Not Your Ordinary PICNIC: Turning Points, Part 2

PICNIC 02Onwards to part two of the first day of the PICNIC conference schedule–this section of three consecutive panels and presentations was all about the shifts in demographics: the role that race and ethnic background play in producing theatre on Broadway and in emerging online communities, and the role of a changing audience and the way that audience divides its attention on “traditional” media.

First off was a presentation by renowned producer David Binder, who talked us through his experience bringing Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun back to Broadway for a modern day revival. As  A Raisin in the Sun is a classic African-American play, Binder wanted to honor its roots, which to him meant that he had to find an African-American director. Broadway isn’t exactly brimming with diversity (of the 40 directors active on Broadway last season, 36 were men and only one person of color), so Binder had his work cut out for him.

What followed was a mildly interesting relay of his quest for a director (he ended up working with the then relatively unknown Kenny Leon) and cast (he managed to snag Sean Combs aka P Diddy for the lead role). I think my appreciation of Binder’s excited monologue was slightly hampered by the fact that my knowledge of all things Broadway is virtually nonexistent and the fact that as a European, I’m a lot less used to such a heavy emphasis being placed on race, so some of his points sounded (literally) rather foreign to me.

On a personal note, Binder gets a lot of credit from me for having the creative guts to bring The New Island Festival to New York City. The festival is based on two important Dutch theater festivals, Oerol and De Parade. From what I gathered from his talk, reviving a play like Raisin in the Sun took a lot more guts than that.

The next session consisted of a panel discussion on the Arab Social Web and was led by Donatella della Ratta who is the Arab Media & Development Manager at Creative Commons. She asked her two guests, Moeed Ahmad (Head of New Media for Al Jazeera) and Mohamad Najem  (founder of Social Media Exchange in Beirut) for examples and case studies of how social media are changing the way news is delivered in the Arab world.

Ahmad told us that Al Jazeera, originally with a strong focus on broadcasting, is looking heavily into the “distributed distribution of news and news consumption” in several different ways. They have recently opened a creative commons repository (available at where a lot of their content is being  offered for free reuse. For a news media outlet, you could almost call this revolutionary. One of the interesting effects it had is that a lot of media you find on Wikipedia is from Al Jazeera, because press agencies like Reuters or AP all have restrictions on the use of their material.

When they discovered young people were interested in interactivity, they created a place for them to do so at Al Jazeera Talk (only available in Arabic). Bloggers from all over the world placed their stories on Al Jazeera Talk, making it a huge success and spawning a lot of interaction between these widespread members of the Arab online community.

140charactersTwitter is also central to Al Jazeera’s approach to utilizing social media. The motto “If it doesn’t fit in 140 characters, it’s not worth saying” is indicative of the shift in news consumption from long and in-depth to short but frequent. Twitter also played a key role in the micro-reporting on what happened in the Gaza conflict (dubbed War 2.0 by Ahmad) and during the Iran elections. This is why Al Jazeera makes heavy use of Twitter, even directly from the newsroom. The Arab world now even has it’s own Twitter: WatWet.

Mohamed Najem provided some complementary examples, mostly from his own experiences during the Lebanon elections. Lebanon has a completely closed media circuit, meaning that all media channels are owned by political parties or the government. This means that there is a clear shift towards the blogosphere going on in Lebanese journalism, the focal points of which are the websites ShareK961 and Ushahidi where people (both civilians and professional journalists) can file reports of their experiences, which are then aggregated geographically and topically.

It’s impressive to see social media having such a profound effect on these environments, especially in places where freedom of the press is something completely different from what we’re commonly used to seeing.

Closing off this segment of three presentations on changes brought on by social media and the changing demand of audiences were Matt Locke (Commissioning Editor of British Channel 4 Education) and Jeremy Ettinghausen (Digital Publisher at Penguin Books). Both Channel 4 and Penguin are known for having utilized several different forms of new media, including ARGs and ARGish experiences, to either entertain or educate audiences. They gave a presentation on this subject by posing six examples of new ways of telling stories and then distilling six concise conclusions or lessons from them.

 1)       You Suck at Photoshop

Widely known in internet circles, You Suck at Photoshop is the dramatic yet humorous story of a guy who’s venting about his marital problems, cleverly discovered as a Photoshop tutorial spread over a series of YouTube movies. It’s a great example of how the internet and all the social media platforms available nowadays offer new ways for storytelling and how creative people put them to highly entertaining use.

2)       Surrender Control

Surrender Control is an attempt to create a theater piece played out over SMS, acted out by you. It consisted of instructions sent out to you, the “actor”, like “Stare at things, not people” or “Talk to a person of the same sex”, becoming more intricate (“knock someone over and make it look like an accident”) and subtle (“call a number one digit different from that of a friend and if it is answered, keep talking”). Those familiar with the SF0 Project might see some parallels.

3)       We Tell Stories

We Tell Stories was a succesful attempt by Penguin and Six to Start to get people to “look beyond the book”, using several different types of new media to tell a story. Penguin and Six to Start had players following characters on Google Maps, seeing a story unfold on Twitter,  watching a novel being written LIVE as it was typed by the author, and many other “novel” ways to reach audiences. We Tell Stories got millions of visits and was a big hit with the gaming audience, because they liked experiencing stories told in a familiar medium.

4)       I am Cherry Girl

I am Cherry Girl is a global project by MTV, presenting an open, loose approach to using social media to tell a story. Cherry Girl is a fictional character: there’s no focus on a big narrative, but instead it’s all about a strong character. Cherry Girl is on Twitter, Facebook, has a blog and interacts with everyone who wants to interact with her.

5)       Yu-Gi-Oh

The vastly popular children’s Anime franchise Yu-Gi-Oh was originally part of a Japanese manga in the 90’s, based around gaming and gameplay. The franchise spawned a ton of different spinoffs, ranging from a set of gaming collector cards (with over 18 billion sold worldwide) to a TV series and games on all available gaming platforms. It started out as a story, and branched out into a huge range of immersive merchandising. The interesting part of it is that Yu-Gi-Oh’s best watched content is fan productions (like Yu-Gi-Oh The Abridged Series) and the UGC Card Creator tool. This has allowed fans to get deeper into the story and immerse themselves more fully.

6)       Smokescreen

Another Six to Start project, Smokescreen is a web-based game consisting of 14 episodes that can be played in whatever order, style and method you want. It is based on the premise that the year of “peak attention” is now in the past and attention span will dwindle from now on. This means that sometimes you will want to “snack a story”, while other times, you might want to binge on it. Smokescreen provides a way to do this.

After these six very short and concise presentations, Locke and Ettinghausen produced the following 6 lessons. How do we tell new stories?

1)       Hide stories in unexpected places;
2)       Give yourself ridiculous constraint – creativity strives when you set boundaries;
3)       Experiment outside your comfort zone – encourage people to do new things;
4)       Invent a character without a storyline (have the storyline be made up as you go, based on your strong character);
5)       Give fans stuff to play with; and
6)       Create stories you can binge on whenever you want.

PICNIC 03After these conclusions, we were treated with another much needed break to digest all the impressions of the previous sessions. This break was of course spent in the lovely PICNIC club, where refreshments very fitting to the picnic setting were consumed at one of the many scattered picnic tables.

After the break, there were two more sessions, the first being The Blurring Test: The Traits Formerly Known as Human, by Peggy Weil, a digital media artist and Professor of Interactive Media at USC. The so called Blurring Test is a modern day’s Turing test and can be taken at The test challenges people to convince Mr. Mind they are human, and so far no one has passed (it has been online since 1998).

What makes us human? In the past, people might have said “I can beat you[, a machine] at chess”, yet since about a decade, this is not a valid way to discern humans from machines anymore, and many other ways have become equally redundant. If the body and mind are becoming more and more like a computer (and vice versa) or can be programmed like one, how can we differentiate ourselves from machines? We need a test!

Many tests have been devised in the past, both real and fiction, like testing for an involuntary physiological respons (the Voight-Kampff test from Bladerunner) or a scientific blood test like the one Gaius Baltar devised in Battlestar Galactica. Then there was the Turing test.  Turing predicted that in the future, computers would be able to emulate humans so precisely, that in an interrogation, an interrogator would never have more than 70% chance of making a right identification, and he thought up a concept for a test to be able to make this distinction.

The Turing test is about machine progress: a machine that convinces a human judge that it is, or is indistinguishable from, a human. The Blurring test is an inversion of this test: it is a machine judging if the input it receives is from a human. It’s an art project, meant to make people think about AI and its possible role in our future. The Eliza Effect (named after the first ever AI-based chatbot Eliza, in 1966, which, incidentally is now available in the form of an iPhone app) dictates that we unconsciously think of the behavior of computers and AI of being analogous of human behavior. Mr Mind and the Blurring Effect are an attempt of bringing that comparison into the conscious.

 Finally, closing off the first day of the PICNIC conference and the Turning Points theme was a joint session by creative visionary Michael B. Johnson from Pixar and anthropologist Gentry Underwood from IDEO. The session was entitled Social Networking Meets Social Engineering and was all about their combined experiences of making people work smarter, faster and more collaboratively.

Johnson started by telling us that one of the key philosophies at Pixar is that there should be a peer relationship between the creative and technical people. That means recognizing that filmmaking is fundamentally collaborative. Pixar has been working on several tools to propagate this philosophy and to encourage collaboration with all their staff.

 Johnson gave us a demo of their software Review Sketch, which was so secret that he asked everyone to not record it in any way, because his bosses would kill him if it appeared online. This sounded to me like a surefire way to ensure that the entire presentation would be on YouTube the minute he finished giving it, but a quick search suggests that is not (yet) the case. Review Sketch is a tool that people can use to annotate and draw over bits of animation directly, that keeps track of different versions of these animations of clips, submits them to people for review, etc. All in all it looked pretty nifty and I bet that the same concept applied outside the realm of animation could be at least as successful.

Another example of how Pixar promotes its way of thinking was the approach they (incidentally) took to trying to get their artists to adopt digital tools versus the paper-based designing they were used to. They started out by offering them training in tools like Photoshop during work hours and selling them hardware at a discount price so they could practice. But what really gave the whole advancement from paper to digital a HUGE boost was something very unexpected.

One of their employees took a picture of himself in a funny pose on one of the office couches, making fun of a colleague who regularly slept there. He sent this picture over the office e-mail system, thereby sparking a creative buzz amongst his colleagues to take this picture and photoshop the guy into all sorts of funny and compromising positions and locations. Johnson showed us over 30 hilarious examples of what they came up with, and the output was of a higher and higher quality as they taught themselves and each other new techniques and abilities. The Photoshop exchange provides a magnificent demonstration of how social interaction can be of great use on a professional/creative level.

 Underwood then made the leap from the creative industry to other industries by showcasing the system he helped design at IDEO called TheTube. TheTube was born out of a brainstorming session with the following premise within IDEO, where people work on numerous large-scale, international projects:

How might we:

-          empower teams to learn from one another;
-          help offices become more connected;
-          collaborate globally around shared themes; and
-          reveal individual talents.

Underwood’s main insight was that technology is not the most important aspect of collaboration.  Innovations like telepresence don’t solve all your problems, it’s about knowledge sharing. TheTube is an intranet system based around the principles of social media.

Participants all have their own “people page”, a personal profile where they can share professional and personal data. These pages, very much like social networks like Facebook, are there to have people understand who their colleagues are and where they are coming from. TheTube also consists of project pages, a Wiki and a blogging system used to publicly publish content on your profile.

The system started to work when IDEO found ways for people to take ownership of their people pages: the number of edits on those pages started rising. One of the successful ways to get this to happen was to send everyone daily aggregates of all the blogs on the network. This encouraged people to write more, because they like for what they wrote to be seen by their colleagues. Another interesting way to encourage activity on TheTube was to fit their cafes and other social rooms with screens that cycled through random people’s status messages. This too encouraged people to update more often.

The principles that TheTube was built on (intuitive interfaces, integrated resources, pointers to people and frequent iteration) sound very well thought-through, and the results that IDEO achieved by using it are mind-blowing, something a lot of companies could learn from.

This concludes the first day of PICNIC and the Turning Points theme, keep watching this space for more on PICNIC’s second and third days!

Images courtesy of Denkbeeldenstorm.


  1. matlock

    Hi there,

    thanks a lot for your write-up of my talk with Jeremy at Picnic. The site you link to for C4 education is 4learning, which is a commercial spinoff sold to Espresso before Alice Taylor and I started our new games-orientated commissioning. It has nothing to do with our new commissions – can you change the link to instead?



  2. Michael Andersen

    Thanks Matt, and sorry for the confusion — the link has been fixed. I had a wonderful time following along with Bow Street Runner, Routes, and Smokescreen, and look forward to more great Channel 4 projects in the future.