For a filmmaker, there is perhaps no greater feeling than the moment when your story comes together. The last edit that brings the entire viewing experience into a cohesive whole. What you deliver is a packaged narrative told by your characters and mediated by your editorial vision. Even web-native cinema projects deliver story, though it might seem distinct from the linear experience of watching a film. But what if you aren’t the storyteller. What if it’s your audience?
Here at Land of Opportunity, we seek to create a platform that engages users around core urban issues; including affordable housing, urban redevelopment and immigrant labor. While the feature film focuses on characters from New Orleans, the message of the work is that these are not New Orleans-specific issues, but issues that are affecting cities all over. As our tagline says, it’s “happening to a city near you”. It makes sense, therefore, to continue the project on the web, bringing focus to other cities and reinforcing the message. In addition, if we’re talking social engagement, the impact of a story told in Chicago might be more meaningful for a citizen of Chicago than a citizen of San Francisco; it would be unfortunate for that story to have necessarily ended up on the cutting room floor to accommodate a linear feature film structure. However, capturing stories from every city that could be relevant would be a nightmare from a production and funding standpoint.
Enter user-generated content (UGC). While we’re still a long way out from implementation, one of our project’s foci is to allow users to not only view the content we have curated, but also add their story to the mix.
This approach builds engagement in two ways. Directly, it allows stories relevant to the discussion to be voiced, freed from the limitations of production and budget, and enabled by the iterative nature of the web. The citizen in Chicago who sees the film or experiences our interactive video player can express issues he or she faces in Chicago, which other Chicagoans could then view (and possibly contribute to also). Indirectly, by providing agency to the viewer to participate in the storytelling process, they are inevitably invested in it. After all, if they’re taking the effort to link to issues about urban housing in their area, they must not see this effort as a waste of time. And if the social web has taught us anything, it’s that people like to share what they’re doing. A lot. These individuals then not only become contributors, but remote advocates.
Two challenges arise when considering this approach. The first is initial user engagement. While we all have experience producing the kind of media we hope to curate, visitors “out there” may not. Making the process of adding content as painless as possible, therefore, is essential, as too much frustration will prevent one from giving content.
The second challenge is story dilution. Web projects are great at many things, but when it comes to video, they are not yet able to scan context. Someone who contribues, therefore, could upload a story about urban housing just as easily as they could Nyan Cat (a recent meme). Preventing this problem seems simple: Editorial review.
On the other hand, what if Nyan Cat was posted as, say, commentary on urban consumerism and it’s isolation from mass food production? (okay, I tried.) My point is that one beautiful aspect of user-generated content is self-created context. ‘I’m adding this piece, because, for me, it’s relevant to the topic and might help others understand this complex issue as I see it.’ Trying to censor content that is too off-topic, besides being logistically difficult, runs the risk of convincing the users their contributions are only valid if they run with the opinion/focus of the main narrative.
What’s the solution? Well…we’re working on it. So far, however, we’ve been able to figure out one approach to storytelling that helps, and it relates to the framing of the original footage. Unlike a film, which argues, asks and answers it’s own questions, leaving a few for the audience to digest, web-native projects have the ability to be a “guide on the side.”
Think of your project like a classroom. When the teacher stands upfront, lecturing for an hour about a particular topic, some students may raise their hand and contribute, and some may only answer if called upon. The expectation is that, at best, their answer will lead to a point the instructor is making. At worst, it’s a fact-check with a clear right/wrong answer, which may be stressful to the student. Who wants to look foolish?
If, however, the teacher posits questions for discussion, and then allows the students to talk amongst themselves, they do. The topic may shift off-course from the questions originally asked, new questions may come up, but in either case, students who may not normally speak are contributing. The fear of being wrong isn’t as great. Further, the questions aren’t designed to have a right answer, but to encourage discussion.
We can create a similar atmosphere within our web-native projects. Consider the following approaches to your storytelling structure when creating a message that encourages UGC:
- Ask the question in one video, provide responses in another.
If the viewer wants to know what the experts think, they can click ahead and find out. If there’s a gap, however, it’s an opportunity for the viewer to provide their own input. This is a place where discussion could potentially grow.
- Emphasize participation in any way that makes sense.
As a viewer, I might not know how to cut a video, but I can write. If I’m allowed to comment on a video someone else posted, or some of the original content, I can still contribute to the discussion, even without a camera.
- Make it personal, so they can too.
One feature users at Land of Opportunity will have is the ability to display housing in their area. The vision at that moment is no longer about New Orleans; it’s about the city in which they live. It’s the subsidized housing complex they can see through their window. The sooner this context is provided, the better. After all, if an issue doesn’t seem to affect their world, what incentive do they have to care? Tools on the web (social media integration, discovering geographic coordinates) enable this dynamic process.
As media makers, we strive to raise awareness about an issue, and we may not always have the answer to a problem we are highlighting. However, we (hopefully) leave the audience talking about our work, and what our work explores. If we’re lucky, our call to action (if there is one) takes effect, and the audience engages with the topic further.
What we can’t do in a film, however, is ask the audience to share their opinion as part of the narrative. The “product” is finished. Online, however, the creative work can evolve, influenced not only by the original artist, but by others who feel they can offer deeper or clearer insight on the issue as it relates to their circumstance or area. In this way, web-native projects tackling a complex issue share a trait with the change they hope to affect: It takes a village.