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68 episode 1: Mudge's Story

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[Steve Taylor] The blovel “68” takes the form of a series of ‘first hand reports’, people from the future talking in their own voices about their work, their lives and their relationship with communications. We begin with Episode 1, Mudge’s Story.

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“This clip I’m making about the history of Communications is really doing my head in: now I know why there was such a chunky slab of Points attached to it. I couldn’t say no, even if they’d been offering zip, because every editor in town suddenly seems to be obsessed with the period in which we crawled out of our analogue caves and were somehow simultaneously dazzled and enlightened by the blinding glare of everything digital. Pass on this one and I really look like I’m out of the loop.

I’m fascinated, though, by why this stuff is of such interest just now: my humble theory is that we’re about to enter another of those periods of accelerated change and it’s stirring up a deep-rooted instinct to benchmark where we’ve come from before we completely lose sight of it.

Doesn’t make my job any easier, though. It’s all too long ago for even the oldest among us to be of much use. It’s a complete Archive job, hours and hours on the big G driving down through links and layers, losing my voice, losing the will to live. I have ended up, at times; barking at my Companion like it was a recalcitrant child.

I’m starting to get somewhere, but to be honest it’s not the facts that are giving me such grief. It’s the concepts. Let me give you an example.

If you went into a restaurant, sat down, perused the menu over an aperitif and ordered, you would expect that in due course your meal would arrive. How would you react if the waiter informed you that there was a very good likelihood that the food would come? That you should trust him because he was an expert and that, a lot of the time, the food does actually appear. And that several independent research studies strongly indicated a correlation between ordering and being fed. Would you patronise a restaurant on that basis? More challengingly, would you sign a contract upfront to pay for such a service? For a year or two in advance?
Believe it or not, that’s what they used to do with Communications.

Clips – what they used to call ads or commercials or banners (they had different names, depending on what sort of screen you were watching – I told you it didn’t make much sense). They would send the clips out on these rudimentary networks – some, really bizarrely, unidirectional – to everyone at once. I know, don’t. Tens of thousands of non-personalised messages, all sent at random to…whoever.

Instead of the eight or ten Big Clips the biggest brands make now just to show how big they are, they literally made thousands. Imagine the cost, the waste. Unbelievable. And the brands, the suckers that were paying for all this, were so in awe of the prodirectors… (Actually, that’s another level of insane complication: the prodirectors were actually two different people, a producer and a director; they worked for a thing called a production company, which was employed by another thing called an agency, which was contracted by the client to design the clips. Oh, and there was another different kind of agency that negotiated the – one way – interact costs with the plethora of connection companies that predated the big G. Believe me, I had to draw a diagram, too)…anyway, the brands paid for this tottering architecture of support, even though no-one could actually show that any interacts had actually taken place.

Hence my restaurant analogy: the best they could do was research people to find out if they’d seen the clip. Not real people, with names and urls, but what they called samples, groups who they thought could be used to extrapolate what each recipient was doing. As if behaviour isn’t totally individual! Every clip was a Big Clip and you could measure…zilch. No wonder everything had to change.

Somewhere, deep down the trackbacks, I’m beginning to unearth examples of the material. Bizarre stuff: talking toy monkeys, fake families, gibbering front-men and -women who clearly have no passion for the product, strange abstract animes – basically anything, absolutely anything except the actual product, the brand or anything remotely relevant about them. A bit of branding in the final frame, that’s it. You know the most alarming thing? The clips that have survived have done so because they were archived by various Awards bodies. I can’t believe that this crap scored the most interacts. Then again, how would those guys have even known?

I’ve tried making the comparison with what I do: journalism. It doesn’t work, because I would never make a clip that I didn’t know who it was for, where it wasn’t clear what it was about or you couldn’t tell what brand had paid for it. We’re all the same, me and every other prodirector: there’s only one sort of Content now and the Big Clips, just the one every few weeks or so, are, I’m beginning to think, a kind of homage to this past era I’m currently exploring, a celebration of the pointless indulgence of making something nobody’s said they want, that fits nobody’s known profile and which may never even result in anybody buying anything at all.”

Postscript

I was tickled to read this in a Digital Money Forum post from December 4th:

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?” – Associates of David Sarnoff responding to the latter’s call for investment in the radio in 1921 [my emphasis]

Just shows that there’s nothing new under the sun…


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2 thoughts on “68 episode 1: Mudge's Story”

  1. iang@iang.org' Iang says:

    minor pernickety bureauratic question: which CC licence?

  2. Dave Birch says:

    I’m going to sort out the CC logo and link in time for the next post, thanks for the reminder.

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