Worknote #7: Launching Uneditions, and Developing Project Follow Me

Uneditions screenshot

2014 is kicking off as a busy one for all of us at Storythings. We were very excited to end 2013 by launching our Uneditions, our project with Unlimited Theatre and the Product Research Studio at Dundee University. Uneditions is a new platform for publishing play scripts on mobile devices, using light and sound cues from the play to create a unique and immersive reading experience.

We developed the product over summer using a co-design process funded by the ACE/NESTA R&D programme. The first play published on the platform is The Noise by Unlimited Theatre, and we’re talking to Third Angel and the RSC about future editions in the next few months. We’re really keen to talk to anyone interested in helping us build out the platform, so please get in touch if you’re interested.

Project Follow Me Logo

We’re also kicking off four new projects at the start of 2014, which is always a great way to start the year.

We’re working with our partners Pulse Films on Follow Me – a new cross-platform format for Channel 4. The project is looking at how the web helps us develop crazy ideas and creative projects using our networks. We’re currently looking for interesting creative people to work with us on the project, so if you’re interested, please sign up on the project Tumblr. We’re also developing a new mobile/social product with Pulse for bands on major tours, but we’ll share more details about that in the future.

We’ve got a team of iOS and Android coders working on our project for Penguin, building a new mobile/social app for a really interesting book/film/album project that is launching in the spring. It’s a fantastic project, working with an amazing artist who has been a bit of a hero for us for a while, so we’re really excited to start building and working with them.

The last of the new projects is also working with someone we’ve admired for a long time. We’re working with Graham Linehan to develop some prototype tools to help the writing and production process for TV comedy projects. We’re working with Unlimited Theatre and the Dundee Product research Studio again, further developing the co-design process we used on Uneditions. The project is funded by the TSB as part of a call to develop new software design methodologies, so we’ll be publishing more details and insights into the design process as the project develops.

Finally – The Story is just over a month away, and there’s only 40 tickets left! We announced the final speakers just before Xmas, including Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, who will be talking about his experience of publishing the Edward Snowden NSA revelations. It’ll be the first time he’s spoken candidly about the whole story, so we can’t wait till Feb 21st. See you there!


Worknote #6 – The Noise, The Story & the Future Of Storytelling

thenoise1Storythings is in New York again this week, attending the second Future of Storytelling conference, run by Charles Melcher at the beautiful Snug Harbor Cultural Center. Last year’s event was incredibly inspiring, and the line-up this year is just as good, with speakers including Kenyatta Cheese, Lisa Donovan from Maker Studios, Chris Milk and Alexis Lloyd, Creative Director of New York Times’ R&D Lab. We’ll share our thoughts and links after the event, and if you’re lucky enough to be there – come and say hello!

Our R&D project with Unlimited Theatre is reaching its final stages, and will launch with the production of their play The Noise in Newcastle in November. We’ve been working with Unlimited and Dundee University’s Product Research Studio to develop new ways to publish playscripts and other media to audiences on mobile devices. The R&D project involved a series of co-design labs with a user group based in Leeds, and this blog post from Leila Johnston on the NESTA/ACE R&D blog is a great account of how the design process developed from these co-design labs. Silvia Novak from Storythings will be writing up more details about the design process and the final product at the end of the project.

We’re also very happy to be working with Lighthouse in Brighton on Helix – an online animation project that has developed out of their collaboration with artist David Blandy and science writer Adam Rutherford. The site will feature new illustrations from illustrator Daniel Locke, and will trace the connections between mythology, remix culture and the history of DNA through a series of beautiful online animations. We’ll be launching the beta site later in October as part of London Science Festival, so will post more details as soon as they’re confirmed.

Other work underway at Storythings include social strategy work for the fashion artists’ agency CLM and the BBC/Arts Council project The Space, creative development work for a major UK publisher on a new film/book/music project, and continuing our partnership with Pulse Films on a new music feature film project and developments for a TV format for a UK broadcaster.

And finally – our annual conference The Story is five years old next year! Speakers announced so far include artists Iain Forsyth & Jayne Pollard, illustrator and model maker Kyle Bean and foley artist Barnaby Smyth. The Early Bird tickets have already sold out, but you can get a ticket from our Eventbrite site now – get yours before they sell out! Thanks also to for listing The Story amongst other great events like Do Lectures and PopTech – its great to be in such esteemed company.

The Stacks, The Patterns & The Money

Adam Westbrook commissioned Storythings’ Matt Locke to write an essay for the excellent Inside The Story. Thanks to Adam for the commission, and for allowing us to republish it here.

The Stacks, The Patterns & The Money
Why genre will drive the next stage of the content industries

In his closing speech at the 2012 SXSW festival, Bruce Sterling made a subtle, but very important distinction in how we discuss digital culture. He suggested that we should no longer discuss ‘the internet’ as if it was one thing, but instead we needed to discuss ‘the stacks’ – the emerging ecosystems that frame our engagement with digital culture from back-end cloud storage, through devices and platforms, to the apps and content itself:

“In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.  These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.”

Less than a year later, this subtle distinction has become glaringly obvious. Our experience of ‘the internet’ is almost wholly contained within these new ‘stacks’, and their strategies are beginning to focus on hardening the walls between each stack, removing our ability to move content and profiles between them. Its going to get harder and harder for new businesses to disrupt these ‘stacks’, and more likely that the next wave of innovation will be layers of products or services that live in and around these ecosystems. The focus is moving from technology to content, from infrastructure to formats

The next wave of innovation will emerge from understanding the new patterns of attention on the ‘stacks’, and designing business models that support cultural production in these new ecosystems.   At Digital Shoreditch earlier this year, I talked about the emerging patterns of audience behaviour, and how these seem to be different based on genre, not platform. Drama is increasingly viewed as multi-episode binges, whilst big Saturday-night entertainment shows have to be live, creating trending topics on Twitter that drive new viewers to tune in. News is now consumed as a constant stream of live blogs, updates, tweets, photos and videos that are only later curated into stories.

We’re starting to see the emergence of new formats and business models based on these patterns, and the next 5-10 years will see the rise of genre-specific content business models, replacing the all-genre schedules of broadcast TV. We’ve seen signs of this already – premium live sporting events and movies moved to subscription cable/satellite platforms in most markets in the 90s, as cable and satellite companies recognised their value in driving subscriptions. Similarly, most investment in high-end drama is coming from platforms that have direct transaction or subscription models, as these platforms can make more money out of the binge-viewing behaviour around drama than platforms using traditional display advertising.

For example, Netflix are making a feature out of their binge-viewing in their drama commissioning model, giving directors and writers the space to experiment with new forms of storytelling. The makers of House of Cards said they approached the project as a ’13 hour movie’, rather than a traditional series, with a different narrative structure that was less reliant on cliff-hangers at the end of the episode and other hangovers from the broadcast era. Understanding audience ‘bingeing’ and how this affects storytelling looks like a much more productive route for innovation in drama formats than the over-hyped ‘transmedia’ concepts of the last few years.

Outside of drama, the emerging patterns around other genres are harder to spot, but there are signs that new formats are beginning to work based on deep understanding of patterns of audience behaviour. UK broadcaster ITV understood that mobile and social media has driven consumption of news into a ‘stream’ pattern, with audiences looking for the most recent content, then reading on to complete a wider picture of the story. Their new digital news product, developed with UK agency Made by Many, moves radically away from the traditional editorial or brand taxonomies to present the news as a constantly updated stream of different content elements. Designing around new patterns of audience attention has been a huge success, driving a six-fold increase in traffic and a 456% increase in uniques.

One of the most interesting genres at the moment is also one of the most confused. There is a crossover emerging between the TV/Film genres of documentary and current affairs, and the newspaper genres of features and long-form journalism. All these genres are struggling to find the business models that will support them long-term, and as a result we’re seeing a huge amount of new ideas, products and business models emerging.

There are many issues that long-form factual content has to solve, from funding journalistic research to discovering new economic models to fund distribution. But the most interesting new ideas are starting with the most fundamental problem – how will audiences find the time to read or watch long-form content? What will be the most sustainable attention patterns for long-form journalism and documentaries?

Farhad Manjoo’s recently post for Slate, titled ‘You Won’t Finish This Article’, pointed out that around 50% of audiences don’t make it past the half-way point of feature articles online. Documentaries were the joint-second most common genre of film releases in the UK in 2011, but generated only 1.4% of box office revenue, compared to the 21.8% of revenue generated by the same number of Comedy releases. If these traditional formats of long-form content are no longer aligned to audiences’ patterns of attention, what kinds of new patterns are emerging around factual content? And what new formats can we develop around them?

Earlier this year I was on the innovation jury for the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, and there was a clear distinction between the shortlisted projects. Half the projects were experimenting with technological innovation – presenting factual content in complex 3D environments; or in 360 cinemas; or creating tools for audiences to curate and re-present their own collages of content. The other half experimented with patterns of attention – presenting a story as an scrollable stream of audio, text and video; or telling a story through 5 sec film clips automatically taken every 10 minutes like visual Facebook updates; or presenting a simple but dream-like combination of two linear video streams.

These projects felt like they understood the way we watch video now and pushed those patterns a bit further, rather than asking the audience to learn a new pattern from scratch. More importantly, these projects felt like they were creating formats that could be built on and extended by other projects, whereas the technologically-innovative projects felt like one-offs. They’re part of a burst of interesting innovation around long-form factual content, including Medium, started by Ev Williams, the founder of Twitter; Matter, started via Kickstarter and acquired by Medium within 4 months; and Wibbitz, a fascinating app that takes feeds of factual content and automatically produces a short mobile video.

Watching what’s happening around long-form factual and documentary will teach us a lot about how to build a business model around culture in the 21st century. The focus is on designing new formats based on new patterns of attention, and then finding the best way to make these sustainable. We’ve moved on from the first era of technological innovation that build the ‘stacks’, and we’re now into the second era of innovation, based around formats and genres.

The content industries will continue to fracture, not around platforms, but around their ability to sustainably produce different genres of content as new audience patterns emerge around them. Some traditional media outlets will end up making less and less content in certain genres, and new companies will emerge specialising in formats developed for specific genres. This is how the next era of the content industry will play out – first we build the stacks, then we understand the patterns, and then we can make some money.

Digital Shoreditch Talk – After the Like and After the Spike

These notes are from a talk by Storythings’ Matt Locke at the Digital Shoreditch conference today. Thanks to Helen Bagnall from The Salon for the invitation to talk, and to Ogilvy Change for sponsoring the day

Before starting Storythings, I worked for just over a decade in broadcasting, at the BBC and C4. As a digital person in a TV world, I learnt a lot about how to tell stories, and learnt, to my surprise, how little people in broadcast really understood about their audiences. In fact, many of us ‘digital’ people used to talk about ‘the former audience’ to emphasise how audience behaviour had changed, and to mock how much broadcasters had treated audiences as passive receivers for their content.

It wasn’t until I left broadcasting that I realised how complex and controversial the words ‘story’ and ‘audience’ really were. I called my company ‘Storythings’ for two reasons – one was because I’d been running a conference called The Story for a few years that was pretty much the genesis of the company, and the second was because I was more interested in stories than I was in technology. I’m fascinated by how we tell stories now, and the new relationships we can have with audiences across all sorts of interesting contexts and platforms.

But when I started talking to clients, I was surprised by how those two words – Story and Audience – meant completely different things to different people. Stories seemed to be the hot new idea in marketing, and every brand wanted to know how to tell their story, or to hear their customers’ stories. Transmedia gurus were trying to convince us that stories were many-tentacled hydras, performing complexly choreographed dances to lure fans into their narratives.

But no-one outside of broadcasting really used the word ‘audience’. There were customers, fans, users, subscribers, followers, networks, communities and participants. Audiences were points in a cloud of big data, or a constantly updated Chartbeat report. Audiences were presented as infographics, or studied as psychological experiments.

So I started to research the history of how we’ve talked about stories and audiences over the last few hundred years, and its made me love the word audience again, and to really focus on understanding audience behaviour. There is an assumed contract, almost an etiquette, between storytellers and their audiences. Audiences are not passive – they make choices about what stories they want to listen to, turn up to listen (which is not a passive act), and fold the emotional impact of good stories back into their lives. Many years ago, audiences were as noisy as Twitter is now, and the call and response between the stage and the crowd was an integral part of the show. It’s only been in the last few 50 years or so that audiences have been quiet. So quiet, that they became almost invisible to the people telling the stories.

In fact, the last 50-60 years have been a blip – a time in which the relationship between storytellers and audiences was effectively broken. We’re coming to the end of that blip now, and we’re seeing a transition as interesting and profound as the beginning of the 20th century, when storytelling moved from the live performance circuits of music hall and variety to the new mass mediums of cinema and broadcasting.

When transitions like this occur, the driving force is human behaviour – the patterns of audiences’ attention change as technology creates new ways to tell stories to audiences, and new business models develop around these new patterns of attention. In the early twentieth century, the balance of power in the entertainment industry shifted from the variety bosses who controlled the distribution of performers around national theatre circuits, to the new entrepreneurs of cinema and later, broadcasting. Very few businesses and moguls managed to make the transition as the patterns of attention changed.

But in the middle of these transitions, there’s often a pattern of attention which dominates – one which bridges the gap between the old patterns of attention and the new. In cinema and radio, early formats borrowed their shape, duration and structure from music hall, and it took many decades for mass media to find forms more suited to their specific qualities.

Right now, we’re seeing a similar pattern dominate the transition from broadcast to digital, and its best described as “The Spike and The Like’.

The ‘Spike’ is a huge rush of simultaneous attention, that giant uptick you see when you manage to choreograph many different sources of attention to look at your story at pretty much exactly the same time. Its a throwback to the simultaneous attention patterns of broadcast television, and in fact, broadcasters are realising how digital, and particularly social, media is amplifying this pattern of simultaneous attention.

In my last few years at Channel 4, I saw a trend of ‘live’ versions of formats that previously were never live – like The Million Pound Drop game show. This is because broadcasters get lots more money for advertising around live, scheduled viewing than they do for on-demand viewing, so they’re developing formats that make it hard to watch the show outside of the live broadcast (there are exceptions for certain genres -we’ll come back to this later). Looking at Broadcast Magazine’s Greenlight commissioning index this morning, there were 71 shows with ‘Live’ in their title, from ‘Lambing Live’ and ‘Bedtime Live’ to ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ and ‘Deathwish: Live’. The spike also reflects the traditional 30-sec ad campaign launch that was reliant on this scheduled broadcast attention.

The ‘Like’ is also an artefact of an earlier era. ‘Likeability’ has been a metric used in advertising for decades, from the USA Today Superbowl ad ratings to ‘The Worm’ – a live audience rating device first used in the Australian presidential elections in 1993. It’s an abstraction – a single measure for a complex range of behaviours and emotions, and its become incresaingly irrelevant through overuse in our current Facebook Era.

So if the Spike and the Like are the bridge between traditional broadcast patterns and measurement, what will come after them? What new audience behaviours are emerging, and how will we measure them?

Audience behaviours have always been complex, it’s the tools we’ve used to measure them that have been crude. We’re now moving out of the era of ‘One Big Number’ into a dizzying range of ways to tell stories and see the reaction from our audiences.

Here’s four emerging patterns that I think are worth looking at when planning a story. All of them are here now, in various stages of adoption in different communities. There are weaker signals for other emerging patterns of attention, but these ones feel like they’re going to be important over the next few decades, and will allow all sorts of interesting stories, products and business models to develop around them.

The Binge is probably the strongest pattern of them all. Its been emerging over about 5-6 years, since the emergence of box-sets and PVRs. Its pretty much restricted to two genres of story – comedy and drama – and as such it was the first sign that the broadcast industry was as likely to fracture around genres and attention patterns as it was around business models and technology. We first started noticing bingeing behaviour around cult dramas like Skins and Misfits at C4 about 5/6 years ago, with over 50% of the audience watching outside of scheduled broadcasts.

It raises really interesting problems for broadcasters trying to sell premium ad space in peak schedules, but if you are less reliant on display advertising – if you have a subscription model like Netflix, for example – you are in a perfect position to build services and commission stories based on this new pattern of attention. The makers of House of Cards for Netflix said they approached the storytelling as a 13-hour movie, not as 13 hour-long episodes, so there is less reliance on traditional end-of-episode cliff-hangers to keep audiences thinking about the story until next week’s episode.

Mitch Hurwitz, creator of the comedy Arrested Development, has gone even further, and written the 15 new episodes commissioned by Netflix as the same moment in time, seen from a different perspective each episode. He originally suggested that audiences could dive in and view them in any order, but now suggests that certain jokes wouldn’t ‘pay off’ unless you view them in the order they were created. This is just the beginning of the kinds of experimentation we’ll see as online platforms commission stories designed around bingeing behaviours.

The second new pattern of attention is The Pledge, a spectrum of activity ranging from celebrity-led Kickstarter campaigns like Zach Braff’s follow-up to Garden State, through broadcast campaigns by TV personalities like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall or Jamie Oliver, down to individual sponsorship for marathons and fun runs. Campaigns are an interesting structure for story-telling, as they have a specific goal, and are usually time-bound. What’s changed recently is the use of campaigns, not for a specific political or social goal, but as a way for storytellers to build a relationship with the audience before the production of the story itself.

This is fascinating, as it flips the traditional power relationship in commissioning. Making and distributing stories is a risky business, with nobody really knowing what stories will find an audience, or how they will be received when they do. So up until now, someone has had to make an investment in time and money before knowing what the potential audience response would be. This has led to hedging strategies, from consolidating production and distribution into huge global companies, to specific tactics to ‘game’ the metrics of attention and increase your chances of success (eg Payola or the 19th century Claque).Kickstarter and similar sites create another way to hedge risk – to build a relationship and commitment from your audience in advance of production.

As well as hedging risk, this also has a really interesting side-effect. Building an audience of patrons before production means that you now have a commitment to an audience, and the need to talk to the audience during the process of production. The structure of rewards, updates to the pledgers and providing access to production as it happens is as much a part of the story – and the contract with the audience – as the story itself. This is a fascinating problem for people running campaign-structured stories – what do you do with your audience once you’ve achieved your goal? Even President Obama’s first election campaign – held up as a ground-breaking online campaign structure – faltered when they couldn’t translate the passion of the campaign to other, post-goal stories.

I think we’re only just beginning to see the effect this will have on storytelling – pledging is not just an alternative route to funding, its a completely different approach to storytelling with your audience, with as many risks and opportunities as traditional production and distribution.

The third pattern is The Long Live Event. This appears at first glance to be yet another manifestation of ‘The Spike’, but it’s more interesting than that. Long Live Events have two patterns – an ambient story that unfolds over long periods of time, and intermittent spikes, often developing randomly, that cause audiences to ‘flock’ to the story. The ambient story normally has a bounding format or direction, but within this format, individual stories can emerge, develop, and subside at will.

Big Brother was the first story that developed in this way, with live streams augmented by nightly ‘catchup’ programmes. More recently, The Olympics was a perfect example of a Long Live Event, and Channel 4 has been using the structure in some very innovative factual projects, including Hippo: Nature’s Wild Feast, Foxes Live and Easter Eggs Live.

Long Live Events are a pattern of attention that is much better suited to digital, as its easier to produce and distribute many streams of ambient content, and its easier to respond quicker to audiences ‘flocking’ to intermittent spikes.

There is a friction in Long Live Events which is a real challenge for broadcasters – the friction between the organic pace of a real-life story, and the stricter demands of a broadcast format. Factual programming has dealt with this in many ways in the last 50 years, from the periodic documentaries of Michael Apted’s Up series, through the ‘conflict‘ genre pioneered by Faking It & Wife Swap to the current ‘constructed reality’ shows like The Only Way Is Essex. Each of these formats has tried to solve the same problem – how to make sure unpredictable real life stories deliver the right ‘story beats’ –  the cliff-hangers and resolutions expected for scheduled broadcast television formats. Their tactics range from extremely long production cycles (the Up Series) to deliberate manipulation of events to create drama (constructed reality).

Long Live Events are a different take on this problem of how to cover long stories. The new behaviours of following and streaming content means that audiences can now dip in and out of long stories over days, weeks or months, and are more likely to be alerted to developing story points by others in their social streams flocking to the story. We’re only just beginning to understand how to tell Long Live Event stories in this way, but its something that Google seem to be pushing for as they try and understand the story-telling potential of Youtube combined with Google+ Hangouts.

The last pattern is The Report. This is a pattern that reveals a story over time based on events and data that is unique to each member of the audience. It’s best illustrated by data-monitoring services like the Nike+ Fuel Band, and mobile apps like Run Keeper, but it has huge potential for other kinds of storytelling. The Report is a story that starts from a germ of data or other contribution from the audience, and then plays out over time as regular updates, or alerts as key points are reached.

The Report is a pattern that will become more and more important as we leave longer and longer trails on the public web. Services like Timehop and OhLife use report formats to tell the story of your past online, and most social media services are now using emailed reports of your friends’ activities to try and lure you back to their services.

We used this structure for, a 10-day online storytelling project for Faber & Faber around John Lanchester’s book Capital. Using audiences’ date and place of birth, we told them the story of their lives over the next ten years, using data from public sources across the web combined with new stories written by John Lanchester.

As we have more and more services set up to monitor and track data about us across digital networks, there is a huge need to create compelling narrative formats for their reports. These will be as playful and rich as traditional story-telling formats – for example, Tom Coates from San Francisco-based Product Club has created a twitter feed for his house, and someone else has created Haunted House of Coates, an uncanny replica of the stories Coates’ devices are telling about his house and activities.

All these patterns are signs that we’re in the transition from one era of storytelling to another. As in the early part of the twentieth century, this transition will be driven by changes in audience behaviour as much as technology and business models. These new patterns are asking us, as storytellers, to face new questions – how will bingeing change the way we structure stories? How does Pledging change our attitude to risk and the involvement of audiences in our stories? How do Long Live Events change the relationship between organic stories and the formats we use to tell them? And how can we use Reports to help our audiences tell their stories?

This is why we need to focus on stories and audiences again. The last 50-60 years of mass media reduced the feedback loop between storytellers and audiences to a quiet signal, represented mainly by one big number. The early era of digital has adopted some of these old patterns, and focused mainly on the Spike and the Like, but we’re moving away from that now, and seeing the emergence of interesting new patterns that are based on more complex relationships between the audience and the storyteller.

We’re still only in the beginning, and the next couple of decades will see content industries rise and fall based on their ability to adapt and build businesses around these new patterns. There’s never been a better time to tell stories, and never a better time to be in the audience.

Notes from my Shoreditch House talk

Last week was the third in a series of lectures I’m doing at Shoreditch House on where ideas come from. The session was based around what happens inside the brain and what happens outside the brain to produce moments of insight. As usual the questions and conversations that took place after were really interesting.

So I thought it might be an idea to start ‘showing my working out’. Author, journalist and top tech braodcaster Aleks Krotoski is brilliant at publishing her thinking and research as works. I’ve blogged a lot about creativity over the years but not been great at giving more background. So here are a few articles that might shed more light on the many issues I talked about last night.

A good place to start is Roo Reynolds Collections. Roo is a former BBC colleague currently working at GDS (that just won design of the year). I invited him to talk at the first event because most collectors I know are really creative people. This is because collecting excercises your creative muscle. It powers your curiosity, imagination and appreciation. It teaches you about aesthsetics, sharpens your powers of observation, helps you understand patterns and recognise what is missing.

We build narratives around our collections as well as human connections. We strive for perfection with our collections and in doing so achieve Flow. We experiment and tinker with our collections and most importantly everything we do with them forms a pool of inspiration for future projects.

The second session was on combinatorial creativity. For years at the BBC I would hear people in creative sessions talking about how wrong it was to ‘steal’ other people’s ideas. My answer was always “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to”. I stole that line from Jim Jarmusch.

Faris Yakob talks alot about this on “Talent Imitates, Genius Steals“, which is a reworking of the Picasso quote “Good artists copy, great artists steal”, a slightly different version of TS Elliot’s “Immature poets copy, mature poets steal”, a twist on Wilde’s “Talent borrows, genius steals”. All of which are stolen from the Bible’s “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. Try reading the brilliant Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon, watch Kirby Ferguson’s amazing series Everything is a Remix and take comfort from the fact that one of our generation’s greatest film directors has stolen from every movie ever made.

In last week’s session I talked about focusing on creativity for the individual rather than the organisation. Yes, I run workshops and help organisations get the best out of their employees, but personally I think it’s better for organisations to help every member of staff to develop their own creative abilities. If you do this people will think creatively every waking moment rather than saving it for a 1 hour brainstorm. It’s a great investment inspired by, believe it or not, Pret A Manger only hiring happy people – happiness it the hard bit, teaching them to make sandwiches is the easy bit. So for more on what happens inside your head you might want to watch this excellent BBC Horizon film on the brain and creativity. John Cleese does a brilliant talk on creativity and why allowing the mind to wonder is so important. Despite being criticised for making up a Dylan Quote Jonah Lehrer is still a great writer on the subject. Try not to let the negativity surrounding him cloud the fact that Imagine is still a great read.

If you are interested in why coffee shops are important to the creative process and their role in the Enlightenment then you must read The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg, which Steven Johnson refers to in his brilliant book Where Good Ideas Come From. On the importance of making connections Steve Jobs knew that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen. And so he designed his buildings to ensure these connections became part of regular daily proceedures such as going to the toilet. Richard Florida talks a lot about why you should build out and not up to build creative cities and if you want to understand how the creative face of Manchester changed as a result of simple serendipity then you must watch 24 Hour Party People.

I also talked about the importance just having cups of tea with people. So, if you fancy a brew find me on Twitter. I’m also happy to talk to organisations about workshops, away days and how to get the best out of moments set aside for generating ideas.

Meet Storythings at SXSW


When I asked Matt if he was going to SXSW he said that he has never fancied it. “But it’s like a Glastonbury for brainfood” I said. “Never liked Glastonbury” was his answer.

SXSW is not everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. It’s huge. They sell too many tickets. The choice of sessions can be overwhelming. And there are far too many giddy hipsters so desperate to find ‘the new Twitter’ that incredibly average ideas get unprecedented hype if they’re in clicking distance of the latest trend.


So here’s the thing. SXSW is all about the planning. All of the above can be swerved if you spend a little time before you arrive orchestrating the experience you want rather than just letting SXSW happen to you. As for the hipster thing you just get very good at learning how to spot hype – which isn’t a bad skill to have in your toolbox.

For most it’s all about the parties but in six years I’ve still not been to one yet (having DJ’d and run my own parties in the UK and Ibiza I’m sure I’m missing little). For me it’s about the sessions. Before I go I spend what probably amounts to a full day researching the speakers then going through the schedule marking off the one I’m interested in.  When you get there and start speaking to people the plan inevitably changes, but a good grip of the schedule in advance is essential.

I usually split my sessions into 3 groups.

The first relating closely to what I do – helping people tell their stories and making digital culture. The second being about what I don’t do. Taking in talks about subjects I have little knowledge of is a great way of feeding the curiosity muscle.

And finally I’m looking for sessions in the area of ‘my thing’ – that being a particular subject I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

At the moment ‘my thing’ is looking at how people are using big data in interesting ways. I love data but want to make sure we use it alongside other approaches to understanding human behaviour. My belief is better insights will come from a combination of approaches rather than just relying on a bunch of numbers.

As ever I’m really looking forward to meeting new people so if you’re in Austin and fancy a brew and a chat get hold of me on Twitter (@huey).

So here are a few of the sessions I’m really looking forward to seeing:

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Chuck Lorre in Conversation with Neil Gaiman
I’m fascinated by the creative processes of others so I’m happy to miss Al Gore speaking about future fears in favour of this excellent session that sees Chuck Lorre, the man behind ‘Big Bang Theory’ and ‘Two and a Half Men’ in conversation with author Neil Gaiman (“Stardust,” “Coraline,” and the acclaimed comic book series “The Sandman”). Two great tellers of very different stories chewing over their craft for an hour should be fun.

The Signal and The Noise
Political forecaster Nate Silver may well be an outlier when it comes to making strong predictions – he has this habit of getting it right every time. I’m yet to get around to reading his book but have read enough about him to know this will be fascinating. Should I have made that prediction? According to Nate most predictions fail because of our poor understanding of possibility and uncertainty. If we can improve our appreciation of uncertainty then our ability to predict gets better. It’s what he calls ‘the prediction paradox’. OK, I’ll hold back on my prediction for this one then.

Frenemies: Fanning the Flames of Fandom
At Storythings we talk a lot about designing for new behaviours. Understanding those behaviours is at the heart of what we do. The continued conflict between media producers and fandoms comes from a failure to understand how an audience’s behaviour changes over time. This is a growing problem that becomes more complex as new technologies develop.

Spreadable Media: Value, Meaning and Networked Culture
I’m a big fan of the work of Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green who are at the forefront of thinking around spreadable media. I generally tend to avoid sessions in this area because I’ve been to so many that turn into ‘How to use Social Media 1.0′ once you are in there. Thankfully there’s no mistaking with Henry whose work is focused more in understanding the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’ things spread. All three speakers are incredibly brilliant at what they do and the book ‘Spreadable Media‘ is as an important read today as ‘Convergence Culture‘ was when written.

Hack You: The Body is the Next Interface
Hacking the human body is exciting and terrifying in equal measure. This session looks at the moral implications of robotics, smart medicines and new bodytech developments such as mobile-enabled biofeedback apps and “spray-on” micro sensors.

Julie Uhrman and Josh Topolsky Keynote
At the heart of SXSW is indie development and disruption so it’s no surprise to see Julie Uhrman appearing as keynote speaker. Julie is founder and CEO of OUYA, the Kickstarter funded $99 free-to-play game console built on Android. While it’s too early to talk about the impact of OUYA on the games industry her story has all the ingredients of a great Keynote.

Building the Touchy-Feely World of Tearaway
Media Molecule, the guys behind Little Big Planet have built a new game called Tearaway that requires users to make things with paper. Little Big Planet was one of the first console games to tap into the creativity of the players. With Tearaway they encourage a creativity-loop outside of the game world. Their approach to the relationship between the player’s physical creativity skills and the console as an enabler is something I’d like to know much more about.

Follow me on Lanyrd to see all of my SXSW sessions.


Notes on making the Diesel Days to Live project.

Screen ShotStorythings#5
Diesel Days To Live
Website & iOS app
Client: CP&B
Partners: Anthony Dickenson, Pulse Films
Lead Technologist: Dan Catt

I thought that enough time had passed since the the Diesel Days to Live project launched that I really should get round to writing up some notes and thoughts about some of the thinking behind it.

The brief from the client was to create an online film that gave the impression of time ‘glitching’ or fracturing, to tie in with a new campaign for Diesel Watches. We started with a week sprint at Pulse Films offices, with Pulse Director Anthony Dickenson shooting the watches with a Canon 5d and a motion control rig, whilst James Bridle and I experimented with ways to make the films interactive and playful.

The very basic premise was that we were going after something that had a video/film quality about it, a film that the user could have some interaction with. We were also inspired by the resurgence in animated gifs, particularly the 3d “wiggle” gifs that have spread around tumblr over the last year. weasel 3D Some better examples can be found here (warning, contains photos of youngsters having fun and drinking beer)… …we had a quick look at HTML5 full screen video as there’s a few useful javascript libraries out there. However we quickly found that it was probably going to lack the interaction and “live” glitching we were thinking of. Online video has evolved to be great at streaming high quality content over the intertubes by doing smart compression tricks of only sending the difference between then current keyframe and the next keyframe, and sort of magically smooshing their way forwards from one to the other. Which is great for long scenes where not much moves, not so great for videos with lots of sudden changes and most importantly terrible for playing backwards, and we kind of wanted the backwards thing. This left us with the other option, a fake “video” made up of lots of individual frames, which solved the playing backwards problem at the cost of size.

Building a “filmstrip”

This bit is fairly easy and straight forwards. In HTML we create a long horizontal “filmstrip” <div> element that holds all of the image “frames”. That filmstrip div is placed into another single frames sized div with overflow:hidden set. SlidingFilmstrip Then by jumping from one frame to another you move the filmstrip left or right by the amount needed to bring your desired frame into view, to create the animation. Something like… left offset = frame number * -frame width …so if each frame was 640px wide, frame0000 would be 0 * -640px left, frame0001 would be 1 * -640px, frame0001 is 2 * -640px and so on. This is very similar to CSS sprites, however in our case we were easily going to have over 200 frames with a width of 1024px per filmstrip, to stick them all together would make a “sprite” of about a quarter of a million pixels wide.

Solving the problem of loading in a lot of frames.

One thing we needed to be very careful about was how we went about loading frames in. The Diesel project was going to have several scenes one after another, some having up to 280 frames (around 28Mb total) each and we wanted the user to be able to enter and experience the scene as soon as possible. We approached this in a few ways.

1. non-sequential frame loading.

The simplest scene we had was one where the user moved the mouse left and right across the screen and it would “scrub” through the filmstrip. If we loaded in the frames sequentially then by the time we’d loaded in 140 frames, or 14Mb worth of images we’d still only have all the frames needed for the first half of the scene. So we did a simple trick of only loading in every 32nd frame, then every 16th, 8th, 4th, 2nd and finally all the missing frames. OffsetLoading By doing this we found that a scene was perfectly “playable” by the time every 4th frame had loaded and sometimes still ok at every 8th frame. Suddenly we could get away with starting a scene with only 70 frames (7Mb), we’d cut the load time down to 25% of the original. The rest of the frames would continue to download while the user was in the scene.

2. Key framing.

However we wanted a little more smarts going on. In some of the scene there were certain key moment, a close up view of a watch, an event (candles becoming lit/extinguished in one scene) and so on that we really wanted to be loaded before the user entered the scene. So in each scene’s definition we specified an array of keyframes which needed to be loaded in before we fell back into our 32, 16, 8, 4, 2, 1 loading pattern

3. Compressing images.

The key framing gave us another idea, along with transitions that I’ll cover in a moment. For most of the time the scene was going to be moving, either glitching around or running a sequence of frames from one point to another. As many of our frames were only going to be on the screen for a split-second or between other frames we could knock the compression of those frames right down… AdaptiveCompression …another thing we had in our favour what that we were attempting to simulate video to a degree and people were kind of used to seeing compression artefacts on YouTube and other buffering video. Which means we could get away with having jpeg compression effects all over the place on some of the fast moving frames, it wasn’t as though we had a gallery of photos that stood up to inspection on their own. We just needed to not compress the product shots or frames too much. This allowed us to apply different tuned compressed to the images and shave a huge amount off our final image sizes. The three steps taken above was enough to make the idea of loading in 280 separate frames not quite so scary and into the realms of do-able :)


We also wanted the 3D glitching effect, with a GIF you can get the 3D effect a couple of ways. Either use a proper 3D camera that has 2, 3 or 4 lenses, or use a single camera and shoot several frames as you pan to the side. In our tests we found that in places where the camera was moving sideways, or looking into views with extreme depth (like down the stairwell at the office) we could get the 3D effect by jumping back and forwards around the current frame. Anything that involved panning worked well. PanningForGlitch As well adding some “glitching” code to our filmstrip engine we had to add a small bit of code to check to see if a frame had loaded yet, and jumping to the closest valid frame if it hadn’t.

Enter the scenes, and even smarter filmstrip.

We’re nearly at the point where we could wrap everything up and focus on just making the code work. The almost final thing was that we had not just one scene but 7 scenes (the final project had just over 2000 frames in it) and we needed a way to get from one scene to the next. To make the move from one scene to the next as smooth as possible we also prioritised “transition frames”. A scene’s description would contain the keyframes, the frames for a transition in and transition out. codesnippet The engine would load in the keyframes, then all the frames for a transition in (we wanted the user to have a good experience starting a scene) and every 4th frame for a transition out, to make sure a move from the current scene to the next would actually exists before we allowed the user into that scene. The engine would also attempted to load in the frames for the next scene while the user was still interacting with the current scene. Which means if we could keep the user playing with the current scene then we could sneakily load in the frames for the next one. LoadingPriority Sometimes a user wouldn’t hang round long enough for us to even get started on loading in the frames for the next scene, meaning we had to create inter-scene pre-loaders. We’d immediately stop loading in frames for the current scene, start the next scene’s frames loading and play the transition out frames, of which we knew we’d have at least every 4th. Then hold the user at the mini pre-loader while sucking down the next scene.


There’s a couple more tricks we threw in to try and make the experience faster.

1. Estimating bandwidth speed.

Because we knew the average size of a frame and scene, right from the start we’d start recording the average download speed of a frame and therefor the time remaining for the current scene and the estimated time for the next scene. If we detected that loading in the scenes may take a while then we could tell the engine to only load in every other frame, i.e. not to do the final pass of loading in frames, before moving onto loading in frames for the next scene. This way for slow connections a 240 frame scene could become a 120 frames scene (give or take a few for keyframes and transitions). We also had plans for an extreme fallback which was to have single high definition frames for each scene, which are loaded in right at the start and which we also measured the download time for. If the user appeared to be on a very slow connection then we would just show the single frames with the questions over the top. Their experience would be one of just going through a gallery of images answering questions along the way. We ended up not having time to implement that feature but will probably add it into future versions of the engine.

2. Minimum frames needed tweaking.

Each scene had a suggested minimum percent of frames that needed to be loaded before we’d allow the user into the scene that we could also tweak. PercentLoaded Some scenes we felt that we could allow the user into with only 16% of frames loaded but others needed at least 75% of the frames for a good experience.

The wrap up.

Needless to say this was a fun and interesting project with various challenges. And I haven’t even got into how we managed the assets as we got frames in from the shoots, first the quick rushes then un-colour corrected frames and so on. We had to devise an identifying keyframes and compression management system for that too. Fortunately that didn’t have to be too pretty :) Of course having an awesome team to pull it all together it what make all the crazy theories work, so huge thanks to the Storythings team on this project –  Natalia Buckley, Pete FairhurstDean VipondRob & Al at Green Shoots Design, and Adrian Bigland (iOS app).

New Year, New Work, New York



Happy New Year!

At Storythings HQ, 2013 has kicked off with the start of a fantastic project for a very cool client in New York. Its part of our partnership with Pulse Films, who we also worked with on a very innovative interactive film project for Diesel that launches on Monday 14th Jan, so look out for more info on that project next week.

At the moment we’re in the middle of a two week sprint with the client in the US, with Dan Catt, James Darling and Hugh Garry working with the film team from Pulse NY and with expert guidance from Kenyatta Cheese, one of the founders of KnowYourMeme. After the sprint, we’ll go into full production from Feb, so we’ll be spending a lot more time in the US. If you’d like to meet up with us whilst we’re over, then get in touch – we’d love to meet up and go for coffee.

Other than that, we’re finishing off on a project for a fantastic global charity, and having lots of fun playing around with Berg’s Little Printer. Sending jokes and notes to your family when you’re away from home is the kind of thing that Little Printer does incredibly well. It feels like a lovely kind of everyday magic. If you haven’t got one – go out and get it now and start playing and hacking!

Vacuum Days now on sale! Launch events in London & Sheffield

Storythings’ first publication – Vacuum Days by Tim Etchells – arrived from the printers in Croatia this week, and it looks *gorgeous*. We are huge fans of Tim Etchells’ work at Storythings, and feel very honoured to be publishing Vacuum Days as our first book. The book is based on his 2011 web project Vacuum Days, a year-long project announcing a rolling programme of absurd and unsettling imaginary events responding to, reworking and distorting those of the year. 2011 was quite a year for news – with the Arab Spring, Phone-hacking enquiry and Occupy movement – and Vacuum Days is a  remarkable artistic response to those events.

You can pre-order the book at a special launch discout price of £15 at our Big Cartel site now – we’ll be shipping the books from the end of next week. We’re also hosting two launch events in London and Sheffield. The events are free, but please register on the links below if you want to come along. The book will be on sale at the Launch Discount price at both events, so if you want to save on P&P, come along and save even more money!

The London Launch will be at Battersea Arts Centre from 6.15pm on Friday, 23rd November. This will be part of ‘Neon Friday’, a larger event including readings from Vacuum Days, a performance of Forced Entertainment’s The Coming Storm, and a reading of another of Tim Etchell’s works, Sight Is The Sense That Dying People Tend To Lose First. You can register for the book launch via our Eventbrite page and book tickets for the other Forced Entertainment performance from the BAC site.

The Sheffield Launch will be at Site Gallery from 6.00pm on Tuesday, 4th December. There will be readings from the text, and the opportunity to buy signed copies at the Discount Launch price. You can register for the Sheffield book launch via our Eventbrite page.

We look forward to seeing you there! In the meantime, here’s a shot of the inside of the book to whet your appetite:

Worknote #4: Working with good people, The Story and publishing a book

We’re growing rapidly at Storythings right now, and will soon be announcing some exciting news about a new partnership, and what this will mean for the work we do. At the moment we’re working on two production projects – one for a major global charity, and one for an equally famous fashion brand – and also doing some really interesting development work for two UK broadcasters.

We’ll publish some more info on these projects as they emerge, but we can say that we’re working with a roster of awesome talent on these projects. The Storythings core team now includes Kim Plowright and Andrew Birley, and on these projects we’re working with Dan Catt, Chris Thorpe, Hugh Garry, Layla West, Pete Fairhurst, Natalia Buckley, Adrian Bigland and Dean Vipond. It’s fantastic having so many incredible creative brains around the office.

Secondly, our annual event – The Story – will be happening next year on Friday, February 22nd 2013, at The Conway Hall, London. As usual, it will be an eclectic and inspiring collection of artists, scientists, directors, writers and others talking about their work and what inspires them. We’ll be announcing the speakers over the next few weeks – the first speakers are economist Diane Coyle, co-founder of Rob Manuel, and theatre director Alecky Blythe. Tickets for The Story 2013 go on sale on Monday, 1st October at noon. Be quick – the first batch went in under 5mins last year…

Finally, Storythings is very proud to announce its first publication – an art book edition of Vacuum Days, an online project by Tim Etchells, the renowned artist, writer and theatre director who spoke at the very first The Story in 2010. That year, we published a newspaper that Tim contributed to, creating imaginary posters for bizarre events/performances. He developed the format in Vacuum Days – a year-long online text-based project which ran live from 1 January till 31 December 2011.

Comprising a series of one-per-day posters reminiscent of live show lineup announcements, Vacuum Days proposed a rolling daily programme of imaginary events that responded to, reworked and distorted real-life events. Inhabiting and extending the zone of sensationalist media, news as pornography, hyped up current affairs, Internet spam, twitter-gossip and tabloid headlines, the project mixed reality, political and theatrical spectacle and in a stark combination of overzealous capitals and small-print conjured a set of unlikely, absurd and uncomfortable performances, lectures, contests, fights, film screenings and other kinds of public display.

We’re very pleased that the book version of Vacuum Days will be published by Storythings, on 5th November 2012. Buying a ticket for The Story on Eventbrite will give you the opportunity to get a copy at a special pre-launch price of £15, plus P&P (although you can choose to pick it up in person at The Story in February, and avoid paying any P&P at all!). One final note – as a comical and bitterly mischievous parody of sometimes shocking news events, Vacuum Days is only suitable for mature readers, and should not be purchased by the easily-offended. Any of you who saw Tim perform his monologue Star-Fucker at The Story in 2010 will know the power of his writing already.