This is the text of my keynote from the NPOX10 Festival, held in September 2010 in Hilversum, Holland

Hello and thank you for inviting me to open this exciting two-day event. I am speaking to you as a woman who wears several hats, including the two that I’m going to focus on today: I am a social psychologist with a particular interest in how information, attitudes and behaviours spread around the Web, and I am a broadcaster and journalist with an interest in the intersection between digital – or ‘interactive’ – media and traditional – or ‘passive’ – media. I like to think that the two hats have a special kind of synergy: an under-the-hood understanding of what makes information influential and compelling, combined with an understanding of the broad library of new pipelines you can tell stories with. Because after all – whether you’re involved in drama, current affairs, entertainment, sports or news – what you as broadcasters are is storytellers. And what seems to be clear is that you think you have no idea how to tell stories to the people taking part in the virtual revolution.

I use that phrase “Virtual Revolution” precisely because it’s the main reason I’m here. I recently presented a 4-part documentary series for the BBC about the social, political, economic and psychological effects of the last twenty years of the Web. It was a television and radio programme that had a very strong presence on traditional media – prime-time terrestrial transmission and BBC World Service – and a strong presence online – using blogs, video diaries, Twitter, Flickr, experiments and digital downloads. The series, whilst in the end intended for linear consumption, was inherently of the web. This to me was essential, and one of the reasons why, amidst finishing a PhD, I agreed to do the project.

As the series was being filmed, I became acutely aware that there were two audiences: the online community who would help us develop the themes we would explore, and the traditional viewing public who, it was felt by the people inside the BBC, would demand ‘grabby’ content, and would be the data points that would be turned into metrics of our success or failure.

I believed it was a ‘wikiseries’ with all that implies: an open and collaborative project that integrates the crowd’s input and rewards them with online reputation points, plus content that they could download and remix in order to tell their story of the Web using some of the most important voices in its history. Here’s an example of what I mean.

I recorded an interview with author, comedian and Internet champion Stephen Fry, the British comedian, in a studio brief interview and then the rushes were uploaded onto the web in unbranded, raw form.

Now, here’s another interview with another contributor, journalist Charles Leadbeater. Again, the rushes were uploaded onto the Web in raw form.

Now, here’s what happened when one of our community members took this content – free to download and mash-up – and created his own story:

This was a hugely exciting outcome, and one which I, as a digital content junkie, felt was touching a nerve of the cross-over between traditional and digital media.

However, one day, when I was uploading a photo I had taken on the shoot to my Flickr site, or dispatching another update to my Twitter followers, the director of photography asked: “Why?”

Different audiences, Different needs

For him and the rest of the crew, I was doing a lot of extra work that was distracting from the real reason we were there: to create a piece of non-interactive storytelling that would broadcast to a mainstream audience in a primetime slot. For me, I was contributing to an interactive archive of a process that explained our thesis about the social, political, economic and psychological impact of the world wide web. When I jokingly described him as one of the “linear people”, he looked utterly bewildered, as if I’d created a category out of thin air. I had, of course, assumed that, because I am a digital media junkie, that media consumers had already graduated to a multi­platform world, and that the old ways of storytelling were becoming obsolete.

I’d now like to amend that assumption, to create a caveat: media consumers are graduating to a multiplatform world. It’s a work in progress. But this is the thing that you, as broadcasters, are struggling with. Why? Because your audiences want something different. The traditional media audience wants a good story, wants something that tells them something they didn’t know. It’s a very personal experience, reflecting their interests and beliefs, but one that is important to them as individuals, not to them as social beings.

This is where the other audience is different from the first. The online audience also wants a good yarn, but in addition they want to be part of the experience that gives them the sense that they’re the hero, that they are inherently involved in the story arc. They want their interests and beliefs to have an impact on what happens, they want to share this with their friends, and to be part of the group. In short, the digital media audience consumes its output to create a universe in which they are at the centre. This audience is actively taking part in a phenomenon that has only been mainstreamed because of the democratisation of publishing, personal archiving and hyper-connectivity that is built into the Web: this audience wants to build a Cult of Me.

The Cult of Me incubator

The Web challenges us to question some of the fundamental ideas about our psychology: what does it mean to our sense of identity to live in public and to have all our actions archived? What does it mean for our sense of self-worth to have tens of thousands of people wanting to know what we ate for breakfast? What does it say about how we value friendship when we can have 700 “friends” on a social network? What does it mean for civil society when we use the computer to mediate our social interactions, rather than getting together face-to-face? What are our lives on the screen doing to who we are and how we feel we fit into the world?

The web is a co-production environment: although there are gatekeepers who serve to curate and edit content for specific audiences – newspapers are a good analogy here – when it comes to our individual experience on the Web, we create a first-person archive of an idealised “me”. It’s vanity publishing, pure and simple. I’ll, appropriately, use me as an example.

I proactively flood the Web with a carefully curated selection of professional and personal information through my blog, emails, photographs, podcast, Facebook account and Twitter feed. I have popular public accounts with the major social networks and am an early adopter of trying new Web applications. My motivations for using these services are fourfold:

  • Self-preservation: if I do it, other people can’t publish things about me that contradict the carefully constructed picture that all of my online ephemera says about me;
  • Self-promotion: I use the tools that reach the widest possible audience to announce new content, ideas and projects. Like most of us, I only publish the good side of me; you don’t see when I’ve failed or when I look my worst, unless it is or will be used retroactively as evidence for how I’ve moved forward and how, ultimately, I have succeeded;
  • Narcissism: the social feedback gives me the neurological buzz described by researchers; 
  • To archive my offline life: where I have been, what I have been thinking and how I have been feeling; to look back is to revisit the highs and the lows of my life over the past decade.

Our online self is made up of photos, tags, blog posts and other artifacts – including Facebook groups we join, the media content that we share or comment on and the IM conversations we have during transmission of a TV programme – that define who we wish to be and how we wish to be perceived by our online audience.

Performing Me

Our audience. This is the most important part of the Cult of Me, and the piece of the puzzle that the Web facilitates. This audience is fractured, but it is perceived as very personalised: author Clay Shirky defines it as “many to many,” rather than the “one to many” model that traditional broadcast medium maintained throughout the 20th century. It gives each of us the sense that we are able to gather a posse around us, that we are so interesting that we can have followers, people who prop us up, who think we’re cool, who’ll join our gang.

We perform to this audience, by creating the story of ourselves. But, the online performance is a difficult marriage between public and private, consisting of the deluge of information we put online and what we do as we navigate the World Wide Web. We have a tendency to share – more openly and honestly online because we sense an absence of consequence – information about ourselves with the people in our online networks. And the more information we share – for example, I had porridge for breakfast this morning, and my 13,000 Twitter followers know this – the more feedback we get from our online audience.

Performing for the Cult of Me

So what does this have to do with the offline world, and, more importantly, with what you do? Well, some people think our online activity is compelling and compulsive – that it’s draining away the eyeballs and ear drums from your linear broadcast content – because it tells us who we are far better than what you do. It promotes a process of self-discovery and self-definition. It shines a mirror on ourselves, but allows us to change and tweak what we see. An early Web theorist named Sherry Turkle, Professor at MIT, described the online environment In 1995 as an identity laboratory, a place where we can try on different aspects of ourselves before we debut them offline. It’s a safe space where we are free to perform identity. The new aspects that we try on may be things that we don’t think will go down well in our offline social circles. She said that the reactions of our online friends would help us to decide what was “us” and what was “not us”.

This goes for the way we navigate the vast library of information on the Web, choosing which content to pay attention to, which to pass on and which to discard. We consume information and make decisions about which services and products to trust by selecting the information that confirms our beliefs, that makes us more like us of news feeds that deliver headlines from news organisations and blogs, links from friends on social networking services, and suggestions from recommendations services like Amazon or BBC iPlayer (more on the Internet echo chamber here and here). In the end, the personalisation facility of the Web may constrict our world-view (ironically the opposite effect to what the early web pioneers hoped), but for now it offers content providers like you a direct pipeline to the most acceptable audience for their wares.

Good content for Me-Cultists

So given that your audience of Me-Cultists is increasingly developing narcissistic tendencies, and that they no longer are happy to passively sit and consume the information that you provide them, how can you stay afloat as public broadcasters? How can you deliver compelling content that they can contribute to, feel ownership of and identify with, without making programming for each and every one of them at a cost that would break the bank?

I can tell you hand on heart that there is one thing you should NOT do: DON’T litter every single potential touchpoint – every potential delivery mechanism, from television to cinema to mobile phone to ringtone to social network to twitter feed to radio station – with your assets. That is an absolute waste of your time and money. This scattergun approach does not work for me-cultists. We don’t feel loved, frankly. Instead, focus on delivering your stories to the right platform by embracing the unique attributes of each medium.

I’ll give you an example of someone who got this right.

The Royal Shakespeare Company wanted to promote Romeo and Juliet. They brought in a multiplatform production company called Mudlark with the writing team of a man named Tim Wright, a storyteller who’s been using digital media for decades both inside public broadcasting services and as an external independent, and Bethan Marlow, a playwright and multi-platform writer. They created Such Tweet Sorrow, a re-telling of the Bard’s famous tragedy told via Twitter.

Royal Shakespeare Company actors were trained on the use of the social medium – 140 characters and all that – and how people used it to interact with one another, what the social contract was with followers and how to present oneself consistently and believably. Each of the major characters had a twitter account – JulietCap16, Jess_nurse, Romeo_mo for example – and every day they “performed” online. They chatted to one another, they scolded one another, they made plans and declarations of love. They broke news via Twitter and shared gossip – with each other and with their audience. It was absolutely gripping. The climactic moments when the characters were offline, not responding to messages from the characters online, were truly gripping. People from around the world interacted with the actors driving the twitter accounts, looking for Juliette, crying at the death of Laurence_Friar, fantastising about Romeo. It was a truly compelling proposition.

That’s the social media model, with the content holder in control of the storytelling, but engaging at a very high level with the audience. Getting the feedback from the characters meant the Me-Cultists felt part of the production. They were able to share information about Such Tweet using their own twitter feeds which served a dual purpose: promoting the play over its three week run, and demonstrating an understanding of what was going on to friends and followers.

If this strikes a chord, you must also look at Channel 4 Education‘s award-winning slate from the past two years. The team there, and the talented production companies they have commissioned, aren’t re-creating TV on the Web, but are creating cross-platform projects that encourage participation, dialogue and learning.

Another examples of a carefully curated, cross-platform storytelling proposition that has integrated multiple touchpoints in a thoughtful way to allow the audience to join in the ongoing performance on their own terms was The Lost Experience.

It took a storytelling medium you’re familiar with, the television programme, and expanded it using the Web and other traditional media. Based on the hit ABC drama Lost, the Experience created levels of intrigue that fed into the story universe that engaged the audience in a very active and personalised way. The producers of the programme boosted the profiles of several of the secondary characters by taking fans on an information-gathering mission across television commercials, printed ads in national US magazines, blogs, “found” videos, telephone calls and emails. Although it was orchestrated by the production team, audience members were involved in collaborative storytelling by bringing new discoveries, forcing plot points out and driving the speed of the story arc.

Although there are other storytelling projects of this type that are better-realised and were better-received (see Dr. Jane McGonigal’s extensive repertoire for some examples), the real benefit that The Lost Experience production team had was its commercial partners and its placement on a public broadcasting medium. They were able to engage people on a massive scale, and to bring a whole new participatory dimension to the series.

Curating content for me-cultists

Finally, although these are examples of the content preceding the technology, there is one core technology that can help public broadcasters understand how it is possible to create brand distinctiveness whilst embracing the Me-Cultists.

Several years ago, the BBC gave some funding to a small start-up called PMOG, or the Passively Multiplayer Online Game, now known as Nethernet. It worked like a traditional online game in that participants gained points for certain tasks and once they had enough points, they were able to “level up” to access new facilities or chapters in the ongoing story. However, the key to what I find most interesting is in the title: Passively multiplayer online game. The players didn’t think about participating. There was no script. There was no arc. They were the story: they participated purely by doing what they did anyway.

The technology followed your online activity in the background as you browsed the Web. The rewards you received were for things like “Visit Google 7 times” or “send an email to three different people”. By collecting these so-called levels, players could then do things for other PMOG players – they could lay gifts, so when a player landed on a site, s/he was rewarded with virtual money or objects; they could lay traps, so when players landed on sites they lost virtual money or objects. Or they became something called “Pathmakers”.

This is the interesting bit for you guys. The Pathmakers opened up rabbit holes through the Web, guiding the people who chose to take their paths along a specially-selected story of, say, the best sites on the Web to find out about a particular kind of music, or the best sites that explained Net Neutrality. Whatever it was, the path-taker was led – and she or he learned – along the way.

This is an excellent exploitation of the psychological needs of Me-Cultists: first, they have demonstrated an interest by going to a site; second, they are rewarded by identifying a connection who also finds a site useful, and third, they are allowed to explore that new story whilst gaining points for themselves in the PMOG. They can also suggest other stories for people to take, by laying their own paths. They became the curators of the Web. That is what you need to become.

The Cult of Me and You

So. You need to think about the new audience as members of a Cult of Me. They are selfish, they are narcissistic, they are interested in what kinds of effects they will have on your content. They want it interactive, they want it networked and they want control.

It is possible to create such content from within public broadcasting. In fact, I would recommend that you embrace it. But remember to avoid the pitfalls of derivative storytelling. You must create something that is unique, that maximises the participatory potential of the Web, and that allows the Me-Cultists to do what they will with your stories. After all, the virtual revolution is upon us, and if you don’t do it, they will.

Thank you.

Check out the feedback from the talk on the NPOX blog.