Moving beyond evidence: Participatory online documentary practice within the poetic framework of cowbird

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Media International Australia, 2015, (154), pp. 123 - 131
Issue Date:
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The growth of user contribution as a form of interaction within online documentary projects is causing a shift in the way screen-based documentary is conceived. Viewers become participants, taking on greater agency in forming the experience of the work as they engage by contributing personal responses to the exploration of a subject. Rather than being fixed works with definite beginnings and endings, these online collaborative documentaries operate as portals, encouraging communities to gather around themes, events or areas of interest. While the diversity of contributions promises rich conceptual renderings, a significant challenge lies in the question of how to create a coherent media entity out of aggregated content that may be contradictory, complex and constantly changing. The online storytelling platform Cowbird establishes a social media space that engages a range of aesthetic, structural and organisational techniques to facilitate the sequenciation of diverse sources into multi-vocal chronicles of experience. Cowbird initiatives, such as the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project, where individual accounts of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota were published as a mosaic collection alongside a feature article about the reservation in National Geographic magazine, suggest alternative modes of exchange between old and new media. This article examines the visual, structural and interaction design of Cowbird to explore how this complex and changeful format works to stimulate poetic and affective webs of connection. It is my contention that the system of multilinear engagement employed on Cowbird enables an emergent approach to documentary that can accommodate a nuanced and shifting range of individual responses.
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