim presentation of ideas to the Faber team last thursday. I’ve been working with a glittering array of talent on developing ideas for three Faber fiction titles, and the different ideas we’re coming up with for the titles is very interesting, and very surprising. They range from physical objects (there is a tantalising possibility we might press some records, which would please this vinyl junkie no end), audio environments, iterative content distribution strategies, and things that could almost resemble bits of traditional marketing campaigns, if looked at from the right angle.

The first phase of work with the Cashback team has ended, and we now have a much more detailed plan and strategy for how their campaign will work across different platforms. Working on a project about the financial crisis over the last few months has been fascinating, but a bit frustrating, as the news cycle moves quicker than the funding and production of the film itself. This is one of the issue we’re tackling in the Cashback project – how can documentary film move as quickly as the news cycle, and yet still be a coherent story in itself? Documentary and current affairs are not the same as news – they are slower, more reflective forms of storytelling, so a lot of the discussion has been about how the production team can release content regularly, and in response to breaking stories, whilst still focusing on the final cinema film as well.

Storythings has also recently starting working with the brilliant Pulse Films on a music documentary for TV broadcast and possibly cinema release. The challenge with this project is how to create an event around the broadcast/release of the documentary, and engage the artist’s fan base in the project. This involves two current obsessions that emerge in a lot of Storythings’ projects – new attention patterns around content, and the emergence of ‘talent’ as owners of their own networks. It’ll be good to have a live project to explore some of these ideas further.

One of the great things about working across Film, TV, music, web and publishing is seeing that all media companies are dealing with the same problem – attention. This problem has been coming for ages, as digital technologies have eroded previous production and distribution monopolies across these sectors, but its only been in the last few years that all these sectors have had new behaviours emerging at a large enough scale across their markets to see enough data.

So the most important thing Storythings is doing for its clients at the moment is solving attention problems. None of the problems are unique (there’s too much competition for attention, and the patterns of attention are not as predictable as they once were) but all of the potential solutions are very, very different. The only constant is this – nothing will ever be simple again. There will never be a silver bullet platform or strategy that will return us to the stable media environment of the last 50 years – it will only ever get stranger, richer and more complex than it is now, as the shifting patterns of attention around content, talent, social networks and brands continue to combine and feed off each other.

The projects Storythings are making are attention probes – projects that test ideas we have about how people find, engage with and share content, and then give us the data and feedback we need to better understand these behaviours, and make even better products as a result.