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What’s the Language of Interactive Documentary?

What is the language of interactive documentary? In an article just published by the Journal of Film and Video , I asked this question of several interactive docs available at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab, by looking at their navigation systems. 

I looked at three kinds of choices: Simple or complicated? (Simplicity is the god term of user-friendly design) What media metaphor does the navigation invoke? (Is this more like a newspaper or a movie or game?) And how is the navigation structured around the kind of interactivity that the user is encouraged to provide?

Navigation is absolutely central to an interactive experience. Even slight hesitation or confusion can mean abandoning play or viewing, and it’s currently difficult even to design navigation flows that don’t interrupt an immersive experience. But the conventions are still in formation, and interactivity is often limited.

Newspapers and Games.

Coal: A Love Story was developed as part of a University of North Carolina ongoing student-journalism project on energy, and is structured with a strong linear through-line, like a large feature story with sidebars (which in some cases here become the next link in the story). Its bold and simple navigation efficiently steers the user, whose choices are mostly to continue, through a story with a strong argument—as a nation and culturally we are dependent on a fuel source that has enormous negative impacts. It’s a great use of newspaper navigation.

The Hole Story argues that Canadian coal policy allows mining companies to benefit without returning sufficiently to Canada and Canadians, and at a high environmental and social price.  Users participate in “mining cycle,” in which entrepreneurs sell out to larger and larger companies that invest in mines and eventually reap enormous rewards; they accumulate points for bad behavior and lose them for community-oriented actions. The Hole Story’s navigation borrows look and style from games. 

Video and Web.

Black Gold Boom is a virtual tour of North Dakota’s oil drilling camps, with photos, vignettes and selfies to enrich the experience. Interactivity is limited to selecting what to visit on the site. The navigation is minimalist, primarily depending on expectations from online video. 

Hollow, by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, is a loving and troubling portrait of at McDowell County, a coal mining county and one of the poorest counties in West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation. Navigation is structured around the central structuring activity of scrolling through photographs and graphics in each section, thus depending upon the familiar navigation of websites. 

Each of the media metaphors used—the newspaper; the game; the website; the film—is linked both to origins of the project and to its purpose. Each of them uses navigation that harks back to other media, and simultaneously solves expressive, logistical and grammatical challenges.

Why Wasn’t  I Consulted?

Back in 2011, Paul Ford argued that the Web has not yet come into its own creatively. At some point, the “horseless carriage” (a harkback to past models of transportation) just became “the car.” What, he asked, would web-native media eventually look like—rather than an electronic newspaper, game, Web 1.0 website, or film? He didn’t know; I’d argue that interactive documentaries are one of the places people are working constructively but messily, but so are virtual reality and social media platforms with opportunities like Vine and memes. But whatever it is, he asserted, it would answer today’s most common user question about media digested on the web: “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” The expectation of pervasive interactivity, and interactivity that can contribute to shape the endless morphing product (think Wikipedia), he believed to be the hallmark of emergent web-native media. Well, we’re not there yet. But every experiment helps shape the emerging language of web media.