ewritersjourney

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X Media Lab & KR8V masterclasses – Sydney, June 2013

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By Kaye Blum

Harbourview Terrace, MCA

View from the Harbourview Terrace, MCA

For the past five years I’ve been trying to attend a X Media Lab (the “X” in X Media Lab stands for cross-platform, cross-disciplinary, and cross-cultural) conference, but for various reasons, missed out. This year it was back on home turf to celebrate its tenth anniversary after holding events in over a dozen countries.

Founded by Brendan Harken, X Media Lab events have covered as much ground in digital topics as it has geographical locations. Themes have included global media cultures and ideas; the future of journalism; animation and games; location based services; storytelling in the digital age; digital music; cross-platform and immersive media; and, in Switzerland this month, transmedia (wish I could be there). 

This year’s event comprised a highlights day conference designed for “time-poor” creative industries executives, held at the stunning Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA’s) Harbourview Terrace; plus two days of KR8V masterclasses, held at the University of NSW College of Fine Arts (COFA).

The highlights day featured over a dozen national and international academics, digital professionals and artists; each limited to a snappy 20 minute presentation (the full list of keynote speakers can be found here). Here are my picks:

Kristen Taylor, Digital Community Strategist for Al Jazeera (previously at The Huffington Post, FourSquare and the BBC New York) shared some poignant insights to why a digital community needs narratives. She talked about context and curating an archive that accrues value over time, such as tumblrs by The New York Times and National Geographic’s ‘Found’. Tumblr and Instagram are her preferred social media channels.

Key take-out from Kristen: “The internet continues to run on kindness… networks have self-healing properties – they heal themselves through kindness.”

Kate McQuillen from Mememe Productions had just won an interactive Emmy award for dirtgirlworld, an “organically designed transmedia project” including an animated kids TV series, merchandise, website, live events, garbage trucks, seeds, and more. There are only eight Emmys in Australia so it’s a fantastic achievement. It was fascinating to hear her journey from having the seed of an idea based on core values such as love and sustainability, and meeting future colleagues in the loo at X Media Lab ten years ago.

Key take-out from Kate: “We wear our hearts on our sleeves and don’t apologise for being ‘out there’.”

Author and presenter Dominic Knight talked about story and structure; the hero’s journey (Robert McKee, Joseph Conran) and the importance of knowing the rules, but where you can innovate.

Key take-out from Dom: “Stories are the conceptual framework that help us understand the world.”

Alvin Wang Graylin, CEO of minfo (China’s leading mobile search service), and founder of Guanxi Inc (a location-based social discovery platform), provided an overview of what it takes to be a tech entrepreneur. And judging by the long list of criteria he shared, there’s obviously a lot more required than just having the idea.

Executing the idea is only the beginning, he explained. A strong work ethic is critical, and being prepared to do the stuff that no one wants to do. Self-esteem, focus, creativity, patience, selling acumen, passion, in-depth industry knowledge, and having a strong team around you were just some of the points he covered. Having savings in the bank and being in a position to take risks were other crucial points – ones that often get ignored, usually to the detriment of the start-up.

To help get investors on board, Alvin provided a list of critical questions that need to be clearly and confidently answerable.

Key take-out from Alvin: “Be healthy – it gets tiring.”

I attended Alvin’s Masterclass on Saturday to hear him share a generous amount of detail on creating integrated mobile marketing campaigns. He also provided some terrific insights to the mobile market in China.

As a digital producer, Galvin Scott Davis has developed top lifestyle apps, business apps and kids games. He is the founder of Protein One, a boutique digital design and development agency in Sydney. His presentation opened with the question: are you a “why” or a “why not”? Creatives realise early on that they are “whys” – they’re always asking questions even as young children, he explained, then they realise it’s more fun to be a “why not”.

It was asking “why not” that pushed him through the challenges of creating a children’s app that required a technology that hadn’t yet been developed. (This process was explained in his masterclass.)

Key take-out from Galvin: “Creatives have imagination, innovation, and talent. We forget to have bravery, stubbornness, and persistence. We need all of the above.”

And one more: “if you’ve got stories, don’t let other people saying ‘no’ get in the way…. Embrace your hurdles – it can be dangerous but rewarding.”

Galvin also delivered an information-packed Masterclass on Saturday, called Reversing The Publishing Model – How To Reinvent Your Story Across Digital Media To Getting A Book Deal. Using the creation of his Dandelion e-book app as a case study, he generously shared the process from concept development through to reaching the Number 1 downloaded app in the Australian AppStore, then scoring a 3-book print publishing deal with Random House. It was fascinating, informative and inspiring stuff. 

Adam Good, director of digital media and content at Telstra Media, also had plenty to share in his presentation. He explained his concern with creative leadership in business and the two areas where he believes more training is needed. Strong leadership is one mandatory skillset; creativity is the other. “You need to flex both of those muscles to succeed” he said, naming Steve Jobs as an example. 

Adam believes there are not enough CEOs in Australia that have both of these attributes, with many coming up through financial management but lacking the sales/marketing/artistic side. He said he sees a lot of businesses failing due to this; there are not enough of these type of leaders here. I wanted to ask him why – is it because our culture places less value on creativity? If you’ve grown up enduring more than an occasional ribbing for being creative like I have, then it’s easy to assume so. But that’s a debate for another time…

The MCA Vivid Festival

The MCA illuminated for Vivid Festival

Back to Adam’s presentation, which moved on to Telstra’s future vision. There were many informative stats but 20 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time and the presentation ended prematurely, with the promise of providing the rest via a Twitter link (which I followed up on). 

Key take-out from Adam: “We need to change the mindset of people who don’t pay for content.”

Michael Naimark, media artist and part of the original design team for the MIT Media Laboratory; and Horst Hörtner, founding member and Director of the Ars Electronica Futurelab, a world leading interdisciplinary research project uniting art, technology and society in Austria, both shared some valuable insights in their presentations.

Key take-out from Michael: “Wearable tech is inevitable.”

Key take-out from Horst: “The next revolution: key technology that has the potential to change fundamental paradigms of our society…. 3D printing, we believe, is the next revolution.”

Vivid Festival and the International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) were held in Sydney at the same time as X Media Lab and the city was literally bursting with creative energy. By night, Vivid’s stunning light projections transformed the Opera House, the MCA and other city buildings into dazzling palettes of colour and light. The post-conference networking event on the MCA’s balcony provided a spectacular view and an impressive end to an information-intense day.  

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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.

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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