I read and took part in Channel 4's story-by-SMS Ivy4Evr the week before last, and had some really nice moments with it.
It was the story of a week in the life of a teenage girl (about 16 and a half I'd guess) told to you by her sending you texts, and asking you to reply to questions both about yourself and to help her out.
I thought the tone of voice for a teenager was spot on and very authentic feeling, the events of the story were very well suited to being told in such an intimate space (though I don't think all stories for a mobile small screen need to be so TV small screen), and the writer(s?) did well at getting across enough information to keep the story moving without breaking the conversational to-and-fro feel of texts.
The first nice moment I had was when Ivy asked me a question to help her out, which was how could she get advice about being pregnant without anyone finding out.
This caught me at a good time, because the dialogue between me and her happened in the evening when it wasn't distracting me from anything else more pressing. And the question is so perfectly in tune with the kind of conversation that would actually happen in the intimate space of texts that it was very easy to accept the suspension of disbelief and start feeling like you are worried about the poor girl at the other end. That was added to for me because I wasn't completely sure I was giving the right advice - there used to be Family Planning Clinics (I think they were called), but do they still exist? And if I suggested her GP, am I sure that GPs don't have a duty to tell the parents of girls under 16?
That sense that I was being asked for advice from someone who needed it, but I might not be giving good advice, really increased the engagement for me - the story was happening inside my head (which is where the real mixed reality is). I also thought it was a fantastic learning device - I was very strongly aware of what I did and didn't know, because someone else was depending on me.
The second telling moment was when the spell broke.
Ivy asked me whether my parents were together and I said no because my dad was dead. I was in a bit of a rush so I said it in so many words.
Ivy's response was "Hi, Mines been divorced for ages. Can I tell you something."
From a storytelling point of view, that response didn't work. I didn't mention my dad to get sympathy, just as a matter of fact, but that reply didn't quite sound like even a 16 year old would respond to that information. If nothing else, why say "Hi", we'd been talking to each other for 3 days. "Oh. sorry." or "Oh :-(" would have been much better.
Up till that point I'd thought that Ivy was probably being orchestrated by humans, maybe through some sort of menu of customisable standard replies at each stage, but then i wondered if she was a chat bot and the writers/programmers just hadn't anticipated my answer.
One or two things I picked up on twitter though suggested that Ivy wasn't a bot, so then I wondered if the orchestration was being done by work experience people, straight out of art or media school, and they hadn't had the artistic maturity to script anything better on the fly. That's not meant as a criticism, I'm not sure I would have done at 22.
Both of those two reasons are just formal or technical questions which didn't bother me, but something else came to mind later which is a bit trickier. I wondered if the AI or the orchestrators had been told to change the subject straight away if any of the readers started to try and talk about their own problems.
I can see why that would be the policy, because there would be a danger of getting into long conversations that the AI or the work experience people just weren't qualified to deal with and couldn't really help with. But it does feel like a different kind of expectation has been raised than a TV programme about an issue with a helpline number at the end. If you are going to use the intimacy of a channel of conversation like SMS, and kid on to perhaps vulnerable teenagers that they are talking to a real person who asks them to help solve her problems, what is the right thing to do if those perhaps vulnerable teenagers then ask that real person to listen to their problems in return?
This is particularly true of Ivy4Evr because Ivy was NEET (Not in Education, Emplyment or Training). I wondered if Ivy4Evr had been designed specifically to try and to reach NEET teenagers through the only two-way media channel they would have consistent access to, their mobile phone. I thought that was admirable (at least for The Broadcast Media) and inventive, but it would mean the readership would be more likely than the usual to be going through a tough time, and I think there would be some responsibility to put a mechanism in place for engaging with them genuinely if they wanted to.
The last nice moment was the very final message.
Ivy had been hiding from a "squaddie type" who was trying to find her (my advice had been to lie on the floor until he stopped knocking on the door, which may not have been the most grown up) and then the messages stopped for the day.
The next message was from a friend she'd mentioned a lot, a lad called Adz, saying that he didn't know where she was. The change of voice was very immediate and effective in a text, and I interpreted it as him texting her friends from her phone.
We all feel in our bones that not-got-their-mobile can't be a good thing, so it made a great cliffhanger.
I wouldn't want to be too gushing about Ivy4Evr, because we did a story told by a character sending you texts, and asking you to reply to questions both about yourself and to help them out, in Huddersfield two years ago, and I don't think that was the first either.
But I did think Ivy4Evr was expertly handled and had some things to learn from.
My only other word of caution would be that I had a real interest in staying engaged and I just wouldn't know how much it worked for someone starting with no more, or less, commitment than they would bring to any other channel for storytelling.
Lovely lovely lovely prediction of the future from 1901:
Electrical Review, June 29, 1901, page 820:
The chairman: Although still far away, he thought they were gradually coming within thinkable distance of the realization of a prophecy he had ventured to make four years before, of a time when if a person wanted to call to a friend he knew not where, he would call in a loud, electromagnetic voice, heard by him who had the electromagnetic ear, silent to him who had it not. "Where are you?" he would say. A small reply would come, "I am at the bottom of a coal mine, or crossing the Andes, or in the middle of the Pacific." Or, perhaps, in spite of all the calling, no reply would come, and the person would then know that his friend was dead. Let them think of what that meant, of the calling which went on every day from room to room of a house, and then think of that calling extending from pole to pole; not a noisy babble, but a call audible to him who wanted to hear and absolutely silent to him who did not, it was almost like dreamland and ghostland, not the ghostland of the heated imagination cultivated by the Psychical Society, but a real communication from a distance based on true physical laws. On seeing the young faces of so many present he was filled with green envy that they, and not he, might very likely live to see the fulfillment of his prophecy.
via Lynne Hamill on the Mobile Society mailing list.
"A story is a complicated space."
A computer scientist, Stephen Cresswell, who specialises in AI planning, said that to me in the pub yesterday while we were talking about the sort of AI related things we've been talking about for a few months.
At first, thinking about a story as a complicated space, I thought that a Chekhov short story, for example, was a much more complicated space than a ghost story.
But maybe they are just different kinds of complication.
A Chekhov story has more depth, or density, of complication, or, each "agent" in the "society of agents" has more history, or more potential for characteristic but emergent behaviour, so the complicated space can be mapped onto a much smaller plot landscape.
As you can tell, I'm making this up as I go along now!
And of course in a Chekhov story the potential for characteristic but emergent behaviour is an illusion, the agents behave how Chekhov makes them behave - it's the illusion that provides the suspense? - but no less brilliant or truthful for that.
But, Stephen and me are going to write a complicated space, to see what happens in it.
This emotion of wanting to punish rule breakers connects with game theory as it's understood in biology, economics and politics - that we've evolved to cooperate, and are very good at it, and don't need anyone except ourselves to police cooperation, but one of the conditions of cooperation is to punish "defectors", people who try to get the benefit of cooperation without paying the costs (for example if you want to conserve and share irrigation water amongst small farmers, what you need is either lots of policemen with guns and a legal and prison system, or a long standing traditional rule set for making clear, agreed quotas and for publicly shaming people who break them - this year's nobel prize for economics was for the study of rule sets for collective action).
One of the things that I like about Charter Cities is that it brings an awareness of the power of rule sets, and the way they operate - that the outcomes are always emergent, and you can never write enough rules to proscribe all the possible outcomes - into politics, saying (this is my sneaky paraphrase) that you can't dictate good ends, just put good rule sets (good means) in place and wait to see what happens.And if you looked at contemporary Britain, what you'd probably say, if you were honest, was "it's not fair." The rule set has got messed up somehow. Or ignored. Or it's too easy to defect and get away with it.
From the zombie Mariachi band to play us off, to the Zombie Marilyn in her grotto singing Happy Deathday Mr President to the red London bus ride to the cemetery at the end, the amount of effort that had gone into these was fantastic, and each checkpoint really did feel like a reward for getting so far.
The final section was a walk through the very spooky and overgrown Arnos Vale cemetery at night, which was a great location, more of a damp, decaying wood with broken gravestones between the trees than an ordered graveyard, and one that I was glad to have seen just in itself.
We collected some lovely, strange and sad things yesterday playing 100 Things at Sandpit at Battersea Arts Centre.
The messages reminded me of Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara
And it is surprising how much concentration is needed to think of a thing that has happened, especially a visual one, even on the same day.
You have to find a starting point and replay your day, almost like rewinding a film, but then something will jump out. It seems an illuminating process though, judging by the loveliness of some of the things.
I worked with some clinical psychologists once, and they were very keen on the difference between concrete and abstract memories. People who are feeling unhappy tend to remember in abstract terms - "That was a horrible time." - rather than remembering the detail of things that happened.
So maybe playing 100 Things is a good brain training exercise.
Try it out. Here are the rules.
And here are some things that happened on the 19th October 2009:
An italian waiter repeatedly whistling the same christmas carol. His
colleague shouts at him in angry italian but he carries on regardless
A 15 year old boy in an RE lesson. He is manipulating his genitals. The teacher tells him to stop. "but i've got a wedgy sir."
I saw a workman's trench with a man's face down in it. He was very still. I couldn't tell whether he was working or asleep.
Two men stand outside a balti house. The older man teaches the younger man. 'Good afternoon gents, can i interest you in some lunch?' he says.
A man shook out a rug in a Bristol back garden.
and this one, my favourite of all:
A girl on the tube going to work falls asleep on a man's shoulder. As soon as she realises she stands abruptly and gets off a stop early.
more things on Flickr
You are a reporter.
Start a text with BAC then a space.
Describe what you saw.
Remember the details that only
a witness would know.
Don't comment. Don't judge.
Write no more than 160 characters.
Send your text to Thumbprint
(it only costs the same as texting your friend's phone)
Each text that comes in will be written
on a blackboard in BAC.
It will only last until the next
What you write will be completely anonymous.
You can be as personal or intimate as you like.
If we reach 100 we will stop.
100 things is enough for any day.
You are not a historian.
[at Sandpit at Battersea Arts Centre, Monday 19th October, from 7.00pm, more info here]
Free All Monsters! is a game for children, families and even grown ups.
You'll use a Magical Monstervision Machine to look for invisible monsters living in the streets around you, then answer questions about the monsters to show your monster spotting skills, and set free your own monsters for other players to find.
To play Free All Monsters! you'll need a Magical Monstervision Machine, a Monster Spotter's Guide for the place you want to look for monsters, and some felt tip pens and paper.
Follow the picture clues on your Monster Spotter's Guide, and they will lead you to monsters that live in the streets around you.
Photos of players at Hide and Seek, London, and igfest, Bristol by Liz Milner, Paul Coulton and Andrew Wilson.
When you get close to a monster's lair, use the Magical Monstervision Machine to look for the monster.
When you see the monster, look at it very carefully.
On your Spotter's Guide you will find some questions about the monster, to test your monsterology skills.
First you have to answer a question to show that you have watched the monster carefully, then you have to add scientific knowledge by coming up with a new theory to answer a question such as “ Where does this monster go on holiday and what does it do there?”
Even though some monsters look very fierce and scary, they are really very old creatures who look after the places where they live, so they should never be captured or harmed, just watched.
Every monster that you find was set free by somebody else, and when you have finished looking for monsters you can set free some monsters of your own.
All you need to set free monsters is your imagination and some felt tip pens, paper and anything else you want to use to make a monster.
When you have set free your monster it can be made part of the game for other people to find using the Magical Monstervision Machine.
Where Do Monsters Live?
Monsters live outside, in the streets, squares and parks of the places where you go everyday or go to visit sometimes. The monsters live there all the time, in the cold and wind and rain as well as on warm sunny days.
The places where monsters live are the places where everyone should be able to go, not just real places, but places in their imaginations as well, and the job of the monsters is to guard those places, and make sure they are always open, free and welcoming for anyone who wants to go there.
Wherever you find a monster, it means that somebody cares about that place, and has set free a monster to live there and guard it.
Where Do Monsters Come From?
“No Gods, just Monsters!”
There haven't always been towns and cities, full of people hurrying to and fro to school or work.
Where now stand shops, factories and offices were once streams, woods and hillsides.
And every one of those places, even the loneliest tree standing by itself on the moors, had a monster to guard it.
The place belonged to the monster, and the monster belonged to the place.
So when towns and cities were built, the monsters had to stay, trapped under the tall buildings made of brick and stone and concrete.
And there they remained, for 200 years.
Because the monsters have got very grumpy.
They are fed up of people walking on top of them, and they are really fed up of people squashing them under big, heavy cars.
They want to live on the streets in the places that belong to them, the places where they used to live, a long time ago.
Every time you play Free All Monsters!, whether you are using the Magical Monstervision Machine or setting free your own monsters for other people to find, you are helping to make a world that has monsters living in it again.
And that is a much better place for people to live in as well!
Children, families and grown ups have been setting free monsters in Manchester, in London at Sandpit and Hide and Seek, in Bristol at igfest, in Austin, and in Leeds at Pavilion gallery.
10:20 in civic responsibility, Felt Tip Revolution, fun, Games, location, Nokia, participation, Pervasive Games, phones, play, Stories for Mixed Realities, Utopians for Real Change! | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)