Monday, 17 September 2007

Negative Cyberspace

Image from Wikipedia

The notion of
negative space has been around in photography and art for a long time. The most famous example is of course Rubin’s vase (above). Negative space is the space around an object. It defines the very form of the object we perceive as positive space.

In traditional Japanese art negative space is often prioritised, a technique known as ‘ma.’ What is interesting is that increasingly this concept is not just limited to Japanese art, photography or modern art. The concept of ‘ma’ has begun to find its way onto the web, via film trailers; spoof film trailers are almost a genre on Youtube these days. Thousands of them float around the web. But they are arguably a kind of experiment with negative space; the space surrounding an object (in this case a film) that doesn’t actually exist. (Like the white space in Rubin's black and white image.) We are fascinated by them. Indeed one of the most talked about things in the wake of the release of Taratino’s Death Proof (rather than it’s original Grindhouse) is the fact that by releasing Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s two movies as separate entities, a series of
spoof trailers commissioned by the two directors have been axed as a result. According to John Patterson “the real loss here is the fake trailers that Tarantino and Rodriguez inserted before and between their retro-sleaze classics.”

We are it seems drawn to negative space, drawn to the ‘fake’ and what is in fact not there. It is a creative force; as the modernist sculptor Alexander Archipenko once said "it is not exactly the presence of a thing but rather the absence of it that becomes the cause and impulse for creative motivation." (Quoted by Grace Glueck, New York Times, April 14, 2005). The critics want to see the trailers for films that do not exist more than they do the films that do exist.

It is no wonder then, that Trailer Trashing is still a hot phenomenon in the digital world. Trailers are after all, simply ‘the object’ (the story of the film) surrounded by a load negative space (music, voice-overs etc.) which sets the tone and thus define the shape of the object/film story for us. Trailer trashing simply finds new meaning in this negative space by altering or playing up the background that defines the form of the object. The trashed version of
Sleepless in Seattle is a perfect example of this. It is the background ‘negative space’ surrounding the clips in this trailer that transforms it into a horror movie instead of a romance; or in other words, leads us to start to seeing faces instead of vases.

The creation of negative space is an important part of remix culture. We are just as intrigued by hidden faces as we are by vases.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Make music, not war

Image from Focus

A few weeks ago Sir Elton caused controversy, declaring that the web is destroying music and should be closed down. “The internet” he said, “has stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff.”

But has it? People may sit at home on their own creating music, as Elton sees it, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude collaboration. In fact, arguably the very nature of the internet lends itself to collaboration. As William Gibson pointed out, “remix is the very nature of the digital.” And with remix comes both collaboration and new ideas. Indeed with the arrival of powerful PCs in the 1990s came the arrival of the music mash-up, “an unofficial remix created by "underground remixers" who edit two or more recordings (often of wildly different songs) together.” (From There are some fantastic mash-ups out there. If Sir Elton is calling for collaboration, isn’t the mash-up a type of collaborative creation?

What is so brilliant about this type of virtual collaboration is that they are more often than not made between ‘wildly different’ songs and artists - the kind of collaborations that would never be made in the real world. I mean imagine contract negotiations that would have to be made between Kylie and The Prodigy before you’d have got
Slow My Bitch Up. But back to Sir Elton’s rant for a sec:

We’re talking about things that are going to change the world and change the way people listen to music and that’s not going to happen with people blogging on the internet… Let’s get out in the streets and march and protest instead of sitting at home and blogging.”

Of course someone who has being doing just that of late is
Peter Tatchell. He has been up in arms, out on those streets, marching, protesting and shouting against the homophobia found in the lyrics of some reggae artists. His efforts have finally resulted in Buju Banton agreeing to ditch homophobic lyrics - but only through fear of slumping record sales. It seems a rather hollow victory, won by money rather than any real change in the world. And yet away from all that there’s Eminem (who let’s face it probably doesn’t own a copy of Brokeback Mountain) sampling Elton on Ghetto Gospel, a homage to Tupac Shakur. The world of sampling and remix is a world built to bring polarised elements together. Eminem’s haunting use of Elton’s voice on the Ghetto Gospel track surely speaks more volumes in the effort to get homosexuality accepted in some communities than simply by holding people over a financial barrel.

It’s not exactly rocket science. Getting people together is the first step in breaking down barriers and prejudices. And the beauty of the music mash-up is that the more diverse and polarised the collaborations are, the better they tend to work. It is a medium set up to bring the polarised together. Now for that reason alone, surely Elton should rethink his comments.

Friday, 10 August 2007

The Gay Jean; Levis and gay remixing

Image from Rotten Tomatoes

According to Adage, Levis’ have made two versions of their latest ad; one straight, one gay. It’s an interesting approach. And it begs the question, are we going to see more brands remixing adverts for the gay population? After all, it is when you think about it no different to the kind of localisation of campaigns that brands already do; re-shooting (or photo-shopping) different versions of the same adverts to fit different markets. Nokia did a similar thing a while back, offering two versions of the same advert – bizarrely one for the straight population in Germany and one for the gay population in other markets.

Significantly, this kind of ‘gay remixing’ or (gay ‘B-side’ if you will) is something that consumers are already doing; both with adverts but more frequently with movie trailers. Back in 2005 the phenomenon known as ‘Trailer Trashing’ took the internet by storm. Classic film trailers were cut-up and new and different stories created simply by editing the order and context of the clips. What was interesting about the phenomenon however, was the sheer numbers of gay parodies that were created. ‘Gay Trashing’ became an almost sub-genre of the trailer trashing trend. Indeed last year Virginia Heffernan reported in the
New York Times on the vast number of Brokeback Mountain mash-ups that appeared in the wake of the movie’s release. “Online parodies of the gay-cowboy movie” she declared were “proliferating faster than the curatorial video sites…can keep up with them.” Suddenly a host of old films were being re-crafted through a gay lens. Original dialogue was being re-contextualised and repurposed in order to hint at gay subtexts. We ended up with trailers for fictional films such as Point Breakback and The Empire Breaks Back. There are hundreds of examples floating around the web. Heffernan points out that although some may be crass and clumsy, others however are surprisingly slick and “as commentary on the forms and ceremonies of proto-gay relationships, they’re surprisingly sharp, and worth taking seriously.” And it didn’t just stop with Brokeback mash-ups. Since the trailer trashing phenomenon began the number of stories being remixed into tales of homosexual desire has rocketed. Some of the best include Top Gun Recut and the beautifully named, The Fast and the Curious.

So why the fascination with gay remixing? Well, stories are how we define ourselves, our history and culture. Ursula LeGuinhow once said “there have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Stories are an integral part of our cultural identities. And yet tales of homosexuality are few and far between – it is only in the last few decades that gay texts have actually been allowed to enter the mainstream literature. (Oscar Wilde was on trial not so many years ago) Which begs the question just how many gay stories have been lost and suppressed over the years? How many have been locked away or silenced? Some critics for example argue that Terrance Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea was originally written as a tale of gay desire, later lost under a veneer of heterosexuality for reasons of acceptability. Whether this is true or not, there is certainly a huge unwritten and unspoken history to gay culture, a myriad of lost stories that will forever remain unpublished.

What the remix nature of the web perhaps demonstrates is a cultural need to reclaim the lost stories of the past, to find voices in the silences and re-assess the tales of our past. Indeed many of the most high-profile gay stories are set in past eras; Sarah Walter’s Tipping the Velvet in Victorian London, Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion in Napoleonic Venice, and E Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain in 1960’s Wyoming. Levis’ are arguably well poised to take advantage of the fascination we have with gay remixing – what could be easier for example than some sort of ‘Twisted Originals’ site where old iconic Levis ads are remixed into gay versions; Brad Pitt eyed up by a guy at a pool table, or a girl watching an Amazonian bodied woman rising out of the river as she clutches what she thinks are her jeans.

Now that would give Diesel a real run for their pink money.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Sewing and the cut and paste generation

Image from ibiblio

This week
Wired has been discussing the furore surrounding Andrew Keen’s new book and his attack on what he calls ‘the cut and paste generation.’ The basic premise of Keen’s argument is that kids are more likely to blindly cut and paste information these days because the internet makes it so easy to do so – which perhaps has some validity; indeed in The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it is “the power of context” that is the key motivating factor when it comes to school cheating.

But ‘school assignments’ are only one dimension of the cut and paste technique. It is in fact perhaps just an updated version of the way we have always treated language – as a recombinant entity. Oral culture for example has long been closely associated with the art of sewing. We stitch pre-fabricated parts together. The word ‘text’ is itself derived from the Latin word ‘textere’ meaning to ‘weave;’ and the word 'rhapsody' literally means ‘to stitch together’ in Greek. At some levels then, cutting and pasting is simply a new way of cutting and sewing – a recombinant process we’ve been using for generations. American storytelling for example is closely linked with
quilting – an art involving the stitching together of pieces of fabric.

I think the important point in all this however is the fluidity of meaning. The interesting bit of cutting and pasting (as with cutting and stitching) is how we join what we have together. Cutting and pasting, cutting and re-assembling allows us to create new meanings, discover hidden meanings and to weave elements together to form completely different texts – something literature has long been interested in.
William Burroughs was one of the first to experiment with this Technique in Naked Lunch. And more recently in Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, Grace rather significantly sits sewing as she recounts her version of the brutal murder of which she is accused, ultimately perhaps managing to convince those around her of her innocence. The narrative thread is very powerful thing – if we can claim to be “stitched-up” Atwood’s novel illustrates the power of re-stitching, of the way we can alter meaning simply by stitching pre-fabricated parts together in a different way.

The beauty of the digital arena is that it makes this process accessible. “I am a language costumier”
Jeanette Winterson tells us in The.Powerbook a novel about virtual worlds and the fluidity of meaning and identity. The same stories and words can be re-stitched into different forms night after night. Indeed arguably many of the “cut and paste generation” are highly aware of the fluidity of text and manipulative power of the narrative thread. Youtube is full of evidence of a generation wise to the fact that simply by weaving together the same words or ‘texts’ in a certain way can create completely new meanings – which may perhaps be one reason why we are beginning to hear about the so-called end of political spin on the web. Whilst some of the cut and paste generation maybe little more than digital kleptos, others have cottoned on to the fact that the way pieces of texts are stitched or pasted together is in fact of utmost importance and interest.

Monday, 18 June 2007

They do things differently there

Image from Wikipedia

It is often the case that many of the seemingly new features emerging in the digital world actually have their roots in literary techniques and movements of the last century. A case in point is the ‘mash-up.’ In her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf created a new novelistic structure in which her prose blurred the distinction between dream and reality and more importantly between the past and present. James Joyce had pioneered a similar narrative structure with Ulysses a few years earlier. As extreme as these narrative experiments seemed to the rest of the literary world, this is of course exactly how human beings actually function. “I tend to live in the past” Herb Caen once said “because most of my life is there.” We simultaneously flow from the conscious to the unconscious, from the fantastic to the real, and from memory to the present moment. Woolf’s prose was noted for its ability to flow seamlessly from one to the other, over-laying the past with the present – the very basis of the modern-day mash-up.

There is an over-whelming sense of loss and sadness that permeates Mrs. Dalloway. An irreparable gulf seems to erupt between the idealistic potential once held in the past moment and the banal, deadening reality of the present moment – interestingly a similar disconnect found in many of the mash-ups that now appear on Youtube. One of the most popular sub-genres of mash-up culture is a kind of childhood brand bashing – we mash figures and brands from the memories of our childhood with the darker grittiness of those we now meet in the present-day moment;
Thomas the Tank Engine meets 50 cent and Grand Theft Auto invades Lego City. Behind the humour there is in many of these mash-ups a similar disconnect to the one that Woolf attempted to capture – the unnerving gulf between an idealistic past when our lives were full of promise and innocence, and the present where a darker, harsher reality now pervades.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

What are you doing? Going to the dentist?

Image from Wikipedia

Twitter has caused a lot of interest recently. Just why on earth do we feel the need to tell everyone what we are doing? As Advertising Age reports, most of what appears on Twitter is for the large part mundane, an “inane, piecemeal and ultra fleeting" commentary on life.

Which may well be true. But Twitter is perhaps, more significantly, a product of a recent shift in our perception of our culture and therefore history. Alan Moore and Tomi T Ahonen have long argued that with the rise of the internet and Web 2.0 we have seen the rise (or return) of
folk culture. We have it would seem, repossessed culture, claiming it as our own collective creation. And if this is the case, then such a shift does of course impact not only popular culture but politics and history as well. If folk power is on the rise, then all areas of social study are bound to be affected – especially history. In 2001 for instance, SMS helped to bring down the Filipino President Joseph Estrada. Reports say that text messages accelerated the scandal-ridden Estrada's exit by two months to two years. Suddenly the power of a connected folk culture was immense.

One view of history is that great men and institutions cause great events and make great decisions. But another view is of course that history is little more than a series of random, chance acts, a view based largely on the chaos theory – the notion that major events are, contrary to perceived wisdom, actually triggered by completely random occurrences that our traditional, institutionalised and lineal view of history has not recorded. Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys plays around with this theme; history, Bennett seems to suggest is little more than a series of random accidents. According to
Nicholas Hytner, the play's original director, "it is the theory of history that says that if the Archduke Ferdinand had not gone to Sarajevo that day, the war would not have happened. The theory that if Halifax hadn't gone to the dentist, Churchill would not have become prime minister and we would have lost the war."

Which brings us back to Twitter where interestingly two of its most recent members are
presidential candidates updating us on their day to day lives. Could it be then, that Twitter is a kind of folk history tool? A record and map of butterfly flutters? Maybe in years to come we will look back to these updates as a resource to explain the possible random roots of a major event. Who knows what a seemingly innocuous trip to the dentist by one of these candidates may trigger in the following months?

With the rise of ‘folk culture,’ inevitably comes the rise of folk history – the notion that we are all somehow, without realising it, responsible for and part of major events. We are, after all, separated from each other by only
six other people. We have never lived in a time when we are so connected to each other. Even our smallest actions then, may well have knock on consequences that we can never fully know or appreciate. We are all butterflies in a chaotic world. Who knows which tiny flutters really trigger major events? Indeed, one of the first questions we tend to ask when it comes to recent history is what were you doing? and where were you when… For some reason we have an urge to locate ourselves, to weave ourselves into some incomprehensible web around events in the recent past. This overwhelming belief that we are all somehow connected in a chaotic web, is something currently being explored in other areas of popular culture; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s recent thriller Babel and Paul Haggis’ 2004 film Crash are both stories in which major events are triggered by little flutters, amplified by the chaotic and complex web of human actions. Literature has of course also long explored a similar notion: one way to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to see the failure of Friar John to inform Juliet of her lover’s plan as the cause of the tragedy. The actions of Verona’s health officials lead to the tragic death of a pair of young lovers.

Twitter could then perhaps just as easily be called Flutter because it is in some respects a response to a chaotic, folk view of history; an attempt to somehow weave this web of human chaos that we all feel inextricably part of. It is after all, an application built on the very question “what are you doing?” It taps into this notion that somehow we are all part of the same complex human web and as such it comes as no surprise that not long after it began, Twitter updates began to include those from the
BBC and other major news broadcasters as well. As a result applications like Twittervision now map major events alongside mundane ones; butterfly flutters mapped alongside turbulent storms.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Computer (Idea) Viruses

Image from Evans US Army Hospital

A little while ago
Seth Godin proposed the fantastic model of the IdeaVirus; the notion that ideas are propagated through the population in much the same way as viruses. In 1976 Richard Dawkins also introduced us to the concept of the meme; one of its features being (as with a virus) the ability to mutate. With the advent of digital technology, this characteristic of ideaviruses and memes has perhaps become ever more pertinent. After all, according to William Gibson, “the remix is the very nature of the digital.” Mutation, in other words, is an integral part of digital culture. “Today,” Gibson notes “an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product.” Sites like Youtube are veritable breeding grounds for constantly mutating ideas.

Viruses mutate for a very important reason; to survive, viruses need a steady supply of fresh hosts. And in order to get around the problem of host immunity within a population, they mutate, changing their surface proteins (or antigens). The digital world allows ideaviruses or memes to do much the same thing very easily.

Viruses mutate in two basic ways:

1) Antigenic drift is the gradual mutation of surface antigens as the virus moves through the population. (The digital equivalent of this is ‘the remix.’) The virus is ‘recoated’ with different surface proteins – a process not dissimilar to the kind of remixing of tracks and commercials that we see in the digital world today. JAKAZiD’s remixing of the
Cillit Bang ad is a great example of this kind of antigenic drift – the virus, the message itself is still the same (Cillit Bang cleans the penny) but its outer surface, the packaging surrounding it, has mutated. And in doing so the message is then able to spread to a totally different segment of the population, normally largely immune to this virus or message. We see this too with music tracks – Youtube is full of examples of classic songs from the 80’s that have since been remixed and repackaged in order to appeal both to a new generation of the population and of course to re-infect those that once listened to the original tracks.

2) Antigenic shift is when two viruses from two different species mix to form a hybrid and a completely new virus. (The digital equivalent of this is ‘the mash-up.’) Trailer trashing is a great example of this kind of mutation, where two film trailers (or two genres of film at least) are meshed together to form a completely new idea or plot; like
Point Brokeback a mash-up of Point Break and Brokeback Mountain for instance, or Sleepless in Seattle the horror version, which fuses genre cues from films such as Fatal Attraction with the original trailer. These new, hybrid ideas then spread to a whole new population – or again, are able to ‘re-infect’ the same population they once did but in a new mutated form. Google Earth is another good example of an ideavirus that has been mashed with countless applications in order for hybrid strains of it to spread into different segments of the population. It is, as a result, now a virtually pandemic idea in many respects.

Mutation is a key part of viral longevity; Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’ virus for instance, still has sporadic,
mutated outbursts. Consumer-created content isn’t just about issues of customisation and consumer ownership. It is in fact a fundamental part of the ideavirus lifecycle in the digital world.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Secret Sharing

This year, Trend-watching has been talking about rise of what they dub the online Transparency trend, a phenomenon fuelled by the likes of Microsoft. But there is perhaps a counter-trend simultaneously occurring – one concerned with the power of secrecy.

Brands have long recognised the seductive power of secrecy. Coke was arguably one of the first to utilise this basic human truth by creating the urban legend around its
secret formula back in 1920. Even today in the midst of a culture heavily concerned with truth and transparency, a culture that has spawned the phenomenon of blogging, secrecy is still a highly powerful driver, especially when it comes to forging communities - or at least making people feel as though they are part of a community. Mini for example recently produced some fascinating DM packs which enabled Mini members alone to decode print adverts. Secrecy is a very powerful way to make people feel part of a select group. Nokia’s The Passenger uses a similar tactic, inviting you to momentarily become part of what appears to be a secret, covert mission. MSN’s Conspiracy Theory is another example, as is Puma’s hidden web page (lift up the bottom right hand corner). All are designed to create a feeling of collusion and secret belonging.

Indeed secrecy is a sure fast way of forging very strong group feelings. Secret societies are after all, some of the most tightly bonded communities around - something that ARG’s tap into. Sharing secrets can forge bonds between complete strangers. “We are bound by the secrets we share” Dame Judi Dench tells us in Notes on a Scandal. As a result the types of groups that spring up around ARG’s are perhaps less ‘communities’ than secret societies, each member bound to others by the knowledge he/she has. In fact
secret sharing is nothing new. ARG’s are simply tapping into a notion invented by cryptologists almost thirty years ago.

The vast popularity of both the Da Vinci Code and LOST is evidence of the hugely seductive power of secrecy and our increasing desire for it. And the digital world is well placed to take advantage of this. In popular culture it has long been closely associated with secrecy – from
hackers fighting governments and institutions to the mysterious computer program in LOST and of course the digital conspiracy of The Matrix - the digital world has always been closely linked to covert operations and conspiracy theories. Computer gaming communities for instance have long been based on the secret codes and hidden information involved in the games. And just as agents in the real world receive information and tip-offs from unknown sources, identified only by coded pseudonyms (think The Cancer Man and Mr. X in the X-Files and M in James Bond) online, we too readily accept snippets of information from strangers we know only by usernames and pseudonyms. The very set up of the communities we form lend themselves to a notion of secrecy and the covert.

In an age where information is more accessible and companies more open than ever before, we are still fascinated by secrecy and its power to connect us to other beings. We have an overwhelming desire to share secrets anonymously with others. It is a social currency - just look at the success of
Postsecret and the soon to be live Wikileaks. It is simple human nature. “Secrets,” Howard Barker once said, “seduce us. We all want to share secrets.”

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

The Rhythm of Life

According to the IPA, the content of what we say is only of 7% importance to anyone listening. How we are saying it is much more important; the tone of our voices (38%) and our body language (55%). The rhythms and modulations of our bodies and voices are, it would seem, far more important than the actual words we speak.

Which is no surprise - we are programmed to perceive meaning through movement and rhythms. It is an essential part of how we pick up meaning from each other. In a classic experiment Johanson (1973, 1976) created displays of human movement by attaching lights to the major joints of human models. The models were filmed so that only the points of light were visible to observers. What he found was that although observers rarely percieved a human form when it was static, when the displays moved observers were rapidly able to detect different human movements. Since then however, other researchers have identified a whole range of actions such as emotion and intention that are readily recognisable from point-light displays of moving people. Even basic rhythm and movement it would seem, belies human traits and emotions. In Blink, Gladwell gives us the example of the World War II Morse code operators; during the war, allied forces intercepted a wealth of encrypted radio messages from the Germans. Although they were never able to break the codes, they learned to identify the individual style of each radio operator from the unique pauses and rhythms each used. Each individual's style was so distinctive that the interceptors could not only recognise which German radio operator was sending the message just from a few seconds of code but more importantly could also understand the tone of what was being said. They were able to perceive different emotions - whether a particular operator was his relaxed, chatty self or rushed, formal and under pressure simply by listening to the rhythms in the messages. In The Tipping Point Gladwell also draws our attention to William Condon’s study of cultural micro-rhythms:

"He realised that in addition to talking and listening, the three people around the table were also engaging in what he termed "interactional synchrony." Their conversation had a rhythmic physical dimension...the speaker was, in effect, dancing to his or her own speech."

Communication is clearly not just about words and what is said. There is a subtle, yet rich rhythmical dimension that surrounds it. And it's not just in speech that this occurs. Experts can tell a lot about the psychology of someone just from observing the nuances of their handwriting and the movements that formed the words. Graphology is the study of human handwriting in relation to psychology: “Graphologists proceed to evaluate the pattern, form, movement, rhythm, quality, and consistency of the graphic stroke in terms of psychological interpretations.” Handwriting captures human rhythms and emotional states in a way that traditional print cannot. Indeed, it could be argued that the static printed word is highly limiting when it comes to trying to capture that all important 93% of what we are trying to communicate. The printed word cannot be easily imbued with rhythm or movement unless perhaps in the hands of an artful poet. It does not naturally flow with rhythm as handwriting does. The art of typography has off course done much to try to re-embed some of this lost layer of communication into the printed word. And it is no surprise that typography and form have become such essential parts of advertising. David Ogilvy infamously remarked:

"Once upon a time I was riding on the top of a First Avenue bus, when I heard a mythical housewife say to another, "Molly, my dear, I would have bought that new brand of toilet soap if only they hadn't set the body copy in ten point Garamond." Don't you believe it. What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising, not its form.”

This is perhaps a little naive: the form, the typography used can imbue a word with a whole set of connotations and create a layer of communication above and beyond what the words themselves are struggling to tell us. Indeed it could be argued that in a static, printed world this was how we tried to sneak back some of that missing 93%, to communicate tone and body language through words.

But in today's digital world, words no longer have to be static. With the advent of the appropriately named Adobe ActionScript came animated gifs and animated text. And as a result rhythm and modulation could, for the first time since pulsating neon signs, be imparted into the previously static written word. Nowadays, words fly, jump and move all over sites, banners and on TV. No one has capitalised more on this notion of animated text than Audi with its Vorsprung durch Technik – it’s a good bet that not many people could tell you the literal German translation of that phrase or offer a reasoned, articulate definition of the term and its meaning. But the spinning DNA helix on it’s website and the words flying through the TV ad somehow reveal more about the essence of the brand than any finely tuned paragraph of copy could. Like those Allied operators of World War II we have little idea as to the content of what is really being said. But the rhythms and movements of those words tell us everything we need to know.

One of the fastest growing advertising mediums on the web in recent years has been rich media – essentially something that moves. Which is no surprise - it is clear that rhythm and movement are a fundamental part of human communication. We are naturally programmed to use them to 'read' people. No co-incidence then that there are numerous sites offering animated text for customising Myspace pages; on a site where people want to capture as much about themselves as they can, (albiet crude) animation and moving text are a fundamental part. Somehow animated text, people seem to believe, appears to help capture some vital essence. The words move, jump and pulsate with life all over Myspace profiles. Mercedes' A to S site has received huge plaudits from the likes of the IAB for the fact that the “advertising and website mirror Mercedes' approach to vehicle production with a host of interactive elements that reflect the real world experience.” All created through an animated alphabet and interactive, moving text. No close ups of the car and it’s engineering, just an animated textual adventure as words glide, appear, move and reform on the page in front of us.

To 'animate’ quite literally means to breathe life into and the beauty of digital text is that it is just beginning to allow us to start exploring that 93% of communication that is inevitably lost when words are written. Slowly, we are beginning to get used to a new kind of text: one that moves, and pulsates - it is no longer just on TV commercials where words move. It is commonplace all over the web now.

In Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum's character declares that "if there's one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories. It crashes through barriers.” As Gladwell's Morse code example showed, build a device that strips communication of meaning and locks it into a mechanic code and that 93% will still find a way to come out. The rhythms of life will crash through. And so it is with the web. As technology evolves, slowly but surely the static printed word of the literate society is becoming more fluid and animated. Digital techniques are increasingly allowing us to experiment in new ways and to try to capture some small amount of that 93% of communication that is traditionally lost when we move from an oral to a literate medium.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

'Sent' Marking

Image from the Honolulu Zoo

Faris wrote a very interesting piece for Contagious last week regarding the advent of what he calls Mobile 2.0. One of the three themes he identified as currently characterising the phenomenon was the importance of 'social locations' and how 'social networks' are increasingly being taken to the networks. In particular mobile geotagging seems to be taking off; Socialight for example allows you to share and discover virtual sticky notes at specific locations using your phone. Dodgeball notifies you when anyone in your extended network is in the area. And Twittervision plots updates of what people are doing at that precise moment on a map. All very cutting edge and innovative services.

Or are they? Geotagging is nothing new. Nor is it something that we humans have suddenly invented either. Watch any dog as it walks along a street or path and you suddenly realise that geotagging is in fact a core part of most animal societies - the only difference between theirs' and ours being that they use chemical instead of electronic tags. Instead of electronic sticky notes, animals leave complex pheromone messages at different locations for others to pick up as they pass. Rubbing against particular trees, urinating by certain boundary marks, scent marking is a powerful way of communicating with other members of a particular pack or herd.

Which inevitably brings us to Mark Earl's notion of the Herd - because mobile geotagging is perhaps just another example of our propensity towards herd or even pack-like instincts. Mobile 2.0 is no longer simply about connecting to those ten or twenty closest to us - we are beginning to talk to the wider herd; leaving text 'sent' markers for other unknown members to pick up as they pass.

Of course animals use scent marks to communicate a wide variety of messages. Research for example has found that lemuers use scents so complex that they are effectively leaving whole sentences. Scent tags, according to Gese and Ruff are left for a variety of reasons:

"Scent marking may serve as a mechanism for territory maintenance (Peters & Mech 1975; Rothman & Mech 1979; Bowen & Cowan 1980) or sex recognition (Dunbar 1977; Bekoff 1979), as a signal of empty food caches (Henry 1977; Harrington 1981, 1982), as an indicator of sexual condition, maturity or synchrony (Bekoff & Diamond 1976), or as internal information to orient members of the resident pack (Wells & Bekoff) and to dispersing animals entering occupied territories (Rothman & Mech 1979)."

Scent-marking by coyotes, Canis latrans: the influence of social and ecological factors Eric M. Gese & Robert L. Ruff

Unsuprisingly we're not so different when it comes to the type of information we're leaving other herd members either. We too are leaving messages that are primarilly concerned with food caches and sexual condition; a vast number of Socialight's sticky notes are reviews about "food caches" with strangers telling us that this restaurant or bar is good; and as for sexual condition, Dodgeball allows you to "choose up to five crushes online and they get notified when you are nearby."

In his original paper Earls' notes the importance of movement to the herd dynamic. For herds "to be static is also to be vulnerable." Monty Roberts the extraordinary horse whisperer Earls cites, uses "movement" to control his herds. Roberts has even "applied the same basic thinking to juvenile delinquents - understanding their need to belong to a herd, their need for movement and so on." (My italics) Movement is clearly a key element of herd behaviour. So it comes as no surprise then, that it is in the world of mobile technology that we are beginning to see herd-like communications forming. Like many other species, we have it seems an overwhelming urge to communicate with the herd as we move through our environment.

Thursday, 3 May 2007


For years, people have been trying to capture the essence of their personalities through scrapbooking. We are after all little more than a sum of our experiences, associations and memorabilia. What we store and how we organise what we've stored is a strikingly effective way of discerning our personalities. In Blink for example Malcolm Gladwell draws our attention to an experiment in which it was found that college students who spent 15 minutes in another, unknown student's dorm room could give more accurate personality ratings than that student's close friends. Just by looking at the objects, scraps and ‘stuff’ collected by a student and how they had been organised, strangers were able to discern personalities.

Scrapbooks work in the same way - the associations we choose and how we embed and link them (either physically or through narrative) are what defines us. Give someone a scrapbook and they will no doubt get ‘a sense' of the person who produced it. In the same way looking through an attic full of trinkets or a room full of clutter gives us an overwhelming, subconscious ‘sense’ of a person. What we choose to keep, what we mark as ours and how we organise all this, reveals our personality. The places we go, the things we do, the scraps we keep. Indeed management icebreakers are never “tell us what type of person you are;” rather they’re ‘tell us your favourite film,’ your first memory, the first CD you ever bought etc. etc. Cringing - but they have a point none the less. Somehow we seem to be able to tell an awful lot about a person simply by ‘collating’ scraps about them - something brands are beginning to understand as well. Faris and Diginative have recently been talking about the multiplicity of online brand personalities, Diginative citing Innocent and Absolut as examples of what he calls 'brand portals' aggregating content for users. But these sites are also both perhaps examples of what we could call an emerging form of 'scrapbranding' where brands collate all the things they want to be associated with, all the things that create a collective memory or essence of the brand. Absolut for example gives us its favourite street, its ideal burger and its favourite city to name but a few. In some ways these sites are extensions of the kind of eclectic scrapbook style designs we’ve seen brands use online before – such as Southern Comfort’s eclectic mix of associations and styles.

Scrapbooking is essentially just another form of storytelling and brands as we know, tell stories about themselves. The notion of ‘Scrapbranding’ also goes back to Russell Davies theory that brands are in fact webs of associations that we link and embed together:

“We take one idea; a company or a product, we link it to some other ideas; perhaps some attitudes, some aesthetics, a bundle of associations and we embed some other ideas within it; a colour, a logo, a piece of music, a smell.”

This, as Russell also points out is something that the digital world can only encourage: we can easily embed and link, as brands such as Innocent and Absolut are doing. Cut, paste, copy, crop and edit, the common language of the scrapbooker is also of course now the standard language of the digital world as well. And like a real scrapbook that is made up of page after page of events and memories, built up as the person experiences more things and new events, the digital world allows content to be updated and added to on a regular basis – an ever evolving Scrapbranding process.

"People build brands" Jeremy Bullmore once said "as birds build nests, from the scraps and straws they find." It seems the reverse is true too. Brands are building themselves from the scraps and straws they find.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Digitravel - Digitourists and Digitravellers

The web is essentially a place, a virtual space that people travel through and around. In the real world space, the ‘traditional retail space,’ it has long been argued that there are two types of consumers:

“…there are two broad categories of customer to be accounted for here: the type seeking inspiration and willing to spend time on the process of discovery and the type who just want to find what they need and get out. The way in which you must communicate to these audiences is very different even though it is sometimes the same consumer on a different shopping mission or day.”

Successful Retail Brands Engage their Customers In-store; Craig Thatcher, The Marketing Managers Yearbook 2006

I recently wrote an article that posits the same notion about online space – that there are essentially two different types of digital consumer journeying through cyberspace; the digitourist and the digitraveller.

The premise for the article is that the dominant metaphor for the Internet is that of space; it is a vast media landscape, a place of virtual worlds that we explore or navigate around – and as in the 'real' world there are tourists and travellers.

Digitourists, like any tourists, know exactly what they want to see and what they want to find - whether it be a product or a piece of information. Digitravellers however are different to Digitourists - no less or no more technologically able in many cases, they want however to explore things for themselves. They want to navigate their own way around the wilderness of information and stories of the internet, roughing it unguided through the digital landscape. Their interest lies not so much in arriving at a piece of information or a particular site, as the Digitourist’s does, but instead on the journey itself. For the Digitraveller it is all about the people they meet and the unexpected, undiscovered places they stumble across along the way. “A good traveller,” Lao Tzu once wrote “has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” And so it is for the Digitraveller. The article goes on to demonstrate how seven behavioural parallels can be drawn between the internet culture of web 2.0 and traditional travelling cultures.

Faris very kindly hosted it for me over at TIGS.