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

From crowd-sourcing Wikipedia entries to crowd-sourcing video

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From crowd-sourcing Wikipedia entries to crowd-sourcing video

If the internet had facilitated peer-collaboration in the hacker and academic community, Web 2.0 pushed participation one step further, opening all cultural content domains (music, encyclopaedia, design, news, video etc…) to mass collaboration, hence the emergence of crowd-sourcing. Although the term comes from open source principles, it has then evolved outside of software production engendering new models of collaboration and organization. This dichotomy is easily graspable by observing media writer Jeff Howe’s blog. The man who originally coined the term crowd-sourcing in 2006, flags in his website not one, but two, definitions of crowd-sourcing he likes to use:

1. Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

2. The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software41.

One of the most influential example of crowd-sourcing is Wikipedia as from its launch in the year 2000 it has challenged both the Western view of the expert as a quality guarantor of knowledge and the logic of corporate hierarchies as a preferred model to guarantee management efficiency, cost reduction and product quality. As analysed by media researcher Mayo Fuster Morell, in its first ten years of life, Wikipedia has actually evolved and changed several times its functioning playing with different models of community and infrastructure governance42 but, overall, it has proven that certain levels of participation to both content and decision making43 are possible even in mature organizations. German sociologist Christian Stegbaur calls the original concepts behind Wikipedia an “emancipation ideology” (Currie and Stegbaur, 2011:342) where the two holding concepts are that everybody can participate, and that the global knowledge resulting from such fragmented participation can be as valid, if not more, as the one produced by the recognised experts of the field.

Wikipedia’s entries are “written collaboratively by an international group of volunteers. Anyone with internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia’s articles”44. It is important to distinguish between Wikipedia’s source code (the software that makes it work, which is open source) its content (its text entries which “nobody owns, everybody uses, and anybody can improve” – and that are therefore often referred as open source content) and its levels of self-governance (that also come from the open source ideology, but that have expanded to another dimension when applied to Web cultural forms). Content, software and governance are all open to collaboration, but in different degrees and with different logics.

When we speak about content production Wikipedia, YouTube, Delicious, Flickr are all websites that give a platform for crowd publishing. Those participant-authors, and pro-sumers, can be highly skilled but they do not have to be professionals45. We are in the presence of a collaboration between people that potentially belong to different communities and different ideologies. The motivation for collaboration here is not the relationship with a benevolent dictator, but the faith, or interest, in the idea that the digital platform is making possible. A Wikipedia entrant accepts the way Wikipedia works and enters her contribution for others to be seen, with no expectation of founder Jimmy Wales’ direct intervention. Open source contributors to software, on the other hand, tend to relate to an authority, the benevolent dictator, with which they can have a professional and personal relation – as they are members of an expert group. The crowd-sourcing collaborative logic is many-to-many, rather than many-to-one46.

When crowd-sourcing content implies relating to an idea, through a given interface, then it also means that the content that is added by the participant feeds into a database but does not change the rules of its interface. When one enters content in Wikipedia one makes its content larger, or more accurate, but one does not change the organization of the website47. Wikipedia’s structure and interface is unchanged, it is the single entry that might be different. Transported into the online video world this means that crowd-sourcing video creates an ‘evolving documentary’ (Davenport, 1995:6) but not a co-authored one. If in participative work authors are facilitators, and not content producers, then co-authoring would mean having an influence on the idea and logic of the interactive documentary. To my knowledge, so far, this has never been totally done48. All the so-called participatory documentaries (The Johnny Cash Project, Mapping Main Street, 6 Billion Others, Man with a Movie Camera: Global Remake, Life in a Day, One Day on Earth etc…) ask users to participate to a framework that they cannot contest. Their participation is about adding photo, audio, text or video content but not about changing the interactive framework.

What digital technology has made easy is the creation and sharing of content, but not the creation of the platform to share such content. The creation of a social platform from scratch necessitate programmers skills that are not open to all so, when we speak about participatory documentary, we should specify that there are different possible moments of participation and that those are not accessible by the same players. Effectively the production life of interactive documentaries is actually split in four: author’s pre-production (research and ideas), author’s production (technical realisation of the platform itself, which involves coding, and sometimes production of some content), launch of the digital platform (sometimes empty of content) and user’s content production. This differs from the production cycle of a linear documentary, typically devised into three phases: pre-production (research), production (shooting and editing) and post-production (launch and distribution). In an interactive documentary there is a distinction between the production of the interactive artefact (interface, content management system, wireframe etc…) and the production of the content that is going to populate such interactive form. This effectively means that it is too vague to speak about UGC as what matters is at which point is such collaboration happening and what type of content is it (video, audio, text, code etc...).

In an article about the participative aspects of Rider Spoke, co-author Matt Adams, openly criticises the use of the term UGC. “Users”, he says, ‘suggests that people are utilitarian inputs to a system, “generated” posits that they produce things through some basic process (think of a random number generator) and “content” is an awkward and ugly syllogism for the ways in which the public contributes’ (2009:2). Adams suggests using instead the term “Publicly Created Contribution” (ibidem). This new wording puts the emphasis on the idea of contributions, rather than content, which I think is correct because the contributions to an interactive documentary could theoretically affect more than its content, it could touch upon the structure of the interactive artefact.

The part played by the participant is not irrelevant. Splitting the control of who makes the framework and who makes the content has political repercussions, as it divides roles, areas of influences and de-facto balances of power. In Participation as a Fragment of Functionalism, Superflex artist Andreas Spiegl describes a similar mechanism in the art world and calls it ‘politics of representation’ (Spiegl, 2000). It is easy arguable that splitting the control of the interactive framework, and interface, of an interactive documentary from the authorship of its video or audio content is also a political act. By doing so the interactive author keeps hold of the original idea, the message, leaving to users the role of validating such idea. When people add to the 6 Billion Others’website their own answers to the forty pre-set questions about life posed by author Yann Arthus-Bertrand they are de facto validating his vision of humanity by the simple act of participation. Their collaboration is a sort of signature by which they approve both the project, and its meaning, by offering their time and their voice.

I will argue that when we speak of participation in an interactive documentary we need to step away from the association participation equal UGC. Firstly, as Adams has rightly noticed a contribution can be much more than mere production of content. This simplistic understanding comes from the fact that we tend to associate UGC to the blockbusters of the crowd-sourcing genre: Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube and other participative websites alike where participation is effectively content based (offering extra text, photos or videos). But as Jeff Howe and Yochai Benkler remind us crowdsourcing affords a wider view of collaboration: scientific solutions, creative ideas, local services and communal gatherings can all be the result of crowd-sourcing. If the result of the collaboration can be more than content, there should be no reason why it could not affect the form itself of the interactive artefact. Content, ideas, technology and form can, in theory, all be crowd-sourced. Furthermore the collaborator does not have to be the “user” (intended as the audience, the final consumer of an interactive artefact) as it could also be the documentary subject (the one that the documentary is portraying). I am claiming that the complex granularity of “who does what and where” in a participative documentary is what makes all the difference between content-collaboration and co-authoring. When a large number of participants add content to a pre-fixed database they participate to an evolving documentary that behaves as an autopoietic living entity (it grows, it changes in aspect and shape, it reacts to its environment but its organization stays closed). Those participants are crowd-producers, but not co-authors. They only collaborate in the database production. If, on the other hand, they could shape the interactive form of the documentary then they could become co-authors – as the author is not anymore the one that shoots and edits video content, but the one that enables participation and “stages a conversation” (Dovey and Rose, n.d: 18) through the concept of an interactive interface. The following examples should clarify this distinction.

In 2010, by uploading a call to action in the form of a YouTube video49 Oscar winning filmmakers Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald launched a concept: crowd-sourcing both a linear and an interactive documentary via YouTube. Joining forces with YouTube and the Sundance Institute they launched an “historic global experiment to create a user-generated feature shot in a single day.” Through a multi-versioned promo available in 20 languages they engaged YouTubers around the world asking them to record a glimpse of their life on a specific date: the 24th of July 2010. Macdonald would then cut selected contributions into a feature documentary, Life in a Day, which would premiere at the Sundance Festival, and on YouTube, in January 2011. The aim was to create a portrait of 24 hours on earth. The promise to participants was that those featured would receive a credit and twenty of them would fly to the USA and join Macdonald at the premiere of the film. The linear film would only be one of the forms50 of the project as YouTube would also host Life in a Day Interactive Gallery – a website where one can access the videos via several interfaces: a 3D globe, a matrix, geo-tagged location, time of day, mood, style, etc.

Fig 3. Geo-tagging interface of Life in a Day Interactive Gallery, source

The 80,000 people that responded to Kevin Macdonald have effectively participated in the project, but in which way? And how has this collaboration influenced the production process? Their contribution was to post on YouTube, a participant collaboration in the form of a self-made movie, that was to populate the pre-set interactive interface of Life in a Day Interactive Gallery and, maybe, be selected by film editor by Joe Walker to be edited into “his” movie Life in a Day. What has been called a crowd-sourced documentary51 (referring to its user-generated content) is a film where director Kevin Macdonald has not directed shots but selected those produced by others. We are far from Wikipedia’s logic of crowd-reviewing of a single entry as no participant has the power to touch on other people’s videos, nor to edit the final film.

When one looks at Life in a Day Interactive Gallery one sees a collection of mini clips produced by a multitude of co-producers which accept the authorial vision of Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott. What is “distributed” here is the production of the single videos - not the production of the interactive wireframe, nor the authorship of the whole idea. One should be careful not to confuse distributed-production with distributed-authorship. Distributed-production has economical, aesthetic and ethical repercussions, but it does not share the authorship of the interactive documentary. Collaborative documentary specialist Mandy Rose points to YouTubers concerns about Hollywood “cashing” on free content52. Benkler, on the other hand would see in this example of “gift economy” (Benkler, 2006:116) the beginning of a more general mode of cultural production.

By opening up the production process a certain responsibility is also shared: without “public” contributions there is only an empty interface, which is only half of the final artefact. Scale and variety are at the heart of the aesthetic of what Rose has called “life on earth” projects, referring to their intent to represent life around the globe53. It is because 6 Billion Others started with 5,000 interviews54 that Yann Arthus Bertrand can claim that it offers “portraits of humanity”55, it is because One Day on Earth collected 3000 hours of video in one day56 that project founder Kyle Ruddick can claim that it is a “unique worldwide media event”57. High number of participants’ contributions gives credibility to projects that aim to portray a world made of multiple-points-of-views. Those projects are potentially opened at infinitum – accepting contributions for how long they stay online, posing the problem of whether they ever reach an end, and therefore a final form. The mosaic aesthetics of life on earth” projects probably needs to constantly grow because it needs a multitude of clips to populate an interface that is conceived to fill a globe (Life in a Day Interactive Gallery, fig 4), a screen of portraits (6 Billion Others, fig 5) or a map (One Day on Earth, fig 6). The number of participants is essential to the artefact itself. High numbers of crowd participation need to be seen through the interface in order to validate the concept behind the project: we want to have a voice. Without that the project is meaningless and risks to die.

Fig 4. Sphere Interface of Life in a Day, source

Fig 5. Portraits interface of 6 Billion Others, source

Fig 6. Geo-mapping interface of One Day on Earth. Source:

If one agrees with cultural critic Fredric Jameson’s notion of ‘cognitive mapping” (1991:51), where the map is seen as a visualization of our “sense and place in the global system” (1991:54) then one should question what sort of vision of ourselves, what relation between the individual, the social and the local, or global, is facilitated by the Mosaic aesthetic? The mosaic interface of such projects, characterised by the visualization of multiple entry points, wants to give the following message: our world is multiple, we are all of the same importance, your voice counts, it can be heard by all. When all videos and all thumbnails are at the same level – as they all have the same size or salience and any of them could be selected as an entry point by the user – our relation local/global, individual/society is visualized as democratic and open to all: the world it is what you make out of it, … and you have the power to be part of its construction.

And yet, this aesthetic is not unproblematic. By visualizing human kind within a stylistically framed wall of faces (6 Billion Others, fig 5) the granularity of our differences disappears while emphasising our similarities. By filling a globe by an apparently massive amount of videos the voices of the excluded are unrepresented (Life in a Day Interactive Gallery, fig 4). And by geo-tagging videos to a 2D map, our world appears evenly populated by people having a voice, while we all know that, even putting aside the digital devise, freedom of speech is not a worldwide gained cause yet. There seems therefore to be a contradiction in such projects: by trying to visualize the multiple through a single uniform interface, they end up standardizing it and somehow losing the granularity that makes such heterogeneity interesting.

The mosaic aesthetic of the “life on earth” projects has the advantage of being a powerful populariser, as its aesthetically pleasing interface makes it very accessible and appealing to the public. But its main weakness is that by homogenizing reality it makes it flat. Once a “one format fits all” logic holds all the contributions of mass crowd-sourced content then the frame, and format, becomes as meaningful, if not sometimes more, than the single contributions. When 6 Billion Others uses an interface filled by identically framed people that are ethnically different, it effectively says: “we look different, but we are all similar, in a way”58. The user then has to interact with the piece and listen to the individual answers of the subjects to dive into the culturally specific lives that make such subject so different one from the other.

While in linear documentaries meaning was created by framing shots and editing them together, in participatory interactive documentary meaning is shared and layered: there is the meaning of the individual clips (not controlled by the interactive documentary author), the meaning of the interface (normally conceived by the author) and the meaning of the browsing (the narrative route and associations generated by the user, while jumps between videos). The challenge hence becomes to play with those layers to create a richer meaning, and to avoid the trap of internal contradictions.

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