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Lessons from the plinth

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Finally, a plaque in Trafalgar Square with a URLAntony Gormley’s amazing One & Other project reached its halfway stage last week, and today the last round of plinthers for October was selected at random, so this seems like a good time to reflect on our involvement in such a fascinating initiative. Working with Antony has been a real pleasure, but we have also enjoyed great support throughout from the wonderful event producers Artichoke and the awesome team at Sky Arts. The project has taught us some useful lessons about online engagement and what we mean by ‘social’, but overall it has boosted my faith in (online) humanity
Our initial reaction when asked to get involved was to suggest that the idea of exposing 2,400 people, one after another, 24×7, without a break, to the great British weather, public and Twitterati was (as we put it in our pitch) “ambitious, bordering on insane.” But, it turns out Antony knew exactly what he was doing, and his simple vision of elevating the human on the plinth and letting them get on with it was absolutely spot on, however risky it might seem at times.
The site we built to run the project has evolved gradually, from the early days of promoting the project in the regions, through the competition management system that randomly selects people for the plinth time slots, to the live event site we see now. We have learned a lot along the way and made our share of mistakes, but on the whole, I believe our team has pulled off something quite remarkable. Our next release, this week, will include a revamped ‘event wall’ that pulls together activity of the plinthers and visitors, based on an interestingness algorithm, which we hope will make it easier for people to explore the growing world of the plinth, and we also have another exciting feature up our sleeves to plot the moments people have ‘liked’ in each of the plinther videos. It has been an exciting project and we are grateful for the opportunity to be involved in something so uplifting and beautiful
The basic stats of the site are impressive but do not tell the whole story. The site has reached hundreds of thousands of people, with HitBox reporting it as the most visited performing arts site in July; and over 55 years of video streaming was served from the square in the first 50 days. In fact, the video streaming solution has held up remarkably well given the high quality of the stream and the fact that it relies on a wireless link to a portacabin and then a single pipe out to the streaming servers. Our on-site producers have been excellent, keeping things running 24/7 and using a wiki to record key moments, highlights and other live data that I hope we will be able to use later on. The Guardian even wondered is this the future of arts TV? and called it a surprise hit in terms of audience participation

The Sky Arts controller, John Cassy, said the project – which continues until 14 October – had been an “amazing adventure”.

“The public have really engaged with it. Compare the number of people who have viewed One & Other and who go to galleries and museums – the numbers of people visiting galleries are in rude health, but this is on another plane,” he said.

Antony GourmetMore impressive than the stats, though, is the truly astonishing way in which the plinthers have responded to Gormley’s invitation, and the creativity, quirkiness and humanity they have shown up there on the plinth (which is higher and more scary than it looks, by the way!) This little video montage from Sky Arts shows some of the most common plinth behaviour patterns we have seen so far, such as animal costumes, quizzes, knitting, balloons, bubbles and reading. A play written on the plinth was later performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and we have also seen ‘making-of’ videos showing plinthers preparing for their slot. Everything in fact from science experiments to musical performances, such as the now infamous timewarp hour and (this very evening!) a world premiere of Marillion songs presented by a long-time fan
A wonderful sub-culture has built up around the plinthers and those who follow them one the web and on Twitter. In addition to the official tweets and Sky Arts, the Guardian newspaper have maintained a humourous commentary since day one on their Plinthwatch Twitter account. Remarkably, the Twitter conversation, particularly around the #oneandother hashtag, has been going on 24/7 since the project began, sometimes with dozens of updates every minute or so, and the people who hang out there have become as much part of the project as those on the plinth. Some have “official Plinth Heckler” avatars, many plinthers themselves have stayed involved after their slot, and even historical figures have joined in. There are also two active Flickr groups, which contain almost 4,000 photos of the plinth
The project blog has provided another locus for conversation and feedback, where viewers have created a very good crowdsourced plinth highlights list for July and even a Plinthian Dictionary. It has also seen lively debate about the top plinthers so far, whether the first nude plinther (as reported by the BBC) should have been forced to cover up, and whether it is right for people to be mean to plinthers in the comments
This brings me to the lessons we have learned so far from our participation in the project
What have we learned so far?We are, of course, only half way through, so it may be premature to draw definitive conclusions from the project, but there are some clear lessons here for what we do here at headshift in terms of online engagement and socialising communication and medi
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1. Raw humanity is goodThere is an obvious contrast between the TV show Big Brother, which Channel 4 plan to axe after the next series, and a project like One & Other. Big Brother, like many of the reality talent shows that have followed its lead, is about goading people into extreme behaviour and then exploiting them by exposing them to mockery. One & Other is about people being themselves, or whatever they want to be, and yet the results are just as compelling and far more touching, as evidenced by the testimony of regular video stream viewers. Some people come to the project thinking there is a responsibility to entertain or perform, perhaps because this is what we are used to, but the O&O community quickly disavows them of this preconception and explains that there is nothing wrong with somebody standing stock still for an hour if that is what they choose to do
2. How much ‘social’ interaction is appropriate?Some might think the natural inclination of a team like ours would be to plaster comment boxes, re-tweet buttons and live chat all over a site like this in order to maximise the social interaction around the project. In fact, we took a very cautious approach informed by Anthony Gormley’s brief that the plinther is the centre of the piece and we must try not to spoil their experience by allowing them to be insulted by drive-by comments or the kinds of juvenile behaviour in evidence on some open commenting media sites. We began with just the blog, where we had good anti-spam and moderation options, and the rather popular user-generated plinth postcards, which had light post-moderation. Then, we quietly experimented with un-moderated ‘pledges to watch’ that allowed people to upload an avatar and leave messages for plinthers they wanted to see. This was quickly forced into pre-moderation mode by one individual who abused the feature. Later, we added commenting to each of the plinthers’ mini-blogs on their personal pages, but again with a degree of pre-moderation. At every step along the way, we have considered arguments against having social features, as well as arguments in favour – beware unintended consequences
3. Don’t seek to assimilate naturally-occurring conversationWe did nothing to ‘seed’ the initial Twitter conversation on the #oneandother hashtag, other than having a Twitter account ready to interact with people. In fact, the speed with which the Twitter conversation developed took us slightly by surprise. It would have been easy enough to directly integrate the Twitter conversation with the site, but we felt this might skew what was a very positive, balanced and thoughtful conversation by projecting it on the big screen of the site. Doing so without moderation would have created an incentive for bad behaviour, and even if we had the resources for real-time 24/7 moderation, this would have slowed the conversation down too much. So, we monitored the conversation for several weeks, responded where appropriate and (when we felt the twitter community was strong enough) decided to show ‘selected’ tweets on the homepage, using a modified version of Chris Thorpe’s App Engine code described here. This enabled us to signpost the conversation on Twitter to people who might not have known about it, but without trying to take it over
4. Communities evolve their own support systemsThe blog debates about people being mean to plinthers in comments and the nudity issue suggest to me that most people respond well to the openness, honesty and vulnerability shown by the plinthers, and this has created a generally supportive context for discussion, where commenters will often spring to the defence of participants in the face of mocking or unkind contributions. Overall, we have been pleasantly surprised by the tone of the conversation, especially given the British penchant for shooting down any highly visible art project, especially one as brave as Gormley’s One & Other
5. Don’t overdo the brandingSky Arts were very brave in sponsoring (and paying for) the online component of the project, and yet sought no artistic control, leaving that entirely to Antony. I think in terms of brand presence and awareness on the site, we struck a good balance between direct, in-your-face branding and the more subtle brand association benefits to be gained from being part of the project. I think this commendable attitude is why when the inevitable knee-jerk anti-Sky comments popped up, the community told them to stop being cynical and enjoy the ride. There is no doubt the online presence of the project would not have been possible without Sky Arts, and I think they deserve huge credit for understanding that paying for a free-to-air online broadcast live from the plinth would ultimately help, rather than harm their subscription TV service
I am sure there are more lessons we have learned, and indeed will continue to learn even beyond the end of the plinth stage in mid-October, but I thought these were worth sharing for now.

4 Responses to Lessons from the plinth

  1. By Picaress on September 2, 2009 at 12:47 am

    As one of those who have ‘official Plinth Heckler’ avatars, calling ourselves Twecklers, I am surprised to see recognition of our idle comments about life on the Plinth — and other things. While sometimes critical in our observations, most have proved loyal to the plinthers and those responsible for their being there.
    Thank you for your wisdom and discretion in allowing the #oneandother hashtag to go its natural way. However, as a Headshift-certified subculture, I imagine that “taking over” the outrageous users of the twitterings would have been difficult.
    It is a social phenomenon, surely to be studied by anthropologists for years to come — wonderful!

  2. By lalala on September 4, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Why do people worship twitter so … much, it’s so annoying how every media [person] goes on and on about it like it’s the best communication tool since time began, hanging onto every twitter goons 1 sentence.
    (edited for sweariness)

  3. By Bill Bartmann on September 4, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    Cool site, love the info.

  4. Pingback: One and Other (Sky Arts) :: Our Work :: Headshift