idoc with an “I” as “interactive”

A post written by Gerald Holubowicz

The landscape of the web documentary in 2011 is still very limited. In little more than five years of existence, the “webdoc” has reached an unprecedented interest among photojournalists, new media producers and begins to spread across a wider audience. Yet it is already time to move on, it’s time to move to the ‘idoc.’

At the beginning was the documentary.

The term “web-documentary” originates from the convergence of web technologies with a well-known film genre whose roots go back to the 1920s.

In the documentary, a point of view is expressed through a sequential editing of different medium – videos, pictures, sounds and comments. It aims to represent the world in its historical dimension. Traditionally, the documentary can take different kinds of intentions, from a simple catalog of events to the militant or political pamphlet, which remains identified as a representation of reality – that even filtered or curated – differs fundamentally from pure fiction. The American historian and theorist Bill Nichols, explains that documentaries have an intimate connection with world “History” and are driven by an informative logic that supports a vision of this world. The genre is based upon the narrowness of the link which connects the film to the historical reality, rather than a form of artificial narrative which would serve a fictional topic. The documentary is not organized around a main character but around an argument or logic whose roots go back in historical reality. Public expectations are also essential if you wish to define the genre. This is what the viewer perceives the relationship documentary has with reality, proximity and the Director’s POV that will establish with certainty the nature of a film documentary.

Lev Manovich, Professor of Visual Arts at the University of San Diego and new media theorist highlights, in the structure of the Web-based documentary or ‘webdoc’, the predominance of datasets over the narrative itself. Manovich distinguishes the “data”, that are used to construct the story (video, audio, graphics, texts, music etc.), and the “narrative”, that represents the virtual path linking these data with each other. The main difference between a documentary and webdoc is therefore the access the public has to this database and what it can do with that information.

The documentary consists of an extensive collection of content, refined and condensed by the filmmaker into a product for which the video interface (linear by nature) only allows  limited navigation and doesn’t grant access to the peripheral data originally used by the documentary (cut scenes, texts, archives etc.) nor any kind of dynamic intervention by the public. On the other hand, in a webdoc, the public can manipulate randomly – through a sophisticated UI – the data (text, statistics, maps etc.),  navigate through the content and  search for specific information. They are able to select “on the go” items from the story in order to trace a new path in the narrative line which eventually will extend the user experience.

To summarize, the documentary is a finished and frozen product, delivered to an audience (passive group), when the webdoc is a modular and variable object, proposed to the public (active group).

The necessary evolution of the webdoc as an idoc

While it is undeniable that the application of new technologies to the documentary genre has introduced a participatory notion, the “webdoc”, as its etymology suggests, focuses more on the technological aspect rather than the notion of interactivity.

First off, the association of “web” and “documentary” implies that the innovative nature of the webdoc is related to the place where it deploys itself: the web. But the web is not necessarily Internet, it’s only the uppermost part tip of the iceberg. At a time where mobile platforms (iPads, iPhones and other tablets) are rapidly adopted by users, the association of this new form of expression to only half of the network automatically excludes mobile applications which, as we know, aren’t part of the web ecosystem. Therefore, the “webdoc” cannot claim to use the web as unifying term to underline its interactive nature. Despite the abundance of tools and platforms on the web, the rise of social networks and the viral phenomena that make the Internet such a fertile soil for interactive experimentation, this set of features are not what truly defines multimedia objects. At their very best, these tools help to spread webdocs to a certain audience. If the webdoc actually constitutes a new form of expression, it must be able to detach itself from its technological roots to refocus it on the intellectual process that contributed to its annunciation and since then propelled it: interactivity.

As noted by Sandra Gaudenzi (@sgaudenzi), teacher at the MA Interactive Media of London College of Media and author of a thesis (forthcoming) about Interactive Documentary or ‘idoc’, the webdoc, despite its sophisticated interface still has a narrative line in which the programmatic remains fundamentally determined by the author’s point of view. If the nonlinear narrative storyline (i.e. the possibility to navigate randomly in the narration, in opposition to more a classical linear story with a start, a middle and an end) is the main difference between documentary and webdoc, two questions arise: what about the dilution of the author’s  point of view (in the sense supported by Nichols), and consequently of the documentary nature of the webdoc? And what about the level of interactivity offered by modern webdocs?

To tackle the first issue, usually the user freely defines their course into the webdoc. They commonly trace a different path than originally thought by the author. The perspective of the latter is then no longer maintained and the webdoc loses its documentary qualification. In practice, the conventions of documentary came in support to the authors. The use of video modules as central medium for the webdoc – which are enriched and articulated by a UI mainly designed to navigate in a predictable way between the different elements of the content – preserves the author vision while providing a sufficient degree of freedom for the audience. The role of the interface in the webdoc takes a preponderant place as it becomes crucial that this illusion of freedom is being felt, without detriment to the story. For Alexandre Brachet (founder of Upian, the company behind “Prison Valley”) ” an interface has an interest, only if it tells the story which is conveyed ” (CFPJ Lab 10-02-2011). In other words, the challenge of a webdoc producer rests on their ability to give the illusion of choice to a still-captive audience. Even if the narrative has larger and more complex branching, or if it has more entry point, the storyline still remains scripted. Is this what the public has in mind when it comes to interactivity?

Gaudenzi, compares the webdoc navigation to hitchhiking (thanks to Hypertext). To her “The hitchhiking mode gives no guarantee of arriving at destination, nor of having an interesting journey, it lies on the assumption that the journey is the most important part of the experience, and that the user enjoys constructing her itinerary and her interpretation of reality.” In fact, for Gaudenzi, the web documentary is not driven by an Informative Logic anymore – which according to Bill Nicholls gives the documentary a point of view – but by an Interactive Logic, which extends beyond the simple navigation into a constrained space by proposing to engage the public in various degrees in the webdoc.

In a large part of her thesis, Gaudenzi explores the notion of interactivity, relying on the work of American cyberneticists, who during the second wave of the Cybernetics in the 1970’s highlighted the characteristics of interaction. Long story short, it appears that the observer modifies the individual observed which in turn changes his behavior, thus creating a loop where the observed and the observer interact.

Transposed to the webdoc, what does that mean? If we consider the webdoc as a message sent out into the world–an output– and if we define the action that could have a visitor on the final product as the “interaction” –an input– what we see is that the current narrative structures of webdocs, their production process, and the interactive solutions offered to visitors allow little or no possibilities to have input from the public.

Despite the attempts in most of the recent productions to create deeper interactive experience through integration of social tools or forums, there’s still a long way to go to reach a satisfying level of interactivity. The explanation comes in part from the heavy legacy of documentary narration, which even transposed to the Web, still remains steeped in this notion of authorship. On the other hand, the resumption of classical codes inherited from cinema corrupts the very idea of innovation and compromises the development of this new language. Innovation can’t be sought by slight improvements. Only a deep intellectual and cultural revolution can accompany the movement only largely initiated these past two years. It’s by promoting interactivity, by nurturing the public’s ability to commit itself into the documentary which lays the basis for a new kind of storytelling. The emergence of new techniques of collaboration and funding are facilitated by the rise of Facebook, Twitter, the Huffington Post, Wikipedia or and their system of crowdsourcing or with Kickstarter or Ulule through the crowd-funding. What Clay Shirky calls the “Cognitive Surplus”, that incites people to collaborate on projects without financial compensation, profoundly changes our relationship with the real. It’d be delusional to think that webdoc authors could avoid reconsidering how their productions interact with the public.

Therefore it would wise to revise the nomenclature by abandoning the terminology “webdoc” in favor of “idoc” (interactive documentary) to integrate the voice of an audience that can’t be anyway more ignored.

Gaudenzi proposes in her study to define three levels of interactivity: a semi-closed level (when the public can browse but not modify the content) a semi-open level (when the user participates but does not alter the final narrative structure) and a completely open level (when the user and the interactive documentary constantly change and adapt to each other). Three levels for three different experiences.

  • First category is represented by documentaries such as Le Corps incarcéré, le Corps retrouvé (Le, The Gulf Spill (Mediastorm), Brèves de Trottoir (Ind/FranceTV) or Voyage au bout du Charbon.
  • The second category, which includes a greater interactive part, regroups experiences such as Prison Valley (Arte/Upian) or the Deséducation (Ind) and allows an input from the public (via forums).
  • The third category doesn’t have an example yet in the young interactive documentary sector. On the other hand, experiments in the world of traditional documentary have already taken place and are interesting to analyze as they integrate extensively, at different stages of the project, a public participation.

“The Age of Stupid” directed by Franny Armstrong and produced by Lizzie Gillett is probably the first and best example of idoc (except for the “web” dimension). Almost £ 450,000 has been gathered after 223 donators using the crowdfunding as main financing strategy. The donors got the chance to give their comment for the final cut during private projections. Finally the movie was distributed for free on the internet via the website. Everything was done to allow mass public participation. A strong and committed community was created around the film and its Director to lead to concrete actions of awareness to global warming. The making of the documentary shows very well the considerable efforts of such strategy, but at the end, the documentary seems to have achieved its objectives both from the economic point of view that artistic and popular.

Second example, “It get’s Better”. The website, created by Dan Savage in September 2010 after the suicide of young Billy Lucas in the United States after he had been constantly harassed about his homosexuality, gathers today near 10,000 video testimonies in support of young gay victims of the same harassment. Some of them are submitted by celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Dane Cook, or politicians like U.S. President B.Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. If the project isn’t strictly speaking a documentary, it however quite meets the criteria of the idocs. Not only the point of view of the author (Dan Savage) is respected throughout the site, but he’s completed, enriched and developed by 10,000 contributions. The most famous voices among them acting as “role model”, encourages anonymous voices to stand up for the cause. The whole forms an interactive documentary, constantly evolving  over time with new added videos.

Sandra Gaudenzi underlines the point very well: ” The interactive documentary will be seen as a living organism that relates to its environment through different modes of interaction”. It is quite possible now to embrace this three branches classification system, to give a clearer framework to all professionals tempted by the interactive documentary. Furthermore, it’s not inconceivable to imagine in the coming years an open classification system, stating explicitly what degree of interactivity an idoc has and thus create a comprehensible reading of this new kind of storytelling. A system encouraging both the discovery of new stories and the commitment to follow them and/or contribute to them.

I’m firmly convinced that we, as digital storytellers, are not simply facing a problem of etymology, but a challenge which will force us to rethink our relationship to the world and the public. We have to learn to use our talents as storytellers for the common good and try to improve an understanding of our world. Words are only important if they make sense, it seems to me today that conceptually, the idoc is one of the keys for the interactive narration on the Internet.