Basic characteristics of the interactive documentary. Featuring the interactive documentary (II)


An important part of the taxonomic proposal that I am developing is based on the description of the main features of this new genre. I considered it appropriate to group the main defining features that characterize the interactive documentary, based on the triple definition provided by Nichols in Representing Reality: issues and concepts in documentary (1991). In this new scenario, we replace the figure of the director (which is most associated with the audiovisual and film genre) with that of the author (because the concept of authorship is one of the major issues in the problems to be resolved); the text (deemed to be a script and a linear audiovisual discourse) for the term narrative or discourse (non-linear or multilinear interactive) and the concept of the spectator (passive audiovisual) for that of the interactor (with active, contributory and generative attributes). One of the aims of these characteristics is to concentrate, synthesize and bring together some of the key ideas about the analysis of the genre.


1. Characteristics from the viewpoint of the author (broadcaster)


1.a. The director’s loss of control and regeneration of the system

The new genre and the new methods of navigation and interaction resulting have generative features for the user, and at this point the author loses control over the flow of his work and the genre assumes unknown connotations. The end result of the documentary (what it says) and the discursive order (how it is said) may end up taking a very different from the form that the director initially placed in the script.

1.b. The author’s role of assistance

The loss of control means that the author is in a situation of assistance as regards the interactor. We will initially consider personal authorship, but it is not a finished product; authorship becomes shared and the director of the work grants control of linear and nonlinear flow. According to Berenguer (2004), instead of allowing themselves to be taught by the author – the basic premise in linear discourses in the traditional media – in interactive media the author assume a role that is more based on assistance and the relationship with viewers is more in terms of the latter allowing themselves to be helped to discover. In short, control of the discourse no longer lies exclusively with the author of the work, but instead the interactor must learn some guidelines and mechanisms without which it is impossible to move forward in the narrative. Meanwhile, Ribas points out:

“A very important point to consider is the relationship between the author-reader, the ways that control is shared between them and the opportunities available to the author, by means of this transfer of control, to establish the conditions for the receiver to enjoy interacting with the application with the utmost intensity and involvement in the experience, in order to achieve the anticipated knowledge transfer objectives. [...] This unusual relationship as regards authorship has undergone a major change since the advent and evolution of the so-called collaborative web and as a result of this transformation, all genres that also depend on it have also undergone profound changes” (Ribas, 2000:8).


2 Characteristics from the point of view of the discourse or narrative (text)


2.a. Varied terminology to refer to similar projects

Projects of this nature can be called by various names: multimedia applications, hypermedia applications, hyperdocuments, interactive multimedia applications, or simply interactive projects and hypertext. Gaudenzi suggests other terminologies that are very far removed from the original concept, and often arise because these projects are considered as related to the documentary field by the industry:

“Since digital interactive documentaries is still an emerging field (it barely started thirty years ago), it is difficult to find such examples, mainly because people refer to themselves with various terminologies: new media documentaries, digital documentaries, interactive film, database narrative etc… Most of the time what I would consider an interactive documentary is not linked by the industry with the “documentary family” and is called an online forum, a digital art piece, a locative game, and educational product, a 3D world, an emotional map, etc., making my search for examples particularly difficult” (Gaudenzi, 2009:10).

2.b. Educational and documentary interactive multimedia applications

Interactive documentaries may fit within a more general interactive genre, which could be defined as educational and documentary interactive multimedia applications. According to Ribas (2000:7), they are “specific networks with interconnected information, produced by an author or, more significantly, by a team of authors, aimed at a specific audience in a specific context and with the basic aim of transferring to it a specific cultural content or knowledge, without an explicit educational purpose.” More specifically, these are hypermedia applications (interactive applications and multimedia or interactive multimedia applications), i.e. specific networks of interconnected multimedia information. And if we reduce the field further, we focus on “those which have a specific purpose and therefore a structure and constraints on navigation that are consciously chosen by an author with a view to achieving the objectives of the application, in accordance with the mechanisms of the interactive media” (Ribas, 2000: 94).

2.c. Format types associated with nonfiction genres

The interactive documentary is a type of format related to nonfiction genres. This nonfiction is interactive and is based on a desire to transfer knowledge using informal education, i.e. the focus is on projects with a clear aim of dissemination, but under no circumstances is the interactor obliged to learn the lesson, and there is always at least one specific way to interact with the system (the user has to make decisions to progress), and they are located on the Internet.

Formal and informal education are all the systematized and even institutionalized activities that follow a more or less exhaustive specific curriculum. Informal education is a series of ongoing permanent processes by means of which people acquire and accumulate knowledge, skills, attitudes and ways of discerning, based on their daily experiences and their relationship with their environment. As Ribas points out in his article Cultural dissemination and interactive audiovisual communication, from 2001:

We will place cultural dissemination in this latter field of informal education together with, for example, television or cinema documentaries and books, magazines or educational television programs. Although, obviously, the borders are not always clear, we will analyses products characterized by an absence of an explicitly educational intention, to systemize the process from the didactic point of view and to look for intrinsic intentions in the receiver, that is, not motivated by anything other than personal interest.” (Ribas, 2001:182)

2.d. Documentation of a specific reality

One of the sine qua non requirements of the application for belonging to the genre studied is that it should aim to depict reality, in order to document a situation in a particular way.

2.e. Hypertext, nodes and links

From an analytical perspective, the structure of the interactive documentary is a hypertextual skeleton made of nodes, links and anchors. What varies is the type of media handled, which range from the purely textual to a mixture of various formats (image, sound, text, etc.). According to Ribas (2000:36), hypertext can be defined as “a network of interconnected pieces of textual information.” It is a system for organizing information based on the ability to move around within a text and visit different texts using keywords. The core elements of hypertext are nodes, semantic units that express a single idea or concept from the characteristic point of view of the content. Links are the parts of the network connecting the nodes which allow the user to move node to node. There is usually a small portion of the source node to which the link is connected. This small part, which could be a word, a phrase, a part of an image, is called the anchor of the link (Ribas, 2000:37).

2.f. Nodal and branched scheme of the narrative discourse

Interactive systems must provide more than one deployment at a time and the more varied these are, the better. The key factor that differentiates the audiovisual from the interactive areas is the former’s linearity, which means that the order of the discourse cannot be changed, while in the interactive area this order can be affected, and even changed. The calligram is a perfect example of the intended message: its structure is designed as a very basic sample of a diversified work that enables multiple readings. For Berenguer (1998) there are four models that adapt different possible structures of non-linear narrative: branched, interrupted, object-oriented and conservative non-linear narrative.

2.h. Non-linear narrative

Non-linear narrative (comparable for an author to the loss of control over the discourse) is seen as a problem in the world of traditional documentaries. Whitelaw (2002:1) explains it as follows: ‘New media forms pose a fundamental challenge to the principle of narrative coherence, which is at the core of traditional documentary. If we explode and open the structure, how can we be sure that the story is being conveyed?’ Whitelaw considers the open structure of the works and the type of information transmitted. Granting autonomy to the user raises many questions regarding the transfer of control and what form the original discourse may assume, based on its constant regeneration and restructuring.


3 Characteristics from the point of view of the interactor (reception)

3.a. Online and offline reception

The two major differences between offline applications and online applications are that offline applications are located on hardware while online applications use an online medium such as the Internet. In terms of granting control, online genres are more flexible and open to participation by the user. Offline genres are associated with Web 1.0 platforms, using media that are closed to user contributions, while online applications are today associated with a network with collaborative and generative attributes on the part of the interactor. According to Sandra Gaudenzi (2009:4), when we refer to interactive documents located on the Internet, we are referring to interactive digital documents which “not only use a digital format that could be any existing medium, from digital video to mobile phones or the Internet, but which also require a physical interaction – the body – by the user – participant,” a participation that goes beyond the mental act of interpretation, “in order to identify the various logics for the documentation of reality and possible new models of subjectivity.”

3.b. Interaction-based decision making for progressing (modes of navigation) and relating to others (modes of interaction)

The concept of interaction is present in products that present any type of physical interaction: corporal, using the mouse or other devices for interaction – gloves, sensors, microcontrollers, etc. – and which encourage the user-participant-interactor (rather than a mere spectator who interprets what they observe) to participate in them and generate a specific type of content. Based on Berenguer’s approach, we have divided interaction into three categories: strong, medium and weak. In the case that concerns us here, one of the requirements when establishing a proposal for classification is that the application must use digital technology with medium or strong interaction (it must involve the user and move towards a kind of physical response in the strictest sense of the term). Decision-making is therefore considered a basic requirement for moving forward in the story. The user can interact using the interface (and its modes of navigation) or using the content and / or other users (types of interaction).

3.c. New receivers making up a new type of audience

These receivers, to which the parameters proposed by Alejandro Piscitelli (2009) as regards his concept of digital natives can be applied, make up a new audience with two attributes that characterize and define it: it is educated in interaction and educated in front of computer screens rather than the television. According to Berenguer (1998), interactive narratives can excite a new audience, in the same way as a traditional narrative does. This happens because of a “digitally native” generational change, a development of technologies and an interactive culture, i.e. a culture of works of communication with the computer as a medium.

3.d. Open and generative system: a living system that adapts to an environment

We use the main contribution by Gaudenzi (2009) when considering the interactive documentary as an “autopoietic” mechanism or living organism that relates to its environment by means of various types of interaction. Herein lies the main difference between linear narrative and digital interactive narrative:

“This is one of the differences between linear and interactive documentaries: digital interactive documentaries can be seen as “living systems” that continue to change themselves until collaboration and participation is sustainable, or wished by the users, or by the systems that compose it. In order to see the documentary as a system in constant relation with its environment, and to see it as “a living system” I propose in this research to use a Cybernetic approach, more precisely a Second Order Cybernetic approach, and to see the documentary as an autopoietic entity with different possible levels of openness, or closure, with its environment”(Gaudenzi, 2009:6).

3.e. The viewer’s status changes: he is an active user-interactor-participant-contributor

The interactive medium is potentially useful for helping the interactor to discover, select, reflect, participate and even create. The viewers of this new medium, who are no longer passive spectators but are instead active interactors, gain in terms of presence and identification, and are involved in the audiovisual experience and share it with others in turn. They become a user in the sense that they are part of a pre-established system and they use it for their own ends; an interactor, because they interact with the modes and the interface to move forward in the proposed display; a participant, as they actively participate in the display, while choosing the path that seems most appropriate to them; and a contributor, because they contribute to the generation of the system and contribute knowledge based on content or subjective impressions.


 Table 1. Basic characteristics of the interactive documentary

It should be noted that this proposal is being reviewed in order to be presented as part of the theoretical framework on interactive documentary study, which may be subject to changes in the future (PhD defense:“The interactive documentary as a new audiovisual genre. Approach to proposed definition, taxonomy and analysis model for the evaluation, design and production”, UPF 2007-2012).


Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic



Berenguer,  X.  (1998), “Històries per ordinador”. Barcelona: Serra d’Or.

— (2004), “Una dècada d’interactius”. Temes de Disseny, 21, pp. 30-35.

Gaudenzi , S. (2009), Digital interactive documentary: from representing reality to co-creating reality [draft PhD research]. Londres: University of London. Centre for Cultural Studies (CCS) of Goldsmiths.

Piscitelli, A. (2009), Nativos Digitales. Dieta cognitiva, inteligencia colectiva y arquitecturas de la participación. Buenos Aires: Santillana Ediciones.

Ribas, J. I. (2000), Caracterització dels interactius multimèdia de difusió cultural. Aproximació a un tractament específic, els “assaigs interactius” [research Pre-PhD], Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Communication Faculty.

— (2001), “Difusión cultural y comunicación audiovisual interactiva”. Barcelona: Temes de Disseny,  num 18.

Whitelaw, M. (2002), “Playing Games with Reality: Only Fish Shall Visit and interactive documentary”. Catalog essay for Halfeti: Only Fish Shall Visit, by Brogan Bunt. Exhibited at Artspace, Sydney, 19 September – 12 October 2002. Available at:


Recommended citation:

Gifreu, Arnau (2010), El documental multimèdia interactiu. Per un proposta de model d’anàlisi. [Treball de recerca]. Departament de Comunicació. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 106-113.

Gifreu, Arnau (2010). The interactive multimedia documentary. A proposed model of analysis. [Research Pre PhD]. Department of Communication. Universitat Pompeu Fabra, pp 106-113.


Other interesting posts

For more information on the conceptual and methodological framework in relation to
the interactive documentary, you can read my previous posts published on


-   Where we come from. Introduction and initial ingredients to build a correct taxonomic proposal

-    Research questions and compared methodology to establish a taxonomic study of the interactive documentary

-   Compared methodology to establish a taxonomic study of the interactive documentary (II)

-   Taxonomic discussions in the educational context: key issues in relation to interactive documentary (I)

-   Taxonomic discussions in the educational context: key issues in relation to interactive documentary (II)

Differences between linear and interactive documentaries. Featuring the interactive documentary (I)





About the Author

Arnau Gifreu

Arnau Gifreu is a Professor of Communication and Multimedia Studies at the University of Vic-Central University of Catalonia and at ERAM (University of Girona). He is a Doctor in Communications and has a master’s degree in digital arts from the Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona). Gifreu has published various books and articles in his research area, interactive and transmedia non-fiction, and specifically on interactive documentaries. As well as being a part of the i-Docs group, he is also a research affiliate with the MIT Open Doc Lab.

Arnau GifreuBasic characteristics of the interactive documentary. Featuring the interactive documentary (II)