Category Archives: Creative Business

How the representation of disability in screen media is subverting expectations.

It’s said that “One of Five” [i] of the British population suffer from some type of disability, yet flicking through your television, you’d struggle to see this represented. It’s not that there’s a lack of disabled stories being told in screen entertainment. In the past year alone, there’s Stronger (2017) with Jake Gyllenhaal and Breathe (2017) with Andrew Garfield. They tell remarkable real life stories of inspiring disabled people, but what they don’t do, is feature people who actually have a disability. As playwright Christoper Shinn bluntly puts it, Pop culture’s more interested in disability as a metaphor than in disability as something that happens to real people”. [ii]

In Hollywood, portraying a disabled character is a sign of triumph and skill for able bodied performers. It’s a complex situation; we need more disabled characters on screen, but sometimes the only way these stories can be told is with a big-name, non-disabled actor to draw people in. Change it seems, will instead come from outside the mainstream, and that is what director Len Collin and writer Christian O’Reilly are aiming to do with their feature film Sanctuary (2016). Opting for the relatable over the spectacle, the film tells the fictional tale of the growing relationship between Larry and Sophie, who are played by actors with intellectual disability. While the film could perhaps be seen as a response the law in Ireland that prevented “people with an intellectual disability in Ireland banned from having sex”[iii] (since repealed), it’s not the focus of the narrative. The conversations throughout are mostly mundane, as they discuss love, life and television. Sometimes it veers into darker directions, such as suicide, but empathy never seems to be the emotion the film looks for. Opting for a restrained narrative in comparison to a more expected sermonising tone allows the characters, and in turn the intellectual disabled actors showcase a more, personable and individual side to disability on film.

The biggest success of the film is how it reaches an audience with a story that normalizes disability as part of regular life, and nothing is doing this on as large a scale as a recent commercial campaign for the Mars Chocolate, Maltesers. The advert portrays three women having chat, with one of them happening to have a disability. A joke is made that involves a mention of her cerebral palsy but, rather than being crude or disrespectful, it’s presented in a ‘regular life’ kind of way. Another advert that is part of the campaign has a character in a wheelchair telling the story of how she accidentally runs over the bride’s foot at a wedding. The adverts were hugely successful for the Mars Chocolate, in which the company stated it was the “most successful in decade…..Maltesers achieved an 8.1% uplift compared  to the target of  4%” [i]. The success and importance of the campaign cannot be understated when “an average broadcast TV campaign in the UK gets 237 million views[iv]. It places the focus on the disabled character, but never on the disability, opting instead for a sense of normality, allowing the relatable side to be a focus of the campaign.

The equal representation of disability has yet to reach all aspects of screen media, but there are growing efforts to change this. Chief marketing and communications officer of Channel 4 Dan Brooke has spoke up in the past about how The creative industries can lead the way on inclusivity for disabled people”[v] . He wants to make Channel 4 “the vanguard for change”, pointing to shows like “the Paralympics, The Autistic Gardener and The Undateables”. It’s not just disabled focused shows either, with “C4 News guest hosting disabled announcers”[vi]  and a “paralysed man hosting an episode of “Come Dine With Me[vii] . There is also the comedian Francesca Martinez, who, as she puts its “wobbled out of the disability closet” and used stand up comedy to find a way to “speak honestly about who I was”. Francesca has featured on shows like ‘The Wright Stuff’, ‘The Jonathan Ross Show’ and ‘Loose Women’, not just as a disabled person, but as a comedian who happens to have a disability.

The arts can be powerful tool in awareness, and when “Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people”, andOver a third (36%) tending to think of disabled people as not productive as everyone else[viii] , an education is sorely needed. Perhaps there’s no harm in seeing an able bodied actor like Daniel Day-Lewis portray a disabled character, but when he then goes and walks onto the stage to accept an award for that, there is a clear sense of dissonance created. Instead, it would better serve to follow the path of success that maltesers found with their advertising campaign and begin to represent disability as the everyday reality that it is.

[i] Maltesers’ disability campaign “most successful” in decade [Internet]. [cited 2018 Jan 12]. Available from:

[ii] Shinn C. Dear Hollywood: Disability Is Not Just a Metaphor [Internet]. The Atlantic. 2014 [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[iii]  Change in law removes illegal status around sexual relationships for people with intellectual disabilities [Internet]. 2017 [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[iv] £5.28 billion invested in TV advertising in UK in 2016 [Internet]. thinkbox. [cited 2018 Jan 12]. Available from:

[v] The creative industries can lead the way on inclusivity for disabled people [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[vi] Disabled guest announcers take control of Channel 4’s continuity mics – Channel 4 – Info – Press [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

[vii] Disabled guest announcers take control of Channel 4’s continuity mics – Channel 4 – Info – Press [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from: )

[viii] Most Brits uncomfortable talking to disabled people | Disability charity Scope UK [Internet]. [cited 2018 Feb 16]. Available from:

Home Media Insights: The Changing Landscape of Filmed Entertainment

The 17th January 2018, saw the launch event for two books providing a critical perspective on the recent history of home media distribution:  Cult Media: Re-Packaged, Re-Released and Restored and DVD, Blu-Ray & Beyond: Navigating Formats and Platforms Within Media Consumption, both edited by Jonathan Wroot, Lecturer here at the University of Greenwich, and Andy Willis.

Meanwhile guest speaker Robert Price, Managing Director for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Chairman of the British Association for Screen Entertainment (BASE) was there to give an insight into what the future might hold for the home entertainment market.

Here are three key points that stood out from his talk:

The popularity of the movies is not in decline.

 One of Robert’s main points was that content is driven by customer demand, and the large number of content available proves that there has been a growth in cultural significance for movies. In the UK, “£4.1 billion is spent on watching films every year”, over “£77 per person”, and within this, the home entertainment market was worth “£2.7 billion in 2017” an increase of “7.5% from 2016”. It’s said that the average buyer spends £99 on home entertainment a year.

The growing importance of the foreign market was highlighted throughout the talk. “Fox now distributes to over 130 countries Worldwide”, and the global theatrical box office took in an insane, “£39.9bn”, up “3%” from 2016. Franchises are being propelled by the global market, with the Transformers films being “kept alive by the high numbers in the Chinese box-office”; it’s estimated that between 2016-2021, the Chinese movie market is expected to grow by “68.5%”.

Above all, the way we interact with movies on a social level is the driving force for commercial success. Robert stated that a past 21st Century Fox release, Deadpool (2016), was partly made due to the highly positive response that leaked test footage received online, spurring it into production. Along the same lines, he added that “movies create a constant stream of conversation and consumption”, with the recent release of the Avengers Infinity War trailer prompting “1.45 million conversations on social media” for a film that does not release until April.

It’s clear that digital has changed the way we consume content

The relationship between digital and film does not just end at the social level, but has also remodelled the way we consume entertainment. The power of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services has continued to rise in recent years, partly due to the fact that they operate via distribution methods that differ to the studio strategy of old. They don’t have to follow the standard 5-year release window, as all their content is made available on the service, giving them an edge on distribution. Having new content available instantly and constantly is a major incentive for customers. The combined number of paying subscribers (Netflix, Amazon and Now TV) for October 2017 is “10.8 million”, up from “9.5million” in October 2016.

Netflix’s original content is increasing more and more, but while this has led to “quality exclusives”, the overall library of third party content is considered by many to be “poor”, leading to the “number one reason people cancel Netflix” being that “they ran out of things they wanted to watch”. Studios, like Fox are pulling content from third-party streaming platforms (see link for more info: so, since for the customers “content is still king”, Netflix have upped the number of their own productions.

It’s estimated that the annual video content budget for Netflix is “£4.4 billion”, with Amazon operating in a similar fashion with a “£3.3 billion” budget. These are not the only contenders, as Apple have begun to dip their toe in original content production, with it being said their current budget is “£0.7 billion – a figure that will surely rise. Netflix has changed from a streaming platform to a full-blown competitor for the major studios, and Robert added that he feels that “It’s almost inevitable that Netflix will soon be in every home.”


Home Entertainment has “powered the Hollywood economic model”, but this way of work is “under attack” from the rise of digital.  2017 marked the first time that digital sales overtook physical in the UK home entertainment market. We can attribute this shift to the fact that “there is new content everywhere“, with an “explosion” of devices creating “access ubiquity”. Movies are now watched on “36% of televisions”, but “89% of computers, 42% of games consoles and 58% of iPads”. The digital streaming market will only continue to rise ; in 2013, “digital subscriptions made up 7% of home entertainment sales.” In 2017, this figure is up to “32%”.

So Hollywood will have to change…

While change has been hard to receive, it is not proving detrimental to the market as a whole. Fox reported that digital has grown from “10%” of home entertainment revenue to “60%”, but the overall market has yet to suffer, with the UK’s filmed entertainment “£4.8billion” value in 2016, showing an increase from 2014’s figure of £3.8 billion”. The big studios aren’t retreating from increasingly powerful streaming services, but instead are welcoming the challenge.

With the Fox/Disney deal still fresh in the news, a lot of the discussion centered around the potential danger this could bring to the film industry, Robert was positive about the deal, and stated how it was “driven by scalability”. There is a need for “more content and more outlets of revenue”, and with that being said, the smaller avenues like “Fox Searchlight” should not be facing consequences as a result of the deal, and could perhaps even increase their output, as it provides Disney with a new audience.

(See link for more information on Disney’s plan for their streaming service:

In fact Robert highlighted the potential danger of the “tent pole” release strategy, that tends to put too much focus on the blockbuster films, an example being that “The Last Jedi”( 2017), while successful made less money than previous release, “The Force Awakens” (2015). The point Robert kept returning to was the importance of delivering content that people want. Failure won’t come from piracy or streaming but from a lack of engagement with the consensus of the audience.


How can creative businesses be both ethical and profitable?

The relationship between cultural value and economic value lies at the heart of the creative industries and is crucial to the lives and work of every artist and creative practitioner. The value that creative businesses aim to create is not only financial, but also cultural and social and they are often motivated by strong ethics. This has a significant effect on how they function as businesses.

It is however a complex and varied relationship, much contested and, perhaps, often misunderstood. David Throsby attempted a thorough examination of this relationship in Economics and Culture.[1] It is also central to more recent research carried out by NESTA[2]  and the AHRC [3] .  Such enquiries and analyses have begun to develop a more expansive and richer language and set of concepts for thinking and talking about the connection between cultural and economic value. Our discussion panel ‘How Can Creative Businesses be both Ethical and Profitable?’ (University of Greenwich, 3/5/17) sought to contribute to this ongoing discussion, with a particular focus on social value, understanding the latter to constitute an important form of cultural value.

The three contributors to the panel each occupy a particular position with regard to cultural and economic value:

Sheeza Ahmed Shah is the co-founder of The Up Effect, a crowd funding platform for social enterprises. Before they accept a business onto their platform, The Up Effect staff scrutinize its business and social impact plans to determine whether they are mutually supportive and add up to a coherent package. They are looking for businesses with a clear social purpose, which also have a viable and scaleable revenue model. Sheeza is clear that social impact is only achievable and sustainable to the extent that a company can make money and grow.

Seva Phillips manages NESTA’s Arts Impact Fund, which supports cultural organisations in developing their social aims and making sure that the cultural value that they create has social impact. Seva stressed that, to be successful in this endeavour, organisations need to be clear about motivation – why they want to achieve a social impact in the first place, outcomes – what exactly the change is that they want to achieve, and accountability – how they will evaluate whether they have achieved these outcomes.

Florence Magee is Head of Artist Development at SPACE and Programme Manager of the London Creative Network. Her role is to help individual content creators, such as artists, photographers and crafts people, to strengthen the sustainability and increase the capacity of their businesses. The majority of people she works with do not currently make a living from their creative practice alone, but sustain it financially through income from other work. Sustainability and growth in this context mean helping people to maintain their arts practice and to develop its profile, but not necessarily to derive their main income from it.

Our panel thus represented a broad spectrum with regard to the aims, objectives and context of cultural production with a social purpose and it became clear that certain aspects of business and creative production mean different things in different contexts. While Sheeza’s platform helps companies to grow in terms of scaleability and expanding their size and customer reach, for the individual cultural content makers that Florence works with, growth does not so much mean expanding the size of the company (many of her clients are sole traders) as increasing the cultural value of their work – in terms of their profile, the venues in which they exhibit, the publications in which they publish and so on. This increase in cultural value, she points out, is what will increase financial value. Furthermore, while the companies who crowd fund on The Up Effect explicitly define themselves as social enterprises, most of the practitioners who Florence works with would not categorise their practice as having a social purpose, despite the fact that ethics and politics may deeply motivate their work and how they approach it. Their values may be embodied and expressed in their work but they would not generally produce a specific plan for the social impact of their work. Social value is likely to be implicit rather than explicit.

At the same time, Seva pointed out, ethics is becoming something that consumers and audiences want to buy into. Ecological sustainability, fair trade and employment practices and social activism have the potential to translate into financial value and to be advantageous to a company in the marketplace. Large corporations are as aware of this as are social purpose startups. This is why Bank of America Merrill Lynch are investors in NESTA’s Social Impact Fund.

Both Seva and Sheeza stressed that social enterprise is in fact becoming a crowded market and it is vital that part of the social impact that a social purpose company achieves is to tell its story effectively and to make this story a central part of its brand. At the same time, this story needs to genuinely reflect the core mission of the company, not be simply a marketing strategy. This is not easy to get right and is something that large corporations often get wrong in social media campaigns, as Colette Henry recounted in a previous Creative Conversation. There are, in general, some obvious pitfalls inherent in the monetization of social value and care must be taken to get the balance right.

Another issue that arose in discussion was the lack of equitable reward structures to encourage the development, sharing and exploitation of original and innovative ideas. Creativity and innovation are buzzwords in contemporary culture, not only in the creative arts, but in government and across all business sectors. However, it is often the case that, while artists and other innovators generate cultural and social value through new ideas and practices, the financial value is realized by other agencies, which have the resources to scale up and monetise these ideas. Sometimes this may be the result of a fruitful and equitable partnership, but, as ideas are not in themselves protectable intellectual property, this is often not the case.

Some Conclusions and Further Questions

As expected, the wide ranging discussion threw up more questions than it answered. Social impact has clearly become a central focus for discussions about the relationship between cultural and economic value. At its most basic level, this is because evidence of social impact has become something that customers will pay for, making it an easily identifiable and measurable signifier of the correlation between economic and cultural value. This is largely a positive development. Adam Arvidsson has written about the way that businesses may become more and more dependent on ‘productive consumer publics’ for their value in the marketplace, giving such publics the power to ‘set the values that are attributed to consumer brands.’ [4]

However, if ‘economic impact, often defined more narrowly than conventionally understood by economists, has become the principal way for proponents of arts and culture to argue its economic importance,’ [5] so too the application of too narrow a definition of social impact and/or an overemphasis on its monetisation or cost effectiveness (an important consideration with regard to the introduction of the Public Services Social Value Act) would be unhelpful. This would have the effect of straitjacketing, rather than developing and encouraging creative and social practice.

At the same time, the prevalence of discussion around community interest, social purpose and social impact could and should encourage creative practitioners and businesses to think more about how relevant this might be to what they do. Many creative practitioners and companies may not immediately think of themselves in these terms, but, on reflection, might find that they do operate according to strong ethics and are creating social value or have the potential to do so. Building this more explicitly into their strategy could help their business and the local and wider communities of which they are part.

Questions that seem particularly pertinent to explore further, with regard to how creative enterprises might practically develop their cultural, social and financial value, include:

    • Cultural content producers tend to channel creativity and develop original ideas at the level of content, while pursuing traditional business models for their sector, e.g seeking public funding, focusing on increasing the cultural value of their work through existing institutional frameworks. Should they perhaps also be focusing on developing original and creative approaches to their business model itself? If so, what might these be?
    • What more equitable reward structures might be developed to encourage the development, sharing and exploitation of original and innovative ideas? How might artists and other creative practitioners develop forms of expression for early stage ideas and creative practices that give them a status as cultural assets with a definable and tradable value?
    • Crowd funding is an example of how digital technologies can be used to catalyze and motivate users to come together to form a customer base that is simultaneously a community. What other ways might there be to achieve a scalable convergence of market place and community ? For example, a multitude of online hosting platforms exist – for websites, video, audio, designs, online stores etc. – to facilitate marketing and distribution of creative work. To what extent are these helping creatives to create viable businesses? Where are the opportunities for increasing cultural and social impact and profit? How might such approaches perhaps address the two questions above?

[1] Throsby, D, Economics and Culture, C.U.P 2001

[2] Bakhshi, H, Measuring Cultural Value, NESTA 2012

[3] Crossick, G & Kaszynska, P, Understanding The Value of Arts and Culture, AHRC 2016

[4] Arvidsson, A, ephemera: theory & politics in organization, Volume 13(2): 367-391, 2013

[5] Crossick, G & Kaszynska, P, Understanding The Value of Arts and Culture, AHRC 2016


Screentest Festival: Freelance Panel

March 10th & 11th 2017 saw the UK’s national student film festival; Screentest host a weekend of film screenings, panels and workshops at the University of Greenwich Stockwell Street building. For students wanting to get into the film festival circuit Screentest is a valuable event.

During the weekend, Screentest hosted a Freelance panel which involved four young freelancers from various aspects of filmmaking discussing their personal experiences as freelancers in today’s film industry.

Taz Fairbanks (@tazfairbanks) Freelance Location Sound Recordist and Boom Operator
Zak Harney (@zakharney) Freelance Director and Assistant Director
Ciaran Obrien (@ciaranobrien) Freelance Director of Photography
Zoe Alker (@zoealker) Freelance Director and Writer

Top Tips for Being Freelance:
Although the following tips revolve around freelancing in the film and television industries, the advice can be applied to other professions in the creative industries.

  • As a freelancer you need to be a person who isn’t satisfied with a nine-to-five job. The hours will be long and you won’t get typical holidays or a specific amount of working hours a week. You will be flexible, able to work early mornings, late nights and weekends.
  • Don’t be afraid to try your luck when it comes to making contacts and working on a particular project. Make sure you call [a production company etc.] and talk to the person you want to work with. It is better than letting your email get stuck in an unread inbox.
  • It takes sacrifice and determination to be a freelancer but there is a potential to have a very rewarding career.
  • Don’t be afraid to sell yourself as a service. Make sure to tell people what is great about you and specifically say what you can provide if you work for them.
  • Figure out your day rate and stick to it. When you are studying, it is a great time to get work experience and learn technical skills. However once you have graduated and possibly have begun to invest in your own kit, it is time to figure out how much you are worth so you don’t get exploited! If you are using your own kit for a shoot, make sure you are charging for the use of your kit on top of charging for your working hours you will be putting in. Remember that kit would cost a certain amount from a kit hire facility so look into their rates and bare this in mind when working out your day rate.
  • Face to face interaction is very important as busy working professionals don’t get time to look at their emails all of the time, so ensure you make an impression on people when you can. A way to do this could be by supporting fellow filmmakers at industry events or getting involved with local events and projects. If you go out of your way to support people, it won’t go unnoticed. Supporting projects, events and people is a great way of networking too. You are more likely to be remembered if you meet and talk to people rather than emailing or calling.
  • Value your own work. Enjoy what you do and take pride in your work.
  • Don’t let people expect you to work for free. Working for passion projects may be an exception but consider how much time you can allow to give up for free before making commitments.
  • Don’t underestimate yourself. Respect your own technical skills and talent. Use your instinct when making business decisions.

Creative Hubs in the Digital Age

What is the Value of Creative Hubs in the Digital Age?

In 2015 The British Council’s Creative Economy Team released a Creative Hubkit [1] as part of a report into Creative Hubs. The kit highlights the fundamental ideas used by existing creative hubs and how these can be used to establish new ones:

10 key elements of a creative hub:

  1. A creative hub is flexible. The hub can take form as an online platform or alternatively in a variety of physical spaces.
  2. A creative hub promotes collaboration
  3. A creative hub nurtures idea growth and networking.
  4. A creative hub engages together as a community and will positively impact the local community.
  5. A creative hub focuses on creativity, culture and technology.
  6. A creative hub has aims of creating social, economic and cultural value through enterprise and social innovation.
  7. A creative hub is diverse and involves people from a range of social, economic and cultural backgrounds.
  8. A creative hub can facilitate with practical spaces, hardware and tools i.e. work benches, studios, screen printing materials, 3D printers etc.
  9. A creative hub will be structured with a new business model. There will be a shared mission statement that works towards improving humanity or society.
  10. A creative hub is a supportive environment that strives for growth in creative practice, business and audience reach.

Makerversity is an example of a modern face to face creative hub, as highlighted by The British Council[2]. The business model revolves around using their work space to bring people together. It boasts a variety of creative and technical expertise in order to encourage work, inspiration, and most importantly community. According to The British Council’s Economy Team “these [kinds of] spaces promote community spirit, vital to local and global economic and social development.”[3] Interestingly Makerversity is a members only scheme. In order to acquire a membership there is a monthly fee. The fees are in place to ensure all users have access to quality facilities and also to provide social networking events.

However not all hubs require membership. The business models that are more inclusive are the ones that don’t require membership payment. In being able to offer unlimited free access, they are able to provide access for all and are consequently diverse. Ultimately, and understandably, all hubs need donations or funding for running costs, especially when they intend to expand.

Hubs such as HackSpace are non-profit and are specifically community-run. They provide workshops and shared spaces for work, learning and teaching. Membership is an option but there isn’t a specific payment amount required. Their members help to run the organisation and will pay only what they think is fair.

2017 marks the launch of Europe’s largest creative hub. Officially launching June 17th 2017; Plexal will be located at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The hub will be the first of its kind, emulating a mini city. With the latest creative technology hosted in an environment created by architects and designers, it aims to be the next innovation of creative hubs. Plexal membership prices are estimated to start from £200 for a basic co-work space and over £400 for a premium private office. The scope and size of the creative hub will being a diverse range of creatives with varying business models.

According to Claire Cockerton CEO of Plexal, the new hub could potentially create a new definition for what constitutes a creative hub and the scope of its environment. Claire explains [4] that the difference with Plexal is that “the whole focus of our space is on connected devices and we’re focusing on sport, health, fashion and IoT technologies.” Plexal’s name derived from plexus meaning, “A complex structure containing an intricate network of parts.”[5] Cockerton has said Plexal is, “very much trying to embody the concept of connectivity and also humanity.” If other creative hubs follow Plexal’s lead, integration of state of the art technology and in house specialists such as lawyers etc. could impair the efficiency of standard practical spaces.

With any creative hub there is a need for a purpose and drive. Value is derived from the members that make up the community, sustainability derives from the hub. As discussed in The British Council’s Creative Hub Report [6] creative hubs hold strong shared ‘value and values’ with their ethos and work practice, for example; promoting social change, improving education or gender equality etc. With these values at the forefront of the hub, a positive impact will be made on the identity of the hub, its members and the networks it builds. As a combination of talented people working collaboratively in a positive social environment, the individuals gain confidence and as a team are more likely to succeed. “…these shared values are powerful motivators for the often precarious and risky lifestyle of the creative economy.” [6] This is what makes creative hubs valuable to other sectors, businesses and authorities.

Additionally The Creative Hub Report [6] also points out that “success is not defined in the same way in every hub. Understanding the unique proposition of a hub, and its relation to the local creative community, underpins a successful outcome.” With this in mind it would be interesting to monitor if and how non-profit creative hubs are able to keep their values when faced with economic pressure from profit driven creatives.

In conclusion it is extremely important to understand the current digital climate of the creative industries. The Creative Hub Report states “the development of a creative hub is an ongoing process, and it points to the need to continually review the relevance of the governance to practice and to the stakeholders if a resilient hub is to be sustained.”[6] With the opening of Plexal and potentially similar hubs to follow in the future, it is likely that we will see a gradual change in the way that creative hubs work and how collaborative production takes place. Although technology may currently empower creatives to connect in an instant, it is the creative hubs with their focus on ethical values that are driving working dynamics.


[1] “Creative Hubs”. British Council |Creative Economy. N.p., 2017. Web. Jan. 2017.

[2] “In Focus: Makerversity”. British Council |Creative Economy. N.p., 2017. Web. Jan. 2017.

[3] “Creative Hubs”. British Council |Creative Economy. N.p., 2017. Web. Jan. 2017.

[4] “PLEXAL: The Quirky Innovation Centre With A ‘High Street’ That’s Being Set Up In London’s £150 Million Tech Hub”. Business Insider. Sam Shead., October 2016. Web. Jan. 2017.

[5] “The Definition Of Plexus”. N.p., 2017. Web. Jan. 2017.

[6] “The Creative Hubs Report”. The British Council, 2016. Web. Jan. 2017

Attending to Social Media: Panel Discussion

This Creative Conversations event, held on 30 November 2016, brought together creatives and professional communicators to discuss how attention works in social media. Our panelists were:

Joanna Walsh (@badaude). Author, editor at 3am Magazine (@3ammagazine), the force behind @read_women and more. Her books include Hotel (2015), Vertigo (2015), Grow a Pair (2015) and Fractals (2013).

Dan Calladine (@dancall). Head of Media Futures, at Carat Global.

Francesco D’Orazio (@abc3d). VP Product & Research at Pulsar (@Pulsar_social), co-founder of the Visual Social Media Lab (@VisSocMedLab).

Colette Henry, Communications Planning Director at Futerra (@futerra), a sustainability-focused creative communications agency.

Steve Cross (@steve_x). Comedian, consultant, trainer, Wellcome Engagement Fellow, honorary fellow in Science and Technology Studies at UCL (@stsucl). Creator of @BrightClubLDN and @ScienceShowoff.

Chair: Gauti Sigthorsson (@conceptbin). Principal Lecturer in Media & Communications, CPDA, University of Greenwich.

“People are the most interesting thing on the internet.”

The chair welcomed the guests and panelists to Greenwich.

Content is endless on the internet, but people’s attention is finite. How do we generate attention in social media? Can you have too much attention? The wrong kind of attention? What do you do with it when you capture people’s attention?

Ultimately these questions are about interaction rather than content. Anyone can put some text, sounds and images out there, but getting a reaction is a different proposition. This evening is about people, because people are the most interesting thing on the internet.

“The labour of accounting for yourself”

Joanna Walsh, the first panelist of the evening, remarked on the relationship between authors and readers over social media, and related it to the popularity of auto-fiction, the blurring of fiction and autobiography by the writers. This puts the figure of the author in the spotlight. Michel Foucault, in his essay “What is an Author?”, defined the author as a function that emerged with the printing press and mass-literacy. This new production and distribution of print gave rise to a demand from the state for someone to be accountable for what was written.

Auto-fiction presents the author as a persona, blurring fiction and autobiography, as in the work of Sheila Heti (How Should a Person Be?), and earlier in Truman Capote’s work, starting with his first novel (Other Voices, Other Rooms) featuring a cover image of the author himself, beautiful and mysterious, a photo which became Capote’s “avatar”. Walsh noted also that both Heti and Capote work at an intimate level. Both these books are about the part love played in their lives. Heti’s work, in particular, reminds us that disclosure is a performance. The moralism of authenticity demands truthful self-disclosure, which can be seen in the social media compulsion to and reward of self-disclosure.

This translates to labour. “The labour of accounting for yourself” in writing. Walsh distinguishes between writers’ output (written work published) and promotion online, while noting that this boundary is becoming ever more blurred.

“Social media is the domain of the shapeshifter”

The next speaker, Dan Calladine, is Head of Future Media at Carat Global. His career at the agency predates most online media (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter), so he’s seen the rise of the “digital native” alongside the new online media that now dominate.

A key teme for Calladine was how quickly novelty becomes ordinary online. He pointed out that the “like” button is only around 5 years old. Sharing, liking, replying – these are behaviours that are fairly recent. [ref. Without their Permission, book]

Anyone can create stuff online. Fake news (and Facebook’s stated inability to differentiate between them and real news) are an example of the proliferation of content like this. In that, they are related to fan sites, which have created mini-celebs in their own right, and social media celebrities like vloggers.

Social media is the domain of the shapeshifter. Personas are different between platforms (i.e., my Twitter persona has a different voice and content than on Facebook, Instagram, etc.). And sometimes we find those differences out by breaking the implicit rules of those platforms. For example, Dan Calladine’s profile picture on LinkedIn, a picture of a kitten, looks pretty unusual for that platform.

Speculating on trends, Calladine noted that Facebook’s “live video” feature is now being heavily pushed. In a few years we’ll wonder what these platforms looked like without that feature.

Some other emerging trends:

VR (FB bought Oculus Rift and its OS), virtual, augmented reality technologies for being “together” over media in a different way from what we now have.

Commerce will become more social, especially with people becoming more comfortable with sharing their shopping and purchase experiences online.

FB and TV (Twitter and TV), closer links between social media and what used to be called television.

Automation and bots will be seen a lot more in interfaces of all kinds, so that chat messaging serves as an interface for services we’ve had to dea with by text until now. With Siri and now Echo, it is becoming usual to speak with digital systems and to get a response.

“Dark social” (email, Snapchat) is also growing more important.

“All of this is about relevance.”

Following this, Francesco D’Orazio stuck to the topic of marketing, audiences and how his company, Pulsar, aims to be nothing less than an oracle for what people tink, using social data.

The key idea for D’Orazio is relevance. This is what is at stake in all monitoring of publicily visible social media. : Discovering audiences, trends, planning insights (targeting), measurement, category mapping, brand health.

Marketers want attention (lat. attendere, “waiting” in Italian). Attention and waiting.

D’Orazio raised the question of incentives for falsity, of content that is aimed purely at capturing attention long enough to persuade people to click on a headline and to share it. What’s the “need” for fake news?

Topicality: Affinities of audiences.
Expression: Language of the audience.
Value: What is of value to the audience, and what values does the content correspond to or serve.
Timeliness: Moments.
Targeting: Communities.
Engagement: Performance of content, what works.

All of this is about relevance – whatever is on social media has to resonate with people in order to be read, viewed, shared…

“Attention is an exchange”

Colette Henry, communications planner at Futerra, opened with a fundamental question on our topic: Why is attention important?

As infants we need attention for our survival. We have a basic human need to “grab” or “take” attention. But it also serves an essential filtering function – we pay attention by deciding what not to pay attention to.

Attention is an exchange, and if you work with social media, you must respect this exchange of attention. And be willing to let go of it: Control of attention is like a spotlight. Social media enables whoever (not just those who pay) to take up the spotlight.

Ignore this at your peril when it comes to communications strategy. Henry shared some examples of how slippery the controls are over who gets to direct the spotlight of attention, even in well-resourced campaigns. Nestle’s “positive cup” campaign, opened up a lot of discussion on social media, with people reacting to the campaign by asking about the recycling and waste generated by the use of aluminium pods. Similarly, Beyonce’s “Who runs the world?” for a large clothing retailer provoked a reaction focusing on sweatshop labour, asking how the clothes were made and at what human cost.

Brands are not able to control attention, people will take note of whatever they like. A brand cannot “own” the attention spotlight.

Henry pointed out that good practice examples of socia media campaigns shows that brands can successfully give up ownership of the campaign itself, generating positive attention and engagement. For Henry, it is essential for social media communications to “recognise that you don’t own it,” and be prepared for others taking it in directions you didn’t foresee at the planning stage.

“Puncture your own filter bubble”

And finally, on the principle that you should never put anyone in front of an audience after a professional comedian, Steve Cross concluded the panel presentations.

He opened by explaining how to make outrage marketing work for you – the Daily Mail model of science communication and comedy. One key point he impressed ont he audience: Fake “facts” get you lots of followers and retweets.

Also, do your best to puncture your own filter bubble. Are you a science communicator? Why not retweet status updates from kids who don’t like science, and complain about having to do it at school? Result: “Boring people” who take things literally unfollowed Steve’s account in droves.

Cross took us on a whirlwind tour of his events (Science Showoff, Books Showoff), and his Twitter feeds. He tweets in a number of guises, adopting a variety of personas and voices, including tweeting as a naked mole rat.

Concluding with a pro tip, Cross advised anyone wanting to build a following on social media: Get a very good camera. Photos get a lot of likes and shares. Take good pictures of people who perform at your events, they’ll make them their profile pictures, share them, etc.

“Pay attention to get attention”

Some shared themes emerged among the panelists in their remarks. One is that if you want to generate attention on social media and sustain it for longer than the few seconds it takes to find the like-button, you need to find something that people care about. To do that, be open to surprising, random-seeming topics (naked mole rats, anyone?) and pay attention to what comes back to you from what you put out initially, because things change along the way.

The panel concluded with a discussion on the many ways in which social media demands of its users that we construct personas through which to perform our presence. It doesn’t mean that these personas are inauthentic (on the contrary), but rather that they are part of what Erving Goffman called the “presentation of self in everyday life”. This presentation is now enabled in a new way by social media which allow us to perform not merely to our intimates and those we meet in person, but to a dispersed, decentered audience.

Another theme that emerged in discussions was the blurred distinction between true and false, fact and fake – fake news being the obvious example of how social media not only enables but rewards behaviours which generate attention, sensation and entertainment. Is this emblematic of our “post-truth” moment in politics, as well, in which unsubstantiated claims can swing elections?

“We live not in the age of news but in the age of fiction” (Joanna Walsh)

For Creative Conversations, many thanks to our panelists, and to Alex Craft, marketing and events coordinator for CPDA.

How does an Audience become a Community?

Our recent panel on ‘Building Reader Communities’ discussed how and why it is important to think about engaging reader communities.

Our starting premise was that writers, publishers and other creative producers need to engage with their audiences in new ways.

While publishers’ main relationship used to be with the retailers who sold their products, digital technologies now facilitate a much more direct engagement with their audience. This is a great opportunity, but it is also a challenge. Marketing departments are expected to be experts in social media and in building communities and there is an increased pressure on writers to have these skills too.

So how to go about it? Here are five key points that came out of the discussion:

1) Perhaps one thing that needs to be taken more into account is that communities usually take time to build. As Co-Director of Greenwich Book Festival, Auriol Bishop anticipates it will take three years to establish a community around the festival. In order to set it up, she and her co-directors, Patricia Nicol and Alex Pheby, drew on the communities of which they were already part. They all belong to the world of publishing. Auriol is Creative Director of Hodder & Stoughton, Alex is a writer and Patricia is a journalist. However they all also belong to the local community and so, while Auriol knew Alex through her publishing contacts, she met Patricia through the school playground network. With Alex also leading the Creative Writing degree programme at the University of Greenwich, the trio were able to bring into play a powerful nexus of local and industry support.

Sci-fi author, Kate Russell, and Alexis Kennedy, Creative Director of Failbetter Games, both recounted similar experiences of drawing on existing communities to build new ones. As a tech journalist and broadcaster, Kate had a large twitter following and Failbetter Games had a loyal community around their game Fallen London. They were both able to launch new projects with the help of crowd funding from these existing communities. In fact Kate’s project was a novel set in the world of the videogame Elite, a community of which she was herself a member. New communities then built around these new projects.

For many writers, publishers and other creative producers, thinking imaginatively about how to draw on existing networks and playing the long game is the best, most realistic approach to building a community.

2) Communities require not only time, but energy, to build and maintain. Meike Ziervogel, Founder of Peirene Press, testified to the fact that it is possible to build a community from scratch, with minimum reliance on existing networks. As a publisher of foreign language books in translation, which are traditionally difficult to sell, she knew she had to establish a strong brand, rather than rely on selling individual titles. Therefore, although Peirene titles are available for sale individually, the subscription model is very important to Peirene, as it facilitates much stronger reader loyalty. In order to attract subscribers, Meike focused on getting out into public spaces – setting up pop up stores at places like supermarkets and farmers’ markets. She also produced a newsletter, which she handed out at the entrance to the tube. The strategy paid off and Peirene still runs about 80 pop up stores a year to attract new subscribers. Meike sees face to face contact as very important, not only to build but to maintain a community. She runs a literary salon from her own house. Since the house can only fit 50 people, the salons tend to sell out very quickly. But for Meike the fact that the salon is in her house epitomizes the nature of a reading community – which is ‘the private and the public sphere colliding’. A community is something more intimate than a public. A community is something that you choose to participate in and belong to.

3) This brings us to our next point, which is that communities are interactive, dynamic and autonomous. Kate pointed out that communities need consistent and regular input, but it is equally important to offer people ways to participate and contribute themselves. Members of a community will not only buy books and attend events, they will crowd fund projects, spread the word and bring in new members. They will provide feedback and give you new ideas. Dedicated communities want this kind of involvement. They interact intensively with each other, discussing experiences, sharing strategies, organizing their own related events and thus deepening and expanding the experience of the game for each other. Publishers work closely with book groups, because they know how powerful and proactive they are in engaging readers with books.

However, communities also have a life far beyond this original engagement. Community members become friends. Sometimes they even get married. When your community is important to its members, it becomes part of their lives and they own it as much as you do. Communities are therefore also unpredictable. They will not always give you the feedback you want or expect and they may not always do things you want them to do. As Kate Russell points out, communities need to be managed. Yet, if communities are powerful and proactive, they will never be fully controllable.

4) Nevertheless, communities are a valuable business asset. Both Meike and Alexis were clear about the fact that their businesses depend on their communities. Alexis recounted vividly how his business struggled to survive financially on their original interactive fiction Fallen London. In a final effort to make the business work, he and his partners launched a crowd funding campaign to produce a videogame, Sunless Sea, which is set in the world of Fallen London. They found the Fallen London community keen not only to fund but to promote the game. Failbetter Games’ business model relies on this community. They operate a freemium model, in which people who participate for free in Fallen London pay for additional content and spin off experiences, such as Sunless Sea. Sunless Sea has also reached a whole new audience and expanded the community. The ability to beta test prototypes through the community is also highly valuable to the company.

For Meike too, it is this loyalty felt by the community to something bigger than a single work, in her case the Peirene brand, which holds the key to her business.

5) At the same time, communities depend on trust and mutual respect. When your community is your business asset, you obviously value it highly. But how do you maintain the balance between the values of the community and the values of the market? As Auriol pointed out, this is sometimes less of a conundrum for small businesses, like Failbetter Games and Peirene Press, or for writers like Kate, who are likely to share the values of their community and engage with them in a very direct way. Although many people who work within mainstream publishing are also passionate about what they do, it may be harder for a large publishing business to get the balance right. As Kate stressed, being authentic is vital to building a successful community. When communities build around a story world, a brand or an individual, it is because people feel it is something they can connect to, which is genuine and which has its own unique identity and integrity.

To hear more from our panel watch video clips here

You may also be interested in our next ‘New Space of Publishing’ panel on ‘The Writer as Catalyst and Collaborator’