Interactivity For Journalism & Story

October 23, 2013

Blog, Research

An extended interview by Adam Westbrook with Guy Gunaratne from Storygami republished with permission on i-Docs.

I’ve known Adam Westbrook for a good while now, we share a journalism alumnus and he has since become a great source of conversation for me. You could call him a collector of stories of a sort as he has spent more time than most speaking to some of the most interesting voices in the emerging field of multimedia journalism. His publication Inside The Story — pioneering in itself — provides some of the best insights into the way we tell stories online — Guy

For one of the issues of Inside The Story Adam asked me to provide some details on what we do at Storygami our interacitve video company. The interview in its entirety is posted here:

You guys want to “change web video forever”…in your mind what’s wrong with web video these days?

I remember reading a book by Frank Rose called The Art Of Immersion a few years ago. He spoke about how every new medium be that print, film, radio, television and now the Internet leads us to develop forms of narrative that are native to it. Frank in fact has since become a good friend of ours and told us once that it usually takes 25 to 30 years to develop whatever that new grammar of storytelling is. The printing press led to the novel for example, the camera led to the feature film. Now, 20 years into the development of the web it’s up to us and others to explore a native way to tell stories on here. I think web video is one of the best ways to explore this.

For journalists. The problem arises when we see innovation seemingly stagnate when it comes to the medium we’re working in. Online video is a form that has remained static amidst a sea change of innovation around it. If you think about it, we see the connected web really enhance our experience elsewhere on the internet. For instance text isn’t just text when we use hyperlinks — it becomes a discovery device. Why hasn’t this happened with video?

Explain the Storygami idea in a nutshell. How will it help people?

In a nutshell: Storygami helps content creators add interactivity to their online videos. We’re building an online editor that will allow video makers, news agencies and brands to design and embed interactive layers into their video projects and share them interactivity included — across the web. We’re currently securing partnerships with major media companies to provide a showcase for our approach. Currently we are able to bring in documents, image galleries, social network streams and maps into video and we’re working on a lot more. These features are all designed to enhance original content, to provide a deeper level of immersion for audiences and provide for an intuitive way to engage with the content itself.

Why is it important that we make something like video interactive?

Imagine the next Collateral Murder video with the documentation added to itI can respond to this with a bit of backstory: Storygami was born out of a previous startup where Heidi, my co-founder and I began a digital documentary company called CODOC a few years ago. We’ve covered stories in hostile areas such as Sri Lanka, Northern Uganda and Guatemala. Throughout our travels we’ve been able to tell stories about broadly complex issues such as an entrenched civil war, the rehabilitation of child soldiers and restrictions on civil liberties. The challenge has always been how to tell stories as nuanced as this in a medium that doesn’t cater for depth.

Think back to 2012 and we all saw the incredible effect video had on the public conscience for good or ill. Invisible Children’s Kony2012video for instance, we all saw the kind of intese engagement that produced. I wonder however whether if an interactive tool like Storygami were used by the producers to embed relevant information and metrics into the video, would it have made that engagement stronger and more pointed at the issues that could have affected change? More pointedly with the ‘Collateral Murder’ clip released by Wikileaks, now there is no question that video has the power to change hearts, minds and perhaps even policy. But within this space, context is vital especially when it comes to that kind of content. So I think the smarter the video, the more transparent and better off we’ll be.

Do you think adding a layer of interactivity changes the way we approach narrative design? If so, how?

Interactive Design Flow

Interactive Design Flow

From my experience thus far using Storygami, it has had a definite effect. We recently released an interactive 6 part web series for Virgin Media. In so doing we’ve had to get creative when approach even the simplest of things like framing,and edit pacing for what is essentially a new kind of medium. It was the first time we were not producing content that was going to end up in a static 2 dimensional box on a website. This content was going to breathe and manifest threads and story arcs far beyond the initial thrust of the narrative. We’d be linking external content and providing tangents that would enrich the viewing experience and so we had to think along those broad strokes. All this whilst making sure the ‘root’ video was still at a high standard. This was sophisticated stuff and it frankly made us better storytellers.

At the same time though — and I think Adam you’d agree to this point, — we have to get beyond that. It’s all very well creating these beautifully rendered experiences but we’ve got to a point where these experiences should no longer be one-offs. If the dream is to raise the standard of sophistication of online video across the board — and that is our bold ambition — then we need a powerful enough tool that can seamlessly slot into a standard production line. As content creators we need to balance that level of creative expression and deliver on execution so we need a tool that can provide for a schedule where we are churning out content constantly. Interactivity needs to fit into what we already know: we shoot, we edit, we layer interactivity and then we publish. That’s the end goal.

Some people say that good storytelling is all you need to make a story immersive — and that you can make the story happen in their mind. Is interactivity just a gimmick or something more meaningful?

I love this question. Because I share these concerns and honestly it’s something that we battle with every day at Storygami. If we introduce a new feature and we know it isn’t adding anything then we simply don’t add it. But it’s this idea of ‘adding’ that I have a problem with. Perhaps this is because we’re still at that nascent stage where audiences aren’t used to click through but there needs to be a point where subtlety will usurp this gimmicky ‘clickable video’ phase we’re currently in. Our team doesn’t speak about layers of interactivity as being a way to showcase a feature or a particular thing. Instead, we speak about interactivity as layers of meaning for the individual watching.

For instance I’m a big reader and I’ve seen this analogy being used by others where interactivity should be about providing tangents in video where you can ‘choose a storyline.’ This is akin to those books from your childhood where you could choose an ending and explore different narrative threads. That’s great and I’m sure there is plenty of room for that. And while I read those books too when younger I also read literature and journalism. The great stories that stick in my mind, what attracts intense engagement and elicits an emotive response are the ones layered with meaning and subtext. Interactivity therefore can be more than just ‘adding’ arbitrary features but can actually help fire up your imagination if it’s done right.

Is there a danger that pop up interactivity distracts people from the primary story? How do we make sure this doesn’t happen?

Absolutely, look pop-ups suck and we all know it. So it was our intention to stay as far away from ‘pop-up’ interactivity as possible. Pop up content makes me want to swat it away as soon as it shows up. This creates a disconnect between the viewer and the content almost immediately. This is something I have a hard time understanding from a content creators perspective. I mean after spending all that time producing content, why would you want anything to get in the way of the picture? Our approach isn’t to get the viewer to click and be taken elsewhere, it’s to keep them inside the experience.

Instead we bring anything related or relevant to the story into the video itself. These are what we call ‘baked-in’ elements that are just beneath the surface of the video itself. We think subtlety is the key here, something that is beautiful and feels almost part of the video but get’s out of the way when necessary. We want to get this last part right as I think with such great content out on the web, there deserves to be a way to bridge that gap in sophistication.

What do you hope Storygami could achieve in 5/10 years from now?

That’s a tough question. We think Storygami can be used in multiple fields but we want to reach out and invite individuals with great projects, agencies and organisations to get in touch. We’re looking at particularly brand advertising, news journalism, education, content monetization and policy messaging as key areas for us. In 10 years from now I’d hope the phrase ‘interactive video’ becomes redundant. It’ll be a place where video on the web will be interactive by default.

What’s the most inspiring story that uses interactivity or immersion that you’ve seen recently?

There has been a few singular experiences that have been really interesting. Chris Milk’s output for me is a great example, The Wilderness Downtown in particular, it’s human and left a mark in me. I really liked Clouds Over Cuba for just the sheer depth of material to peruse through. The New York Times are doing things with story such as with Snowfall which I think is stunning. Equally The Guardian is, I think, really innovating when it comes to allowing us to engage with abstract data. I know Al Jazeera have some interesting projects coming up and I actually think the best kinds of immersive storytelling is yet to come. We’re just at the beginning.

Inside The Story Magazine is available to download now. For anyone interested in the current state of designing and building better stories, it’s well worth checking out.

About Jess Linington

Jess manages the i-Docs website as well as posting short blogs and updates about interactive documentary. She also runs the associated social media channels, such as the i-Docs Twitter and Scoop.it.

View all posts by Jess Linington

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