Chapter 7 – The participative documentary through the lenses of the Live documentary

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Chapter 7 – The participative documentary through the lenses of the Live documentary

As seen in Chapter 1 the participative mode of interactive documentary expects from the user a specific form of inter-action: to influence in one way or another the processes of documentary production (Dovey and Rose, n.d:1). With the raise of social networks1 in the last ten years, and the general acceptance of Web 2.0’s collaborative logic2, documentary producers have been tempted to engage their audiences into what was previously a walled garden: the production of the documentary. The way to transform what was previously called an audience, to what is now called, in the world of collaborative media, a group of ‘pro-sumers’ (Tapscott and Williams, 2008:127)3 is to allow user-generated content4 (UGC) in the documentary itself. But what does this really mean? What type of user-generated content can be used and how is this influencing the process, the final shape, and the organization of the interactive documentary?

Web 2.0’s “implicit architecture of participation” (O’Reilly, 2005:6) does not explain what “participation” might mean in the realm of cultural production and, more specifically, in documentary production. A quick look through the participative documentaries that have emerged online in the last ten years shows that there are not a few, but infinite possible levels, and logics, of collaboration: depending on the type of collaboration demanded (user-testing ideas, crowd-sourcing research material and content, commenting, editing existing footage, translating subtitles etc…) who is invited to participate (the people being portrayed in the documentary or the audience/users) and the phase that is influenced by such participation (pre-production, production and/or post-production) the participative documentary acquires a different form. The final documentary can be a linear documentary/performance - created through user collaboration but orchestrated by an author (Overheated Symphony, RiP: a Remix Manifesto, Life in a Day, The Jonny Cash Project etc…), an interactive web documentary that leads to comments and debate (Prison Valley, Miami/Havana etc…), an interactive artefact that is closed to its audience but that actively involves the subjects that it portrays (Out my Window, The Waiting Room, GDP: Measuring the human side of the Canadian economic crisis etc…), a locative documentary that gathers UGC while moving in physical space (Rider Spoke, The Emotion Map) or an open database fed by user’s content (6 Billion Others, Participate, One Day on Earth Interactive Gallery, Mapping Main Street etc…). It would be wrong to speak about “a” type of participative documentary as there are infinite hybrids that add a participatory logic to an underlying hypertext, conversational or experimental mode of interaction5. Different levels of participation seem to lead to different degrees of openness of the final artefact, going from a finished, and therefore closed, linear documentary to an open web-documentary that keeps changing and expanding through time and user participation.

Lately crowd-sourced content has allowed the creation of projects that are entirely populated by UGC (The waiting Room, #18 days in Egypt, Life in a Day) where the producer’s role has been to redistribute and mould such content into a variety of forms - typically one full length documentary film, one interactive Web documentary, and possibly a book, an iPad application or a game. Documentaries that are not stand alone artefacts but a piece of a puzzle of a vaster multi-platform story-world have been called trans-media documentaries, not to be confused with cross-media documentaries6. Trans-media documentaries have been presented as a new breed of documentaries so it is important to state that, within the context of this research, they do not constitute a new mode of interaction (to be added to the other four described in chapter 1). The fact that on the 24th of July 2010 UGC has been uploaded from all over the world to feed Life in a Day7 YouTube’s channel, to then produce a feature length film by director Kevin MacDonald makes Life in a Day Interactive Gallery8 a “participative interactive documentary” that uses crowd-sourcing strategies of participation, but it does not create a new type of interaction. The novelty is in using multiple platforms to reach different audiences, but the interactive documentary itself does not use a new mode of interaction. What effectively is a marketing strategy to prolong the life-cycle of a film is not to be confused with a new mode of interaction9.

Participation as “a” form of interaction

So, what could “participation” mean in the context of an interactive documentary? Is the fact that it is an interactive artefact not already implying some form of participation from its viewer/user/player/participant?

First of all, interactivity and participation are not interchangeable concepts. In this research interactivity is seen as the ensemble of relations that the assemblage computer-man-documentary creates, and is created by. This is a very holistic vision of interactivity as a relational force, but a force that is not neutral. As philosopher Brian Massumi writes in Interact or Die! “It is not enough to champion interactivity. You have to have ways of evaluating what modes of experience it produces, what forms of life those modes of experience might develop into, and what regimes of power might arise from those developments’ (Massumi, 2007:78). I have argued in chapter 1 that modes of interaction make all the difference between interactive documentaries as they do indeed produce different modes of experience and different regimes of power. But within each mode (hypertext, conversational, experiential and participative) levels of inter-action are possible and I propose to understand them in relation to the effects that they have on the artefact itself. The act of interpretation of the viewer, which is a form of interaction, as it creates relations between the viewer and the content, is not changing the content nor the form of the artefact. The act of clicking and choosing in a hypertext is not changing the content of the documentary although it is affecting the experience of the user. Hypertext interaction (see The LoveStoryProject, chapter 5) is therefore seen as affording a relatively low level of interaction. Experiential interaction, where for example the user is free to move in a city area (see Heygate Lives, chapter 6) creates at every moment a new interface that also influences the people that share the same moment in affected and time space. Here a higher level of interaction gives the user a real power on its affective experience. Finally when the rider is also empowered to participate by adding content to a database by recording her voice (see Rider Spoke, chapter 6) her inter-action goes one step further than in the other examples, as it directly changes the database and creates an evolving documentary10. Participation in this context is about adding and changing the database of the digital artefact11.

This is where interaction and participation differ. If all interactive documentaries are interactive, not all are participative. For me participation is one specific mode of interaction, within many others. It is a mode of user-action that comes from participatory culture (Jenkins, 2006:3) and that is much more specific than what is implied in the colloquial use of the term as “the action of taking part in something”12. The fact of taking part is assumed in interactive documentaries, but it is the “how” and “when” that makes all the difference. In Convergence, media critic Henry Jenkins defines participatory culture as ‘a culture in which fans and other consumers are invited to actively participate in the creation and circulation of new content’ (2006:331). “Creation and circulation” are different from choosing (hypertext mode) or moving (experiential mode). They engender other “modes of experience” and other “regimes of power” (Massumi, 2007:78). In this context participation in an interactive documentary is not just equivalent to interacting with it; it means interacting in a specific way: by adding content or by circulating it. The question then is not anymore “is interaction already a form of participation” but “what does creation and circulation of content mean in the context of an interactive documentary”. In order to answer such question it is important to go back to the roots of the notion of participation in digital culture. It is by tracking back the influences of participatory culture into the praxis of video and documentary making that the strategies of collaboration in interactive documentary will become clearer.

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