Digital Storytelling at SXSW 2014: Less tech, more emotion

The interactive component of 2014’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival featured a lot of conferences on transmedia and digital storytelling. The major trend that is emerging is that it’s time to put web creation back in touch with the human side.

Simplicity: With the interface, the interaction offered to the user, even the end of “transmedia” as an inherently complex and multiplatform object.

Emotion: The sensation felt in confronting a web object—regardless of what it is called—and thus, in a way, acknowledgement that that object is a work in itself; the emotional criterion becoming a datum that is capable of having meaning when a project’s reception is analyzed.

“Slow media”: short format, simplicity, resonance

In recent months, the digital storytelling landscape has tended to constellate around “streamlined” projects: fewer platforms, fewer layers of interactivity, less scattered content. This is clear simply from reading the SXSW program of narrative project presentations: webseries, short doc formats (Op-Docs, streamed on the New York Times website), a Twitter timeline with a feature (Frank). Careful, though: simple does not mean simplistic!

The trend is not solely for digital storytelling; there is talk of a slowdown—not recessionary, but voluntary—in the media sector in general. In contrast with the consumerism and zapping of modern times, “slow media” makes it possible to deliver a “total” experience.

During SXSW, at a round table on new forms of narration, producer Ted Hope remarked: “It’s hard to find 90 minutes now. [...] Think about 30-minute experiences.”

History before form

Another of Ted Hope’s observations (which you can read in his blog) “Technology Not Required,” echoes Mike Knowlton’s, who believes the interface has to be transparent: “The best UI is one you’re not aware of.” The Goggles’ two members, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, share this conclusion: “Technology has to go away, story has to come up, and people will be committed.”

For them, it is a matter of taking “traditional narration” into new territory, rather than continuously coming up with new forms. One of their upcoming projects, Touch, selected last year by the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, will evoke (with some irony) the death of paper through a digital application. In this blog, Tishna Molla has already mentioned the project on the future of traditional publishing.

It can’t be said enough, but all of the creators encountered in Austin are formal: interactivity and the interface must be tailored to the project’s content, to the story told.

Similarly, Yoni Bloch, a musician and founder of the Israeli organization Interludedeclared in his presentation: “Storytelling is always a chase between form and content.” Yoni Bloch created the interactive clip of Bob Dylan’s signature song Like a Rolling Stone; according to Bloch, the content itself has not evolved and it’s up to today’s creators to push the boundaries in exploring options and new mechanisms for telling a story.

“Interactivity is not a genre, but rather an ingredient.”

Michel Reilhac gives us a salutary reminder: multimedia and interactivity cannot be considered ends in themselves. Rather, they offer a way of telling the story we want to tell in the aptest and most moving way possible.

Selecting interactivity is not a default choice, nor is the easiest one to make. Even more so than with the linear media, already sorely tried, the Web’s biggest challenge is to make content less disposable in the soup of the billions of bits of content available on line.

Caspar Sonnen, founder of IDFA’s Doc Lab, goes further still. In the preamble to his review of the projects he took to Amsterdam, he noted that “the internet is not just another TV pipe.”

Web writing must be radically different from other kinds of writing. It can be formatted, as long as it creates its own formats rather than aping those of other media. Just as a TV show is 26 or 52 minutes long, a tweet must be under 140 characters, while a Vine video is up to 6 seconds long.

According to Caspar Sonnen, immersion and embodiment are other territories to explore: for example, the intensity of the experience provided by Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets—a technology that is at its beginnings—and the physicalization of the growing body of data we leave behind us. Such “digital footprints” are the subject of many artistic projects, like Miranda July’s We think alone, in which the filmmaker gathered emails from public figures and, week after week, forwarded themed compilations to the inboxes of registered users.

Intensifying the experience, making it singular and unique, is doubtless the best way to stand out in a ferociously competitive and nearly boundless context. That’s what the latest technology featured at SXSW tells us: it is, now and always, still a matter of offering audiences a way to make their day richer, whether with Google glasses, or a work of art.

Oriane Hurard
Oriane Hurard is a producer with Les Produits Frais as well as a festival programmer for new storytelling formats (transmedia, webseries, VR) and a new media and community management instructor.
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