Outside the Frame: MediaStorm and Online Storytelling

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame, published every other Wednesday.

“MediaStorm’s principal aim is to usher in the next generation of multimedia storytelling.” So announces the website for New York-based multimedia production company MediaStorm.

Sound ambitious? Just a bit. But when you’re winning Emmy and Webby Awards left and right, beating industry giants like NYTimes.com, National Geographic Online, and Current TV, people tend to take your ambitions seriously.

So what’s the secret to MediaStorm’s success? Some whiz-bang, high-tech, Web 2.0 approach to storytelling?

Brian Storm headshotHardly. Founder Brian Storm, a Corbis and MSNBC.com vet and Missouri School of Journalism grad, explained MediaStorm’s approach to me over email: “We look for stories that are in-depth and that speak to universal emotions that are shared by all of us — emotions that are deep in our DNA. We focus on stories that are timeless.”

Can I hear the people say “amen”?

Start with the story — it’s such a simple idea, and yet, one that’s easy to lose sight of in the rush to be cool and hip online. But MediaStorm, with its arresting photojournalism, accompanied by audio of the photographs’ subjects, is unquestionably cool — cooler than all the other sites where it seems as though most of the imagination went into the interface design, and the content was an afterthought. Storm agrees that interactive design can often get in the way of strong content. While he’s been involved in interactive development for over a decade, he ultimately finds that more often than not, asking users to navigate interactive interfaces disrupts the storytelling experience. “I’m a big believer in the merits of a director-driven narrative,” Storm explains. “I think that’s the way we tell each other stories — [we] have been for a long, long time and it simply works.”

Intended Consequences by Jonathan Torgovnik, MediaStorm

Director-driven narratives do work, and there is enormous narrative power in MediaStorm’s documentaries, from “Intended Consequences,” about the women victims of the Rwandan genocide, to “Common Ground,” which juxtaposes two Midwestern families — one that watches as their farm is replaced by cookie-cutter suburban houses, while the other creates a life together in one of those houses. These documentaries, though presented online, demand that you sit down, take your hand off the mouse and really watch them. I’ll confess I don’t watch much online (I’m old school that way — I associate “watching” with TV), but these pieces, and others in MediaStorm’s impressive archive, were completely absorbing. I also found them unusually intimate, perhaps because I was viewing such powerful images in very close proximity, just inches away on my laptop screen. Brian Storm, though, is quick to point out his team’s projects are “platform agnostic.” He says, “We feel that compelling stories will work at [a distance of] one foot on the intimate mobile experience, at two feet on the web and at eight feet from the couch equally well.”

And here we land at that one area where I feel MediaStorm’s approach falls short. In my mind, to see the Web as just a distribution outlet is to miss out on tremendous storytelling opportunities. While director-driven narrative may be innate, I think the Web is also teasing other storytelling approaches out of human nature, including a kind of bottom-up storytelling where no one person is steering the narrative. In this kind of storytelling, images and ideas come together to tell the story of an event; for example, the story of celebrations in the streets nationwide on election night is told through countless photos from flickr, thousands of blog entries and the constant updates that crashed the Twitter server last Tuesday night.

If MediaStorm really aspires to “usher in a new generation of multimedia storytelling,” doesn’t it need to more actively explore the Web’s potential as a storytelling medium?

Storm punts a bit on this question. “There’s no one solution on the web,” he says. “We all own a printing press now, so for sure, you will see a variety of approaches, some new, some old, some good, some bad, play out in this space.”

What do you think? What constitutes good online storytelling? What are the best examples you’ve seen?

If the idea of online storytelling is brand new to you, here are links to some individuals and groups dedicated to the craft:

· J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism
· The Online News Association’s Interactive Narratives website
· Teaching Online Journalism by Mindy McAdams

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • Jerry

    FOREIGNID: 17858
    The crash of Twitter is not the “story,” unless you tell it. The fact that something happened is not a story unless one creates it. The difference between what Media Storm is doing and the Twit crash or the flickr pics is that someone actually made a story. There is no director inherently in the story of the Twitter crash: it’s just a litany of entries. If you then took that happening and made something out of it you’d have a “story.” It’s not enough to record something to make it art. Otherwise, a surveillance camera log would be a “documentary.” A weather report would be a story–some will argue this point. What’s interesting about your blog is that it begs the emerging question of what constitutes art in this 2.0 world. Remember: blogging is to literacy as Facebook is to f—ing.
    This comment has been edited by the moderator for profanity.

  • http://www.creativedc.org Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 17859
    Jerry, you lost me with your last sentence! The comparison isn’t clear to me.
    Last sentence aside:I think many will agree with your perspective, but I’m not sure I do. Can’t the act of viewing/consuming information and images be the act of narrative creation? To be more concrete: I create a narrative of election night through the Twitters, Flickr images and other media I consume. Not to mention, all the people who publish their own election media are telling the story of that event, and if they make their media available under a certain license, they’re opening up their story for re-telling.
    I’ve been reading obituaries for Studs Terkel and love how he treated everyone’s story as important, and let people tell their stories in their own words. That’s not to say there isn’t room for professional storytelling but it is to say that in this day and age, you can’t be part of the vanguard of storytelling online if you aren’t leveraging the web’s bottom-up capabilities.

  • http://www.chrisphoto.com chris sinclair

    FOREIGNID: 17860
    I work with folks who are driven by this mantra: Inspire, Inform, Entrust. In that order. First you have to inspire people, you have to get their attention. It’s the initial reaction. Having a slick website might tell you that the content is amazing too. Like the Pangea Day website. But then the content quickly takes over and it’s a first-person telling. A singular voice. Moving on, once someone is inspired, you begin to inform them. This can be done through “narrative”, though not exclusively through a first-person telling of a story, but created through many veins of an inter “active” experience. But where I think your side and the side of Storm’s finds tension with each other is in: what do people actually do after they’ve consumed some content? You have to then Entrust your story to the viewer, to let them glean meaning and significance. If it hits home with them, they’ll retell their own version of it in words to a friend (whether oral telling or via twitter), or input their piece of the grand pie like one in hundreds of blog post comments. The Entrust phase is where I think it goes out of the bounds of “story” definition and becomes more of a non-linear narrative. But your post really helps make a strong point, that it’s a constant balancing act between design/interactive and the actual content and story you have to tell. The breadth of thought between these two is usually too far for most to accomplish well, yes. But at the end of the day, I will tell my friends about the midwestern families or the women struggling to raise kids with AIDS. Story and Timelessness go hand in hand, and that can’t be underestimated in the changing tide of the media landscape.
    Here’s another blog post on the issue of “story” recently: http://mindymcadams.com/tojou/2008/telling-stories-online-do-you/

  • Jerry

    FOREIGNID: 17861
    Chris’s post was more concise than mine–and good links.
    No, it’s not a “narrative” when you consume data. If you ingest it and then spit something out, then it’s a narrative. Data collection is not story, it’s data collection. Story is the next natural progression, but unless there is an act of creation, it’s just consumption–mass media consumption. And now, it comes in many more delightful packages.
    Studs was the best, and I think he would say, “where’s the story?” He’d love to hear it, but he’d want to see more than a laundry list.

  • http://www.creativedc.org Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 17862
    Good points, both of you. I guess what I’m getting at is the erosion of a distinction between those who tell stories and those who consume or “view” stories. Again, I have great admiration (and gratitude, really) for what MediaStorm is doing; I just don’t think you can aspire to be at the vanguard of storytelling in 2008 without exploring ways that the nature of the web influences the nature of storytelling. To use the web solely as a distribution platform feels very old-fashioned to me.
    On a related note, a friend just sent me this link to a NYTimes article about an MIT institute being formed re: the future of storytelling:

  • Jerry

    FOREIGNID: 17863
    That’s a very interesting link. Seems to support my fear that technology doesn’t inherently contribute to storytelling, that it may indeed disintegrate storytelling.
    I’d like to think the MediaStorm folks explored how to use the web’s platforms and then cogently went with the form they chose, a more traditional route. Does every story need to be interactive? Does every story need a blog, vlog, mobisode, a running tweet? If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no RSS feed…you get the idea. It leads to bigger questions of how we document our day to day lives.
    Thanks for directing me to the MIT link.