‘interactive documentary’ – at last, I found a label for the visual genre that the web was made for!

So the topic of this post probably isn’t new to you, but term ‘interactive documentary’ might be – well, it was to me, anyway!  But thanks to my colleague Joe Smith  putting me onto the term ‘interactive documentary’, I now know how to label the sort of visual genre that seems to me to be invited, even demanded, by web technologies.

That genre is kind of light on text – or at least, its text is easily approachable, not dense but leavened – and appears alongside rich visual and audio content: photos, animations, slide-shows, videos, graphics, soundfiles.

One example Joe mentioned is the story Snow Fall, on the New York Times website and authored by John Branch.  It tells the story of an avalanche; there’s a lot of straight journalistic text but also lots of images, from video interviews to satellite weather images, from digital visualisations to portrait photographs.  In this example, the web allows the writing to be supplemented by other media.  As a viewer/reader, you can choose to watch a lot or a little of this other material; the written text acts as a clear structure to which other material is attached.  Interaction here is about the reader/viewer choosing from a menu of proffered options.

a screen shot from Snow Fall, showing an animated aerial view of the route taken by skiers caught in the avalanche, Branch's narrative, and two archive photographs

a screen shot from Snow Fall, showing an animated aerial view of the route taken by skiers caught in the avalanche, Branch’s narrative, and two archive photographs

Two other examples use the notion of ‘interactive’ to refer not only how a the viewer/read is enabled to interact variously with online material, but also to indicate that the documentary was made via a participatory process, with those whose story it recounts.  The first of these is Kat Cizek’s Highrise project, which now has several strands exploring vertical living globally, variously co-produced between highrise residents and Kat and her team; and the second is Hollow, which describes itself on its project website as “a hybrid community participatory project and interactive documentary where content is created ‘for the community, by the community’.”

Paolo Favera had a paper in the Journal of Material Culture last year discussing interactive documentaries.  Another commentator on interactive documentary is Mandy Rose, currently Director of the Digital Cultures Research Centre at the University of West of England.  The DCRC website has links to various other sites stuffed full of cool interactive documentaries.  You can also hear Mandy here and here, interviewed at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, discussing interactive media and its different forms of interactivity.  She advocates the participatory form – though that isn’t inherent in this emergent visual genre, it seems to me.

One of the many interesting points Mandy makes, though, is how much skill – and money – is needed to make this sort of interactive documentary: Snow Fall, Highrise and Hollow are all highly sophisticated visually, and the latter two have complex and long-term relations with various social groups and organisations.  So not easy to emulate, perhaps.  But thought-provoking nonetheless: how long before an ‘online social sciences journal’ means less ‘uploaded pdfs’ and more ‘interactive documentary’?

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