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Around the campfire: closing the gap between storyteller and audience

In the first of a three-part series of articles on story innovations, BBC’s User Experience Architect Paul Rissen looks at the relationship between the ‘narrator’ and the audience – should we be aiming to recreate the classic campfire experience? And can technology make that possible?

In some ways, the idea of ‘research and development’ in storytelling is absurd. Surely, after millennia of honing the technique of narrative, university degrees and countless professional writing courses, we’re comfortable with the craft? And yet, as new technology, and yes, new media, become ever more commonplace in our lives, enquiring minds are toying with the ways in which the process of writing, delivering and experiencing stories might change.

The BBC, as an organisation, often finds the best way to describe what it does, ultimately, as telling stories – factual, educational, informative and entertaining. Whilst the phrase sometimes smacks of infantilism, the process of creating and delivering narratives still runs core to the Corporation. During my time here, I’ve endeavoured to explore the various ways in which stories can be augmented by technology, both inside and outside of the organisation, and in this series of articles, I’ll discuss three emerging themes that I feel should be of interest to authors, audiences and publishers alike.

We often hark back to the past, when discussing future developments. In the world of storytelling, it’s no different. And central to this has been the relationship between the author, or narrator, and the audience. We’re often reminded that Gutenberg changed everything – not just in terms of replication and distribution of information – but in the way in which stories were, and still are, consumed. Any form of written, or recorded, media, creates an automatic, almost inseparable barrier between writer and audience – the story is fixed, the communication between the two parties, if not completely one-way, is at least dramatically slowed, for the benefit of wider distribution and faster dissemination.

In recent years, the Internet has broken down this barrier, speeding up communication to the point at which author and audience are almost creating and reacting in real-time. But not quite, just yet. The promise of these constraints being removed reminds us of an older time, ‘the campfire experience’, where storyteller and audience were indeed present together, and, more importantly, the storyteller could adapt their work to suit the audience ‘on-the-fly’, as it were.

We all know this is nothing new – live performance, for instance stand-up comedy, theatre, even music concerts, thrive on the interplay between audience and performer – but they all rely on spatial proximity and community. How might technology step in, when physical geography is still a barrier? Indeed, with the full gamut of software engineering skills at our disposal, what opportunities does technology afford us?

One of the appealing things about a direct connection between the narrator and audience is that the narrator is aware – aware of changes in the audiences’ state, their mood, their receptiveness, for example. And instead of having a fixed narrative to recount, the storyteller can adapt their material to better hold the audiences’ attention, or, even better, to create a more enjoyable experience. A small team within the BBC’s Research & Development department, led by Ian Forrester, has been experimenting with what they call ‘Perceptive Media‘, for the past year or so. The experiment aims to mimic, and improve upon, the adaptive experience of the campfire storyteller.

The basic principle is similar to that of the oral storyteller – instead of a single strand of narrative, the broadcaster has a central strand to communicate, but one which can be augmented by a wide range of options, based on feedback. This feedback does not necessarily have to be explicit, either – it’s no longer a case of having to shout at the TV screen, or even tweet your disgust. Instead, the idea runs that our laptops and phones can act as sensors, which can, with permission, transmit data back to the storyteller (in this case, most probably, the smart box within your TV which will assemble the narrative in real time), data which is then used to adapt certain aspects of the narrative experience.

Prototypes so far have focused on using the geographical location of audience members, customising the names of places within the narrative, in order to give a sense that the story is taking place near, or around you; another demonstration suggests that the soundtrack to a piece of video might be swapped out for an appropriate piece from your own personal record collection.

These are, for sure, interesting developments – similar to the increasing trend for personalised adverts throughout the Web, and yet the focus here is on tailoring the experience to heighten the enjoyment of the tale, rather than for commercial pressures. It remains to be seen, however, how this trend will be welcomed, or otherwise, by an audience which has grown used to stories which, as a rule, are disconnected from their daily lives. Another suggested sensor, based on the popular idea of ‘lean-back’ and ‘lean-forward’ experiences, might be making too many assumptions about the unconscious signals from an audience.

Perhaps the lesson here is one of balance and scale – if the references are just right, then it might trigger small sparks of recognition and enjoyment, similar to that of being part of a community, being ‘in on the joke’ when understanding a reference. Dealing with audiences of more than one, of course, presents more interesting, but not insurmountable, challenges.

The other side of the coin, when it comes to increasing interaction between storyteller and audience, is that of more explicit feedback. And indeed, there are some interesting experiments happening here too. IPTV, being developed currently through the BBC’s ‘Connected Red Button‘ experience, although working at a fairly traditional level of interaction currently, has the potential to allow audiences to select and interact with writers during a narrative, or to follow their nose and explore a story world. More of this kind of thing in a future article.

Finally, a special mention to one of the rawest forms of direct connection between author and audience, made possible by technology, taken to perhaps an extreme – the recent ‘100 hours’ experiment in which writer David Varela endeavoured to write, non-stop, for 100 hours, only in response to audience suggestions. Although understandably tough on the creative mind, it does show the value of explicit interaction, whereby the author and audience form a collaboration, and a community snowballs over a relatively short space of time.

David Varela wrote a piece about ‘100 hours of solitude’ for The Literary Platform back in October.


Next time – Out of Bounds


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