Outside the Frame: OnBeing – A Multimedia Documentary Case Study

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

After reading my previous column, someone asked me why OnBeing, the washingtpost.com interactive project, meets my criteria for being more than “video plopped on a webpage.” It’s a fair question: after all, the series is comprised of a collection of video clips embedded within Web pages.

The question made me think more about how I evaluate multimedia storytelling. In thinking through the answers, I clarified — to myself and now to you — what works for me, and what doesn’t. I hope the examples below give you a more concrete idea of examples of good multimedia storytelling/visual journalism. As always, let me know if you agree or disagree, and what other criteria you use when looking at websites.

So am I a hypocrite for lauding OnBeing? Well, the answer is: yes and no. “Yes” if we’re looking at the surface of things, but “no,” if we look at the details of OnBeing’s design. To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at an example of what, in my mind, constitutes video “plopped” on a Web page, from Discovery’s Pompeii website:

Screenshot from Discovery's Pompeii website

In this example, you have a standard website design: title graphic at the top, navigation links down the left, and in the body of the page, a video player. The video is well done (and, it seems, produced expressly for the Web) and a nice complement to other content on the site, but the site expresses itself as a collection of related elements instead of a unified narrative. Nothing in the design knits the video into a larger experience — one that would engage the user on a deeper level and leave a more lasting impression. (Imagine your favorite documentary expressed in this fashion.)

For contrast, here is OnBeing:
Screenshot from washintonpost.com's interactive feature, OnBeing

Here, each video is part of a carousel-style design that implies the interconnectivity of the stories while allowing the user to dive directly into stories of primary interest. Mousing over one of the thumbnails plays a short clip that introduces the voice of the video’s subject. The site’s interface weaves the video together with simple, clear introductory text and user comments to tell a story that strikes a balance between director-driven — the contents of each video have been carefully edited; and user-driven — I can select which videos to watch, in a manner that does not remove me from the storytelling environment. In the end, OnBeing seamlessly blends the perspectives of the subjects and the end user.

The content of each video itself also feels like it was conceptualized for the Web: it’s short, intimate, fast-paced and well suited to both the user’s proximity to the content (close to the screen, not across the room on a couch) and the typical online attention span.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is the be-all, end-all of multimedia documentary storytelling. I just hold it up as an example of a site that, I think, is testing the boundaries of online storytelling instead of simply creating a video and making it available online.

This week, I started following Tom Kennedy (who I mentioned last week) on Twitter, where he commented:
“Visual journalism is as important to handling the data glut and information noise as text. Both need to survive media co. failures.”

The man speaks truth. There is an urgent need for visual journalism, and in my mind, the best visual journalism is that which is not only compelling, but also relevant, in that it meets people where they are — and people, today, and into the future, are online.

Next week, award-winning multimedia producer and senior director of PBS Interactive Angela Morgenstern will weigh in with her perspectives on the state of documentary storytelling online. Stay tuned.

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

    FOREIGNID: 18232
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I don’t know, I think you need more examples. I get what you are saying about incorporating interaction through technology, but just adding comments to the national geographic might cover some of you onbeing example.
    Its also worth mentioning that some video posted online has the goal of making watch at home, thats how I see most TV posted online in itunes.
    Are you looking for something like Lost where the incorporate different media from outside the show?

  • http://www.amandahirsch.com Amanda

    FOREIGNID: 18233
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Rugg – I think it’s not just about interaction for interaction’s sake, it’s about design and intention… are you trying to tell a story, or are you trying to provide a collection of content on a particular topic? Adding comments to the Discovery example would be (to me) just another feature in a group of features — all of which let you learn something, but the elements don’t, in my mind, comprise a narrative. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe on the web, each section of a site is like a chapter of a story that you explore at your own pace. I just think OnBeing shows more artistry – but maybe narrative is in the eye of the beholder, and this is destined to be a purely subjective discussion….

  • rugg

    FOREIGNID: 18234
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I gotcha. I don’t get off topic, but I feel that this is a strong example of the modern web. You can do so much with features and technology, but how do you pull it all together to communicate your purpose? Otherwise, as you said you just end up tacking on features.