U.K.'s Channel 4 Offers Radical Innovation With Ivy4Evr

by , Jul 8, 2011, 9:30 AM
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This week's column comes to you live from Sheffield, England, where I'm attending the annual Children's Media Conference -- and where I've been surprised and delighted to hear about multiple initiatives that are truly pushing the envelope for digital engagement and consumption.

One of these is a program called Ivy4Evr, an experimental interactive story for teens commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, told almost entirely by SMS. The story revolves around Ivy and her trials and tribulations, including being late with her period, fighting with her family, and other dramas common to teenagers. Here's the description from producers Blast Theory:

Ivy4Evr uses SMS to go places that other dramas can't go -- onto your phone and into your pocket. Ivy wriggles into your life, sending you messages on the way to school, college or last thing at night. Ivy's life is parallel to yours: she sends boozy updates late on Saturday night and sarcastic chat on a boring Sunday afternoon. And if you send her messages she will chat with you about sex, music and everything else that really matters to a teenager growing up in Britain today.

Stop and think about this for a second. How would you tell a story by SMS? How would you engage in one-to-one dialogue at scale? Blast Theory co-founder Matt Adams walked us through the structure: a core story was told to all participants who registered via the site, provided an email address and phone number, and double opted-in via both channels. Of this core story, certain texts were "stubs," leading off onto "ladders" (side stories) if the recipient replied.

Samples of text exchanges between "Ivy" and participants reveal a fascinating phenomenon: kids giving Ivy advice on whether or not to keep the baby if she turns out to be pregnant, kids expressing serious levels of worry when Ivy's sister shows up to take her away, kids engaging with what is essentially a robot as if it were a close friend.

The disturbingly personal messages sent back to the Ivybot by participants were tempered by Adams' cognizance of the ethical issues, as well as by the fact that all messages in the system were filtered for an extensive list of risky words (such as "rape" or "abuse") and that human moderators were involved at all times to handle exchanges that cross the line.

The project received an incredible response rate once the participants got involved in the "ladders": text messages were responded to around 90% of the time. But one of the difficulties was there was no real opportunity for social engagement, no shared story experience the way you get when you watch television (even on-demand television). To be fair, though, the educational intent of Ivy4Evr was to give kids an opportunity to discuss intimate issues of personal identities, healthy lifestyles, risk, relationships and diversity -- issues that kids are generally loath to discuss in public.

Ivy4Evr appears to have been neither a massive success nor an unmitigated disaster. Instead, it was an exploration: a project that genuinely sought to use new technology for an entirely new storytelling experience.

While the program was surely a creative success, its limited pilot nature meant that it only reached 5,000 kids. But that's beside the point. So often, our tendency is to use new technology to do the same old thing in a slightly different format. We use electronic "folders" instead of manila ones, read ebooks that look identical to the ones on paper, and watch television on-demand that is indistinguishable from broadcast. The folks at Blast Theory and Channel 4 deserve a round of applause for being brave enough to truly push the boundaries of digital storytelling, to ask themselves how new media creates an opportunity for interaction that simply didn't exist before.

What have you seen that can make the same claim? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

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