Escaping the Box

The future of visual storytelling on the web

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Inside the Story Magazine, a quarterly digital publication for people who take their storytelling seriously.

The numbers are almost impossible if you think about them long enough. According to YouTube’s official count, 72 hours of video are uploaded to its servers, every minute of every day. That’s the equivalent of 33 movies. Every minute.

Add that statistic to this photograph published by NBC in March 2013 and you start to wonder whether the human race’s favourite activity in the 21st century is filming other humans and sticking it on the web. The viewing figures for online video are huge too, leading many to see video as the zenith of what can be done on the web.

But video has a problem. It’s a problem inherent in its form, and at the same time it’s infecting how we approach visual storytelling on the web. Video’s problem is that it’s a prisoner inside the rectangle box of the video player. Videos are large, self-contained elements which means they can’t be changed, they can’t respond dynamically to users and they can’t be searched by Google spiders. This has led to video being described as the “black hole” of the internet.

“Video is the gorilla in the room” argues Cody Brown, founder of ScrollKit, a new platform which wants to make the web “more cinematic”. “If you are compelling on video, you will rule pop culture. What is pop culture and what is web culture is getting more and more unclear. There are a zillion ways to make video more web-native and people have been pushing that forward ever since they had the bandwidth.”

Brown is one of a number of entrepreneurs, filmmakers, designers, developers and journalists trying to change visual storytelling on the web. ScrollKit, a visual editor he has created, lets users build a web page in the same WYSIWYG way one might make something in InDesign. This, he hopes, will let us approach the web more visually, and perhaps even make things more quickly. He says he’s been able to use ScrollKit to build a replica of The New York Times’ lauded SnowFall piece in a matter of hours.

Scrollkit’s replica of The New York Times’ Snowfall project

“Less is wrong about how we are visually consuming the web and a lot more is wrong with how we are making it” Brown tells me. “And the problem with how we are making it is that we aren’t making it in a visual way. The overwhelming majority of people fly blind when they make content on the web. They fill out two forms, a header and a footer, then preview it in WordPress when they’re finished. Imagine being a painter and not being able to see what happens as you wet your brush and slide it across your canvas. This is the kind of fundamental problem we have now.”

Black gold boom

New approaches like this bring up difficult questions about how we think about video and other visual elements on the web. Rather than being something new and revolutionary, as so many would have it, web video is worryingly old-fashioned. We are making films (and even calling them films, often) in the same way as a cinema or television director would, except with less money. The only difference is we upload our file to YouTube instead or projecting or broadcasting it. The product is still the same.

In other words, web video is still made like television, and it isn’t new at all. This is a problem because there’s no reason television ought to work on the web: it’s simply not built for that.

So where does thinking differently about video on the web begin? According to Jesse Shaplins, one of three founders of the interactive documentary platform Zeega, it starts right at the definition of what video is.

“I think what’s important is to distinguish the difference between video and moving image. I think motion is a really important part of creating compelling interactive experiences…” he says. “Shorter, more animation like video is the type of video experiences that maybe we should be thinking more and more about. Vine, for example, is a really powerful and interesting medium. It gives you a very focused constraint around what is effectively a video but it’s limited to seven seconds, it’s a looping animation.

“The reality is that long-form video is a mode of consumption that is slightly at odds of the trend of how people are increasingly consuming media, which is on their mobile phones. So I think that we’re at an interesting juncture here, and I think it’s about asking ‘What is the context you imagine people consuming your work?’”

Black Gold Boom on Zeega

This bottom-up approach is clear in the platform he’s building with Kara Oehler and James Burns. Founded last year, Zeega lets users create interactive experiences using simple online tools. They make the most of the screen and some of the more ambitious projects, such as this webdoc about North Dakota’s oil industry give us a vivid glimpse into the potential of the webdoc form.

A manifesto for the future

What is a webdoc, anyway?

In October 2012, a group of filmmakers, developers and journalists - including the founders of Zeega - met at the Mozilla Webmakers conference in London and attempted to figure that out. The result was the Webdoc Manifesto, a living breathing document, hosted on Google Docs and open for anyone to contribute to. It’s raw and messy, but some of the ideas on its pages start to give us a glimpse into the future of factual storytelling on the web.

“We hold that web documentaries are interactive” it begins, “though the interaction does not necessarily have to occur between the user and the the documentary, rather the documentary can interact with reality using the networked technology of the web.”

It describes documentary on the web as being a process, rather than a finished film, and “something that is used as much as it is watched.” Perhaps freeing video from the rectangle also creates the chance to build a much less passive experience for our audiences.

Lost and found

At the same time, video isn’t the only way to create an engaging audio-visual experience on the web. Photofilms have been popular for years, and now these too are being freed to live dynamically on the web.

An early breakthrough in this concept came from a team at NPR in Washington DC. Reporter Claire O’Neill collaborated with developer Wes Lindamood in building Lost and Found, a multimedia package about the discovery of a once-lost photo archive. The piece is effectively an audio documentary, complemented with dozens of recently discovered photographs from the archive of Charles Cushman. O’Neill trawled through thousands of photographs and selected the best.

Lost and Found by NPR

“From the beginning we knew this would be an audio-driven story and we thought a lot about how visual material could augment and complement that story” says Lindamood.

But this is no ordinary audio slideshow. The webpage is powered using Mozilla’s Popcorn javascript library alongside JPlayer, another lightweight file which plays media on web pages. Using these open source libraries, developer Wes Lindamood was able to trigger animations on the page as the audio file played. The audio slideshow is no longer trapped inside a video player. Every one of the pictures in Lost and Found is a dynamic image which can be updated or downloaded, and it’s all on a web page that is viewable on any kind of device.

“For me video can only be that single object, and you can share that object in different ways, but it can never be disaggregated” says Lindamood. “Breaking out of a video file allows us to explore and create something more collaborative and that’s something that we’re definitely interested in. Also you can disaggregate and share individual pieces of it…We can actually recombine elements in different ways, so just having that flexibility of having all these malleable pieces I think is a real advantage of this kind of approach.”

This flexibility could mean stories could be dynamically updated even after publication, and can be shared much more easily. Data in the documentary is available to Google’s spiders and it even creates a level of interactivity in the story.

O’Neill agrees that making the moving image more dynamic is a step forward. “The biggest challenge was the most exciting, which was trying to think how to do this differently…just trying to break the mould a little bit of the video template. Clearly we didn’t deviate that far from it but I dunno, we succeeded by not having to build it in Final Cut, which was exciting to me.”

Rethinking the web

These projects are baby steps into a new way of thinking about how to tell stories visually, embracing the native abilities of the web. And it may be a long time before more of us are able to wrap our head around the idea that visual doesn’t have to mean video and video doesn’t have to mean a 16:9 embed on a webpage.

The pioneers, asking the difficult questions early on, are optimistic about the future. “My hope for the next 10 years is that they are as exciting as the past 10 years” says Cody Brown of ScrollKit, a sentiment echoed by the others.

“Video’s a really passive experience you click play, you watch it for however long it is, and then you’re done and you go onto the next thing” says NPR’s Claire O’Neill. “What interests me in storytelling is engaging the audience and the user, because we have these devices that encourage us to be tactile and I think that territory is really exciting and that’s where I’m trying to push the envelope.”

And from Zeega’s Jesse Shaplins, a recognition that there’s a long road ahead. “I think we’re still very early in terms of what are quality storytelling experiences, that involve interaction. My hope in 10 years is that we see a legacy already established of some genres and formats that have real value for people…One of the beauties of film is that it’s something that millions and millions of people have experienced. I don’t think we are yet there with the web as a format, where millions of people have experienced really quality stories and I’m really excited about that potential for us to think about the web again as inherently an interactive audio-visual medium.”

Issue 3 of Inside the Story Magazine will be published in July 2013.