The Open Documentary Lab is pleased to announce the Research Forum, a space for researchers to voice their opinions and test new theories. As part of our mission to promote the exchange of ideas about the new arts of documentary, we hope to encourage academic discussion and debate about these emerging forms by creating a place where researchers can develop ideas and interact with the field. The views presented here belong to their authors, and will necessarily take different forms. In the spirit of the documentaries we study, we look forward to community collaboration and exchange as the ideas explored in the Research Forum take root, grow and support the development of the field.
by William Uricchio, Principal Investigator, MIT Open Documentary Lab
Over the past decade or so, ‘engagement’ has become an oft used term in the worlds of marketing and audience metrics, indicating a shift in interest from the mere ‘exposure’ of audiences to texts, to the quality of the audience’s experience. Although initially presented by qualitative researchers as a challenge to a media industry built upon counting eyeballs and clicks, it has gained traction, encouraged by the rapid state of media change and the evident need for new perspectives. The Internet as well as computer games, e-readers and digital television all share potentials for user interactivity as well as data tracking, offering a quantitative underpinning to qualitative concerns, and helping to drive an emerging paradigm shift in institutional notions of audience participation.
This broad shift serves as a backdrop for the operations of the interactive documentary, which seems to promise enhanced opportunities both for user engagement and – especially for the funders of social impact documentary — for measuring something that might be interpreted as such. We can distinguish among such ‘engagement-inducing’ activities as crowd-sourced funding to support particular documentary initiatives; crowd-sourced footage and community co-design; user-determined routings through textual environments; and the ‘after-life’ of projects that remain as active platforms for ongoing community interaction. Of course, not all of these are unique to the digital domain: crowd-sourced funding and sourcing, co-design, and even the community-based ‘afterlife’ of projects all have analog precedents. But the digital domain greatly facilitates these practices, and has the added value of making their operations in some senses more visible.
There is much here that we don’t know. For example, are contributors to crowdfunding initiatives (say, Kickstarter or JuntoBox, which offer ways to fund projects without promising the funder any ownership of the project or revenues from it) more likely to feel engaged? Since this is a self-selecting group, contributing resources on the basis of interest, the answer is presumably ‘yes’ – they were engaged as a condition of giving to the project. But how, beyond funding, might this manifest itself? Might they draw in their circle of friends? Promote the project and its cause in a personal way, encouraging others around them to share their interest? Might they, in other words, take a more active role in proselytizing the project, thereby having a social stake in its use, than a non-involved participant? The same might be asked of people who contribute footage to a crowd sourced initiative such as Perry Bard’s 2010 and ongoing Man With A Movie Camera: The Global Remake project (which offers remixes of user generated footage to remake Vertov’s film every day), or Kevin Macdonald’s 2010 The World in a Day (which drew from 80,000 YouTube submissions). While the act of submitting footage presumes a high level of engagement, does this in turn lead to ongoing efforts to engage a larger cohort of participants and viewers to the project? I am unaware of detailed evidence regarding these behaviors; but the amplification logics of social media are increasingly well studied, and may offer an appropriate analogy for these behaviors.
Collaborative documentaries also avail themselves to forms of co-design. This established practice, dating back at least to the 1970s, is related to user-centered design and participatory design (although it does not presume that any stakeholder is more relevant than another). It is process-oriented, blurring the roles of designer and author, much as some documentary projects blur the roles of author and user. Co-design developed with the notion that better designs emerge from directly involving stakeholders in the design process; so it seems reasonable to draw on this tradition if we want to enhance engagement, involving stakeholders in the documentation process. An example of such an approach is the cross-platform project Sandy Storyline (Rachel Falcone, Michael Premo and Laura Gottesdiener, 2012), described by Tribeca’s Ingrid Kopp as “… a community-generated narrative of the storm that seeks to inspire a safe and more sustainable future. ( ) It creates a living archive that shows the potential for sharing stories on a very human scale.” Organized by members of the social justice movement, Sandy Storyline’s avowed goal is to foster civic dialogue so communities can decide, from the ground up, their own futures. Sandy Storyline, like Hollow: An Interactive Documentary (Elaine McMillion, 2013) – an initiative “for the community, by the community”, is deeply embedded in the lives of those who are its co-producers. Hollow uses video portraits, user-generated content, photography, soundscapes, interactive data and grassroots mapping not just to document a community’s past, but to play an active role in building its future. Although both projects are, as of this writing, quite new, they have no ‘end’ in sight, serving as ongoing, growing and dynamic resources for their participants, who continue to contribute imagery and comments. Less of an ‘artifact’ (in the sense that films tend to be once completed and shown) than an ongoing forum for documentation, reflection and exchange, projects like Sandy and Hollow point to a new and largely unexplored dimension of the ‘new’ documentary to which we need to attend. Their civic character holds great potential, providing ways for communities to share knowledge and experience, and offering citizens incentives for sustained participation.
As noted, one can certainly find precedents in the analog past for these incentives to engagement, such as Britain’s 1930s Mass Observation Project that involved thousands of citizens for its findings. But the affordances of networked computers and digital cameras have greatly lowered the barriers to participation and enhanced a two-way dialogue between project developers and the public. As alluded to in the previous section on narrative, the interactive character of these documentaries, their requirement that the user ‘wander’ or ‘play’, adds a distinctive opportunity to engage by making participants co-constructors of the text itself, rather than ‘mere’ readers. The user’s interests presumably direct the process of negotiation through the documentary environment. While we can surmise that the ensuing textual experience differs from encounters with readymade texts, like storytelling differs from play in Osterweil’s terms, the nature of that difference and its implications for user engagement – as in the other cases – remains under researched and unknown. We do know that in some digital environments, users leave traces, allowing designers to discern behavioral patterns. Traces may offer evidence of engaged behaviors; and perhaps more importantly, they may offer insights into barriers to participation, points that could be redesigned or tweaked in some way in order to encourage more sustained participation. Because there is no fixed text, but rather a textual environment ripe with narrative possibilities, producers can continually refine the project, responding to aggregated behaviors and user feedback. Like the long ‘afterlife’ of some projects, this ability to continually fine-tune an interactive documentary in response to user behaviors offers a potentially new and powerful dimension for exploration.