Four Stories

On Friday I attended The Story, a London conference about stories and storytelling.

The stated proposition for the event laid it out as

a celebration of everything that is wonderful, inspiring and awesome about stories, in whatever medium possible. We’re hoping to have stories that are written, spoken, played, described, enacted, whispered, projected, orchestrated, performed, printed – whatever form stories come in, we hope to have them here.

The Story is not about theories of stories, or making money from stories, but about the sheer visceral pleasure of telling a story. Whether it is in a game, a movie, a book, or a pub, we’ve all heard or told or been part of stories that have made us gasp, cry or just laugh.

There have never been so many stories, never so many ways to tell them. The Story will be a celebration of just a small sample of them.

It was an interesting day which has already been well documented elsewhere, but after the event I found myself reflecting on the content and which bits I’d enjoyed and craved more of, and which less so.

Small films, big impact

The mechanics of landing on the moon

If the usual Christmas televisual extravaganza over the next few days doesn’t tickle your fancy, then you could do worse – much, much worse – than taking an hour out of the commercialised, overhyped seasonal frenzy, making yourself a cup of tea (and go on then, possibly a mince pie or two, too), putting your feet up and watching the wonderful Time Shift on Oliver Postgate: A Life in Small Films which was shown on BBC Four last night (only available to view on iPlayer for another few days, and only if you’re in the UK, sorry no longer available online, sorry).

The documentary is a delight from start to finish. Lots of archive footage from the Small Films collection (Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Bagpus, Ivor the Engine et al) plus interviews with children’s writers and illustrators like Michael Rosen and Lauren Child.

Naked Clanger

It also features plenty of gentle, revealing conversations with Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin themselves (and their families), talking about the various inventions, models and hacks, the process and craft of making the films, the secrets of their loving creations and – perhaps most wonderful of all – the socio-political background of the stories and the character concepts. And the famous shed.

Oliver Postgate's shed

Oh, the shed. There has never been a more inspirational shed than Postgate’s, in my opinion.

In the Guardian, Nancy Banks-Smith has a wonderful writeup in today’s paper:

Oliver Postgate, who died last year, concocted a perfect little world in a garden shed. It was the sort of shed you open warily, knowing an avalanche of stuff-which-will-come-in-useful-sometime will flood out. My husband had a shed like that. It contained, among much else, a sea-going compass, which would come in useful if we ever had a yacht. The Clangers, who communicated in the melancholy swoops of a swannee whistle, lived there. The ear of faith can interpret what they are saying, and the BBC was ruffled to decipher in one such swoop: “Dammit! The bloody thing’s stuck again!”

Clanger script

Bagpuss slept there, too, in a cardboard box. The Clangers were pink in order to rise to the challenge of colour television, and because that was the colour of the wool that Joan Firmin, the wife of Postgate’s partner, Peter, happened to have handy. Bagpuss was pink because the proposed marmalade stripes went squiffy in the kiln.

Peter Firmin, Oliver Postgate and Bagpuss

She goes on to relate some early characters in his life:

[Bertrand] Russell later resurfaced in Bagpuss as Professor Yaffle, a self-opinionated old bookend with Russell’s very dry, thin voice. Postgate, whose own voice was soft, warm and, somehow, knitted, voiced all the characters himself, so we know for sure how Russell sounded. Professor Yaffle, by the way, had to be nailed to the floor so that he wouldn’t fall over and dent his dignity.

Camera modified with Meccano

Her review also contains one of her most delightful turns of phrase, in describing the relationship between Postgate and Firmin:

“…one of those happy conjunctions, like Flotsam and Jetsam, in which people who are individually surplus become jointly glorious.”

Well put, and something many of us can only aspire to.

If you haven’t already got it (and if you can find a copy) I strongly recommend Oliver Postgate’s autobiography (Hardback in stock at Amazon) which came out a decade ago and I’ve read a couple of times since. So many details. So much obvious affection and curiosity about making characters come to life.

Postgate remains one of my biggest inspirations – not because I am a film-maker or have even a fraction of his talent, but because he was a creative tinkerer. He and Peter Firmin used wool and meccano and pulleys and string and wire to make things work; they experimented with techniques and subverted children’s storytelling with politics and humour and silliness that was in no way patronising; their love for what they did (and how they did it) was obvious and infectious to a whole generation of creative tinkerers, like me.


(Images in this post are screencaptures from the BBC Four documentary)


In case I don’t get a chance to post again in the coming days as the year ends – heartfelt felicitations of the season to you and yours. Be safe and happy.

Found while walking

Part of the brilliance of a photographic observation game like (which I wrote about the other day in the context of synchronicity and gaming) is that – as the name implies – it encourages you to be observant and notice things when you’re out and about in the context of your everyday life.


Paul Mison wrote about recently saying that it’s “helping [him] to look around” and that’s absolutely the same feeling I have.

I’ve got a long history of capturing random spotted/found/noticed things and moments from my commute and daily wanderings, stretching back many years – and not just photographically, either. Sometimes with the camera, sometimes with words, sometimes just by making a mental note – it’s the habit of receptiveness to the world around that’s interesting.

This relates to something else I wrote a while back about super-noticing:

Super-noticing is something which happens a lot if you’re trained to be receptive and observant, but also if you’re thinking about a particular thing.

This in turn relates to another earlier post about the ethnographic discipline of pattern recognition:

Part of the toolkit of ethnography and anthropology in general is observing patterns. This could be patterns in behaviour, appearance, ritual, language or otherwise. The anthropologist’s job is to spot the patterns and try to understand what (if any) significance they have, especially in relation to social or cultural environment, or other prevailing conditions.

The discipline of noticing stuff is part of what makes receptiveness and observation useful in life, as well as in anthrolopology and social gaming. But it’s good to have a particular outlet (or should that be inlet?) for the activity. As I wrote in the super-noticing post,

“Flickr is great for developing a discipline around noticing, too, and Flickr groups in particular – if your eye is receptive, then every journey out into the world can be filled with potential squared circles and little fellas and malapostrophication and more.”

Well, turns that hyper-receptiveness up to 11, but inverts it – it’s not about seeing the patterns so much as the anomalies – the things you spot which shouldn’t be there, or stand out, or catch the attention because they don’t belong, or are otherwise notable. Noticeable. Noted.

Once you start playing, it’s very difficult to stop noticing things. Above and below are just a few of the things I’ve noticed while out and about, captured with my phonecam, and filed to

Walking away


How to communicate with the online community: a report from both sides of the wall

As part of Quadriga’s Online Communication 2009 conference, I was invited by the organisers to present some reflections about how to communicate with people online, drawn from both personal and professional experiences, in the form of an after-dinner speech. This was a new experience for me: I’ve never done an after-dinner speech before. Lots of presentations, lectures, debates and panels, but nothing in quite this format before, with no visual aid, nestled in between main course and dessert.

Rather than just post my notes, here’s a fully-written up version of what I said, including links to sources, resources, inspirations and further reading. Forgive the slightly odd formatting, with so many paragraphs – it’s structured this way to reflect the emphasis and pauses and topic sections as I spoke.

If anyone wants it, I was thinking about making an audio version available to download, because this is fairly long (about 25 minutes) – let me know if this would be interesting to you. And if you’re interested in me giving this presentation (or one similar) at an event you’re organising, do get in touch.

When I first told my friends I was coming to Amsterdam to speak to a room full of online communication executives, they asked me why I had to fly to Amsterdam to do that. Why do we all need to get together in one room? Couldn’t I just do it by email, maybe in a newsletter or a series of tweets?

Well, maybe – but if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy such a delicious meal and wouldn’t have met so many of you face to face. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that.

Actually, yesterday I asked my Twitter contacts whether there’s anything they’d recommend to a room full of the best and brightest communication professionals in Europe. I got a lot of interesting answers, many of which I’ll draw on later, but I particularly liked this suggestion from a contact who said:

“Just tell them they should promote the juniors for two months and let them run wild over the internet.”

Well, it’s an idea. Not sure it’s the first thing you could do, but still…

When Quadriga were putting together the conference programme, I was asked to present my perspective on online communication from “both sides of the wall” – as a keen online user both personally and professionally.

I’s just like to note that that implies the wall is somehow this insurmountable, divisive thing which is rarely scaled. In fact, the walls are coming down. I think it’s remarkably easy – and getting easier – to hop from one side to the other, and in fact the boundaries are blurring for many of us every day. I count myself as incredibly lucky that my professional life draws on my personal experiences and passions.

As part of that, I have a confession to make.

Synchronicity and gaming

I was interested to learn (via Mashable) that Hipster social location game Foursquare is launching in London at the end of the week. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s not in fact the primary school playground game we used to call “Champ”, but a location based social networking game played mainly via mobile apps, which involves players “checking in” whenever they visit a bar, restaurant, event or hangout to receive points based on frequency, pattern of activity, who else checks in at the same time as them and so on (there’s a full breakdown of points awarded in their Wikipedia entry). With enough points, a player becomes the “Mayor” of a particular venue, until someone else overtakes them.

Friends (and family) in the US tell me that it is hopelessly addictive and that it’s increasingly the first thing people do when arriving at an event these days.

I’m not sure that London has enough social butterflies and hipsters to make this take off in much the same way (who am I trying to kid? Of course it does!) but it reminded me a bit of two other things I’ve been engaged with in recent time.

The first is recently-acquired by Nokia social travel tracker Dopplr, which contains strong elements of synchronicity and coincidence built in to the user experience – while no points are awarded, the service tells you when your friends will be visiting your city, or when your scheduled trip will coincide with that of another traveller you’re linked to. In theory, that could mean that you’d be able to drop people a line saying “Hey, Dopplr tells me you’re going to be in Madrid at the same time I’m going to be there – let’s do lunch!” though in practice my experience has been that I tend to know when friends are going to be in the same place as me because we’re going there for the same conference or wedding or whatever.

But another game I’ve been playing recently (and really getting into) is the rather marvellous which is wonderfully simple yet very addictive. The game involves taking photos of things you’ve spotted and then geotagging them on Flickr.

You get points for noticing things
and points for being geographically near someone else’s noticing
and points for being the first noticing in a new area
and points for being noticed within a few minutes of another player’s noticings
and so on.

All you need to do to play is take a photo and upload it to Flickr, tag it “noticings” and make sure it has location data – some mobile phone apps include this on upload, but if not, you can always do it manually later, bearing in mind that points are only calculated on the previous 24 hours of noticings.

It appeals to me partly because it’s a habit I have anyway (spotting interesting things on my daily routine or extraordinary explorations and migrations across town) combined with a delicious frisson of pointy reward but for things which are not to do with effort but to do with coincidence and synchronicity and chance.

In other words, playing the game is rewarding in itself because it encourages you to open your eyes and capture interesting stuff in the everyday; getting points for doing so in a time/place which coincides (or not) with another player’s actions which you couldn’t know about is a delightful, random cherry on top.

The many ways in which the experience of Twitter's development and growing popularity is very much like the experience of early blogging

The reminder a couple of weeks ago that pioneering blog publishing engine Blogger was launched ten years ago got me thinking.

I’ve been blogging for nearly ten years now – since it began with a W – and being involved with something from the beginning, plus passionate (and sometimes despondent) about its potential and usage in the years since means I’ve had a lot of time to watch and think about how it has matured and been used. There are certain things which we can now look back on and consider milestones in the development and maturing of blogging – like how the media responded to it, how people embraced and used it and how it penetrated mainstream web usage over time.

Likewise, Twitter.

Like blogging (which I started doing in January 2000, and used Blogger to publish my blog from April of that year), I’ve been using Twitter since relatively early on – my earliest update via Twitter was in November 2005. I’d link to it, but
a) it’s in my private/personal account (@megp) and
b) all my archived tweets (pre July 31 2009) have disappeared, as experienced by many others in this thread on the Twitter help forum.

It’s actually that help forum – and the appalling petulant and rude manner in which some users are addressing Twitter staff – which got me thinking more specifically about how, in so many ways, the timeline of the Twitter story mirrors that of Blogger and early blogging. Both have seen similar patterns of early usage and behaviour and adoption by certain functional and social groups, and both have learnt – the hard way, sometimes – about technical and social scaling issues as well as being a playground for emergent behaviours and activities, and all the fun and challenge that comes with that.

This isn’t an attempt to demonstrate that startups and new technologies are subject to many of the same pressures and reception issues – that’s been clearly documented and brilliantly expressed in Gartner’s Hype Curve. Rather, I wanted to explore some of the striking similarities in specific situations, movements and experiences in the early days of both micropublishing and blogging, from the perspective of an early settler and long-term resident of both of these strange and wonderful new(ish) countries.

So here’s something I’ve been working on for a little while: it’s a very approximate timeline of the activities, patterns, behaviours and reactions experienced by both Twitter (/micropublishing) and Blogger (/early blogging) during their first few years.