After The Spike and After The Like
Notes on emerging patterns of digital attention
Before starting Storythings, I worked for just over a decade in broadcasting, at the BBC and C4. As a digital person in a TV world, I learnt a lot about how to tell stories, and learnt, to my surprise, how little people in broadcast really understood about their audiences. In fact, many of us ‘digital’ people used to talk about ‘the former audience’ to emphasise how audience behaviour had changed, and to mock how much broadcasters had treated audiences as passive receivers for their content.
It wasn’t until I left broadcasting that I realised how complex and controversial the words ‘story’ and ‘audience’ really were. I called my company ‘Storythings’ for two reasons - one was because I’d been running a conference called The Story for a few years that was pretty much the genesis of the company, and the second was because I was more interested in stories than I was in technology. I’m fascinated by how we tell stories now, and the new relationships we can have with audiences across all sorts of interesting contexts and platforms.
But when I started talking to clients, I was surprised by how those two words - Story and Audience - meant completely different things to different people. Stories seemed to be the hot new idea in marketing, and every brand wanted to know how to tell their story, or to hear their customers’ stories. Transmedia gurus were trying to convince us that stories were many-tentacled hydras, performing complexly choreographed dances to lure fans into their narratives.
But no-one outside of broadcasting really used the word ‘audience’. There were customers, fans, users, subscribers, followers, networks, communities and participants. Audiences were points in a cloud of big data, or a constantly updated Chartbeat report. Audiences were presented as infographics, or studied as psychological experiments.
So I started to research the history of how we’ve talked about stories and audiences over the last few hundred years, and its made me love the word audience again, and to really focus on understanding audience behaviour. There is an assumed contract, almost an etiquette, between storytellers and their audiences. Audiences are not passive - they make choices about what stories they want to listen to, turn up to listen (which is not a passive act), and fold the emotional impact of good stories back into their lives. Many years ago, audiences were as noisy as Twitter is now, and the call and response between the stage and the crowd was an integral part of the show. It’s only been in the last few 50 years or so that audiences have been quiet. So quiet, that they became almost invisible to the people telling the stories.
In fact, the last 50-60 years have been a blip - a time in which the relationship between storytellers and audiences was effectively broken. We’re coming to the end of that blip now, and we’re seeing a transition as interesting and profound as the beginning of the 20th century, when storytelling moved from the live performance circuits of music hall and variety to the new mass mediums of cinema and broadcasting.
When transitions like this occur, the driving force is human behaviour - the patterns of audiences’ attention change as technology creates new ways to tell stories to audiences, and new business models develop around these new patterns of attention. In the early twentieth century, the balance of power in the entertainment industry shifted from the variety bosses who controlled the distribution of performers around national theatre circuits, to the new entrepreneurs of cinema and later, broadcasting. Very few businesses and moguls managed to make the transition as the patterns of attention changed.
But in the middle of these transitions, there’s often a pattern of attention which dominates - one which bridges the gap between the old patterns of attention and the new. In cinema and radio, early formats borrowed their shape, duration and structure from music hall, and it took many decades for mass media to find forms more suited to their specific qualities.
Right now, we’re seeing a similar pattern dominate the transition from broadcast to digital, and its best described as “The Spike and The Like’.
The ‘Spike’ is a huge rush of simultaneous attention, that giant uptick you see when you manage to choreograph many different sources of attention to look at your story at pretty much exactly the same time. Its a throwback to the simultaneous attention patterns of broadcast television, and in fact, broadcasters are realising how digital, and particularly social, media is amplifying this pattern of simultaneous attention.
In my last few years at Channel 4, I saw a trend of ‘live’ versions of formats that previously were never live - like The Million Pound Drop game show. This is because broadcasters get lots more money for advertising around live, scheduled viewing than they do for on-demand viewing, so they’re developing formats that make it hard to watch the show outside of the live broadcast (there are exceptions for certain genres -we’ll come back to this later). Looking at Broadcast Magazine’s Greenlight commissioning index this morning, there were 71 shows with ‘Live’ in their title, from ‘Lambing Live’ and ‘Bedtime Live’ to ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ and ‘Deathwish: Live’. The spike also reflects the traditional 30-sec ad campaign launch that was reliant on this scheduled broadcast attention.
The ‘Like’ is also an artefact of an earlier era. ‘Likeability’ has been a metric used in advertising for decades, from the USA Today Superbowl ad ratings to ‘The Worm’ - a live audience rating device first used in the Australian presidential elections in 1993. It’s an abstraction - a single measure for a complex range of behaviours and emotions, and its become incresaingly irrelevant through overuse in our current Facebook Era.
So if the Spike and the Like are the bridge between traditional broadcast patterns and measurement, what will come after them? What new audience behaviours are emerging, and how will we measure them?
Audience behaviours have always been complex, it’s the tools we’ve used to measure them that have been crude. We’re now moving out of the era of ‘One Big Number’ into a dizzying range of ways to tell stories and see the reaction from our audiences.
Here’s four emerging patterns that I think are worth looking at when planning a story. All of them are here now, in various stages of adoption in different communities. There are weaker signals for other emerging patterns of attention, but these ones feel like they’re going to be important over the next few decades, and will allow all sorts of interesting stories, products and business models to develop around them.
The Binge is probably the strongest pattern of them all. Its been emerging over about 5-6 years, since the emergence of box-sets and PVRs. Its pretty much restricted to two genres of story - comedy and drama - and as such it was the first sign that the broadcast industry was as likely to fracture around genres and attention patterns as it was around business models and technology. We first started noticing bingeing behaviour around cult dramas like Skins and Misfits at C4 about 5/6 years ago, with over 50% of the audience watching outside of scheduled broadcasts.
It raises really interesting problems for broadcasters trying to sell premium ad space in peak schedules, but if you are less reliant on display advertising - if you have a subscription model like Netflix, for example - you are in a perfect position to build services and commission stories based on this new pattern of attention. The makers of House of Cards for Netflix said they approached the storytelling as a 13-hour movie, not as 13 hour-long episodes, so there is less reliance on traditional end-of-episode cliff-hangers to keep audiences thinking about the story until next week’s episode.
Mitch Hurwitz, creator of the comedy Arrested Development, has gone even further, and written the 15 new episodes commissioned by Netflix as the same moment in time, seen from a different perspective each episode. He originally suggested that audiences could dive in and view them in any order, but now suggests that certain jokes wouldn’t ‘pay off’ unless you view them in the order they were created. This is just the beginning of the kinds of experimentation we’ll see as online platforms commission stories designed around bingeing behaviours.
The second new pattern of attention is The Pledge, a spectrum of activity ranging from celebrity-led Kickstarter campaigns like Zach Braff’s follow-up to Garden State, through broadcast campaigns by TV personalities like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall or Jamie Oliver, down to individual sponsorship for marathons and fun runs. Campaigns are an interesting structure for story-telling, as they have a specific goal, and are usually time-bound. What’s changed recently is the use of campaigns, not for a specific political or social goal, but as a way for storytellers to build a relationship with the audience before the production of the story itself.
This is fascinating, as it flips the traditional power relationship in commissioning. Making and distributing stories is a risky business, with nobody really knowing what stories will find an audience, or how they will be received when they do. So up until now, someone has had to make an investment in time and money before knowing what the potential audience response would be. This has led to hedging strategies, from consolidating production and distribution into huge global companies, to specific tactics to ‘game’ the metrics of attention and increase your chances of success (eg Payola or the 19th century Claque).Kickstarter and similar sites create another way to hedge risk - to build a relationship and commitment from your audience in advance of production.
As well as hedging risk, this also has a really interesting side-effect. Building an audience of patrons before production means that you now have a commitment to an audience, and the need to talk to the audience during the process of production. The structure of rewards, updates to the pledgers and providing access to production as it happens is as much a part of the story - and the contract with the audience - as the story itself. This is a fascinating problem for people running campaign-structured stories - what do you do with your audience once you’ve achieved your goal? Even President Obama’s first election campaign - held up as a ground-breaking online campaign structure - faltered when they couldn’t translate the passion of the campaign to other, post-goal stories.
I think we’re only just beginning to see the effect this will have on storytelling - pledging is not just an alternative route to funding, its a completely different approach to storytelling with your audience, with as many risks and opportunities as traditional production and distribution.
The third pattern is The Long Live Event. This appears at first glance to be yet another manifestation of ‘The Spike’, but it’s more interesting than that. Long Live Events have two patterns - an ambient story that unfolds over long periods of time, and intermittent spikes, often developing randomly, that cause audiences to ‘flock’ to the story. The ambient story normally has a bounding format or direction, but within this format, individual stories can emerge, develop, and subside at will.
Big Brother was the first story that developed in this way, with live streams augmented by nightly ‘catchup’ programmes. More recently, The Olympics was a perfect example of a Long Live Event, and Channel 4 has been using the structure in some very innovative factual projects, including Hippo: Nature’s Wild Feast, Foxes Live and Easter Eggs Live.
Long Live Events are a pattern of attention that is much better suited to digital, as its easier to produce and distribute many streams of ambient content, and its easier to respond quicker to audiences ‘flocking’ to intermittent spikes.
There is a friction in Long Live Events which is a real challenge for broadcasters - the friction between the organic pace of a real-life story, and the stricter demands of a broadcast format. Factual programming has dealt with this in many ways in the last 50 years, from the periodic documentaries of Michael Apted’s Up series, through the ‘conflict’ genre pioneered by Faking It & Wife Swap to the current ‘constructed reality’ shows like The Only Way Is Essex. Each of these formats has tried to solve the same problem - how to make sure unpredictable real life stories deliver the right ‘story beats’ - the cliff-hangers and resolutions expected for scheduled broadcast television formats. Their tactics range from extremely long production cycles (the Up Series) to deliberate manipulation of events to create drama (constructed reality).
Long Live Events are a different take on this problem of how to cover long stories. The new behaviours of following and streaming content means that audiences can now dip in and out of long stories over days, weeks or months, and are more likely to be alerted to developing story points by others in their social streams flocking to the story. We’re only just beginning to understand how to tell Long Live Event stories in this way, but its something that Google seem to be pushing for as they try and understand the story-telling potential of Youtube combined with Google+ Hangouts.
The last pattern is The Report. This is a pattern that reveals a story over time based on events and data that is unique to each member of the audience. It’s best illustrated by data-monitoring services like the Nike+ Fuel Band, and mobile apps like Run Keeper, but it has huge potential for other kinds of storytelling. The Report is a story that starts from a germ of data or other contribution from the audience, and then plays out over time as regular updates, or alerts as key points are reached.
The Report is a pattern that will become more and more important as we leave longer and longer trails on the public web. Services like Timehop and OhLife use report formats to tell the story of your past online, and most social media services are now using emailed reports of your friends’ activities to try and lure you back to their services.
We used this structure for Pepysrd.com, a 10-day online storytelling project for Faber & Faber around John Lanchester’s book Capital. Using audiences’ date and place of birth, we told them the story of their lives over the next ten years, using data from public sources across the web combined with new stories written by John Lanchester.
As we have more and more services set up to monitor and track data about us across digital networks, there is a huge need to create compelling narrative formats for their reports. These will be as playful and rich as traditional story-telling formats - for example, Tom Coates from San Francisco-based Product Club has created a twitter feed for his house, and someone else has created Haunted House of Coates, an uncanny replica of the stories Coates’ devices are telling about his house and activities.
All these patterns are signs that we’re in the transition from one era of storytelling to another. As in the early part of the twentieth century, this transition will be driven by changes in audience behaviour as much as technology and business models. These new patterns are asking us, as storytellers, to face new questions - how will bingeing change the way we structure stories? How does Pledging change our attitude to risk and the involvement of audiences in our stories? How do Long Live Events change the relationship between organic stories and the formats we use to tell them? And how can we use Reports to help our audiences tell their stories?
This is why we need to focus on stories and audiences again. The last 50-60 years of mass media reduced the feedback loop between storytellers and audiences to a quiet signal, represented mainly by one big number. The early era of digital has adopted some of these old patterns, and focused mainly on the Spike and the Like, but we’re moving away from that now, and seeing the emergence of interesting new patterns that are based on more complex relationships between the audience and the storyteller.
We’re still only in the beginning, and the next couple of decades will see content industries rise and fall based on their ability to adapt and build businesses around these new patterns. There’s never been a better time to tell stories, and never a better time to be in the audience.