A few thoughts after WebDox 2013

WebDox 2013 has been an amazing conference: held in Leuven, Belgium, and organised by the Media Desk and iDROPS, WebDox has managed to pull together la crème de la crème of interactive documentary… The full programme can be found on Webdox’s website but, just to give you an idea, here was the line up:

    • Jonathan Harris (US) – technological artist and maker of datavisualisation projects Cowbird and We Feel Fine
    • Daniel Burwen (US) – storyteller and maker of the graphic novel touch doc Operation Ajax
    • Nonny de la Peña (US) – specializes in immersive journalism and virtual reality docs. 
    • Filip Fastenaekels and Bart Janssens (BE) – media architects at the Flemish broadcaster VRT.
    • Sabine Lange (FR/DE) – bi-media commissioning editor in ARTE’s Culture department.
    • Bjarke Myrthu (DA) – founder of Storyplanet, a toolbox for creating engaging multimedia content. 
    • François Le Galle (FR) – interactive producer at Camera Talk Productions, maker of Défense d’Afficher. 
    • Margaux Misikka (FR) – producer at Upian, maker of Gaza SderotPrison Valleyand Alma – A Tale of Violence

Sandra Webdox

So… what happens when you have first star creators, television commissioners and interactive tool inventors in the same room?

Well… to start from you notice something quite obvious: there is a lot of very mature interactive factual content on the web. We are not experimenting anymore for the sake of checking if interactive narrative can work… that phase is way passed. Interactive factual content is coming from everywhere – the comic industry (Operation Ajax), the news world (immersive journalism), broadcasters (ARTE etc…), web agencies (Upian), independent producers (Camera Talk Productions), artists (Jonathan Harris) – and to be frank no one really cares anymore about what we might want to call it. Daniel Burwan never thought that Operation Ajax would have been the diva of this year’s documentary festivals… he was thinking: graphic novel. Sabine Lange (ARTE) has launched the The Builder’s Challenge as a cross between game, heritage project, architecture and participative media. Yes, of course, there is a linear documentary, but the interactive elements (the game and the app) are really there to facilitate people into their own remix of reality: what could Strasbourg’s cathedral look like if you could design its missing tower? And Nonny de la Pena – who is a trained journalist – is not thinking “documentary” when she uses Virtual Reality to recreate an eyewitness account of a crisis on a food-bank line in LA. She is thinking: how can I make this situation more understandable to people? How can they relate to this as if they were there?

So my first thought, while rethinking about WebDox, is that Interactive Factual might be a better word to encapsulate the variety of work that is been produced at the moment. Those are projects that use one, or several, digital platforms to address non-fiction topics through interactivity. What they have in common is the idea that the user/interactant must be active in this discovery, and that it is through involvement that knowledge is created.

If I totally adhere with this constructivist paradigm (my PhD is based on the assumption that digital media is an ideal tool to visualize how we constantly create reality through embodied perception and action) one also need to be aware that this new paradigm comes with its own belief system: participation is good, we can all be creative, we learn by doing, our contributions are all valuable etc… (see Arnau Gifreu’s post about i-docs, education and constructivism). When during her presentation Sabine Lange  (ARTE) quoted a Chinese proverb that I have seen several times now (“tell me and I will forget, show me and may remember, involve me and I will understand”) I suddenly realised that interactivity is becoming synonymous with knowledge creation: learn by doing. Is this the new belief system that we are endorsing through participatory projects?

For sure, web democratisation is all about feeling included – which I believe is a good thing, over all. And yet, if doing becomes more important than feeling we might start to have a problem… Yes, we relate to  life through action, this is how we learn and how we understand the world around us… but learning is not only about “doing”, it is also about “feeling”. The belief system we construct every day by interacting with the world is not only related to choices (go left, go right, write the article) but mainly to the affect, the intensity, the embodied feeling of being alive that is generated through/with/because of these actions. In other words: now that i-docs are maturing in terms of narrative  and interface we might need to be careful about not over emphasising the use of interactivity as a way to control the world (the virtual one, but by extension also the physical one)… This would be an impossible task, and probably a wrong proposition, even from an ethical point of view. Can we start being more subtle in our propositions and start exploring how interaction might also be a way to position ourselves emotionally within a situation, a way to explore – sometimes with no reason – a way to feel curious, to feel alive… to be.  I think that projects such as Alma and I Love your Work are already going in that direction: the user/interactant is not choosing a story (there are no branching narratives in these two projects), s/he is a flaneur trying to find a personal emotional balance between curiosity and voyeurism (I Love your Work) or between violence and  fascination (Alma). Those work do create new knowledge (I know very little about female porn and about Guatemala’s gangs) and they do so through an emotional positioning (how much can I take of this confession? Am I looking for the porn scenes or for the daily routine of the actress?) that can only be personal – and therefore constitutive of the self.

This is where Daniel Burwen and Bjarke Myrthu’s  presentations got particularly interesting to me: a lot of emphasis was given to importance of coherence in design. Now… it was fun to see a lot of examples of good interfaces (Operation Ajax, Find your way to Oz, Clouds Over Cuba, Storming Juno etc…) but above all, the importance of coherence is that this is what allows us to create a world that “makes sense” and that therefore affords us getting lost in it. Without coherence we spend our time trying to survive – and we have no resources left to feel, assimilate, position ourselves or create. If the staircases of your house kept moving and changing height every minute then all your attention would go into keeping your balance while stepping on them. But since the stairs are all of the same height and angle, then your body quickly grasps the movements it needs to do to in order to navigate through them, and you get the time to look around, smell the flowers, admire the colour co-ordination and feel at home. So: good design and interaction levels are linked. One needs to feel safe to be able to explore and discover other levels of personal participation/affect.

This brings me to my last point: freedom versus scarcity. Have you ever noticed how we need time constraints to feel efficient and be aware of how we spend our time? One of the pleasures of freedom is in getting lost in a safe place, knowing that time is precious. If this is true in our life, could this be true in a digital environment? Here the master chef is Jonathan Harris: his real experiment behind I Love your Work is in re-introducing scarcity in a digital world such as the Web – where freedom and choice have becomed a dogma that has its consequences in terms of low attention spam. It is because I Love your Work is so coherently designed that one can just browse at will and “feel” for the 10 women that the work portrays. But it is also because one has to book (and pay!) to enter the site (two patterns that belong to the physical world of “going out to an event”), that one uses the time booked to view the work to its full (the average viewing time is of 2 or 3 hours!!!). So scarcity and attention go hand in hand. It is not enough to have a good interface, and not even enough to have a good story… one also need to convey the feeling of scarcity – or at least of value: this work is worth our time and attention – stay with us, and engage.

If Hunger is LA had such good user feed-back it is maybe because participants need to “stick with it” while they are trying the VR experience. If I Love your Work has an average of 2 to 3 hours of viewing (an amazing result compared to the average 7 minutes we spend on a website) it might be because we have booked the event, we have planned for it, we have valued it as we would value an outing, and so we give it the time it needs to “become” something for us.

Lessons learned at Webdox: i-docs are here to stay, they are becoming more and more complex and they’ll might have to be called something else soon… Interactivity is moving towards more subtle emotional dimensions as the “click here and choose” is not a holistic use of our cognitive functions. New business models will have to think in terms of user attention, rather than just financial montage. What are we offering? Why would this be important to our audiences? What type of dialogue and exchange are we creating? Does this matter and to whom?

And so the audience is back in the front seat… ironic no?


Sandra Gaudenzi

(PS: Thanks to Nathalie Goethals, Bert Lesaffer, the MEDIA Desk, the iDROPS team and all the participants for pulling together such a great day!)