Don't Log Off: Discovering the real life dramas behind online profiles
It was a simple enough brief - I was to lock myself away for one week to talk to people on the internet, to tap into this babble of voices and experiences and explore the global phenomenon of social networking.
It was a venture which would eventually have me talking to a single parent snowbound in Nova Scotia, an Egyptian whose online romance turned sour, a Pakistani yearning for a girl from the wrong caste, a rapper in Lagos, a man car-jacked in Caracas and a student defying the curfew in a Chinese dorm room.
But it's inevitable that a simple idea would take some serious thought to work. How do we hook up, and talk with an individual residing somewhere in internet-land and, crucially, turn it into a piece of radio?
There was a precedent: back in 2002, producer Mark Burman and I created Don't Hang Up, which involved calling public phone boxes to see who picked up. This proved to be a wonderful mechanism to trigger random encounters and the results were often startling.
But whilst we still wanted to capture the serendipity of random encounters with random people Don't Log Off was to be rather different project - requiring an all-new methodology. Firstly, the surprising technological challenges required producer Laurence Grissell and I to construct a "pop-up" recording studio, tucked away in a room at the end of an almost deserted floor of BBC's Henry Wood House. For one week, in the Winter of 2011, Don't Log Off was "on-air". You can see the building of the studio on the the Don't Log Off programme page.
Don't Log Off producer Laurence Grissell and I scripted a simple title and description for the project, hoping to draw in curious minds, and tossed our mission statement into the mix of online chat rooms and message boards. Some failed miserably, nobody cared at all about our Tweets, and certain online networking sites were either too X-rated, or attracted too many jokers wearing ridiculous monster masks for our purposes.
But progress was made through opening a Facebook page and a Skype account - neither of which I'd ever used before so I was inevitably unprepared for what would happen next.
Within hours, I discovered new "friends" on my Don't Log Off Facebook page. Exotic sounding names like Onyekwere, Amr, Luna, Umar, Daria suddenly wanted to be part of the project. We were connected by the internet, some of them were ready to speak right away, and all within hours of my Facebook page going live.
We soon realised this needed to be a round-the-clock operation - in order to truly span the globe, we'd be in for some late nights. There's a certain hysteria which sets in at 4am, believe me!
But speaking for myself, my producer Laurence Grissell, and producer Sarah Bowen who also took to the controls of our strange little pop-up studio, our week on Don't Log off was a remarkable journey - and what started as one programme became two.
This project really was an eye-opener - to hear tales from those suffering with frustration and depression in countries where you just can't speak openly, and it's only though the certain areas of the internet that people can tell their tale. Also, there are those who have fallen in love with someone they shouldn't have fallen in love with on the internet. How real do you want your internet friend to be?
For all these reasons, Don't Log Off is a great leveller, presenting universal themes that span our national borders. Be prepared though, the tales of ordinary people, can be heartbreaking, and sometimes very shocking indeed.
But I must also add, that I'm in awe of all those people I spoke with from Mongolia or Egypt or Singapore or Uzbekistan and from Ukraine to Iran to Venezuela , who spoke all spoke with me in superb, and broadcastable, English. Don't Log Off is about them.
Alan Dein presents Don't Log Off on Radio 4 on 2nd and 9th January at 11am. The programmes will be available to listen to online shortly after broadcast and as a podcast.
- While you're waiting for Don't Log Off to start there's a fantastic podcast archive of Lives in a Landscape, BBC Radio 4's series in which Alan Dein goes in search of original stories from around the country, available to download now.