Independent digital producer and publisher Adam Westbrook is a bright mind behind many pioneering ideas in digital publishing. Inspired by his writing on visual storytelling, we caught up to discuss the comeback of serials, the need to tell more complex stories and why Stephen Spielberg doesn’t worry about short attention spans.
What are the key features of web publishing? Arguably, many online platforms still mirror the print, but what are the main differences in how people consume information from a page vs the screen?
I think one of the main differences is context, which is something I’m thinking about a lot at the moment. It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve begun to appreciate that when someone is consuming something on their phone or on Facebook, it’s not the same experience as consuming something via print or television, and if you want something to work on Tumblr, it won’t also work on YouTube or as a tweet.
Online, of course, the user is faced by many distractions from e-mails to various social networks. When they’re on their phone, they could be on a noisy bus, or not trying to look lonely at a party, they could even be sat on the toilet! That’s not something content creators and publishers have had to think about before. There’s been a lot written about ‘short attention spans’ in the modern age – but, I think, this is a red herring: Stephen Spielberg doesn’t worry about short attention spans. Why? Because the context is different.
So how does one create work that can have a similar impact when consumed on a bus, at a party or on the loo?
My answer is an unpopular one: simply, you don’t.
That is the mistake most publishers, big and small, are making now. They create one stand alone piece of content, say a video, and then push it, unchanged, onto all their channels. But a video doesn’t really work on Twitter, and GIFs are much more popular on Tumblr, so it’s a waste of effort there.
You can either make different content for each platform, playing to its strengths, or intentionally pick one platform and get really good at that.
With the rapid technological development, how does one keep a balance between embracing new opportunities and keeping the work accessible to a wider audience?
Through rapid iteration and lots of experimentation. When it comes to new platforms, it’s important to think hard about whether your audience are on there or not. A lot of publishers are probably snooty about Snapchat, but if you want to reach teenagers and young adults, then you have no excuse but to be on there.
Again, we’re seeing experimentation here. BBC News have recently started producing 15 second news stories which can only been seen on Instagram and I’m trying a similar experiment with history stories on the same platform. Try it out, if the audience doesn’t come, then move on to something else.
I do think it’s important not to identify yourself to a form or ‘what’, for example, saying ‘we publish web apps’ or ‘we specialise in iOS magazines’ – what happens when they go extinct? Instead, publishers need to be more about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ they do what they do. The technology is just the tool to achieve those ends.
You write a lot about the need to re-think the ways in which we present information on the web – what are the largest faults of the current model?
Journalists and educators are really failing in our duty to communicate and explain this ever more complicated world. Partly because we don’t understand it ourselves, but also because we’re not trying hard enough to find ways to make information more digestible to wider audiences. There’s actually quite a lot of research already into the psychology of why people remember some things and not others, and also what makes things shareable. This, combined with a better grasp of narrative principles, allows us to present information packaged as a compelling story.
Many people will say that’s what they do already, but I don’t see much success, especially online. Instead we focus on simplifying the world and using basic language and graphics. I think we ought to go in the other direction and intentionally tell more complex stories, which reflect the complicated world we’re in.
So how does one become a better online storyteller?
For me personally, the success of the story largely depends on its structure and narrative. I’m currently experimenting with ways to use story design to build stories which are complex and emotional, but also factual, and found the best strategies are counter-intuitive – the opposite to how these kind of projects are usually created.
I’ve been studying this a lot and am currently ironing out the ideas with an online channel I’m building called delve. Every month, I’m taking a complex idea and weaving it into a story, which I hope will make it easier to understand.
Serialising content is due a bit of a comeback, I think. It’s really not new – it’s how Dickens, Twain and Conan-Doyle published their novels 150 years ago. At the moment it’s how our most popular high quality TV shows work, and I think we can do more of this on the web. Firstly, it builds expectation and anticipation, and secondly, it allows you to build the series based on the feedback from audiences.
At the moment, knowledge series tend to be divided by topic or category. So if you were doing a series of videos about, let’s say, different principles in economics, you’d do one video about capitalism, one about communism, one about Keynes etc… That’s how we order information on the web, to make it more archivable, but instead we need to design narratives, which weave the ideas together a over time. The general idea is to make sure there’s always something at the end of one episode, which gives people a reason to watch the next one – a bit like the end of the 1960s episode of Batman but less cheesy!
Could you name a few of the most inspiring projects created specifically for the web, and explain what is their strength?
Video documentary maker Kirby Ferguson has knocked it out of the park with his latest project, called This Is Not A Conspiracy Theory. He got noticed back in 2010 with his excellent Everything Is A Remix series. This latest project is a 90 minute documentary made in 10 minute instalments over several years. Audience feedback guides the content of each episode and he’ll build anticipation as the series is produced, very clever.
There are a few new apps which have the potential to play host to some good storytelling, in particular Tapestry and #Pop. The former allows you create tap essays and the latter creates conversations by colliding images with GIFs.