Tag Archives: transmedia

Backstory: The A-levels

I know you were completely hooked on the Audit Commission Crhonicles (*yawn*) but today was A-level results day here. There was a flurry of chat about it on twitter and I said what results I’d managed 23 years ago: Two Ds and an E. And when someone asked me privately “How did that happen? You’re such a clever guy.” I gave my stock answer, which is that I discovered the joys of beer and girls in my sixth form.

But because I’m thinking a lot about extending narratives and backstories, it occurred to me that there was more to the story than that – I mean that is the truth, that’s something that happened then, but it’s not the whole reason that I got two Ds and an E. There’s much more to the truth than that. So I started looking at what it was really about – what I don’t normally want to talk about, what I cover up with the stock answer.

Because lets face it, having a laugh about the joys of beer and girls is much more comfortable than looking at the whole truth.

So here’s some more of the truth.

First off, there’s more to the results – I also got an A in General Studies but I miss that out because it doesn’t fit with the story and because it’s too easy to get into an argument about whether General Studies counts or not and it doesn’t seem to matter whether people did it or not, they’re equally divided about it’s value, mainly on the basis of what grade they or someone they know got. So that gets left out. But it tells you something. It tells you that I do have some natural ability, some curiosity for current affairs and good general knowledge across a range of disciplines. I’m a good generalist. That’s more widely valued these days than it was in 1983 but if you started hiding it back then, it seems a little weak to bring it up now…

What else was going on? I was studying German, French and Latin. Yeah. How did that come about? Well specialisation started earlier then, I think. When you chose your O-level options before the fourth form you narrowed a lot, but also in the school I went to the timetable was less flexible – classes in the third form were based around it. There were 10 classes of about 30 kids each in my year. The “top” two were the ones who did Latin and modern languages. The middle ones were more technical and scientific and the lowest ones completely manual – technical drawing, metal and woodwork for the boys, girlie stuff for the girls. We all did a bit of music and art and RE but clearly being able to do languages was important and Latin was a badge of honour with teachers and disgust with other pupils.

I got a lot more positive attention, far more easily for having a talent for languages than I would have done if I’d had a natural talent for art or making things. So that’s what I chose. I didn’t have to work too hard at all and I got through.

That’s the beginning of the mistake, if you like, trying to take the easy way. But it cut me off from an important bit of me, the space to be creative. My only option was extra-curricular drama (no not knife fights in the park. Hamlet, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Real Inspector Hound.) And I hung on to this, knowing that being creative was something that was really important to me.

So when it came to choosing A-levels, I wasn’t going to do Maths, Physics or Chemistry, I’d jettisoned everything else and because I fell out with the head of English, for the reasons that headstrong and arrogant 16-year-olds fall out with tired, middle-aged men teaching in a Midlands comprehensive, two years of English was a no-no. So I ended up doing a triple-whammy of translation and heavy literature.

Essentially decisions I made at the age of 13 together with the demographics of the time and the inflexibility of the timetable led me to an extremely constrained position five years later.

And I completely lost the will to work at any of it. I didn’t see the point in studying literature and I couldn’t be bothered. And it was a means to an end that I wasn’t interested in either (although I couldn’t admit that either). When it came out that I was applying for drama degrees, I had a long discussion with the headmaster who told me that a career in the arts was a ridiculous waste of the education I’d been given and that I should join an amateur dramatics group while doing a Modern Languages degree. He didn’t know that I already felt I was compromising but didn’t know how to get out of the ridiculous bind I was in.

So I did the only thing I could do to save myself from doing something I didn’t have the heart to do nor had the guts to refuse. I simply didn’t do the work. In particular, I didn’t read very much of the German, French or Latin literature that is (was?) a core part of A-level study in those subjects. So Goethe is still a mystery to me though I remembered “Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen bluehen” when I went through the Brenner pass last summer. I couldn’t tell you what La Chute was about except a guess that a guy having some existential breakdown in Amsterdam and while Aeneid VI is one of the more engaging books, Pliny and Ovid left me totally cold. And those are the ones that I can remember the titles of. I was never going to get the two Bs and a C that would condemn me to 3 years in Aberystwyth.

Result!

So I spent the next year still in Bromsgrove. Laying about on the dole. No! That’s another stock answer, that covers up what I was really doing. What I really did in the 12 months before I left home in September 1984 was that I became a political activist, learning rhetorical speaking and camaraderie and ways of organising people around passions – how pointless is that if you want a real job? And I spent the rest of my time working as a volunteer at the Swan Theatre in Worcester, effectively as an unpaid Acting ASM learning a bit of my trade as an actor, which of course although relevant to me spending three years at the Guildford School of Acting couldn’t possibly prepare me for doing something useful once I was over 40. Yeah, I didn’t do anything in my lazing-about year.

So there you go. More truth. Is there any more in there? I don’t know at the moment, perhaps there is. What other “cover stories” and “stock answers” are there?

What’s with the lines and boxes and backstory?

Tuttle in boxes and lines

What’s all this about then? Well it’s becoming clear to me that there are two things that I need to do that I’m not doing enough of. First is that I should be writing more publicly about what I’m doing and how. But also that the connections between seemingly different bits need to be articulated too.

Wait. There’s something else we need to sort out first. This isn’t about me. I mean obviously it all is but that’s not because I think what I’m doing or thinking is particularly important or even interesting but because it’s the material that’s closest to hand.

I am interested in how stories get told on the internet and the rest of the world, and how storylines can move between the two. How narratives can carry over from blogs to films to games to comic-strips to conversations down the pub to a picture on the wall. That’s what transmedia storytelling is to me. Many definitions of transmedia include the word “fictional”. I think it’s valuable to operate at a higher level of abstraction and include elements that might be fictional or might be factual or maybe predominantly factual but include elements that are wholly and explicitly subjective interpretations of the “facts”.

And social art field trips like Tuttle2Texas are non-fictional transmedia experiences. And I know that it’s sometimes difficult to explain or understand what they’re for. They’re not *for* anything. They’re not a means to an end. They are deliberately at such a level of abstraction that their primary purpose is to help illustrate how stories (fictional or otherwise) might be co-created and told, because we don’t know that well enough yet – and if we operate only at lower levels of abstraction it’s much harder to learn what works and to transfer that learning between domains of interest.

So what I’m trying to here before my brain explodes is to shift up yet another level and say OK, if you take #tuttle as an element and #tuttle2texas as an element and that consulting work we did last year as an element, how do they all fit together?

Not “How can we find the common thread so that we can present a coherent marketing pitch?” But rather, given that this stuff is as coherent and congruent as anything else, what connections need to be articulated to help you suspend your disbelief? What needs to be explained? How wide and empty can the gutter be? What might I fill the gutter up with to help you across? What backstory is useful that helps you get to the beginning. And what is the beginning? Where do you start? Because when you’re telling this kind of a story, each element may have a beginning, middle and an end, but the great thing about having near infinite capacity to co-create and store stuff is that we can stretch the story out as long as our patience and interest and attention can last.

And if we can work it out at this level (and I’ll only do that by doing it) then perhaps there are valuable lessons that are more generally applicable.

I think.

Backstory: The Audit Commission – Part I

Interestingly, as I’m thinking about what you say and what you don’t and considering how to flesh out the story of me online, this weekend it was announced that the Audit Commission is to be abolished.

The Audit Commission was a big part of my working life. Did you know that? Probably not, there might be fleeting references to it, but to an extent, when I left in 2002 I drew a line under it as an experience and moved on. So as an interesting exercise in backstory writing (ie creating panels before the first panel – and of course a gutter between) what did I do there?

I arrived at the Commission’s Vincent Square headquarters on 1 August 1994. It was coincidentally the day that Commission staff were all moving back into VSQ after refurbishment, so it was a more laid back introduction than I’d expected and everyone else had a little air of being new themselves. I was there as a placement student for a year as part of my degree in Computing & IT at Surrey University.

My role as a student was to provide data analysis support to study teams in the directorate of Local Government Studies. I found myself allocated to a number of studies, but primarily a team just starting to look at the education of children under five. In the course of the year I got more and more excited by the prospect of understanding public services by collecting data and going out and talking to people.

The classic commission study contained a comprehensive and thorough narrative exploring the area of interest coupled with facts and analyses to support the argument. In addition there was usually an audit tool of some sort which would allow local auditors to carry out a value for money audit in the services affected.

So much of my time was spent following the study team around, carrying bags and getting to understand what they were doing and seeing where I could spot things that could be measured and interesting stories that might be told based on thbe data. It wasn’t up to me to come up with the stories, more to spot interesting avenues of investigation and then, if the study team agreed then to look further.

A running joke was that study teams always found there to be “significant variation between councils’ performance in X” for a number of Xs. Spotting variation was only the beginning. Explaining why variation occurred and what managers could do to improve their performance was much more important.

Not much was expected of us as students, but I loved bringing large sets of data together and seeing what you could tell from it. So I set about recording all of the data we were collecting, right down to attendance patterns in nursery schools into one big database that I could play around with.

The key output of this was a spreadsheet that allowed an auditor to compare the data they collected in an individual educational setting, or across a local authority, with national averages. My innovation was to present this data in the form of a “cost tree” for cost per child per hour.

A figure for cost per anything is usually one big number divided by some other big number, so in this case the total cost of provision divided by the number of child hours provided. Now this might vary for a wide range of reasons but by laying out the factors that go to make up the costs and those that might vary in the calculation of the total number of child hours (a policy decision, for example, to limit the number of hours 3-year-olds might get) it was much easier to see where differences arose.

It was very simple in the end but effective. It gave people something to think about, something to discuss and help them put a local picture into a national context. As well as helping the study team understand the dynamics of costs and differences between the costs of types of setting, it would help auditors to show councils where they might make improvements.

I went back to university for my final year, but was very pleased when the people in the study team lobbied for me to be recruited following graduation. But that’s a story for another day.

OK – what does this tell you about me? How does it help explain what happens next? Does it explain anything at all? Or is the gulf between this and what you know of me today too wide for you to suspend your disbelief that they’re the same people (*I* struggle..!). Do you want to give up, or carry on? Have I jumped too far from yesterdays post for you to understand what I’m trying to do here?

Keeping out of the gutters

I was struck by a piece by Scott Walker a few weeks ago on the use of the gutter in comic-strips and relating it to transmedia storytelling. I identified with it immediately because I know that the space you leave between the things you articulate are hugely fertile places – our minds are great at filling in the gap between A and B. Storytellers have exploited this by setting the audience up with a series of scenes that lead you to a certain conclusion and then revealing something that was left out that turns the plot around completely. In great detective novels for example the truth becomes clear when we find out exactly what happened between B and C rather than what we’d taken for granted and therefore Y to Z makes perfect sense.

I’ve applied this to Tuttle. When we started I made up some simple boundary conditions that I wanted to hold and I reinforced them over time: minimal structure; no-one grabs attention; regular meetings; as free at the point of access as possible; it isn’t for everyone but it is for anyone, etc. and theen I let you all make up the “rules” or ways to behave that make sense to you. I think this is the best way to make co-creation work.

And with Tuttle it still works: it leads to conversation that draws out and articulates what we can agree on – just such a conversation happened this week about moving Friday mornings to another location, out of which came the insight that maybe Tuttle needs a social space to feel comfortable in. We’ll keep this conversation going. It isn’t finished – that’s because the gutters are fractal – everytime you fill the gap between A and B with X you actually create two new narrower ones A-X and X-B and so we continue on.

So my favourite advice to people thinking about co-creation is “Pay as much attention to the gaps you leave as to the structure you build”

But this brings to light an error in how I’ve unconsciously applied this to everything I do, particularly in the narrative I create about myself when marketing the things I do. I realise that it’s not obvious how Tuttle arose out of my previous work, nor how Tuttle the meetup relates either to Tuttle Consulting nor to Tuttle2Texas – it’s clear perhaps that I’m involved, but how are they Tuttle things – and what’s all this art stuff about?

So there’s more to say on each of those than fits in a Monday morning blogging session. However, I offer the following observations relating to keeping wide gutters between things:

1. Some (maybe lots of) people just give up trying to work it out, it’s too hard – this means they give up on the story altogether.
2. People make up the stuff based on their own experience and that can have positive and negative consequences for someone trying to maintain a narrative.
3. People vary in their ability to give up a bridging idea that they’ve constructed, but most hold on pretty tight.

PS I recognise that I might not have completely recovered from this – ie I’m leaving holes that might be too big for you to traverse right now. Sorry, one blog post at a time :)

PPS there may be some more clues in my soon-to-be-launched newsletter – sign up here

Transmedia storytelling, new journalism & digital curation

tuttle2texasI’ve become more aware of a few things recently while thinking about getting these “social art” projects off the ground.

Firstly I’ve started to track the term “transmedia” on twitter and seen an awful lot of related and interesting stuff. There’s lots of excitement in the film, TV & videogame worlds about this. Advertising too. Exploring the value in the creation of fictional universes that can be expressed or explored in a variety of media, moving beyond the idea of this stuff as merchandise or spin-off material and seeing it as a part of the creative process. At least that’s my reading of where things are going. So instead of making the “game of the movie of the book” etc. ie taking an existing property and extending into another medium, they are planning stories that are told in a variety of ways for a variety of audiences, including those created by fans, the people formerly known as the audience.

Secondly, I’ve seen that Dave Winer is getting into his stride at NYU and “organising” a hypercamp this week on “Sources Go Direct” sadly it’s not on at a good time for me to watch & participate live, but it’s being ustreamed and presumably that will be archived along with everything else. The bit of Dave’s thinking that I’m most drawn to here is what he’s been saying for a while about opening up journalists’ processes and notebooks – “open sourcing” their stories and articles so that others might see what stories they might make out of the same material.

Then over the weekend, JP has written two important posts about digital curation. The second of which in particular deals with curation in the age of unbundling. What I’m talking about is unbundling in the sense that a book, film, photo exhibition, whatever is a bundle (with all sorts of preconceptions about how they are produced and distributed) and we’re not predefining which bundle we might choose to create when setting out to explore an idea.

My interest is more in the “real” world than in fictional universes. They’re amazing and fascinating and are giving us endearing and engagingly fresh cultural artefacts that help us understand ourselves better and yet, I’m left thinking “why not explore our own universe?” I’m also drawn more to the more reflective forms that we used to call features, factual and documentaries rather than the current affairs end of journalism.

That, I think is what #tuttle2texas was a prototype for – a series of explorations of spaces or ideas, a series of true (whatever that means) stories that help us understand ourselves better, expressed in a variety of media, open-sourced and unbundled for curation, remix, re-use whatever you want.