The ups and down of interactive factuals


I have just returned from the Doc Tank Laboratory in Prague, where I was invited to mentor 5 interactive projects and lead them from concept to pitch in 4 days. Luckily enough, organizer Miriam Ryndová had lined up a great team of experts: William Uricchio (MIT Open Doc Lab), Arnau Gifreu (Transmedia Expert), Suzanna Lotz (Transmedia Expert), Bruno Choiniere (Akufen Studio), John MacFarlane (POV Digital). Christian Popp (Zuzu Productions) and Arjanne Laan (William de Kooning Academy)… what a pleasure to work with such a talented and inspiring group people!

Arnau Gifreu presenting @ Doc Tank

Arnau Gifreu presenting @ Doc Tank

This year Doc Tank, i_dw and !F Lab (3 European training schemes for transmedia storytellers) are collaborating by joining forces in the mentoring of projects, and also by designing their trainings in such a way that they are complementarity in their offering.

Doc Tank offers to Central and Eastern Europe documentary producer the opportunity to learn about interactive factual narratives, i_dw situated in Nyon during the Vision du Reel Festival (21st -29th April) mixes inspirational talks and in depth mentoring with interactive makers, and !F Lab (May 3rd-7th and July 3rd-7th) offers a more hands-on approach, leading projects from an initial concept to a digital prototype – ready to be presented to potential financers.

The four days I spent in Prague in the company of some the most experienced digital makers I can think of, allowed me to reflect and discuss at length the highs and lows of the interactive market. After the explosion of the web-doc form between 2010 and 2015 – explosion in the sense that some big names as Arte and France Television’s Nouvelle Ecritures in France, the NFB in Canada and TFI in the USA clearly invested high sums in this new online format – budgets seem to have suddenly decreased: Arte has stopped doing web-only formats, TFI has decreased the amount of money it invests in interactive projects… and most broadcasters this year have predominantly invested on web-series and VR – hence on digital linear narratives.

What has happened? The end of an era? Let’s look closer:

  1. After having invested in online format for nearly 5 years, TVs have done the sums: so far, online audiences cannot justify their return on investment. We still do not have a valid business model.
  2. TVs have seen their budget shrinking (the reason being a mixture of lower advertising revenues and lower audiences due to other forms of online entertainment) and this has had a knock-on effect onto documentary and factual production – interactive docs being positioned as the poor brother of documentaries.
  3. Data analytics has told us that more than 50% of video consumption in 2016 was through mobile phones. This means: forget complicated design that would be too fiddly on a small screen, let’s concentrate on quick, short forms that we can browse from our thumb. Welcome to the digital scene to web-series, short subtitled snappy videos and viral social content.
  4. VR has entered the scene two years ago, and with it a sudden hype has temporarily pushed all experimental budgets into headset technologies.

Seen like this, the situation is pretty grim… Tribeca Storyscapes, which was created in 2013 to bridge filmmaking, technology, and storytelling, has selected a vast majority of VR projects this year, following a similar trend from other festivals such as IDFA and Sheffield…

What happened to the promises of a connected web were user generated content would have created a more democratic world? Where is the peer-to-peer crowd-funding economy that would crash the editorial monopoly that TV had on documentary production? Where is the famous collective intelligence ready for a paradigm change of collective culture making? And, what happened with the supremacy of fragmented narratives to better express multiplicity of points of views and complexity? All gone? All washed away because it did not generate enough money and attention? All swallowed by the promised escapism of VR?

Maybe not. If we look closer, things are, as always, more complicated …

To start with, I think we should stop looking at TV expenditures to evaluate the appeal and success of interfactuals. TVs, intended like a one to many broadcaster media, are dying. This is why they are becoming so conservative. Their own economic model is collapsing and interactives cannot offer them a quick solution, so they cut them out. This might be a proof of broadcasters long term short view: the web is indeed the new medium, but interactives are not a quick fix. We still have to invent the language. And even if web-docs as they are today are not the solution to TVs finances, maybe other digital forms will be. The recent experimentations of POV’s snapchat documentaries, NewYork Times’ Daily 360 slot are a step in that direction. All we can do is keep experimenting. The digital form is by definition modular and variable (Lev Manovich, 2001) so it has a life of its own that makes it unpredictable and in constant flux.


POV's snapchat documentary home screen

POV’s snapchat documentary home screen

NewYork Times’ Daily 360 homepage

NewYork Times’ Daily 360 homepage

Newspapers might be an interesting example for televisions. After having denied the digital paradigm change for decades, they have suddenly woken up and realized that if they do not adapt quickly to a new digital format they are out of the game. The sudden explosion of newsroom digital labs – read Bajak’s great article about this – is a hint of a sudden rush for survival: understanding what readers want from their digital news has become fundamental if newspapers want to move to an online subscription model.

And to compete with established newspapers, digital newcomers have dangerously entered the arena: Vox News, Buzzfeed, Facebook News and more are disturbing the digital pond. Interestingly, these are the players that we never see at documentary Festivals… a filter bubble again, but this time dictated by reluctance to mix industries. And yet, convergence is everywhere (but in our corporate world) and digital content commissioners like Netflix are starting to embrace interaction and branching narratives (see article in The Guardian). Is it a sign?

Social media is eating the market of TVs and newspapers. Reuter’s latest Digital Report states that 51% of their sample say they use social media as a source of news each week. Around one in ten (12%) say it is their main source. Facebook is by far the most important network for finding, reading/watching, and sharing news.

How can we be creative and make the most of this emerging news platforms? Instead of being the victims of their filter bubble, can we mis-use them for our own benefits?

And finally, let’s speak about VR… for as much as I am convinced there will be market for it (mainly games, porn and training) I am not at all sold on this new VR gold rush. For now, VR factual experiences are still more of a festival attraction than a home entertainment. Are we surfing on the bubble, once again?

William Uricchio presenting at Doc Tank

William Uricchio presenting at Doc Tank

As William Uricchio passionately expressed during his presentation at Doc Tank in Prague, it is probably AR, rather than VR, that will give us the next boost of creative potential. When HoloLenses and Samsung’s smart lenses will hit the market, it is the physical world that will become a canvas ready to be enhanced by digital layers. Suddenly we will be able to bring archives, knowledge and narratives back to the world they belong, and to me this is clearly more appealing than to isolate ourselves into a virtual reality of solitude.

The HoloLenses

The HoloLenses

Next step will be the internet of things, and the whole challenge of how objects might tell us their stories, or how we might want to populate space with possibilities and connections. That is where Artificial Intelligence will make the real difference… a whole new chapter to be explored.

So… where are we really?

I-Docs book cover

In our recently released i-Docs book (check it on Amazon!!!), Prof. Jon Dovey argues that i-docs cannot be seen as a 5 year phenomena, and have to be evaluated through a time span of at least 50 years. In this context “the task of the i-doc community is to continue the long patient slow work of building institutional infrastructures, developing audiences, and making a culture” (Dovey, 2017).

So here we are… going through the first hiccups of what will take a long time to fully develop. Business models will come and go, platforms will emerge and disappear, software will become trendy, and then obsolete…

But one thing is sure: if digital media is here to stay, so are digital interactive narratives!


Sandra Gaudenzi