Co-Creation and Iterative Storytelling

There’s an idea that I took with me on my trip to South by Southwest this year – and that idea is iterative storytelling. I don’t know if there’s an official definition at large anywhere (if you know of one, please get in touch!). In my version of it, it’s a process of story development and creation, carried out in conversation with an audience. The goal is to provide the audience/community with a point of engagement and entertainment – a cultural product – but one that is built around the assumption that the story can and will continue to change and grow – a process. And what excites me most about the way I’m going about this at the moment is that it allows me to draw on a variety of modes of narrative creation, from different disciplines, to develop and form stories in dynamic, digital and real life spaces.

There are some fascinating story-makers who have drawn on this approach in their work. Lance Weiler is a prolific and renowned transmedia storyteller. He spoke at this year’s SxSW about a number of his current projects. Amongst them was Pandemic, a transmedia work which had an outing at Sundance in 2011. It used everything from seeded mobile phones, to toys embedded with tech, to bottled water, as well as a bunch of different screens to create a storyworld and points of engagement, as well as a series of narratives and interventions for the audience within that world. (I have a theory Weiler has some kind of neurological-processing-super-power to be able to think all those things up and string them all together, but I guess that’s what makes him Lance Weiler.)

At SxSW, Weiler was describing the process of creating and implementing Pandemic and his approach to future versions and the forthcoming feature, and he said: “I treat story as software” referring to releasing a ‘story’ over a number of versions. As reinforcement, Pandemic‘s first outing was numbered “1.0”. What Weiler is talking about differs from the idea of serialising content in the way that blockbuster releases are instalments in a franchise (although some of the same efficiencies of marketing and audience development cross over). He goes on to discuss what he considers to be the meaning of storytelling in the 21st century, saying “Those formerly known as the audience are actually collaborators.” They get to feed back into this iterative development, creation and release process.

So yes – we can do this now: technology allows us to work this way. But why? Why would do this? What are the benefits to story? What are the benefits for the audience – and to the project originators?

I know it’s not a process for everyone, nor maybe even right for every story.

But I think it’s exciting to flesh out the story world and the characters in a multiway dialogue. In a conversation between the audience/community and the originators (and the characters!), as well as amongst the audience/community itself. And in exploring the pathways that the different characters can take, there’s the opportunity to experiment with visual storytelling devices, different modes of address and different forms of engagement. But in order for this to stay sufficiently cohesive to be satisfying and rich, one is continually forced to pull a story right back down to its heart, to its essence. But from this place, you can engage creatively with the tendrils and shoots that emerge, tending to the exciting, unexpected fruits that the process can bear. Ideas that you might never had. Ideas that are better than yours alone.

And as storytellers – filmmakers, writers, animators, fine artists, musicians – we know the joy of creation, and of creativity. Surely this joy is amplified and multiplied when we undertake this process with those who share our passion for the story: the audience. Our collaborators.

In recent conversations with visual artists and writers, I’m finding myself increasingly perplexed by the binary values assigned to that work created by “artists” and to that created by “users”. Of course this tension crosses a range of disciplines from journalism, to photography, to prose, to filmmaking, whilst I, naively, continue to assume that everyone is letting go of the notion that there’s a line that can (or should) be drawn between the products of ‘amateurs’ to those of ‘professionals’.

Last year I was listening to a respected and successful producer talking about his body of work – in particular, the special effects-laden blockbusters he had produced. He spoke about his job as the producer being “to serve the director and help realise their vision.” A member of the audience raised their hand and asked what opportunities he was creating to enable the audience to participate more deeply in the creation and exploration of the story and the storyworld. His reply (and I quote): “I don’t give a fuck about the audience. If they want to tell a story, let them write a script and get it financed.”

*cue awkward silence*

There’s space for all kinds of cultural products and blockbusters will be with us for a long time. And maybe if I was passionate about making mainstream Hollywood fare, I’d feel the same way as this guy. However, iterative storytelling is one way to show that we – story-makers, writers, filmmakers, artists, musicians – that we do indeed give a fuck about the audience. And given that any artist’s survival depends on an audience, through the care we take we’re in turn are sustaining ourselves, our crafts and our businesses.

SXSW Interactive 2012

First thing to know about South by Southwest: it’s a long way from my home on Tamborine Mountain to the home of SouthBy in Austin, Texas. After twenty-seven hours in transit, it’s safe to say one arrives looking and feeling pretty rugged. As it turns out, this was a case of ‘start as you mean to go on’, but at the time I just wanted to be put into a medically-induced coma and woken up when mind and body were once again on speaking terms.

That’s not an Instagram effect. That’s my eyesight.

Fortunately, I had the next best thing to hospital treatment. I’d booked my accommodation through Airbnb and Lady Luck oversaw this process of digital roulette. My kind, friendly and prodigiously talented host was photographer Ben Sklar. He met me at the baggage carousel in Austin, and in doing so set the tenor of all my SXSW encounters: the nicest people who are also extremely clever. There was one exception, but more on that in the next instalment.

Back at the home of Ben and his partner Maria, after weaving around with exhaustion for a while, I set my alarm for the next day and lapsed into unconsciousness. Jet lag is a cruel mistress, so naturally I woke prematurely and at an ungodly hour. Austin chose to further add to my woes and turned on freezing rain and high winds. I staggered out, wearing every item of clothing I’d brought. I felt like Kenny from South Park. As luck would have it, the dress code for SxSW is Scruffy Casual, so I looked ace.

Second thing to know about South by Southwest: register early on day one of SxSWi. Registration opened at 9.00am on Friday; I arrived at 9.10 and harrumphed under my breath as I waited in line for fifteen whole minutes to collect my pass. By lunchtime, delegates were in a queue that stretched around half the interior of the Austin Convention Center, waiting for over three hours (the Convention Center is four floors, covering six city blocks). I dodged a bullet. Thank you, Jet Lag, for the early morning call.

So I had my program, which is bigger than my local phone book. In fact, the number of people at the conference is around six times the population of my home town. The enormity of the task ahead of me – I’ll be honest – left me hesitant and overwhelmed. Exhaustion left me ashen-faced and slow-moving. The Convention Center seemed the size of a planet. And this was just one of the fifteen venues for Interactive, accessed via dedicated shuttle buses on four separate routes around Austin. Frankly, the whole thing seemed untenable and I contemplated finding a café where I could hide for the duration and follow the whole thing via hashtags on Twitter. At least I’d be warm; I could then strip off a few layers and regain the full range of movement of my limbs.

But Australians are a doughty mob, so I perused the program to select the day’s first panel. In taking these first tentative steps, however, I encountered the next Inescapable Truth about SxSW: There Will be Cool Stuff that you have to Forego, in Order to See Other Stuff that you Hope will be Equally Cool. Or Cooler.

Guiding my priorities at SxSW is my goal of developing great social content, developing a strong, flexible and sustainable business and creating content in partnerships with brands. Thus I had an Organising Principle for planning my days, but even then I wrestled with option paralysis. It was like trying to chose which of your kids is your favourite and then getting in a bus to go across town, thereby leaving the unchosen one behind, alone. Well, I imagine that what it’s like. We don’t have a system of public transport on Tamborine Mountain, so if I abandoned my kids it would be in a private vehicle. Don’t think I haven’t been tempted.

So Day One sessions resolved themselves thusly: Making a Grand Entrance: How to Launch a Product; We Made This, and It’s Not an Ad; and finally – The Lean Startup: The Science of Entrepreneurship. And what did I learn on this day of fiery baptism?

From the Ladies who Launch, I learnt that your product needs a clear message and also needs a clear category of product. They proposed that if you launch in beta, be focused about what it is you want to learn from the beta stage. They suggested that you know what your current “experience” is (i.e. product) and who it’s right for (like, whose your market) – and target your launch marketing to them. So yep, all pretty straightforward, no Nobel Prize there. But that was ok. It was a ‘no sudden moves, no loud noises’ start to the day that I needed in my enfeebled state.

Robbie Whiting ran a solo panel for We Made This and It’s Not an Ad – and it was a sold-out show full of wit, insight and the word “fucking” used (mainly) adjectivally. His key point was that ad agencies need to “go from making people want things, to making things people want.” He proposed that agencies are good at making ads, but consumers don’t value ads – so the challenge is for agencies to learn how to make things that consumers value. His argument was for rethinking practice in-house at the agencies, but also for energy and drive towards new collaborations *sue waves hi*. It was a great presentation and I now have copious examples of great work by creative people that I want to spend time going over. Drop me a line if you’d like to see my notes of Robbie’s list.

Going into the five pm session, I was getting firmly and repeatedly slapped by fatigue, but I was determined to crash or crash through. So onwards and upwards, and back in a shuttle across town for the Lean Startup keynote presented by entrepreneurial wunderkind, Eric Ries. If you’re a fan of Eric Ries and have read his book, now might be the time to sit back, close your eyes and imagine being in a room with him and 2000 other people, listening to the man himself go through the main points of his treatise on Lean Startups. Then check back with me in three paragraphs.

If you haven’t heard of Eric Ries, he’s the author of the book called (you’ll never guess) Lean Startups and chief torch-bearer of a movement that has not only captured the imagination of the tech community, but it that is also now making headway into government and the broader business community. I’m really interested in how you can apply the ideas of the lean startup to the creative sector because I’m creating a project that continues to go through an iterative process – and indeed has pretty much followed the Lean principles. So I’m condensing this in a way that would make Readers’ Digest blush, but broadly the principles of ‘Lean’ are to Build, Measure and Learn. This means:

  1. Create a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to release to the market
  2. In line with customer response, continue to iterate the product in small increments as quickly and as cheaply as possible.
  3. Be prepared to ‘pivot or persevere’. Put simply, your product may suck as far as your customers are concerned, so you may have to change your strategy (although not necessarily your ‘vision’).

The most excellent Ogilvy Notes’ summation of Eric Ries’ talk. Click on the image for other 2012 SXSW presentations.

The core of the Lean philosophy is that all of these steps are done as cheaply and as quickly as possible, thus (one hopes) avoiding protracted and costly business failures. If you’re going to fail, better to find out sooner rather than later, with as little invested as possible. All the better for dusting yourself off, reflecting on the lessons of the experience and applying this newfound knowledge to your next great idea.

I find these notions incredibly useful for creative products – and whether it’s called “lean” or something else. The key difference in the creative sector is that you test with your audience – not the distributors, investors, publishers etc as your marketplace. And these ways of developing and creating story are being discussed and embraced in film and transmedia circles. I’ll return to this, one of my pet topics, in a forthcoming post. But for the Australian industry in particular which agonizes over the ‘under-developed-ness’ of our feature film scripts, it seems to offer itself up as a new paradigm to solve a problem and help create stronger work which connects deeply to an audience.

So back to Austin Convention Center – Eric Ries is a great speaker and I stayed awake and happy for the duration of his talk – FTW! Once it was game over, however, my life force began to ebb away and no amount of caffeinated beverages consumed during the day (ok, one emergency latte) could keep the mounting delirium at bay.

There were parties to go to. I didn’t. There was free beer to be drunk. I couldn’t. Instead, I took my multi-layered garments and my cold, haggard (and now mentally over-stimulated) self back to my haven and, after manfully opening the program book to the following day, flaked out in royal, dishevelled fashion.


Coming soon: Iterative Storytelling, wherein I listen to one of my heroes…

South by South Quest

So, Arts Queensland are a nice bunch. Lemme tell you why.

I’ve been working in documentary for a long time. But over the last few years working on projects for television – or trying to get a feature made – has seemed less and less .. well – fun.

File it under “No Shit, Sherlock” but it’s tough to make films if you’re an independent filmmaker. It’s not just me: Australian icon Bob Connolly called bullshit on the whole stinkin’ business in spectacular, stadium-rocking, single-finger-saluting fashion at this year’s Australian International Documentary Conference. Bob was singing my blues when he railed at how tough it is to finance a ‘one-off’ film through the Australian industry, based as it is around the free-to-air broadcasters. For documentary-makers to spend time (and for the channels to spend money) on a project that results in only a single promotional opportunity for a broadcaster – it’s become a tough ask. And, as Bob notes, it’s even harder if you’re a lone filmmaker. And living outside a major metropolitan area. And if you have to be home in time at least some days to pick up your kids from school. And take them to soccer. And help them with their homework. (Actually, Bob didn’t say that last stuff, but it’s no less true.)

So a couple of years back when I had the depressing epiphany that my career was shot, I started lecturing part-time at university and I helped out on a beautiful film. I also thought about the stories I’d like to tell. And then (the all-important next step) I decided to do something about it. To change. And say -

Why hello, internet.

Since then I’ve started the work of transforming my business – but most importantly, my creative practice – to embrace the world of story that lives online as well as in real life. Stories that live in data, in text, in video, across devices and that emerge from real life events. These are the building blocks of a whole new way of creating the work that I want do. It’s taken a while, but this year’s going to be a cracker. More on that as it gets closer…

Kicking off this exciting year, I’m going to South by Southwest Interactive (courtesy of a career grant from Arts Queensland – see, I told you they were nice). My aim is to continue on my quest to bring my passion for factual storytelling to multiple platforms. I’m going to meet the people doing awesome work and learn from what happens at the place where this creativity runs smack bang into commerce.

Frankly, it’s going to rock. Because so far, my paddling in the digital pool has been limited to just my virtual tootsies – from in front of my screen, in my office, downstairs in my home on Tamborine Mountain. There’s not a shedload of high-flying that goes on in these parts, unless you count the eagles.

And if you’re looking for high-fliers, SouthBy – as it’s known – is bigger than god’s underpants. Around 30 000 delegates across Film, Music and Interactive conferences. Interactive has over 1000 sessions in five days, across 15 venues. It actually feels less like a dive into a pool and more like I’m about to go swimming in the Pacific when there’s a massive swell: it’s going to be a wild ride, and I’ll probably end up with sand in some uncomfortable places.

As well as the panels, it’s also de rigeur to go to so many parties that you could, actually, suffer a lethal dose of shindig. I’ve sought counsel from delegates from previous years and this an official caution. I spent the whole day yesterday rsvp’ing to a grand total of 61 parties. SIXTY ONE. These are just the publicised parties. These do not include the sekrit ninja ones. Unfortunately I went to the same finishing school as the Honey Badger, so I’m unlikely to be able to sweet-talk my way into any party that has anything other than the most forgiving door policy. To help me in my quest, I’ve download an app. Of course there’s an app for finding the best parties. Sheez.

Also I’m slightly apprehensive, that Texas – the home of South by Southwest – is not the natural habitat of non-rib and brisket consuming vegetarians like me. Added to this, I’ve spent the last year trying to create a tolerance for caffeinated beverages (I still get a little woozy on a latte). And while I’m in confessional mode, I hold my liquor about as well as an Amish person. And consider this a warning: if I do fall off the wagon, there will be a splat sound.

So stay tuned for the next installment as we go on the adventures of a vegetarian, herbal-tea-drinking, teetotaller as she tackles the world’s biggest knees-up at a barbeque – also the world’s leading digital conference and networking event.

Giddy up!