M+ Essay on the new digital world – observations in transmedia

by Asha

Original Essay by Future Artists Jane Mcconnell

THE M+ ESSAY Extract from M+ Magazine produced by Future Artists

Here at M+ we like a bit of academic, innovatively flavoured butter with our written-word bread. (And weird metaphors.) In this issue, M+ explores Campfire Theory: observations in transmedia by independent film company Future Artists. article from M+ view magazine here

Written by Jane Mcconnell copyright 2010

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Campfire Theory: the iGeneration unite and take over

Armed with nothing but a dongle, an old macbook (back when they were called PowerBooks) and social networking, Manchester’s indie film super-couple Mark Ashmore and Jenny Inchbald give their two penneth (read: fully fledged theory) on how carefully combining the skills of old media (writing, painting, drawing) and transmedia are changing the world – and how it’s working out pretty well for Future Artists.

But there are a few barriers the pair has got to break down first before getting all academic on us.

Mark, co-director of Future Artists: “What I realised was by analysing what’s been happening with Future Artists in the past year, is that people have become fragmented and don’t hang out as much.”

Aye, despite the idea that we’re all the easygoing children of hippies, the ease of transport and the relatively low cost of long distance travel (though, the next year does not particularly bode fiscally well for the adventurers out there), he says that people have started to become more isolated. “We’ve become gated communities. But within social media, those communities are coming back together[1]. And basically that’s campfire theory.”

It’s not. Only because there’s a little more to explain here. Because people are, whether they like it or not, spending more time in bed with their laptops than at cinemas, surviving as an independent film company in an Android, iPadded world is becoming ever difficult. Or is it? Are we actually forming groups in simpler ways than we do in the outside world?

“Campfire theory is continually trying to figure out why that is.”


Mark: “For hundreds, thousands of years, humans have gathered in their communities around a fire; a heat source at the end of the day and at the beginning of the day: a water well.”

The water well could be a news feed, a blog read before work or a website concurrent with a morning news television show. The information feed at the breakfast table is location where the humans nourish themselves before the day ahead. Once people go to work, this information could be found on Linkedin, newspaper websites or MSN.

“Then they go to Facebook, MySpace, or a blog, and that website becomes the community’s campfire for the evening.”

“We’re creative nomads, gypsies – and we leave or trails across the web for others to pick up[2],” says Mark. “On Facebook there are many different communities, so there are many different campfires. When you log on, you might be with a film group, a music group, or martial arts or politics.”

Jenny Inchbald is the producer and business extraordinaire behind Future Artists’ ventures, and she has to crunch the numbers from the campfire. In terms of theory: “We’re digital natives.

“Those around the campfire all speak to each and they all know each other. It’s this call and response: a lot of the time people don’t realise this is what they’re doing, that they tend to go on Facebook. People don’t necessarily realise that they engage in this way.”

“Then Facebook begin advertising at your campfire’s needs. As a storyteller as a filmmaker, we have to figure how we can harness that, and get our stories to them, our passions and our ideas,” says Mark. One way in which this happened for Future Artists was during the creation of the collaborative film, Project Praxis[3]. This involved participants who, in 24 hours, told their story of Manchester music impresario Tony Wilson[4]. “The campfires were there; people gathered around a laptop with a sense of purpose. I didn’t shoot the film – it was made from tools for that are accessible to anybody.”


The explosion of self-promotion over the last eleven years has given way to (not only commentary on how narcissistic you all apparently are[5], but to) a number of platforms which host artists’ portfolios, where utilising online tools to attract clients to your campfire are for the most part, free. The same goes for socialising. The space, the pub, the pre-party; even the office is virtual. People may appear to act out and play out their personal ideologies[6], wishes, desires, and needs online and so discover the spaces where they can do this.

The way in which Facebook, MySpace and even Flickr create informal, public, accessible spaces – with the potential to make some spaces more exclusive than others – social networking simply reflects society at large with all its hierarchies, politics, circles upon inner circles. Facebook even provides the validation one might get from becoming a part of a group where key contributors earn approval: as the hunter-gatherers.

But the beauty of modern campfires is that anyone can become a hunter-gatherer. In this way, the virtual space continually evolves.

Jenny: “Authority fallacy[7] is much more virulent in the online world than it is outside of that. It’s basically that someone refers to someone, or themselves, as an authority on something and then they become that authority.

“You can come with nothing and leave with everything. The barrier to entry [into the desired group] is lower than the real world.”

Many bloggers are not qualified journalists, but wield a power over an often self-selective following, which can sway even mainstream opinion.

The trends, which occur in a day – take for example, the Twitter trends that reflect what tend to be talking about the most. This “audience news” represents the stories that people would have brought back for the campfire and the water well.


It might be vicarious and easy to say that Future Artists are a company that follows in the Virgin mould: a business which is believed by many to uphold an ethos of reliability[8], fun, community, taking huge risks in the name of innovation and working very hard. However, in Sir Richard Branson’s latest book “Business Stripped Bare”, there is a quote that rings rather true:

“…The Virgins of the future…they’ll emerge from the gaming industry, the social networking sector, or some area quite unknown to me and my generation. They’ll look contemporary, they’ll look odd, they’ll thrill the kids, and they’ll take everyone by surprise.”[9]

Not only do Mark and Jen look really odd (see photos), but they too have surprised the media world somewhat.

Perhaps where biggest the surprises have taken off is the interest in live events –Project Praxis at Fac251 (the old Paradise Factory[10], famous as the music ‘business’ HQ of Madchester), even the Future Artists’ birthday party – ignited from group campfires. They are lucky to be leaders where many are beginning to follow. A successful trip to Cannes ensured their names were chartered on the movie map although they were even surprised to have found the people they bumped into had heard of them first…through Twitter.

The same is happening in the music industry. Northern bands that are starting to make it big such as Secret Moves[11] and The Heartbreaks are gaining big followings on Facebook, more so than with any mount of tree-bashing paper flyering.

Artists in the film world may find their online preferences affect their employment too. Unfair, but the success of Justin Halpern’s Twitter “S**t My Dad Says” [12],where a book and sitcom have been produced off the back of it is an unavoidable example. For actors then, which one is more likely to offered the job: the classically trained, acutely famous yet Twitter-phobic actor, or the actor who’s not too bad, equally acutely famous but happens to have a greater Twitter following and more del.ici.ous stats?


Debate will always arise as to the canniness of advertising today. No longer does it follow the hypodermic model[13] in which old media relied upon to affect the masses: huge billboards that screen ideology to as many people as possible. Rather, advertising has had to catch up with the increasingly atomised nature of people’s social lives. Entire lives, in fact.  It’s quite easy to assume that we are a ‘We Like Therefore We Are’ society. For example, take the people who define themselves by the films they like. You’re ‘alternative’ if you like A Clockwork Orange – both Burgess’ and Kubrick’s tellings of the tale.  (Yes, an idea stolen 15th Century philosopher Descartes ‘cogito ergo sum’ there. But, ahem, that’s what we do at the campfires: take, recreate, innovate…)

Is it right for social media sites and advertisers to analyse your online profile[14] and, through collecting this data, directly target people who gather to share interests in a ‘free’ social space based on their personal interests? (i.e. You already bought the thing in order to be interested in it and now they want you to buy it again?)


Mark: “Take the film Harry Brown, where communities are closed off with curtains and the police. Online, you choose people for your community, and you find that it polices itself[15].”

Specifically, the shady and inflammatory comments on YouTube videos get thumbed down by the community, and eventually removed: the tribe has to set some ground rules. Or rather, a “groundswell.”

Jenny: “Campfire theory works from the bottom – up rather than the top down strategy that most use. We can still access industry methods from the groundswell.”

The idea is that campfires spark a loyalty – online fan clubs, groups, homepages and recommendations. A complex form of such could be fan fiction, where old media is transformed by its market community and new , often fantastical, fantasy, indulgent or parodied narratives are created.

“It’s a self-sustaining business model.”

“The way you engage with people is by listening to them. That’s what we’ve learned as Future Artists. There may be a hierarchy of things, people look up to us,” says Mark.

“They don’t have to.”


Campfire Theory sparks up several other possibilities. In the next ten years, social mobility may be redefined. It will not be how one moves exclusively from one economic class to another, but classes of varying computer literacy[16]. As education and the internet are globally accessible (and not doubting the autodidact urge) will the latter inform the other, rather than the other way round?

It’s all of us who provide the answer to questions like these each time we log in. And poor Mark and Jen have to think about these ideas all day. Whilst writing films. And producing business plans. And supping Manchester-priced lattes. And not selling out.

Mark Ashmore/Jenny Inchbald/Jane Elizabeth


[1] Wiki Sociology, Virtual Communities: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_community

[2] eHow, How To Track Your Internet Footprints: http://www.ehow.com/how_4521812_track-internet-footprints.html

[3] Future Artists, Project Praxis: http://www.futureartists.co.uk/factory/

[4] IMDB, Tony Wilson biography and filmography: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0934240/

[5] Examiner, Internet Narcissism Easier Than Ever http://www.examiner.com/web-in-national/internet-narcissism-easier-than-ever

[6] Wiki Sociology, Virtual Communities: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_community

[7] Definition: authority fallacy: http://www.skepdic.com/authorty.html

[8] Branson, Sir Richard. (2008) Business Stripped Bare, London: Virgin Books, p. 44

[9] Branson, Sir Richard. (2008) Business Stripped Bare, London: Virgin Books, p. 59

[10] Twenty Years of History: An editorial review: http://pulpmagazine.co.uk/2009/03/28/twenty-years-of-history-an-editorial-review/

[11] Secret Moves’ Facebook profile: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Secret-Moves/104507652923058

[12] S*** My Dad Says: http://twitter.com/shitmydadsays

[13] Audience Theory: http://www.mediaknowall.com/alevkeyconcepts/audience.html

[14] Wired Magazine, Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network’s Plan to Dominate the Internet — and Keep Google Out: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/17-07/ff_facebookwall?currentPage=all

[15] Fernback, Jan & Thompson, Brad. Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure? http://www.well.com/~hlr/texts/VCcivil.html

[16] Cynthia L. Selfe (1999) Technology and literacy in the twenty-first century, Southern Illinois University Press:


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