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Forget about apps and ebooks for a while…

For the past year or so I’ve been working with internationally renowned and BAFTA-nominated artists Blast Theory on Ivy4Evr, an interactive text-messaging drama for young people commissioned by Matt Locke at Channel 4 Education. A pilot episode for up to 5,000 users, drawn from marketing across T4 runs for a week starting on 10 October 2010. You’ll need to register to take part.

Ivy4Evr is commissioned by a major broadcaster, but the drama takes place entirely on the users’ mobile phone, enabling them to interact directly with Ivy via text messages (SMS) and substantially influence their experience of the story as they go along.

I have followed Blast Theory’s work since the since the early 1990s. I visited them in Berlin in 1997 as they were conceptualising a new work which predicted the TV innovations of Big Brother by framing consensual incarceration and surveillance as a new kind of drama and celebrity. Since then they have led the way in using mobile technology and high-end, mixed-reality computing to create new kinds of dramatic and gaming experiences across both real and virtual worlds, sometimes simultaneously.

Now we’re all having to think in this way. In recent years I have been actively exploring the possibilities offered by new forms of distribution, new contexts and new platforms such as ebooks. Since 2007 I have pursued this through collaborations with established but innovative institutions such as the Science Museum, London, where I was writer in residence and we revived their disused publishing imprint for a one-off, free giveaway of Albertopolis Disparu, a specially commissioned new work of fiction; and more recently by collaborating with James Bridle and his experimental Artists’ Ebooks site, where three short stories of mine are currently available as free downloads in the EPUB format and (as of last week) from iBooks, too.

Like all writers (and publishers) I’m interested in anything that helps introduce my fiction to new readers in new ways. Colleagues at the Science Museum put it nicely, framing the Albertopolis Disparu give-away as a means to offer ‘a quality experience’ to thousands of visitors. For me it is also about demystifying those developments and getting a feel for them, and alongside that working in innovative ways to reach huge audiences almost instantly — whether through the vast footfalls of the Science Museum or the enormous reach and popularity of  T4, Channel 4′s 16-25 scheduling slot and website.

Which is why it has been so exciting working with Blast Theory on a truly interactive piece of writing. For more than a decade they have been exploring not only interactivity but also mixed reality computing and the ways that fictional worlds can overlay the real world around us; creating dramatic potential where the two collide. Tapping into this unique collective knowledge as we’ve experimented with the kinds of stories that it might be possible to tell through an interactive SMS platform has been an incredibly rich experience. It has forced me to think differently about writing and about storytelling. At times I have joked that I feel more intelligent when I’m in the same room as Matt, Nick and Ju; as if by some intellectual osmosis or a variation on the Burroughsian ‘Third Mind’.

Channel 4 Education have been behind some really interesting commissioning for young people since their strategic change from TV programmes ‘that went out in the mornings’ to new kinds of content; things like games, alongside some landmark programming such as Stephen Hawking’s Universe. There is an informative presentation about this strategy by Matt Locke, Acting Head of Cross Platform at Channel 4 here. It is great that Ivy4Evr is part of this move.

I’m wondering if it is significant that this project has been created outside the book trade. In light of our work on Ivy4Evr it was interesting to follow the twitter feed yesterday from The Bookseller Children’s Annual Conference at the British Library.  As you might expect there was a lot of tweeting about apps and  Matt Locke’s presentation about focusing on content rather than platform is reported in The Bookseller.

With Ivy4Evr though, creatively as well as in terms of making the story accessible to as many young people as possible, it has been essential to forget about apps and ebooks for a while, and here’s why:

Working on Ivy4Evr forced us to acknowledge the basic fact that most young people don’t have expensive smart phones.

Maybe they will at some point, but not yet. Not the groups that Blast Theory surveyed and we ran workshops with.

Their phones were rubbish old hand-me-downs and the kind that you can buy for a tenner in a bundle that includes a ten-pound top-up.

But the phones they do have are always switched on.

We also found out that they answer their phones in class and they (almost) never use cliched text speak (‘L8r’ etc).

Learning from this enabled us to push past current preoccupations with apps and ebooks for this age-group in favour of the familiar and more ubiquitous medium of text messaging. The really exciting thing about Ivy4Evr has come from combining SMS with some amazing new technology so that my script, with its endless permutations and possible pathways, is at the heart of a new kind of interactive and personalised storytelling; one that is created not just by what I have written but also by how participants respond. As it says in the blurb: For a week Ivy will tell you **everything** but can she trust you and what will you tell her?

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