One of the recurrent themes that came up at this weekend’s WineCamp at Ferriere Vineyards (our wonderful host!) was the concept of storytelling. In particular, one arts educator wanted to explore how participatory media and collaborative storytelling could lead to community engagement.
Before heading out to WineCamp, I’d been thinking about a systems-level view of participatory media. At a very high level, this has boiled down into two things: everyone being able to step up onto an equivalent soapbox, and the existence of an infrastructure of platforms, tools, and processes. In today’s WineCamp dialogue, issues from the latter came up repeatedly. For example: in order for participatory media to succeed, must the tools be easy enough for any individual to use? Do people on the edges of content creation need those tools in order to participate whenever they want to?
Something else that struck me as uniquely relevant to collaborative storytelling: at No single approach to storytelling will work across cultures. Everyday activities that San Franciscans hide – for example, personal hygiene and grooming – can be found out in the street in Mumbai. Conversely, the storytelling that we do very publicly here will take place indoors there, where it can be kept intimate. The common denominator between us is that people want to tell stories, and that individuals like having the opportunity to share their stories. Given this commonality, how can we bring people together on cross-cultural collaborations?
Pragmatics of engagement
There was frothy conversation around how to enable content creators. In the case of a nonprofit, the challenge is how to best enlist volunteers, as vs. best do fundraising that supports a paid staff. In a production project, it’s problematic to have the content creator who brings the project vision be a volunteer. If you change that person midstream, as is common with volunteer efforts, then continuity is lost. Ditto for the guy who shows up with his equipment, or for any staffers that control distribution (for example, a database architect). These core contributors either need to be paid, or need to have a serious stake in the game. Not to mention, requiring people to volunteer can affect the diversity of a project; not everyone with something to contribute can afford to volunteer.
Requiring volunteer assistance also implies that the content creator can get buy-in from those with the necessary technical expertise. But pragmatically, how sustainable is it for individual creators to rely on volunteers who can help with editing or other production services?
Another attendee had a neat concept: What if you just put video equipment into the community, and then simply seeded knowledge with a good community-building staff? There is plenty of available content left unused because individual creators don't know what power it may hold. These people need someone to come along and pull it together into digestible content, or to launch the video out where others can see it. We also tossed around the idea of reinventing the bookmobile as the "videomobile." This could be modeled upon organizations like United Villages, which attaches uplinks/downlinks to rural buses that can then synch up information or pick up/drop off rural email. (Disclosure note: Omidyar Network is an investor in United Villages.)
Remembering the cross-cultural storytelling differences, however, we then consider the question of what methods people should be trained in. Do we really need to train people in our methods? Or do you make those with knowledge available until people can develop their own methods? Another difference to consider: People outside the US are more likely to have a cell phone than a PC, so content with international scope or reach needs to be aimed for those systems. Installations in public places (e.g., a public library or Internet café) can get around this hurdle to some extent, but for true accessibility, it will be important to function via the most common platform. This might also lead to new forms of content. Is there such a thing as a mobile story arc? Could that take off somewhere like South Africa, where there's a robust mobile infrastructure?