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May 18 2011

And the BAFTA goes to ... an app?

MalcomTucker.pngFor the first time ever, an app has been nominated for a TV British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award. The Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone app, which has a story line based on a character of a popular BBC series called "The Thick of It" and a subsequent book "The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Files," was launched in December. In a post for The Bookseller, Charlotte Williams talked to Henry Volans (@FaberDigital), head of the digital arm of UK publisher Faber & Faber and part of the team responsible for the app. In the interview, Volans responded to the nomination:

It's really thrilling. When we made this app we wanted to do more than translate a book to an app, but made something that made sense of the platform and I think this nomination shows we've gone some way to doing that.

I reached out to Volans via an email interview to find out more about the app and the nomination. (The BAFTA awards will be announced May 22.) Our interview follows.

How did the app get started?

HenryVolans.pngHenry Volans: It started with a question that's quite common but to which the answer is usually "no." We looked at the book and said "can we make an app from this?" Because the material is so rich, and I had the freedom at Faber Digital to develop something new — and on a schedule independent of the book — it got off the ground quickly. The project also worked because we went straight back to the creative team — Armando Iannucci and his four co-writers — rather than shoehorn the book into an app template.

What specific characteristics of the app do you think led to the BAFTA nomination?

Henry Volans: I suspect that it stands out from other TV-related apps because it is not a soundboard or promotional add-on. It immerses the user in Tucker's world. And it tells a story that is completely routed in the TV series but which is made for the form of the app. New material includes the SMS messages, recent calls screen, @pulsefinger Twitter feed, and crucially the voice messages from Tucker, Ollie Reeder, and Nicola Murray.

Being the first app to be nominated for a BAFTA, do you view your nomination as an anomaly? Or is it an indication that traditional media channels are blurring?

Henry Volans: I don't think it will prove to be an anomaly. I'm convinced that there will be more and more blurring of traditional media channels, even if this is just a first example at the edges. It is the first app ever nominated for a TV BAFTA, but apps have won in the separate video games ceremony before.

This interview was edited and condensed.


March 02 2011

Media old and new are mobilized for effective causes

The bright light of social media has attracted the attention of followers in every discipline, from media and academia to corporate marketing and social causes. There was something for everybody today in the talk by researcher Sasha Costanza-Chock at Harvard's Berkman center on Transmedia Mobilization. He began with a stern admonition to treat conventional and broadcast media as critical resources, and moved ultimately to a warning to treat social networks and other peer-driven media as critical resources. I hope I can reproduce at least a smidgen of the insights and research findings he squeezed into forty-five minute talk (itself a compressed version of a much longer presentation he has delivered elsewhere).

Control the message, control the funding

Consultants (not normally known for welcoming a wide range of outside opinions themselves) have been browbeating the corporations and governments over social media, trying to get it through their noggins that Twitter and Facebook are not merely a new set of media outlets to fill with their PR and propaganda. Corporations and governments are notoriously terrified of losing control over "the message," but that is the only way they will ever get a message out in the new world of peer-to-peer communications. According to Costanza-Chock, non-profit social causes suffer from the same skittishness. "Some of them will go to the bitter end trying to maintain top-down control," he laughed. But "the smart ones" will get the point and become equal participants in forums that they don't try to dominate.

Another cogent observation, developed further in his discussion with the audience, drew a line between messaging and funding. Non-profits depend on foundations and other large donors, and need to demonstrate to them that the non-profit has actually done something. "We exchanged messages with 100,000 participants on MySpace" comes in sounding worth a lot less than, "We shot three documentaries and distributed press releases to four hundred media outlets." Sasha would like to see forums on social media for funders as well as the non-profits they fund. All sides need to learn the value of being peers in a distributed system, and how to use that role effectively.

Is the Internet necessary?

Sasha's key research for this talk involved the 2006 pro-immigrant demonstrations that played a role in bringing down the Sensenbrenner Bill that would have imposed severe restrictions on citizens in an attempt to marginalize and restrict the movements of immigrants. The protests filled the streets of major cities across the country, producing the largest demonstrations ever seen on U.S. soil. How did media play a role?

Sasha started by seemingly downplaying the importance of Internet-based media. He went over recent statistics about computer use, broadband access, and cell phone ownership among different demographics and showed that lower-class, Spanish-speaking residents (the base of the protestors in Los Angeles, where he carried out his research) were woeful under-represented. It would appear that the Internet was not a major factor in the largest demonstrations in U.S. history. But he found that they played a subtle role in combination with traditional media.

Immigrants are also largely shut out of mainstream media; it's a red-letter day when a piece about their lives or written from their point of view appears on page 10 of the local paper. Most of the mobilization, therefore, Sasha attributed to Spanish talk radio, which Los Angeles immigrants turned on all day and whose hosts made a conscious decision to work together and promote social action around the Sensenbrenner Bill.

Sasha also discovered other elements of traditional media, such as a documentary movie about Latino protests in 1960s Los Angeles that aired shortly before the demonstrations. And here's where social media came in: high school students who played roles in the documentary posted clips of their parts on MySpace. There were other creative uses of YouTube and the social media sites to spread the word about protests. Therefore, the Internet can't be dismissed. It could not have done much without material from traditional media to draw on, but the traditional media would not have had such a powerful effect without the Internet either.

One interesting aspect of Sasha's research concerned identity formation. You can't join with people in a cause unless you view the group as part of your identity, and traditional media go a long way to helping people form their identities. Just by helping to make a video, you can start to identify with a cause. It's interesting how revolutionaries in countries such as Tunisia and Egypt formed identities as a nation in opposition to their leaders instead (as most dictators strive to achieve) in sympathy with them. So identity formation is a critical process, and we don't know yet how much social networks can do to further it.

In conclusion, it seems that old and new media will co-exist for an indefinite period of time, and will reinforce each other. Interesting questions were raised in the audience about whether the new environment can create meeting spaces where people on opposing sides can converse productively, or whether it will be restricted to the heavily emotion-laden and one-sided narratives that we see so much of nowadays. One can't control the message, but the message can sure be powerful.

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