We at Zeega want to enable anyone to create interactive documentaries and invent new forms of storytelling. For inspiration, we’ve looked to a figure who challenged the documentary form right when radio and film were being invented a century ago: Dziga Vertov.
Best known for the remarkable film “Man with a Movie Camera,” Vertov also created the first newsreel program in Russia, each episode a new experiment. This was a time when people were thinking about displaying news and telling stories in totally new forms, like rolling out a camera on a horse and buggy in the town center and throwing up a sheet over some wires to create a projection screen.
Similar to that time, today is a moment of dramatic media transformation. We see this as an opportunity for journalists, artists and the public to invent new ways to tell and gather stories.
Mapping Main Street
But before we get into what Zeega is, I wanted to share a little background. James Burns, Jesse Shapins and I started working together a couple of years ago on an interactive documentary called Mapping Main Street. We built it from scratch with the help of public radio producer Ann Heppermann and grants from the Association of Independents in Radio and the Berkman Center. Meanwhile, we were also producing stories for NPR.
Mapping Main Street was conceptualized at the time of the 2008 election, when “Main Street vs. Wall Street” was playing on repeat from the mouths of politicians. We wanted to subvert this polarizing term, which seemingly referred to the white middle class, by attempting to document every street named “Main Street” in the United States. We queried Google and census data, and found that more than 10,466 streets are named Main. With this database of streets as its starting point, we set off to create a new map of the country through stories, photos and videos recorded on actual Main Streets.
To jump start the project, we drove 15,000 miles across the United States, stopping at more than 100 Main Streets to take photos and gather material for the NPR stories. These stories covered streets as diverse as Main Street in Chattanooga, Tenn., where a large portion of the street is a prostitution strip, and San Luis, Ariz., the only Main Street in the United States that is a port of entry. We also commissioned four bands (High Places, Chain and the Gang, Calvin Johnson and Jason Cady) to create songs that used field recordings gathered on specific Main Streets.
In order to allow others to document Main Streets across the country, we built and designed www.mappingmainstreet.org, an online platform that displays these broadcast stories and photographs, and enables anyone to contribute photos, videos and stories of their own. To participate, people simply put a photo on Flickr or a video on Vimeo, tag it with the city and state, and it automatically appears on our site.
We see Mapping Main Street as a new form of documentary that combines all the different elements — the broadcast stories, online interface design and citizen media contributions.
When we launched Mapping Main Street, people started using it in ways we never would have imagined. One of our most prolific contributors is Amy Fichter, who uses her iPhone and an antique twin lens reflex camera to capture images of often-overlooked details on Main Streets throughout Wisconsin. Her Main Street photos were later exhibited in a solo gallery show. The platform has also been widely adopted by journalism teachers at the high school and college level and youth media programs like WNYC’s Radio Rookies.
A COMMUNITY AND PLATFORM FOR EXPERIMENTATION
Zeega will enable anyone to create participatory projects that combine original content with photos, videos, text, audio, data feeds and maps from across the web. But what makes Zeega different is that it’s not just an online documentary toolkit. We’ve long had an interest in making digital projects physical, and integral to Zeega is the ability to bridge physical and digital worlds through tangible media such as signs, stickers or even networked receipt printers.
Zeega will be a community and framework for creative invention, making it possible for people to pioneer new forms of storytelling that we have not yet imagined.
In the design world, Processing has been transformative in allowing people to experiment with interaction and visualization, ranging from working with physical objects to large-scale installations. However, Processing still requires a level of technical expertise. We’re making Zeega into a flexible framework for people without programming knowledge. (Of course, as an open-source project there will be many ways for programmers to be involved, too).
This culture of experimentation is supported in large part through metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research unit housed at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. So far, we’re collaborating with librarians, journalists, artists and community groups. We’re creating tools for people to create their own digital public libraries by bringing together collections of related materials from libraries and websites across the world.
We’re also working with artists and reporters to create a platform for people living near any superfund site in the country to tell their stories. In Brooklyn, N.Y., we’re working with the non-profit UnionDocs on a multi-year project called “Looking at Los Sures,” which combines radio, film, interactive media and performance to expand upon a 1984 documentary film about what was once one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. And we’re using Zeega to construct a living archive of the Japan earthquake and its aftermath that captures stories of people who have been affected.
AN ARCHIVE FOR TODAY AND TOMORROW
The archive also collects and interrelates documents, images, video, communications through social media and other data — creating something useful for today as well as something that can be referenced 20 years from now.
Zeega has also been supporting coursework at Harvard in new media documentary classes such as Media Archaeology of Place and the Mixed-Reality City, both collaborations with the Sensory Ethnography Lab.
One student, Kat Tang, wanted to create a project where people could stand outside of a building and hear the interior or inaccessible sounds of that particular space. She designed a system where people would see a sticker on a building with an invitation to text a unique code to a telephone number. When someone texts the code to the number, he or she gets a phone call back with an audio recording that Kat made inside that building. When one hangs up, he or she gets a text message that explains the audio recording. (While the project is meant to be experienced on location, you can test it from anywhere by following these instructions).
For us, this is a great example of how Zeega is open to experimenting with new approaches to documentary. Kat used the web-based Zeega interface to create this project by simply defining the sequence of interactions and adding her audio recordings and texts. She didn’t do any programming. And now anyone can create similar projects combining stickers, audio and text via mobile phones to tell stories on location.
We want Zeega to make invention possible for anyone — regardless of budget or technical knowledge. Shortly, we’ll be announcing a call for journalists, news organizations, artists, community groups, filmmakers, librarians, scholars and others to create Zeega pilot projects. To sign up to get updates and become a beta tester, visit our website: zeega.org.