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

Global Lives – a case study of participative mode


Download 13.17 Mb.
Size13.17 Mb.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

Global Lives – a case study of participative mode

Global Lives is a global collaborative project that started in 2004 when cross-disciplinary mediamaker72 David Evan Harris decided to record a day in the life of a cable car operator in San Francisco. The idea was to record 24 hours in the life of ten people that live in totally different places on the world. These ten subjects were to be chosen to be demographically representative of the global population, so that they would match the global distributions of rural versus urban population, regional distribution, gender, income level, religion, and age. Back in 2002, when Harris first had the idea of Global Lives73, the internet was not a very efficient platform for large video files. Harris, who was then studying at Berkley University, felt that his academic writing was not the right medium to speak about the social justice issues he felt passionate about. He wanted to find a more emotional way to portray the difference in living he had witnessed during his student traveling. Inspired by some video installations he had touched him74 in the past he chose video installation as the platform for his project. Not being a filmmaker he did not want to do a documentary, he just wanted to capture raw rushes and make them public in a Western cultural context, such as an art exhibition. He had no intention to edit those rushes, as they were to represent 24 hours in the life of his subjects, a typical day. ‘There is no narrative other than that which is found in the composition of everyday life, no overt interpretations other than that which you may bring to it’ states the “about” section of the Global Lives’ website75. So the original idea was to expose videos of different life experiences side by side, and leave the audience to build her own path of interpretation.

By extending the long take to a certain extreme and infusing it with the spirit of cinema verité, we invite audiences to confer close attention onto other worlds, and simultaneously reflect upon their own.  The force and depth of human difference and similarity are revealed in this process. Gaps which mark cultural divides feel, at once, both wider and narrower.  This sense - that we, as humans, are both knowable and unknowable, fundamentally different as well as the same - opens a space for dialogue. (Source:, retrieved 7.12.11)

It is only a few years later, when the internet proved to be a viable platform for video that Global Lives also took form as a website. Here what interested Harris was to make the footage available to all – in opposition to a gallery venue that is, by nature, a local platform. Harris also wanted to use the collaborative praxis that the Web 2.0 was facilitating as they completely fitted with Harris’ way of thinking, and to the non-profit nature of his project. The Global Lives website as we can see it now76 has been totally done by volunteers. What can be seen online today is not a fully developed interactive documentary yet. The free open video archive of all the footage shot that Harris wanted to make available to all is not online yet. So far the website has been used as tool to disseminate an idea that is still in progress and that welcomes more collaborators. So in choosing Global Lives as a case study it will be important to make the distinction between the vision and the current state of affairs, but also between the web used as a production platform and the web used as a distributing platform for a cultural artefact. Global Lives’ website is both the place from where peer-production is initiated and governed, and the place where the artefact –as seen by the people that are not collaborating in the project- is slowly taking form.

At the moment of writing the ten shots that were originally planned have been concluded. The information about them is online, but the rushes are still to be uploaded on a dedicated YouTube Channel and on the Internet Archive77 – with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Licence78. Also, in the strategic plan for the years 2011-2013 that Harris has kindly allowed me to see and refer to, plans are to hire a full time Production Coordinator and to raise money to develop the website to a new phase are indicated as a priority.

Fig Fig 12. Home screen of Global Lives (Source:, retrieved 11.12.11)

I have chosen Global Lives as a case study for the participative mode for a series of reasons. First of all Global Lives is a project which I will call in flux – in the sense that it is in construction – and so it has been for the past nine years. This state of flux is partly coming from the self-financing model that is at the base of the project (a slow fund rising process that does not allow a quick production cycle) but also to the collaborative governance model that Harris is exploring. Harris has been inspired by Wikipedia’s model of Governance and he is trying to apply it to the documentary world. Techniques of crowd-sourcing were used to find potential contributors to the shoots, crowd-financing was used to sustain the project and, as it will be explained in detail later, a system of collective Governance is ruling the future developments of the artwork. The attempt to use peer-production and collaboration on both the production and the concept levels is my second reason to look deeper into Global Lives. Through it new modes of cultural production, politics of participation and levels of ownership can be questioned. Benkler’s concept of “common-based peer-production” (2002:8) -as a new possible route in comparison to market and firm production logics- will be particularly useful to understand why Global Lives is still alive, and to evaluate its chances of evolution and survival. Finally, it is the unfinished nature of Global Lives – a project that has managed to grow during the last nine years – that is particularly fascinating to me, because it allows degrees of change (both of its global concept and of its specific content) that were not possible in the projects analysed so far. Although Harris clearly plays a determinant role in the project, the collective nature of the organization he has created means that Global Lives might take directions unforeseeable, and even not liked, by its initiator. The incorporation of collaborators into the changing nature of the projects blurs the notions of observers-observed, filmmaker-subjects and environment-subject that were analysed in the first three chapters of this research. Seen under this light Global Lives questions how open an interactive documentary can be to its environment: is an high level of autopoiesis79 possible in the context of interactive documentary? And, if yes, how can such Live documentary? In other words: can a participative Live documentary be so open to changes, when in relation to its environment, to change of its own internal organization?

Although those questions are core to my research, as I want to challenge the limits of Live documentary autopoietic behaviours – I am aware that analysing a project that is not completely shaped yet means that one has to look at what is present and at what is planned for the future, knowing that maybe things will change again, and again. Compared to the last two case studies Global Lives analysis will have to take a more speculative approach. The relational methodology proposed through the concept of the Live Documentary (chapter 4) will therefore have to be flexible enough to look at potential relation – rather than at existing ones. This is a challenge that I willingly take, as the Live Documentary is not a fixed methodology, but a way of looking at an interacting documentary as a relational object and questioning: what is this object composed of? How is it organized, what does it put in relation and, therefore, what are the consequences to itself and its environment? If Global Lives is an object yet to be shaped I will have to look at how the organization that it is based on could – rather than does- lead to its future forms.

Global Lives through the lenses of the Live Documentary

I come back to the concept of Live documentary set in chapter 4. The argument of this research is that all interactive documentaries, which I have called Live documentaries, are characterised by levels and logics of interactivity, levels of autopoiesis and by the heterogeneity of elements that the Live documentary puts in relation. Each digital artefact combines those aspects in a unique way, and this is why each Live documentary is different from the other. In order to analyse specific case studies I have set a general differentiation between modes of interaction (the hypertext, conversational, experimental and participative modes described in chapter 1). I then claim that within each of those families, not to say genres, each interactive documentary creates different relations between the elements that make it possible – and it is therefore through the analysis of such relations that we can unfold the complexity of each interactive documentary.

The following sub-chapters will therefore be dedicated to questioning what type of Live documentary is Global Lives. As in the previous chapter I will start identifying the dominant set of heterogeneous dimensions that are in relations to compose Global Lives. Those elements of the assemblage are determining what in autopoietic terms would be defined as Global Lives “organization”. In the case of Global Lives this question maybe not be suitable – as Global Lives is a project still in construction, and therefore what is analysed in this research is a temporary form. Such form though is particularly opened to change – because it does not only accept new content from new participants, but it also envisage changing its overall structure and main concept. Here I will question if Global Lives can be seen as a cultural artefact autopoietically opened.

The next point will be to focus on the structural coupling Global Lives /participant/environment. My quest will be to concentrate on how this structural coupling affects the identity of both Global Lives and its participants. Which role can collaborators take and how is this affecting their power relation with the artefact? Underpinning the complex governance system of Global Lives will be crucial here. Finally I will look at what stabilises, or destabilises, Global Lives and will question when and how it does stop functioning.

The four main points of analysis will be consistent throughout all the case studies of this research. I will look at Global Lives through the following questions:

  1. what are the main components and dimensions that compose Global Lives?

  2. what is its organization and can it change or evolve?

  3. do those changes affect Global Lives’ identity, and/or the identity of the systems that are related to it?

  4. what stabilises it or destabilises it, and when does Global Lives stop functioning/existing?

1. What are the main components and dimensions that compose Global Lives?

The components that had been identified in the [LoveStoryProject] (case study of hypertext mode) were the Korsakow software, the online interface, the copyright, the web platform, the media (as mixed media), the authoring (as the initial conditions set by the author), the enactor (as the one that “acts”) and the participant (as the content, the interviewed subjects). Those were seen as major components in the sense that together they make the [LoveStoryProject] possible. In a hypertextual way dimensions – that I have defined as ‘a network of relations that links the components that make the Live documentary possible’- emerge by linking different components together. For example by linking the Korsakow software, its online presence, its particular interface, and the authoring done by Florian Talhofer one can start to unpeel the hypertexual aesthetics that resingularises the user at each one of her clicks. By connecting those components one can analyse the [LoveStoryProject] from one specific direction, which I have called dimension. The dimension that makes the click possible creates a choice, within a world of pre-set possibilities that allows the user to exist through such choice. As seen in chapter 5 this mode of subjectivation is quite typical of the hypertext mode.

In Rider Spoke (case study of experiential mode) the dominant components were the interfaces (both the city and the mobile device), the media (undersood as the portable device and the bicycle), the space (seen as Topological rather than Ecludian), the city (seen as an interface but also as an independent entity), the authors (Blast Theory and the participants) and the users/participant/collaborators. Using the Live documentary relational approach on Rider Spoke allowed to see that space is a dominant dimension in experiential documentaries as no relation between components could make sense without it situated meaning in what becomes an affected space through the participation of the users.

Identifying the components of Global Lives is quite challenging as they are different if we focus on the project as it is now, or on what it is currently designed to become. At the time of writing Global Lives exists as a series of video exhibitions, as a YouTube channel, an educational DVD and an unfinished website. The original concept, as Harris formulated it in 2004, was to have a video installation where the ten 24hrs films could be projected both in separate rooms and in a central one - where they could all be seen together. This concept has never been fully realized, as no exhibition space has been able to accommodate it to date. The closest to this vision has been the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts in San Francisco exhibition, where the ten films done so far have been exhibited from February till June 2011. The atrium of the Centre was big enough to provide a central space that would accommodate all the videos at once and some separate spaces were used to view the videos independently.

Fig. 13. Still frame from video on Global Lives exhibit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2010. (Source, retrieved 11.12.11)

Fig 14. Separate spaces to see individual 24 hours videos

(source, retrieved 12.12.11)

In trying to grasp the realities of everyday life from Lebanon, Serbia, China, India, Japan, Malawi, Indonesia, Brazil, Kazakhstan and San Francisco Global Lives raises exactly the same questions that 6 Billion Others does with its touring exhibition: what is representative about the lives of those ten people? The only difference is that here what is shown is not a multitude of answers to the same forty questions, but rather different routines through a same time, 24 hours. A typical day rather than interviews. But how representative can a day be of what effectively is a constantly changing flux of events and affects? Is it too simplistic to choose ten people and assume that they can say something about the diversity of our world? Probably yes. As Global Lives has reached its first target of ten films it is now opening up to more shoots. In its 2011-2013 Strategic Vision document80 Global Lives has set as a key action to complete at least 20 more 24-hour shoots. Will there ever be a number that will make such project more or less representative of our lives? What could more shoots add… the validation of the concept, a richer narrative, complexity for the viewer? And to which point is the exhibition participative or interactive? In 6 Billion Others a stand allows people to add their answers, to the collective database of the project, by recording their own voice and video. But in Global Lives the participation of the audience is limited to the act of interpretation while moving their glance from one screen to another other in an exhibition space. Participation in Global Lives is not placed in the hands of the exhibition audience, as it happens during the production stage. The collaborators are actually the local producers and the filmed subjects, who could be web users, friends of friends, social networks friends, but not the exhibition audience.

The first shooting in San Francisco was done by Harris and a friend of a friend of his, James Bullock in 2004. It was as an experiment, a proof of concept. Harris and Bullock were both using some time off, and the rare opportunity of having free shooting equipment at their disposal. Harris then went to live to Brazil, where he continued to film for Global Lives. From there he looked for a potential filmmaker in Japan. Not being a filmmaker himself, and not having any funding, he looked for a volunteer crew through e-mails, friends of friends and Facebook. Harris got twenty answers within one week. Boosted by such response he created a structure whereby volunteers that wanted to do a shoot could write a proposal and submit it to a group of previous producers, editors or project participants. This group would then vote to approve the shooting project. Basecamp81 was used to communicate with the group and to send regular updates and questions to all the people that had joined as collaborators. This is how the collective governance started, it was a mixture of Harris’ fascination for the Creative Commons idea, the inspiring role model of Wikimedia’s Foundation, and the fact that with no money the project could only be sustainable through volunteers work.

In its current shape Global Lives’ website acts as both an aggregator of information for its collective and as a crows-sourcing tool to reach the not yet participant web audience (fig.14).

Through its website Global Lives reaches potential future producers and organizes is “confirmed collaborators” through a Forum (fig. 15) and a Wiki page (fig.16). Anyone that has collaborated to Global Lives for more than 24 hrs of their time can become part of its collective82. This mean that anyone that has either shot, translated, post produced or helped in raising money can be part of a collective of people that take both production and strategic decisions. A “Production Committee of the Collective”, formed by the most active people take decisions on production matters, while a more restricted Board of Directors decides on financial and strategic matters. One or two representatives of the collective are present at the Board of Directors – very much in the same way a few representative of Wikipedia collective are present at the Wikimedia’s Foundation through the Board of Trustees. Harris openly acknowledges that he inspired himself to Wikepidia’s governance model and that he tries to apply it to a documentary project.

Fig 15. Global Lives call to action: Get involved.

(Source, retrieved 15.12.11)

Fig. 16. Global Lives Forum screen. (Source , retrieved 14.12.11)

Fig. 17. Global Lives Forum screen. (Source, retrieved 15.12.11)

The website as it is at the time of writing is in a transitional shape, as it is meant to be changed soon. In its Strategic View Plan 2011-12 Global Lives sets to raise money to re-design the website to make it more appealing to web users and to add the functionalities that will make it more interactive. The plan is to upload all the shoots made so far, make them open sourced, and allow the user to choose several countries, or times, and view the selected shoots at the same time in the same screen. For now though this is still just a plan, and it might change again.

Global Lives also exists as a YouTube dedicated channel and as a DVD containing the first ten 24 hours shoot that have been released. While the YouTube channel acts as a marketing tool the DVD is meant to be used for educational purposes by teachers around the world that want to use the free-to-view material to illustrate economic and cultural diversity in our world.

So… what is Global Lives? A video exhibition? A growing open source video archive? A future interactive website? A future linear documentary film83? Potentially Global Lives will grow into all of those forms. For now though its main form consists in ten 24 hours long films that are being digitised as I write and that awaiting for funding to become a more complex and interactive documentary. As funding, or volunteers work, come Global Lives adjusts by trying out new routes and gradually changing shape. This changes have been slow so far. This is a project that started in 2004 and that has sustained itself through a growing collective and an increase funding scheme. Contrary to big interactive productions, where design visions are signed up at the beginning according to a pre-determined budget, Global Lives grows organically adjusting to its temporary conditions. It grows when it can. It stops when there are no environmental opportunities to grow. It goes back one step when the collective decides that a linear documentary would be a good idea – while initiator Harris never wanted to have such format. Global Lives is in a way an organic interactive documentary in a world of fast production projects. It represents a new production mode – a ‘commons based peer-production’, as Benkler (2002:8) has called it in Coases’s Penguin, or, Linus and the Nature of the Firm. This will be analysed in detail later.

But in such an undetermined and ungraspable form, how can we spot its main components?

For now it will suffice to say that like any other Live documentaries Global Lives has its initiator, its platform, its users and its participants, but since it is a project in flux, and because of its collaborative governance structure, none of those components are fixed yet – and will maybe never be. Harris is still the charismatic figure that brings the project forward, but he is not the only decision maker. The platform is multiple (web, exhibition, DVD) and yet none of those forms are definitive. The participants are both the subjects and the producers, and yet in the future web users and exhibition audiences could become part of the collective. What holds together all the potentialities of this project for now are both David Harris and the Global Live collective. If one of the two ceases to exist the project might well stop very quickly.

2. Global Lives’ organization

Like in the previous case studies of chapter 5 and 6 the word “organization” relates to Maturana and Varela’s meaning as ‘[those] relations that must exist among the components of a system for it to be member of a specific class’ (1987:47). If one wanted to see Global Lives as a Live documentary, an autopoietic assemblage, that self-generated itself while linking heterogeneous elements together, what could be learned of its way of behaving? What distinguishes Global Lives from other interactive documentaries and at the same time, what makes it part of a specific class?

I have identified Global Lives as part of the participative mode of interactive documentary – defined as a type of documentary that 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). In the first part of this chapter I have made the distinction between some of the possible ways in which participation “in the processes of documentary production” can be understood. Firstly one should ask “who” is invited to participate. I have made the distinction between peer-producers (the participants are peers and work with, or under the direction of an interactive director/author), crowd-producers (anybody can help, there is very little entry barrier), and subject-producer (it is only the subjects portrayed by the documentary itself that are asked to collaborate). In the case of Global Lives friends of friends were first asked to participate in shoots – which would lead to think that peer-producers were privileged, but in a second phase, through the use of the website, anybody with competences of translator, local guide, web designer or fund raiser were asked to help. Although those competences are sometimes very specific the array of skills is large enough to say that at the current stage the project invites crowd-producers to be part of its production.

The second question to be addressed is “at which stage of the production process is such collaboration happening”? Since Global Lives is at the time of writing trans-media (it is at the same time a website, a DVD and a series of exhibitions), but also in transition (toward its next phase), its collaborators are both helping in the temporal doing (shooting, translating, designing etc..) and in the future shaping (debating ideas through the forum, asking for a linear form, brainstorming its future web functionalities etc…) depending on their competences and interests. If one agrees with legal and entrepreneurial expert Yochai Benkler that ‘human creativity cannot be an on-off switch of suitability for a job’ (2002:9), and that ‘individuals who have the best information available about their own fit for a task can self-identify for the task’ (ibidem) then the crowd-production framework of Global Lives allows people to fit in the right place at the right time, creating “allocation gains” (Benkler, 2002:9) that would not be possible if the project had been produced within a firm framework, where fix people are allocated for the job, within a limited timeframe. I would add to Benkler’s reading that the other advantage of crowd-production is that, as long as there is motivation to participate, a peer-produced project can change through time. The industrial model, that has structured production around the cost of physical capital, cannot freeze such capital for a long period of time. For example an interactive documentary, produced by a broadcaster or an interactive agency, cannot immobilize resources for an open period of time, it needs to be finished within a fixed period because then its producers need move to something else. Differently, Global Lives can count in a string of new and devotes volunteers that, providing they feel motivated by the concept, could potentially support the project at infinitum.

As seen at the beginning of this chapter the third way to understands modes of participation in an interactive documentary is by asking “what is the participant supposed/allowed to do”?

This is where Global Lives becomes particularly interesting as, contrary to most interactive documentaries, the levels of participation are multiple and can also go as far as taking structural and strategic decisions. While some people are actively involved in translating existing shots – hence act at a production level - others represent the collective at the Board Committee –hence act at the concept production level. The Board of Directors ‘understands its role as trying to secure the sustainability of the organization, making sure it has the infrastructure that it needs, but the Board also understand that it needs to meet the ideas of the collective’84 - said Harris during a recorded interview. Out of ten fixed members the Board of Directors always tries to have at least one representative from the collective. ‘We try to follow the model of the Wikimedia Foundation’ said Harris ‘they have 2 or 3 seats reserved for the collective, the big problem for us is that we do not have money – so we have difficulties flying people to the board meetings from all over the world a couple of times a year’85. The last time Global Lives had a budget to fly over people from around the world was in February 2010, at the opening of the Yerba Buena exhibition. This occasion was used to organise a series of brainstorming sessions about the future of Global Lives – sessions that included visions for the new web platform, best practices for the productions of the 24 hours videos, the numbers of new shoots envisaged for the period 2011-13, the need to standardise and encode material, but also new models of Governance for Global Lives. Interestingly Harris recalls that no one was interested in changing the model of Governance. His explanation is that most representative of the collective are video producers and that ‘they want to keep filming, not decide about organisational issues. They did not want to change anything’86. Is this model of collaboration failing to involve people that can dispute its basis? Wikipedia comes once again in mind as an example, as the case of its Spanish language Wikipedia fork87 proves, that the collective can effectively react in a drastic way when the fundamental principles of people’s collaboration have been changed, but that in normal times most collaborators are principally interested in their specific tasks, and not particularly in governing. On the other hand the possibility given to the collective to propose new routes for Global Lives, and to question its existing structure, means that potentially this project does not have a fix organization. From an autopoietic point of view this means that the conservation of its structure is not central to Global Lives, which makes it organizationally opened to its environment and therefore in constant evolution. In Chapter 2 autopoiesis was seen as paired with ‘adaptivity’ (Di Paolo, 2005:11) in order to allow the evolution of a species. Global Lives may be seen here as an entity that is able to quickly adapt to its environment because of its fluctuating internal organization.

3. Do changes affect the identity of Global Lives and/or the identity of the systems that are related to it?

One of the assumptions in this research is that identity is always relational and interaction is co-constitutive. Following Dovey and Kennedy I have opted for a view of subjectivity that ‘challenges the notions of a fixed or stable identity by starting from the idea of an always relational and always situated self’ (2007:6). So, if both the user/participant/author’s identity and the interactive documentary are relational entities the question becomes: how are those two dynamic systems responding to each other when they are in contact? In other words, how are the ‘multiple exchanges between individual-group-machine’ creating ‘complexes subjectivations’ (Guattari, 1995:7)?

The fact that interaction between dynamic systems is co-constitutive (Dubberly, Haque, and Pangaro, 2009) – in the sense that all the entities related through it will change to a certain degree- does not tell us how they are going to react. What is changing when an individual interacts with Global Lives – both at the level of the individual and at the level of the artefact? To respond to such question I propose in this research to look at the assemblage that emerges from coupling individual-machine-context and then follow the threat of interactivity as a way into such complex set of relations. This is in a nutshell the methodology proposed through the Live documentary concept (see chapter 4): to see the interactive documentary as a relational object, and to use logics of interaction as a key of analysis. With this methodology each documentary is seen as unique: what can be done in a digital artefact, who has the agency and in what is the context is totally case specific. In hypertext documentaries the click of the user is at the base of a circular autopoietic relationship (in the [LoveStoryProject] the user affects the artefact by choosing one option, the artefact adjusts to those changes by reshaping itself and proposing new choices that engender the re-adjustment of the user’s point of view). In experiential documentaries the freedom of movement in physical space puts the user in a ‘transitional space’ (Massumi, 2002:183) where the environment (the city in the case of Rider Spoke), the artefact (Rider Spoke’s database) and the user (the biker) adjust to each other through ‘situated action’ (Suchman, 1987:50). In the case studies chosen in chapter 5 and 6 changes in the identity of both the user and the artefact88 have been analysed. In the hypertext mode the changes happen in a world where the user has freedom of exploration, and interpretation, but no freedom of unplanned actions (one can only choose between a set of given options) while in the experiential mode the user has a voice that has political implications, since it can change other people’s point of view (at least in the case of Rider Spoke that used a participative logic where people could record their thoughts and be listen by others).

The case of Global Lives is different from those previously analysed in this research, and this for two fundamental reasons:

1. Global Lives is not a hypetextual, nor an experiential documentary, but a participative documentary. This means that the interactivity is mainly focusing on the collaboration of its users/participants. But contrary to most participative documentaries (including Riding Spoke) the agency of the participant is not only placed at the level of production of content, but also at the level of governance. Potentially this means that the changes that the individual can make in Global Lives are not only to expand its database (for example by shooting a new 24 hours film) but also to change what it will look like, and do, in the future. Effectively the Collective Web Committee that met in February 2010 has decided the main functionalities that new website will enforce. Founder Harris is not trying to dictate his personal view of the project, but rather to cater for a collective project.

If we then wanted to see how Global Lives can provoke changes to its participants (since the hypothesis in this research is that a Live documentary is to a certain extent in structural coupling with its environment, and therefore changes happen in both directions) one could say that not only Global Lives resingularises (Guattari, 1995:7) its collaborators as filmmakers, translators, fundraisers or exhibition audiences but it also empowers them as concept makers, and therefore as a co-authors of Global Lives. This was not possible in any other interactive documentary mentioned so far. Global Lives is the only project to my knowledge that really accepts co-authorship at the concept level. On paper it does share decision-making at both the levels of interactive structure and content production.

2. Global Lives is not finished yet, so one cannot analyse the interaction of the artefact itself, but rather the options of actions of the current user/participant. Those options are about self-positioning: does one want to help in translating, fundraising, shooting, deciding, go for more than one of those options, or not helping at all? In the [LoveStoryProject] a user could resingularise (Guattari, 2006:7) herself through her hypertext choices, but those where narrative choices, not status options. There is a difference between asking “what do I want to see (or follow)” (the [LoveStoryProject] ), “what do I feel, what do I notice and who am I” (Rider Spoke) and “who do I want to be” (Global Lives). In Global Lives you are what you do, which is why Harris calls it a do-ocracy89. But the consequences of do-ocracies are both political and economic. Politically it is assumed that the individual should be able to take decisions at any level, while economically it is assumed that self-identification is a viable production model. On this second point Benkler’s analysis of peer production systems states that in order to succeed, and overcome the potential issues with incorrect self-assessment, a mechanism of peer control must be put in place (2002: 47). This is effectively happening in Global Lives as a Production Committee of the Collective filters all shooting requests. At another level the Board of Directors has to approve the volunteers that want to represent the collective. This seems to position Global Lives as a project that has a chance to succeed in time (more on this will be said in the next sub-chapter).

On a political level Global Lives poses all the problems that other collectively governed projects pose: what is the role of expertise in decision-making? How transparent is such decision model and who are its losers? Is consensus possible in the long term and should there be a benevolent dictator? Is meritocracy a better model than do-ocracy? The answers to those questions are outside the scope of this research. What is relevant here is to say that the participant is positioned by Global Lives in what Stegbaur has called an ‘emancipation ideology’ (2011:342): everybody can participate, and the result of group action is ‘global knowledge’ (ibidem). This ideology has its limits (can global knowledge ever be reached? Is such model sustainable in time and with the increase of the participants?) but it definitively empowers the participant to a power level never reached so far in the realm of interactive documentary production. The next sub-chapter will question if this model has chances of surviving in the long term and what could put it in peril.

4. What stabilises, destabilises, or ends Global Lives?

Regardless of what Global Lives will look like in the future its collaborative nature poses a fundamental question: is peer-production, and collective authorship, in a documentary context sustainable in the long term?

Since Howard Rehingold’s Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (2002) and James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), collective intelligence has been seen as a fresh approach to problem solving by some (Benkler, 2006; Helm, 2005; Sengers, 2007; Shirky, 2008, 2009a, 2009b; Surowiecki, 2004; Tapscott and William, 2008), and as a despicable mediocrisation of knowledge by others (Carr, 2007; Helprin, 2009; Lanier, 2006; Orlowski, 2005). This is a debate that does not help our query as this sub-chapter does not focuses on the quality, nor the correctness, of Global Lives’ content but only on its chances to survive in the long term. Benkler’s approach is therefore once again particularly useful as he has tried to determine exactly what is of interest to us: which conditions may make a peer-production successful in time. I propose to use Benkler’s analysis and to re-contextualise it through the Global Lives case study in order to assess what can stabilise, destabilise or end Global Lives’s existence.

In the Coases’s Penguin, or, Linus and the Nature of the Firm (2002) Benkler argues that peer-production can be seen as a third model of production (compared to the firm and the market model), but he also makes clear that such model is always suitable and that it needs a certain number of conditions to be able to work.

The traditional objections to the commons are primarily twofold. First, no one will invest in a project if they cannot appropriate its benefits. That is, motivation will lack. Second, no one has the power to organize collaboration in the use of the resource. That is, organization will lack and collaboration will fail. (Benkler, 2002:10)
Let’s start by the motivation issue: why are people devoting their free time to Global Lives? Above all, as Benkler says (referring to Learner and Tirole), ‘there is the pleasure of creation’ and ‘the pleasure of giving’ (2002:58). Monetary and self-recognition incentives are often also at stake, but I assume they are less important in this kind of project, as all the work has been done for free so far90 and the collective is composed by a very heterogeneous crowd, hence less peer recognition opportunities. Gaining expertise in a shoot might help the participant to find more work in the future (if the volunteer is young Global Lives can be an extra line in an empty curriculum vitae) but overall the prospect of future work is not guaranteed enough to justify the time spent by a participant in the project. Other motivations such as ‘social-psychological rewards’ (Benkler, 2002:59), peer recognition and status perception, could be marginally influential but they are probably less relevant than in the hackers world. Contrary to coders filmmakers, or translators, do not take pleasure in “cracking” a line of code more efficiently, or more elegantly, than their peers. A filmmaker wants to “be there” and meet the people she is portraying, and a translator wants to make a script accessible to others, possibly to the people of her own linguistic background. There is less competition than in the coders world and therefore less peer recognition to gain. Furthermore, as said earlier, the collective is so diverse in background that peer-recognition would be difficult to prosper. So, if it is not monetary or status incentives to motivate Global Live’s participants, then what is it? Personally I think that narrowing down motivation to money and self-esteem is a little simplistic. The ‘pleasure of creation’ and ‘the pleasure of giving’ (Benkler, 2002:58) will have to be put first in a project such as Global Lives but I can guess a few other factors that could be at the basis of people’s commitment. Free time seems to be key. A quick glance to the people involved in Global Lives’ website seems to indicate a majority of people under the age of thirty. One can easily imagine how young researchers, producers or non-profit sector adepts could be interested in dedicating their free time to a project such as Global Lives. Personal beliefs and political interests are also clearly important. Seven out of the nine people that form the Global Lives Board of Directors have previously worked in the non-profit sector or are studying issues related to globalization, social inequality and rural development. Finally, the pleasure of being involved in a bonding group activity is not to be undervalued. Translators are often friends of people that have been filmed, filmmakers tend to use the same crew members in different shoots and friends of friends are happier to collaborate than total strangers. One thing is sure: once people dedicate a substantial amount of their time to Global Lives they develop a sense of ownership of the project. “When you spend a year of your life translating videos that other people have done you feel a real feeling of ownership of it” said founder Harris during our interview. Behind such feeling of ownership one might want to see a deeper need of belonging and personal coherence. In his article Wikipedia and Authority (2011) Mathieu O’Neil states that ‘what participants in peer-production projects such as Wikipedia seek, first and foremost, is a feeling of unity between their identities as consumers and producers, between their activities of work and play, ultimately between themselves and the project” (2011:321).

As contemporary society still bases its legitimacy on the authority of experts, Global Lives, like many other crowd-produced digital projects, wants to prove that popular representation is possible and that economical stakes are not the only way to justify decision-making and personal motivation. Clearly there are no unique responses to such questions; there are only attempts to find new routes. In the realm of interactive documentary Global Lives seems to be the only example that have survived and prosper during seven years following a ‘collectivist organization’ (O’Neil, 2011:312) logic91. This could indicate that collective leadership, peer-production and co-authorship are possible in the cultural production of documentaries.

Peer-productions seem to be characterised by a diversity of motivations of their participants. After all it is because participants come from a variety of backgrounds and have different interests that they can efficiently self-distribute their creative competences. Here is where Benkler sees peer-productions generating “allocation gains” (2002:9) which are difficult to reach in a market, or firm, logic. And yet, possible lack of motivation and organization in the long run seem to be the week points of this collaborative production model. Although I cannot predict if motivation will last in Global Lives’ participants I can only assume that its constant collective growth in the last seven years is indicative of enough community interest for it to keep going in the near future. The next point one would now have to assess is its chances to succeed in the long term at an organisational level. This effectively means looking at the scalability of its system of Governance.

Harris has clearly kept as close as possible to Wikimedia Foundation’s model of governance. While a collective of participants can deal with the day to day questions through forums and Basecamp posts, a Board of Directors makes sure the organisation fulfils its mission and looks at fundraising, organisation and staff. This mission is similar to Wikimedia’s Foundation, with the difference that Wikipedia went through four stages of governance since its birth in 2000 and the current mixed model (consensus decision making at the collective level and a more traditional representational model at the Board of Trustees level92) is the result of an evolution in time motivated by an augmenting number of collaborators and the need of guaranteeing a certain quality control of the content. It would be a little naïve to assume that if Wikipedia’s model has worked so far then it can be applied to Global Lives, first and foremost because their goal, timing and content are different. Global Lives is fundamentally based on video material, rather than words, and it is a project at its early stages of development, while Wikipedia can be considered a more mature project. This being said, the big lesson learned through Wikipedia is that its hybrid93 structure gives it a higher ability to scale and survive over time. ‘Non-hybrid forms […]94 are less capable of scaling and have a higher ratio of death over time’ states Fuster Morell (2011:338) as result of a comparative study of 50 cases. It could be hoped that, by adopting a hybrid structure, Global Lives maximises its chances to scale up to its new developments. This assumption will be quickly tested as Global Lives is going through its first major growth span. In the Strategic plan for the years 2011-13 Global Lives has planned to hire a full time Production Coordinator, have a full time Executive Director and hire a web and a development contractor. The Production Coordinator, quoting from its online job description95, ‘will be critical to the growth and expansion of the Global Lives Project as we make the transition from a project-based effort to a sustainable institution’96.

So, assuming that motivation will hold in time, and that its hybrid governance structure is flexible enough to adjust to this expansion phase, in order to assess what stabilizes or destabilizes Global Lives one would now have to verify if such project has the right characteristics to flourish. In its analysis of commons production Benkler is the first to say that the peer-productions need particular circumstances to be successful. A part from motivation and organization Benkler states that peer-production is limited ‘by its modularity, granularity and cost of integration97’ (2002:68). In other words a project that demands contribution from not-remunerated people needs to be able to devise the work in modules that are small enough to be achievable. The smaller are the modules, in terms of time and skills necessary to process them, the higher is the potential number of contributors. If modules are of different scale than a certain granularity of tasks is important because they will be handled by people with different levels of motivation (where a higher level of motivation could lead to a bigger effort). Finally, if production is devised in modules, then the integration of those into a final product is essential. Integration faces the issue of regulation and quality control. First: which contribution should be accepted, second: how do to control their quality and third: how is integration regulated.

In the case of Global Lives a certain granularity of tasks is quite evident: translation of scripts or encoding of video can be done in small chunks, while 24 hours shooting requires more time and more motivation. If granularity of collaboration seem to be quite heterogeneous, which can be seen as positive, what is unclear is how big the modules are. Since people are invited to do as much as they want, this is a do-ocracy as Harris said, there is the risk that in the absence of clear boundaries people’s stamina and motivation could diminish over time. If there is no clear minimal module, granularity can quickly disappear leaving the project only in the hand of the hard core committed contributors. If a small group of participants is not per se a negative thing, it nevertheless could become a weakness in a project that is long term and that therefore needs enough turnover of volunteers to keep going. Finally certain key tasks cannot be done in small modules. For example: the actual website has been totally designed by volunteers, but if one wants to scale it up to a fully functional interactive documentary platform a full time coder and designer will be needed. Funder Harris is well aware of the modularity’s limits of his project. “It is one of those things where it is easier to find a crew to shoot for free in Kazakhstan than to find a web programmer in San Francisco that would do it [the design and code] for free. Those people are getting paid a lot of money and they have no time. They are all very happy to talk to me about it, but they have no time to do it”98. As a result Harris is raising money to hire a full time specialist for a task that could not be modularised and integrated by Global Lives’ current collaborator community. The risk is that if too many tasks become difficult to modularise – or if the community skills is not matching the needs of the project- Global Lives will have to abandon its commons structure and move towards a firm logic. If this were to happen the absence of commercial revenues, and the loss of its original collective ethos, could be fatal to the project.

At the moment Harris is confident that the rapid increase of grants and funding that he has witnessed throughout the years is a sign that Global Lives will keep growing.

There are plenty of organizations, from Greenpeace to Wikipedia that have survived through the years purely on donations. We do not have a fee or a product but we generate money from three different sources: donations from individuals, sponsorship from foundations, we sell some DVDs and we also have exhibit commissions. We do events to fundraise for the project. I think that throwing out parties is actually doing pretty well. It is not a traditional business model but it is a workable model. (Harris, interview, 15.11.11)

Ultimately, following Benkler’s approach, what will stabilise, distabilise or kill Global Lives is its ability to embrace the advantages of peer production and avoid its weaknesses. In order to flourish Global Lives must keep motivation high and have a flexible model of governance that will adjust in time to its production needs. If the participants’ tasks become too big, or too complex for its collective, it might have to change production model. It could also face a diminution of collaborators – which could lead to gradual decadence. On the other hand if it manages to balance motivation and organization in such a way that identification and allocation of human creativity is at its best it might prove that peer-production and a certain level of co-authoring are possible in interactive documentary.

One last question arises: even if Global Lives grows and evolves, does this make it an interesting project? Or, more to the point: how can we rate the success of a peer produced project? The lesson that self-sustained peer-project teach us is that this question is totally irrelevant. If a peer-produced project has the organization and environmental conditions to be self-sufficient in its ecosystem its metrics of success have nothing to do with infinite growth, numbers of clicks or growing interest from others (the so called users or audience). The quantifiable audience ratio that was key in television broadcasting (because of advertising placement) or in cinemas (because of ticket entries) are totally irrelevant in a non-profit project. It would even be arguable that a growing number in the collective of participants could be seen as an indicator of success – as growing collectives, Wikipedia teaches us, poses potential problems of governance, quality control and forking. The fascinating aspect of peer-produced projects is that in a way, once they have found a balance that works for them, they can adjust to their ecosystem with relatively small adjustments.

In the same way a species does not need to kill all the others in order to survive and live, Global Lives just needs to fine tune its organization to a suitable environment, and live in structural coupling with it, in order to justify its presence. Overkilling its competitors is not be the type of success that it empowers. If, through Global Lives, participants manage to “fit in”, in the sense of finding their place in a structure that empowers their capabilities and gives space to their potential, then – regardless of its interactive narrative structure, and of the numbers of its users clicks – it will make a political statement. It will prove that participative projects that count on peer-producers, crowd-producers, subject-producers and co-authors are substantially politically different. Although all participative projects allow a certain agency to their collaborators, those who allow peer-producers to become co-authors create, rather than represent, a world where the individual is not just asked to perform a task, but is free to choose where to fit. The collaborator to such project is not just helping in documenting an external reality, or a world imagined by others, as she is part of a process where her actions are as influential in coining her own position in the world that in shaping a co-created reality.


This chapter questions the strategies, and the implications, of user collaboration in participative interactive documentaries. The participative mode of interactive documentary is here defined as a form that expects from the user a specific type of inter-action: to influence in one way or another the processes of documentary production (Dovey and Rose, n.d:1). In order to elucidate this definition specific attention is given to the meanings of “influence” and “processes of documentary production”. Since particular emphasis is currently given to the term User Generated Content this chapter concentrates on such term. It questions what UGC means, where does it come from, how it can shape the final documentary and what are the ontological implications is such form of collaboration. But it is also made clear that UGC is just one way to participate into an interactive documentary, and that a variety of other options are possible, and already explored by some interactive producers.

What wants to be demonstrated is that 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. There is no such thing as a typical or standard, participative documentary – there are logics and levels of participation that can be used in documentary production. What all those documentaries have in common is the more or less implicit importance given to the user-participant, and therefore the political assumption that the individual has a role to play in constructing her reality. How far can this go, and what role is given to the individual, is what the second part of this chapter concentrates on.

Since participative documentaries are just one example of collaborative culture an historical overview of the open source movement is given to trace back the ideology behind peer-reviewing, free software, and gift economy. From this overview it is concluded that the intuitive parallel “source code in software equal video rushes in documentaries”99 is not particularly rigorous. This parallel, which is taking Wikipedia as a replicable model of collaborative cultural production, is misleading because it has been done by authors that have taken in consideration individual aspects of Wikipedia’s functioning, but have then ignored others. It is argued that in order to be fully functioning as a parallel one would have to take in consideration all of Wikipedia’s characteristics: its open source software, its user generated content, its collaborative editing structure, its Governance structure and the semantic nature of an encyclopaedia’s entry.

Dancing to Architecture (2002) made its rushes available online, and released its film under the Creative Commons, but the film was still edited by professionals, with no need of collective Governance. Here the use of Wikipedia’s open source model stopped at the availability of rushes (seen as parallel to words in an entry) distributed on the Net. In RiP: A Remix Manifesto (2004) Brett Gaylor did try to go one step further and included internet users into the creation, and editing, of rushes. This worked only to a certain level, as only few dedicated peers really helped in the process and Gaylor still edited his film fundamentally on his own. Wikipedia’s crowd-sourcing logic seems to be difficult to sustain once applied to documentary production, and one reason might be that the notion of the “author-filmmaker” is difficult to share. It is also argued that the parallel “rushes equal software” is generally inappropriate. Editing aesthetics and software accuracy are not pursuing the same goals. One aims at the subjective expression of an author, the other at making a programme run efficiently. Also, hacker and filmmaker production praxis are different: for big projects, such as operating systems or internet browsers, hackers are generally used to write and de-bug collectively while in film production many roles might be needed but editing and filming are normally given to a unique person that, in conjunction with the director, has the final control on the final shape of the film.

This chapter then challenges a second simplistic assumption: that participation is equal to User Generated Content (UGC). It is argued that UGC only influences the database of the documentary but not its form. In the last five years, to a variety of documentary projects have concentrated in modes of involving the user in content production: 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… are all projects that ask users to participate by adding photos, audio, text or video content… What those projects do not do is to extend collaboration to levels of collective governance that could change the interactive framework that defines the project itself. The political consequence of such emphasis on UGC is the assumption that the individual has a voice but should not have control on how it is used. I claim in this research that using content sent by people that have no control on how such material is finally used, like in the case of One Day on Earth, is potentially antithetic with the rhetoric of openness and democratic expression behind the participative culture movement.

The part played by the participant is not neutral, it is actually essential. 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 creates power relations. In order to evidentiate such power relations I suggest to step aside from the association “participation equal User Generated Content” and to adopt a wider understanding of collaboration as having levels of control on different parts of the production process of an interactive documentary. I therefore suggest analysing strategies of collaborations through three main questions: Who is invited to collaborate? When is this collaboration happening? And what is the participant allowed to do? Through those questions an array of examples are analysed to frame the complexity of the participative genre and its possible aesthetics and ontologies. It becomes clear that documentaries such as Life in a Day, 6 Billion Others and One day in Earth -what Mandy Rose has called “life on earth”100 documentaries- do allow distributed-production but no distributed-authorship, as crowd-producers are responsible to populate the database of the artefact but have no impact in shaping the interactive form of the documentary. On the other hand documentaries such as Out My Window and a Thousand Tower, that place interactivity on the subjects that are portrayed – rather than on the final users of the web documentary – give to such subject-producers a real opportunity for change in their private lives, although their public voices are still largely framed by the eye of a unique interactive producer, director Kat Cizek.

What emerged by using the who, what and when framework is that what Dovey and Rose have called distributed-authorsip (Dovey and Rose, n.d:10) in interactive documentaries is still very much a myth – especially if, like I propose, by authorship one understands the participation in both content production and the interactive idea of the documentary. To my knowledge the only documentary that challenges the notion of authorship in interactive documentaries, by experimenting with collaborative Governance, is Global Lives. This project, initiated by David Evan Harris in 2004, is taken as my main case study of participatory documentary because it attempts to push collaboration as far as possible, by mixing peer-producers with subject-producers, content-generation with collective governance.

As in the previous two chapters, the analysis of the main case study is done by using the relational approach of the Life Documentary - which questions the components and internal organization of the artefact, its relations with external systems, such as humans, and looks for what stabilises, or destabilizes it. The case of Global Lives is particularly complex because it is still a project in development, so it is impossible to foresee what its final shape will be for the user. This apparent problem is taken as opportunity to concentrate more on Global Lives potentialities than onto its actual working structure. Global Lives’ mixed collective Governance - with its Board of Directors, and its collective that feeds into strategic decisions- is seen as a central force that determines its possible future evolutions. From an autopoietic point of view Global Lives can be seen as an entity that has no fix organization, and is therefore fundamentally opened to its environment. From an economical point of view it can be seen as a potentially successful example of cultural ‘commons based peer-production’ (Benkler, 2002:8). Benkler’s notion of ‘commons based peer-production’ model (2002:8), as a third alternative to the firm and the market production model, is highly used to test Global Lives chances to adapt and grow in the future. If Global Lives has on its side the possible benefits of “allocation gains” (Benkler, 2002:9) that would not be possible in other models – if one agrees on the assumption that people are best suited to allocate their creativity and skills to the right task – it also faces considerable risks: collaborator’s motivation could drop in time, its system of Governance could not be flexible enough to adapt into the next stage, and the granularity of its modules of production could be too large to spread the workload throughout its collective of volunteers. On the other hand, if Global Lives manages to survive and grow through time, it will clarify two points:

1- on a production level it will prove that it is possible to have a participative documentary that opens all its production process to collaborations

2- on a political level it will prove that it possible for individuals to choose what they want to accomplish, express themselves and finally shape the environment in which they act.

This political statement goes way beyond the one underlying the UGC projects reviewed in this chapter. The difference is between choosing to give bricks that will later be used by others to construct a building and choosing to build something together101. It could be argued that architects are best at designing efficient and beautiful structures, and to a certain extend this is often the case. But in my view the world is big enough to accommodate different types of building, and if a collective wants to express itself, and manages to sustain a construction through time, it should be praised for such accomplishment. Here again, the question is not to be placed at an aesthetic level, as it does not matter which building is most beautiful or most efficient. As a user, if asked whether I prefer browsing through Cizek’s Out My Window or through the actual website of Global Lives I would have no hesitation in preferring the first one. But as a collaborator the stakes are completely different. The possibility to shape a project by potentially participating to any of its production levels changes the logic of what an interactive documentary is. Here we jump from freedom of order of consumption (hytertext logic) to freedom of perception of the world (experiential mode) to freedom of construction of the world (participative mode).

Although all participative projects allow a certain agency to their collaborators, those who allow peer-producers to become co-authors create, rather than represent, a world where the individual is not just asked to perform a task, but is free to choose where to fit, and what to build. The collaborator to such project is not just helping in documenting an external reality, or a world imagined by others, as she is part of a process where her actions are as influential in coining her own position in the world that in shaping a co-created reality.

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9

The database is protected by copyright © 2019
send message

    Main page