If the moon were only one pixel: the power of interactivity

This interactive model of our solar system perfectly and simply demonstrates the power of interactivity as a form of communication.

Great design work. You should check it out.

Great design work. You should check it out.

Interactivity is a powerful way to transmit understanding. By getting people to do something, rather than just watch or read something, you can get them to understand things they never would have otherwise.

If the moon were only one pixel is a great and simple example of this power, well-designed and well-applied.

It’s a truism that space is big. It’s so big that it’s difficult to understand just how big it is. The only place I’ve ever seen this explained well is the Scales of the Universe exhibit in the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Well, that was the only place I’d seen it done well, until now.

As a piece of interactive communication, If the moon were only one pixel works, and it does so by implementing the three principles of interactive communication: Challenge, Motivation and Feedback.


OK, the challenge level on this interactive is pretty low: just keep scrolling to the right, and you’ll get there. But there’s more to it than the simple mechanic of moving your mouse. Firstly, it’s a game of patience. Few of us will have the patience to scroll straight through the whole experience. There’s a temptation to jump to the planets directly,  instead. But then you miss all the commentary – the text that Josh Worth has woven into the work. If you want to find those, you have to look and scroll manually. It’s the same game mechanic as Grand Theft Auto, but expressed in one dimension. Here the challenge is exploration and discovery, finding all those easter eggs.

And when you’re looking for those little flickers of signal in the darkness of space, you see just how much emptiness there is to cover. This is where the experience draws its communicative power.


Like in any good interactive, when you start this experience, your motivation is clear. Move to the right. It’s explained right there, even with an arrow in the text. Since the challenge involved is an exploration challenge, this is all you really need. Any more direction, and it would rob the challenge of its appeal (especially since it’s in one dimension).


Of course, the entire experience is a bit like a progress bar filling in, so you know exactly where you are and how far you have left to go. But it’s Worth’s text, and the unexpected highlight of finding planets, that is the real feedback here. At first the text consists simply of factual observations on how empty it is, but it soon evolves. Before you know it, you’re reading an essay on emptiness and whether our minds are configured to really understand it. There’s more to it than that, and I don’t want to spoil it. The effect is a little like setting out to watch a dumb comedy, only to realise at the end that the comedy was based on a surprisingly complex look at human behaviour.

Worth writes that he set out to create this piece after a discussion with his daughter. It certainly does the trick. If the moon were only one pixel elegantly demonstrates how interactivity can convey a point far more effectively than words or pictures on their own.

#DME14: How to stop worrying and love sponsored content

Sponsored content. Native advertising.  Whatever you want to call it, if you do it right, it’s good for the public, good for publishers, and good for brands.

Why are people so nervous about it?

This is the text, more or less, of a talk I gave at the Digital Media Europe 2014 conference in London this afternoon. 

What’s the best piece of sponsored content ever made?

It’s not by Red Bull. It’s not Swedish.

The best piece of sponsored content ever made is Italian.

Many of you have probably seen it.

How many of you have been to Rome?

This is the best piece of sponsored content ever made:

Continue reading

TEDxUoN: Communication and the power of video games

This post is the text, more or less, of a talk I just gave in Nottingham for TEDxUoN.



The summer that I was eighteen years old, I went on a bike trip to Ireland. I borrowed my older brother’s bike and got my own plane ticket. I was going alone. It was the first really big thing I did on my own. 

                    Irish countryside in The Burren, County Clare.

Biking around Ireland was great. It was pure liberty. But it felt incomplete. Here I was seeing all these new things, and no one knew what I was discovering. So through the whole trip I bought disposable cameras so I could take pictures and show people back home. Every time that I saw something cool, I took a picture. I took hundreds of pictures. The irony is that since they were all printed on paper – this was still in the days of film – they’re all stuck in a box in my mother’s apartment in Montreal. But they’re there.

The funny thing is that without the photos, it seemed pointless to have gone on the trip at all. 

There’s a saying that I love. It’s from Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali philosopher.  

“All that is not given is lost.” 

I think I wanted to take those pictures to show people, so the experience wasn’t lost. 

Sharing, communicating, makes experiences worth more. 

I believe deeply in communication. I believe in the value of transmitting understanding across minds. 

This is something that’s always fascinated me. 

That’s why, some years later, I became a journalist. I worked for the CBC in New York and in Montreal and then, later, I moved to London and eventually joined the BBC. That’s when I left TV and radio reporting and started to work in digital journalism.

I’ve done a bunch of things since then. Now I work for Edelman Digital, a big communications agency. The work I do there is basically the same as what I did at the BBC. It’s about sharing understanding. I get some information, and I think of the best way to get the right people to understand that information. 

I think that’s really important. Communication is what defines us as human. Communication is essential to humans because it’s our survival advantage. It means we can work together and share understanding, across space but also across time. We can adapt to change and threats much faster than any other animal. Communication is what has allowed us to dominate this planet. 

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Alone against a tiger, none of us stands a chance. Ten people who can talk and plan can take out any tiger. One hundred coordinated people, communicating and working together, is all it would take to destroy all the tigers. 

Or preserve them. 

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Of course, in the past, tiger-level threats is all we had to worry about. The threats were complex, but they were small-scale. So we could deal with them in a small-scale way. We’d gather around the fire and tell each other stories and legends. 

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Legends teach lessons. The stories of the Aboriginal people of Australia are tied to the landscape, telling you what happened in this valley or at that waterhole in the dreamtime, when the world was young and all things were made. A childhood spent listening to stories like that leaves you with a pretty good idea of how to survive in that landscape. 

We teach our kids with stories, too. What’s Little Red Riding Hood? It’s about an animal predator preying on an innocent, naive little girl in her new red cape. Think there’s a survival lesson in that one?

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We’ve grown since then, and our society has become more complex. Now we have a mass society and we need mass communications. 

The printing press brought us standard texts and wider distribution, but we lost the interactivity we had before.

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Broadcasting allowed us to communicate quickly across great distances to many people at once. It was one-way communication for a command-and-control society. 

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Now the Internet has changed communications again, and it’s changing everything. For the first time, many-to-many communications are possible. Communications are interactive again. The Internet allows us to build networks of communications and influence. Communications, as a survival tool, are becoming more powerful than ever. 

And it’s about time. Because we’re going to need some survival power tools. And we’re not even using the power of what we have, yet. 

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The threat of atomic war may have receded – slightly. But what new threats face us?

Dealing with climate change. 

Finding enough energy.

Feeding seven, eight, nine billion people. Maybe more.

Managing a volatile economy fuelled by the increasing pace of technological change. 

These issues are huge and complex. They’re not like tigers. Linear stories aren’t going to cut it anymore. One-to-many communications aren’t going to cut it anymore. 

Let me give you an example. Another story. 

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This one is about a town. It’s Churchill, Manitoba, in Canada. Churchill is a small place. There’s not much there. It’s remote. It’s in the Canadian Arctic. It’s only home to about a thousand people. 

But the railroad goes there, and it has a good deep-water port. In fact, it’s the only deep-water port in that part of the world. It would be the perfect place to ship out all the grain that grows in the vast Canadian prairies. It’s actually pretty close to East Asia, Russia, and Western Europe, if you can sail straight and don’t have to worry about the ice. 

Now, until recently, no one much cared about this, because there’s ice. It’s in the arctic, so the port is icebound eight months of the year. But lately, the ice has been breaking up a little earlier in the spring, and it’s been forming a little later in the fall. The port authorities figure that they’ve already gained an extra month of shipping time. Last year, the last ship full of grain shipped out in November. That’s never happened before. 

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The port authorities want to expand. See, there’s another thing that the Canadian prairies produce: sweet crude oil. Churchill would be a great place to export all that oil from. Imagine. Fleets of super-tankers lining up to take on millions of barrels of crude oil and sail off, between the icebergs towards China.

Is this a good story?

Well, it’s a story about climate change, but I hope that a few of you are thinking “Hey, wait a minute. There’s more to it than that!”

Yeah, there is. And you can’t express it through a story. 

See, stories are powerful, but they’re limited. We engage with stories because they are abstractions of reality, bent into very particular configurations that are easy to understand. Seven particular combinations, in fact

Churchill’s story is just one strand in a really complicated system of climate change. The system is massively complex, and it poses all of us a massively complex challenge. Ecological change, global trade patterns, weather, commodity price fluctuations. You can’t understand all that with linear, non-interactive communications.

As we’ve grown as a society, we’ve had to deal with increasingly complex problems and challenges. We need to be equipped to deal with that complexity. Not just the experts, not just the elite. The whole, networked mass of us. We’re highly educated, we’re literate, we’re deeply connected, and each of us is a powerful broadcaster in our own right.

The good news is that we have the tools. Interactivity is the answer. 

See, there’s three ways of transmitting understanding. 

The first and least effective is what I’m doing now. Lecturing. 

The second, and very effective, is storytelling. 

The third is interactivity. When interactivity works really well, we call it play. When interactive communications tools work really well, we call them games. 

We like games. Games are fun, right? 

But what is fun?

Can you define it? 

I can.

In games, fun is learning. 

It’s true. And I’ll prove it to you, right now. Let’s play tic-tac-toe, or noughts and crosses as you call it over here. 

Tic tac toe, or noughts and crosses as it's called in the UK.

Your move, punk!

Now, was that fun?

Of course not. We all knew exactly how it was going to go from the very beginning. And yet, once upon a time, when we were little, this game was fun to all of us.

What changed? Why did this game stop being fun?

We learned all the game had to teach us. We discovered every option. That happens pretty fast, because there are only 26,830 possible games of tic-tac-toe. That might seem like a lot. But consider this: there are ten to the power of a hundred and twenty possible games of chess. You know how big a number that is? It’s ten thousand trillion trillion games of chess for every atom in the observable universe. Even if you were immortal, the universe would die before you played them all. 

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Chess is still fun because it offers inexhaustible new challenges, and inexhaustible solutions to learn.

Fun in games is learning. Once you’ve mastered a game, its challenge fades, and it stops being fun. Unless the game is pushing you, there’s no point.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every game is teaching you something worth learning. The lessons of Angry Birds are quickly absorbed. Once you’ve figured out the perfect angle to launch birds at in every level, the fun is gone. 

But in a lot of cases, you can learn things by interacting with a system that you never could just by hearing stories about it.

For instance, Grand Theft Auto is about exploration. Once you’ve discovered everything the world has to offer, the game loses its appeal. That’s why I’ll bet none of you are still playing GTA 4. 

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Fighter pilots learn on simulators. They spend thousands of hours in simulators before we let them anywhere near a real plane.

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The games we play are powerful and effective teachers. And they’re subtle. Look at this picture. These are kids from Canada in the 1940s playing house. Who’s holding the baby, and who’s holding the newspaper? These kids were learning something.

Just a game of house . . . OR IS IT?

Not only are they subtle, games as learning systems are incredibly powerful. Let me give you an example. It’s a true story.

It’s the evening of Tuesday, November 12th, 2008 in Laholm, a town in Southwest Sweden. 

A fifteen year-old kid is lining up outside a store. He’s really excited. He’s lining up to buy a copy of Wrath of the Lich King, an expansion for the super-popular World of Warcraft video game series.

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Exactly at midnight, the boy is let into the store – he’s at the head of the line – and buys the game. He takes it home, installs the module, starts playing with his friends. There are seven of them. He starts on playing at about two on Wednesday morning. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, he’s still playing. Parents come home from work and go to bed. He’s still playing. He plays all through the night. The sun comes up on Thursday. He’s still going. He goes for a good bit of Thursday, as well, until finally he collapses from exhaustion on Thursday afternoon.

This is an important story, and not because of the obvious question of what the hell this kid’s parents were doing letting their son play non-stop for over 20 hours.

The point is that we have here a medium so powerful, so compelling, that people will forget to eat or sleep for using it.

What was it that held this kid’s attention so completely? 

There are three basic principles to compelling interactivity. 

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The first is Challenge. The system needs to give you something to do. And that thing has to be just at the level of your ability. As you improve, the challenge should get harder. All good games do this.

The second is Motivation. In every game, it’s always clear what you should do next. There’s nothing more frustrating than blundering around not sure what to do. 

The third is Feedback. The system has to show you how you’re doing so you can adjust your input. 

By adopting these three principles correctly, it’s possible to create intrinsically rewarding experiences. That means we can create learning experiences so compelling that people will participate just for the sake of doing so.

And these experiences are really complex. How many of you are WoW players? 

OK, for the rest of you, here’s what World of Warcraft looks like.

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Here’s another popular game – EvE Online. It’s a space simulator, but some people have compared it to flying a spreadsheet. It’s so detailed and involved it has a functioning commodities market where you can trade derivatives. Tens of thousands of people are playing this game right now. It costs $15 per month to play, and it’s Iceland’s main export.

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We can build interactive communications to transmit understanding of any topic, no matter how complex. Wouldn’t it be great if we could build a system like this to help solve a big problem like climate change? 

Well, we haven’t done climate change, yet, but we have done a big interactive project around another complex system. The British class system.  

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I’ve been fascinated by the class system here for a long time. Working, middle, upper class right? 

The last big project I did when I was at the BBC was an interactive experience called The Great British Class Survey. 

Most polls show that about two-thirds of Britons consider themselves working class. Now, what does that actually mean? Two-thirds of Britons don’t work in factories or out in the fields. What is it actually based on? We set out to investigate this and find out what Britain’s class system is actually like. 

Instead of going out and recording a whole bunch of interviews with people and reporters looking thoughtful while walking, we did it interactively. We partnered with professors Mike Savage and Fiona Devine, two of the UK’s lead experts on social class. With them, we devised an interactive questionnaire that anyone could fill out. It looked at three things: your wealth, your social connections, and your cultural habits. 

Over a hundred and sixty thousand people participated. We re-drew the map of class in the UK. It turns out that there are seven distinct social classes in the UK today. And they’re not based on what you’d expect. You can still go take the survey right now and find out how you fit in to this country’s class system. 

Now, this wasn’t a game. It was an interactive experience. But it used game principles and the power of interactivity to transmit understanding of a complex topic.

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At the beginning of the 21st century, our society is more sophisticated and complex than ever before. We’re also facing bigger, more complex threats than before.

As always, our most powerful advantage as a species is our ability to communicate. Without it, we’re just monkeys. All our science and our tools mean nothing without communication. How many of us individually know how to make a smartphone? No one. It takes a team, and that takes communication. The bigger, the more complex the challenge, the bigger and more complex the communications needed.

We are the species who do things together. It’s what we do. We need to communicate to survive, and to thrive. 

And we’ve just discovered a form of communication capable of transmitting understanding of the most complicated, subtle systems. People can use it together. They want to use it. In fact, it’s SO powerful that people will forget to eat or sleep while using it.

These tools need to be developed, they need to be improved. That’s why I made interactive journalism at the BBC, and that’s why I’m making interactive projects at Edelman now. That’s why I’ll keep doing it. Because we need these better tools.

Because we are lost if we can’t share understanding. But if we can, one day our children will reach the stars.



Conversation: the Rules

We all know conversation is a game.

Sometimes it’s a game with a very definite prize, like getting someone to think you’re interesting enough that they’ll give you their phone number, or getting someone to trust you enough that they’ll consider your business proposal. Whatever the goal is, conversation is challenging, scalable, and interactive – all the hallmarks of a really good social game.

But what are the rules of the game?

I think I may have deduced them. Here’s the alpha version. Let me know what you think.


Conversation is a game for 2-6 players. (It is possible to play with more than 6 players, but scoring becomes extremely complicated as sub-conversations may form.)


Conversations are a collaborative game, scored by group. Though individuals do get points, ultimately the objective is for the group’s score to be as high as possible by the end of the conversation.

The game is based on provoking information exchange. Players take turns trying to get others to share information with the group.


  1. Every time a player is provoked to reveal a piece of information, both the provoker and the revealer get a point.
  2. If the provoker provokes a revealer to recount an anecdote, the provoker (not the revealer) gets an additional point.
  3. Provoking laughter scores the provoker one point for every person who laughs. An additional point is awarded for every person still laughing after five seconds, repeatedly, until laughter is extinguished.
  4. Any attempted provocation that results in refusal or embarrassment loses the provoker two points.
  5. Silence is the enemy. Periods of silence cause all players to lose points, at a rate of one point per five seconds.

There are two exceptions to rule 5.

The first is if the players are engaged in some sort of activity while the conversation takes place, e.g. taking a walk, visiting a gallery, driving, or similar. In such cases, point loss speed is quartered – that is, all players lose one point per 20 seconds of silence. (Note that eating does not count as an activity for scoring purposes.)

The second exception to rule 5 is if some of the players are Scandinavian. Such players permanently  count as if they are engaged in an activity, losing one point only once every 20 seconds of silence.

Required Materials

None. However, one bottle of wine/beer/whiskey or similar per 2 players may be a welcome accessory, depending on the length of the conversation. Alcohol has been associated with higher-scoring conversations.

Why the Budweiser Puppy Must Be Destroyed

This video embodies all that is wrong with Old Advertising:

 It’s a genuinely touching piece of visual storytelling. It shamelessly checks every box:

  • Story of separation and longing – check.
  • Set in a pure sunlit rural locale – check.
  • Background characters are handsome/beautiful, all-American – check.
  • Soundtrack is a recently popular bittersweet lovesick ballad – check.
  • Main character is a cute widdle puppy – check.
  • There are horses – check.

The result is an emotional cruise missile targeted directly at your capacity for pathos. The ad does that extremely well.

That is why it fails.

Let me be clear. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to emotion. This ad fails because it’s a mis-match between the emotion elicited and the brand doing the eliciting.

Budweiser isn’t about pathos. It’s about having a good time with friends (responsibly!). Where does my unfulfilled longing to be with the one I love  fit in with the Budweiser story? It doesn’t. Or rather, if I’m mixing Budweiser with unfulfilled longing, I’m in for a night I’m going to regret.

This ad assumes that I’m stupid enough, as a viewer, to associate Budweiser with puppy love even though by emotional logic and conscious brand positioning they have nothing to do with each other.

We know you’re trying to sell us stuff. It’s cool to acknowledge that now.  We’ve become smarter, as a public, in recent years. That’s why successful advertising these days is more self-aware, and plays with it. No need to try and clothe your advertising in supposedly innocent narrative.

Science says Facebook will lose 80% of its users by 2017

Fascinating if true. But I have a doubt.

UPDATE: Mike Develin, a data scientist from Facebook, has just published a cheeky critique of the Princeton duo’s research – well worth a read.

Recently there’s been a splash about a paper that says Facebook will lose 80% of its users before 2017. The authors, John Canarella and Joshua Spechler (aerospace engineers from Princeton) have modelled MySpace’s rise and fall with epidemiological techniques and compared it to data about Facebook. Their calculations show Facebook’s user figures are about to take a nosedive.

Granted, Facebook’s user figures have started levelling off recently. But the paper doesn’t take into account that MySpace failed partially because of Facebook’s rise.

I agree with the authors in that epidemiological modelling shares some similarities with social network spread. Ideas do, after all, spread through contact between ‘infected’ and ‘susceptible’ people. Which social network to join is just one of these ideas. However, the irSIR model used in this paper doesn’t account for diseases competing for hosts, and a successful infection barring new diseases from infecting a previously infected host.

This is exactly the case with the evolution of social networks we’ve seen in recent years.

In general, people tend to use the social network that their friends are on. If a new network offers better functionality, (cf. Facebook’s clean functionality vs. Myspace’s cluttered nightmare) people will abandon an old network for a new one. But network effects are important. A  new network can become the default because everyone else is on it. This locks users into the incumbent network.

Before Facebook’s rise, there were dozens of social networks. MySpace, BeBo, Friends Reunited, Orkut . . . they came and went. I argue that, through network effects, Facebook has obtained a dominant position that will not fall for the same reason the other networks did.

Just look at the comparative search data:

Even at its peak in 2007, MySpace had less than 20% of the interest Facebook has today. That’s a whole different situation.

My point is this: Cannarella and Spechler say they’ve discovered a pattern in which social networks rise and fall. But does their model take into account the fact that most of the previous social networks fell because another one sprung up? And does the vast size and scale of this new network mean it operates by different rules? I think it might.

The one thing that makes me wonder is that downeard trend in search volume you can see in the figure above.

What do you think? Will Facebook fizzle and die? Will it be replaced by something else? Or will Facebook become the next email – a technology staying with us for decades even though it is outdated and inefficient?

How the Steam Console could disrupt the gaming market

Valve is a fast-growing business in a dying market. They’re one of the biggest forces in PC gaming, thanks to great games and also Steam, their gaming network/app store/publishing platform. But PC sales are in freefall, so  Valve has realized that they are doomed.

Doomed, that is, unless they make a play for either mobile devices or the console market. They’ve decided to go for the console market.

If I was one of the incumbents, I’d be preparing my counter-insurgency tactics right now.

What’s Happening

Last week Valve announced three developments:

  • Steam OS, an operating system for consoles
  • Steam Machines, console hardware that runs on Steam OS
  • The Steam Controller, a Steam console input device

Steam OS

Steam OS is a free, Linux-based operating system for consoles. Valve says it “combines the rock-solid architecture of Linux with a gaming experience built for the big screen.” Hundreds of games will run on the new OS, from AAA releases to small indie games. Steam OS is also a freely licensable operating system for manufacturers. This means that Steam OS could do to consoles what Google Android did to smartphones.

Why this matters

Remember what happened when Android was released? Anyone who wasn’t ready to deal with it (Nokia, Windows, Blackberry, anyone?) took a massive hit in the gut from which they are struggling to recover. This could happen again – to Microsoft and Sony. Valve’s founder, Gabe Newell, admits quite openly that this is exactly what they are trying to do.

Steam Machines

To go with Steam OS we have the announcement of Steam Machines. These are PCs designed to play games on your television – i.e. they are games consoles. Exactly like Android handsets, they’ll be manufactured by a range of hardware makers, giving users a lot of choice over specs, size, design and so on.

Why this matters

Steam Machines will have a range of devices suited to every taste and budget, and access to an app store with hundreds of popular games, and a ready installed user base of 54 million users. Arguably, this is a better position than Google was in when it launched Android, and look where they are now. With this kind of seed start it’s likely the system could quickly grow in popularity. This is especially relevant as it comes right at the launch of two new-generation consoles with very high price points.

Steam Controller

Steam controller gamepad

Owly eyes: Steam controller is watching you

The Steam Controller doesn’t have thumbsticks. Instead, it has two trackpads that offer haptic feedback. This means that the controller can feel different depending on the context of what you’re doing in a game.

If you’re in a game menu, it can feel like it has buttons.

If you’re playing an RTS or other “thinking” game, it can feel like you have two trackballs in there, for mouse-like precision.

If you’re playing an FPS like Halo, the input will be much more precise than a regular thumbstick set-up.

The experience of using it is apparently uncanny.

Why this matters

There’s a reason that FPS, driving, and sports games are the mainstay of console gaming. For some types of games, you simply need a keyboard and mouse, and no one wants to use one of those in their living room.

This is about to change.

In Valve’s words: “Whole genres of games that were previously only playable with a keyboard and mouse are now accessible from the sofa. RTS games. Casual, cursor-driven games. Strategy games. 4x space exploration games. A huge variety of indie games. Simulation titles.”

People love playing all kinds of games, but there’s not much market for detailed RTS or strategy games in a gamepad/console environment. Unitl now. If the controller works as well as Valve says it does, Microsoft and Sony may find gamers clamouring to play different types of games, unless they evolve their controllers.


A new player has appeared on the console market, and they’re not playing by the rules. This has all the elements of a classic industry disruption. It’s too early to tell how successful Valve will be, but they have form. They’re known as gaming innovators, they have a solid base of rabid fans, and their console gambit is bold and audacious. The old boys might have to adjust their offering to deal with Valve’s new playscape.

One thing is certain: if Microsoft and Sony ignore this newcomer, they face a serious risk of getting Blackberry’d.

Lessons in citizen media from Greenpeace: #IceClimb

There’s a very interesting protest happening right now: Six women are climbing the Shard in protest at Shell’s arctic drilling plans.

Of course, Greenpeace and others have done this sort of thing before. What makes this different is the scale of the activist media operation around the event. It’s a great example of citizen journalism in action, at the most sophisticated end of the scale. Instead of relying on the stunt to attract press attention, (which it has, amply) they’re livecasting the whole thing themselves through a fairly complex media operation.

There’s a custom-designed microsite, with

  • An interaction overlay inviting users to sign a petition immediately on accessing the page
  • A hashtag-based Twitter stream
  • A progress counter for the altitude of the ascent (in meters)
  • A progress counter for the number of sign-ups to the petition
  • Profiles of all the climbers
  • A Livestream of the ascent

The Livestream is particularly interesting. It has been holding steady at around 10,000 concurrent viewers all day. This is quite a high number for a livestream of this kind – it’s a scale similar to the best livestream feeds at the height of the Occupy protests back in the summer of 2011. That summer was a real incubator for networked citizen/activist journalism. I wonder how influential the Occupy feeds were for activist events like this one.

The video stream is also quite sophisticated for a campaign of this type. The main camera view is currently a tripod shot with a long lens. This morning the climbers themselves were broadcasting via portable cameras. (They’re also tweeting as they climb). The whole set-up is being run by a crew of four in the Greenpeace HQ, with continuous commentary that makes it appear very much like a live newscast.

The activity is attracting a huge number of tweets, including some much-retweeted celebrity activity.

It’s clear this required a lot of planning, including content creation ahead of time, scripting and technical set-up (including coding for the microsite). This must have required as much, or more planning and preparation as the actual building-climbing stunt itself. It’s surely not a trivial investment. I expect we’ll see more of this sort of thing in the future as the technology continues to mature.

Six reasons Guardian Witness will sink or swim

Today the Guardian launches a new participative journalism platform, Guardian Witness.

Like CNN’s iReport, or pure-play citizen journalism outfits like Citizenside, Guardian Witness allows news readers to become contributors and participate in the making of the news. It’s already getting lots of reactions online. So – will it work?

1. Experience

The Guardian has form in this department. This is something they’ve been doing for some time, as their Digital Development Editor Joanna Geary pointed out. From MPs’ expenses to the London riots of 2011, they’ve engaged citizens as investigators and collaborators for years. The culture of open journalism at the Guardian goes way back past the launch of initiatives like Comment is Free. (“Guardian Readers” even got a byeline in the case of MPs’ expenses story – a well-deserved accolade.)

It’s exciting to see an established operator like the Guardian take this step. Since the Guardian has been doing collaborative journalism for years, Guardian Witness isn’t really about the Guardian entering a new space. Rather, this is about the Guardian trying to take advantage of their readers’ latent reporting and content-creation capacity through a formalized tool. In this case, it’s a mobile-heavy offering, with Android and iOS apps for mobile creation.

2. Funding

This move is also very interesting from a business perspective. Guardian Witness is sponsored by EE, one of the UK’s big mobile service operators. Since I started working in digital PR last year, I’ve gained a whole new perspective on how companies and news operators can work together to mutual benefit. I don’t think anyone has found the answer yet – I don’t even think that there is one, singular answer – but it’s clear from the press release that EE sees this as a good fit with their corporate image as other 4G providers start to enter the marketplace. Here’s Spencer McHugh, EE’s Director of Brand:

“Smartphones have changed the way in which news is covered and shared around the world as ground-breaking mobile technology breaks down the barriers between journalists and the public. As the first providers of superfast 4G in Britain, EE is uniquely placed to support this transformation in the way news is reported, consumed and shared. This revolutionary new platform from the Guardian recognises these developments, enabling users to film or photograph something and share it with the Guardian’s editorial team in a matter of seconds, and EE is delighted to support the Guardian’s approach to open journalism.”

3. Incentives

Looks like the Guardian is starting out with setting assignments for users – a great means of engagement. The first assignments are simple (and have been criticized for this), but I think that’s necessary at the start. As the platform develops, they’ll have to be careful about incentives. Copyright remains with the original content creator, but contributors’ work may be syndicated or licensed on. In the case of a major story (especially celebrity gossip stuff) the video or photos might be worth a lot. Who gets the cash, and in what proportion? This will take some working out.

4. Integration

Shiny social meda apps and excellent code are the new thing, but they can be easily derailed by something as old as humanity: politics. If this isn’t integrated into the Guardian’s way of working – if it isn’t worked right into the newsroom and editorial process – it won’t reach its full potential. Joanna Geary has given tantalizing hints that this won’t happen, saying “I think the big thing is the integration into the production and journalistic process. This isn’t a bolt on.” I’m keen to hear more on that.

5. Community

Perhaps the Guardian’s biggest advantage as it launches Guardian Witness is the strength of its existing community. Newspapers in the UK (whatever the word ‘newspaper’ means these days) aren’t just news conduits. They’re identities. A Sun reader is different from an FT reader is different from a Guardian Reader, as immortalized in Yes Minister.  The Guardian has been a major player in online news for years. They’re known for innovating and including users in many ways. People will want to participate because they believe in what the Guardian stands for and because it helps them identify as a Guardian reader . . . well, a Guardian person-formerly-known-as-a-reader, to mangle Jay Rosen’s phrase.  In this light, the current lack of social plug-ins such as the ability to like, comment, or otherwise interact with existing content is quite a handicap. But I’m betting that this release is all about minimum viable product, and we can undoubtedly expect incremental upgrades as the platform matures.

6. But . . . Community

Many people will post images, video and reports after they’ve witnessed a news event. The images flooding out of Boston after yesterday’s atrocity are just the latest shocking example. But will people choose to post on this platform? There are powerful incentives for them to post directly to their Facebook and Twitter profiles, where their own personal communities are already waiting for them. This has been pointed out by a few commentators already. This is a significant challenge, and ultimately it boils down to incentives as well. Most people don’t post or share news to get paid – they do it to appear connected and in-the-know among their peers.  I’d argue that Guardian Witness will be successful to the extent to which it can enables people to share news through the platform, while also making them look good to their Facebook and Twitter communitites. It’s a tall ask, but if anyone can handle it, I think the team behind this one can.

This is a fascinating initiative and I’ll be watching with great interest as it develops. How do you think Guardian Witness will do?