What began as a little idea in 2000 at the Danish School of Journalism, matured in the United States, and is now ready to spread its wings
By Bjarke Calvin, CEO & Founder of Duckling
"If this is about people just as much as storytelling, then it's a project I can see myself in."
Michell's voice was ringing through my phone as I glanced out of the window over Central Park and the majestic sphere of the Hayden Planetarium. The year was 2012 and Michell was on the line from Denmark, while I was hanging out at a friend's place in New York City.
I had been working frantically for the past couple of years on a project called Storyplanet. A web-based platform that let photographers and other content producers create interactive, clickable stories without coding.
It was a great idea, and we were getting a lot of attention. But we had run out of money, and our technology had been rendered obsolete by the recently released iPad and iPhone. My work life was exploding, and I was trying to figure out where to go from here.
In those situations, I usually call my old buddy Michell. We both concluded that the missing piece of the puzzle was the network effect. You could create a story, and you could share it, but there was no way of connecting with other people and be inspired. Secondly, Storyplanet was desktop based, and the world was turning mobile at a fast pace.
At the end of the conversation, the idea of Duckling was born. An app that can do all of the above, but more importantly, a mission. A mission to change the way we think about media, and to empower all of us to enlighten each other and come up with better solutions to significant problems in the world.
Duckling came to life over the phone between New York and Copenhagen in 2012, but it started more than ten years before, all the way back in late 2000 at the Danish School of Journalism.
Laying the foundation
It was at the peak of the dot-com bubble; way before Facebook, Youtube and iPhones. Digital photography was still in its infancy, newspapers and television was still ruling the media world, and only a few journalists had a clue where things were heading with the Internet.
I had just finished an internship at a Danish business daily where I had been writing page after page about the so-called dot-com-entrepreneurs, who were raising millions and building fantastic tech products. I was discovering that people not much smarter than me could change the world with a laptop and a lot of work. I realized that I could change the world as well and I specifically wanted to change our idea of storytelling. I realized that what we called the media industry was rapidly becoming a limited version of what was possible with storytelling over the Internet.
Returning to journalism school was like hitting a pool of quicksand while running. Everything seemed to slow down, and the more I moved, the deeper I was sinking into the old paradigms of journalism. That's when I met Michell. He had graduated a year earlier but stayed at the school to assist with the early attempts at teaching Internet-driven journalism. Michell had a calm charm to him and a fierce belief in the disruptive power of the Internet.
He spoke about things like blogging as the new format for text, video streaming for everyone, and how Apple would revolutionize the next decade with incredible devices. Things that are obvious today but barely visible back then (Blogger had just launched one of the first mainstream blogging platforms, and it would be another six years before the launch of the iPhone).
A year before, Michell had launched the first investigative Internet magazine in Denmark — and probably even in the world — introducing a whole new infomercial format as a business model. Internet connections were too slow, though, and consumers still had little clue about the value of content online. It was early days, and like the dot-com bubble burst, so did the project. Michell lost his apartment and every dime he had, but got back up on his feet again within a year. He was an all-in-take-no-prisoners-entrepreneur, which was a rarity, to say the least, at the Danish School of Journalism. I loved it.
We spend the lunch breaks and late night beer sessions talking about the future of media. Sometimes alone, and sometimes joined by one or two friends. We were all convinced that the Internet would change everything, and we wanted to be part of it. We were the round pegs in the square holes, and no one else around us saw much potential in Internet-driven media (seriously).
The first project
In the beginning, I had two insights: Stories in the Internet age would adapt to the viewer, and they would be multimedia based with audio-visuals playing a significant role. It sounds mundane today with the visual web all around us, but in 2000 almost everything online was linked texts. I wanted to create adaptive stories that spoke to the heart of the viewer. I soon discovered that I could build it on my laptop with a bit of hacking and programming in a program called Flash.
This discovery led me to team up with two classmates to produce an interactive documentary called The Enemy Within, about Russian soldiers from the war in Chechnya, and the journey they undertook from regular Russian boys to perceived monsters of war crimes. It was part movie, part website, with layers of photos, videos, and texts that viewers could navigate to their liking. We published it, and it soon changed my world. It was still many years before social media, so the idea of a viral story had yet to emerge, but our project went kind of viral, and we got a lot of attention in the US.
It led me to a job offer at the famous photo agency Magnum in 2014, and I went on to co-found their digital production unit called Magnum In Motion. It was a time of great enthusiasm among those of us who believed in a new Internet-driven storytelling language. Finally, we were getting some traction. I engaged in a frenzy of producing stories with my co-founder and our small production team, and we soon launched the first online documentaries that were licensed to places like NY Times and Slate Magazine, reaching millions of views each month and making sponsorship money from Nokia, HP, and others.
To me, however, this was just a starting point. Our stories were very much like video, a linear experience that did not hold my vision of adapting to users. I was yearning to create a digital community around our Magnum content, just like Magnum had a massive following around their old media production. But our linear photo-based stories were doing so well that my ideas of interactive formats and online communities got dismissed.
A few years later our videos became a commodity, and Magnum no longer had a business around this. Had Magnum had the courage to build an online community around interactive formats it would have turned out differently. At least that's my belief. But back then my ideas were deemed too expensive and too difficult to produce. Producing and publishing video was rapidly becoming dead simple, but making interactive media still required heavy programming.
The great thing about my backlash at Magnum was that it inspired me to resurface an idea I had since producing The Enemy Within. We should have a tool that would let people drag and drop media, designs, and interactions without having to program. The idea became the starting point of Storyplanet. Through a mutual friend I was introduced to Joi Ito who got me started with a first early stage investment. Today Joi is the Director of MIT Media Lab, and still an investor and board member in Duckling.
The Duckling becomes a beautiful swan
As mentioned earlier the fall of Storyplanet became the starting point for Duckling, and since then Michell and I spend over five years trying out different approaches to the product, to the tech team and funding, before finally making all the pieces fit.
Entrepreneurship of this kind takes a lot of time, effort and money, and I think the story of the startup that takes off and reaches millions of users in a few months is a myth. What about a company like Twitter, you ask? They grew to 50 million users in a very short timespan. True, but Twitter was the peak of a long journey where the founders had numerous other more or less failed attempts at creating startups. It's almost always like that.
Looking back from 2018 at the entire process, spanning almost two decades, makes me see life from a particular perspective. Not just my professional experience as an entrepreneur, but also the life of the Internet and how we tell stories on it. The shifting technologies and the trends in how we use them are a big part of that, of course, but the essential problem is the same. Storytelling on the Internet is still linear. Podcasts are linear. Streaming video is linear. The so-called stories on Instagram and Facebook are linear.
Why is that? The whole idea of Internet technology is based on non-linearity, yet we are still trying so hard to tell stories linearly. Humankind seems to have a preference for linear storytelling, even though it's time-consuming and often inefficient for sharing insights.
It has to do with our perception of time. We think of time as being linear, even though we know today it's not. A linear understanding of time still limits human evolution, and since we share insights through the stories we tell, we bind our insights into this traditional perception of time. It's merely what we know life to be.
Gradually, though, we are developing advanced story formats that are non-linear and takes us to new levels of thinking and perception. Online gaming is the perfect example of that, and new generations are growing up with a completely different mindset that will change our idea of what storytelling is in just a few years.
As I write this, I am doing a Fellowship at MIT (Boston, United States) with focus on Insight Media and how it will change the world. Seen from both Michell's and my perspective the world is in alarming need for a platform that allows us to share insights through a next level story format that liberates us from linear thinking. If you think that social media will deliver this, think again. Social media has unraveled into a beast that doesn't serve humanity the way we expected early on. Social media has taken us more and more away from sharing insights and instead put us in a never-ending hamster wheel of photos, videos and text snippets that never allow us to conclude, and thereby gain real insight.
In other words, the need for Duckling to take off as a beautiful swan is more eminent than ever.
Let's fly together.