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Storytelling on the Web (for Matthias)

The recent discussion of Robt Hood and Ed Kashi’s Flipbook film provoked some of us to question the technique, along with the marketing and, on a higher level, the overall nature of multimedia storytelling — or any kind of storytelling — on the web.

I got curious and decided to dig out the original experiment that Matthias alluded to, some of you may remember it: Peress and Ritchin collaborated on an unusual narrative process facilitated by the web whereby the reader can plot a variety of paths through the “essay,” thus ceding some authorial control to the viewer, opening up possibilities for more complex connections, and compelling the viewer to take an active part in the consumption of news — which may well be the most important aspect of the experiment. As Matthias pointed out, the current spate of multimedia possibly induces the usual passive participation that we get from watching TV. We want to engage our audience, not turn them into couch potatoes.

Fred Ritchin’s argument, printed in 1996, can be seen HERE.
But I wanted to reproduce a selection from his concluding statement in order to spark some thought among you all and perhaps a willingness to take up the experiment where it left off. That is what I intend to do, along with further experimentation with multimedia. Ten years after this interesting project, it seems that very little has been done to explore the possibilities of communication over the net. The new craze for multimedia is turning us all into sound recorders, but really I dont see much real innovation in most of them: they are slideshows with a song, maybe some oral history (as if that were somehow a superior means of providing authentic content, a notion I just dont buy and I find, to my dismay, is one that is almost universally assumed to be true by the current Left in the debate about the politics of representation). Their brevity ensures that the oral history or ambient sound be too clipped to allow for indepth analysis.

Here are Ritchin’s comments:

" Certainly ‘Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace’ is a flawed and fairly primitive attempt to build a new model of photojournalism. But at least one commentator feels that it succeeded in important ways. In Print magazine, the only publication to cover in depth what we had tried to do, Darcy DiNucci wrote: ‘Clumsy as today’s low-bandwidth presentations must be in some particulars, the site indeed pioneers a new form of journalism. Visitors cannot simply sit and let the news wash over them; instead, they are challenged to find the path that engages them, look deeper into its context, and formulate and articulate a response. The real story becomes a conversation, in which the author/photographer is simply the most prominent participant.’

Can such a project happen again with better results? Certainly it should be possible. In the masses of new Web publications coming out there is hope that some will recognize the need to tell stories differently about issues of serious interest, . . . many photographers and their collaborators already know that conventional photojournalism needs new ideas.

Undoubtedly these new attempts to tell stories on the Web, some accomplished with very meager financial resources, will also affect previous media so that partially non-linear, layered photo essays will appear in magazines and newspapers. Ironically it may not be the linear photo essay that is eventually revived after its long decline, but a new essay form that makes the collage of television seem rather predictable.

The new medium of the Web brings with it many valuable legacies – one is the possibility of exploring the world differently, with greater complexity and from many points of view, in order to help photographers, reporters, editors, readers and even subjects understand what is going on in deeper and more meaningful ways. Whether these new models come from personal homepages, students frustrated by conventional journalism, relief agencies, new media companies or more conventional ones, we can only benefit. They are sober alternatives to forthcoming virtual reality systems. They may also be productive extensions of deconstructionist critiques that encourage new and timely strategies of knowing. Once implemented, their impact on the ways in which we think and act should be considerable."

Reflecting on these words ten years later, I have to say that I agree with Matthias, the current experimentation with multimedia is somehow flawed, if the ideals expressed by Ritchin here are taken to be the goal for which we strive. And I am dismayed by what seems to be a failure to followup on the promise of this endeavor and the fact that mainstream narrative venues appear not to have been induced to experiment, despite the hope expressed by Ritchin in the penultimate paragraph. Unlike Matthias, I dont believe that multimedia is necessarily reactionary just because it doesnt allow for an active participation on the part of the viewer — I happen to think that, like reading, it does in fact allow for a kind of active participation and we cannot really discount the power of the reader to make his or her connections in an autonomous manner (anyone who has read Proust probably will remember that author’s famous ruminations on the nature of reading — I rest my case there). I know that I certainly dont sleep through a good multimedia — I was glued to all 15 minutes of Chris Anderson’s report on Lebanon. And I am aggressively pursuing a multimedia agenda of my own, which depends on the argument that multimedia should make greater use of film technique. But be that all as it may, I am not surprised that multimedia in its current form is so successful given that such form is really a recapitulation of the narrative status quo favored by the institutions that govern the media, and we are still left with this unanswered challenge from Ritchin and Peress.

And Multimedia puts special strains on all of us: we have to capture sound and image almost simultaneously; we have to learn new softwares, learn new behaviors or skills, buy new equipment, spend more time at the screen instead of shooting, etc; we work harder, longer, for basically the same amount of money (or proportionately less). I like a challenge, so I dont mind learning these new things (in fact I am enjoying it all) but I like a fair paycheck too, and I am a bit worried by two aspects of the current situation: (1) that marketing these things is not an open and transparent process in which we all share equally and with full knowledge (the current players have not been open about their practices and thus no one is helping to establish fair protocols whereby we can all formulate some notions of fees etc; — we are already screwed by the fact that fees for digital processing were never adequately threshed out by everyone, so practices vary, with the result that many clients simply do not compensate us for all the extra time we spend editing); and (2) control of the market is largely concentrated in the hands of a few players intimately connected to the mainstream media, and this leaves the individual players in a very weak position. One thing about Ritchin’s project was that it was intended to open things up for people outside the mainstream, and thus exploit the web’s nature as an open communication medium. I would hate to see that openness be thwarted.

HERE is the link to the narrative experiment that Peress and Ritchin created. Enjoy it.

by Jon Anderson at 2006-11-25 23:26:59 UTC (ed. Mar 12 2008 ) Sonador, p'al monte me voy! , Dominican Republic | Bookmark | | Report spam→

i dont have time to comment on all of this.. (thesis due in less than 100 hours…..)… but.. i want to first thank you jon for putting this thread up…. i had no idea about this experiment.. (although it would have been integral to my discussion).. i just want to add two things….

one… if nothing else.. no one i have seen using multimedia is paying attention to the medium itself… we are still making content that looks, feels, and ontologically speaking.. is.. repurposed for the web.. rather than being a natural outgrowth… there is so much potential… although i for one am not sure if i personally will go this direction…..after seeing many of the ideas that i was working with be appropriated by institutions i cannot ‘support’……

two… regarding all aspects to the way that the new media environment is orchestrated… i dont have time to pull up the date… or official anything…. but… i want to remind whomever looks this over.. that the format for the ‘book’ as we know it now was in many ways decided arbitrarily by those that decided to have a say.. many of the formal principles of book layout were determined by what are known in the book arts world as ‘the venitian design principles’… this includes page numbrs… blank pages in the end.. title pages.. table of contents…this was five hundred years ago.. or so..and the point is… we control the shape of this…

this may seem totally irrelevant.. my point is…. WE are the agents of the new media environment… it will mutate and mutate and mutate… and down the line it will be an institution… we must be careful how we approach this and also resolute… i for one feel there is much potential for a media environment (formally..structurally) to have massive impact on lived conditions….

whether ethan zuckerman’s work at harvard (opening up broadband all over africa)…. or mediastorm…or anyone else committed to web content… the point is..

digital mass media is whatever we want it to be……..

that said.. we are really no different than other earlier epochs pushing for a medium to carry social issues..daniel defoe… all the other pamphleteers.. what is their lasting impact? a century later the guardian and the times emerge.. and were probably, if nothing else, the exact opposite from what they pushed for…. my point as we push the new media environment.. we must not be entirely enthusiastic for the “new”… i for one would feel rather horrible if in the long run my work ends up providing the infastructure for outlets like fox news etc.. while this may be inevitable…… i feel we should at least be conscious….

whatever we want it to be…….nothing more..nothing less… (until all of our work is picked up by the meta beast…..joking…maybe??)

ps… i agree with your comment on the left….representation….

by e.t.r. | 26 Nov 2006 02:11 | portland, oremagon, United States | | Report spam→
………. is somehow flawed as it doesn’t allow me as the viewer, the listener to ponder and follow another tale.

by Imants | 26 Nov 2006 08:11 | Inmebloodyunfinishedkitchen, Australia | | Report spam→
for this method to progress it needs to invent its own language and own theatre.at the moment it is still basically a fusion of film techniques and still photography.as such it can’t really expand or grow because it is hemmmed in on both sides by the twin pillars of itsexistence.its a bit like jazz funk.interesting at first but ultimately you always go back to either the jazz or the funk.

by Michael Bowring | 26 Nov 2006 10:11 | Belgrade, Serbia | | Report spam→
What concerns me here is the relationship between package and content.
The market is in crisis (= fewer people want to buy what we offer at a reasonable price) so what do we do… change the packaging. Then we get to questions about the relationship of design, function and content.
I worry that a lot of photographers are rushing towards “multimedia” (remember “multimedia” computers?) because their core activity simply isn’t working out too well and because they are scared of being left behind.
Personally, I doubt that changing the wrapper will do much to improve the situation in the long run. We can all get excited because we can purchase Soundslides for 40 USD and an Olympus recorder for 100 USD or so. We make a show and for a while we are ahead of the game (or at least it appears). But then what do we do when everyone is doing the same thing? Improve the packet, add more Flash effects, better sound, bits of movie footage, who knows what in order to remain “different”. The problem is that, in a short period of time, we will have gone from an apparently liberting autonomous form of multimedia production to something requiring far more in the way of skills and investment, especially if we want to make a product that will sell. I believe we are simply heading towards a digital convergence: it will become increasingly easy to combine different forms of data – sound, video, stills. Unfortunately, having access to the tools doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be able to do anything of any significance with them.

by DPC | 26 Nov 2006 11:11 | Paris, France | | Report spam→
bumpity.. anyone interested in some some more creative web based visual story telling…

bumpity.. anyone interested in some some more creative web based visual story telling…www.99rooms.com

michael… agreeed agreeed.. agreed…. and agreed…..

peas and carrots and all things good….

by e.t.r. | 27 Nov 2006 04:11 | portland, oremagon, United States | | Report spam→
Jon, you’re a magnificent writer, of course you don’t need me to tell you that. I’ve always enjoyed your, Bob’s, and Sion’s writings in particular. From my experience with composition, you can almost always gauge a person’s potential for multimedia editing by the nature of their writing. Judging by your approach towards writing, I think you would be very well suited for longform multimedia narrative, which of course is harder.

It seems like news and documentary professionals have finally become more receptive to multimedia.

Initially I tried my best to open others (student and professional PJs alike) up to the idea of branching out from still photojournalism, learning more computer skills, and considering new and different ways of approaching the narrative structure. After being consistently met with fierce opposition, disdain, and ridicule, I decided I was tired of playing Mr. Nice Guy and consequently became very cynical about the business realm of my passion.

So I ended up co-founding the Gonzo PhotoJournalism Collective almost a year ago partly as a reactive protest to what I perceive as being the overly political, conservative, and regressive nature of the industry. The idea was simple, both the bureaucratic nature and the restrictively established rules for reportage in journalism are less than secondary to accuracy and authenticity. Additionally, I thought and still think that many of the precedents in journalism have somewhat become relatively outdated (like AP style for example); many precedents of which hold journalism back from truly progressing. Fostering creativity in journalism is essential to advancing the medium. Journalism is lagging behind other industries in new media mainly because journalists are not allowed to be creative, take risks, or have any spine. All too often it seems that you are simply not welcome in American journalism if you are a creative individual with any perspective that departs from mainstream middle and upper-middle class white Christian America.

While WKU is a great school for photojournalism, something is askew when poor students have to pay a lot of money to consistently teach their journalism professors about issues like domestic wiretapping, the military commissions act, emerging technologies, or even who Edward Bernays or Noam Chomsky are. The roles become somewhat reversed when the young have to teach the seasoned professionals things that the seasoned professionals should be teaching the students.

The fact of the matter is that everybody has something to contribute. The students and the amateur citizen journalists alike have just as much to contribute to the educational process as the teachers and professionals. The traditional one-way top-down command of the feudalistic bureaucratic structure is being replaced quickly and dramatically by a down-up two-way communication model fueled by the advent of the world wide web. More impersonal and anonymous internet forums like Lightstalkers allow people to be more direct and honest with each other than they might normally be in person. The separation between having two different personas, a professional and a personal one, will only continue to erode away with time and will progressively be seen more and more as sociopathic in society by the global citizenry.

To better contemplate the effects and potentials that multimedia and the internet is having on journalism, we must also contemplate the role and effects that multimedia and the internet is having on society and humanity globally. As westernization continues to destroy the world’s culture, I believe it is an essential responsibility for journalists to impartially document and preserve all the world’s cultures as they currently exist now before plurality as we know it ceases to exist or vanishes completely.

I have much more input I would very much like to contribute to this post when I grab some more time later today or tomorrow. Too much schoolwork has currently afflicted me with the end-of-the-semester blues.

In the meantime, I’ve finally built a randomized slideshow for the frontpage of the Gonzo PhotoJournalism Collective website for anybody interested in viewing: http://www.globaljournalism.org

With a broadband connection it features a different image every 3 seconds that is randomly selected from a continuously growing pool of images. Currently all the images featured are mine and many of them are crappy “filler” photos, but all that will soon change. I would love to hear feedback. Is 3 seconds for each photo too long? Too short? Is it cheesy? Et cetera. For those curious, I made it very easily in flash with the Flashloaded.com advancedLoaderPRO component: http://www.flashloaded.com/flashcomponents/advancedloaderpro/

Still tinkering with the gallery, trying to get it perfect before I launch it, so it will probably be a couple more weeks.

Also still very much looking for feedback from anybody on the Global Journalism Manifesto (Beta) the post for which is located here: http://www.lightstalkers.org/global_journalism_manifesto__beta

Didn’t mean to “hijack” with the links, just wanted to share.


Patrick Yen

by P. Money | 27 Nov 2006 12:11 | | Report spam→
Patrick I will check out your randomized slideshow later today when I have time. Ethan, checked out the 99 rooms (up to room 30). Very interesting and it might contain some clues as to how to produce a more uptodate version of the interactive narrative process that Ritchin and Peress were attempting. I am going to have to think more about this. The seed is planted. However, one point: is 99 rooms really any more viscerally engaging than say, Half-Life 2? I dont think so. Course it is a bit “german-cerebral” in its approach, and that is just fine, I enjoyed it thoroughly, but the gaming industry is way ahead of us on this one. I dont think we need to turn ourselves into gamers necessarily, but if we produce something that has the viewer thinking he or she is in a game-like situation, then we better ensure that the playfulness is fully there. Gaming as a model for narrative may not be totally off the wall either. Schiller established the fact that the “spieltrieb” (play-instinct, or drive) is at the back of all learning processes, and it manages to consolidate our divided nature (form vs content, sense vs intellect). Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here after all: that we need to reintroduce a bit of playfulness into narratives, a bit of indeterminacy and hazard or chance. Let people wander at will. In the case of the 99 rooms, I was disappointed by the fact that ultimately it came down to a simple mechanism: mouse around until you find a switch to click on (event/action structuring); click it and watch something happen; find the exit and move to the next tableau. The pix are great, but the content becomes repetitive and rather empty.

by Jon Anderson | 27 Nov 2006 16:11 | Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic | | Report spam→
The Peress/Ritchin piece is built on the same framework as an early computer game, so the gaming analogy is spot on. The ability to make such a “show” or “experience” or document isn’t new, nor is the desire. However, there’s never been a market for such items. Either people just do it, or they get grants, or some media outlet shows off one such attempt. 99 rooms is much like Mist, the computer game with the beautiful 3D graphic tableaux.

There are many variations on these multimedia shows, using randomness, group input, etc., but there isn’t a model that pays for itself, except systems like YouTube and Flickr. These are, to some extent, large collections of imagery which people like to meander through, enough that there is an income to someone.

LightStalkers is a system that generates a lot of data, too, but few images. I’ve noticed that on occasion, a forum topic will appear that’s a series of images. I suspect that kind of group show is a good lead for creating something good, depending on how good the editorial system is for it.

For the single storyteller, there’s a reason the essay is still around. It’s the most straightforward method we’ve got, the least time-consuming (compared to more complex methods!), and the most marketable. Yes, Jon, we could make non-linear versions, but who’d pay for it?

by David Gross | 27 Nov 2006 20:11 | Istanbul, Turkey | | Report spam→
David, thanks for chiming in, I was hoping you would. I hear everything you are saying and it occurred to me to as I was responding to Matthias on the thread that started this all as well as when I began to write this — but I just wonder if whether or not there are still possibilities for exploration along these lines. The playfulness is largely missing from the experiments so far, and the Peress/Ritchin piece was somewhat leaden, but with Flash and some inventive choreography, who knows? I am going to be spending some time mulling these things over in the back of my mind while I take my usual strolls around the colonial zone here, and if I come up with anything worth examining I will let people know. and what you say about the LS threads could also be promising. I dont know, but I can feel the rusty wheels turning of their own accord — that means I will eventually spew something out. Btw, I say it again, I got no problems with the basic essay form and I dont buy the arguments against it. People forget that the essay form was a creation of the master, Montaigne, and the whole impetus behind it was precisely the indeterminacy of thought and an unwillingness to ride roughshod over the meaning of things. Instead it was his idea to write willy nilly about whatever struck his fancy and let the thoughts carry him where they might:

“I do not portray being; I portray passing. Not the passing from one age to another, . . . but from day to day, from minute to minute. I may presently change, not only by chance but also by intention. This is a record of various and changeable occurrences, and of irresolute and when it so befalls contradictory ideas: whether I am different myself, or whether I take hold of my subjects in different circumstances and aspects. So, all in all, I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth, as Demades said, I do not contradict. If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions; but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial.”

The Essay is the form most apt for a world in which meaning is shifting, irresolute, paradoxical, because it doesnt force conclusions as does a scientific or didactic tract; it “essays,” probes, tests, tastes and plays with ideas. That is exactly what I am currently doing with my blog, and indeed it seems a good working principle for any attempt to make meaning in the moral sphere. I dont see why it cannot serve as the basis for good documentary work as well.

by Jon Anderson | 28 Nov 2006 00:11 | Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic | | Report spam→
mostly bumpity…

but also..

david: one thing… as you say.. the photo essay is still the big cheese… and has certainly received a big push from the web… (15 images as opposed to lets say..4 in print )

there is massive potential.. and i dont think anyone really knows what the media CAN look like in 5 years.. with care.. the envelope should push.. 99 rooms type format may not necessarily be the ticket.. nor is it necessarily currently marketable to the mass media.. but certainly.. i wish i had seen this before i documented pabbo camp, northern uganda.. (any body feel me on this>???) its an impossibly claustrophobic space that with such a medium as this.. well shit.. you might be able to bring people through it……….

i think with the amount of really lame content in the ngo, think tank, and media scape.. its possible to push more time consuming non linear telling…perhaps outside of the channels many of us currently work… while in the end though i do believe that the essay and text will prevail on the net… (i for one dont really want to see television integrate with the web.. the passivity factor seems risky…….) i think its possible to continue to push in other directions……

ps… some of you guys may dig alfredo jaar..just a hunch….. alternative methodologiesiesieisieissi etc www.alfredojaar.net

by e.t.r. | 29 Nov 2006 03:11 | portland, oremagon, United States | | Report spam→

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Jon Anderson, Photographer & Writer Jon Anderson
Photographer & Writer
Ocala Florida , United States
e.t.r., artist e.t.r.
San Francisco, California , United States
Imants, gecko hunter Imants
gecko hunter
" The Boneyard" , Australia
Michael Bowring, photographer Michael Bowring
Belgrade , Serbia
DPC, Photographer DPC
Paris , France
P. Money, Creative & Futurist P. Money
Creative & Futurist
(See That Which Cannot Be Seen)
[undisclosed location].
David Gross, Photographer David Gross
Los Gatos , United States ( SJO )


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