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MWF’s Stories Unbound app – a world’s first?

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By Kaye Blum

Don't be afraid of the sadness

An image from my Ambient Literature series.

Researching emerging technologies as part of my Masters/PhD can really suck sometimes. Technology changes at such a rapid pace, it’s a challenge to stay on top of it. So ideas formulated and documented but not yet developed can very easily get pipped to the post by those with greater means (read: ‘money for development’).

This happened to me not so long ago as I was perusing the Melbourne Writers Festival program in search of sessions addressing new technologies. A tiny little article on page 26 titled iPhone apps announced two freebies. One was the “official MWF2011 app” which enables ticket purchase and program browsing directly from an iPhone. The other was called Stories Unbound, which the article claimed as “the world’s first social platform for stories”, enabling readers to access geo-tagged stories and writers to publish their own stories.

A loud sigh escaped when I read about the second app. It sounded quite similar to the one I have planned as part of my creative project. I headed straight to the iTunes store to check them out. I found the MWF2011 app (which proved extremely useful throughout the festival). But I couldn’t find the Stories Unbound app anywhere. This was on July 31. I posted a comment on MWF’s Facebook page enquiring about it, but got no reply. I signed up to their Twitter feed to watch for future announcements.

It wasn’t until 5th September, the day after the festival finished, that I stumbled upon an article on The Guardian’s technology blog reviewing 10 new apps, including Stories Unbound.

So I checked iTunes and there it was. The published release date was 31st August – six days into the festival and long after I’d given up on it actually existing at all. I searched back through the MWF Twitter feed to see if I’d missed an announcement, but found nothing. Then I went through my emails and found buried at the bottom of the Day 9 e-news bulletin (2nd September, two days before the festival’s end) a little news item titled Stories Unbound… Forever? It introduced the app as “the world’s first social-media platform for writing, publishing and of course, reading stories.”

Dammit I must have missed that article altogether. Or possibly didn’t even open the email.

Ironically, the Stories Unbound app was created by JWT Melbourne, an ad agency I’d done a long freelance stint at quite a few years ago. Obviously there must have been major delays in getting the app launched in time for the festival, which is a real shame.

It’s an interesting claim that Stories Unbound is a “world’s first”. I conducted extensive research last year to compile a list of locative media poetics and found projects such as textopia (Løvlie 2009), a mobile app which enabled the user to walk through a city and access literary texts relevant to certain places; Ourplace (Hamilton 2009) which converged locative media and online participation; and Neighborhoodnarratives (Iversen 2009), which used mobiles and the web to produce stories reflecting a particular city or neighbourhood. But these are not the only ones. I’m finding more all the time.

The advantage of finding MWF’s Stories Unbound app is that it’s not just research, it has been released to the big wide world and it’s actually local, unlike other publicly released apps which rely on a location across the globe to activate. So I can give this one a thorough road-test. Here goes…

As a reader, I have several options on how to choose a story. I can enter a title or author into the search box; or select the Search icon at the bottom for options such as searching by most popular, most recent, nearest me. Or I can filter by genre or writer. A quick way to find stories about my current location is via the pin icon, which brings up a Google map with book symbols denoting different stories. There’s also a list icon which enables you to scroll through story titles. Readers can rate stories out of five stars and share them via Facebook or Twitter, but can’t leave comments.

To write and upload a story via the app is relatively easy, reflecting a well-designed user interface (UI). A character count keeps tabs on the 50 character limit for the title and 4000 character limit for the body of the story. The only drawback: entering a story that’s a couple of hundred words or longer. A 4000 character limit is around 700-800 words – a decent length for a short story. But who wants to spend hours tapping in 4000 characters with one finger? Not me. I’d prefer to touch-type on my laptop and upload it from there. So I go to the Stories Unbound website to see if that’s possible.

From my laptop I discover lots of issues with the website’s UI and I can’t seem to upload my story. I switch from Chrome to Safari – same deal, so it’s not a browser issue. After a few hours of fiddling, it seems several scroll and submit buttons fall below the fold, which I can’t access on my laptop even though I have the screen open as wide and long as I can get it. Frustrated, I abandon my mission and decide to try again the next day when I can access a bigger computer screen to see if that resolves the issue.

It does. Well, most of the UI issues, anyway. I’m able to upload my story, but sorting out the location proves difficult.

Curiously, the world map on the website isn’t a Google map and the country and city names aren’t shown. So dragging and dropping the book icon becomes a little like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I tried going back into the app to see if I could modify the location with the more detailed Google map, but edits aren’t possible from the app – you can only edit from the website. So I tried again on the computer, opening a Google map to try matching up roughly where Frankfurt might be in the great black land mass of the Stories Unbound map. I’ve almost got it, but it’s still not accurate and it took ages.

There are a few other glitches with uploading from the website, such as selecting the genre. I did this several times, trying travel, then memoir, but it kept defaulting back to Children and Young Adults.

Overall, it was a great experience to try it and I really like the app. I just hope they can get the UI sorted for website access via a laptop to encourage a few longer stories to be uploaded. In terms of how it compares to the app I’m developing, there are several key differences. To find out what they are, keep an eye out for future posts J. And if you find any similar apps, please be kind and share – just leave a comment.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

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Bookcamp: the story of the future @ MWF2011

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By Kaye Blum

Retired content delivery devices find a new purpose.

Retired content delivery devices find a new purpose.

Describing itself as an ‘unconference’ with a mission to explore the future of new book technologies, this day-long session on Friday 2nd September was the highlight of the MWF program for me in terms of e-writing and e-books. Presented in partnership with if:book Australia, speakers included Kate Pullinger (author and co-creator of Inanimate Alice) from the UK, Kassia Krozser (booksquare.com) from the US, and Hugh McGuire (LibriVox, PressBooks) from Canada.

Facilitated by if:book’s Simon Groth, the ‘unconference’ format enabled participants to help decide the topics for discussion and set the agenda for the day. With three rooms available at the Wheeler Centre, sessions were divided by topics and designated a room.

For the first session, I decided to attend non-linear narratives, a topic set by participant Jeni Mawter, a writer and teacher. It was a lively discussion with participants providing some interesting examples of existing interactive and non-linear narratives. I’ve since connected with Jeni on Digital Book World’s forum via LinkedIn, where I found a robust discussion from a range of writers interested in this field, whether it be transmedia, multimedia, or interactive.

There was a 15 minute break allowing participants to choose their next session and make their way across three levels to the appropriate room. I chose a session hosted by Hugh McGuire, titled Why the internet and books will merge. McGuire has been researching and working in publishing and digital media for many years. He’d had a profound epiphany and once tweeted “the distinction between books and the internet is going to disappear” which created a tweeting backlash. He informed us that around 20% of the book market in the US is now e-books; in Australia it’s still only about 4%. While he acknowledged there is a different perceived value between a printed book and an e-book, “e-books are just html shrunk-wrapped into a different format,” he said.

An interesting statement, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I again mentioned the concept of ‘lean back’ and ‘lean forward’ technologies, which I believe is a major point of differentiation between e-books on tablets, compared to the web as viewed on a static desktop computer. Like smartphones, tablets have mobility and portability. They also have the ability to utilise GPS – locative media. This is one of the core aspects of the creative project for my Masters/PhD candidature. But more about that in upcoming blog posts.

The next session was titled Why do we read and what do new technologies offer stories, hosted by Kate Pullinger, co-creator of Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths. As an author of several printed books, she has been looking at new forms of narratives online for some time. Researching new technology has motivated her to ask: why do I read?

“I want a good story, good writing, to be taken away from myself – to be connected to the writing in a personal way,” she said. “It is something intangible, profound… This is the space I want to take you as a writer and where I want to go as a reader.”

She described a p-book (printed) as a content delivery system. I think that’s an entirely appropriate term for the printed book format; but I consider an e-book to be content and the e-reader or tablet as the delivery device. (Incidentally, I find it a little absurd that there isn’t yet a consistent way of spelling ebook, Ebook or e-book.)

Pullinger suggested asking: “When you move beyond the p-book, what are the elements that make it work?”

The discussion opened up to questions, with various threads on multimedia, non-linear narratives and aspects of gaming being raised.

“I am not a gamer,” Pullinger said. “I don’t want to make choices when reading, I want to be told a story.” This seems to be a significant point of differentiation between adult readers and the children’s book market. Children love the gaming element of interactive. Many adult readers want the immersive experience of reading a book without any distractions.

She explained that Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths were both collaborative processes. As she’s also an author of several p-book novels (her last one took her 12 years to write), she likes the contrast of collaboration when working on digital projects. But the creative process is different: “you have to get the script right first before you start making it,” she said.

Pullinger stresses the most important issues to consider are:

  1. How do you connect with your readers?
  2. How do you find your readers?

In retrospect (and because I’m writing this up over a week after the event and my hand-written notes are sometimes crap), I’m assuming this applies to writers, self-publishers, and publishers grappling with the new digital realms.

I found this session to be the most insightful, with valuable knowledge generously shared by a writer who has a wealth of experience both in print and digital media.

It was difficult to choose which room to venture into for the fourth session. Out of sheer complacency I stayed on in the same room for The value of interactive/ personalisation of stories. It was a reasonably interesting discussion which digressed in many directions, but my notes are sparse. I think I did more talking than writing in this one.

The final session for the day re-united all participants to discuss their findings. A valuable point was raised about education institutions and creative writing programs lagging behind in terms of new media. Actually I think the description was “they’ve got their heads stuck in the sand”. Given that I’m researching in this field at a university that’s supposedly pro-technology, my opinion of this is, well, varied. While it’s certainly not the case for journalism and communication courses, I think in terms of creative writing, it’s probably not far off the mark.

Another issue raised was the lack of enthusiasm or interest in digital/new media from mainstream publishers. There were no representatives from the majors at this conference. No surprises there.

IfBook is doing a great job of facilitating further conversations on the future of storytelling. They did a great job of organizing the day’s ‘unconference’, too. While I am still left with some of my core questions unanswered, I’ve realized over the past week that I’m not the only one. On that note, I’ll finish with a quote from another conference participant: “Every person in this room is the future of digital publishing.”

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

Information overload at MWF2011

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By Kaye Blum

The Forum Melbourne Writers Festival

The Forum, Melbourne, overlooking the site of the Melbourne Writers Festival. But the real forum for the festival was happening on Twitter.

There were quite a few panels featuring Jay Rosen at MWF2011 and most of them had, naturally, a journalism focus. While this is of interest to me, my research is more concerned with the impacts of new media technologies on writers of longer form non-fiction or fiction; and how specific groups can connect. But the MWF blurb for the session titled Information Overload got me in:

Has the endlessly ballooning internet sacrificed quality of information for quantity? Net culture researcher Suelette Dreyfus (Hacker), citizen journalism advocate Jay Rosen (Rebooting the News) and Jeremy Goldkorn (danwei.org) discuss the limits of helpful data and whether the net, while changing lives, is also changing our social structures. Chaired by Jeff Sparrow.

I wanted to take my iPad to all MWF sessions to take notes, but because I find it impossible to touch-type on its keypad, I stayed old-school with my notebook and pen. So here are some of the most relevant points I gleaned from my notes on this session (held on 28th August 2011 at Federation Square)…

Rosen quoted someone whose name I missed (sorry!): “There’s no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure”. He named Google, Technorati and Google’s blog search function as key filters. “It comes in waves,” he added; “the technology, the tools, the flood of information, then the filters.”

He commented on one of the things that is radically changing the world – the falling cost of like-minded people being able to find each other, share information, pool what they know and publish to the world. “The internet is extremely efficient at doing this. That’s powerful. When they discover they’re not the only ones, that’s liberating.”

It’s this last statement that has resonance for me. When I was a teenager (in a pre-internet era), music on the radio was my window to the world. Sometimes I found song lyrics that created a connecting moment and made me realize I wasn’t alone, wasn’t the only one feeling this way. A few books did the same thing, but the school library was fairly limited.

These little connecting moments, even if they come from across the world, can be a lifeline for some. The internet turns these connecting moments into real dialogue, real connections.

As Rosen noted, social revolutions can happen now that people can connect with other like-minded people. “Information is a measure of uncertainty reduced” he said. I tweeted that last line and got some challenging replies.

Speaking of Twitter and connections, #MWF2011 was the first time I’ve engaged in this platform during a conference and I found it an enlightening experience. It was invaluable being part of the festival community through this channel and I met many like-minded people as a consequence. But the event’s Tweeting Award goes to Charlotte Harper @ebookish – her supreme two-finger typing on an iPad provided a constant Twitter stream of awesome quotes from every event she attended.

Another unexpected delight from tuning into Twitter was scoring a free ticket (thanks @kateyharc) to the MWF session, A Long Way To Go: Why We Still Need Feminism. Sophie Cunningham’s fact-loaded essay was both frightening and fascinating; but also inspiring. You can watch it here thanks to SlowTV.

By the end of the festival, I found myself suffering a serious case of information overload. I’ve been obsessively addicted to reading Twitter updates to the point that it has become a major distraction. I’ve pretty much ignored Facebook, my usual social media platform of choice. But now I’ve had to switch off all channels so I can try to get some work done. On with it…

A summary of Bookcamp – The Future of Storytelling is up next.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

Written by Kaye Blum

September 6, 2011 at 5:41 am

Cool new toys at MWF2011

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By Kaye Blum

MWF2011 - New News: Cool New Toys panelists

MWF2011 – New News: Cool New Toys panelists

I’ve just attended my first session at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. Weeks ago, I scoured the program and selected sessions with a technology theme. This session was free and booked out quickly, so I’m glad I got in early. The focus was on iPads and other tablets and their impact on journalism.

The panel comprised David Higgins (News Limited’s innovations editor), Craig Butt (digital producer at Melbourne Press Club), William Powers (media and technology journalist and author of Hamlet’s Blackberry) and Stephen Hutcheon (tablet editor of the Sydney Morning Herald). It was chaired by Swinburne senior lecturer Andrew Dodd.

Craig Butt opened with an overview of some of the most innovative tools for tech-savvy journalists: Tweetdeck; Audioboo, which can record up to five minutes of audio for instant uploading; and Qik, which enables you to upload, tag and share video recordings taken from smartphones.

David Higgins talked about aggregators: Feedly; Storify (which I’ve already used and love); and GoogleFusion, which is used by The Guardian. “Professional journalism is now in the hands of everyday people,” he said. Indeed it is.

Stephen Hutcheon talked about the non-linear nature of tablets, claiming it is a “lean-back device” that solves the problem of the small screen on mobile phones. “Most people are looking at it in bed,” he added. He believes the future is in bespoke app’s such as the one created for Le Tour de France and ABC’s food app. “This is where the real growth prospects are.”

William Powers noted that it’s hard to multi-task on tablets, which he believes is a good thing, because it helps maintain focus (unlike the multiple distractions online). “We need to be more strategic about how we use these tools,” he added.

My favourite quote from this session, from Powers again: “We are at the very beginning of this [digital] revolution… it’s exciting… but we’ve got a long way to go.”

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

Written by Kaye Blum

August 26, 2011 at 4:07 am

Seeking writers unbound at MWF 2011

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By Kaye Blum

This year’s Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) is themed ‘Stories Unbound’. It’s a delightfully positive spin on the status quo of the publishing industry as it edges tentatively into the digital era with (hopefully) a little less confusion, fear and foreboding than the music industry experienced not so long ago.

I’ve regularly attended writers’ festivals in various Australian locations including Brisbane, Byron Bay and Melbourne. In recent years there’s usually been a session or two on e-books and what’s going to happen to our beloved paperback.

Much of the focus has been on the current issues facing the publishing and book retail industries. And there are many challenges, including digital rights management (DRM), the different formats required for the range of tablets (or e-readers) available, pricing models and distribution.

You only need to be the owner of a tablet yourself to know the current limitations of the Australian e-book market. And if you are a tablet owner, you’re one of the rapidly growing masses, according to the stats in this promo blurb for AIMIA’s upcoming seminar on Tablet Wars:

“It is forecast that 5.5 million Australians or 3 million households will own a tablet by 2015…. The rate of adoption is twice as fast as smartphones, broadband and other technologies that have preceded it.”

These stats are from Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook 2011-2015, due for release some time in August 2011, which will include a focus on tablet devices. Hopefully the report will also include some up-to-date statistics on e-book sales compared to printed books in Australia, which I’m currently struggling to find. (If anyone has any data, please be kind and share.)

But there’s no point having the tablet if we don’t have the content. And to me, the tablet is more than just a device to transform a printed book into a PDF. It’s an entirely new world for readers – and writers.

As writers, we are no longer limited to words on paper. With smartphones and tablets, we can integrate sound, moving image, location and real-time interaction from anywhere in the world as narrative devices. Storytelling is literally leaping from the page to become story sharing across media platforms and across the globe.

At this year’s MWF, I want to find out how writers feel about the potential of the e-book. Are they mainly concerned about piracy and how they might protect their hard-earned income? Are they ambivalent about making any kind of change to the structure and methods of their storytelling? Are they interested in developing new skills to explore the possibilities of interactive or non-linear narrative? Do they think the title ‘content creator’ holds less esteem than ‘author’? Are they – like me – excited by the limitless potential of stories unbound?

If you’re a writer of any genre, I’d love to hear what you think.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

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