Archive for the ‘Creativity and Innovation’ Category

When coffee & convenience were the mothers of invention: the roots of the Webcam

Having spent a large chunk of the last three weeks on Zoom (shares up 30%), Skype and the like, whilst drinking lashings of coffee, it is interesting to reflect on the device that has made this all possible and its humble origins in my alma mater, Cambridge.

The inspiration for the world’s first webcam came from a coffee pot next to the Trojan Room in the old Computer Laboratory of Cambridge University. In 1991 the computer scientists working there rigged up an early form of webcam (in greyscale) so those further from the room could monitor the level of coffee in the pot and stop missing out on the black stuff. At first it was an internal system running at a low frame rate but after a while (Nov 1993) someone thought to connect it to the World Wide Web and it became something of an early internet star (the web equivalent of a silent movie star). People from round the globe checked out the coffee levels in the lab. Because they were on different time zones a lamp was introduced to cover the evening and night.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xcoffee

XCoffee was the client software written by QSF

The coffee pot was retired after a decade in 2001 (it was actually the fourth or fifth) and bought by a German magazine (Der Spiegel) at auction for a bit over three grand.

The original programmers were Quentin Stafford-Fraser and Paul Jardetzky. Daniel Gordon and Martin Johnson connected it to the WWW. Here is QSF’s account, beautifully titled ‘When convenience was the mother of invention’.

The way this humble invention has transformed our lives in the last month is as astonishing as the rest of this surreality. I have used my (flakey) webcam in these weeks to join my mum on her 80th birthday; participate in a seminar on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; help deliver a documentary-making workshop over three days (that were supposed to be in Copenhagen); last night, hang out with some friends, associates and strangers/new friends whilst sprawled on my bed in the semi-darkness; have a meeting which opened with a live song; start writing a book with a close colleague; work with some filmmakers in Prague and L.A. and Thailand; have our regular book group meeting (online for the first time). So big up to Quentin, Paul, Daniel and Martin – and Cambridge. And coffee.

Trojan_Room_coffee_pot_xvcoffee

The last shot: a hand switching off the server

P.S. For a great book on coffee and creativity, whilst you’ve got all this time on your hands, try Patti Smith’s M Train.

“In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”

Keep creating [quotation]

“If anybody wants to keep creating, they have to be about change”

Miles Davis

mile davis jazz trumpeter

Miles at Newport ’69

Adventures in the Writing Trade: Day 4

Friday ended up as a frustrating feeling day. A lot of loose ends. Nothing finished. Including my relatively short To Do list. Saturday (yesterday) by contrast finished with me hitting send as a fired over three useful documents to my co-writer, Doug Miller. A mark-up of his outline. A set of notes collating the helpful, considered responses to my online call-out. And a response to Doug’s initial thoughts on how best to collaborate in practice. A satisfying, rounded-off feeling to conclude the day.

It’s important to live with mess, loose ends, even chaos in the writing process, indeed in all creative endeavour. It’s getting over that hump, bringing back some order in the face of the most out-of-control prospect, which usually marks where the creative achievement lies.

view from the summit of Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View from the summit down to the harbour

After lunch we headed up to the summit I had visited the day before. This time it was as a group, led by our hostess who is one of the two prime-movers on the island. I had a lovely chat with her on the way up, quite deep for a modest walk. At the triangulation point on the top there was a real sense of a cohort, a group bonded across very different experiences, backgrounds and personalities. Two of the Americans asked me to explain what we were looking at so I pointed out Howth Head as the North end of Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Mountains as the Southern limit; Rush and Malahide opposite; the small islands of Skerries looking North, and at the limits of our view the Mourne Mountains, faint in the distance, where my Other Half comes from. The panorama was epic, a beautiful subtle palette of blues and greys and delicate purples in the autumnal sunshine.

view of Howth from Lambay Island County Dublin Ireland

View of Howth Head from Lambay

On returning to the white house we did our second writing workshop with Jonathan (Gosling) on Style. Clarity; Pace; Engagement were the factors we considered. I focused on the opening of my as yet unfinished book When Sparks Fly, on the creative rewards of openness and generosity – a subject closely allied, it turns out, to the book on Collaboration Doug approached me about (the focus of my efforts this week). It was a helpful exercise and I could see at least a couple of things to improve – too long sentences in a quest for fluency/flow and questionable assumptions about how Digital Culture is perceived by many people.

The day before our first workshop was on our relationship to Writing. By using two observers as we spoke concisely about writing’s role in our lives, one recording facts, the other emotions, we quickly got some real insights into our work and ambitions. A really useful technique I hope to deploy in some other context soon. Probably starting with the MDes course on Story-telling I am teaching at the end of the year at Ravensbourne university/film school.

After the workshop I made a bee-line to the harbour to take advantage of the strong late afternoon sun. Donning my new Finisterre swimming trunks I strode into the September sea and dived in. It was …fresh. Envigorating.

Commercial Break: Coincidence No. 477

I am out for a walk in St Agnes, Cornwall during my summer break a few weeks ago. It’s a bit rainy so I head up from the cliff top inland towards where I’ve been told (by Joya & Lucy of Surf Girls Jamaica, both locals, hence my choice of St Agnes to sojourn in) there is a small business estate where there’s the HQ of a great surf clothing retailer called Finisterre. I eventually come across it, go in and buy some swimming trunks, shirts and a lime green recycled plastic water bottle. As the shop assistant is wrapping up my stuff he explains a bit about the business, how well it is doing, where the branches are, there’s even one up in London. Oh, where’s that? Earlham Street.

I work at Red Bull at 42 Earlham Street. I’ve never noticed Finisterre.

I have the harbour to myself, except for sharing it for a few moments with a black Labrador. The tide is out, the sand is smooth, the water cold (colder than Donegal a couple of weeks ago) but bearable, soon really refreshing. After the swim I feel amazing. I chat to a couple of Dubs from Howth over for a nature walk day trip. The wife shows me on her phone a photo of their view of Lambay from Howth village.

IMG_7492 lambay island harbour white house cottages county dublin ireland

I finish the day tying those loose ends on the lawn, my spot du choix. I also connect the lady-boss of the island to an old colleague & friend of mine who lives on the Isle of Eigg. Eigg has done an amazing job pioneering green energy & sustainable living, and my friend Lucy has been enthusiastically involved in driving those efforts. The Lambay Trust has similar ambitions. I’m glad I made the connection during our walk&talk.

Creativity, in my view, revolves around Connections. This includes the people connections offered by a writing retreat like this. And the factual/conceptual connections such as Lambay is a proto Eigg.

I bought myself a book from the island on Friday – it was my birthday present to myself. From my family, I asked for a new walk as a gift.  The book is In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara. Mara is Irish for sea. John of the Sea. It explores the science of walking and why it is good for us. I am convinced it is very good for Creativity, hence my early morning walks every day on Lambay. Here are a couple of quotations on Walking I recently gathered.

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.”

Steven Wright (US comedian)

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland – Quote

I went yesterday evening to hear Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chairman of ad agency Ogilvy in the UK, speak in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square about his new book Alchemy. I have had the good fortune to meet&chat with Rory on a number of occasions and it is never less than fascinating. He kindly contributed to the (finished) chapter on Paul Arden in my (unfinished, as yet) book When Sparks Fly.

Rory sutherland conway hall how to academy 17th April 2019 talk red bull

Rory grabbing the Bull by the horns

In view of the fact I’ve recently started working at Red Bull Media House (as a Commissioning Editor), I loved that he used Red Bull as a striking case study in this talk (as well as in the foreword of his book which I started reading today).

I liked this quotation on the value of Big Data from today’s reading:

It’s important to remember that big data all comes from the same place – the past.

Rory is a big advocate of evolutionary psychology and behavioural science (with all the irrationality those expose) as opposed to economics and other data-driven activities. He’s not against logic and hard facts, just in favour of suspending rationality from time to time in favour of creative magic or alchemy.

The Empathy Podcast with Oisin Lunny

the empathy podcast oisin lunny adam gee

I can’t recall exactly how or when I first met Oisin Lunny – it was through digital media/multiplatform circles. But I do clearly (that is, as clearly as was possible in the circumstances) recall listening to his band in a rowdy basement in Watermint Quay, Hackney on big nights among the London Irish Murphia – they were called Marxman, a pioneering Celtic hip-hop band that used the bodhran, the traditional Irish drum, for their beats. The band was on Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label (alongside the great Young Disciples among other footstomping acts which defined the 90s). They had the distinction of having their first single banned by the BBC and their third one performed on Top of the Pops. Oisin making his marx in music is no surprise given his heritage – his da is Donal Lunny, Irish producer extraordinaire and member of seminal bands Planxty and Moving Hearts (with the likes of Christy Moore). Oisin has moved the family on from the bouzouki to all things digital and mobile (but with a healthy respect for the bodhran and the Irish songbook).

marxman Oisin Lunny

Oisin in Marxman (left)

Among his digital marketing related activities Oisin produces a podcast about Empathy called The Empathy Podcast. He recently recorded an episode with me in which we discussed the relationship between Empathy, Creativity, Connection and Networks. Here is the programme [Running Time: 22 mins].

oisin lunny

Another Marxman on Simple Pleasures.

Marxman with Sinead O’Connor:

“Ship Ahoy” by Marxman from Oisin Lunny on Vimeo.

Fighting the Good Fight

To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

— e e cummings

tumblr_m1zcce5sq11r47bczo1_500

Freebird

bird-flying-sunset-2865x1909_95023

Back in 2000 I chaired a task group for the Broadband Stakeholders Group (a body lobbying the Government for better broadband connectivity) looking at the probable impact of broadband on the UK workplace. One of the group’s conclusions was that it would have a positive impact on the environment and transport because it would enable workers to do more locally or at home, thereby reducing the need for the daily commute.

From 2000 to 2013 I spent much of my life on a tube train across the city, mostly for no good purpose. I stopped that on 9th July 2016 when I left Channel 4 after 13 glorious years.

I am now working in a peripatetic style and not only thoroughly enjoying it (and the summer) but actually finding creative inspiration from it. I knew this from the sabbatical I took in 2013-14 to write during which I wrote in all kinds of places from the National Library, Dublin to the kitchen garden of Kenwood – and chronicled it here on Simple Pleasures.

As my working week drew to an end yesterday in a steam room near Gray’s Inn followed by a last hour-long burst of writing in some barristers chambers (very productive and clear-minded) I reflected back on a classic week of working on the move which I feel like capturing here for posterity because the working locations were such an inspiration in themselves; reflect the rich mix I plan to make the defining characteristic of my work life going forward; and brought with them such uplifting experiences.

So this week I have worked…

  • in Borough, in the shadow of London Bridge – with Mark Stevenson, writer and futurist, on a project about the sustainable future of energy, feeding on his always refreshing optimism
  • at BAFTA, one of my two pied-à-terres in central London, where I had a key meeting with an always-inspiring former colleague about the film script I am currently writing (for an energetic British production company whose early successes are very promising)
  • in the garden of the Chelsea Arts Club where I met a film-maker whose father knew the protagonist of my movie and from whom I got a useful sense of the kind of person he was. This particular stop brought the highlight of the week as we were joined in the sun-bathed garden by the poet Brian Patten, a charming, witty and warm man from the evidence of this first encounter. In fact it was in a way my second encounter as I saw him perform live in Cambridge around 1984 with his fellow Liverpool poets Roger McGough and Adrian Henri. He gave wise advice concerning my younger son, who has severe dyslexia, and his literary studies. A young priest in exquisitely made robes entered the garden at one point and sat at the adjoining table. At which juncture Brian leaned over the table and recited a brilliant poem about a falling priest, without the faith or courage to fall freely. Brian had based the poem on an ancient Sufi text. It was a beautiful and unexpected gift of words that made my week.
  • in a restaurant in Victoria where an old Channel 4 colleague  of mine turned out to be pals with a director who would be perfect for the film
  • outside Kipferl, an Austrian cafe at The Angel, one of my favourites, where I caught up with Harry Cymbler, MD of Hot Cherry (where I am a Non-Exec)
  • in the Reading Room of Somerset House where I drafted an application for Creative England with my co-producer
  • in the newly opened Eneko Basque restaurant, scion of Eneko Atxa’s Michelin-starred place Azurmendi in Larrabetzu (in the Basque country in Northern Spain), where we finished drafting the application either side of a beautiful meal of Iberico pork and fruity wine punch
  • in my back garden where I carried on writing the treatment to the tranquil sounds of my newly resurrected water-rock (I can’t possibly use the term ‘water feature’, it’s so Home Front). I copied the water-rock from the courtyard of a hotel in Newry, County Down – it definitely irrigates creativity.
  • in Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn in a room with a photo of my lower sixth English class, a reminder of a very inspirational year with a very inspirational teacher (in the photo sporting a velvet jacket).

There’s a lot to be said for wandering freely. As I read in The Week earlier this very enjoyable week, Nietzsche was also much in favour of being on the move:

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.

IMG_6807

The Water-Rock

28759882233_3863efacba_k

Eneko on the Aldwych

IMG_6846

Eneko Basqueness

28759875363_6f44eaf974_k

Chelsea Arts Club

IMG_6839

IMG_6858

Gray’s Inn

Parents Screw You Up – Adam Gee Archive #3

I commissioned this one around 2003 for Channel 4’s Family site. It was written by Tim Wright, my collaborator on MindGym. The title and aspects of the design are derived from an anti-drugs campaign of the late 70s or early 80s (Heroin Screws You Up) via a cover article in a university magazine when I was at college by novelist-to-be Wendy Holden, a contemporary of Tim’s and mine at university and fellow Girton girl. Plus of course a tip of the hat to Larkin. This light interactive offered you a route as a parent or as a child. It was commissioned at the same time as The Showbiz Baby Name Generator.

How much did you get screwed up?

How much are you screwing up your off-spring?

The pay-off

One of a pair

Archive #1
Archive #2
Archive #0

I’m Feeling Lucky – The Story 3

tom watson mp on the phone hacking scandal at The Story 2012

To Thine Own Self Be True (Tom Watson)

I was in Rottingdean the other day with the Enfants Terribles when we passed a small shop called Serendipity. I asked them whether they knew what it meant and I ended up explaining it in terms of the Google ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button (which I have to admit I’ve never quite got and always struck me as a bit of a lack of imagination on the part of the presser – it really isn’t difficult in the era of the Web to go on your own random or serendipitous journey).

The Wikipedia entry for Serendipity (which Google freakily informs me Aleks Krotoski shared on tumblr.com on 29 Apr 2011, Aleks having appeared at The Story #1 in February 2010) is one of its more charming entries:

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise”; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it. The word has been voted one of the ten English words hardest to translate in June 2004 by a British translation company. [prime wikispam] However, due to its sociological use, the word has been exported into many other languages. Julius H. Comroe once described serendipity as : to look for a needle in a haystack and get out of it with the farmer’s daughter.”

Meanwhile, over on the other side of Brighton… towards Hove/Portslade my former colleague at Channel 4, Matt Locke, was busy putting the finishing touches to his The Story conference, like the programme for the day which was etched into bars of dark chocolate. When Matt started this one day gathering in 2010 it was a labour of love alongside his day job at C4. I thoroughly enjoyed that first iteration and recorded 4 things I learned from it on Simple Pleasures part 4. It’s interesting looking back at that entry today: the first thing I learnt was:

1) The best conferences (like this one) have only two outputs – Inspiration and catalysing Connections between people.

The same held good for #2 last year featuring the likes of a controversial Adam Curtis, writer Graham Linehan and photographer Martin Parr. I think I was too indolent to write up last year’s.

Connections, inspiration and creativity are the meat and two veg of this blog and what the Web is wonderful at catalysing. Straight after exiting Conway Hall yesterday I met up with Karyn Reeves who was waiting just outside, a statistician from Perth, Australia who specialises in analysing mathematical patterns around AIDS infection. Karyn is only the second person I’ve met in real life through having made contact online. The first was Sandra, a street art aficionado from Jaffa. Karyn writes a lovely blog about vintage Penguin books, which she collects and reads weekly, and I came across her in the wake of reading an old Penguin I picked up at random in my local bookshop, Black Gull, about the trial of Roger Casement. By chance Casement’s defence lawyer, I read, had his chambers at 4 Raymond Buildings from where my best friend now operates. What a tangled Web we weave. So Karyn and I headed back from The Story 3 to Black Gull where she picked up a few more P-p-p-enguins.

Meanwhile back at the start of the day… Meg Pickard of The Guardian, with whom I got into a lively online discussion at one of the earlier two The Story s about where The Guardian should gather their user-generated photos of Antony Gormley’s One and Other  (which we were discussing here and he was explaining here), kicked off the proceedings with a quick update from The Ministry of Stories, the excellent local children’s literacy project based in a Monsters Supplies shop in Hoxton and championed by the likes of Nick Hornby. Part of the ticket price for The Story goes to the now thriving, volunteer-driven project. It’s great to see such a thing burgeoning in Hoxton – when I was a teenager my step-dad would drive me past there on the way to Petticoat Lane where I worked on the market stall outside his shop, he’d point past some grim Victorian estate and say ” ‘Oxton, arse-hole of the universe, never go there, son.” How it has come on over the years…

Next up was Matt Sheret of LastFM in discussion with producer Simon Thornton of Fat Boy Slim fame about telling stories through the album form. Simon was the fella behind the brilliant remix of Brimful of Asha (way better than the original) as well as the marvelous Turn On Tune In Cop Out by Freakpower. The whole debate about the patterns of music consumption in the Web/On Demand age and the relationship between albums and single tracks is a fascinating one still, and particularly for me at the moment as I’m working on a development to do with a classic album with Bob Geldof’s gang at Ten Alps and Universal Music, very much shaped around a carefully constructed sequence of 9 great songs which may or may not now be a thing of the past (I take Simon’s side, but I would wouldn’t I).

At this point Channel 4 wove back in in the form of artist Jeremy Deller, currently setting up his one-man show at the Hayward on the South Bank and the prime mover of Artangel’s The Battle of Orgreave, commissioned and funded by C4. He sees the ’84-’85 miners’ strike as a critical moment in British history (it gets  its own room in his soon-to-open retrospective) and that programme/artistic re-enactment as a way of “exhuming a corpse to give it a proper post-mortem”. He spoke about how everyone of our generation remembers where they were when the miners took on ‘The Iron Lady’ (in spite of the fact I’d voted for her [Streep not Thatch] Meryl Streep’s apology [in the Miltonian sense of explanation/justification] for the strange politics of that movie at the BAFTAs the other night is still bugging me)  – my other half was up in Ayrshire making her graduation film about the miners’ wives with a dodgy old University of Ulster camera, while I was visiting my oldest friend at Baliol where a furious debate about how to support the strike was erupting in their common room, featuring toffs in donkey jackets as well as more grown-up, committed people than me, who was still relying on the likes of Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello to give me some political insight). Deller’s still- image only presentation was one of the highlights of the day for me, centred on one iconic photograph of a miner father and his glam rock showbiz son.

Next up, blogger Liz Henry who told the fascinating story of A Gay Girl in Damascus, a murky tale of hoaxing and fictional blogging (an area I find fascinating as an emerging writing form and which formed a substantial part of the now traditional annual Story lunch with Tim Wright and Rob Bevan, the former in particular much interested in this territory [and the person who taught me the value of the image-only presentation when I helped host the launch of his outstanding In Search of Oldton project at Channel 4 HQ a few years ago]).  I learnt a lovely new word too ‘Sockpuppeting’ – to comment on your own blog both positively and negatively as a way of stimulating interest/activity. One of the interesting facts that emerged was that The Guardian published the initial story without establishing proper (off-line) sources based on people who had actually met the Gay Girl in question in real life (shades of Karyn above and Tom/Emily below).

Late on Thursday afternoon, the eve of The Story, I met for the first time Anthony Owen, Head of Magic (arguably the best job-title in the business) at Objective TV, home of Derren Brown. We were kicking off a project to do with consumerism. Lo and behold within 18 hours he’s up on stage before me doing a magic trick and explaining the role of narrative within that art/entertainment form. Particularly interesting for me as the youngest Enfant Terrible has recently become obsessed with performing magic, daily learning tricks off of YouTube and practising them with his chums over Skype (before posting them back on YouTube and Facebook). Anthony singled out the quality of encapsulating “something we’d love to have happen” (e.g. being psychic, becoming immortal, etc.) as the defining characteristic of a great trick – so sawing a woman in half only to reunite the two still living ends is a story about immortality which also has the key quality of being sum-upable in a sentence.

Coincidence and serendipity came to the fore again in the afternoon when Emily Bell, formerly of The Guardian online and now teaching at Columbia (who I first had the pleasure of hanging out with on the panel of judges she lead at The Guardian Student Journalism Awards a few years ago, in The Ivy so clearly a former era) interviewed Tom Watson MP about the phone-hacking scandal whilst: Meanwhile across town… in Wapping Rupert Murdoch was entering the newsroom of the Currant Bun and sticking two Aussie fingers up at the British establishment and public, who momentarily humiliated him last summer, by announcing the impending launch of The Sun on Sunday. The audience was riveted by the recounting of events from both the MP and Guardian perspectives, and the interview typified the rich and perfectly balanced mix of contributions making up the day’s programme. Watson predicted that there was a massive PC/Data hacking dimension to the scandal still to break.

Vying with Deller for highlight of the day was Scott Burnham. The last time I met Scott was in the back of a Nissan Cube in which he was filming me spouting on about why I love London. At this year’s The Story he spoke vibrantly about design in the city and urban play through a classic tale of 7 Coins, the last vestiges of a beautiful public art project in Amsterdam. He told of the construction of a Stefan Sagmeister piece made up of 250,000 one cent pieces and its subsequent thoughtless destruction by dumb cops who were trying to protect the raw cash (still held as evidence in the police station). His conclusion was that we’ll always have Paris… I mean, we’ll always have Amsterdam… he means, we always have the story if not the creation itself. He took the 7 coins, painted blue on one side, out of his pocket to show me and the Royal College of Art’s Bronac Ferran as we chatted outside the hall during the tea break.

Also up in contention as a highlight was artist Ellie Harrison, author of Confessions of a Recovering Data Collector. She started her work focused on gathering everyday data on her life or ‘life tracking’ at Nottingham Trent university art school and then later at  Glasgow School of Art (where our host Matt once studied). An early such work was ‘Eat 22’ in which she recorded everything she ate for a year  in 1,560 photos. At the start of her talk she positioned herself firmly as a Thatcher’s Child (a resonant link back to Deller’s earlier session) and was sporting a Bring Back British Rail T-shirt (a campaign she champions, also resonant as my aforementioned best-friend above worked on that Kafkaesque privitisation). So food and beyond, Ellie’s obsession and the thread through her work seems to be with Consumption – she spoke about her development with great humour and insight (including into her own compulsions). From ‘Eat 22’ she went on to record all her everyday actions in a spreadsheet, in turn converted to colour-coded graphs, which is when the addiction kicked in. I was sitting in a brainstorm at an indie production company a couple of weeks ago discussing mental health and happiness when a colleague I have know a long time revealed he’s been keeping a numerical record of his mood on a precise scale of 1 to 100 every day for well over a decade, with the last five years available likewise in Excel form. So art/fiction are no stranger than life.

Preloaded I have known since they were born, as I worked with founder Paul Canty, as well as Rob Bevan and Tim Wright, on a game called MindGym way back when. Paul’s colleague,  Phil Stuart, and writer Tom Chatfield talked us through the game of self-discovery, death and philosophy they made for Channel 4 Education – The End.  This rounded off a fine day, alongside Karen Lubbock and Jeremy Leslie on mags and Karen magazine in paricular, ‘a magazine made out of the ordinary’, and a lively turn from Danny O’Brien on josticks, hacking, anarchy and the universe. And where can you go from there…

Stefan Sagmeister installation 250,000 coins

Among these 250,000 are 7 coins with a story

C4’s surreal Twitter experiments

Here’s a piece on integrating Twitter with TV courtesy of C21 Media, written by Jonathan Webdale:

SOCIAL MEDIA 2010: Channel 4 new media commissioner Adam Gee says Twitter saved the life of one of the channel’s documentary makers and is responsible for resocialising TV. Jonathan Webdale reports.

As a UK public service broadcaster, Channel 4 has a remit to innovate and over in its factual department that’s exactly what new media commissioner Adam Gee (left) has been doing with Twitter.

Gee, or @SurrealThing as he’s known to his followers (more on this later), cites four projects, each of which illustrates a different use of the micro-blogging service. The first came in July 2008 with Osama Loves, a multi-platform travelogue that sent two people off around the world to find 500 people named Osama in 50 days in a bid to counter Muslim stereotypes.

The journey included visits to places with limited internet and mobile network access, so the stripped down simplicity of Twitter 140-character updates offered a means for the protagonists to keep the narrative going.

“We knew we would have bandwidth issues when they were in the middle of Nigeria or some corner of Indonesia and we needed a different way of communicating, so we used Twitter to tell the story,” says Gee.

Similarly, Alone in the Wild, a series that last year followed documentary maker Ed Wardle’s attempts to survive in solitude when abandoned in the Yukon, also employed Twitter as part of its narrative.

While Wardle wasn’t allowed two-way communication with the outside world, he was permitted to tweet just once a day, partly as a way of adding further perspective to his experience, but also to allow the production team to keep tabs on his progress.

Wardle was trying to last three months in the wilderness but failed to find reliable sources of food and his physical and mental health deteriorated to the point where he had to be rescued after seven weeks.

In one of his Twitter posts he said he was losing weight so quickly that his muscles were disappearing. Another mentioned that his heart was at 32 beats per minute, when 60-100 is considered healthy.

“I can’t definitively prove it but it saved his life because when he started struggling psychologically it first became evident in his daily tweets,” says Gee.

Two other C4 shows drew on Twitter to shape their editorial direction in real-time. A year ago, Surgery Live was a series of four one-hour live operations that ran stripped across the week at 23.00. Viewers were able supply questions to the surgeon via Twitter while he was carrying out procedures such as removing a pituitary tumour or opening a heart.

“I’m pretty sure that this was the first time a UK broadcaster deliberately used Twitter and integrated it into a cross-platform project,” says Gee. It’s probably pretty safe to say as well that few broadcasters other than C4 would have chosen such as initiative to pop their Twitter cherry.

“The system was such that you could tweet a question and that question could get from your mobile or laptop to air in 90 seconds. We had to have a slight delay on the live feed in case something serious went wrong, but it was an absolute thrill to have such a direct impact on the programme.”

Gee himself tweeted in some questions from home on a couple of nights using his then anonymous handle. “Those were before the days when you had your actual name on the Twitter account,” he says. “The reason that my Twitter identity is SurrealThing is because when I first saw it about three years ago I thought it looked like the end of civilisation as we know it.”

But Gee decided that he needed to get to grips with Twitter if he was ever going to be able to commission anything that made use of it. “So I was a Surrealist for the first year, tweeting about melting watches and stuff like that. I couldn’t get what it was for. But over time what emerged was a tool waiting for a mission.”

Through the three experiments listed above he feels he’s now pretty clear about what that mission is, as far as broadcasters are concerned.

The fourth project he notes, Embarrassing Bodies: Live, took Surgery Live a step further, transforming what had been a two-screen experience for viewers into one. Ironically, however, it used a “Twitter-like” interface that ran on C4’s own website, rather than actually integrated filtered messages from the public Twitter feed.

“We didn’t want an un-moderated stream of stuff being published to the site and in that particular instance it was actually easier to build the functionality and integrate it into our moderation system than to use Twitter separately,” says Gee, though he doesn’t rule out direct tie-ups in the future.

Live broadcasts are definitely where he sees Twitter having its greatest applications but he notes that it’s not relevant to all programmes. “You’ve got to be careful what you build your Twitter cross-platform activity around because if it’s over-complex or requires too much concentration it’s not ideal. You actually want something you don’t have to concentrate on too hard,” he says, giving awards shows as a classic example.

As a general observation, Gee believes that C4’s Twitter experiments have helped crystallise exactly what the micro-blogging service’s mission is from a broadcaster’s perspective. “It’s resocialising TV,” he says. “Once, you might have chatted the next day over a shared big TV experience, but with the much more fragmented TV world we have now it replaces that – which I think is it’s greatest strength. That’s where the value for the channel is.”

Jonathan Webdale
27 Apr 2010
© C21 Media 2010

Please note: C21 Media provides free daily email bulletins and their site is a mix of free and paid for content. This article is reproduced courtesy of C21 Media – click here to register (top right) for their free daily email

Embarrassing Bodies: Live was nominated yesterday for a BAFTA TV Craft Award for interactive creativity

%d bloggers like this: