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The New Digital Storytelling Series: Zeega

The first our series of interviews with digital storytellers, realized in collaboration with Filmmaker, here are the team behind the interactive storytelling platform Zeega. From the group’s mission statement:

Zeega is revolutionizing web publishing and interactive storytelling for a future beyond blogs. With Zeega, you can use any media in the cloud, transform the entire screen into your playground, and share your interactive creations with the world.

We’re living in a unique moment. More media than ever is recorded and shared. But the web today is dominated by a few platforms – all stories start to feel the same, trapped in rigid boxes and long lists. Zeega is ushering in an era when the web truly becomes an interactive, audiovisual medium made by everyone.

For an introduction to this entire series, read “Should Filmmakers Learn to Code,” by MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Sarah Wolozin.

Zeega was founded by James Burns, Kara Oehler and Jesse Shapins. These questions were answered by the three of us together, with a few moments where we speak more individually.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How did you become a digital storyteller? Were there any projects that inspired you? If not, where did you look for inspiration?

Shapins: I grew up taking photographs with an OM1 camera and my parents were designers. They had the first Apple computers in their office, along with a scanner. Probably my first foray into digital storytelling was in 8th grade when James Burns (co-founder of Zeega) and I made an alternative zine for our middle school, scanning in lots of old images and doing crazy page layouts in Quark Express. That first experiment got us in trouble, as we learned quickly that it was illegal at the time to distribute independent media on the campuses of Boulder Valley Public Schools. We were suspended. (At a similar time across the country in Carmel, Indiana, Kara made a zine that also got her suspended!) So, the three of us have lots of bonds, but from an early age we all loved messing around making stuff and experimenting with alternative forms of publishing.

The first time I made something online was in 1999. I had continued my exploration of photography and was now focused on uncovering faces and textures on city streets, primarily in New York and Berlin. A close friend, Lyndon Kennedy, had been doing web stuff since high school, and he showed me the ropes of basic HTML to make a gallery page for his online venue, The Pulsate Organization. I loved the agency I felt making the web for myself — I was able to totally invent my own environment and put it out into the world without going through all of the classic gatekeepers. The site Textures of Landscapes is still up.

The first interactive work that really blew my mind was ABCDF: The Graphic Dictionary of Mexico City. It’s a wild, massive, wonderful multi-platform work that is based on the simple premise of using the structure of a dictionary to collectively define the experience of living in Mexico City. The project consists of a giant, beautiful book that can browsed alphabetically — words are defined by by ordinary citizens and renowned artists via images, graphics and text. All credits are in the back, so while browsing, the hierarchy is flattened. There is also a CD-Rom. One can navigate by word, or — and this is what I really loved — by exploring the images. When you roll over images, words appear that are related to the image. Say you are looking at the definition of Cathedral, a historic image that also includes two men playing chess in the foreground. You rollover the chess table and you see the word for “chess” and you are now viewing the media definition of that term. Exploring the CD-Rom, I became totally enraptured moving from one definition to the next, traversing images, audio, video and text. It felt like I was walking in a city — I had choices, but not too many, and it was all high-quality, fascinating material.

ABCDF directly inspired my first major work of media art. After college, I moved to Berlin and started working with James and two local architects. We wanted to do something like ABCDF, but for Berlin. Instead of a dictionary, the organizing structure we came up with was an adaptation of the Pantone color fan (i.e. those fun wheels of paint chips/colors). If the core unit of ABCDF was the definition of a word, the core unit for us was a color card, which consisted of a photograph, two colors that were found in the image, a short quotation and a map. We first put together an exhibition of the project in our storefront gallery, focusing just on the local neighborhood of Wedding, and then expanded to the full city, culminating in a final exhibition of over 900 photographs and a print catalogue (which is still available on Amazon).

Fundamentally, an exhibition and a book are interactive forms of storytelling. In an exhibition, you can’t fully control what order a visitor will view the materials, and the same can be said of a book, especially ones like ABCDF or The Colors of Berlin that clearly don’t have to be read sequentially. While producing the project, I became interested in how digital technology could also facilitate alternative modes of navigating the collection. I built a super rough website that let viewers move between images according to similar colors or tags. While I was testing this idea, I remained in close contact with two of my best friends from college, Christopher Allen and Brian House. At the time, Brian, who studied computer science and religion in college, was in Sweden, doing an MFA in media arts. When he visited Berlin, I showed him my strange prototype site. He was working at the time with mobile phones, thinking about how these nascent technologies might change the experience of our environments. He suggested an approach to the colors project that would take the material into the streets through mobile devices. Christopher, meanwhile, was still in New York and had started working with avant-garde theater director Michael Counts on a crazy concept for a theatrical show that would unfold on the streets of the city, actors intermingling with ordinary pedestrians, all viewed by passersbys traveling in a custom bus outfitted by speakers that provided audio access to the performers outside. One idea Christopher and Michael had was to use the symbol of a yellow arrow to point out which people were the actors and then to give the audience stickers in the shape of yellow arrows at the end.

I moved back to New York to start working with Christopher and Michael, and together with Brian, we all imagined what became Yellow Arrow, one of the first interactive storytelling projects that allowed anyone to connect narratives to physical space through mobile devices. Instead of just simple yellow arrow stickers, we transformed the concept into its own independent media art project, where anybody could get stickers online that had unique codes on them and a telephone number. When you placed the sticker somewhere in the world, you could text a short story about the location to the number, and then when someone else saw the sticker, they could text to get your original message. We built an online community where people then shared photos and maps of their arrows.

So, as you can see, one thing about my background is that I’m not a “storyteller” by training. My main interest has been how to combine large collections of media with interesting, immersive pathways. These pathways might be narrative stories, or they might be more associative explorations a la ABCDF or The Colors of Berlin. I love stories, but I wouldn’t pretend it’s my speciality. It is Kara’s magic. She has a truly unique skill in carefully editing a narrative. And James’s background in symbolic systems adds another, perfect dimension of structural creativity.

Oehler: Besides making zines, I worked at my high school radio station. I’ve always loved storytelling and sound. In 1999, I started working at KNAU, the local public radio station in Flagstaff, Arizona. My documentary work focuses upon the overlooked stories of everyday America, from the Mexican border to the South Side of Chicago, from people’s memories of their first childhood songs to the experiences of refugees across the nation. I am fascinated by media’s capacity to approximate the senses of what it is like for other people to be in the world – to transform one perceptual space into another. It is within this space that we may more fully understand outside perspectives and experiences. I’ve made aesthetically experimental audio and interactive documentaries to engage and re-familiarize people with everyday stories and pressing issues, striving to keep much of their uncertainty, cruelty, sparseness, whimsy and clatter intact. And primarily, I’ve done this through the medium of sound.

I believe sound is a uniquely absorptive, reflective and intimate medium – one which requires the listener to draw on his or her own memories or experiences to provide a subjective backdrop for a stranger’s story. The explicit lack of the visual, a dominant mode of contemporary experience, invigorates imagination and fosters surprising, immersive sensory experiences. And so what I’ve loved about working in interactive is to explore how one you bring those characteristics to a screen.

Jesse and I first started working together on Yellow Arrow. I had recently done an interview with Ian Svenonius in DC, and when I was traveling with him around the city, he kept pointing out places tied to DC’s music history. I proposed creating a multiplatform documentary tour which turned into Capitol of Punk, which consists of a full-length documentary film broken into 10 segments that can be navigated on a map-based website. The scripts were also translated into sequences of text messages that would guide you through the actual locations in DC.

Burns: The first time the three of us worked together was in 2009 on Mapping Main Street, a collaborative documentary co-created with Ann Heppermann that aims to record stories about every street literally named Main Street in the United States. There are a little over 10,466. While very different than Zeega, I think you can see the inklings of Zeega’s core vision in the project. Similar to each of our past projects, Mapping Main Street is driven by a core structural system (i.e. the finite number of all streets named Main) which becomes generative.

To start the project, we lived out of a car for the summer, traversing the US, recording stories on Main Streets. It was an incredible way to travel. Instead of stopping at major locations, we created a basic mobile app that let us know where the closest Main Street was to us at any time. We would constantly pull over and explore. We all fell in love with how this basic constraint became so generative.

In terms of interactive, Mapping Main Street contains some of the main core principles that inform Zeega. Media is brought together from many sources online into a single, immersive media player. Instead of giving people tons of choices, users can simply lean back and click occasionally to personalize their experience. Long-form narratives are interwoven with shorter media experiences. But the one major thing we missed in creating the project was the ability to edit it easily ourselves without coding. And we kept meeting people that also wanted to create interactive stories without having to program. Ultimately, Zeega is more focused upon authoring narratives than the tag and map-based modes of navigation that drive Mapping Main Street.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What are the most useful skills for an interactive storyteller? What are the tools of the trade?

Zeega: The most useful skills are very similar to any storyteller — the ability to pull out the most salient, gripping and relevant moments of a story and translate them into a narrative that draws in audiences.

If you’re telling an interactive story, you have to think about narrative in a completely different way. Just like telling a story for radio is totally different than telling a story for television. Interactivity becomes part of the narrative – it’s another sense that you can use and engage while telling a story – the challenge is to see that as a narrative device, rather than something that is extra/added on later. Storytellers need to approach interaction just like they approach an edit – it’s another part of telling the story.

Unlike cinema, audiences can’t just wander in their heads while viewing, they will be using devices that are built to enable them to choose what they want to be doing and seeing at any given moment of time. This means you have to create works that build in moments of interactivity, while also sustaining a narrative. It’s a tricky challenge! The best skills we’ve seen are the ability to think in a much more modular fashion than classic cinema. Storytelling approaches that are made up of smaller chunks work much better. Reinvention Stories, our recent collaboration with Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, is a great example, where the main filmic section is comprised of short character profiles.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: When you start an interactive project, how do you put together a team?

Zeega: We’ve had the good fortune of always working with close friends. And most frequently in configurations of around 3 core people. There has always been someone who creatively codes; someone who obsesses over design and organizing the team; and someone who focuses on the nuances of the project’s narrative. In every project w’ve worked on, everyone has shared a strong passion in identifying who the main audience and community is. In general, there is always a lot of intermingling.

For a single project, we’d say that it’s rare you need many more than 3 people. You might need a few specialists at times (e.g. videographer, motion graphics, etc.), but we think a core team of 3 (or smaller) is solid. Of course, if the storytelling project is a platform itself (like Zeega), then a larger team is essential as the platform scales.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: Where is this community and how can people access it?

Zeega: The community seems to be rapidly growing, which is fantastic. In the United States, the Tribeca Film Institute is a major leader, as their New Media Fund is the major entity actively funding and supporting filmmakers making interactive projects. We have been working for years with the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), who have been real pioneers in supporting independent storytellers in creating interactive works in partnership with local public media stations. AIR primarily supports radio, but also some filmmakers. Outside of the US, probably the most impressive collection of interactive storytelling projects is the National Film Board of Canada, who have far outstripped others in cultivating the genre. In Europe, the IDFA DocLab has become the regular showcase and only real awards ceremony for the format. Journalism, in general, is probably the most expansive domain. The New York Times is a clear leader, with their own interactive news division. The Knight Foundation and Mozilla have also been fostering a terrific community — it’s great to follow dialogues on code/journalism via Source. And then there are elements of the media arts community that are very relevant. This is the domain which probably best-describes Jonathan Harris, creator of Cowbird and so many extraordinary projects previously, though it’s also impossible to classify his work. The advertising community has actually been engaged in interactive storytelling for a long, long time. They’ve had the budgets to really develop custom experiences that tell the stories of their brands. Very different, but a great place for inspiration on UX and how to effectively design/structure experiences for large audiences.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How does the role of a director change? What are the creative challenges?

Zeega: The role of the director and the creative challenges really depend on the nature of the project. In particular, there is a huge difference if you want to make an open, participatory work like Mapping Main Street or if you want to create a beautiful, one-time interactive narrative a la Welcome to Pinepoint.

Designing for participation is a very distinct challenge. It requires inventing a meaningful narrative framework. People’s contributions have to fit into a system and they have been inspired to invest their time in contributing. And if you create an open project, the interface challenges are different. There is the potential for collections of data, so there might need to be search or mechanisms to filter. But what should be searched? And how should results be displayed?

In terms of interactive narrative, the creative challenges really boil down to how much choice will you give viewers in skipping ahead in a story, what choices to offer that would enrich the story, and the pacing/visibility of these choices.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How does the role of the audience change?

Zeega: Fundamentally, the audience now controls the experience. But it’s crucial to remember that this control takes place within the parameters you set up (e.g. whether a viewer can skip ahead in a video is your choice as a maker). Of course, audiences have always had agency, from being able to walk out of a theater to channel-surfing on TV. But the medium of the web is defined people’s expectations that they can interact and guide their experience in some way. Some of the best interactive storytelling projects simply focus on making slight tweaks to how a viewer interacts with a story. Alma is a great example, where a linear story unfolds, but the viewer can choose to swipe up or down on their own to look away from the main character and gain a different perspective.

Another exciting opportunity of interactive storytelling is the potential to directly invite audience participation that re-shapes the content of a project. We’ve loved exploring this genre, from projects like Yellow Arrow to Mapping Main Street to Austin Music Map to Planet Takeout. The key ingredient for this genre is being able to design a meaningful narrative framework. Simply asking for a story is not enough. When you create a larger meaningful framework, people aspire to contribute to it. Far too often people simply invite generic story submissions and then no one contributes. We’ve seen audiences respond to participatory storytelling when their contribution is one facet of a common topic (e.g. Main Street), part of a major event (e.g. Jigar Mehta and Jasmin Elayat’s 18 Days in Egypt) or a topic tied to a place (e.g. music in Austin). Unlike simply focusing on modifying the format of interaction, in the end, projects that invite audience participation through direct content contribution really are about building a community.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your level of understanding of coding or programming? Do you see the relationship of director and creative technologist as analogous to director and cinematographer? (Why or why not?)

Zeega: We are strong believers that you don’t have to learn to code to create great interactive work. But you do need to learn to think programatically and to understand how web applications work. We are all able to conceptually understand most programming concepts, from the basic notion of variables to algorithms. And each of us has a good grasp of all of the components that go into web-based work, from servers to databases to APIs to front-end applications.

You can’t generalize the relationship of directors to cinematographers, and nor can you generalize interactive directors to creative technologists. It varies person-to-person, project-to-project.

Shapins: I’ve never had a hierarchical relationship with a creative technologist. I love the creative exchange with programmatic minds, and I find that setting up a dynamic where one person feels more responsible for “production” is not always good. It’s better for everyone to feel mutual investment in the project’s functionality, not just the team coding. Some interactive directors are much more directorial, and that’s fine, but it’s not my style. Frankly, we don’t even use the word director.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How do you find funding for digital interactive storytelling projects?

Zeega: It’s not worth putting rosy gloss on this — funding for interactive storytelling is hard. It’s expensive to do good work, and there are very limited funding bodies. Tribeca is the only entity that gives major grants. Other foundations might support interactive elements, but the primary pitch for them has to be a traditional work to which interactive is a nice-to-have. This dynamic changes the nature of the project, as it’s much harder to start from a place that is truly digital-first. The Association of Independents in Radio has lead some fantastic granting programs, too, and these not only available to people in radio. Honestly, the best vehicle is probably crowdfunding. Through Zeega, we’re hoping to develop a mechanism down the line that lets creators receive “tips” for their interactive stories, in the same way that Vimeo now has a tip jar.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your idea of the new model of distribution?

Zeega: Frankly, we think this is one of the genre’s most pressing hurdles. On a technical level, most of these projects only work in desktop browsers, and desktop browsers have already lost prominence to mobile. And interactive storytelling on mobile is at all the same. Basically, we’re at a vital moment when we’ll start to see two clear directions ultimately emerge. In our mind, the question of how to combine long-form, high-quality cinematic work with interactivity is really a question about the future of television. It’s a question that Netflix is tackling. Mobile, on the other hand, is about shorter, social and personal stories that don’t rely on high bandwidth.

We’re really excited about the prospects for theatrical distribution of interactive works. We love events where a maker presents projects live with an audience. The format is much closer to live storytelling events like The Moth than to cinema. We’ll see this take off.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: What’s your vision for how to exhibit interactive projects?

Zeega: Live events. We love live events when projects are presented. We don’t like lounges where there are monitors everywhere.

MIT Open Documentary Lab: How do you envision the future of the field of web/interactive storytelling? Where do you see the field going?

Zeega: This is a hard question to answer dispassionately. From our perspective at Zeega, we’re optimistic that we’ll make it possible for the first time ever for millions of people to easily create their own interactive stories. We believe that people want more agency over how the Internet looks and feels – to not have their stories only confined to the clean, cold boxes of a Facebook or Pinterest. In this future, there is no one way to tell a story. There will be filmmakers making long-form, long-term interactive works; reporters creating enhanced multimedia narratives; citizens advancing political narratives on new terms; and others simply sharing personal stories with their friends and family about their lives, from annual scrapbooks to weddings to daily rituals.

Many of the traditional funders of documentary such as the major foundations will get behind interactive once they see more quality examples and the costs of production get smaller. We don’t think traditional filmmaking, TV or theatrical distribution will disappear by any means. But we do think more and more makers will gravitate to interactive because the creative challenges are fascinating and it offers very distinct modes of engagement.


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