Exploring Hollow, Elaine McMillion-Sheldon’s award-winning interactive documentary about post-industrial rural America, you come across Markella Gianato, in her Ya‘sou Restaurant in Kimball, West Virginia. On a family photo behind her is a graphic depicting a fastened lock and a message to watch Markella’s story to see more. Unlocking content as a reward for successful play is a familiar engagement tactic in games. In the context of the excess of free content online, holding back material is sometimes a promotional ploy; but what does such a device represent within a documentary experience?
Hollow is a project which emerged from a process of dialogue and workshopping with people in McDowell County, West Virginia – a county formally designated as dying. The community suggested stories about the past, present and future of the area in contrast to the relentless stories of poverty and drug abuse which characterised local media coverage. McMillion-Sheldon hoped that Hollow might be, “a project that wouldn’t just document, but maybe inspire people to get involved” – a work of capacity building as much as one of representation.
While the use of media for development is not new – going back to the Fogo Process devised in Canada in the mid 1960s - Hollow is one of a number of web documentary initiatives that show how this project is being reimagined through interactivity. The creators of Quipu are devising a system which combines analogue and digital technology to allow Peruvian women in remote areas who suffered forced sterilization in the 1990s to use a phone to record their testimonies, to hear the stories of other women for the first time and to be alerted when someone hears their story online. The creators of these projects are not just collaborating with their subjects, they are moving beyond participation towards participatory design - devising media interactions in which documentary storytelling serves community interests.
People in McDowell Country didn’t open up to McMillion-Sheldon as soon as she met them; that took time and trust. The lock device simulates that process of getting acquainted, with the user unable to access Markella’s precious family photos until they have committed the time to understand her family’s story.
In these examples we can see how documentary can use the potential of interactivity to negotiate the attention economy of the web, engaging with a global audience with attention to local participants and concerns.
the meaning of the bonus
I agree with you Mandy, but it would be interesting to know how unlocking extra content about Markella "feels" to the users. Do they perceive it as a "bonus"? Do they feel closer to her? Do they even notice that they have unlocked some extra content? While in games unlocking content is interpreted by the gamer as a sign of his own skills (there is self-gratification in "winning", and maybe in being better than the other players) I believe that interactive documentaries offer such a different context that it is difficult to predict its effect. One would want to think that the user might feel closer, or more acquainted, to the subject - and this might well be the intention of the author - but this is still to be proven... If in games bonus equal reward, in documentary extra content might just mean "next episode", or "agency" to direct your glance to one specific person. So it might be that the extra photos of Markella are not perceived as closeness to the subject but rather as agency of the user to ponder around and select what interests him. Interactive documentaries are normally not reinforcing the skills of their users but rather their freedom to glance, and maybe to participate. It is "what you can do" that gives meaning to both the interface and content because it places the user within a space that has been created online and asks him to decide what to do next. In this context, what does it mean to "choose" to see more photos?
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