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Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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How Does Crowdsourcing Shift Engagement?

The transition from traditional narrative forms into crowdsourced and interactive work raises tensions among creative communities. The loss of control over narrative meaning, particularly through the introduction of interactivity, can produce resistance for some creators. “There are some common misconceptions about the interactive side of interactive narrative,” explains Alison McMahan. “To some critics interactivity means that we are getting rid of the narrator, of point of view, and the author's ability to make a thematic statement, because the spectator is now no longer passive, but is becoming a co-narrator." The disappearance of a clear narrator throws narrative integrity out of balance.

However, McMahan answers the critics:
As Thomas Elsaesser points out in the introduction to Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable?, the skill of the storyteller, whether conventional or interactive, 'lies in the ability to suggest an open future at every point of the narrative, while having, of course, planned or "programmed" the progress and resolution in advance'. But if interactivity does not mean that the spectator – now called the user – can participate in the shaping of the story, what does it mean? It means, simply, that she has more choices about how to receive it… Interactivity enables the naratee, the interactive user, to construct herself.
The notion of the interactive user being able to “construct herself” becomes a crucial feature of interactive crowdsourced narratives. In addition, it feeds into what Mark Stephen Meadows describes as the relationship between “inside-the-skull” and “outside-the-skull” interactivity – that crucial intersection of paradigmatic and syntagmatic meanings.

A crowdsourced work with multiple authors changes the semiotic values of a narrative by activating the “inside” levels of meaning in new ways. When the user contributes an element of their own, they enter into a network of collaborators – co-authors in the final narrative work. This experience, for one, decentralizes authorship in comparison to conventional works, even in interactive narrative. More critically, it explodes the closed system of the director-viewer relationship, with the auteur delivering the narrative from on high; now, the “director” is a group of peers. It shifts the viewer’s relationship with, and perception of, the author from authoritative creator to peer participant. Now, it’s about us talking to each other, and this relationship offers a unique level of intimacy – the emotional level of narrative viewing.

In leveling the authorial playing field, so to speak, the inside meanings reach deeper into the unique experiences of the individual user. The submissions to the crowdsourced work, for one, represent the (often amateur) experiences of those contributing to the work – they more deeply reflect a personal experience than, say, high-budget, professional content. Crowdsourcing enables a feeling of inclusiveness through collaboration that raises the emotional value of each individual clip.

And, because the user knows others in the project went through a similar experience to create their submissions, the viewing of the work asks the user to identify and sympathize with the contributions of their peer authors. Even if the viewer does not actually contribute to the work, the possibility of participation places the viewer in a more intimate relationship with the material – they could have shared in the authorship. Crowdsourced interactive narratives inscribe the user as a character within the work. They make it easier for us to recognize ourselves in it.

Indeed, as Murray Smith has argued, characters, and our identification with and sympathy for them, are essential to our emotional engagement in a narrative. We identify with the "characters" of a crowdsourced work as both the constructed fictions of our traditional narrative experiences and as actual (if anonymous) peers.

In addition, these “inside” meanings of the work are in a constant state of flux. Any individual clip can potentially alternate with another over the course of the experience, according to the user’s input. This shift has the potential to “suture” the peer viewer into a more emotional experience, as they become another “author” or “participant” through the simple act of interactively viewing.

The decentralization of authorship further opens up the project to a wide range of global users that expands the range of perspectives present in the work, and thereby holds the potential to expand and include a wider audience – to develop a “global eye.”

This new role as author of an interactive work, then, sets the “inside-the-skull” experience aflame – the viewing of the work of peers serves to “[extend] what the reader already knows.” We share our own experiences, our own perspectives, and our own ideas with one another as a way of expanding the possibilities of the work. Each individual contribution can stand in for any of us. The inside/vertical meanings of each clip – the emotional element of the project – become personal and invested, offering true ownership in the narrative.

On the horizontal/outside level – the syntagmatic – the side-by-side presentation of various contributions to a crowdsourced video also take on new meanings to engage the user. As each user contribution is placed alongside another, the collision produces meaning, a meaning that can change in an interactive work that has multiple kinds of outcomes. Of course, this is true of most interactive work, but together with the emotional investment of the “inside-the-skull” experience of the work, the connections among any series of clips takes on more power, whether it’s videos of the Arab Spring of 2011 in 18 Days in Egypt or individually drawn frames in The Johnny Cash Project [case study]. Perspectives change among these clips more variably, with each clip tied to a real, individual peer on the planet: a global kino-eye.
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