How can media makers and funders gauge the success of their projects when communications tools and platforms won’t remain stable long enough for them to establish reliable standards?
This is the question I hope to grapple with this spring in my research for the Media Impact Project. This inquiry will build on my past decade of work documenting continual disruption in the industries for news and documentary, and the struggles of media makers to not only invent new forms of digital and mobile public interest media, but to account for the outcomes of such projects.
The first challenge for those building media projects on new platforms is the loss of reliable benchmarks. Trusted legacy media measurement systems such as those built by Arbitron and Nielsen have become less relevant and comprehensive in an era of streaming media and mobile apps. To some extent, these have been supplanted or supplemented by a new generation of analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, Chartbeat, Alexa, or vendor-specific rankings such as iTunes Charts. However, these measurements have not been standardized across the journalism or documentary industries, and both investors and producers are spending much time and energy developing ways to sift and interpret the myriad streams of data.
Beyond the metrics, however, lies an even thornier set of questions. How are audiences — now empowered by countless opportunities for both participation and creation in media — absorbing, sharing, and acting upon reporting and narratives? A cottage industry has sprung up to define and measure such contested interactions as “engagement,” and “influence.” In what ways do these dynamics morph across platforms, or within particular platforms? How can makers find rigorous ways to document and parse user behaviors vis-à-vis experimental content forms?
Again, over the past few years, tools and methods have been developed for makers and funders to address these questions. Various producer communities have also banded together to contemplate their own impact issues, generating resources such as Impact with Games: A Fragmented Field, and BRITDOC’s Impact Field Guide and Toolkit. However, none of these tools or approaches explicitly address experimental approaches to media behavior. And now, there’s a new array of media interfaces looming on the horizon, threatening to disrupt matters even further.
The revenge of analog
In seeking to understand the next phase of interactive storytelling, I’ve coined the phrase “the revenge of analog.” This refers to a loosely connected set of practices and inventions marked by a new relationship between the physical and the digital. Over the past three years, I’ve been gathering examples, and have posted some of the most intriguing of them on a Tumblr blog, the Revenge of Analog. I’ll continue to update this, and to post related examinations on my discoveries to the Media Impact Project site.
By examining this emergent field, I hope to understand the ways in which evaluation practices designed for experimental interventions in volatile environments can be applied to assessing media impact. Chief among these is the “developmental evaluation” approach, designed by Michael Quinn Patton to support the process of social innovations. In this approach, the evaluator is positioned as part of a team that is conceptualizing, designing and testing new approaches, bringing rigor to the process by applying evaluative tools and methods. Other approaches, such as appreciative inquiry, outcome harvesting, and design thinking may also prove useful for assessing previously untested media forms. Key to all of these approaches is the link between collecting data to help media makers make editorial and business decisions, and collecting data for the purposes of “evaluation.” Aligning research with outcomes will be a central focus of my inquiry.
Projects that demonstrate the “revenge of analog” concept are neither strictly digital nor tangible. They combine the physical and the digital in unexpected ways, generating what I’ve dubbed “cusp interfaces” for users to interact with. While a new wave of increasingly accessible virtual reality projects aim to use digital tools to recreate physical experiences, cusp interfaces bring content back out from the cloud, making it available for users to touch, hear, manipulate and inhabit via real-world artifacts and environments. These productions draw upon a constellation of recent technologies, including inexpensive sensors, wearable tech, 3D printing, big data, digital projectors, locative apps and more. These technologies also have implications for new forms of impact tracking, such as biometrics and gauging neural responses.
Next on the horizon
Empathy, delight, identification and deep engagement are impact themes that run through the trends I am currently tracking in this space:
- Telling stories in public — More makers are building compelling mobile structures to capture and share news right where it’s happening, such as Localore’s Sonic Trace and Hear Here projects, and the grandaddy of them all, StoryCorps. Other, even stranger interfaces are also in play, such as Listentree, which allows users to hear broadcasts by pressing their ears to the trunk of a living tree, or the Listening Post, a project by New Orleans-based public radio station WWNO which installed pop-up attentive cardboard statues to prompt residents to record their thoughts.
- Narrative objects — Crowdfunding campaigns have powered a boom in intriguing and bespoke info-artifacts. For example, the Little Printer translates a digital newsfeed into a next-generation ticker tape using thermal receipt paper, and the BlabDroid adorably asks you prying questions that are then relayed into a global documentary about human-robot relationships.
- Sci-fi surfaces — Designers of experimental interfaces are supplanting newsstands by serving up headlines on increasingly flexible and manipulable public screens. See the Emerging Issues Commons at North Carolina State University for just one immersive and loopy interactive news feed.
- Street signals — Visual journalists are adapting the techniques of graffiti artists and signmakers to turn pedestrians into participants. Media design firm Local Projects is one leader in the movement to translate museum exhibition techniques to public spaces in order to prompt social media engagement.
- Immersion inversion — Nonfiction producers are working with subjects to translate stories from analog, to digital, and then back again. Minecraft presents a particularly boggling example of what might soon be possible — Microsoft recently debuted a 3D version of the wildly popular digital building environment, which allows users wearing a HoloLens headset to not only see creations in 3D, but manipulate them with their hands and voice. (Is this real or is it Memorex?)
- Augmented artifacts — Apps such as ARchive allow stories to be hidden in plain sight in public spaces, accessible only via mobile phones. Take journalist Robert Hernandez, who worked with his students to augment the LA Library’s central branch, allowing app users to point their phones at physical landmarks such as a statue’s clay torch in order to trigger display of related footage and photos. At ONA14, he also had panel participants load up the Re+public app to interact with slides of murals in selected cities — a similar technology to that used by Priya’s Shakti, an augmented reality mural project that’s tied to a comic book designed to mobilize audiences around sexual violence in India.
Are these odd things really even news or documentary? Where do we sketch the line between representing reality through media, and inhabiting a mediated reality? Drawing the boundaries of this emerging but disparate field is one of the challenges I’ll tackle over the course of this fellowship.
One interesting example which illustrates the pathway from broadcast reporting to digital through to analog is the 2014 Radiolab piece “The Skull.” The reporters spoke with researchers from London’s Natural History Museum about the discovery of an ancient child’s skull, which offered clues to our evolutionary history. In order to allow listeners to examine it for themselves, they worked with the Field Museum to 3D scan it, and made it available on Thingiverse—an online compendium of downloadable 3D printing data. A 3D printed model of the skull was also displayed at Mmuseumm, a tiny Manhattan-based museum based in an elevator shaft “dedicated to the curation and exhibition of contemporary artifacts that illustrate the complexities of the modern world.”
David Rose, the president of the company that created this intelligent artifact, is also the author of Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things. He asserts that not only do enchanted objects satisfy the desires expressed in some of our oldest cultural narratives—i.e., fairytales—but at their most sophisticated, must be paired with stories that “will enchant the user. …Designers, having tapped the potential of personalizing, socializing and gamifying, can work to embed a drama in our heads. They can involve us in the story so the narrative gains a purchase on both our minds and hearts. It becomes part of our heritage, our folklore, our mythology. We can feel as if we are part of the action, even a central character in the tale.”
While not all of these impulses represent a measurable social goal, there are projects and makers with a social impact inclination experimenting with these new interfaces. Plus, if the expanding Internet of Things industry — projected to grow rapidly by any measure market experts might dream up — has the potential to reframe the stories we tell ourselves and one another, that promises to make a big impact indeed.
Understanding how new evaluation methods could inform the ways that media makers and investors leverage such emerging technologies feels like an important next step.
MIP Senior Fellow Jessica Clark is an internationally published journalist, researcher, and media futurist whose work connects thought leaders across disparate disciplines. She founded Dot Connector Studio in November 2013. Her first client was Media Impact Funders, a knowledge network for foundations that support media in the public interest, and she is currently serving as the organization’s Director of Research and Strategy