Report: Confluence 19 in Partnership with Academy London

Posted by Justine Solomons on 20 February 2019, in Event reports, News

Words by Chris Russell, photos by Justin Spray 

“This isn’t a conference,” said Justine Solomons, Byte founder, in her welcome speech, “it’s a confluence”. And the difference was important — in the spirit of Byte The Book’s ongoing emphasis on networking and collaboration, its inaugural “Confluence” event, held at London’s Google Academy, encouraged people to actively engage and interact with its talks, sharing their reactions with fellow attendees and speakers alike.

Simon Trigg, Commercial Director of Shorthand, talking tools for digital storytelling

Talks and workshops filled the afternoon from beginning to end, covering various aspects of storytelling, technology and audience engagement. Simon Trigg, commercial director at Shorthand, opened the floor with Tools of the Storytelling Revolution, an exploration of the ways in which new technology can be used to present online stories in innovative ways. He described Shorthand — which originally emerged as a journalism tool, but has since diversified — as “sort of like PowerPoint, but for responsive web stories”, and talked about the company’s ambition to empower storytellers through the use of dynamic and intuitive visuals. “The essence of storytelling hasn’t changed,” he explained, “but story formats have, and that’s where we come in”. Shorthand boasts high-profile clients such as ESPN, the BBC, Sky Sports and Honda, and is perhaps best known for the extraordinary web story Grenfell: Messages from the Tower, which charted the harrowing events of 14 June 2017 through a gripping combination of statistics, imagery and personal stories.

Novellic's Founder, Candide Kirk, talking about discoverability strategies

Novellic’s Candide Kirk, meanwhile, discussed discoverability strategies, addressing a problem that all storytellers have — in a saturated marketplace, how do you attract users to your content? She looked first at algorithms, specifically at a process known as ‘collaborative filtering’, which is the technique responsible for the “you might also like” feature employed so successfully by Amazon and Spotify. She revealed that, in many cases, the links you don’t click on are equally as consequential as the ones you do; on Tinder, for example, the potential matches you reject do much of the legwork in determining your future suitors. On the other hand, Candide explained, many sites are beginning to lean away from algorithms towards editorial curation, in response to revelations that users are learning how to game the machines.

Digital Storyteller, Nosa Eke, representing Gen-Z

Bringing an injection of Gen-Z vitality to the programme was Nosa Eke, a “platform-agnostic” filmmaker and storyteller who has been described as a “digital disruptor” for her innovative online series The Grind. As Nosa pointed out, Generation Z were the first generation to be born into a world where everything is not only physical, but virtual, and early access to mobile technology has instilled in them an innate ability to record and store media. Nosa and her peers are also naturally skilled at distributing content on practically non-existent budgets, enabling them to bypass gatekeepers and interact directly with their fans. The Grind, for instance, while hosted primarily on YouTube, was also pushed on more niche platforms such as Periscope, where rehearsals would be broadcast live and fans would interact with the feed, leaving comments and suggesting storylines. The actors often responded in real time, improvising new directions in narrative, and Nosa was able to adapt the story from week to week based on her viewers’ suggestions. More than anything else, this gave the show an unmistakable authenticity, which Nosa identified not only as one of her show’s key features, but as perhaps the most important weapon in a content creator’s arsenal. “It doesn’t cost you anything to be authentic,” she said, memorably, “but it costs you everything not to be”.

Jane Gauntlett (left) with her assistant Freya Campbell, reminding attendees that audiences need to feel

Other highlights of the day included Guy Gadney’s presentation on AI in storytelling, which charted his company’s progress in giving personality to digital characters, aiming to take us beyond the placid, call-centre monotony of Alexa and Siri. Writer and performer Jane Gauntlett talked about her work in theatre, reflecting that the art and tech worlds often find it very difficult to communicate with each other, and that “what people remember is how something made them feel”. Elsewhere, product manager Hari Patience-Davies explored how classic Hollywood story structure is being used by corporations to improve customer experience, revealing that companies are using classic narrative techniques such as cliffhanger hooks to keep customers coming back for more. “We are all shaped by the stories we consume,” she said, which was about as close as anyone came to summing up the day in one sentence.

Tom Chatfield and Michael Bhaskar exploring whether machines will take the storytelling jobs

As Confluence entered the home straight, Michael Bhaskar and Tom Chatfield tackled the prescient issue of whether machines will, eventually, take all the storytelling jobs. Michael pointed out that, historically, humans haven’t been especially successful at predicting which tasks robots will be snatching from our species. In the early days of artificial intelligence, for instance, it was assumed that teaching a computer to win at chess would be infinitely trickier than, say, teaching it to point at a dog and say “dog”; however, we have since learned that the latter task presents by far the greater challenge. Nevertheless, predictions were made: Michael forecasted that a market will emerge for highly-customised, AI-generated novels where the reader can ask a machine for, say, “a three-hundred-word story about cats and helicopters, with a sad ending, set in Paris” and the computer will deliver instantaneously. “Writers will not go out of business, though,” he added, “because although machines will soon be able to construct perfect narratives, most of us want our stories to come from people who are messy and human, who go out and get drunk and make mistakes”. He also anticipated that the translation industry will change beyond recognition, predicting that publishers will soon be able to publish their titles in multiple languages, simultaneously, at the touch of a button. “But it won’t be publishers who’ll own the software,” he concluded, “because we’re too far behind the curve. It’ll be Google or Amazon”.

Sam Conniff Allende encouraging attendees to 'Be More Pirate"

Finally, the day was rounded off with a swashbuckling flourish by the inimitable Sam Conniff Allende, author of the offbeat marketing manifesto Be More Pirate. In a talk bursting with soundbites, Sam spoke of the power of stories to, quite literally, change futures: “Storytelling is about the world we want to create; it’s about speaking it into existence and fighting for it to become true”. He urged the Confluence audience to engage in “professional rule-breaking”, adding that “sometimes in life, the right thing to do is to do the wrong thing”. Invoking the renegade, anti-establishment and — as it turns out — socially responsible ethos of pirate culture, he spoke of revolution and unrest, insurgence and protest: “All your life, you’re waiting for the grown-ups to fix things … until you realise you are the grown-ups, and there is no masterplan. No one is coming to save us. We need a rebellion!”.

Sam Conniff Allende inciting rebellion

Ultimately, argued Sam, “it matters not only how good your story is, but where and how you tell it”. Or, to put it another way, as storytellers, publishers and content creators, we’d all do well to remember one universal truth: a story can only change the world if it gets heard.

We are incredibly grateful to our partners for this event: digital storytelling platform, Shorthand, print and e-book global distributors, Ingram Content Group, book club app, Novellicindie animation studio, Tapocketadesigners, typesetters and typographers, Hybert Design,publisher software specialists,  Circular Software, publishing and management service providers, Alysoun Owen Consultancy and Academy London for hosting the event.

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