I went to visit David Bausola and Katie Streten from Imagination: they pulled faces and comprehensively failed to buy me lunch. I first visited Imagination nearly twenty years ago to interview the late, great Ron Herron, a lovely and fascinating man who left a lasting impression and sort of inspired me. I remember thinking: “He’s amazing. I wonder if I could do that – I mean make a living being generally creative and interesting?” No luck with that yet…
Anyway, Bausola and his people are up to something. They’ve decided that our historic resistance to media made by advertisers is dead. Boundaries are blurred, fences down, barriers breached. You know what I mean.
Of course, he’s probably right. The rules that prevent brands from creating their own programming are out-of-date. They belong to the time when you used to ask your Dad “what’s on the other side?” The other side. In those days, with the war not long over and rock n roll still a fairly recent arrival, the risk that the commercial half of the nation’s telly viewing could fall into the hands of a handful of corporations really animated legislators and regulators.
An instinctive, Reith-era distrust of nasty, cheap commercial media (anything that didn’t have Malcolm Muggeridge in it, really) didn’t help. Laws were framed limiting what advertisers could do in the broadcast media. Only lately have these laws been eased enough to allow manufacturers to wrap their brands around TV programming again. They still can’t make their own shows and pitch them alongside the other commercial production houses, though.
In Bausola’s world, of course, things are totally different. Media regulation simply doesn’t apply. Ofcom, Britain’s recently assembled media super-regulator (responsible for everything from radio masts to Tinky Winky’s sexuality and quiz show phone lines) has deliberately steered clear. The net is explicitly excluded from Ofcom’s remit. So, as a result, what we’re seeing online in Britain is a fascinating experiment in free market media governance. Media owners online are limited not by a menu of tailor-made rules like broadcasters but by two things: the market and the statute book.
So what Bausola and his client have done is something that would be quite impossible in the broadcast world: media that is visibly owned by a consumer brand – by Ford in fact. They’ve assembled a pot pourri (did I just say ‘pot pourri’?) of social media gadgets (a blog, a wiki, a video sharing web site, a photo sharing web site… none of which belongs to Ford) and animated the whole lot with some genuinely funny and offbeat content from Steve Coogan’s Baby Cow.
The result is something with the feel of a cheeky BBC 3 comedy delivered in the ironic, discontinuous manner we’re probably going to have to get used to online. The thing is, the final form of ‘online content’ is hardly fixed. Bausola’s version – a scrapbook of materials in various media, sharing narrative elements, characters and settings – may be it, of course. My guess, though, is that we’ll see a resurgence of the linear narrative. Stories are so important to human beings (in every culture, in every time) that we’re highly unlikely to set them aside all together.
We’re also likely to lose patience fairly quickly with choppy, stroboscopic forms that trash the ancient pleasures and rhythms of narrative. Where are the Joneses is a story, structured – like The Wind in The Willows or The Godfather or The Aenid – by the passage of time. In this it hardly varies a tradition as old as language. It remains to be seen whether its reliance on multiple parallel narrative axes, quite demanding jumps from medium to medium (and site to site) and an arbitrarily periodic structure, will win it millions of switched-on, hyper-linked viewers or just leave them wondering what’s going on.