Meet Storythings at SXSW

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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.

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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.

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Notes on making the Diesel Days to Live project.

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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)… http://shakylegs.tumblr.com/tagged/3d-gif …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 :)

Glitching

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.

Profiling

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

 

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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 B3ta.com 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.

Three interesting pointers for the future of TV

Sometimes, the most important sign that an industry is being disrupted is that no-one can agree on exactly what is changing, where things are going next, or in fact whether anything is changing at all. Like the music and publishing industries before them, the TV industry is currently working itself up into a storm of comment, analysis and denial about how the internet is changing its industry. Unlike music and publishing, TV has been experimenting with digital strategies for over a decade, but its only recently that mainstream audiences have started to change their behaviours at scale.

There are so many ways that disruption could play out in the TV market that its foolhardy to make predictions. There could be an orderly transition as broadcasters move the bulk of their commercial income from display ads measured by BARB/Nielsen to digital metrics measured by authentication. We could see a shift to new gatekeepers if Amazon, Apple, Google or Facebook ever manage to transfer their huge networks of authenticated users into the living room. Or we could see a crazy hotch-potch of services delivering genre-specific services, like MLB.tv or Youtube’s new Original Content Channels.

The drivers behind any disruption over the next five years are very complex – from emerging patterns of user behaviour to product/device innovation, the growth of talent as networks and the unpacking of existing rights models. So rather than make any predictions, here’s three things that are pointers for the ways things are going. They aren’t the destinations, but they’re worth pointing out on the journey.

Josh Sapan’s Keynote at MIPTV
Thanks to Jody Smith from Channel 4 for pointing this out to me – an excellent keynote from Josh Sapan , President and CEO of AMC, on how they see this emerging landscape. There’s lots of great stuff in here, from a recognition of emerging ‘binge-watching’ patterns around drama, to the shift from ‘appointment TV’ (driven by scheduling) to ‘connection TV’ (driven by fans desire to watch the shows they love when *they* want to) and the role of Netflix in driving interest in new seasons by letting people binge-watch past episodes. Well worth 30 minutes of your time:

Sky Now launches in the UK
The UK payTV market is very different from the US, where the success of a range of cable and satellite companies created competition that Sky has never really faced over here. In the States, all the talk is of ‘cable cutting’, and users moving to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Sky’s announcement of Sky Now is a remarkable pre-emptive strike against Netflix and LoveFilm in the UK, which have barely even got started over here.

They don’t face anything like the competition that the cable/satellite companies have in the US, and have a near-monopoly of premium TV, Sports and Film content, yet they’re voluntarily undercutting their premium satellite service by offering an online pay-as-you-go deal for non-subscribers. This seems like a brave move, but if you see the coming battle as a fight for customer acquisition and retention, then the opportunity cost of a non-Sky subscriber building a relationship with Netflix or LoveFilm is much greater than any potential loss by undercutting your own products. And once they’re in the family, its easier to scale users up to other products, such as broadband, phone and finally the full triple-play package. This is a very, very smart move from Sky.

Kickstarter launches in the UK
This is my favourite chart at the moment (and yes, I do have favourite charts):

Kickstarter Blockbuster Effects chart

The chart shows the effect that the game project Double Fine Adventure had when it raised over $3.3m on Kickstarter.The green line shows the point when Double Fine ended, and the bars show the number of other video game projects *not including Double Fine* that were supported on Kickstarter. In other words, this chart shows around 67,000 new people coming to Kickstarter, learning how to support a video game project, and then deciding to support other projects. Once they’d learnt the behaviour and created an account, it was easier for them to support other projects, and the huge bars on the right are a sign that they did this in large numbers.

This is important for two reasons. First, it’s an illustration that behaviours are one of the most important things to track in this fast-changing environment. If you don’t look for new things your audience are learning to do – like contributing to hashtag memes on Twitter, joining campaigns on Facebook, playing online games synced to live broadcasts, or funding projects they love on Kickstarter – then you won’t be able to see how this affects their ‘traditional’ relationship with your tv programme/film/book. Until someone else comes along with a product that ties these new behaviours to your content, and suddenly you’re out of the loop (as the Kindle did for publishers).

Secondly, Kickstarter is a really fascinating experiment in defraying risk in cultural production. When people are in denial that their industry is being disrupted, they usually go through a series of reasons why their position in the production/distribution of culture cannot be challenged. It normally starts with scale (“We’re the big company in this industry – these upstarts are *tiny*”) and when that isn’t true, it moves to a dogged belief that audiences never change their behaviours (“People are happy with how they currently buy records/read books/watch TV – only a minority will change”). Finally, the last position of denial is that making content is so expensive and specialist a task, and so risky, that only huge companies can make it financially viable.

It’s this last problem that Kickstarter solves so effectively. When you have to make something and put it out there before you know if its a hit, then this it’s true – only a big studio or TV network can possibly be in the game. But when you can put an idea out there, and get audiences to give you a firm commitment to buy (and the start of a relationship that you can use again in the future) then the amount of risk involved is trivial. More than anything, Kickstarter is disruptive because it radically shifts the risk of making and distributing culture, and very few networks or publishers have come up with a response to that yet. If I was at a company like Sky, or Channel 4, or even the BFI, who have recently taken on the task of investing in UK film that the Film Council used to own, then I’d be looking at creating a ‘follow-on’ fund for Kickstarter projects, and using that platform to take out some of the risk of investing in new talent. Sundance are already doing it, and I can see more and more companies using Kickstarter or similar tools to defray risk in the future. Of the three things here, I think this is the one that could potentially have the most disruptive effect in the next 10 years.

Netflix – commissioning for attention patterns

Netflix have just released their most recent shareholder report, and in amongst the good news on international growth and conversion from DVD to streaming customers, there’s a very interesting section on their approach to original programming.

Another way to think of originals is vertical integration; can we remove enough inefficiency from the show launch process that we can acquire content more cheaply through licensing shows directly rather than going through distributors who have already launched a show? Our on-demand and personalized platform means that we don’t have to assemble a mass audience at say, 8pm on Sunday, to watch the first episode. Instead, we can give producers the opportunity to deliver us great serialized shows and we can cost-efficiently build demand over time, with members discovering these new franchises much in the same way they’ve discovered and come to love shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”

The highlighted section is most interesting – Netflix are plainly stating the difference between themselves and traditional broadcasters. Because they aren’t reliant on spot advertising, they don’t have to worry about delivering a live, synchronous attention pattern around their shows. Their subscription model means that long-term engagement is more important to them than overnights; data is more important than ratings. Over the last few years timeshifting attention has become increasingly common for certain kinds of genres, particularly comedy and drama. This is a real problem for broadcasters reliant on ad breaks for their income, which is why ‘live’ event formats are becoming increasingly important to schedulers, and are moving on from reality/entertainment/sport to new genres like specialist factual (the BBC announced Planet Earth Live only this week).

If Netflix and other VOD platforms can follow HBO and build strong brands for drama and other high-value content that is not reliant on a strict schedule,  where will that leave the traditional broadcasters? Will the live event pattern be the only way they can guarantee an audience for their advertisers? Or is their future to join Netflix et al in building more income from direct subscriptions, and become less reliant on 30sec spot ads? That would be a long and painful pivot for pretty much all commercial broadcasters, as their income from online platforms is generally less than 10% of total income.

As new attention patterns develop and mature in audiences, we’ll see more and more examples of companies making major content investments based on these new patterns. Netflix’s original investment is one, Youtube’s Original Channels is another. Expect this to be a major growth area over the next 5 years.

Storythings Business Cards

Yearnotes – a year of Digital Attention

Storythings started as a company on March 18th 2011, so we’re just over a year old.

Its been a fascinating year, working with some brilliant people and clients, and developing from a bunch of ideas and contacts into a real pipeline of work and a clear sense of what the company does, and how it can grow. Talking to friends who have started companies, the constant piece of advice was to find the work you want to do, and build your company around that, rather than the other way round. Its good advice – companies are rarely forged in a single strike, but instead accrue like coral, taking shape with every decision, conversation and piece of work they put into the world.

One of the things that has refined a lot over the year is the one line pitch about what Storythings does. Our work this year has been about 50% strategy and R&D projects, and 50% making stuff (like Pepys Rd for Faber & Faber – go and play it now if you haven’t had a chance yet). This balance is important – in an age of agile and iterative culture, the lines between research, strategy and product are blurry and often irrelevant.

What unites everything is an interest in Digital Attention – the way that digital networks change the way people find, share and engage with culture. We’ve been interested in attention and culture for a long time, but this year has focused our thinking away from the debate about digital cultural products – ebooks, online video, apps, games, etc – onto digital attention – the patterns and behaviours that we use to find and share culture.

Over the last five years, digital networks have become the default way of finding cultural products for nearly all culture industries, regardless of whether the product itself is digital or not. Even if the end result is not digital, a digital network will have been involved at some point in the discovery, research, sharing, buying or remembering of that cultural experience.

Most media and culture businesses have waited until the format of their industry turns digital, but really, this is far too late. Way before then, people will have been using digital networks to find and share information about what you make. The cultural object itself is often the very last thing to turn digital.

At Storythings, we’re helping clients understand recognise these new patterns. We can already see reasonably mature patterns of digital attention in most cultural sectors, and help companies think about what this means for their cultural products and business models. We can also develop new products that take advantage of these patterns, or that encourage new patterns of digital attention to achieve specific goals.

This is a more sustainable long-term strategy than focusing on specific platforms. Facebook, Twitter & Pinterest may or may not exist in the same way in five years time, but  the patterns of digital attention that your audiences are using now will have become deeply engrained habits, regardless of whatever platforms happen to be popular. Understanding these patterns and designing for them is what Storythings is passionate about, and what we’re focusing on as we enter our second year.

So – thank you to the people who have worked with Storythings this year – James Bridle, Hugh Garry, Phil Gyford, Alex Parrott, Kim Plowright, Tassos Stevens, Blast Theory, Chris Thorpe, Dean Vipond and Tim Wright.

And thanks to everyone who has hired us for work this year – BBC, CNNi, Dazed & Confused, Faber & Faber, LBi, Manchester International Festival, MSL, P&G, Pulse Films, Speak-It Films, Syrup, and Wellcome Trust.

We’re developing a fantastic roster of clients and work – if you’d like to talk to us about working with you, please get in touch. Its going to be a very exciting second year, and it would be great to find some new clients who are as curious about digital attention as we are.

The Story 2012 - view of Conway Hall

Storythings Podcast Episode 4 – Tom Watson & Emily Bell

The fourth Storythings Podcast features Tom Watson MP and Emily Bell, Professor of Journalism and Director of the Tow Center at Columbia University, New York. Tom Watson has been a key figure in the Hackgate scandal, and interviewed James and Rupert Murdoch as a member of the Commons Select Committe on Culture and Media. Before moving to Columbia University, Emily Bell was Head of Digital at The Guardian, where she covered the emerging Hackgate story as it happened. In this frank and candid discussion, Watson and Bell talk about their personal experience of the scandal and what it means for Politics and Journalism in the UK. Recorded at The Story conference on Friday, February 17th, 2012.

Tom Watson’s book about his experiences of the Hackgate scandal – Dial M for Murdoch
– is available to buy from April 19th.

If you want to hear about other Storythings Podcasts, events, or The Story conference, you can sign up to our newsletter here.

Play the Podcast (25.07)

Download the podcast here. Subscribe via itunes here.

Pepys Road Sign

Pepys Road – reading, repetition and reflection

We’ve just launched Pepys Road, the first live project from Storythings. Its an online story to support the brilliant Capital, by John Lanchester, an epic tale of post-crash London recently published by Faber & Faber. Storythings was asked to come up with a way of keeping a conversation going around the book after the initial burst of attention from the traditional book launch. As we’re fascinated by attention patterns and how they’re changing, it was a great brief for our first project.

First of all – a huge thanks to the team who did such a brilliant job of bring the project to life. Thanks to James Bridle for co-developing the idea from the very first meeting, and for building some lovely data illustrations. Thanks to Chris Thorpe and Phil Gyford for their epic coding skills and for gluing it all together. Dean Vipond did a great job of making it look elegant and beautiful, and Kim Plowright is the best cat-herder I’ve ever met, and made sure we actually launched something.

Pepys Rd tells the story of the next ten years – the so-called Lost Decade – a period of uncertainty, economic crisis and public sector cuts. Over 10 days, we send 10 emails asking questions about your attitudes to things like health policy, immigration, travel and culture, and send you to 10 new mini-stories written by John Lanchester, one for every year of the coming decade. Along the way, data illustrations by James Bridle position you within the flows of live data that increasingly organise our lives.

During the development, there were a number of ideas that shaped the project:

Reading
The first and most important goal in Pepys Road is that we wanted people to read. This might seem obvious for a book project, but it’s surprising how many marketing projects try to get your attention with one action or behaviour, when the end goal is completely different. It’s hard enough to get audiences’ attention in the first place, let alone shift them from one behaviour to another. The aim of Pepys Road was to get people reading John Lanchester’s brilliant book, so the behaviour we wanted to base the project around was reading. We wanted to get people to read a lot, and to really feel like they were starting to enter the world of Capital and Pepys Road, so hopefully they’d want to buy the book. Its a simple maxim, but you should always design projects that introduce users to the behaviours you’re looking for at the end. If you’re marketing a game, introduce them to the game mechanics in the marketing. If you’re marketing a film, get them involved in the story and characters. If you’re marketing a book, find a way to get people to read.

Repetition
The second idea we discussed in the project was about repetition. Faber wanted us to create something that would have a long attention span, and get people thinking about the issues in the book. In an age of spiky digital attention, its hard to get audiences’ to return to a project after the initial rush of attention. We wanted to design something with a long attention pattern, based on small, repetitive actions. A huge influence on this was OhLife, one of the few services that has really got under my skin and become a habit in the last year. OhLife is a private diary-writing service that you engage with almost entirely over email. When you set up an account, you choose a time of day to receive the email, and you get a daily message from OhLife asking what you were up to that day. Writing your entry is as simple as replying to the email. Its one of the most satisfying things I do, and the daily repetition of it heavily influenced Pepys Road – we wanted to drop something small in your inbox for a run of 10 days, so that the project would gradually build over time, and perhaps become part of your routine. Its something I’ve explored before on SMS with projects like Surrender Control and IVY4EVR, but I think it works better over email than it does on SMS.

Reflection
The third idea was also triggered by OhLife. One of the loveliest parts of the service is that in each email, they remind you of something you did a week, a month or a year ago. This moment of reflection is a huge spur to writing a diary, and creates a link with the past, asking you to assess how you were feeling, and your progress since then. There are a few services out now that give you little echoes of your online history, including PhotoJoJo’s TimeCapsule, Twitshift and, of course, Facebook’s Timeline redesign. As we develop longer data trails online, more and more services are going to reflect back your past activity. In Pepys Road, we don’t have a long history of your actions, but we’ve created a number of ways to tell mini-stories about your activity, the decisions you make, and the decisions of the crowd reading the same project as you. I think using little data-stories – prompts of narrative about your activity – will be increasingly important in our online social services. The enormity of our data-trails are almost impossible to understand as huge, complex illustrations. Finding small story elements that help us reflect on what we’ve done – little moments of poetry amongst the data – will be a far more effective way of telling the story of our data trails.

Of course, there is a fourth ‘r’ in this list, which is Results – we were commissioned by Faber to actually sell books. This is the hardest goal of all, but hopefully creating an experience that is fundamentally about reading, creates a usage pattern based on repetition, and gets people to reflect on their stories will lead to people wanting to continue their journeys through Pepys Road and buy the book.