Monday, September 28, 2009

Google and the novelist: more on how technology is impacting the creative process

Any of us who work in marketing know that technology is having a dramatic impact on how commercial artists and writers work in all kinds of double-edged-sword ways, both offering amazing new tools to help us get work done and challenging our value props.

But I’ve been interviewing creative people across the creative spectrum—from poets to TV producers--and some of my more surprising findings are coming from writers and artists who aren’t involved with marketing at all. Their stories demonstrate how even fundamental elements of new media are transforming the art they make.

The writer Justin Cronin put it this way, “The easy availability of almost any fact has turned me into a different kind of novelist.”

I don’t normally think about Internet Search as having a transformative impact on the creative process, but for Justin, and I’m sure for other writers., it has.

A little background might help illustrate the dramatic nature of the change I'm talking about. Justin was a classmate of mine at the Iowa Writers Workshop where he wrote beautifully crafted lyrical stories that were in the tradition of contemporary realistic fiction. After graduation, he published two well-received, prize-winning novels which, I think he’d agree, were also in that tradition.

More recently, however, he’s been writing a post-apocalyptic Vampire trilogy which—as widely reported—he’s already sold for a big pile of money. The first volume of the trilogy—The Passage—is being made into a major movie by Ridley Scott.

Now, how does a literary writer suddenly turn himself into an instant master of high-concept futuristic thrillers? Part of the charming story is Justin's native talent. Another part is that the plot was inspired by conversations he had with his daughter while she rode her bike alongside him on his daily run. In order to help pass the time, he told his daughter they were going to plot a novel. What should it be about? She replied, “A story about a little girl that saves the world.” A winning idea if there ever was one.

But the part that interests me here--is the power of the Internet to make available a set of experiences Justin had never tried to imagine before as part of his subject.

Again, in his words, “If I need to know how to hot-wire a diesel engine, well, I can just Google it and it's right there. If I want to know what the dashboard of a military vehicle looks like, it’s there too. ”

He didn’t need to go to the library or interview people or take a trip to a military base. It’s not that Justin stopped doing original research. He told me one story about hiring a guy to take him to a firing range so he could experience what it felt like to shoot assault rifles.

But he acknowledged that the immediacy of search helped him stay in the writing process. The instant availability of facts and images and video helped him quickly fill his imagined world with the stuff that his characters needed to go out and save the world. As he put it, “I might have been able to write this book without the internet but I don’t think I could have written it as fast or as well.”

He also said that the process of imagining more unusual experiences liberated him from an impulse to rely on autobiographical material for his plots. While all artists and writers tend to draw from their own lives to some degree, especially early in their career, the Internet has accelerated or at least help enable that transformation. In this way, the title of his first novel in the trilogy--The Passage--could also double as a metaphor for his own evolution as an writer.

When thinking about technology and creativity, it’s easy to fixate on works that make use of new or sophisticated technology: augmented reality and data visualization. But sometimes it’s the more fundamental elements—like search--that make the biggest difference. It's the question I'm continuing to explore now: asking other writers and artists if Google has helped inspire them to make leaps of imagination into new genres, media and forms.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A call for new tools: starting with observations on successful Facebook applications

One of things that I've noticed about the social media revolution is that it seems to be a lot easier to find big, visionary talk than new tools and practical guidelines for how to do it. In any google search I can find thousands of blog posts about how the world is changing but when I searched for advice or models about how to write a new creative brief that would help creatives develop work for a multi-platform world, I couldn't find anything. My direct queries on the various socmed platforms asking for existing models didn't yield much either.

I think it's pretty established now that the world is changing. What we--all of us, but I'm writing for strategic/brand planners in particular--need now are some new tools to help us navigate and develop work for the changing landscape.

So, in the positive, can-do, crowdsourcing spirit of social media, I decided to try for myself in the hope others will complement/supplement/edit/critique my work as I go. I'm not going to start with the digital/platform brief because that's going to take some work. But there are plenty of smaller tools I need to develop as well.

For instance, one of the things I need right now is a set of high level strategic guidelines for developing successful applications. Chances are, like me, both your creatives and your clients are looking for help guiding the development of branded applications on facebook and iphone. The interest has only heightened as we approach the holiday season in which (as my creative director partner Jason Gaboriou recently pointed out) we are assuredly going to see a hailstorm of holiday-themed gift-finder-ish apps.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about technical guidelines for developers (e.g. what to do with uninstalls) but rather clues to what makes a good experience based on current consumer behavior (though of course the areas overlap these days). Here's my working list. I'm starting at a very high level of generality, because I'm finding it's what my clients and some more traditionally-trained creatives need.

I'm absolutely positive there are people out there who know more than me on this subject so hope they jump in and correct me either here or on twitter @copia

  • Support with marketing, both online and off: the early fantasy of digital media (that people will just find it for themselves) is over. In this very crowded field, you need to help even your loyal consumers find your stuff.
  • Be social: Doh! Facebook is a social medium. App’s should have a social component which means there is a built-in reason to spread it around. Ideally, it should facilitate an exchange of information rather than just a dissemination.
  • Fads are real: We always complain about fads in marketing, but the majority of apps tend to move in and of popularity pretty fast. Consider linking to timely events and don’t expect it to last forever.
  • Keep it simple: Most successful apps do one or two things well. Facebook is simple. It shouldn’t be more complicated than Facebook itself
  • Utility and entertainment is better than utility or entertainment. App’s which actually offer something useful tend to have longer shelf lives. Many app’s have succeeded by just entertaining but they need to be pretty funny.
  • Profiles as content: Facebook connect now enables app’s to customize experience based on user data. Think of user profiles as content
  • Online behavior is still behavior: extend, enhance, supplemnt the most popular and frequent online behaviors: searching, shopping, playing, flirting, (though of course this changes fast as diagram below from 07 indicates).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How technology is changing the creative process in not always great ways: the other side of the coin

Earlier this week, I shared some early observations on my research exploring how technology is changing the creative process for creative people from poets to producers.

I started with the good stuff: how the technology is energizing artists and encouraging them to explore more forms of self expression. But all transitions—and this is a major one—brings as much anxiety and ambivalence and euphoria. Today I wanted I share a few early observations about the other side of the double-edged sword we’re all dancing down.

1. Speed may be the essence of the war but is it the essence of art? Every single writer and artist I spoke to acknowledged that technology has sped up their deadlines and accelerated their working process.

Several were exhilarated by the challenge of speed—especially those blessed with natural high-speed wit like @awohl—but others—both commercial and non-commercial artists--acknowledged that the pressure of speed wasn’t always leading to their best work.
We traditionally think about creative work as something that depends on a little time and personal reflection to develop. Around the office, we say that some work isn't "cooked" or "baked" yet. Around the classroom, we sometimes refer to Wordsworth famous definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” And while of us who work in creative businesses have found ways to accelerate the process--we take 6 hours or 6 minutes rather than 6 months to develop ideas--it’s worth asking if there’s a limit to how fast certain kinds of good work can come.

One sign of the speed of the culture was the fact that some of the writers I spoke to couldn’t remember the work they’d recently done. It just passed by too fast.

Quality is harder to judge. Artistic appreciation is of course subjective. But one copywriter put it bluntly: did you look at this year’s Cannes’ reel? It’s a joke.

2. Does originality matter? The question of originality has always vexed the world of art in general and marketing in particular. On the one hand, most acknowledge that every idea has been done before, on the other, people still complain when they feel someone has "stolen" their idea. So which is it?

So while the issue is nothing new, it does seem to be amplified by our ability to instantly access all the work in the world on almost every media and subject imaginable. How do artists feel about this new access to all the abundance out there? Are you inspired or overwhelmed? A little bit of both.

The vast majority of creative people did not test the“originality” of their idea with the internet archives before proceeding. On the contrary, as @eproulx eloquently put it, “I have to pretend it's my idea until it's too late.”

3. Clusterf*ck, Committee or Collaboration? Related to the above is the question of the relationship between the number of people involved and the quality of the work. In the old days, we used to say that work by committee was bound to get “watered down." Or worse.

Many artists and writers these days feel the opposite is true, including those who work at Pixar who describe their process of collaborative development as Amplification. See, e.g., article in June HBR. A preview here. And a post on the subject here. (Tx to @edwardboches for noting the relevance of this topic ) The emergence of crowdsourcing as a vehicle for innovation and creative development has called additional attention to this changing definition of the creative process.

My early conclusion is that most artists and writers today agree that collaboration is a good thing early in the process. But many involved developing and executing work, as opposed to generating the idea, still hunger for that old-fashioned time by themselves, listening to a music, or going for a walk to let the idea churn around inside them.

4. But how much is it worth? The simultaneous adoption of crowdsourcing models, new distribution models, the explosion of amateur involvement and the economic crisis have raised questions across the artistic committee about the value of their work in strictly economic terms. Because it directly impacts their ability to make a living, this issue obviously leads to strong opinions on both sides.

Crowdsourcers argue that it’s good for clients who wouldn’t pay as much as they used to anyway. Others lament that artists and writers are rushing to participate in their own exploitation, calling the emerging group of people giving away their work, digital sharecroppers.

This issue is particularly charged among designers, perhaps because technology has allowed un-trained amateurs to approximate a decent, if not that good, design. (Check out the brewing storm on @edwardboches blog here for a front-row seat.)

Recently, the crowdsourcing machine has taken up the task of translating, with a similar reaction among the crowdlovers and the old-line experts. Here's one post on the recent linkedin controversy.

Almost everyone agrees that most fields of artistic expression are due for a leveling or perhaps a hollowing out, with a lot of the work being commodified. Stars in every field of artistic endeavor will always command top dollar for their unique forms of cultural expression. And amateurs and small creative companies can now deliver decent work for value price. But most of us who make a living writing, painting, producing, designing are not big stars. But we don’t want to give away our work either. We’re in the big middle.

And life in the big middle is a big question, which is why so many artists and writers are diversifying.

Monday, September 7, 2009

How technology is changing the creative process for the better (for some creative people): early observations

There's obviously a lot of talk about how creative content is changing for just about every media that uses it, from advertising to music to film to publishing. So many people are making so many bold pronouncements on the subject, usually by declaring the death of one thing or another (the agency here, publishing here, DVD's here) that I could just about link to anything my stumble upon button stumbles upon and find a strong opinion on the subject.

Many of the commentators are celebrating these changes in the spirit of creative destruction: often noting how this is good for both brands and marketers—b/c they can source work at lower cost and accelerate innovation--and good for audiences/consumers--b/c it gives us abundant access to so much free content.

But I also noticed that not too many people seem to be asking the actual cultural producers themselves—all the poets and writers and artists and designers and producers—who are making the creative content in the first place. (Though it's true these writers and designers often make guest appearances as forward thinking futurists or anxious critics in the sidelines of debates raging around crowdsourcing, like the recent one here).

I noticed this partially because it’s my job, as a planner at an agency, to help guide and inspire the development of creative products and partially because I have lots of semi-anxious friends who happen to be poets and writers and screenwriters and art directors and designers. So I thought it might be interesting to hear how they felt about all these changes.

I started with a simple question. Has technology changed your creative process? And if so, how? And because the answers were so interesting they quickly led to a set of follow-up questions about whether technology had influenced how they get inspired and whether it impacted their relation to their audience and how they felt about the wave of hyper collaboration and even some questions about the old-fashioned idea of originality.

I’ve done about dozen interviews so far, and I thought I’d post some early observations both because I hope other people find this subject as interesting as I do and because I’m hoping I can lure other artists and writers into sharing their thoughts on the subject.

I should be clear when I say creative, I'm not limiting myself to the ad agency job title. I'm defining “creative” people in a pretty broad sense, from those who work in commercial professions (art directors and copywriters and designers and producers) to poets and writers and painters and musicians and filmmakers and conceptual artists to those creative people who work in the medium of technology itself: programmers and game designers.

So far I’ve spoken to 2 novelists, 2 poets, 2 copywriters, 2 art directors, 1 creative director, 2 screenwriters/producers, 1 dancer, 1 musician/producer ( several of the above overlap in a couple categories) So special thanks to @eproulx, @jonkranz, @edwardboches, @gretchenramsy, @adamwohl, @lauracarterbird (and a bunch of people who aren't on Twitter yet!)

My first observation has to be resounding confirmation of the generous spirit of the artistic community on the interweb in general and social media in particular. Everyone I’ve interviewed, whether I knew them before or not, has been more generous, thoughtful and helpful than I could have hoped.

So with that, I'll start with the good news or those things most artists and writers agree were more or less positive about the influence of technology on their work.

1) They might still be tortured but aren't lonely: Remember those stories of Romantic poets who needed to retreat to a rustic cabin in order to dig deep into their creative soul, uncorrupted by the distractions of civilization. Well, that ideal or fantasy doesn't seem as relevant to artists today. Almost all the artists and writers I spoke with were energized by more direct and frequent contact with other artists, their audience, as well as the culture as a whole. This was true of producers as well as poets. Maybe especially poets, who in the past felt particularly cut off from feedback on their work. We seem to be finally getting tired of the the long-held Romantic ideal. Both artists and audiences like to be connected.

2) Nor do they plan on starving: Technology seems to have jump-started the entrepreneurial spirit among artists. Whether they like the digital revolution or not, almost all the artists I spoke to agree that you have to diversify. They aren’t relying on one job or boss or patron or income source, but are developing multiple projects both within traditional frameworks and on their own. As one copywriter put it (I’m reserving attribution until I get permission), we always knew it was bad for an agency to only have one or two clients. Now we know that's true for all of us.

2a) It's a deal: Social media has also given artists more direct access to decision makers in almost all fields, inspiring them to send their work and ideas to places they didn't have access to previously. In the past the long odds at ever getting some muckety mucks attention tended to discourage these efforts. It's still too early to tell with my small sample, but technology seems particularly valuable for those in managerial positions, creative directors and producers, or anyone who spends more time making deals about cultural products than actually creating art.

3) Artists are diversifying their media/mediums: After college I went to an MFA program where people applied to be either “poets” or “fiction writers.” And most of the writers/artists of my gen-x gen generally took this narrow route. Most of us thought it was important to specialize early in order to develop the necessary skills to succeed.

But specialization seems less important to artists today. In fact, technology has made previously inaccessible (both complicated and expensive) tools much more accessible. Several writers I spoke with have turned their hand to film-making and while modest about their accomplishments, were frankly surprised at the relative success and professional quality of their efforts. This seems even more true for youngsters in their teens and twenties who I’ve encountered on research projects for clients. In fact, as I’ve posted before, many wanted to be managers/producers rather than artists per se.

4) The end of writers block? Probably not. Everyone goes through dry-spells, but several of the writers and artists I spoke with, mentioned that the constant stream of inspiration does seem to jump-start their thinking. Twenty minutes cruising a twitter stream or reading some blogs almost always generated some kind of response which gets the creative energy flowing. Whether the inspiration leads anywhere interesting is another story, but most agree it's almost as good as coffee.

5) You can be anywhere and so can your partner: There's no longer any need to restrict your creative partnership with people in the same room, town, company, country. Especially for those who work with partners in commercial production of some kind, technology has made it possible to work with just about anyone, anywhere, on any project.

6) New technology, new forms: Several writers and artists I spoke with are exploring new media that wouldn't be possible at all without new technology. Everything from printing images on bread to new forms of social storytelling being explored at MIT's medialab. It's too early to tell whether these forms will go the way of computer art of the 70's or amount to something more interesting. But there's no question that technology is opening up possibilities for self-expression

7) oh, almost forgot: The 24/7 focus group: creative people whose success depends on high speed production and hconsumer approval (e.g., marketers) also relished the fact that you could find out almost anything all the time. They barely remembered the day when they had to call an account person or a planner to look something up. And Twitter provides constant and instant feedback to any idea they want to throw out there, to see if it generates any interest, before the develop it.

Of course, it's not all good. For instance, many writers and artists I spoke to seemed ambivalent about how technology was accelerating culture and tightening deadlines, but I'll save thatanxiety for another post.

Again, would love to talk to more poets, writers, artist, musicians, game designers, etc or anyone who'd like to talk about how technology is impacting their creative process. Get in touch here or at