Wednesday, April 25, 2012

5 lessons learned at X Media Lab: What’s Your Story?

"Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today." Robert McKee

Stories are a fundamental part of culture.  Whether told to educate or entertain, it is a human desire to understand each other and the stories we tell tend to reflect universal human experiences.

Though storytelling is most often associated with the realm of fiction, as a history student, I can't help but be aware that history itself is a series of stories. In this way, an awareness of the fundamentals of storytelling is essential for all public historians.

Actually, it occurs to me that an awareness of the craft and mechanics of storytelling is important for all of those in the humanities, a range of academic disciplines centred around understanding the human condition. Though much of the important work of academics involves talking amongst themselves, they are increasingly required to engage public audiences.

Digital media has arguably eroded the authority and influence of 'expert' commentators by empowering large numbers of people to create and disseminate information - an evolution that I believe is neither a wholly good, nor a wholly bad thing - and has radically changed the landscape of storytelling. It is for this reason that I was excited to attend X Media Lab 2012 - a digital media creative workshop held in Perth a few weeks ago.

After listening to a diverse range of speakers from a range of backgrounds, I distilled a couple of the ideas I found most interesting into the eclectic (and highly subjective!) list below.

1.    Storytelling is biological process as well as an mental one.  Evocative storytelling – especially visual storytelling - can have physical effects.
Screenwriter Linda Aronson spoke about the 1992 discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ by neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti, phenomena that allow us to empathise and relate to the situation of others “by feeling, not thinking”.  Rizzolatti  found that when you watch someone clapping his or her hands, you simulate the same action in your brain. You are essentially living their actions. The discovery struck me as a testament to the power of visual storytelling – films, TV and documentaries in particular. I am fascinated by the science of empathy - and believe good history is rarely without it.

2.    Push your creative process to its limits. You’ll never know what you might find there.
Warren Coleman, a screenwriter on the animated film ‘Happy Feet’, outlined the creative process of Robin Williams during voiceover recording. Williams would initially read the script as written and only after this would he start to improvise new material. The initial jokes were always ‘blue’ material. Completely inappropriate and unusable.  But once he pushed past this stage? Gold. Coleman admitted that of the 8 lines used in the trailer, 7 of them were improv from this final stage. His lesson? Hang in there during the creative process. Push through to the other side – you may be surprised at what you come up with. Wonderfully, Coleman also confessed the challenges of animating a movie about a tap-dancing penguin... when penguins have no knees.

3.    Don’t restrict yourself to traditional channels such as film, TV and publishing. The online world is now mature enough to tell complex, participatory stories.
Creative Director of ABC Innovation, Sam Doust, shared learnings from recent experiments in online storytelling. In 2010, ABC launched ‘Bluebird’ an internet only, alternate reality drama in which viewers were encouraged to ‘unlock the drama’ by uncovering the secret plans of an eco-billionaire over a 6 week period. It was a fantastic project however, although I found the idea really interesting, I think that participatory storytelling (and co-creation of stories) can be highly problematic. In my experience creating online communities using both bespoke and existing social media platforms, the number of people who have the time and inclination to create content can be very low. Doust acknowledged this too, citing that a major learning was the need to provide casual observers with a better way to catch up quickly on the action (reality TV does this brilliantly). Doust also spoke briefly about ABC’s online-only 3D documentary ‘Gallipoli: The First Day’ - very cool.  I have since uncovered a raft of online documentaries which I will discuss in a follow-up post.

4.    Don’t just use digital media to tell stories. Use it to start conversations about your story. Use it to build a community to share your story.
Jaunique Sealey, former social media strategist for Lady Gaga, outlined ways to leverage social platforms to build an audience for stories. It was basic stuff for a broad audience (which drove me crazy as I had SO many burning questions about Lady Gaga’s social media strategy) but contained some solid advice. Sealey stressed the importance of offering free content to create conversations around your central product. For example, if you want wanted generate buzz for a documentary series or museum exhibit, you could offer extra content or online Q&A sessions.

Sealey also spoke about “Good Deed” content.  This stuff is a social media manager’s holy grail. Content so good that simply sharing it with a friend makes you feel benevolent. I was surprised that no one mentioned Kony 2012! For me this campaign took the idea of “Good Deed” content even further. Not only could you gain social currency by sharing interesting content with another individual … the central claim of the campaign was that you could actually assist in tracking down the world’s most wanted criminal just by ‘knowing’ about him.  The apex of first-world slacktivism… or political genius?

5.    But remember, content needs to catch up with technology.
For all the new ideas, opportunities and innovation, there was a strong feeling that content needs to catch up with these new technologies of storytelling.  Helen Papagiannis, an expert in Augmented Reality from York University (Torronto) reminded us that in the early days of cinema, it was the medium itself that was the source of wonder, rather than the story.  We need to move past this. Forget about the gimmicks. The story should come first.

Despite these challenges, the nature of Augmented Reality lends itself strongly to historical content.  The London Museum’s Street Museum iPod ap allows tourists and locals to travel back in time, using GPS and camera technology to overlay historical images on mobile phone screens. Augmented reality can also liberate objects from the confines of perspex display cases in museums and allow them to be observed (virtually) in their original environments. The possibilities are endless. I recently heard of an guerrilla art exhibition held in MoMA, New York City where artist artists used the "Layar Augmented Reality browser" (available for free in the iPhone app store and Android market) to hold their own exhibition, without the knowledge of MoMA curators. The exhibit occupied all six floors -  including a virtual seventh floor. Now that's rock and roll!