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Water Under the Bridge: Keeping Stories Afloat Across the Transmedia Ocean

Co-Authored by Andrea Olson and Laine Kaplan-Levenson

How do we tell stories? We tell them on porches, around fires, over drinks, on the phone, vCowbirdia text (or as ‘dem kids call it, ‘sext’), and now on the Internet. We have no choice but to adjust to the online environment for storytelling, and sometimes it feels like the medium has drowned the message in a sea of slick mash-ups, verbose cats and (insert current viral meme sensation here). In our quest to tell the story of the complex and unprecedented reconstruction of New Orleans from many points of view, the Land of Opportunity project has always demanded an eventual reach beyond the boundaries of a traditional feature film.  Our interactive video experience is an attempt to increase the impact of our storytelling while fostering community,  so that viewers become users, and actively address the challenges they face in their cities. The transition into the digital story realm makes us ask: how do we embrace the topsy-turvy thrill-ride that is tech innovation while staying true to our “3 C’s”:  core issues, content and community? AKA, how do we keep the technology from trumping the storytelling?

As we steep ourselves in research and germinate ideas of how to make this thing work, we’re looking to other projects that seem to have found the right balance between the yin and yang of tech and story.  They provide us with insight and inspiration as we develop the specific tools most appropriate for telling our stories in an engaging way while fostering meaningful community engagement- the bedrock of our unique and first transmedia experiment.

Enter Cowbird, a small community of storytellers that curates personal A/V snippets of daily life. Cowbird states that it pioneers “a new form of participatory journalism, grounded in simple human stories behind major news events”…events ranging from first loves to the Occupy movement, to the (#emo) feelings of summer.

You literally sign up, make a profile, and bam- start uploading (quotes, images, video, voice, etc). One of the greatest features is the ability to search for moments shared by registered members, allowing intimate access into someone’s life in a protected space. This goes beyond the content shared via Twitter and Facebook, as one is able to design and curate more of a visual diary entry and lasting story that lives on the site with more permanence than other social media platforms. Because our interactive video experience is a platform for stories to be heard and shared in a similar intransient way, it would benefit us to allow users with relatable anecdotes and opinions-the folks on the frontlines of the issues we’re documenting- the capacity to find each other and form connections.

Bear 71Then there’s the mecca of web-native interactive productions, the National Film Board of Canada. We’re hoping you’ve heard of them, and their beautiful and head scratching art installation Bear 71, which launched at Sundance’s New Frontier program.

One could literally get lost and not realize that day has turned to night (sans time-lapse editing) after taking a spin with what the creators state as a “multi-user interactive social narrative that observes and records the intersections of humans, nature, and technology.” The interplay of this immersive world via role play, GPS tracking, and webcams connects ‘the wired world and the wild world’, as mashable.com commented earlier this year. Incorporating motion-sensors and recording devices runs to create a truly all-in User Experience (UX of course, as we learned earlier this year at SXSW) Bear 71 takes the awe-inspiring natural environments depicted in documentaries like Planet Earth and adds a level of interactivity that makes the user that much more physically involved and emotionally invested. This project succeeded in prioritizing engagement and content above flashy tricks of the trade, while still changing the cinema game through blending the conventional documentary and interactive social narrative forms.  While our resources are decidedly more lo-fi, we’ve gleaned lessons about how to get people to interact with content in a way that fosters connections and community.

Our Interactive video experience will give the user agency to share his/her own stories in a way that will add depth, breadth and an ever-growing context to our material. For example, while watching an interactive webisode about affordable housing, public housing residents from New Orleans could share testimonials as a way to shatter some of the pervasive stereotypes that exist about subsidized housing. Then public-housing residents from cities like Atlanta, Chicago and DC could add their comments and stories, creating a diverse and in-depth portrait of often demonized and mis-represented communities that exist in every city in this country.  As we document our development and implementation process with our amazing partners at the Center for Social Media, you prospective transmedia wizards out there will be able glean your own lessons from our experiment. Remember: the karmic wheel of opensource transmedia projects is all about sharing knowledge,  so no hack hoarding, ya heard?!

This is us reminding you to remind ourselves: technology, then stories. wait, strike that, reverse it (-Willy Wonka).

What other digital storytelling platforms do you know of? Why do you use them and how are they different?

[Share your stories on the Land of Opportunity website...]