Thursday, March 19, 2009

Group Therapy

It was sometime in the mi-90s that I first started to write for pleasure. There I was, happily sliding towards my 40s when I met Mike. I’m not quite clear on how it happened, but somehow, under the editorial leadership of Mike, a magazine came into being that satirised the official company magazine.

Calling our offering a magazine was probably stretching the point. While the company magazine was glossy and slick, ours consisted of a few sheets of A4 paper stapled together. While the company had access to an editor, ours went out typos and all. The company used professional photographers. We cut cartoons from back copies of ‘Punch’ magazine and changed the text underneath. The company undoubtedly had access to tools that ensured it was laid out impeccably. We would sit with bits of paper and glue, stick the contributions to the A4 sheet and photocopy them.

Despite this, our offering was surprisingly popular. For ‘Children in Need’ we produced special editions, charged the princely sum of 50p and sold out before lunch. (see Note 1) Above all, I found the act of writing bits of it highly therapeutic.

Mike moved on and by popular demand I carried on with the magazine. Then came the unfortunate incident of the new kitten. One of the (female) managers came into possession of a kitten. She may have let slip that she hadn’t thought of a good name, so naturally, I sought to help. In one edition we ran a competition, ‘Guess the name of X’s pussy!’ It didn’t go down well and management introduced censorship and the edginess and feeling of fun was lost. The magazine faded away.

Back then my writing wasn’t up to much. My effulgent yeomen may be thinking that nothing much changes, but hard as it is to believe, my writing has improved since then.

At the time, I was already using the Internet. I started off with a CompuServe account using the mosaic browser and a 19.6K modem. With my creative outlet gone, I started to explore the internet for other outlets. I started off going to newsgroups, eventually graduating to messageboards before discovering a few sites on the web that catered for writers.

Eventually, I grew bored with the writing sites and decided to write a blog instead. Now, virtually all my writing is either in a blog or is reworked from one of my ramblings that started as a blog. I find that this gives me the therapy I crave without having to commit to heavily.

The blog gives a lot of creative freedom and allows you to do all sorts of clever things with other media, but I essentially use it as a written word tool. However, there seems to be a limit to just how much I can read in a blog and how much I can interact with the writer or as a writer. In my eyes at least, it has been a shortcoming of the internet that reading off a screen is difficult. Reading from a book or a piece of paper is so much easier (see Note 2).  It is almost as if going onto the internet immediately sets your attention span to a lower setting.

For all of the advances in technology and the Internet, the position of the book has never been challenged.  For interaction and presentation, you cannot beat the Internet.

Then there is the issue of putting writers together on a site. There always seemed to be ‘issues’ amongst writers on an internet site. It was fine when all of the writers were happily praising each other like luvvies on the red carpet at the Oscars, but that never lasted. Sooner or later constructive critiques would be asked for and received signalling tears before bedtime. As I think one great wit once put it, ‘You can stroke some of the egos all of the time, all of the egos some of the time, but not all of the egos all of the time.’

There was no better example of this than the collaborative story. One writer would write a paragraph or two and hand over to another writer to add a bit, who would hand over to another. The trouble was that you would write a bit setting up a later contribution only to have your ideas stamped upon by some guy who believed that all stories needed to contain at least one herd of flying, killer gerbils.

I loved the collaborative story; it was just so rare that one ever got finished.

The other day I was doing my news junkie bit on the BBC Technology site and I came across the story covering the South by Southwest Web Awards, in Austin, Texas. (See Note 3) Seeing that the winner was British, obviously I felt I should take a look.

The ‘We Tell Stories’ site was a really pleasant surprise. For the last few days I have been poking around an enjoying the way the new modern takes on classics were presented making the most of the interactive nature of the Internet. I keep finding myself going back to have another look and a little play.

Yet, I somehow doubt that this is another Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. You see it lacks one rather important element – the ability of the masses to contribute to the story. At the moment, all it does is provide content and once that content is exhausted, people will stop coming and the site will languish on some backwater of the Interweb.

If this site is to become ‘the next big thing’, it really needs to make tools available to the masses that will allow them to provide content into the site, which in turn will ensure that there is always something there for the returning visitor.

Consider the story posted called ‘The (Former) General’. You navigate through the narrative by clicking on the arrow keys, you choose the direction you want the story to move in. Now consider if the tools were there to allow a group to collaborate on the story, to add routes, to branch off one plot and into another, to add new nodes and their own prose or poetry (or pictures or video). Suddenly you have a tool to allow people to be creative, generate content and above all a commitment to the site and returning foot fall (see Note 4). It would even give those with the desire to control armies of flying, killer gerbils the ability to create their own plot line without upsetting the egos of other writers.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this site, I just would love to play with the tools and produce my own interactive stories using them.

Note 1: There is absolutely no truth in the rumour that, to ensure sales success, we had removed all of the toilet rolls from the toilets.

Note 2: I wonder if it has something to do with you look down to read a book and straight ahead to read a screen? I wonder if there is some primeval trigger in the brain that has conditioned the human race to equate looking ahead with adrenaline type activities that require physical action such as hunting or avoiding being hunted, while looking down means you feel secure, and so can relax?

Note 3: I like the idea of an ‘elevator pitch’. It obviously saves the licence payers money by doing away with the need for a studio. I wish that some of the people who give me presentations would learn the technique.

Note 4: I’m not quite sure what the Internet equivalent to ‘foot fall’ would be.

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