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Dotcommery, Tomfoolery, and Swywthery

Piers Beckley | 15:34 UK time, Friday, 29 January 2010

Tim Wright is the writer of digital experiences including Online Caroline, Mount Kristos, and In Search of Oldton. His two new plays, Say What You Want To Hear, will air shortly on Radio 4 - and you can be a part of them by sending in your own swywths.

We've asked Tim to write two pieces for us: one before the first play goes out, and one after the last play.

Take it away, Tim.

Throughout my career as a freelance digital writer and interactive content producer I've been involved in some pretty weird pitches - from persuading the chief executive of a large ISP to invest in an online fantasy Greek island comedy through to being interviewed by NASA about an amateur golfing trip to the moon planned, rehearsed and controlled by an online audience of "moongolfers".

It's this erratic world of dotcommery, tomfoolery and audience participation that inspired me to write Say What You Want To Hear: two afternoon plays for Radio 4 combined with a website for collecting people's secret thoughts or "swywths".

What is a swywth? Well, it's a word I invented to describe a secret thought - specifically the kind of secret thought that knocks around your head regularly but that never normally gets said out loud.

For some, a swywth is the pep talk you give yourself in the morning when you look in the mirror. For others, it's the judgement silently passed on colleagues in yet another boring meeting. Or perhaps it's a regret, a cherished memory, an ambition - or some nonsense from childhood that haunts you as you stare out of the bus window.

In the plays, I attempt to tell the story of Mike and Erik who invent the online "SayWhatYouWantToHear" service for people who'd like to get their swywths read out loud and sent back to them as sound files, to carry around on an iPod for evermore. Imagine - Evan Davis saying "You're OK" to you every day; or Kirsty Young repeating "Your nose is just the right size for your face" over and over again.

Mike's & Erik's mad obsession for Internet fame and glory leads them into ever more absurd situations - both online and IRL (In Real Life).

It's a story about how saying things out loud rather than keeping them to yourself can cause all kinds of problems - and create surprising opportunities.

It's a story about how new communication technologies are changing the way we talk to each other - and who we end up talking to.

Put Your Secret Thoughts Into A Play

It's also a story that the audience can help to shape by adding their swywths to the mix.
I'm aiming to put as many of other people's swywths into the plays as possible - and I want to show how some of these contributions can end up pushing characters around and colouring the events in the play (especially in Play 2)

On Radio 4's website right now we've made a working version of the swywth system so that people really can send in their swywths to a website and get them read out and recorded by Radio 4 announcers, presenters, and actors.

A selection of your submitted swywths will then be used to in the Afternoon Plays themselves - to add atmosphere to scenes, to provide commentary on specific situations, to influence the way some characters behave.

I'm hoping that as the swywth bank grows, we can get more and more eminent and surprising speakers to read out your swywths. Personally, I'm hoping, for example, to get Harrison Ford to read out mine. A crazy dream I know - but no less crazy than some of your swywths I imagine.

If you fancy your secret thoughts appearing in a radio play, send in your swywths soon. Who knows where it will take us?

Developing Crossplatform Fiction

I've been specialising in this kind of participative fiction for some time now. Radio 4 listeners may remember, for example, In Search of Oldton, a radio play and website (and a pack of cards) that allowed the audience to contribute memories of a town that had never really existed - and thus create a fictional landscape in which a story about my dad could breathe.

As a writer I really enjoy the improvisational element that comes with interacting with an audience as we work together to make something meaningful and entertaining.
I also enjoy the subversion of that old transmitter-receiver model where the writer writes and the audience listens. Now we all get a chance to have our say, and a writer has the opportunity to listen, collaborate and manage a project in a way that it was all too easy to avoid when locked away in complete isolation privately consulting one's muse (or staring at a blank page).

Digital fiction writing is just so much more social than ordinary writing, I find - and all the better for it.

These types of project, mind, are not so easy to get into production. Persuading the powers that be in Radio 4 to create a swywth site to support a drama about a fictional online service was a long and arduous process that owes much to the persistence and vision of executive producer Jeremy Mortimer.

It was, in effect, yet another weird pitch.

But in getting drama people, interactive people, business affairs people and - most importantly - the audience all to come together in this way, it feels like we are slowly but surely starting to learn what the benefits of a "cross-platform" approach to storytelling might be.

And what are these benefits? Well, words that spring to mind are: inclusiveness, responsiveness, relevance, diversity, portability, and playfulness. These are all qualities I'd like to inject into my practice. Most of all, though, I'd hope that swywthery and other forms of Internet tomfoolery turn out to be fun.

For, in the words of a famous swywth: If it's not fun, you're not doing it right.

Say What You Want To Hear: The Startup by Tim Wright is on Radio 4 at 2.15pm on Thursday 11th February 2010, starring Stephen Tompkinson, Ewan Bailey and Keely Beresford.

Send in your swywths via the Radio 4 swywth website.


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