Thursday, 30 August 2007

My rage is non-linear: paradoxes of an interactive ambassador

So for anyone who had a tough time getting their head round my previous job, I've got an even more vapourous one now. This week I started a 3 month spell as an Interactive Development AP, that is, a Hoxton-based ideas monkey tasked with delivering groundbreaking adventures in cross-platform entertainment.

On a daily basis I'll be twittering about "convergence", throwing thoughtshowers and spouting media-ese bullshit from the future in the name of revenue generating, epoch defining content and delivery mechanisms. Well, in theory at any rate. Introducing interactive elements into traditional media formats is all so very on trend right now, but rarely is it done in a way that benefits the creatives, the audience or the technology. What I've got to do is figure out ways of not making it all look like some massively redundant waste of time, talent and zeitgeist.

On a professional and personal level I've not yet managed to reconcile the theory of what I do with the reality; how can I tout the revolutionary claims of social networking in the face of a cybergraveyard littered with neglected MySpace profiles? How to explain the thousands of Second Life avatars abandoned once their owners realise there's shit all to do 'in world' than buy some inherently dissatisfying genitalia and pay for land that doesn't exist? Then there's the fact that of all the people that use YouTube, 75% are browsing and only 25% are contributing. Not to mention that when they do they're either watching or uploading the best bits of TV shows made by professionals or Beyonce falling down the stairs. It would seem the popular appeal of online video is actually a banal combination of on-demand convenience and evidence of the lasting appeal of people going arse over tit. Hardly a testament to our much vaunted new generation of citizen creatives. Working as Web 2.0's bitch now is a bit like extolling consumer capitalism a decade ago; UGC is this season's Gap t-shirt when it comes to brands of dubious cultural integrity.

The public are being invited to lean forward and feed their entertainment resources, and yet sophisticated online information sharing and community building resources go under-nourished. The recent frenzy for adding applications to Facebook has left its once pristine interface bearing the true colours of the masses - inanity and status anxiety. Those government defence bods who invented the internet could never have predicted it would pave the way for Wikipedia and thus universal access to a magnificent melting pot of all of mankind's knowledge ever. Yet neither would they have been odds-on that their descendants would use the technology to add a vibrating hamster to their web page or send each other pictures of drinks. If you're going to give power to the people, then be aware that they'll inevitably hit on stupidity more often than genius.

When the internet isn't a repository for the idiotic musings of the general public, it's the detritus of the creative process. What we're doing in interactive is dealing in different modes of distribution, dissemination and re-publication of content - and in many cases the content is just differently versioned shit. There's a clamour to give every ounce of content broadcast on those channels a surround sound chorus of digital supporting actors, yet if it wouldn't have made it onto legacy formats like radio and TV, why insult new media with it? Most podcasts are at best a glorified 'listen again' opportunity and at worst they're a hatchet job of leftover thought processes and unfinished features, thoroughly undermining the former glory of its distilled form. "Where Are The Joneses?", the 'influence the narrative' series that came blindly staggering out of Steve Coogan's Baby Cow productions is a car crash of branded content and bandwagon jumping. Bebo's amateurish "Kate Modern" online teen drama is the unfortunate embodiment of the term 'knee jerk reaction', so blinded by the fact that the characters in Skins have popular MySpace pages that they forgot it also had jaw-droppingly compelling storylines and precision-engineered protagonists. Sharing theories over a wiki-style site is the new water cooler when it comes to cliched bywords for communal musings, though Lostpedia only sprung up because enough people cared about the dramatic content of Lost to speculate about it online. Audiences want engaging stories, moving tales and challenging themes like TV, radio and film, words, art, theatre, comedy have always done, or at least pertained to do.

A ripple of surprise was felt throughout the radio industry recently as Rajar figures revealed listener figures taking a steady upturn. "Radio remains at the heart of consumers' lives in Britain despite all the attractions of digital and mobile alternatives," said Andrew Harrison of the commercial radio trade body, the Radio Centre. Yet rather than evidence of these alternatives dying out, the return of radio has been enabled by additional options for tuning in - via DAB sets, online and TV. The simple lesson here is that good content will always be in demand, and if people can receive it in more than one way then they'll thank you for it. More people will tune in to quality programming if they can listen to it via their wireless as well as their radio.

Such is the dilemma I'm faced with, then; am I at the coalface of a generation that's redrawing the terms of human engagement, finding new ways of bringing people together to share moving, dramatic, hilarious, engaging, troublesome, tangible, infectiously brilliant moments of artistic expression? Or am I colluding with a red herring, a distraction from producing great content which undermines the principles of entertainment that have served us so well for so long. It'd seem anyone would think I was trying to talk myself out of a job here, but I'm not. I just think it's important to strike the right balance between being a facilitator and a producer. Now's the time we should provoke audiences and professionals to create unique, digitally enhanced forms of entertainment that have been around since man first slipped on a banana skin and his mates pissed themselves laughing.