digital me screenshot
Credit: Screenshot of Digital Me. Image courtesy of Sandra Gaudenzi

Personalised video and virtual reality are two trends to watch in 2016, as more news organisations are experimenting with new forms of storytelling to engage with their audiences.

Digital Me is an experiment in personalised, interactive storytelling, that draws on people's interaction with social media platforms to start a conversation about their online behaviour and how that reflects on them as individuals.

The project was commissioned and launched at the end of September on BBC Taster, and is scheduled to run for ten more days.

The prototype requires users to sign in with their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and also requests access to their location services and webcam to produce relevant questions and answers.

The concept behind Digital Me was created by Sandra Gaudenzi, head of studies at IF Lab, who was interested in exploring the use of data and personalisation to create factual narratives online.

"Two years ago, I thought about how companies like Facebook, Google or Amazon are using their own digital data to sell us things, they use personalisation in order to be more in tune with what they think we will want to buy," she told

"And an obvious and perhaps a much more honest continuation of that was using the same abilities of this technology to tell us more about who we really are, as a tool of self-improvement, rather than something that is being used for commercial purposes."

Gaudenzi worked alongside Chris Sizemore, executive editor for BBC knowledge and learning product, and Mike Robbins, a creative technologist at Helios Design Labs, to design and code the prototype of Digital Me.

They also researched the various technical aspects involved in producing it, such as APIs, data mining protocols and face recognition capabilities.

She explained how from an academic perspective, the idea was to use data to craft personal narratives, at a time where the amount of information given by users online has lead to ongoing conversation and concerns about digital privacy and safety.

"Most of the time, we are unaware of how many personas we have and how they shift between one another depending on context, for example going to a job interview versus attending a party.

"And I thought, why not use the computer and software to help us visualise who we are on all the different social media platforms, which is something we couldn't do in an analogue story."

The questions Digital Me asks users are based on the information available about them online, a space people use to build relationships and profiles, seen as a reflection of their daily lives.

Digital Me
Screenshot of Digital Me. Image courtesy of Sandra Gaudenzi.

Gaudenzi said the majority of apps currently available use this data from social media to either present people with tailored quizzes, or highlight things like a person's first tweet, Facebook post or meaningful interaction with friends.

"These apps allow you to visualise data, but it's never put in the context of a story or a narrative. As opposed to being a sort of quantitative analysis, we wanted to make the story interesting because it's about the person.

"It gives you a shape and a voice to allow you to have a discussion and internal thought about the time you are spending online and what people make of that, it's not meant to show you how dangerous the things you've said online are, for example."

A similar experience was developed at Hackastory in September, where one of the participating teams built a game app called 'Want to be a refugee?' to help people relate more to this experience by taking on this role themselves.

Players were asked to log in with their Facebook account and answer different questions about their journey as a refugee framed in the context of their online activity, which influenced the outcome of the game.

Other projects that have used data mining in storytelling include Do Not Track, a personalised web series about online privacy.

But so far, news organisations have mostly focused on virtual reality and 360-degree video to create this type of immersive experiences for their readers, rather than interactive narratives.

Vice, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are just some of the outlets that have experimented with this technology, both in individual stories and to develop dedicated VR apps.

And in 2016, virtual reality headsets such as Oculus Rift will hit the mass market and the focus will be on consumers adopting this technology and companies expanding its use, according to the latest Webbmedia Group report on technology trends.

However, Gaudenzi thinks virtual reality is still very limited, and once people get past the initial "wow effect" given by the headset and the impression of being somewhere else, there aren't many opportunities of actually interacting with the story.

When the story finishes, I'm often left thinking, 'what have I learned out of this, where does it leave me'?Sandra Gaudenzi, IF Lab
"You are not given any agency, any power of doing anything. For example, with 360-degree films, the only thing you are able to do is turn your head around, but most of the time, you're just an observer.

"When the story finishes, I'm often left thinking, 'what have I learned out of this, where does it leave me'?"

To date, the project has acquired some 96,000 views and it has become the second most shared prototype on BBC Taster.

People were also encouraged to give their feedback, and while 57 per cent of them said they would return to Digital Me over time to see if their behaviour had changed, only 50 per cent were willing to change the way in which they posted on social platforms after the experience.

Gaudenzi believes the technology used to create this proof of concept can also be combined with other software to further develop the idea of personalised stories that are emerged in the viewer's world, rather than the other way around.

"It uses your data to show you where you are, to ask what action you want to take based on it, and tell you things in a way that makes you interested in the story.

"It has the potential to really move you," Gaudenzi said.

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