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:
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.
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.
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.