The Current State of Interactive Documentary

Posted March 8, 2012

What is the future of storytelling? 

This question is being asked a lot these days.  The availability of new tools and new media strategies have brought about many experiments in storytelling.  Whether incorporating social media, gaming, augmented reality, audience participation, or transmedia narratives, various elements are being pieced together in different ways to create new experiences.  I recently attended a two talks at MOMA about the current state of Interactive Documentaries — specifically, documentaries native to the web.

Part I of “A Field Guide to the Interactive Documentary,”  was hosted by Zach Wise, the multimedia producer responsible for much of the innovative work at The New York Times. The two projects Wise showed really stood out: Johnny Cash Project, which creates an ever evolving music video from over 250,000 (and counting) user contributions, and the NYT’s “A Year at War” project, which enables visitors to navigate their own journey through a breadth of video content, articles, and original documentation to learn about the stories of the U.S. military at war in Afghanistan. 

These examples illustrate the significant resources interactive projects have historically required.  That’s why it’s particularly exciting to see the set of tools currently cropping up that enable anyone to create web-native interactive stories, such as Korsakow, Popcorn. JS and Klynt .

Wise showcased a number of different formats that interactive documentaries can take: from a traditional narrative with optional “divergences” the user can take along the way to go more in-depth, to a narrative users configure through a web of intersecting paths that offer almost limitless possibilities of journeys the user can take through the story.  Regardless the format, there is one key difference, and key challenge, of interactive stories: unlike traditional media that exists for the story, interactive stories exist for the experience.  While the story is remains fundamental, the interactive story is created around the audience experience. 

In Part II “10 Interactive Projects You Should Know About" Ingrid Kopp and Lauren Cornell shared the stage, and showcased a wide range of projects.  Some highlights include: NFB’s One Millionth Tower, an interactive documentary about life in high-rise buildings around the world, where users navigate video content, animation created in collaboration with residents, Google Street View, Flickr, and real-time weather data visualized in the story. In Journey to the End of Coal, the user navigates through multi-media content about Chinese coal miners in a personal experience that borrows elements from “choose your own adventure” and first-person video games. 

Interestingly, the favorite piece to come out of the event was one of the least interactive, in some ways.  It was hands-down NFB’s Bear71.  I encourage you to check it out – a truly beautiful interface enables users to traverse the landscape of the Canadian Rockies, navigating their way through video content as they move through space.  Accompanying this is a traditional and compelling twenty-minute story – with a beginning, middle, and end. 

Kopp made an important point about just how new this format is, and that the most successful interactive projects acknowledge this first stage of the media. Blogging about her talk, she writes,

“The problem with a lot of work in this new space is that we don’t always know how to navigate it, or what the expectations are from us as “the people formerly known as the audience.”…I think the most successful transmedia stories are the ones that understand this anxiety and understand that we are still working out a lot of issues as we experiment with new forms of storytelling. The trick is to start with the audience and really design an experience for them, not try to throw everything at a project and hope that some of it will stick.”

The call for creating interactive storytelling experiences is loud and clear: start with the audience.  Appreciate the fine line between actively engaging your audience and overwhelming them with too many different directions. Accept that interactive storytelling is still an experiment, and be sensitive to this. And most importantly, give your audience a compelling experience, one that makes them want to go deeper.

Michelle Mullineaux

Michelle is an experienced strategist, marketer, business developer and change agent. She joined ESI in 2004 and is charged with building and implementing successful business development and marketing strategies for the firm. She also serves on the Leadership Team, which guides and supports ESI’s strategic growth across all disciplines and functions.

Michelle is recognized as an expert and leading advocate for public interest design, an evolving practice area that operates at the intersection of design, service, sustainability and social impact. She is one of the co-founders and an active board member of desigNYC, a nonprofit with the mission of improving the lives of New Yorkers through the power of good design. She is featured in the Public Interest 100, sponsored by Autodesk, and served on both the Steering and Community Development Committees for NYCxDesign, New York’s inaugural citywide festival celebrating and promoting design of all disciplines. Prior to joining ESI, she held business development, marketing and new media strategy roles for METROPOLIS Magazine, Acoustiguide, and Christie’s. Michelle holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and BS/BA degrees in Journalism and Art History from Boston University.

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