Is technology ruining storytelling on film and TV?

UK2 Group, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 13.08.17Is technology ruining storytelling on film and TV?

“I’ll see you again in 25 years,” said Laura Palmer as ‘Twin Peaks’ ended. The mystery was never fully solved, so David Lynch, co-creator of the iconic TV series, made headlines last year when he announced that we will indeed be seeing Laura again. A new season of ‘Twin Peaks’ is now in the works, just in time for Laura’s prediction in the Black Lodge to come true.

While keen for a resolution to the cliffhanger ending, fans of the original ‘Twin Peaks’ show are cautious. Getting more of the show they love is tempting, but will it be the same? For one, the original ‘Twin Peaks’ was filmed in 1989-1990, without a mobile phone or computer in sight. Occasionally the characters pick up a landline, and the sheriff has a car phone, but that’s it. If the sequel is to be set in the present day, Lynch will have to figure out how to incorporate modern technology in the hunt for Killer Bob.

Lynch may choose to declare Twin Peaks a deadzone for mobile signals and be done with it, but most current day stories have to incorporate the fact that most people have a mini computer in their pockets at all times. Some authors, as Robert Lanham wrote in ‘The Awl’, find the problem so frustrating they avoid it altogether, setting their tales firmly in the pre-mobile era: “Unless I write ‘and then his Galaxy 4’s battery died’ no one can ever get lost, forget an important fact, meet a partner outside of a dating site, or do anything that doesn’t eventually have them picking up a phone.”

But does this really have to be a problem? First of all, the rise of technology opens up for a whole range of new plot devices: phones break, batteries run out all the time, GPS sends you to the wrong place, and when location-tracking works it may reveal your location to the wrong person. There are plenty of stories where relaying messages via mobile phone speeds things along nicely, or technology creates new, intriguing ways of solving problems. American crime drama ‘Numb3rs’ ran for six seasons based on the idea that complex mathematics and advanced computing could solve problems that originally seemed impossible.

Still, one problem remains: technology can look clunky on screen. Having someone run numbers on a computer, or look for information on the internet, can look a bit boring on TV. ‘Numb3rs’ used animated graphics to illustrate technology concepts, plus lots of metaphors as the maths boffin explained the science to the rest of the crime-solvers. The new incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is probably the best example to date of how to display text messaging on TV: on ‘Sherlock’, the text is thrown up on the screen next to the person reading it.

The ‘Sherlock’ approach to texting means there’s no need to slow things down by moving back and forth between the mobile phone and the reaction of the person reading, wrote John Brownlee in ‘The Atlantic’: “Not only does the technique combine the action of receiving a text with the reaction of a character in the same frame, but because this approach separates the content of a message from the software used to send or receive it, it’s a more future-proof technique than showing, say, a close-up of an iPhone screen would be.”

In ‘Sherlock’, the seamless incorporation of texting means it becomes a means to accelerate the story, arguably in a way that creates new plot twists the original Sherlock Holmes books didn’t have. It’s enough to give ‘Twin Peaks’ fans hope that it’s at least possible to modernise a beloved tale. Because in the hands of talented and creative people, new inventions such as technology will translate into fresh ideas: “Art and science (or technology) are often imagined to be totally separate, but this is not, and never has been, true,” author Naomi Alderman wrote in ‘The Guardian’. “Art is affected by the technology of art, because artists love to experiment, and every new development is a new tool,”

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Are social media ghost users really a problem?

UK2 Group, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 13.08.13Are social media ghost users really a problem?

Just because people don’t post on Twitter or Facebook, social media networks can still be valuable to them.

What constitutes an “active user” on social media? Do you have to tweet to count yourself a genuine Twitter user? You certainly have to post on Instagram to be considered an active user of the photo sharing network, as users discovered just before the holidays. Instagram cracked down hard on fake, spam and inactive users, causing a drop in follower counts all around.  Celebrities were hit especially hard, with poor Justin Bieber losing 3.5 million followers in the Instagram rapture.

While no one is going to mourn the loss of spam accounts, so-called inactive accounts are arguably another issue. Lots of people use Twitter or Facebook just to look at stuff posted by others, and they are very much enjoying these social networks even though they don’t contribute anything themselves. Twitter has 218 million monthly active users, which is not much compared to Facebook’s 800 million, but this only counts the people who actually log onto Twitter. Lots of people look up Twitter pages without logging in – aren’t they users of some sort too? And what about when presenters on TV read out Tweets – does that make the listener a user?

Twitter has no way of counting their “ghost users”, but they are aware of them. “Twitter is everywhere,” said Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, according to ‘AdAge’. Costolo said the Twitter audience was “two to three times” larger than the monthly active user numbers, and the company is experimenting with ways to “improve the content” for visitors who’re not logged into the platform. Still, Twitter is only really making money from users who’re active in the traditional sense: “We are focused one-hundred percent on the user experience today. We’re not monetising those audiences [who’re not logged in].”

It sounds like ghost users are becoming an asset for Twitter, in part because their presence is an acknowledgment of Twitter as a place of breaking news and debate. Even among members who rarely check their news feed, Facebook is gaining a reputation as the place to go to check birthdays, and the quick and easy place for sending off a message to someone when you don’t have their phone number or email address. Even for ghost users, social networks is often the place where the conversation happens.

The case for emoji in the workplace

UK2 Group 2015.

tumblr_nky8knD3kM1qbeqkxo1_540In a world of text, emoji will save our souls

What’s in your list of recently used emoji? My list has the screaming cat, the gun, and the smiley with the hospital mask. Can you tell I’ve been ill? It may be too much information to provide a long description of how many packs of tissues I’ve gone through, but a quick 🙀🔫😷 tells the story succinctly, and probably more gracefully too.

Emoji – the Japanese neologism that means “picture word” – had every marking of a fad in their earliest days, first appearing in Japanese mobile phones in 1999. But as a fresh batch of emoji is are set to see the light of day this year, it looks like the fad is here to stay. Sure, they may seem silly, but they do actually have a use in that they allow subtle nuance to be added to a conversation. We’ve all had misunderstandings because it’s so hard to convey tone in a text message. Emoji solves that. You can be as deadpan sarcastic in a text as you want now, but just add a winking smiley at the end. Or maybe add the monkey cheekily covering its face while laughing – emoji has so many more fun options to choose from than just the regular ‘smileys’.

With so much communication taking place electronically, emoji make an important addition to language, thinks Fred Benenson, who works at crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. But then he would, as he painstakingly translated the whole of Moby-Dick into emoji. “The fact that emoji is available in software legitimises it as a form of human expression,” Benenson told New York Magazine. “And especially now – we’re so intimate with these devices and we’re saying some of our most compelling things to each other in the form of text messages and social media.”.

It’s similar to why we like hitting “like” on Facebook instead of leaving a comment: it lets us signal a feeling without having to commit to words. Having to type something out in full in an email can feel so definitive, whereas the odd emoji thrown in offers the chance to add a nuance or sentiment that normally would have been conveyed via facial expressions.

While the jury is out as to the place of emoji in business, it is worth taking note of this trend, in part because the technologies people like to use with friends have a tendency to seep into the workplace. But as colleagues increasingly work remotely, emoji could be just the ticket to re-introduce some of that non-verbal interaction that is lost when people don’t work in the same room anymore.

If this is your bag, have a look at Emoj.li, an emoji-only communications app that creators Matt Gray and Tom Scott swear is not satire. ‘FastCompany’ asked the founders whether the internet really needs an emoji social network: “It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. But the internet didn’t need Twitter either, and look where we are a few years later…” Devoted emoji fans are creating entire stories using only emoji – just look at this retelling of the storyline of ‘Les Miserables’. Then, go and watch Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it off’ illustrated by emoji – it’s even catchier this way, if that’s possible. There’s no doubt about it: the future comes with pictographs, and the emoji is written on the wall.

The internet’s saving the radio star

UK2 Group 2015 – on Midphase

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 13.08.09The internet’s saving the radio star

Gimlet is a startup betting big on podcasting becoming big business. Is this the future of radio?

“Video killed the radio star”, the Buggles told the world in their still-catchy 1978 hit. That was a time when the TV screen seemed the obvious media choice for the future, but by 2015 we’re living in a media landscape far more diverse than the Buggles ever envisioned. In fact, today, the internet is bringing the radio star back to life.

This is what Alex Blumberg is betting, as he’s started a company devoted to creating podcasts. Gimlet raised US$200,000 start-up cash in a matter of hours, as investors figured Blumberg knew what he was talking about: Blumberg was a producer on ‘This American Life’, one of the most successful podcasts of all time.

Ira Glass, Blumberg’s old boss at ‘This American Life’, is probably the ultimate radio star as podcasts are rapidly become the next big thing in the ever-connected media world. Podcasts have grown 105% in the US over the past five years, according to a 2012 study from Edison Research. After all, there are plenty of moments when we can’t look at a screen, such as when we’re driving or walking down the street, or moments when we can’t get the internet but may still like to feel connected, such as on a metro train or airplane.

But audio broadcasting has a lot to offer in and of itself though, thinks Blumberg. He told the Wall Street Journal: “I think audio demands certain things. It demands plot in a pretty straightforward way, or it demands authentic emotion in a pretty serious way, or it demands companionship. So those are the three reasons that I think people listen to audio.”

Another reason why people like the radio is because it lets them feel a personal connection, says Blumberg, which is what the best hosts create when they speak to their audience. Gimlet will aim to scale up the podcasting industry by doing exactly what made podcasts so successful in the first place: letting each of them target its own audience and interact with them in a unique manner. Want to know how Gimlet is progressing? They have a podcast for that: Startup.

Traditional radio is using a lot of the same tricks as podcasts to move into the future too though, with the BBC iPlayer Radio and the TuneIn app among those offering radio on demand. “Personalisation is a major part of the future of radio. Pandora [in the US] has shown how personalised music can make a good product, but good radio stations are more than songs pseudo-randomly thrown together,” radio expert James Cridland told The Next Web. The future is likely to bring us a “hybrid radio”, thinks Cridland – a mix of the best of broadcasting and internet.

The dirty secret of wearable technology

UK2 Group 2015 – on VPS.net

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 13.09.23Hold the revolution: Wearable technology has a long way to go yet

Wearable technology is predicted to take off in the next couple of year, but there’s a problem: half the gadgets end up in a drawer after six months. So what’s the solution?

It’s official: the Apple Watch is a style item. That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw after the Apple Watch made the cover of Vogue China, a magazine which has no concern for gadgets and gives every consideration to looks. Vogue China editorial director Angelica Cheung called the Apple Watch “a pioneering piece of technology that also doubles as a highly covetable fashion accessory”.

This is essentially the one thing the wearable technology industry as a whole has yet to achieve: to be considered a good-looking piece of kit. And this is important – as the makers of the first MP3 players learned when the iPod arrived: it’s not enough to be first with a good idea, but it has to look good too. While wearable tech is predicted to kick off in the next couple of years, you’d be forgiven for maintaining a little scepticism in terms of the timing.

Because the wearable tech industry has a dirty secret: half the users lose interest in their gadget after six months. This was the conclusion of a study by Endeavour Partners, which asked over 6000 people about their wearables habits. “A surprising percentage of devices in the market first fail to achieve even short term engagement for many users, because they suffer from one or more fatal user experience flaws,” Dan Ledger, principal at Endeavour Partners, told ‘TechRepublic’.

The gadgets that did best were the ones which fulfilled a need not delivered by a smartphone, the research found. And the most common flaws found among wearables? They’re too easy to break or lose, they’re not waterproof, they’re uncomfortable to wear, the battery runs out too fast, they’re a pain to sync with your phone or computer, they deliver no real benefit, or they’re just plain ugly.

January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had a dozen new wearables on display, mostly wrist-based but also some interesting alternatives such as Belty (to monitor the waistline) and Ring (to control the lights in your house). But even manufacturers are struggling to work out exactly what people want from their wearable – according to ‘Geek’, Samsung is working with sales staff to pinpoint why the Galaxy Gear watch is seeing a 30% return rate to BestBuy shop locations.

The solution to the wearables conundrum may lie somewhere in the fact that this kit is a very personal thing, meaning the user not only has to derive good use from it, but they also basically have to love it. That means it has to look and feel great on the wrist, and it has to go beyond gimmicky and be genuinely useful. And these gadgets have to go one step beyond just collecting data, to actually presenting it to the user in such a way that it can inspire behavioural change.

“This is the least predictable part,” Idris Mootee, CEO of experience design firm IdeaCouture, wrote in ‘FutureLab’: “The most successful wearable would be those who can influence our behaviour as a mechanism for human behaviour change and reinforcement. The subconscious mechanisms by which a human brain forms habits are still a bit of a mystery, and this can let us down a path to come up with devising tools for changing them.”

After all, just having a bracelet informing you that you’re not sleeping properly isn’t really helpful. If gadget designers can come up with a way to empower the individual to affect change in their lives, maybe then will we have a wearable technology revolution on our hands.

Maybe the solution is to make the gadgets sentient? Sci-fi films are full of cute, chatty computer companions, so maybe we could have one which reminds us to get our 10,000 steps? In any case, the first move will probably be for wearables to get better at adjusting to the individual. Wrote Jen Quinlan in ‘Wired’: Even Furbies in 1998 could learn new things. […] Peoples’ interests evolve. Their wearables need to be able to evolve too. The single feature, fancy pedometers of today’s activity tracking market won’t sustain for much longer.”