For a little while now, I’ve been chatting to Leif Kendall, Brighton copywriter and organiser of the rather wonderful Brighton writers’ meetup WriteClub, about doing a London version. Well, it’s happening!

We’ll be at The Yorkshire Grey at 7.30 on Tuesday 1 December at 19:30. Here’s a map; address as follows:

46 Langham Street
London
W1W 7AX

You’ll know Leif by his copy of Don Quixote. To complement the prose – and salute Ezra Pound, who used to live next door – I’ll be sat there with a copy of his epic poetic tome, The Cantos.

Here’s Leif’s post about the evening. It’s going to be a very open, friendly night; so, if you’re any sort of writer, and fancy chatting about fiction, non-fiction, copywriting, screenwriting, in an on-line, off-line or broadcast context (or indeed whatever else takes your fancy) look forward to seeing you there!

I had a bit of an odd experience a couple of weeks back at the Media140 Conference, because Red Bull and an upcoming BBC documentary came together to help me understand exactly what it is we at Tuttle produce for people. In particular, that’s fed into an understanding of what we are beginning to do for Counterpoint and – through them – the British Council.

Inspiration kicked off with Red Bull. A whole section of the conference was dedicated to what they’re up to; watching slides about their Flugtags, Air Races, X-Fighters, and so on, I realised that they had moved from being a product brand to a grouped set of related experiences. As one of the speakers pointed out, ‘the marketing becomes the product’.

It’s possible to read that as a kind of Ballardian condemnation of Red Bull, but I think to do so is missing the point. In Red Bull’s case, ‘the marketing becomes the product’ doesn’t mean that the reality of a consumer good has been replaced by the ephemerality of marketing activity. Rather, it’s a comment about what’s available for Red Bull consumers to invest their money and time in.

Red Bull began as an energy drink; people buying Red Bull brought liquid in a can. Marketing activity – designed to amplify the drink’s energy positioning – became more and more elaborate. Now, if people want to buy into the Red Bull brand, they can do so by enjoying a wide variety of different events.

That creates a deep change in what Red Bull is. It no longer sells you a drink that makes you dynamic; rather, it sells the experience of dynamism in a variety of formats. Given that, it seemed to me to be no longer enough to call Red Bull a consumer brand. Rather, (I thought) it has become a highly profitable experience channel. But what is an experience channel?

Next up to speak were Innocent; they provided a little more inspiration. They’re renowned for their ability to engage consumers, by making them feel that they’re personally engaged with the brand. That sense of personal engagement is very important. Consumer brands communicate through monologues. Experience channels, however, are much more two way. Ideally, they’re all about conversation.

That sense of conversation led me away from what you’d traditionally call a brand, and towards the BBC. A little while back, I went to the launch of Digital Revolution, a partially crowd-sourced documentary series. The team there have been filtering traditional documentary making methods through online conversation and engagement. They’ve turned the documentary development and production process itself into an experience channel; one that a variety of very savvy, and very engaged, web denizens have been deeply engaging with.

Thinking about these three led me to a basic definition of what an experience channel is. That’s something I’ve been jotting down notes about over the last week or so. Rather than go into full details here – and create a truly epic post – I’m going to do some more jotting, and post a basic experience channel definition at some point over the next few days. Don’t touch that dial! (as I would say if I were a radio host).

Yesterday was a fascinating day, as I hit the Media 140 conference at RIBA. Some very interesting speeches by some very interesting speakers; so much so, that I was inspired to videoblog while walking between the conference venue and the after conference party. So here’s me, wandering around somewhere near Oxford Circus, with some of my favourite insights from the day:

(and apologies for not crediting insights to speakers – alas, my note taking was a little *unsophisticated* on that front! So, once again, thanks to all at Media 140 London for a great day and evening.)

Well, it’s been another very hectic few weeks, so another period of hiatus on the blog! Not to worry, I am taking myself in hand (as they say) and should be reverting to a more regular publishing schedule from now on. And, of course, the reasons for the hiatus have been rather exciting. First of all, I’ve started writing the next novel – details of that over at allumination – and secondly, I’ve been doing some really fascinating work with the Counterpoint team at the British Council, which is just starting to go live.

First of all, some introductions. Counterpoint is the British Council’s thinktank; their website here. To celebrate both their recent relaunch and – more broadly – the British Council’s 75th anniversary, they are developing four project streams – ‘Identities and the self’, ‘Cultures’, ‘Radicalisms’ and ‘Social Planet’. Taken together, all deal with the great modern question; how can we balance the individual with the social in a world that combines more-militant-than-ever senses of self with a historically unprecedented ability (and need) to come together in mass social groups?

I’ve become involved with this very fascinating debate through the Tuttle Club. In broad terms, we’re helping Counterpoint and the British Council explore the possibilities of social media. In specific terms, along with Lloyd Davis I’m rooting through the British Council’s media history, exploring its film holdings at the BFI and blogging about what I find. You can read what I’ve been up to so far here – over the next few weeks, this will be extended with more posts, videoblogs, interviews and so on, and should also be mirrored on the main Counterpoint website.

So far, it’s been a fascinating process, and I’ve barely begun. I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the main body of the British Council / BFI film holdings, exploring the administrative history of the British Council film division, and so on, over the next few weeks. That’s all going to be on the project blog, so I won’t be talking about it in detail here. I’ve also ended up spending a lot of time engaging with the BFI – they’re a really interesting organisation, and in some ways ideally placed to take advantage of our modern digital media age. There will be an upcoming blog post on that, when I get a moment!

So, for now, that’s what’s lain behind the hiatus. I’m going to keep watching the 30s, 40s and 50s; if you’re as fascinated by it all as I am, then make sure you bookmark the ‘British Council at 75′ blog where that will be happening, and I’ll see you over there!

A quiet six weeks or so on the blog; partially, I’ve been very busy with some really interesting work, partially my digital time has been going elsewhere, and partially because I thought I’d take a bit of a summer break. Of course, as soon as I decided to spend less time at the laptop and more time outside it immediately chucked it down for a month non-stop, but that’s the English summer for you.

So, apart from getting soggy, what have I been up to? Well, first of all some fascinating work for drugs policy foundation Transform, which is already bearing fruit here at Reuters, and (in a less direct way) here at the New Scientist. More’s upcoming in November, when I’ll go into more detail about it all.

I’ve also been helping London Livery Guild The Tallow Chandlers define themselves. I’m a member myself; I wrote our current website a few years back. It’s now looking pretty tired and so – as part of a general website update and brand polishing plan – I’ve been polling other members as to how they see the Tallow Chandlers, and how the company should present itself to the world. We’re meeting to talk the results through tomorrow, and should have a new, much improved site up and running by the end of the year.

More personally, I’ve been teaching myself the basics of HTML, XHTML and CSS. That too has been fascinating; I’m particularly impressed by how flexible and responsive a language each is. Very logical and easy to read, too; in fact, working with it has taken me right back to my 1980s obsession with BBC Basic. Anyway, that should hopefully bear fruit in a new improved website / blog hosting set up, again going live over the next couple of months.

And finally, there’s the creative stuff – so far, more work on the upcoming book (I’m currently working out exactly how a trans-Solar System economy would work in about 2300AD), a couple of Graan gigs (a highly enjoyable jaunt to Southampton, and an opportunity to get stuck into the fantastic sound system at the Corsica Studios, while supporting the wonderful Nadja), and a mysterious film project that will hopefully lead to much interestingness.

So, all in all, a busy summer; September and October will I hope be equally busy (if all goes according to plan I’ll be spending some work time in Japan, and watching lots of documentaries – more on this as it happens), and I’ll be blogging about it all here – so, see you at the next post!

When I’m not busy being a media geek / web urchin, I’m a writer – and I’m currently taking part in the Clarion West Writeathon, in support of Clarion West, which is a six week long speculative fiction workshop which happens in Seattle every year.

More details of what I’ve been up to here at allumination, my fiction / music / poetry blog; and if you want to find out more about Clarion West, you can go straight to their website here. And finally, to donate, visit my writeathon page – all goes to help support the workshop itself, and any attendees who need help to attend.

Well, a fascinating Friday afternoon at the BBC Web at 20 documentary launch, surrounded by true web royalty, from Sir Tim Berners Lee down. Having been appropriately awed by said royalty, I decided that I am in fact a web urchin, and then sat down to enjoy the show.

There doesn’t seem to be too much point in rehashing the content – you can catch much of it here and here, and it’s been well commented on all over the place – so instead, I’m just going to make a note of a perception about formal and informal media that really leapt out at me as I sat there.

As the introductory video began, with Fatboy Slim pounding out as background music, it struck me that there’s a big difference between the kind of professionally produced content that fills the traditional mediasphere, and the more informal creative work that thrives online.

The Fatboy Slim track was a first cue to formality. If I wanted to use it in a short film, I wouldn’t be able to; I couldn’t afford the licensing costs (in fact, I ran into licensing issues at the Tate only last week). The BBC, of course, can – and so its presence here became for me a signifier of the BBC’s commercial and creative heft, its status as the kind of organisation that works with, and creates, formal, rather than informal, media.

Then, there was the editing of the video itself. It was wonderfully crafted, clearly the product of a highly skilled professional; but again, the  sheen that that professionalism gave it very firmly placed it in the formal media camp. It didn’t feel like the product of a personal obsession, of someone working out a tool as they went along in order to use it to say what they desperately needed to say.

That sense of formality was also present in the broader structure of the event. The main speakers – Sir Tim Berners Lee, Bill Thompson and Susan Greenfield, MC’d by event and programme host Aleks Krotoski – sat on a little podium, variously giving speeches, talking with each other, and responding to questions. The questioners sat on bar stools off to one side; Chris Anderson beamed down from a video screen. We – as audience – audienced before them.

It was a physical structure that mimicked the audience / content relationships of traditional media forms. Experts talked; other experts interacted with them; and everyone else observed. Chances to interrupt the smooth flow of expertise (although in the case of Susan Greenfield, I use that term in its loosest possible sense) were few and far between; chances for informal conversation, rather than formal Q&A, were non-existent.

This formality contrasted very strongly with the various Web inspired events that have been becoming more and more popular. Unconferences, Tuttle Crowd / Tribe / Team workshops, meet ups of one kind or another, and even more traditional conferences and exhibitions – all have made a virtue of open, conversational informality, and deliberately created spaces within which hierarchy is erased and content follows shared personal obsessions.

Of course, that happened at the Web At 20 event – but it happened afterwards, when everyone was chatting over drinks, and felt very separate from the main flow of things. I felt very distant from the main event itself; in fact, I felt like I was watching it on television, rather than actually present. I didn’t even manage to get an audience question in, which is very rare indeed!

And of course, that’s not to say that it wasn’t a very enjoyable event; who couldn’t enjoy really interesting people talking about really interesting things? But it was very formal indeed, and for me it highlighted a fascinating problem that the Web at Twenty production team are going to have to deal with over the next few months.

The BBC – by definition – demands formal content; but the web thrives on informality. Web at Twenty is a BBC production about the web, so it’s going to have to engage with both the crafted professionalism of its parent and the obsessive amateurism of the online world. How’s it going to mediate between the two?

Will interviews be shot by professional cameramen, or by Zi6 wielding researchers? Will the final edit of each show happen in a BBC edit suite, or on a laptop running iMovie or Windows Movie Maker? Will incidental music come from Fatboy Slim, or Golders Green’s finest bedroom kosmische guitarist?

Will all footage come from the production team, or will people pop up online with invaluable content they’ve shot themselves? Once it’s all coming together, will people be able to remix Web at 20 content any way they want to, or will it be licensed in such a way that that’s impossible? Assuming it happens, how’s all that remixed content going to interact with the broader BBC web presence?

The Web at 20 production team are a very creative, seriously sharp bunch, so I suspect that their answers to the above are going to be fascinating. And the launch event? In the end – and despite the above – I think it was a very positive achievement.

It didn’t fully embody the informality of the web, but it’s content did do a very good job of introducing the concept of it to the BBC. It planted an informal media seed, and from now on, that seed’s going to grow. Of course, we can all be a part of its growth, following it and engaging with it here. It should be very exciting watching it develop!

Johnnie Moore uses this video to make a rather wonderful point about the need to notice what’s round us, without constriction. Certainly, it taught me a thing or two about how unobservant I can be:

JM quotes Castaneda to support his point; I couldn’t help thinking of a William Blake line, ‘the eye sees more than the heart knows’, which concisely summarises our frequent, shared inability to find anything more in the outside world than what we already contain within ourselves.

The world of social media is all about building relationships with people who – in one way or another – share your obsessions. It’s built on a social model that emphasises progress through co-operation, rather than progress through competition. I’ve been thinking for a little while about how that emphasis on engagement through sharing can be applied to marketing.

Brands usually understand their peer group by creating a clearly defined competitive set; that is, a group of other brands offering a similar product or service, to the same consumers. Everyone within with that competitive set is in direct competition with each other for the attention, engagement and money of a finite group of consumers. They are united by a shared need to defeat each other.

In this social age, defining your peer group as the people you most want to eradicate seems at best rather peculiar, and at worst unnecessarily paranoid. It seems to me more constructive to built a co-operative set, rather than a competitive set, and thus to define your brand by understanding who it can work with to satisfy its consumers, rather than who it must shout against to even begin to claim their attention.

As I said, I’ve been thinking about this for a while. In fact, in my first ever post-graduate job – back at Birds Eye Wall’s, in the mid-90s – one of my favourite achievements was building a relationship with Creda, a natural frozen food co-operator, to ensure that Birds Eye products, and general frozen food tips, appeared in their brochures. In retrospect, I wish I’d developed a broader frozen food co-operative set; it would have been a fascinating, and no doubt very rewarding, exercise.

But this blog post was triggered by a far more current example of a brilliant definition and use of a co-operative set. Here’s a website for Australian energy drink V-Raw. Instead of trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors by going on about why they’re better than them, V-Raw are engaging with their consumers by sharing the benefits of a clearly defined co-operative set with them.

Their website is a forum for music offers, interviews with interesting people, job offers from V-Raw-like companies, and so on. That makes it a genuinely exciting destination to visit; and – I suspect – it does far more to position V-Raw as an effective, constructive, positive and very contemporary energy drink to a very clearly defined group of people than ranting endlessly about why they’re better than Red Bull or its antipodean equivalents ever would.

I’ve been chatting to David and Tom at ag8 about the project that would become Purefold (a further, excellent summary here) since last year, so it’s fantastic to see it finally hitting the public domain; and very exciting that it’s getting such a positive reaction.

However, I’m not how much what’s truly revolutionary about it has really been picked up. In fact, even though I’ve known about it for a while, I didn’t really understand just what is so disruptive about it until – oddly enough – I got sucked into ‘Toy Story’ the other day.

I did rather enjoy getting absorbed in it; it’s a very charming, beautifully put together film. But, as I watched it again for the first time in years, I was more and more surprised by the extent to which, beneath the charm, it dramatises a certain kind of fear of the remix culture that Purefold so strongly endorses.

What struck me first of all was my unexpected sympathy for Sid, the evil boy next door. He’s presented as an all round toy nemesis, a very clearly defined villain; but the more I watched him in action, the more I realised that his ostensibly destructive play is in fact highly creative – particularly when compared to that of Andy, the ‘good’ boy.

When Andy plays, he stays entirely within the pre-created narratives that come packaged with his toys. In fact, the film defines his relationship with his toys in such commercial terms that his shift of allegiance from Woody to Buzz is signalled by the appearance of Buzz Lightyear merchandise (a duvet, posters, and so on) all over his room. Andy hasn’t made a new friend; he’s brought, very uncritically, into a new franchise.

Sid, by contrast, is a natural hacker. He refuses to accept any sort of pre-defined narratives, instead fitting toys into his own, completely unrestrained imaginative world. For Sid, bolting a Pterodactyl’s head onto the body of a doll in order to heal it makes perfect imaginative sense; and in fact, as he does so, we see that his commitment to the craft of toy hacking is such that he has a full set of remodelling tools in his bedroom.

And the Pterodacdoll is only one example of Sid’s creativity. The creatures that live around his room (a robot spider supporting a shaven doll’s head, a pair of legs that animate a fishing rod, a walking car, and so on) are equally striking, equally surreal. Where Andy’s imaginative world is defined (and limited) by preset narrative franchises, Sid is a kind of pre-pubescent cross between Max Ernst and W. Heath Robinson.

But, without exception, his ferocious imaginative drive is presented as a destructive force. The toys are terrified of Sid; he’s constantly upsetting his sister; he’s a major threat to Woody and Buzz; and all of this builds to one of the film’s key climactic moments, which comes when the toys defeat him.

Woody’s speech to Sid at this moment is worth quoting in full. Coming to life in Sid’s hand, Woody says (unsurprisingly, in a very menacing way): ‘We don’t like being blown up, Sid, or smashed up, or ripped apart… Take good care of your toys – because, if you don’t, we’ll find out, Sid. We toys see everything. So PLAY NICE!’ (my punctuation).

In effect, what Sid is being told is ‘Don’t redefine your toys’ – don’t hack them, don’t remix them according to your own imaginative or creative needs. In this context, ‘PLAY NICE’ means ‘Play within the pre-determined parameters of your toys’ – or, more precisely, ‘never replace the story we sold you with the stories you can make for yourself’. And that’s the point at which the film’s fear of remix culture is most evident.

Of course, you might think I’m reading too much into the film; that I’m finding a conservative subtext where none exists, or that I’m overstating the extent to which rights holders seek to protect their properties by preventing them from being remixed. But in fact this kind of mashphobia is very real, and very pervasive.

Don’t believe me? Check out Lawrence Lessig’s opus ‘Free Culture’, or Cory Doctorow’s more recent book ‘Content’. Both are available for free download from these links, and both are very absorbing reads. Or, you can watch Lawrence talk here:

Or just take a wander round the internet; whether it’s Sony protecting AIBO code, publishers battling with Harry Potter fan-fic writers, Fox preventing The Simpsons from appearing for a couple of seconds in the background in a documentary about staging Wagner, or Warner Bros issuing cease and desist orders protesting fair use of its musical properties, fear of the remix is everywhere.

But Purefold content contains and endorses no such fear. All Purefold content is going to be issued under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license, in effect allowing anyone to do anything they want with it, as long as they properly attribute Purefold content and release their new creations under a similar virus.

That means that Purefold is encouraging us to all become Sids; to become people who take what’s out there, whether professionally created or otherwise, and then repurpose it according to our own creative needs and drives.

It’s the anti-Toy Story; and, in thus being, it shows that it understands the form and function of the new world of media that digital culture has enabled far more than the Pixars and the Foxes of this world, and is willing to engage with that world in a way that’s at once entirely disruptive, and entirely democratic.