For 25 years the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab has been at the forefront of exploring how technology can enhance communication and storytelling. V. Michael Bove, Jr., a principal research scientist, leads a number of initiatives at the lab including the Center for Future Storytelling, which was founded in 2008. Jan Gardner, assistant editor of Nieman Reports, spoke with Bove at the lab. Edited excerpts follow as Bove, one of three codirectors of the center, talked about television viewers as directors and media consumers as collaborators.
V. Michael Bove, Jr.: Our effort at the center looks very broadly at the ways in which people will express themselves and share stories and at the different tensions involved in doing this. There are two that I particularly care about. The first is the tension between the shared social experience of invitingfriends over to watch the Super Bowl on your big screen TV versus people who watch TV on their iPhones wanting to have a personalized interactive experience. How do you simultaneously create what will be a shared experience and a personalized experience such that everybody comes away happy?
The second tension is between large organizations—such as Disney-Pixar—which do very good storytelling by getting the best talent and having a culture that nurtures what they do—and the YouTube generation. How do you support both of those visions without casting them in opposition to each other? How do you look hard at the business models, content and technologies with some meeting of the minds, in ways in which each side feels that there’s some benefit in talking with the other?
Recently we had about 150 people at an event called Story 3.0. A big part of that gathering was an attempt to figure out what people are already doing that relates to these questions, as well as some interesting directions to follow up on.
Jan Gardner: Is there a tension between providing a rich experience and an overwhelming one?
Bove: The problem of overwhelmingness is maybe generationally defined. So different people—depending on what they grew up with—are overwhelmed by differing amounts of media richness and saturation and ubiquity. I heard a number this morning that 87 percent of teenagers who text sleep with their cell phones. I don’t know that it’s easy to overwhelm somebody like that with media ubiquity. But that doesn’t mean everybody wants that. So I think that information dissemination is going to be even more multi-dimensional. And you can’t just be in the business of one dimension.
Gardner: What was discussed at the Story 3.0 gathering?
Bove: One topic was a project from my group called “surround vision” in which we are saying “let’s take your high-definition television set and add augmented reality to it.” What that means is you’re watching a debate, a talk show, an entertainment program, a sporting event, and it’s the same thing everybody else can see. So you’d say, “I want to see the audience’s reaction to what Jay [Leno] just said.” On “The Tonight Show” there’s always a camera pointed at the audience, but most of the time the feed doesn’t go out. What if those additional video feeds were available and all I had to do was take my iPhone and hold it up and look around behind me? Or during a debate I could look at the reactions of the other candidates to what the person at the podium just said. I would not then be relying on the producer providing the video to decide which view I ought to see. Or for a sporting event, I may want to look at the other end of the field than what they are showing right now. The field is surrounded by cameras, so video is being shot.
We are looking at a variety of content ranging from entertainment to sports to news and public affairs. Initially, we’re not looking to add complexity or expense to the production or post-production process. We’re trying to take stuff that is already being shot, where there’s additional material, and simply providing a means for making that available. What that means is that individuals will have a bit more control.
Gardner: So viewers can become their own producer.
Bove: You can become your own director. Or you can decide to have a lean-back experience. So it’s not like playing a video game. You don’t constantly have to be pressing buttons or moving around to make the story advance. But if you want to invest more in it, you can get more in return. That’s a theme that my students have been working on for a long time, the notion that we want to have television that’s interactive when we want it to be. But if you don’t interact with it, it’s still a perfectly valuable experience. We did a television program with Julia Child and WGBH in 1999 that worked that way—it was a dinner party that she hosted. She put all of the dishes out on the table, and if you wanted to know more about a particular dish, you could click on it and she gave a lesson in how to prepare it.
A lot of the technology we need to do these things is almost off the shelf now. So it’s more a matter of creative vision and business model, but we also have to reinvent television to make this happen.
Gardner: What about the implications for print?
Bove: We have to assume the print medium is part of an ecosystem and then ask what happens when all the pieces of the ecosystem fit together. What is the overall experience? This is another issue. Too often in organizations that produce media one team does the main product, another does the Web site, others work on the mobile app, and then there are teams that do something else. That’s unsustainable economically because it’s a huge duplication of effort. It’s also not a particularly good idea in terms of coherence because what you would like is for the experience to play out across these different platforms in different ways and let users go back and forth among them. It’s not necessarily the job of the creators to drive you to a primary platform. I don’t think you can do that anymore. Figuring out how to make it work financially is another matter.
Gardner: What else came out of Story 3.0?
Bove: We had a case study that MTV presented where they rather radically had to alter what they were doing because the audience was actually more demanding than they’d expected. It was a show called “Valemont” about a university for vampires. People said to themselves, “Oh, geez, it’s going to be 167 hours until the next episode goes on the air, entertain us till then.” The story was advancing both through the broadcast show and online, so if you really wanted to find out what was going on, you had to watch the show and go to the Web site. The audience turned out to be very, very earnest.
The point is that there are some cases where producers and directors say that they probably should have listened to the people on the Web because there were a lot more of them spending their lives thinking about what should happen and how the story arc ought to progress than the small team of writers. And if they paid a bit more attention, the show probably would have been better. On the other hand, not everybody is comfortable giving up that much control. But if you go to these online forums where people are discussing what ought to happen next, there are some very clever and thoughtful people out there who probably understand the characters at least as well as the writers do.
Gardner: Do you look for any lessons from the past for the work you’re doing?
Bove: What comes to mind is the 1998 book, “The Victorian Internet,” in which Tom Standage explains how almost everything that the Internet was supposed to do to society was actually done to society by the telegraph. Even up to the degree that the telegraph was this extremely economically important means of communication essentially being run by very young people who developed their own sort of text message shorthand.
On the one hand, we can take this stuff all a little bit too seriously and believe that OK, nothing new is going on and there are no new lessons to learn. On the other hand, we can feel that any time something comes along that looks as if it’s going to amplify our ability to communicate with others over time and distance, we should pour as much of ourselves as we can into that new means of doing so.
In truth, the really fun stuff happens in the early days before anybody figures out what the new technology is good for. I thought the Web was a great place in the mid ’90s although nobody had a business model for it because people would just try anything. In the same way, TV was much more interesting in the mid ’50s when nobody knew quite what it was good for.
Gardner: Mobile technology is big now. What about the future?
Bove: The real question is: Is there going to be anything but mobile? Connectivity is a given, just as are richer user interfaces and offering more context. The best way to deal with an onslaught of information is to have the system figure out what’s appropriate for you. No one really needs 1,000 television channels. What I’ve always wanted to do is make a television that essentially has an on/off button and a guess-again button, where the TV shows what it thinks you probably want to see. You tell it “No, not that,” and it shows its second-best guess. A lot of things are going to have to work that way.
All of these things do not in any way minimize the role of the human creating the content. They actually amplify the ability to get the content to the people who really want it. So in the future the metric of success might not be whether a story appeared in a publication with a circulation of a million readers, but whether 10,000 people read it to the end within 15 minutes of it being posted.