It has been a fascinating 12 months working on the Pararchive project so far. Working with our community groups in Stoke, Bute and Manchester, and co-designing a digital service that will suit their needs, has been a privilege – with the ultimate outcome being something that will allow people of varying technical competency to share stories online.
Much of our work so far has involved learning about the heritage of each community, their particular cultural interests, and what drives people to dig into their past, as well as look to the future. We have built rough prototypes of a service that will allow people to create stories online, but also to interconnect them; to use storytelling as a provocation to find out more things, and fill gaps in people’s histories.
This is going well, and the latest prototype is being tested remotely by delegates right now.
So far, we have focused on making the creation of stories a clear and simple experience. How these stories may be consumed (read, reused, even remixed) has always been part of the discussion, but now we’re at a stage where we can really focus on the presentation of finished stories.
Something that crops up time and again, when it comes to digital narrative experiences, whether they be multimedia journalism pieces, video games, or whatever, is *immersion*. How can the advantages of digital storytelling be used to transport the viewer into the story, and not let go until they’ve got to the end?
We’ve seen some interesting developments over the last couple of years. NYT’s ‘Snowfall’ piece obviously pushed things forward, in showing people what could be done with a perfect storm (pardon the pun) of writing, art direction and technical prowess, and we’ve seen its influence on other things, such as Pitchfork’s occasional, and enjoyably flashy cover stories.
More specific online projects dedicated to telling the stories of individual people have emerged recently, too. The Uralla Story Project presents the oral histories of people from Uralla in New South Wales, whilst the recent UNHCR ‘Tracks’ project presents the devastating experiences of refugees.
These are all things we at Carbon have been examining as we consider the presentation of stories created through our prototype. We want to honour the time and dedication the community groups have donated, by creating something that presents their stories in as engaging and beautiful a way as possible. However, we are also pragmatic.
Tools of the trade
The aforementioned projects have a few things in common: professional writers, professional photography, art direction. People telling stories through our prototype will have none of those (unless they’re using professional photography that belongs to a partner institution). How can we help make stories ‘immersive’, when our users may well just have a few pictures of their grandfather’s war medals, taken using their phone?
I think an important place to start is by recognising that immersion is created by the story itself and not the by all the peripheral stuff. A good story is a good story, whether it’s told through cutting-edge interactive video, or written on a napkin. Sure, presentation can have a huge impact (just look at the heartbreaking photography that accompanies the UNHCR project), but it’s easy to be seduced by that stuff, and think that without, the stories will have less impact, or not feel as complete.
I never read Snowfall, but I have read well-curated collections of Tweets assembled in Storify, from beginning to end. That’s not to bash Snowfall; I admire that it showed the rest of us what lay at the edges of browser-based design. But it’s also important to remind ourselves that full-bleed photography or looping video is out of reach for normal people wishing to tell a story online, and those people shouldn’t feel like their stories are diminished by that.
So, that’s our challenge. Design a system that can present stories well, without the need for professionally-created assets. Medium does this through beautiful typography. Storify does this by inheriting the design of the services media is taken from. We will probably end up doing both of those things. Our benchmark will be whether our community delegates can feel proud of telling their stories with Pararchive.