Growing up, I loved reading the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books. Finally I could make all the smart choices for my characters (and backtrack if I found that those choices were not so smart). As a kid learning to read and write, it was hugely empowering. It is surprising that there types of books have remained relatively obscure, particularly as we are moving into an age of globalism and ultra-connectivity, a world where we are all encouraged to share our thoughts and ideas across a range of mediums. From Twitter to YouTube, blogs to podcasts, it seems that everyone has a say in the global conversation.
While this may seem like the simple progression of technological development, and perfectly normal to everyone who has grown up in the midst of this rapid change, it is hugely significant in terms of social equity, in providing a voice for people who, historically, have been absent from mainstream media and conversation. Whether we are aware of it or not, the ability to share our thoughts in 140 characters has changed the world – just think of the role that social media played in the Arab Spring. The use of media in political movements signals the democratisation of communication, allowing individuals to be ‘active participants in the public sphere as opposed to passive readers, listeners or viewers’, as theorist Yochai Benkler puts it.
The Arab Spring was a major international event, but the impact of participatory and social media is evident on the local level as well. Particularly in regional and remote communities, online participatory media has given people a platform to communicate and connect with people from different areas and share stories of what life is like where they’re from. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, telling our own stories is particularly important in terms of forming identity and keeping the community strong. Participatory media has the potential to create a more diverse and nuanced media culture that reflects our society as a whole.
Participatory media platforms are growing every day. Our friends at Engage Media are a fantastic example. As a content-sharing site, they encourage people from all over the Asia-Pacific region to get involved with projects to create social and environmental change. In addition to this highly successful social activism aspect, the Engage also provides the platform for creativity and communication to people across the region who may have otherwise remained isolated. Their recent Papuan Voices project invited people from all over Papua to share their stories and provide new perspective on social and political issues in their county. It’s great for the community, allowing their voices to be heard on an international level, but is also hugely beneficial for wider audiences as we gain insight into their lives and culture, enabling us to understand important issues from their perspective, which helps to build a more culturally aware and compassionate society.
But it’s not just community groups that are getting in on participatory media, Hollywood is too! Actor/writer/director/Cameron from Ten Things I Hate About You Joseph Gordon Levitt has recently started his own production company, Hit Record, which is built upon the principles of collaboration and participation and is open to anyone and everyone (if you’re the creative type you should definitely check it out and get involved). It is an online operation where anyone can suggest an idea for a creative project (anything from songs to animated films) and everyone else can then contribute to the realization of that project. For example, if someone has an idea for a song, another participant can write the music, someone else can write the lyrics and a third person might even whip up a music video for it. It is a wonderful participatory project which allows people from all over the world to share ideas and creative endeavors, and best of all if a creative project is in any way professionally produced, they pay the contributors!
Big Stories may not have the star power of Hit Record, or generate the big bucks, but as Producer Anna Grieve told ArtsHub, it’s ‘very much a community activity generator’. And it is a very active process, relying on community participation to produce content. The Big Stories team doesn’t go into a community with any set plan or agenda, weary of the danger of ‘editorialising’ community stories to fit any such plan. The team enters a community, spends time with the locals, and from that experience they draw out a number of storylines that they might like to explore, while also providing the opportunity for residents to helm their own creative storytelling projects.
As such, Big Stories is actually a process rather than a product-focused project. Our goal isn’t just to produce stunning films and photo essays but to facilitate community awareness and communication. We use a dialogue-based model that encourages the lateral, or bottom-up flow of information and ideas, rather than the tradition top-down flow of mainstream media, where the audience is forced to consume whatever is handed to them. This doesn’t just empower the communities we work with, but also enriches our experience and understanding of the world. As collaborators and facilitators rather than directors, the Big Stories team is in a unique position to learn from the locals:
As a facilitator and creative collaborator with filmmakers, community members, graphic designers, editors and web developers I stand next to people with skills and knowledge that I lack – knowledge of a personal or community story or the skill of website coding. As a collaborator in this Project, my work is deeply influenced by those around me, and I have, in turn influenced them.
The lateral flow of information and communication means that participatory media facilitates a higher level of engagement from all involved. This means great awareness of the stories or ideas being explored, and greater communication between the various participants. It is a highly effective way of addressing social issues, as it is both empowering for community participants and enlightening for external viewers, and also a sustainable way to produce creative work that encourages local ownership of – and pride in – the final product.
Nowadays, the ability to choose your own adventure isn’t just a trope in an obscure series of children’s books, but a defining feature of the global media landscape. This is the age of participatory media and Big Stories fits right in.