Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What happens next?

I went to a really stimulating breakfast event at the new One Alfred Place club
It was about digital futures of traditional media and the speakers were all challenged to talk about what happens next.
First up was Jeremy Ettinghausen from Penguin. He confessed to be responsible for the worst novel in history, the 'wikinovel'. He has also created the more successful, which brings well known writers together with game designers. He said this was only a toe in the water, not an indication of Penguin's future publishing direction. However, he was more positive about e-books, predicting that this year they could take off. A question: Is reading on the internet fundamentally changing the way we access information? There does seem to be evidence that we are shifting from reading a linear narrative to a fragmentary and skipping experience. Publishers will have to become editors and marketers of ideas and entertainment, not so much of books. It's about storytelling not paper....towards the integrated book.

Kevin Anderson, the blogs editor for the Guardian, being from the US gave lots of US examples. His role is about taking the tools that are disrupting their business model and applying them to their job. Newspapers are old not new. Young people are not reading papers. Newspaper companies need to become news companies, and look for new markets. With free open-source web tools, the cost of failure is almost zero and the speed of development can be very fast. The Guardian will need to start using such tools more as they currently take 6-12 months to develop a new product, which then quickly dates. He talked about how the most successful parts of the paper are the parts for specific communities of interest (localities, food, sport, professions etc). People are less needy of the comprehensive spread of publicly ordained news. A US paper has just gone to a bi-weekly print, but with daily online updates. Another US paper is a freesheet that combines content from staff and from the online communities.

Matt Locke is the commissioning editor for Channel 4 education.
I found him most interesting because he has been an artist and curator, and he referred to museum and gallery experiences and new media. He described how our notions of public and private had broken down, that we have reconceived them as the personal and the social. The interconnections between the personal and social are far more dynamic and fluid than existed between private and public. Media companies (and educators, museums etc) will have to engage with those new vernacular techniques that we have to use to shift register from one to the other. Young people can't believe that there was a time, perhaps only ten years ago, that if you wanted to speak in public you needed permission. (I was wondering at that: For all of the many projects funding 'youth voice', young people may ironically need it less than adults who are not using the media that empowers their voice.) He went on to talk about how we develop this ability to shift register through playfulness. For example, when cameras first became accessible in the earlier 20th Century, people began to play with photography, showing themselves in diverse relationships with one another and in varieties of status and situation. This complexity of identity and relationship is evidenced today by the way young people manage many different file categories of friends in MSN or Facebook.

The challenge for new media (especially that evolving from old media organisations) is to flip easily from the personal to the social. What looks playful and trivial is actually the most meaningful in pointing the way forward. He never does any of C4's web projects on but on Bebo and My Space. "If we build a grand edifice, branded C4, the young people we are trying to reach just wouldn't come."

That's a pretty useful insight for museums too.