Storytelling: Intimacy, privacy and social media


Privacy is shorthand for breathing room to engage in the process of … self-development.  – Julie E. Cohen

This is me and my girls on Newsnight two years ago. I hustled us across the road to avoid being captured on film. I didn’t know if the camera was on, or why it was there, but removed us as quickly as possible from its viewpoint. The cameraman didn’t bother to find out how I felt and footage of us was used that night during a report on child abuse. I only got to know about it because a few people asked me why I was on Newsnight.

According to UK media law, the cameraman owns that footage so he can do what he likes with it but the idea of being filmed without my consent, with my children, and played on national television filled me with inexplicable dread and anxiety. But, it also gave me an insight into how people feel when they have no control over how they are presented online in a digital culture where honesty, privacy and sensitivity are alas, still being defined.

Last week Ken Bone, a power plant worker asked a question during the second presidential debate and was turned into an Internet star. He was discussed and tweeted ad infinitum, with comments about his dress, his weight, his opinions and every last thing he has ever done online has been dug up and used either to promote or discredit him.

Similarly, there are those memes of Jennifer Aniston on the announcement of  the Brangalina divorce. Apparently, this is people having fun with her Friend’s character. And, it is tame compared to the things discussed in an excellent but horrific article in the Atlantic: outline abuse, rape footage, and moments which have been taken out of an intimate consensual context, turned into porn, and put online. The slut-shaming (a term which is gender specific and has no male equivalent) comes later.

And then, there is catfishing. People create fake identities for the sole purpose of become romantically involved with people they target online, specifically so that they can record and release private conversation and other intimate moments for their own gain, be it fame or fortune. Recently it was Coronation Star Shayne Ward. Last year, it was sister wife Meri Brown. These two celebrities are in the public eye and hopefully have a lot of support. But what about private individuals? Sadly, the linked Atlantic article describes one young lady for whom life became so unbearable, she ended it. She was 14-years old.

As author Jonathan Franzen put it in the Guardian last year, the Internet is a protection racket and lives get destroyed: Who wants to feed that machine? Plenty of people do, as it turns out.

Contrived perfection made to get attention

Last year after Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager, quit Instagram saying it was contrived, the Guardian ran an article about young women on Instagram. These girls take lots of pictures to present the most attractive versions of their lives. Some make money, others just do it to impress their friends/followers.

Harpers Bazaar reports that brands spend more than a $1 billion per year on sponsored Instagram posts, particularly in fashion, in order to create moments which look real but, you know, also beautiful, perfect and not fake like in a magazine.

The silver bubble problem

And, it is not just fashion which gets a make over, depression has turned into beautiful suffering with memes and imagery, especially on forums like Tumblr, which encourages teenagers to ruminate in a like-minded group. This is known as the silver bubble problem. Teenagers search for things repeatedly and retrieve similar memes and articles to the ones they’ve already seen. Then they ruminate further instead of learning to judge if they are really depressed or just disappointed over some event in life at which point they need to learn strategies to manage their disappointment. As davidji puts it:

We all visit the land of pain and sadness, we just don’t need to live there.

Sadly, teenagers can be seduced into thinking that it is the place to be, because they are young and insecure and just want to belong somewhere.


Back in 1996 Jenni Ringley streamed her life whilst she was at College (University). This was during the days of dial-up with one grainy photograph uploaded every 15 seconds which viewers watched avidly as they assembled it into a story. In an interview with on the podcast Reply All in 2014, she explains how she was a typical 19 year old person: insecure and seeking approval. And yet, she lived so freely knowing that her mother was watching.

This was well before The Trueman Show (1998) and Big Brother (2000), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), and Twitter (2006). No one had done this before. The first time she kissed her boyfriend the site went down under the amount of hits it got.

Today anyone can stream themselves online from their phone using Periscope or Meerkat and instantly get a crowd. The two guys who interviewed Jenni tried it out and said that their followers were encouraging mayhem: Kick a dog, steal something, which left them both feeling anxious and overwhelmed. The followers were looking for drama and a story, and didn’t care who gave it. It was more like entertainment.

Actress Helena Bonham Carter has expressed her concern about young people who are sharing their whole lives on social media:

It reminds me of what it was like when I was very young and famous. It’s very difficult when you have no sense of self yet and now you’re reading about yourself. That’s what they’re inviting in: asking strangers to make opinions and judge them. It’s so vulnerable and precarious — and also meaningless.

The intimate digital space

Offline, in our normal day to day activities, we normally only share our lives and stories with our intimate circle of people around us – our strong links. And indeed, we know these people so well, we can predict what they will say about something. Occasionally, we share our stories with our consequential strangers – those people (weak links) we see regularly in the gym or at a cafe. And rarely, we share private information with a complete stranger – like the stranger on the train – someone we won’t see again, but with whom we have an honest connection. Sometimes this can be empowering. These strangers complement our strong relationships by providing us with fresh advice and insights.

However, the main ingredient which encourages us to share a story is intimacy. And, intimacy, like self-development, only grows in a private space, such as a gym changing room where we are naked and vulnerable; or, a carriage compartment on a train: there is only you, me and the four walls. Heady secret stuff. But also important stuff, where we learn about ourselves and grow as humans. Historically, we have been limited in our chances of intimacy. But, nowadays we have our digital secret spaces. Where is there a more intimate place than the inside of our phones? Those late night taps into a tiny screen. There is no need to even whisper.

It is easy to lean in, to feel that special connection when your cute person in the instant and private messenging section of your favourite social media platform is telling you that they find you cute too. Be still my beating heart. You know exactly how they feel, you feel the same way… except you don’t, you don’t know how they feel, you might not even know what they look like, you don’t know them AT ALL. But because it is exciting and feels good, and seemingly intimate/private, it is too easy to think you do know them and get swept away into a story, a fantasy, which is mainly playing out inside your own head.

Connection is what gives our lives meaning, even those horrendous trolls who abuse are connecting in their own twisted way. We all want to be seen and heard. We all want to be loved and admired, but the Internet is not the private space we think it is. Privacy is a different place altogether. The Internet is a public place, even instant messenging, and most servers are public – no data is ever unreadable. The Internet is a place where people go for entertainment and distraction, whatever form that make take, and because we access it through a screen, it is only as real as we decide it to be.

We cannot ever know how our stories, our connections and lovely moments will be used. On the other hand, we don’t need to distrust absolutely everyone we meet neither. Connection is our life force.

We just need to be honest with ourselves. What is my intention by sending this cute message? How would I feel if it got plastered across the Internet? Could I tell my other half what I’m doing online?

And, if we can’t or don’t want to answer any of those questions, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it all.

Gaming: Storytelling and ludology

Minecraft from playstation
Source: Playstation

Playing video games is, I am sorry to say, not my favourite pastime. My first attempt at playing was The Hobbit back in the 1980s on my brother’s Spectrum 48k and it frustrated me no end. Though, I did like playing PacMan a couple of years later, on a handheld device which only had Pacman on it. In the late 1990s I was introduced to MOOM – one of the first mass multiplayer online games – which I felt very excited to take part in it (I was asked by one of the creators) but alas, I didn’t really persevere because I didn’t have the patience.

Now when I play video games (and I get asked everyday) I last about 10 minutes because I hate learning all the rules to find out what to do. However, I love watching others, especially my girls, playing video games, because the games are fantastic entertainment. So, I understand completely how the likes of Stampy became so popular, and I love thinking about what gaming means. Apparently, this means that I like thinking about fun rather than having fun, sort of a theory of fun.


You know what kind of gamer I am? When we come to a cinematic, I jump it. I go ‘I’m not watching a movie’ – Guillermo Del Toro

Video games can be viewed in a context of storytelling, or narratology – the way we construct meaning from creating stories about the world around us. Games have cinematic effects, great plots, soundtracks and super cool music, as well as cut scenes which explain backstory, or give rewards to players, or move the story along.

I love cut scenes and enjoy watching whole movies of cut scenes like LEGO Lord of the Rings. But, film directors, Guillermo Del Toro and Steven Spielberg have criticised cutscenes saying that they interrupt the flow of the game, as they are non-interactive.

With or without cut scenes, video games have structure and tell a story to engage players emotionally which then motivates them to perform certain actions. Consequently, they have been analysed in the humanities as interactive storytelling or electronic literature which began before the WWW and focuses on readers interacting with stories to change the outcome of the narrative. Games can be played many times, and each time it is different. Narratives generally, unless they are our favourites, are read once, and don’t change each time we read them. We change though and our interpretations change too (which is a different though equally interesting phenomena to blog about).

Each experience in a game is different and we can be surprised and delighted with what happens next, like the time my girls went swimming in the Los Angeles River in Grand Theft Auto and were eaten by a shark.

Once dead, they could start that level again and follow another outcome not necessarily following the prescribed narrative, because they love unstructured play and often choose open world settings. This desire to play without structure is another area of gaming study, and has led to many video games set in real world simulations like Sims and Second Life.

Simulation and simulacra

In these virtual worlds, we can explore and make, we can all be designers, and we can have different experiences in order to fulfil our basic needs but we do it in an immersive environment. That is to say, we feel like we have left our world and are present in a simulated world. When we are so immersed, there are fewer blanks we need to fill in in order to make sense of that world. It feels normal to walk about The Shire, drive a car round LA, or ride a horse in Red Dead Redemption.

The stronger the narrative is and the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels.  And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not. So, we feel like we are stealing cars in Los Angeles or being a super hero in New York. And, often we interact with simulated humans in video games which are non-player behavioural algorithms that look like humans.

It was The Matrix which first got us all talking about algorithms which aren’t human as well as simulation and simulacra. Simulation is a copy or version of something, say the real world, and simulacra is a version which does not have an original copy. For example, a digital file is not real until it is printed out, and music which is recorded in a studio one instrument at a time is not a performance and never has been. It is a simulacra of a performance.


However, Professor of Humanistic Informatics, Espen Aarseth has contested the idea of describing video games as storytelling narratives simulated or not and proposed the term ludology because, after all in video games we, via our avatars, are normally action driven and want to win.

Ludology is the study of games. When playing a game, we need to: 1) learn the rules, 2) play the game, 3) win or lose. In terms of ludology, we play to win.

However, Aarseth proposed this back before the World of Warcraft (WOW) which was released back in 2004 and became one of the most popular most popular massively multiplayer online games with more than 10 million active subscribers worldwide. Apparently numbers have dropped. WOW allows gamers to play however they want by choosing which class you want to be in in the land of Azeroth and then the quests comes from that choice.

Minecraft too carries this idea further, released in 2009, it has been in development ever since and allows players to be and do whatever they want. Players can build extraordinary works of architecture, or live in villages and interact with villagers (non-player behavioural algorithms) who grunt instead of talking. It is an amazing construct, which is really popular.

In 2015, Minecraft released Minecraft: Story mode which is very much like an interactive novel, you can choose to be a girl or a boy, who with a small group of friends tries to win a building competition. Unlike the original Minecraft, it is a game of levels, cut scenes and branching conversations, and little in the way of exploration or creativity. The theory behind it seems to be that people who have an emotional attachment to Minecraft might enjoy experiencing a story in it. Rather like fan-fiction backwards, I guess.

Video games defy categorisation, just when we find a way of thinking about them, a new game comes along to challenge that. And video games remain the fastest growing form of entertainment sector, so it is hard to label constant change. One constant remains though, most gamers when asked tell you that they play for fun. There exists a theory of fun and its purpose is to allow game designers to change the face of game design even further by creating more fun. The theory of fun at its best.

Designing design: Conclusions

astrolabe pic

Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

[Part 12 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Humans are overwhelmed with information both online and offline, a desire to understand the world around us, and for it all to make sense. So, we look for patterns and signs, and stories to reduce complexity into something more manageable.

At the same time we love to be surprised and delighted with variety, which is shown by the information users focus on most on social media and by our love of twist in the tale stories and thrillers. And, we use stories most of all to find meaning in our own lives and in everything around us.

We are moving into a most exciting time with the Internet of Things and our Digital Culture which is all part of the Connection Economy. We are only one click away from each other and our devices are all communicating with each other constantly. And, in this world we feel that we must be somehow always connected. It is difficult to disconnect for even a little while, for disconnection is our greatest fear.

Throughout this series we have looked at the various ways designers can manage our expectations and give us cues to manage how we behave with the technology before us. We have even see how designers can manage their own information overload with types and schemas. But, it seems to me that as we advance further into this digital landscape, today, the designer’s job is to now to make sure that we harness the power of technology in the right way. In the past, society was formed by technological advance, and we were just carried along with it regardless of our opinions.

We need our designers to design for the good, to protect humans from even more overwhelm and to support us as we work, and in the same way that a good design solution can come from constraints and boundaries, we need these online. Feedback with care: Hey you’ve been online for hours now, go to bed, we will all still be here later.

Designers are change agents whose job is to make the world easier for us to live in offline and online. Let us all learn to design for that – an easier world for us to live in.

Designing design: Solution spaces


[Part 11 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

The artificial intelligence community views a design space as something to explore as it if is a mountain or a wilderness. A space may be incomplete or the domain knowledge uncertain and this is reflected in the names of search techniques: hill climbing, branch-and-bound, hunter gatherer.

Fabulously nowadays we have massive computing power which can help us search through big data sets or solution spaces. However, in the broadest terms when we are looking at a solution space we are hoping to manage it by the following:


With constraints, we introduce boundaries which may potentially the number of solutions. It is this tension which can cause wonderful solutions such as when artists obey the haiku rules of 17 syllables: three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, to give us pared back poetry.

We can also introduce constraints by fixation on one thing such as cost, or efficiency and then we can see what solutions are possible.

Otherwise, we can use a more exploitative exploitation approach of what-if. What if we place an excessive load on this bridge? What happens then? Does the solution still work? What will we need to change to get it work?

Transformation, combination and exploration

Inside the solution space we synthesise and analyse by using some of the ideas this series has explored. We map our types and schemas or our models of aesthetics and affordances and link our function to our behaviour and then structure. But, when all else fails we can remove the constraints or even remove the boundaries or the domain knowledge which can lead us to moving outside the context.

Thinking outside the box

Sometimes designers do this on purpose, other times like the post-it note, new ideas are serendipitously discovered. SMS texting was originally invented for engineers to communicate with each other whilst working on mobile technology. Who could have anticipated that a tool which made engineers’ lives easier would appeal to mobile phone users as a cheap and cheerful way of communicating instead? The same happened to post-it notes, once the context of inventing glue was removed, the user was free to think of it as a really cool book mark.

With a solution space we can define what we are looking at, and what we are looking for, and then should we decide we want to look at it differently, or look elsewhere then we have a map and a plan, which is what all humans like to have in this information overloading world of ours.

Designing design: Style and standards


[Part 10 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards  11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Style and standard are words which have so many meanings. Style can mean elegant or distinctive or it can mean a particular way of doing something in the same way that standard can. Standard can also mean the definitive way of doing something.


Marketers use style in the sense of being unique for branding purposes, because if something is stylish or even iconic, consumers are more likely to react favourably and recognise them. As, noted before, we favour attractive things, and remember them, so that next time we will choose them again.

And, because this is how artefacts get onto our radar in the first place before becoming familiar, companies adopt style guides to create stylish artefacts.

Style guides

Newspapers have style guides,so that even though there are many journalists who work for them, there is a consistent tone across each edition. Design companies such as Apple have design guides. A style guide establishes familiarity and memorability, and whilst hopefully improving communication, it’s main goal is to get the user or reader appreciate and trust the consistency it generates.


In the same way,standards are like style guides for product development. Companies use standards that can be universally understood across the company. Following consistent protocols which everyone understands means that product development becomes easier and more efficient. And, by constantly revising standards, any wastage – time, resources, materials – is reduced.

Standards can also lead to innovation such as GSM, which started off as a European initiative to allow mobiles to communicate across Europe. Now 90% of all phones worldwide can communicate. Similarly, thanks to the web standards campaign in 1999, we have W3C and great compatibility across web browsers and mobiles instead of splinternets.

When we are designing we need style and standards so that we can not only improve the world but also communicate that improvement clearly.