Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Three)

You describe Glee as “ideologically uneven,” suggesting some of the contradictory pulls in terms of its commitments to equality, diversity, and community. Often, the rough spots in texts, the contradictions and gaps, are what fans have built upon as they have ideologically reconstructed popular television series. Is this the case with Glee or are these ideological unevennesses reproduced within the fan culture that surrounds the series?

 Yes Glee’s ideological unevenness spurred fandom creation, and yes, Glee’s ideological unevenness gets recreated in fan culture. On the one hand, Glee’s ideological unevenness prompted a wealth of fan response, sometimes in the form of virulent critique or media literacy campaigns like the Glee Equality Project, sometimes in the form of somewhat more subtle critiques via long form fan fictions that seek to right Glee’s ideological wrongs (for example, Sugarkane_01’s “Come Here Boy) or to more substantively engage issues of diversity sidestepped by the series (for example, Herostratic’s “No Objects of Lust.”)

But some of the TV series’ unevenness gets reproduced, and new ideological contradictions get introduced. In Millennial Fandom, I talk about the fan fiction series Steal a Heart, which simultaneously makes up for Glee’s lack of depiction of queer sexual intimacy with long passages describing sexual intimacy for multiple non-straight couples, but at the same time the series arguably reifies Glee’s gay white male focus, and also introduces new celebration of consumerist millennial culture with significant emphasis on Disneyworld as millennial fantasy ideal.

What’s important to me for us to take from this is not only that fandom has the capacity for subversion and critique, but that fan cultures contain and author multitudes. Fan culture is, like Glee, at its core spectacularly uneven; it looks different from every vantage point; it’s always multiple, and it’s always changing, and it’s full of dynamic contradictions.

 

Much discussion of transmedia has centered around masculine audiences and male-centered narratives, but as you note, transmedia extensions play important roles in relation to these female-centered franchises. How might our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices shift if we fully incorporated these productions into our understanding of the concept? 

I want to first coopt this question to talk about an example close to my heart at this moment. So rather than thinking about how transmedia aesthetics and practices could shift, I want to dwell for a moment on how TV practices might shift if TV producers took fully into account the potential of the fandoms for female-centered franchises.

I mentioned above the TV series Supernatural’s ambivalent depictions of female fans over the years. Supernatural is a series that has a dynamic and rich transformative fandom, and the majority of those participating in the fandom are women. Supernatural fans, while expressing love for the series and its characters and potential, have long been critics of its gender and racial politics, and have spoken out at times about how they have felt misrepresented and even attacked by the series and its metatexts, for example, in response to a preview that declared the teenage girl the “ultimate monster.”

Having entered into its 11th season, Supernatural has made more than one unsuccessful attempt at creating a “back door spinoff,” introducing characters and scenarios into an episode that the producers hope would be able to carry their own series. Meanwhile, in recent years the series has introduced several compelling female characters, and a few have even been lucky enough to escape the series’ penchant for killing off its supporting female characters to push forward the narrative arcs of its central male characters.

Supernatural fans have used various transmedia channels—Twitter, Tumblr, Change.org, Thunderclap—to campaign for “the spin off fans want to see,” a series concept they have dubbed Wayward Daughters Academy. They’ve coordinated their efforts with the support of and in conversation with the actors playing the characters involved, and rallied fan support at conventions as well as online. While the fans admit that they may not have the power to “create a spin-off,” they argue that “we do have the potential to send The CW and Supernatural producers a message about their treatment of women and female characters.”

As the Wayward Daughters Academy campaign demonstrates, transmedia fandoms can voice their preferences strongly, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in what may seem like cacophony. But there’s power there, even in the cacophony, and a vision of a future politics of media representation that would move us forward into new audiences, new forms, breaking free of old and outdated representational tropes and production systems.

This brings us to your question about what we might learn from the practices of the transformative fandom for female-oriented franchises. Yes, these transformative fan communities can reveal critical perspectives and activist potential, but more importantly those perspectives exist within a fluid whole that encompasses multiple perspectives and practices, which are at once complementary and contradictory, and which flourish together despite—or even because of—their contradictions.[1]

Much of the previous thought about transmedia production has emphasized the pursuit of harmony, unity, and order, with clear hierarchies for transmedia relationships that wouldn’t threaten narrative coherence, or, more conservatively, that would not threaten the supremacy of the central broadcast media. But in transformative fandom, contradictions thrive and fans thrive on contradictions, or at least on the robustness of the culture that contains and celebrates contradiction.

That is, a culture that celebrates multiplicity and diversity must flourish on the contradictions that will emerge from that multiplicity, and this is a key strength of fandom that could shift, as you put it, our understanding of transmedia aesthetics and practices. Transmedia doesn’t need to be unified and clean; it can ride the waves of multivocal investment and authorship.

 

You use Misha Collins to illustrate the ways that certain performers are using social media to forge stronger alliances with their transformative audiences, even as they seek to draw them into an even more supportive relationship with the “mother ship” series. Yet, the recent example of Orlando Jones and Sleepy Hollow suggests that the producers and networks do not always value the kinds of relationship building such performers do for a series.  These performer-fans clearly have a different relationship to the core text than the “fan boy auteurs” that Suzanne Scott wrote about a few years ago. Might we also understand them as part of the “powerless elite” as John Tulloch famously described science fiction fans? 

There are echoes of celebrities as a powerless elite in my study of Misha Collins’ on-again-off-again status with the CW, or the fact that Orlando Jones is no longer on Sleepy Hollow. Yet in the bigger picture, I see a shift toward decentered communities of authorship that bridge producer and audience, and celebrity and fan. In these evolving interrelationships there are new forms of power, power to create, to entertain one another, to support one another, to create new media forms, to disrupt, to raise money, to organize, to create new trends, and to chart the directions of future media culture.

Misha Collins is readable as a powerless elite only if we define power as the power of broadcast media. Certainly, part of Collins’ online persona initially involved poking fun at the powerlessness of the perceived elite of celebrity, as he satirically tweeted about his close friendships with various heads of state and referred to his followers as his minions. The humor there lay in the fact that while people saw him as powerful, he was in actuality anything but.

But as Collins’ minions gathered and worked with him and with each other to form the charity organization Random Acts, we saw reflected a truth in fan and celebrity power, a truth that perhaps also lent power and new humor to Collins’ performance. Because together Collins and minions are powerful.

GISHWHES (The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen) takes this shared power further. The collectivity there, the collective dedication to creating anarchic art and spreading it in “real life” and online, demonstrates the power of the creative collective. Collins and collaborators Miss Jean Louis and others have created in GISHWHES a frame that fosters multiple communities of creativity and social action, with 14,000 participants in 2014. But the power here is not in celebrities as elite or fans as elite, but both together as expansive and diverse collective.

But there’s yet another dynamic here I would point to, more visible in communities built on the microcelebrity of young professionals working to build their careers as creative producers. I can think of no better example than Team StarKid, the theater troupe famous for A Very Potter Musical and sequels as well as Starship and Twisted (among others). While StarKid founder Darren Criss has arguably shed the “micro” side of microcelebrity, for the most part the various stars of StarKid model their own professional journeys to their fans, all of whom (fans and celebrities together) fall under the banner of Team StarKid.

Likewise, web series producers and stars who participate in fan-favored social media experiment with self branding along side fans, many of whom also position themselves creative producers, commercial or otherwise.[2] What’s key for me here is the larger collaborative picture, where stardom is understood (by fans and stars and star-fans) as one potential element of one’s creative production and participation, constructed, produced and reproduced by visible labor. Fandom offers communities of support for that labor and the challenges that may come with it. The power then is in the shared communities of knowledge, practice, and support fostered by celebrities and fans together. 

[1] Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse describe this shifting contradictory whole of fan authorship as the “fantext,” a concept I’ve found quite compelling and useful over the years. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet (McFarland, 2006), 7.

[2] On fans who cross over into celebrity, I’d recommend Matt Hills’ “Not Just Another Powerless Elite,” in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond’s edited collection Framing Celebrity: New Directions in Celebrity Culture (Routledge, 2006), 101-118.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at http://www.millennialfandom.tumblr.com/.

Who Are Millennial Fans: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part Two)

Many of the shows you write about as Millennial programs are also shows with strong female leads and targeted at female consumers — Friday Night Lights would be a notable exception on your list. So, what happens to the gendering of fandom as we move towards Millennial fan culture? 

Issues of gender permeate millennial culture, fan culture, and the relationship between the two. Masculinizing—or feminizing—fan culture has been one way industry interests tame fandom’s perceived unruliness. Seemingly masculine forms of fandom (and I would emphasize that these areas, like gender itself, are social constructs) have already been categorized as industrially legible and profit friendly. The fanboy stereotype has its share of taboo associations, going all the way back to the “Get a Life” bit on Saturday Night Live that Textual Poachers opens with; but the fanboy position has since been spun into industry heralded narratives of superfans and fanboy auteurs (see Scott, Kohnen), with the lines toward brand support and profit already clearly delineated.[i]

Obsession_inc (and many others citing her) have termed this divide “affirmational fandom,” versus “transformative fandom,” with the latter perceived as more the practice of female consumers who transform media texts into art and fiction, often in so doing significantly changing their meaning. In Millennial Fandom, I actually argue that transformational and affirmational fandom are more deeply intertwined than we might at first assume, but nevertheless, at a discursive level, the distinction helps us to see why and how transformative (perceived “feminine”) practices have been and continue to be treated as suspect, marked as taboo, and policed.

 

But we know this is beginning to change, as various attempts by industry interests invite fan transformative authorship, if on industrial terms. So we have industry efforts to coopt fan transformational practices like Amazon Kindle Worlds and FanLib; we also see hash tags emblazoned on episodes designed to elicit and shape fan discourses and twitter authorship; likewise, we see TV source text mimicking the form of fan videos. We also see producers (especially digital producers of web series) naming “ships” and their associated fandoms, reposting fan art, and participating in fandom themselves. What this means is that industry interests are now courting and celebrating modes of fan engagement perceived as feminine, and, as a result, new and more nuanced games of co-creation and control begin to play out.

But it goes further than a grudging acceptance that feminine modes of fan production might be woven into profit too. Perceived feminine excesses are also being celebrated for their creative energy as representative of what is new and different about contemporary youth audiences. It’s part of the millennial discursive construct: all seeming threats can be recast as positives.

The potential unruliness of the millennial generation—especially the seemingly more illegible, excessive, feminine practices—are themselves being celebrated and marketed in millennial-directed texts and paratexts, and this means we are given lead female characters like Blair Waldorf, Veronica Mars, Charlie Bradbury (sob) and all five Pretty Little Liars leads, or most recently Clary Fray from Shadowhunters, whose transgressions and excesses are celebrated as strengths. This then means we have a dialogue between fan cultures that celebrate affective transgressions and series/characters (and especially female leads) that do the same.

You describe in some details how ABC Family developed its image as a network, but we’ve recently learned that the network is rebranding itself. Has the moment of millennial television already started to pass, and if so, what will take its place?

Thanks to a timely coincidence I am writing this response on January 12th, the day that ABC Family officially became Freeform. This rebranding not only changes the network’s name, but also its professed target audience. Freeform labels its intended imagined audience not millennials but “Becomers,” what they term a “life stage” rather than a specific generation.

According to various press materials, Becomers span life experience from “first kiss to first kid,” age range 14-34. But just as the millennial category did for ABC family in 2007, Becomers offer an expansive category seeking to unite teens and young adults, this time linking them by their shared processes of “finding themselves” rather than by a shared generational ethos.

ABC Family had to walk a fine line in its 2007 rebranding—it strove to maintain its family friendly and even conservative leaning Disney roots and while also positioning itself as fresh, cutting edge, and tapped into the concerns of contemporary young people. The discourses of social conservatism (what I talk about as “millennial hope”) surrounding millennials became a useful tool in this branding dance. But since then, ABC family has contributed significantly to the alternate depictions of millennials as transgressive, risk taking, and independently-minded (what I call discourses of “millennial noir.”)

The new Freeform/Becomers rebrand sheds the limiting generational discourse and the conservative associations that go with it. According to a press release announcing the rebranding in April 2015, current Becomers (or at least the younger ones) “live on the cutting edge of technology… have never experienced content without a smart phone, streaming, or social media.” In turn, according to another press release in Fall of 2015, Freeform will reach Becomers by encouraging audience interactivity: “Freeform is inspired by the interconnection between content and audience, media and technology, interactive and linear, life stage and life style and the way Becomers interact with all of them.”

Many of these strategies were already in place with ABC Family’s prior address to millennials. The moving away from the term millennials distances ABC Family from both the dated and more conservative dimensions of the brand. The hyped new programming on Freeform leans toward fan-friendly and female-centric representations of diverse experience, such as in The Fosters, Becoming Us, and Shadowhunters.

So all of this is to say that the label millennials has indeed begun to shift and pass (new articles describe millennials parenting tendencies!) and perhaps generational discourse itself is falling temporarily out of fashion, but many of the strategies put in place during the reign of the millennials will persist, if rebranded and somewhat reshaped.

Throughout, you suggest ways that the book, Millennials Rising, has informed industry practice and discourse as it relates to this particular generational cohort. What factors account for the impact this particular book had? Why was it so widely embraced? What have been some of the consequences of this book’s influence?

Millennials Rising not accidentally depicted a vision and definition of millennials that was advertiser and industry friendly and that helped ease concerns and anxieties about the impact of digital technologies and cultural change on media marketing models. Authors of Millennials Rising, William Strauss and Neil Howe were founding partners of LifeCourse Associates, a consulting, publishing and speaking company that “serve(s) companies, government agencies, and non-profit.” This reach across profit and non profit sectors has been felt, as reports from the Pew Research Centers and media companies like ABC Family reified the vision of millennials originally constructed by Strauss and Howe, limited and contradictory as it might have been.

In other words, Strauss and Howe defined the millennial generation in part with industry concerns in mind, and then industry interests glommed on, reified, and reproduced this definition, a self-fulfilling generational prophecy with far reaching impact. To return again to the Freeform example, the impact is still felt, even as ABC Family sheds the term millennial, it still constructs its expansive collapse of teen and young adult markets and spins a hopeful narrative about the power of community built on digital authorship communicating individual experience.

[i] Suzanne Scott, “Who’s Steering the Mothership?: The Role of the Fanboy Auteur in Transmedia Storytelling,” The Routledge Handbook on Participatory Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2013), 43-52; Melanie Kohnen ‘The power of geek’: fandom as gendered commodity at Comic-Con,” Creative Industries Journal, 7:1 (2014), 75-78, DOI: 10.1080/17510694.2014.892295

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at http://www.millennialfandom.tumblr.com/.

Who Are Millennial Fans?: An Interview with Louisa Stein (Part One)

Louisa Stein is part of a generation of fan researchers who first came to my attention through the 2006 publication of Fan Fictions and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet which was a groundbreaking collection of essays, one that opened up a range of new theoretical perspectives and introduced many new voices. I have had the pleasure watching Stein’s scholarship take shape over the past decade — including her co-editorship of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (with Kristina Busse) and her contributions to the reissue of my own Textual Poachers.

Soft-spoken in person, Stein writes with real passion, as someone who is deeply grounded in the fandoms she discusses through her writing, and as someone whose sense of social justice is shaped by various forms of fan feminisms. She also has been consistently attentive to the ways fandom has changed as it embraces the potentials and works through the challenges of new media and as it struggles to maintain its own identity in the face of various industrial strategies that seek to incorporate and contain its transformative practices.

This past fall, Stein published an important new book — Millenial Fandom: Television Audiences in a Transmedia Age. Here, she discusses young fans of such programs as Gossip Girl, Veronica Mars, Glee, Lizzie Bennett Diaries, Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, among many other series, and in the process, she expands the critical vocabulary of fandom research — especially as it concerns the shifting relations between producers and consumers in the era of social media. She writes in complex and compelling ways about the “mainstreaming” of fandom and who gets left out when the industry embraces some fans and not others. She doesn’t simply celebrate fandom as a space that transgresses or reimagines the ideologies of these popular fictions, but she also explores how fans reproduce and  in some cases,  deepen the problematic ideological contradictions at the heart of their favorite programs. I am sure that this book is one which will inspire and inform the next generation of fandom research.

We tackle many of these issues in this three part interview with Stein about her book and about some cutting edge issues impacting young fans today.

In many ways, you see the millennial audience as emblematic of the “mainstreaming” of fan culture within a networked culture. You write, “Millennials have made fan practices more socially acceptable by action, word, and image, if not name.” To what degree is this something Millennials have done and to what degree is this something the industry has done as it has constructed millennials as a particular kind of fan?

First, I want to emphasize that I mean millennial as an imagined category, one co-created by industry and (the cultural participants we refer to as) millennials in an ongoing negotiation. Likewise, the depiction of millennials as modified fans is an ongoing joint creation: industry marketing, advertising, network positioning, programming, scheduling, and digital paratexts together construct a vision of millennials as modified fans; but millennials’ (and/or fans’) own performances of self, responses to one another, and collective interactions also shape this picture. Advertising campaigns and paratextual strategies (like officially coordinated hash tags or programming embedded with fan reference) may hail a modified fan position—one that is invested, created, and interactive up to a particular degree and in certain industry-accepted modes. But fans created many of these practices in the first place, and choose when and how to respond to industrial hailing, when to play along the designated lines and when to transgress.

I’ve been thinking recently about the power of fan self representation, the impact of what fans choose to broadcast, so to speak, about their own engagement—what narratives of self and community they (and we, including scholar fans) choose to tell. To me, this set of performances is crucial. Even as fan self-representations may seem to echo industrial discourse, they transcend those too simple portraits.

The notion of “socially-minded millennials,” for example, is a thin industrial construct in comparison to the lived coordination and action of millennial fan campaigns such as the Harry Potter Alliance, Random Acts, The Glee Equality Project, and Wayward Daughters Academy. Likewise, the millennial noir transgressions of Gossip Girl characters in no way encompass the celebration of the excess of emotion in millennial feels culture that flourishes on Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The mainstreaming of fandom into millennial culture is a chosen stance of fans to represent their modes of engagement as more than only niche and subcultural. Fans choose to post about their fan engagement in the public spaces of Tumblr rather than the locked communities and friends-only journals of the late 1990s and early 2000s. They may perceive these fan spaces as intimate publics, as I’ve written about elsewhere, yet they choose to allow for the possibility of visibility, for a default public culture, albeit one with intimate semi-private pockets. Indeed, the social activism of, for example, what some refer to as Tumblr feminism is part of—or at least deeply connected to—this fan performance of fandom as an expansive mode of engagement with something important to share and spread.

Many have seen the “mainstreaming” of fandom in largely negative terms as a form of co-optation or enclosure, yet throughout the book, there are suggestions that it may also be a positive force for change. In what senses? What is gained and what gets lost as fandom gets greater acceptance, as it moves from a niche or cult phenomenon and into the mainstream?

We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the dimensions and experiences of fandom that have become sidelined, censured, erased, deemed unimportant or inappropriate, or even ridiculed because they do not fall within industrially or culturally approved fannish modes. For example, the increased visibility of fandom has led to a gendered battleground when it comes to representations of fans, seen recently in the whiplash ambivalence of the series Supernatural’s representation of fandom  and female fannish characters. (See also) The mainstreaming of fandom does police and punish certain fans, modes of fan engagement, and modes of fan production, while heralding others.

But at the same time, the mainstreaming of fandom can give visibility and voice to those vital parts of fandom even as they’re being censured. Nowhere was this more evident to me than at the 2013 LeakyCon, which I write about in my book’s conclusion. (I’ve also written about it with Allison McCracken and Lindsey Giggey on Antenna.) At LeakyCon, young millennial fans came together into a supportive multifandom community that they saw as an extension of their online engagement.

I attended one panel that focused on parents of LeakyCon goers. As the parent of a budding fan myself (my daughter just finished reading book 7 of Harry Potter this week!), I was struck by the way parents spoke about how much fandom had meant to their kids, how knowing that there is this larger community of folks that share their concerns of identity and self-expression, articulated through their engagement with media communities, has empowered their children to become authors, creators, community participants, and sometimes community leaders in ways that their parents (many of whom had grown up as fans) could never have imagined for themselves when they were young.

The increased visibility and sense of pride and public-facing community has transformed access to fandom, its breadth, and in turn the tenor of the fan experience. Fandom still can provide an escape from a more constricting daily life, but fandom is no longer necessarily hidden and walled. Instead it infuses fans’ everyday and shapes the communities fans build in “real life” and online or, more to the point, as these categories dissolve.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury College. Her work explores audience engagement in transmedia culture, with emphasis on questions of gender and generation. Louisa is author of Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also co-editor of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom (McFarland, 2012) and Teen Television: Programming and Fandom (McFarland, 2008). She has published in a range of journals and edited collections including Cinema Journal and How to Watch Television. Louisa serves as book review editor for the Transformative Works and Cultures and Cinema Journal. You can find Louisa on Twitter at @l_e_s and on Tumblr at http://www.millennialfandom.tumblr.com/.

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Four)

The report’s focus on immersion as a dimension of news and documentary may be new to many readers, despite the New York Time’s recent venture into virtual reality. So, can you share a bit more about the current state of immersive journalism and why you think this is a trend which we should be paying attention to rather than a passing fad? How would you respond to fears that immersion is more a tool for shaping emotional response rather than a resource for fostering reasoned argument? Can news stories be both immersive (and thus framed by a particular vantage point) and objective in the traditional sense of the term?

To answer your last question first, if we take immersive technology in the form of VR to mean 360-degree, 3D imaging systems (there is a lot of slippage in the meanings of both ‘immersive’ and ‘VR”), I actually think that it’s easier to be less subjective, or at least to circumvent the problem of a particular point-of-view common to linear narratives in film, video, words and even traditional photography.

One of its affordances as a medium, and a great advantage or disadvantage depending on one’s goals, is that VR offers a surfeit of information. This makes directing the user’s attention or ‘constructing the gaze’ a difficult task. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons VR storytelling is still in its infancy: how to impose structure and direction, other than to mimic film conventions? In these early days, VR storytelling feels a lot like the first decade of cinematic storytelling, when the conventions from another medium (theater) informed the endeavors of a new medium still finding its feet.

I recently experienced Waves of Grace, a terrific project about an Ebola survivor whose immunity offers a story of hope, made by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk for the UN in collaboration with Vice Media. It’s clear that the makers have a point of view, a story that they want to communicate. And while reader-response theory tells us that viewers can and will make their own meanings from texts, in this case, the viewer has 360 degrees at his disposal, and in my case, I’m pretty sure that I constructed a counter-narrative possibly abusing my freedom to look around, to look ‘behind’ or opposite the makers’ focus, to see things they weren’t talking about and perhaps didn’t want to take up.

More objective? I think the viewer has more options, can look around at what would normally be ‘off-screen space’ in a film or video image, and that means viewers have greater latitude in figuring out not only what they are supposed to look at, but also the larger setting and context.

The bigger issue, according to some research, is that we might be processing these encounters the same way we do real-world experiences, and not the way we process film or photography or words. That is, we might be processing them as experience not representation.

Emile Bruneau’s work in cognitive neuroscience at MIT, for instance, focuses on synaptic plasticity and explores the extent to which VR experiences play out differently than the representational domain we are more familiar with. He’s doing this, among other places, with user experiences of Karim Ben Khalifa’s The Enemy that I mentioned earlier, and it’s very exciting work even if worrying for its larger implications. Emile is coming at it from a conflict resolution perspective, which is terrific; but if his thesis is correct, we need to understand the process much better in order to brace ourselves for the onslaught of other less benevolent appropriations.

I think immersive experiences put a new twist on the old ‘showing-telling’ distinction. Showing is far more difficult to contain than telling, seems more impactful in terms of how it is experienced and remembered, and as Confucius tells us, can be re-told in thousands of words and thus in countless ways. VR takes showing to the next level, not only always presenting us with an excess of information, but in so doing, forcing us to attend to only a small portion of what is available, and giving us that information as experience. I think it would be difficult to argue that it is a tool for reasoned argument – the abstraction of words and numbers is still best for that, with image and sound beginning the slippery slope to affect (I guess that’s what the Reformation was all about!).

But VR can be a great attention-getter, a quick and easy way to create a sense of presence and place. By creating the impression of being somewhere, by giving the viewer the freedom to look up, down and all around, a lot of crucial contextual information can be derived that would, in more limited linear scenarios, require careful selection and plotting, only to wind up giving us the director’s or writer’s point of view.

Immersion can offer a counterweight to indifference. It can lure us into being interested in a topic we might otherwise gloss over, can encourage a search for facts, or a desire to learn. Rational debate, as a mode of discourse, is usually driven by some sort of motive. Immersion can help to create that motive, but – at least until we develop better ways of shaping and directing immersive experiences – it is not, in itself, a mode of discourse.

So with this in mind, I would not dismiss it as a journalistic fad, but rather look to it working in tandem with other media expressions. Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey (Dan Edge, working with TheSecretLocation) uses Google Cardboard, an inexpensive and relatively easy way to reach the public, to create a 3D 360 degree immersive environment tied to Frontline’s Outbreak, a broadcast documentary. This Frontline production is a great example of forward-looking journalism, bound at the hip with documentary of course. It played out across media with partnerships and media manifestations from the New York Times to Youtube, and the immersive app was, in that sense, just another arrow in the quiver of an organization trying to expand and engage its audience while expanding the modalities of getting its story across.

Emphasizing audience engagement poses its own issues, since news organizations have historically distinguished themselves from the commercial drivers that shape the rest of their network’s operations and journalists often resent the push to reach more viewers. At the same time, news organizations have seen their job as informing but not necessarily mobilizing the public, a goal more likely to be associated with documentary producers or activists. So, in what senses should journalists care about engagement?

The 20th Century is rich with embodiments of the journalistic profession, from news hounds, to crusaders, to hard-bitten cynics, to gonzo journalists, each articulating a different set of relations between journalists and their publics as well as their larger institutional bases. And while it’s probably true that many of today’s practitioners hew to notions of independence, integrity and authority that would be familiar to journalists of generations gone by, the increasingly dire conditions facing many American print organizations seems to be encouraging a more public-friendly stance.

I have the impression that many of the journalists who a few years back were forced to include their email address with their bylines and grudgingly cope with tweets, are now more willing to interact with their public and to even track the number of hits their stories are getting.

News organizations, for all of their rhetoric about informing the public, not mobilizing it, also seem to be changing. This seems driven as much by the political polarization of the American public sphere, as by charges from the political right that ‘the media’ is too leftist, as by an outright political agenda on the part of some news organizations and funders (Fox News and Richard Mellon Scaiff’s Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, to name but two). That Fox News trademarked “Fair & Balanced” and “We Report. You Decide” as news slogans is one of the clearest signs that the old platitudes have been transformed into marketing tools, not commitments. Journalism – just like the larger environment it inhabits – is changing.

All that said, I think the engagement issue plays out on a somewhat different dimension. It’s similar to what I said about immersive VR: it can help to generate interest, while making no claims to being a mode of discourse. First, it can indeed support the bottom line by attracting and holding readers and viewers. That’s a double-edged sword, of course, as the annals of Yellow Journalism demonstrate. But the history of Pulitzer’s New York World also shows that an engaged audience will stick with a paper even when the reporting improves! In other words, engagement is independent from journalistic quality in the traditional sense.

Second, engagement can be extensive. It can help to move people from an interest in the reports they read or see to the actual world and civic processes around them. If the journalistic information is solid, then whatever interventions follow will at least have the benefit of being well-informed.

Third, I think the pursuit of engagement has led to some very interesting innovations. Our report discusses Localore and WBEZ-Chicago’s Curious City, a program where the ideas for what should be covered and the ensuing research itself comes from the public. It’s a great example of co-creation, and how it can foster community engagement. In a very different way, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Off/Page and Storyworks projects are each based on partnerships with non-traditional players (YouthSpeaks, a literary nonprofit, and Tides Theater, respectively) to report news stories in ways that speak to particular communities. And The Oakland Tribune’s Oakland Voices (with sister projects in Sacramento, California, and Jackson, Mississippi) trains local residents to become multi-media storytellers, which extends its range of news coverage and points of view, and enhances community engagement. These developments and more like them are essential steps towards pushing the journalistic form ahead, towards helping it reach publics that it has too long ignored, and towards keeping it in step with the ever-changing needs of its publics.

Engagement is user-centric. Rather than proclaiming from the lofty position of professional authority, it invites involvement, situates relevance, demonstrates the need for further information and consideration.

Alas, the news no longer seems self-evident. Today’s public faces a withering array of choices, a number of which pander shamelessly to their interests. It’s an empowered public, which is not to say an informed one; a public with tools, access, and the means to express and share ideas. These developments are some of the reasons we believe that journalism is moving away from being a straightforward transmitter of information to a redefined position as a convener, curator and shaper of an informed conversation between publics and sources. It’s the difference between a monologue and a dialogue. And today’s public is increasingly part of the conversation.

One of our key bits of advice to journalists is to “begin with the user…”. While we are still in the early days of this new dialogic info-scape, acknowledging that the folks out there in the public are more than mere recipients of whatever journalism organizations cast their way seems like an essential starting point. They are potential partners (Curious City), localizers (Off/Page), people with particular interests and needs that can be reached through a number of the interactive, immersive, and engaging approaches possible with today’s technologies.

If a significant public does its reading and viewing on mobile devices, then we need to think about reaching them there, not simply by squeezing the printed page down to phone screen size, and not simply finding alternate ways to convey that information in small format. We also need to consider users’ desires to navigate information, compare it, share it, and at times, even produce it. We need to find a way to go beyond journalism as information transmission alone, and to think about ways of addressing its ritual dimensions that I mentioned earlier when citing James Carey. And all this while somehow maintaining the reference values that quality journalism represents. No small challenge, but we’ve figured out the quality news and transmission bit, so the next step is to upgrade significantly the role of user in our calculus.

News organizations and documentary producers struggle with the phenomenon of user-generated content. So-called “citizen journalists” are often pit against professional news-gatherers and there’s concerns that grassroots media may not meet the same standards of accuracy and ethics as that produced by professional journalists. Are there good ways for news organizations to collaborate with the public in order to expand their capacities without necessarily sacrificing older standards about quality reporting?

This picks up from the previous question, and it’s the key issue in a change from monologue to dialogue. What do we do with the conversation partner, especially when there are so few productive behavioral precedents available and even fewer ways to guarantee the quality of the conversation? Transitions are always vexed: how much of the old to retain? What of the new will actually stick? And meanwhile, how are we supposed to navigate the uncertain mix of signals?

Recognizable standards and the ability to distinguish fact from fiction are more important than ever, particularly given the ever-growing cacophony of sources and voices enabled by our communication technologies. This is in part a literacy problem, in a world where diversity brings with it multiple and competing truths; and in part a curation problem, where reputation turns on appropriate and timely selection in a very chaotic information environment.

But the stakes are enormous in an environment that offers countless invitations for the public to share, and in sharing, opportunities to build communities of interest and affiliation. These energies can be directed towards civic engagement and informed debate, or they can be siphoned off to support the narrow interests of closed communities. Journalism, at least in my view, should be a social binder.

This is a fast moving area, and there are several approaches to journalistic collaboration with the public to keep an eye on. For starters, there are precedents that we can learn from such as collaborative news networks. A few years back, Anita Chan, wrote her CMS thesis about networks such as Slashdot and Kuro5hin that developed various user-based systems to rank and filter participant-generated stories. Or we might look at the very different curation systems in play with Reddit, The Guardian, the New York Times and other organizations that have sought to embrace user comments and leads. Stay tuned for more on this when Anika Gupta, another CMS student, finishes her thesis later this spring on comments, moderators and news communities in journalism!

Or we might look to a growing number of automated verification tools out there like Scoopshot and CrowdVoice, many developed thanks to the Knight News Challenge. And then there are working partnerships between the public and journalists in the form of The Guardian’s “The Counted” that I mentioned earlier, in which The Guardian’s reporters do the work of verification on information supplied in part by the public.

While the verdict is still out, there’s no denying the role of the public in uploading information on events as they happen, and in commenting on, supplementing and contesting journalistic reports whether in the press or not. In really simplistic terms, on one hand, the public’s contributions can be likened to sensory input, the raw data that something is happening that will quickly make its way to the brain for the dots to be connected. It’s the nervous system at work, with a division of function that makes good use of both nerve ends and cognitive processing.

But on the other hand, public responses to published journalism (I learn a lot by reading The Guardian’s comments sections!) invoke a slightly different analogy. In this case, it’s all at the processing level and similar to the internal debates we can have with ourselves. We reach a conclusion, but then consider the situation from different angles, or factor in different data points. These comments, if a civil tone can reign, go a long way towards improving journalism by offering contrasting views, linking to sources not mentioned in the original, and demonstrating the potentials of an incredibly productive partnership.

How does this report fit within the longer term vision of the Open-Doc Lab? What else might people expect from you in the future?

When I founded the Open Doc Lab, I did so with the idea that the conditions for representation are changing and changing profoundly, and that documentary can benefit immensely from the particular constellation of changes facing us. Near ubiquitous cameras, good networking and software availability, an increasingly media-making public … the elements are in place for a fundamental reworking of the long established balance of power in representation.

But on the other hand, as many of your questions have indicated, there are plenty of tensions with our inherited traditions, plenty of threats to established ways of doing things, and potentially plenty of dangers especially in the shift from the known to the unknown. What do we do about notions of authorship, authorial responsibility, expertise and point of view? What’s the calculus of ethics in participatory documentaries (free labor, libel, privacy incursions, and the rest) and also in interactive ones (where we can potentially confirm world views, not expand them)? How will these new approaches and the technologies fit with established notions of storytelling, engagement and even something as basic as shared textual experiences?

These are not necessarily new questions – games have already posed some of them – but the stakes are arguably different when taking up the representational claims long held as defining for documentary. Of course this is not to say that the concept of documentary is any more stable than the inherited notion of journalism; rather, just like journalism, it is fraught with tensions and contradictions at a moment of change.

So that’s where we come in. The Open Doc Lab is research centric, of course, and these tensions and above all possibilities define our ongoing research agenda. An important component of this research takes the form of our masters students’ theses, where we’ve had some terrific work on data-driven storytelling (Heather Craig), impact assessment (Sean Flynn), live documentary (Julie Fisher), and so on. We’re also interested in extending our findings, of intervening in the ongoing development of documentary as both production and institutional practices, something that Sarah Wolozin, who is the lab’s director, has found endlessly creative ways to achieve.

And by doing this, I’d say that our bottom line intervention targets the larger issue of civic discourse. Our ongoing work with journalism is a good example of how this works. Initially, we thought that digital journalism would offer documentary an incredibly important distribution platform and audience, especially as documentary’s theatrical and broadcast venues continue to melt away. And it does. But actually, it turned out that (digital) journalism could also benefit considerably from the relationship. This turned into conversations with both communities and ultimately the report that Sarah Wolozin, the ODL team, and I prepared with the MacArthur Foundation’s support and that we’ve been talking about in this interview.

We also work with documentarians, journalists, and organizations on a more individual level. Take Frontline, an organization at the pinnacle of American broadcast documentary. David Fanning recognized the changing dynamics of the media landscape and brought in Raney Aronson, now Frontline’s executive producer, to help the series stay ahead of the curve. Raney is a fellow in our lab, and that’s led to some extremely productive conversations between our two organizations.

Or take another example: the widespread participation that is one of the most exciting affordances of the new documentary. We’ve been fortunate to be able to approach this through the work of visiting artists such as Kat Cizek, whom I mentioned earlier in the context of the NFB’s Highrise series (Kat’s work embodies the co-creation methodology, and she is wonderfully articulate about it) and through the projects of MIT colleagues such as Sasha Constanza-Chock, Vivek Bald and Christine Walley – all members of the lab – as well as with our colleagues from MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

Our fellows program has attracted a small and remarkable group of international makers, critics, technologists, and artists (for the people and profiles, see http://opendoclab.mit.edu/category/2014-2015-fellows). It has provided a space to share expertise and even basic things like vocabulary, to explore new technologies, and to brainstorm and incubate projects. Sarah and I would love to be able to share our work with a greater and more diverse array of people, and as well to get it out to communities where it can make a difference, and that means getting some financial legs under the fellows program, which is the task at hand.

One of the great advantages of working at a university is that we have a relatively neutral platform at our disposal (our job is to open up, not monetize). We can bring members of the industry, technologists, artists, festival organizers, advocates and policy makers together to move the field as a whole ahead. Naturally, we take advantage of this setting for convenings large and small. But we also try to move the field and the debate along by building resources.

Sarah Wolozin has been the driving spirit behind Docubase, a curated collection of hundreds of interactive projects. It includes playlists by makers, curators and technologists; a lab, where project documentation and interviews abound; a tool and resource section; and we are building up a beta-testing function for makers who want to get feedback on work in progress. It’s a tremendous resource, and the kind of thing that we will definitely keep doing as part of our commitment to field-building.

Knowledge transmission is also part of our remit – courses, workshops, lectures and the rest. I’m just back from a string of lectures across Eastern Europe as well as England, France, Germany and the Netherlands where these developments are generating ever-more interest. We’re planning to connect the dots between some of our online projects such as Docubase and Moments of Innovation and the interviews that we’ve been recording in order to offer the international public a structured learning environment, or in the language of the day, a MOOC.

As I noted earlier in response to your question about the ‘open’ in the Open Doc Lab, sharing knowledge and resources is central to the lab’s vision. But we also do our best to facilitate this new order of things through a robust set of collaborations and joint projects with Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, i-Docs and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam’s DocLab.

To give one example, Sundance’s New Frontier’s Program, Indiewire and our lab joined together for the Creating Critics program to train new critics to write about emerging digital forms in the context of a festival and to show how they relate to cinematic storytelling. It’s been great for our students, the sponsoring partners and the field, so we look forward to ramping this up in the future. We regularly partner with IDFA’s DocLab, whether for projects like Moments of Innovation or for some event or other during their festival in November.

With our base at MIT, technology is another no-brainer. We’re always on the prowl to see how various technologies can be put to the work of representation, how they might open access to a greater array of users. So for example, later this spring, we’ll be holding an event on VR that in part attempts to disambiguate the different technologies behind VR, tease out their implications … and get a sense of what new approaches are just beginning to take shape in MIT’s labs.

Finally – good news – we recently learned that the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation has given us a significant grant, allowing us to focus more on our work (and less on fundraising!) for the next few years. And it has the added value of allowing us to continue working with Kathy Im at the Foundation, while redoubling our efforts at all the things I’ve just mentioned!
William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Three)

On the documentary side, the American public has probably never had access to as many different documentaries as they do now — more are playing on television, more are getting theatrical runs, more are playing on the festival circuit, more are available through online platforms. So, how has this context impacted the ways documentary producers work today? How do they stand out in a cluttered environment? They are under increased pressure from funders to demonstrate their impact, but how do they insure impact in such a complicated media environment?

It’s been a curious time for the documentary form. It’s being pushed on one side by the interactive, immersive, location-based forms that our report explores, where the boundaries are being redefined through new technologies, techniques, and empowered users. And on the other side, the traditional linear form is blurring thanks to a broad spectrum of reality television, from Animal Planet’s programming to series such as MythBusters. These predictably formatted programs technically hew to Grierson’s definition, but for the most part seem like extreme dilutions of documentary’s capacity to engage meaningfully with the world.

Meanwhile, there is indeed a lot of excellent linear documentary out there – I’ve been to a couple of remarkable festivals over the past few months – but sad to say, very little of what I’ve seen will ever be seen again, unless it’s at another festival or by very adventurous uses of Netflix. The more socially critical and engaged, the poorer the opportunities for theatrical or televisual distribution … and it’s still early days in terms of the various modalities of internet distribution.

The developments that we’ve been tracking address the ‘attention’ problem in a couple of ways. First, they are in many cases designed for the viewing platforms that seem increasingly dominant: smart phones and tablets, that is, relatively small mobile screens with touch interfaces. In this sense, they are digital native productions, making use of links, user interventions, etc. already well understood from everyday encounters with these technologies. They take the form of a new vernacular, rather than repurposing the older forms of dramatic narrative film, television and the long form story.

Secondly, in a number of cases, they attempt to be immersive. This might take as extreme a form as Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy, which uses Oculus Rift to bring an interview to life; or as simple a form as Question Bridge (Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair, Chris Johnson and Bayeté Ross Smith) which lets users follow their interests by controlling the configuration of questions and answers.

Question Bridge: Black Males – Project Trailer from Question Bridge on Vimeo.

And as this suggests, thirdly, a high degree of customization is often possible, as users make decisions about what they want to see, which characters or perspectives they want to follow, or where they want to dive more deeply.

These approaches to attention also, unfortunately, make the lack of attention quite visible. Whereas linear documentaries continue to flow along regardless of whether one is watching, asleep or in the next room making a sandwich, interactives usually stop cold the moment that one has stopped interacting with them. And in a world of data tracking, that is not always good news for interactives. Attention can be more sharply measured, but the metrics regimes between linear and interactive aren’t necessarily compatible.

This gets to your second question: impact. I find this a fraught area in general, and in particular in the case of interactives, where we have tended to extend the logics of assessing fixed linear texts to texts with a very different set of conditions and affordances. There has been a recent spate of impact assessment studies that have essentially (and often unknowingly) worked in parallel with the television industry, where, as Philip Napoli puts it, interest in exposure has been replaced by interest in engagement.

That is, the vast proliferation of program options has weakened the market share of any one program and therefore logics of economic value; and at the very same moment, new and more fine-grained tools are available, encouraging the industry to shift from quantitative to qualitative arguments. Nielsen’s partnership with Twitter, and the importance of social media as a site of ‘engagement’, are all about this shift.

Anyway, in the more refined world of academics and foundations concerned with social change, the same basic shift in thinking is underway. How can we use the new tools available to us (Twitter feeds and Facebook mentions) better to understand engagement, impact and social change?

It’s a fair question, of course, and there are good reasons to ask what kind of impact a documentary had and what we can learn in order to improve down the road. But at the moment, we seem caught up in defaults that largely extend the thinking of the broadcast past and its obsession with comparative metrics and standardization, redoubling it with the data trails users of digital media leave behind. And that, it seems to me, does a great disservice to the affordances of the interactive forms we’ve been investigating.

There is a world of difference between, on one hand, taking a guided tour of a city, where one sits back and listens to an informed and compelling tale, and on the other, wandering through the city on one’s own, where there is much greater latitude in terms of where to direct attention and different requirements for engagement. I’m not (yet) convinced that the latter experience can be measured on the same standardized customer satisfaction form as the former. So while I am by no means adverse to assessment, I guess I’d say that the verdict is still out on best impact assessment practices for the interactive space, though many of my colleagues seem comfortable with tweaking the tools developed for fixed linear experiences and porting them over to interactives.

With support from the Fledgling Fund, the MIT Open Documentary Lab partnered with the Tribeca Film Institute to bring together leading social impact assessment researchers and practitioners to examine how participatory and interactive media can be used to enhance social justice initiatives. The goal of the Media Impact Assessment Working Group was to provide common strategies and frameworks for the measurement and assessment of documentary media-based engagement campaigns – including both long-form films linked to cross-platform campaigns, and interactive, participatory, or non-linear forms of storytelling. As I said, there is a lot of work out there – reports galore – but I think there are still more compelling questions than answers in these early days of interactive, immersive and participatory forms.

Your lab is focused on “open documentaries.” What does this phrase mean to you and what are some examples of how these techniques have been deployed?

Open…. We use this term for a couple of reasons. One important cluster of motives comes from our institutional setting: MIT.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, Ricky Leacock, probably best known for his work with direct cinema, was increasingly involved in developing a film technology that would put the tools of documentary production into everyone’s hands. His work with sound Super 8mm was, we now know, doomed by the soon to emerge technology of portable video, but his endeavor was right on target: how can we take the next step from ‘direct cinema’? how can we empower the documentary subject to take up the means of representation and tell their own story? how can we enable widespread participation in the documentary project, opening up the filmmaker-subject dynamic in important ways?

A second factor is the work of Glorianna Davenport’s group at the Media Lab. Starting in the 1980s, Glorianna and her team developed some remarkably sophisticated interactive platforms – conceptual equivalents of what we are still doing today. The difference was that projects like Elastic Charles involved stacks of computers and laser disks to implement – they were technology intensive in the worst way. But they opened up the user’s ability to explore an issue, to assemble the parts in ways that made sense to them.

A third MIT-related invocation of ‘open’ comes from the legacy of people like Hal Ableson, Gerald Sussman, Richard Stallman and others who were instrumental in founding initiatives such as the free software movement and Creative Commons. With a goal of opening up code and creative work for sharing and creative reiteration, their work helped us to appreciate the importance of opening up the processes, techniques and even tools behind the screen, and of incorporating the principles of sharing and participation into the bones of the documentary project.

Together, Leacock’s participatory technology, Davenport’s interactive texts and Ableson et al’s sharing and learning economy all contributed key elements to our work. Sure, today’s widespread and networked mobile technologies and a tech-savvy population are important, but more important are the underlying principles. Understanding them and fighting the good fight to keep and expand them is essential, especially if we seek to enhance critical engagement and encourage widespread participation in the project of representing and changing the world.

Beyond ‘open’ as an adjective, we also use it as a verb, since our lab’s task is to open debate, to open the documentary form to new participants, to explore the possibilities of new technologies, and to understand the expressive capacities of new textual possibilities. It’s a big agenda, and in part means revisiting documentary’s past to ‘liberate’ it from the film medium (the documentary ethos, we argue in Moments of Innovation , has been around for centuries and taken many different media forms).

And finally, consistent with the spirit of CMS that binds your and my histories together, we do our best to open our lab’s doors and ideas to anyone who might benefit from our work … and at the same time, to be open to and learn from the many different experiences out there in the world.

This all hits documentary in several ways. First, more people than ever before are equipped to make documentaries, to reflect on and give form to their ideas and observations. High definition video cameras are built into most smartphones, and Vine and Youtube upload rates suggest that producing moving images is increasingly the norm. Second, networked distribution enables unprecedented global reach. Third, the tools for designing interactive and participatory texts have never been so accessible, both in the senses of easy and free. And meanwhile, interactivity has been increasingly normalized in our encounters with situated texts, that is, we have become comfortable navigating our way through texts and contexts, effectively constructing our own meta-texts (whether our mobile devices, audio-visual systems, or DVDs). This all adds up to an incentive to think about newly enabled users, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of connecting with one another.

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com

 

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part Two)

You argue that the story should dictate the form, yet many aspects of the form of American journalism — the inverted pyramid for example and the core shape of the lead paragraph — have remain fixed without regard to the story. Some traditional journalists would argue that these formulas allows for quick production of news and for interoperability amongst collaborators. So, how do you make the case to such traditionalists for a broader range of different kinds of news stories?

Journalistic form has changed continually over the centuries, some elements sticking and some new ones displacing old. Things like headlines and the inverted pyramid appeared for the reasons you mention, plus enabling readers to orient themselves and, when required, make quick work of the day’s news. They work well and seem to be sticking in the digital environment, arguably a predecessor of the ‘listicle’.

We are witnessing an evolutionary process, but one that is accelerated as much because of a change in the use of media technologies as because of a change in the larger information situation of the user and her attendant expectations. The move from print and broadcast to digital platforms has brought with it many new affordances, and while traditionalists can stick with techniques that have proven effective with the printed page or news clip (rightly arguing that the digital can easily incorporate the page and the clip), digital media technologies – including the small mobile screens that currently loom large in most user experiences – have been put to many other uses that could enhance both journalism and user engagement.

To be honest, I don’t know of any journalistic organizations, no matter how traditional, that have failed in their digital operations to make use of embedded links, or auto-generated links to past stories, or an array of user tracking applications. These have changed the presentation of news and relationship to the user, just as digital processes have changed the workflow within the newsroom. Their impact can be read as subtle or profound, depending on one’s point of view. But even the most traditional journalistic organization is acutely aware of Vice, Buzzfeed and Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative, their fast-growing market share, and appeal to younger readers.

Our report’s conclusion that ‘story dictates form’ simply means that there is no ‘one size fits all’ convention for storytelling. The digital has brought with it an expanded set of approaches, has offered new – and digitally relevant – options. The report says that now that we have more choices, we should use them critically and strategically – not just jump on the bandwagon of the new (or stick fetishistically to the old). A data-rich story might benefit from visualizations and even personalization through interaction; whereas the same techniques would add little to a personal profile. The new is no more a panacea than the old, but it does offer expanded choice.

But at a moment when the media ecosystem is fast changing, with consequences financial, informational, and generational, we need better to understand the affordances of the new. This by no means entails discarding lessons hard won over centuries of journalistic practice, but it also means not necessarily sticking to paper and broadcast-based habits just because they happen to be well established. And particularly as the role of the user continues to grow, journalists and documentary makers need actively to consider the fit of form and content rather than slipping into inherited defaults.

You correctly note that one of the strengths of legacy media is that they have such deep archives of materials that rarely get used. I am often struck by the ways that comedy news media dig deep into news archives to juxtapose current and past statements by political leaders, for example, and thus show contradictions in their positions over time. But even though such context can be very helpful in understanding current events, we rarely see it used by mainstream journalists. Are there good examples of how news organizations are tapping their archives?

The archive issue is a crucial one, both as you note, for giving depth, context and added meaning to a story … but also because it is something of an ‘ace in the hole’ for most legacy organizations. The very fact that these organizations have persisted over time usually means that they have perspective, memory, and archives.

The archive is an asset that results from long-term involvement with a beat, community, or nation, and as such is one of legacy journalism’s key distinguishing features from digital start-ups. Archives offer ways of telling stories that potentially differentiate and give a competitive advantage to legacy journalism organizations. As journalists intensify their efforts to contextualize and explain rather than just report, archives offer low hanging fruit.

Users, for their part, seem increasingly active, using Google or social media to supplement what they read in a given report, getting more information about a place or person or event. And — to make it a trifecta — digital technologies offer solutions for the space constraints that have long plagued print and broadcast journalists and the contradictory demands of readers, some of whom may want a short experience while others want a deep dive.

Wouldn’t it be great to give readers access to the documents referenced or summarized in a story, or to earlier versions of a story, or to see more than one or two images? While not for every user, it allows journalists to have their cake and eat it, too: a tightly formed ‘traditional’ story can be accompanied by in-house resources, accommodating both those users who just want the facts as well as those who want to discover them for themselves. And if we’re right about the move of journalism to become more of a curator of a public conversation, expanded use of the archive offers a terrific transitional tool. All to say, it’s never been easier nor more important to incorporate archival holdings into everyday journalism.

One of our case studies, Kat Cizek’s A Short History of the Highrise – a joint endeavor by Op Docs at The New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada – is a terrific example. Part of Kat and the NFB’s Emmy Award-winning Highrise series of interactive documentaries, A Short History’s partnership with the Times made brilliant use of the Times’ photo morgue to tell the story of man’s many experiments with vertical living. The interface is described as ‘a visual accordion’ allowing the viewer to ‘dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and miniature games.’ The viewer can simply watch an archive-based video overview, but can also stop the video flow to explore the individual photos, listen to interviews, and even turn the photos over to see the traces of their history at the Times. The project accommodates both casual and serious viewers, makes brilliant use of the largely overlooked photo morgue, and in the process offers an insightful look both into the high-rise and how we (and the Times) have looked at it over the years.

A Short History picked up Emmy, Peabody, and World Press Photo Awards, so it’s an exceptional example. As with many of these early experiments, quite a bit of time and money go into developing a robust and user-friendly interface. But one can imagine that more examples will yield greater efficiencies, whether in the form of re-usable tools or even modifiable templates.

For example, back in 2009, the New York Times used a tool to slide back and forth across two photos taken from an identical position, but years apart. Called “Before and After”, it was used to good effect in a piece called “The Berlin Wall 20 Years Later: A Division Through Time.” The same basic device is still in use, for example in The Guardian’s “The American Civil War Then and Now”, offering an effective way to showcase the photo archive.

Another great example of the creative use of archives and tools comes from The Guardian’s “The Counted”, an ongoing, partially crowd-sourced, interactive report on people killed by police in the US. It’s an archive in the making, a living archive, piling up the sad details case-by-case, day-by-day, and doing something that only an archive can do: contextualizing historically the incidents that seem to happen three or four times a day across America, helping us to see the bigger picture.

Bottom line: archival resources allow today’s fact-based storytellers to harvest the riches of the past, bringing new life, context, and meaning to their findings. And digital media offer journalists the means and space and users the flexibility to make the most of these affordances.

Some of the more interactive elements you describe take time to develop and this means slowing down the pace of news production and taking a long view perspective of social issues. How can we reconcile this with the 24 hours a day news cycle and other factors which are speeding up the production, circulation, and consumption of news?

Temporality is one of the most intriguing dimensions of today’s journalism scene. On one hand, Twitter and other services have reduced the lag between event and report to just about nothing. OK, these aren’t traditional fact-checked reports, but in the aggregate they tend to give a first heads-up about breaking news, and even legacy journalism is making increasing use of tweets in their coverage. On the other, in a world bubbling with reports of all kinds and qualities, the need for context, perspective and plain old pattern recognition has never been greater.

The traditional 24 hour cycle is under siege from both sides: it can’t keep pace with networked digital sources, and has generally left the reflective contextualizing work to occasional investigative and feature stories or to specialized venues such as magazines and programs like Frontline. All to say that the time cycles that have worked for the better part of a century no longer seem to be addressing public needs.

The Guardian was quick to try to redress this, embracing breaking news (even minute-by-minute blog reports of the Republican and Democratic presidential debates or the Academy Awards), carrying on with the traditional 24-hour cycle, and redoubling its feature work. And it’s in this last context that they have carried out much of their interactive work. The verdict is still out on how legacy organizations will deal with this challenge – having it all, Guardian-style – won’t necessarily work for everyone.

The Guardian’s experimental stance has yielded some great innovative work that blurs the divide between immediate and long-term journalism. “The Counted”, that I’ve already mentioned, hews to the 24 hour cycle, but aggregates the daily updates, encouraging readers to look for patterns (age, ethnicity, location, etc.) as the data collects over the course of the year. It harvests the daily news, folds it into a larger context, offers analytic tools, and in the process renders the normally hyper-local into something of national import. In fact, it reveals that many incidents are not reported, or are reported so locally that the rest of the country has no idea of the scale of the problem.

So experiments like these that complicate the familiar temporalities and logics of journalism offer signs that multiple news cycles can intertwine, and actually contribute to one another to deliver a powerful set of insights that would otherwise be missed.

More generally, though, you are right: most interactives are like feature stories, ‘evergreens’ capable of drawing in users well after the initial publication date. And in this, they are particularly good at contextualizing, explaining, and offering multiple points of view.

For the moment, they are labor-intensive, but developers are sharing bits of code and tools among themselves, flexible content management systems  and even templates are beginning to appear, and in general the process is accelerating. Some thought leaders fear that these efficiencies could go too far, that the innovation that has driven new kinds of user experience will reify into rigid one-size-fits-all templates. And indeed, the front office has a habit of thinking about the bottom line and these are still early days in terms of expanded story form. But I mention this simply to say that it’s clear that these efficiencies can and will speed up the process, even though it is essential for leading organizations to continue exploring and building innovative story technologies that work with the platforms most familiar to the public.

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com

Charting Documentary’s Futures: An Interview with MIT’s William Uricchio (Part One)

Profile: William Uricchio of MIT’s Open Documentary Lab from Submarine Channel on Vimeo.

For the better part of a decade, William Uricchio and I worked side by side, partners in crime, as we forged the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT. I came to lean heavily on his diplomatic skills, his zen-like temperament, and especially his broad range of knowledge and interests, as between us, we touched every student who came through that masters program. The expansive intellectual rationale of our approach to Comparative Media Studies was as much his as it was mine, especially as he made the case for why we should understand contemporary developments in relation to their historical antecedents and as he made the argument for bringing more transnational perspectives to bear on the processes of media change.

I returned to Cambridge during my academic leave this fall, after being away for most of the past seven years, and it was a chance for me to develop a stronger sense of what the program has become, how it operates today.  What I found was a program that was thriving — fantastic students doing ground-breaking work, a expanding and strong intellectual community, a solid focus on social justice and media change, and a real commitment to research that is going to have impact beyond the academy. Amongst many new research initiatives, there has been the emergence of the Open-Documentary Lab, a vibrant community that has drawn together researchers and documentary producers from around the Boston area who want to explore the future of nonfiction media-making. And the Lab has begun to attract active interest from around the world from people at places like the Canadian Film Board or the BBC who share their interest in understanding how documentary is being reinvented in the context of today’s participatory culture and transmedia production.

Here’s how the lab describes itself on its home page:

“Drawing on MIT’s legacy of media innovation and its deep commitment to open and accessible information, the MIT Open Documentary Lab brings storytellers, technologists, and scholars together to explore new documentary forms with a particular focus on collaborative, interactive, and immersive storytelling. The Lab understands documentary as a project rather than as a genre bound to a particular medium: documentary offers ways of exploring, representing, and critically engaging the world. It explores the potentials of emerging technologies and techniques to enhance the documentary project by including new voices, telling new stories and reaching new publics. A center for documentary research, the Lab offers courses, workshops, a fellows program, public lectures, and conferences; it incubates experimental projects; and it develops tools, resources, reports, and critical discourse. These activities, and the partnerships with artists, journalists, technologists, and media makers that they have enabled, aim to push documentary’s boundaries and deepen the impact and reach of innovative reality-based storytelling. In the spirit of MIT’s open courseware and open source software movements, the Open Documentary Lab is inclusive, collaborative and committed to sharing knowledge, networks, and tools. ‘Open’ in its understanding of documentary’s forms and potentials, the Lab is catalyst, partner and guide to the future of reality-based storytelling.”

This fall, the Lab released an important white paper, “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism” that MIT’s Open Documentary Lab prepared with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Under the supervision of the lab’s Principal investigator, William Uricchio, the team developing this report included Sarah Wolozin, who directs the Open Doc Lab, and Lily Bui, Sean Flynn and Deniz Tortum, who are CMS grad students.

The report is rich in front-line perspectives, describing the behind-the-scenes debates that took place around the production of some of today’s most significant examples of immersive journalism and interactive documentary, and sharing some core insights about best practices for doing such work. The report is visionary in its scope yet it is also deeply grounded in the perspective of documentary producers and journalists, who live in the imperfect and transitional state of the here and now. I believe this report is going to open up some important conversations amongst many people who both fear and embrace the changes that are impacting the closely related worlds of news and documentary. I am therefore happy to have a chance to showcase this significant undertaking here, especially insofar as it has given me yet another chance to interact with my longtime friend and colleague, William Uricchio. What emerged through this interview is something really special to me as William thoughtfully and thoroughly responded to my probing questions, and certainly gives as well as he got throughout this exchange. I am bringing this interview to you in four installments across the next two weeks.

Most recent accounts of the state of journalism in the digital age have emphasized the bad news — describing all of the risks and challenges — but your report also describes some of the new opportunities and the ways that newspapers and other legacy media organizations are restructuring themselves to take advantage of the changing media environment. So, what do you see as some of the opportunities for new kinds of news and documentary production emerging at the present moment?

Yes, lots of doom and gloom out there! It helps to take a more analytical approach to the problems facing quality journalism and that has indeed resulted in finding a number of opportunities that can be of tangible use to legacy organizations at a moment of change.

I’d like to begin by invoking what’s always struck me as one of James Carey’s great insights into how we think about communication. Carey notes that we too often focus only on the transmission of information – and by we, I include academics as well as journalists. And with this narrow focus, we often neglect communication’s ritual dimension. Carey’s notion of ritual entails much more than the habit of reading a newspaper with breakfast or closing-out the evening news broadcast with tomorrow’s weather (yes, no matter how dismal the news, there will be a tomorrow!). Instead he understands ritual as creating shared concepts and habits by drawing on participation, sharing, association, and fellowship.

Facebook and Buzzfeed, while a little erratic on the transmission side, understand this and they and others like them have hard-wired ritual into their systems. And their user-base understands it as well. At a fundamental level, the opportunities for new kinds of journalism and documentary production turn not so much on the availability of new technologies, but rather on the use of those technologies to bring ritual into the picture. In other words, simply putting news content, no matter how good, online with the hope of expanding audience reach and engagement misses the point. Instead, finding ways to enhance user participation, to intensify immersive experiences, and to encourage sharing and community building all help to embrace the ritual dimension noted by Carey. It’s not so much about the de-professionalization of the news (in fact, our study focuses on quality journalism), as it is the expansion of news as a process that includes a community of participants, expanded textual forms, and a reconfigured production pipeline. Participation leads to greater engagement, inclusiveness, relevance … and better-informed communities.

Despite its rock-solid appearance, journalistic convention has transformed over the past several hundred years, and today we face an accelerated rate of change. Whereas for much of the 20th Century, journalism served as a definer of truths, today’s high-connectivity and intensive information flow have enabled new expectations and given journalism a new agenda, helping it to inform the connection between publics and sources, shaping conversations in addition to defining truths.

Our report approaches this shift by looking at concrete examples in recent interactive and immersive documentary and journalism. The past decade has seen some remarkable experimentation in fact-based storytelling (the Open Documentary Lab’s docubase  is the go-to place to see this work), some of which encourages users to explore multiple sides of a given issue, interacting with the material gathered and structured by journalists and documentarians. Our report basically takes a deep dive into lessons-learned and best practices that can be of use as journalism continues to transform.

Whether looking at how individual organizations such as The Guardian or Frontline have responded to these new demands, or looking at collaborations across organizations, or looking at the new workflows and interactions that appear on the individual project level, the report offers case-based insights into the developments that are changing the faces of documentary and journalism.

In some ways, your report is bringing together two forms of media production — journalism and documentary — that have historically been understood as distinct, even though they have both sought to get the public to be more aware and more responsive to urgent social conditions. These two fields often operate according to different professional ideologies and different standards of ethics. Why have they stayed separate for so long and in what ways are we starting to see some convergence between them?

If I had to boil the difference between the journalistic and documentary traditions down to a caricature,  I’d say that since the mid 1920s, journalism has been bound by a commitment to ‘facts’ and documentary by a commitment to ‘truth’. OK – both are slippery words, and the two are not irreconcilable. But an insistence on the ‘facts’ as journalistic fact-checkers define them can sometimes leave a larger truth hanging in the balance; and the pursuit of ‘truth’ can call upon innovative and imaginative strategies that would be nixed by any fact-checker worth her salt.

The distinction between the two is deeply rooted in institutional history, with the several hundred-year-old ‘fourth estate’, as Carlyle called the press, finding a protected niche in places like the US constitution and playing a fundamental role in governance in most cultures. In this context, an insistence upon verifiable data makes sense.

Documentary, by contrast, at least if we stick to the classic telling of the tale, emerged in the film medium in the form of a re-enacted, character-based drama that strove for a greater truth (Flaherty’s 1926 Moana), or what John Grierson later called ‘the creative treatment of actuality’.

Journalism has been long bound by professionalization, certification, codes of behavior and rules; while documentary has thrived as an eclectic intention-based assemblage of experiments (mostly formal), techniques (mostly narrative) and effects (mostly generating insight and empathy). Epistemological differences, institutional differences, media differences … even differences in which part of the academy they are studied … no wonder the two traditions seem to be worlds apart!

As I said, this description is something of a caricature, and these two non-fiction storytelling traditions have at times overlapped, especially in the domain of essayistic journalism or places like Frontline, where documentary makers hew to journalistic rules, and The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist, all of which have in-house documentary units. But even here, an insistence on fact provides the bottom line for a story to count as journalistic, even if drawing heavily on documentary notions of story, character and engagement.

So what changed, and why do these two forms now seem more open to sharing with one another? The steady shift of users of both forms to mobile, digital platforms; the emergence of interactive and visually immersive forms of telling stories; and the popularity of operations like Facebook, Buzzfeed and Vice, have all put pressure on those who simply wanted to put the printed page, television feed or 16mm film online. Traditional newspaper readership and news viewership, like documentary viewership, are not only declining … but aging. And while troubling from a business perspective, this decline is of far greater concern to the needs of an informed public and the civic process.

True, the just-mentioned digital startups have embraced ‘news’ as part of their remit (and in the process, raided legacy journalistic organizations and made some very impressive hires), and some of them can claim vast communities of young users, but the quality, context and mission of that embrace is neither clear nor consistent. Indeed, the surfeit of information and the poor ratio of signal to noise that we are experiencing ‘out there’ makes the work of the tried and true legacy journalistic operations more important than ever.

It’s here that the new documentary provides a valuable set of assets for the journalistic endeavor, offering ways for it to keep core values while embracing a more user-centric and participatory ethos that makes the most of the new media ecosystem.

Documentary’s relative freedom from institutional constraint has enabled its makers to experiment in ways that are difficult for traditional journalists. Moreover, as journalism becomes more of a curator of information and shaper of conversations, documentary’s demonstrated ability to contextualize and explain through well-chosen instances has proven newly relevant. The interactive documentaries produced to date offer a compendium of approaches, interfaces, user experiences, tools and even strategies for working with crowd-sourced and co-created content all of which journalists can assess, draw from and transform.

So I guess I would say that by finding themselves in the same boat, both journalists and documentarians have discovered commonalities of purpose and technique. Interactive documentary is fast developing a repertoire of techniques that work well in today’s ‘digital first’ and increasingly participatory environment and digital journalism still commands considerable reputation and audience reach.

The dust has not settled, of course, but as we work towards journalism’s and documentary’s next iterations, the one thing that is clear is that they have more in common now than at any other point in their histories. And the best indication of this commonality takes the form of the many interactive features, data-driven stories and even immersive approaches to information organization that have been appearing with increasing regularity on the digital sites of leading journalism organizations.

 

William Uricchio is founder and principal investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, which explores the frontiers of interactive, immersive and participatory fact-based storytelling. He is also professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. William’s broader research explores the dynamics of new media, at times using a historical lens (old media when they were new, such as 19th Century television) and at times by working with interactive and algorithmically generated media forms (interactive documentaries and games in particular).

William has written extensively on topics ranging from high-culture in a ‘low’ medium (Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films) to Batman across media (The Many Lives of the Batman and its successor, Many More Lives of the Batman, just out with Palgrave and the British Film Institute!!!); from television in Nazi Germany (Die Anfänge des deutschen Fernsehens) to American culture in Europe (We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity as well as Media Cultures); from panoramas and stereoscopes to the media constellations of the 1898 Sears & Roebuck catalogue; and from media obsolescence to ephemerality.  Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright research fellowships as well as, most recently, the Berlin Prize, have supported his work. William has spent about half of his career outside the US in the Netherlands and as a visiting professor in Sweden, Denmark, Germany (Berlin & Marburg), and China.   See details and more at williamuricchio.com

 

 

 

Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Three)

What do you see as the biggest challenges confronting transmedia producers today as they seek to adopt these practices towards promoting social justice?

Funding. Financing these projects, and moreover financing the work necessary to create stakeholder engagement that is long-term and leads to lasting impact, is a major challenge. I’ve seen projects that falter in terms of actually reaching impact within communities because their funding runs out after production.

But transmedia projects for social change must be stewarded and communities need to be managed. You of course need an exit strategy because these projects can’t necessarily go on forever, but too often funding doesn’t sustain the actual community-building or mobilization work necessary for impact.

The other challenge is the ability to let go of control, and hand back the narrative over to communities. I find this most challenging when working with organizations and institutions, who often want a more managed and streamlined message, instead of a community-led story.

Tell us more about Priya’s Shakti as an example of how fictional storytelling can also be used for social change. What motivated this project? What did you hope to achieve? Why did comics turn out to be an effective resource around which to base such a campaign?

Priya’s Shakti is one of the few fictional projects I’ve worked on and it was simultaneously challenging and fun. (Well, as much as you can have fun with the issue of gender-based violence). The motivation of this project was the 2012 bus rape in New Delhi, India, and the aftermath protests, which amplified and intensified decades of activism in India around women’s rights. It was a seminal moment for the country to come together around the issue of gender-based violence.

The project’s creator, Ram Devineni, was there to participate, and he came back with the idea of doing a project that would start exploring cultural patriarchal tropes through popular culture and new media that would engage youth. Graphic comics with embedded augmented reality turned out to be a unique and engaging method for youth to come to the material.

More importantly, we were able to embed real stories of rape survivors within the AR components, aimed at increasing the reach of our nonprofit partner Apne Aap into new audiences. And it set the stage for a series of workshops held with disadvantaged school-aged children to let them create their own comics.

In an essay for Huffington Post, you describe the ways you want to challenge some of the stereotypes surrounding the representation of women’s issues in India via mainstream and global media. In what ways does Priya and her story challenge such stereotypes?

It was very important to me, as a feminist and a person of Indian origin to not have the project be a part of the narrative that “India has a rape problem.” While not attempting to whitewash what was happening on a societal level, I was unsettled by the narrative, both because it misrepresented Indian society, but also because it pushed aside the reality that GBV is a global problem. And by and large, Indian feminists were deeply offended by the manipulative and unbalanced representations in western press and in projects such as the BBC film India’s Daughter.

The rape and protests afterward were a defining moment for Indians and Indian feminists, marking a point in time for all their decades of struggle and really good work. It was important to me to honor and support the work that activists and development professionals were already doing in India, while still presenting an engaging story appropriate for young people, and more importantly to tie the story to grassroots and community-driven action in the face of a waterfall of international attention. It was a difficult balancing act, and one I’m still evaluating.

There are of course limitations to using a comic book as a vehicle. It’s a simple narrative, aimed at a young demographic. In our case, the book was also centered in Hindu goddess mythology, which was risky on a number of levels. But it was also imagery that we, the creative team (most of whom were of Indian origin or sensitive to Indian culture), had all seen throughout our lives and that was instantly recognizable – and we thought we might be able to subvert into a story of self-determination.

And I think, ultimately, Priya is a subversive character. She is framed as an everywoman who reaches beyond her tragedy and circumstance by tapping into her own sources of power to reframe herself as a leader on her own terms, and one that challenges existing norms through art and love. She is an everywoman who becomes a superhero of a sort. And if she’s a superhero, her super strengths to fight the patriarchy are song, nonviolence, and compassion.

In some ways, Priya’s story merges together the mythological tradition in Indian popular culture and the superhero genre. Why did these seem to be particularly effective building blocks for this project? I am struck by the parallels and differences with the Burka Avenger Project in Pakistan which also uses the superhero genre to speak to the rights of women, in this case, the rights of Islamic women to education.

South Asian societies, rich and wonderful though they are, do still carry patriarchal challenges to female self-empowerment and self-direction. While I would argue that Priya isn’t a traditional superhero while the Burka Avenger is (and she’s a fantastic character in a great storyworld), the superhero genre is both an innovative and a safe space in which to explore and advance strong, empowered, independent females as role models for young girls.

When we spoke, you said you were turning your attention more and more towards building up the creative sector, so that projects may have greater sustainability. What do you see as some of the most urgent needs in terms of helping to provide voice to media creators around the world?

As I wrote above, there needs to be more attention paid to business models and financing of these projects, and I’m very excited that I’ve started exploring ways to make the creative impact sector more vibrant and sustainable. I’m building out a strategy for how to do that through my company in partnership with social enterprise experts. And while I’m not intending to become an investor, I’m excited to say I’ve just made my first angel investment in a creative social enterprise in Haiti.

There also needs to be more training and project incubation opportunities for creatives in lower- and middle- income communities and regions, which requires donor and investor education. Similarly, another need is to actively develop audiences for these projects. This requires a critique infrastructure, more robust distribution opportunities, and frankly more trust on the part of distributors that people will come to see or interact with this content (even if it is perceived to be “foreign”).

Finally, as I’ve said various ways above, we need to let go of some of the control over who tells whose stories, and let creators tell the stories of their own communities – and be there to partner with them, and explore their experiences.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.

 

Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part Two)

You have been especially concerned about “the ethics of telling other people’s stories.”  What do you see as some of the most common ethical failures that occur when human rights advocates attempt to mobilize around stories from the field, stories that deal with the real life struggles of real people? What kinds of ethical frames should such campaigns adopt to make sure they are being fair to those people whose life stories are entrusted to them? How can filmmakers and activist avoid making “poverty porn”?

We have to stop treating other people’s stories as if they are ours for the taking and shaping. We have to recognize that agency and self-representation are crucial to social change and people’s perspectives of their own situations matter. As Darren Walker recently said in a discussion at the Ford Foundation, cultural narratives drive why inequality and exclusion persist.

We may believe that our colonial period is behind us, but neocolonialist perceptions persist in our institutions and in our cultural narratives. Media outlets trade in savior complex stories to audiences who consume simplified stories that allow them to feel good and ignore structural inequities, a relationship which leads to an ecosystem of cultural narrative that continually misrepresents poor, marginalized, and at-risk communities. And it’s very easy to fall back into these tropes.

A few years ago, I wrote a post criticizing the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless.” It’s a phrase I dislike quite a bit, and while I hear it a bit less these days, it still manages to encapsulate the way we sometimes perceive other people we are seeking to “help,” especially if they are poor or seen as poor (e.g., the way we in the west still see most of Africa). I said:

“If we seek to truly collaborate with people… to advance positive social change, we need to shift our thinking about who contributes to the “project.” It’s much more helpful to think of each other as equal partners who bring to the table various assets… For example, one partner might bring access and resources, while the other one brings local learning, stories and knowledge [cultural assets]. I’m not naive enough to believe that in our current system…there isn’t a power advantage in being the one in control of the financial resources and of the avenues that distribute information. But we have to learn and teach a different perspective on what is contribution, what are valuable assets and resources, and who plays what position on the team?… [C]alling people “voiceless” discredits their ability to contribute. All of us need to recognize participation and contributed assets as valuable tools… as leverage to effect positive change.”

As artists and storytellers, we have an ethical responsibility to understand that we cannot impose “voice.” I will acknowledge that there is power in engaging audiences through language that we know, through tropes we are used to, through allowing us to feel good about the work we do—and when done well, it can contribute to both effective change and to good storytelling.

But as change agents, we are not speaking for someone else. We are primarily serving one of two functions in relation to people in an affected community: either acting as their proxy or working in collaboration with them. We might be providing access to avenues that disseminate their voice, and that’s our role in the project, but we have to interrogate how our position may be affected by privilege or top-down perspectives.

As artists, it is our obligation to open up new frames of reference. In the realm of transmedia, each piece of work related to an issue can transform audiences’ frames of reference and it’s our role and within our reach to use story to put pressure on existing frames that dehumanize subjects and to shift the angles to expose humanity in the form of lived experience and cultural context.

What criteria should we be using to measure or assess the impact of transmedia activism campaigns?

The primary focus should be on the impact of a campaign within the affected community. I prefer qualitative assessments which explore the place of the campaign within political, social, or cultural context. Often impact metrics in media campaigns in general are weighted toward audience engagement as opposed to longer-term monitoring and evaluation on the ground.

Concentrating on the effect on audiences is a lesser criteria, not to be ignored, but in my opinion not to be given primacy unless the audience is itself a target of the campaign (e.g., in public health or consumer choice campaigns, rather than in human rights).

For transmedia particularly, as we’ve discussed, one of the many advantages of interactive storytelling is that of “contribution” and setting a cultural stage for action and change — and to tailor layers of story and participation to the desired change. It is important then to measure each project on a case-by-case basis with concentration on qualitative or semi-quantitative metrics that also evaluates participation by key stakeholders, and how that participation led to shifts in perception or directed action.

The late Brian Clark initiated a consideration of what one might call transmedia locations. He argued that transmedia projects took different shapes, followed different goals, depending on what kinds of media systems and cultures they come from. You’ve done work which straddles across multiple cultures and societies. What differences have you observed in terms of the forms transmedia takes in these different contexts?

Before I answer that, I wanted to recognize Brian’s immense contribution to these fields. He was an incredible influence on so many of us, and he was one of my dearest friends. It’s strange to think about having this conversation without him.

 

Brian was an activist at heart, in part, and a cultural agitator. He and I used to have charged and dynamic, and funny, conversations about so many things – and in the last years, our conversations turned to his exploration of phenomenology, as he started deepening his inquiry into the experience of the media as opposed to the media itself. He understood that the form of media, the form of story, and the form of engagement had to arise from an understanding of what a local audience would perceive.

This ties rather directly to the way I conceive of transmedia for social change — that in order to create sustainable change, we first have to understand the context in which communities (or, in Brian’s frame, audiences) interact with the story.

My observations are that, by and large, transmedia forms in different societal context are affected by a few things: first access to technology, particularly in terms of digital or online storytelling; second, the political landscape a community resides in and what their experience is within political power structures; and third, a community’s or a society’s indie culture. The form of transmedia will, if most effective, follow the forms creatives are experimenting with already.

Many of your projects are connected with documentary productions, where-as often transmedia is understood in relation to fictional storytelling. What added value comes from expanding the scope of documentary productions through transmedia? Who do you think has done good work in terms of transmedia for social change? Transmedia documentary?

There is value in increasing the surface area through which you can engage stakeholders and partners on issues, which you can do by creating multiple entry and participation points through transmedia. In my mind, when I start thinking through strategy, I see the expansion of the core story almost like a taffy pull – you can expand the scope of your story to encompass both the multiple perspectives I mentioned above and also the ways in which stakeholders can take effective action that proceed from the story.

There are quite a few good transmedia projects in social change and documentary from which to choose. I wrote a playlist last year for MIT’s Docubase that mentions quite a few I think are worth study. To that list, I would add the recent project Notes on Blindness and The Enemy. I’m also looking forward to a forthcoming project I’m working on, Traveling While Black.

On a related note, I work with nonfiction content more so than fictional because in the realm of social impact, truth is often far more resonant than fiction. Or looking at it another way, who needs fiction when truth is strange enough?

I will say that, I am wary of pop fiction that is spectacle and gesture and political theater simply for the sake of itself. I do think, however, that fictional content is underused in social impact and that there is much more scope for transmedia producers and artists to experiment with strategic audience engagement and impact. I think CEL does great work, and hope to see more of that.

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.

 

Telling Stories: Lina Srivastava Talks About Transmedia Activism (Part One)

As my student Geoff Long likes to say, transmedia is an adjective, not a noun, and as such, it needs something to modify. Much of the conversation here has centered around transmedia entertainment, transmedia storytelling, or perhaps transmedia branding and transmedia learning. But, when the word transmedia modifies activism or mobilization, there is no more important voice in the world today than Lina Srivastava. In her hands, transmedia becomes a verb — something we do to make a difference in the world.

I first met her in Madrid several summers ago when we were both speaking at a gathering of thinkers and makers from around the world who were trying to deepen our understanding of what transmedia was and what it could do. I knew her by reputation far before that, and I’ve continued to follow her closely through podcasts, videos, blog posts, op-ed pieces, and projects, ever since. We reconnected not long ago after I got back from India because I knew she had worked so extensively in that region and I wanted to know more about the transmedia campaign she helped to develop around Priya’s Shakti, which we will discuss in more detail in the third installment of this interview. But, our conversation was far reaching, touching on ethical dimensions of the work we do, exploring the challenges of producing media for social change, dealing with how to build structures of participation around documentary and fictional projects alike. When the exchange was over, I asked if she’d be willing to cover some of this same territory for my blog, and she agreed.

So, what follows over the next three installments is a small sample of her passionate and cogent advocacy on behalf of making media that can make a difference in the world.

The term, transmedia, is one which has become increasingly expansive, meaning somewhat different things to different thinkers. Through your work, you’ve talked about transmedia activism. How do you define that concept? Why do you think transmedia is especially valuable as a model for thinking about activism and mobilization?

It’s the combined core of story, community, and collaboration that I seized on the first time I heard and understood the term transmedia. As I thought about the methodology of creating and distributing stories through this framework, I realized the potential for effective social action that emanated from co-creating stories through multiple perspectives that illuminate social, political, and cultural context.

I’ve been working in social impact for fifteen years. The work I do centers primarily with nonprofits and institutions that focus on human rights and international development, or with individual artists and filmmakers who create socially relevant art. Through this intersection, I’ve found that at the very foundation of social change are stories.

And while it appears to me we’ve hit peak noise on discussions of the role of storytelling in social impact, creative expression and culture are still, in my opinion, very underutilized in the social impact fields. We rely heavily on data and policy frameworks, and when we do bring in story, it is still more often to communicate the impact of a program than it is for using it as a strategic driver of change.

You need narrative to spur social action that resonates with and is relevant to communities that are fighting for positive change. You need to know what’s happening at the blood-and-guts-and-feelings level for people – and you need to know what the possibilities and costs to actual human beings are of our policies and actions.

Otherwise, what are we fighting for?

So storytelling, and transmedia in particular, lets me, as a storyteller and a social change agent, illuminate the human side of things.

Activism and mobilization, two distinct ways of effecting social change, at their core rely on community, participation, and collaboration. There’s more to activism or social impact work than these things, of course, but these are essential – and when they are absent, we often get top-down, simplistic, and paternalistic interventions that are ultimately unsustainable because they don’t emerge from perspectives that are based in local contexts.

Beyond that, transmedia has the advantage of allowing for people to travel among multiple entry points and for immersion, both of which are key in allowing for multiple narratives and for complexity.

And transmedia answers the question “how do you tell the story of a system?” There’s a danger in social change when you tell a story from one perspective or from one node in the system. For example, when one thinks about, say, water issues, you may have to think about infrastructure, climate change, safety and security for those getting the water, privatization vs. public access, or sanitation and health, etc. You may work only on one of these aspects, but you have understand how one issue affects the rest and how one shift in the system can change things throughout the system. And you have to know how to tell that story.

True social change comes when solutions are systemic, and transmedia itself – however we define it — has been a social innovation that allows us to view our ecosystem of issues and create stakeholder engagement around systemic change. And one that allows to get into the heart and soul of how these issues affect people and their lives.

So I coined the phrase “transmedia activism” in 2009 to describe this process: The coordinated co-creation of narrative and cultural expression by various constituencies who distribute that narrative in various forms through multiple platforms, the result of which is to build an ecosystem of content and networks that engage in community-centered social.

Another way of saying this is that we use story to effect social change by engaging multiple stakeholders on multiple platforms to collaborate toward appropriate, community-led social action. (And I note, the phrase may specify “activism,” but the framework is meant to be used for various types of social impact or mission-driven work.

I should have been broader when I thought of the term, but this one sounded better than say, “transmedia impact” and I acknowledge its linguistic limitations. And I also will acknowledge here that I don’t always use the term “transmedia” at all when describing my work, as sometimes it’s more appropriate to use alternative terms that will be more easily understood.)

When we build a story universe for social change under this framework, we think first in terms of an ecosystem of issues, social and cultural conditions, communities and solutions– and not only about the narrative arc of the story.

I’m not sure whether my definition works for other thinkers or not. I’ve rarely been one to indulge in discussions around the definition of transmedia, because to me the debate was always a distraction from what I thought to be the core utility of the term, which was to map out a new way of exploring the ways communities were already working together and the ways they were already using culture for to effect social change.

At the time that I was working on the “transmedia activism” framework, about eight years into my work in social impact, discussions around multi-platform narrative as a strategic tool were still fairly nascent in the social impact world, but storytelling per se is not an original concept in social impact.

People had talked about storytelling for years (primarily as an external participatory media was a well-established methodology, and the success of story- and culture-based feedback loops were well-documented. So I wasn’t establishing anything new. I was putting a frame around narrative in a way that plugged into numerous emerging discussions, including social innovation, human-centered design, and digital media, and package those discussions under one frame.

 

As I read your writing, your concept emphasizes multiple contributing authors working with shared assets, as opposed say to a single author working across media. Why do you find this idea of collaborative authorship important for thinking about social action campaigns?

Collaborative authorship opens up possibilities as I discussed above for multiple perspectives, which is crucial to social action that is grounded in both local context and in larger political or cultural trends. On the creative or artistic side of transmedia, we hear a great deal about the dissolving of boundaries between artist and audience or creators and fans. The analogy for social impact is not one of the taking down of boundaries between various communities and stakeholders.

If we accept that story and media are powerful tools to influence the way people understand issues (knowledge), experience the issues (engagement), see themselves and others in relation to the issues (perception), and what they do to cause these issues to shift (action), then we can see that NGOs and activists who commit to a process through which their various stakeholder communities and influencers take shared ownership of their mission-related story and media, they build an advantage of shared support for their goals, activities and outcomes.

By identifying the narrative underlying the full spectrum of engagement to action, and then by collectivizing ownership of that narrative, transmedia bears the potential to break down the unidirectional construct – “us” helping “them” – that is often at the heart of many traditional aid and international development efforts, instead creating a network of change agents that use narrative as a tool to work toward shared goals, activities and outcomes.

This has the added benefit of having the potential to shake up existing power structures and to move away from paternalistic, patriarchal narrative and design. Transmedia strategies, in allowing diverse and multiple authorship, have the potential to create better streams of participation for community-centered design or “local voice”– i.e., voices coming from an affected community, to tell its own stories and participate in or lead solutions-building.

As an example of this, we took a community-centered and multiple authorship design process for Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a film and social impact campaign about migrant rights related to the U.S.-Mexico border. We’ve laid out our methodology and impact evaluation here, people can view multiple streams of content here, and those in the migrant and refugee rights movement can use any of our content for their work, as detailed here. As of this writing, I am working on expanding our platform and strategy to the global migration crisis.

A Death You Could Die By? from marc silver on Vimeo.

 

Lina Srivastava  is the founder of a social innovation strategy group in New York City. Lina has provided project design consultation to a group of social impact organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank, UNICEF, MobileActive, Internews, 3Generations, VODO, Apne Aap, Shine Global, BYkids, Donor Direct Action. An attorney by training from New York University School of Law, Lina has been involved in campaigns for several documentaries, including Oscar-winning Born into Brothels, Emmy-nominated The Devil Came on Horseback, Oscar-winning Inocente, and Sundance-award winning Who Is Dayani Cristal? Lina provides workshops, consultations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and speeches on the rise of storytelling, narrative platforms, and social innovation as tools for social change, including at Yale Law School, Lincoln Center, MIT Media Lab, TEDx, and the Tribeca Film Festival. The former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the Association of Video and Filmmakers, Lina has taught design and social entrepreneurship at Parsons, The New School of Design, and is on faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts Program in Design and Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Lina received her BS from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and also studied at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University, the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, the Hastings Center for Bioethics, and the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.