Telling The Story
One of the things that relates to Private Art from a broader perspective is what the people who talk about digital storytelling I dont really like that term digital storytelling because the digital part of it is kind of unnecessary what matters is the medium that you chose to tell your story. In this case it happens to be online storytelling. Anyway, what does digital storytelling mean to you and what do you think the message is to other people?
Rebecca Hargrave: Digital storytelling, to me, is very similar to a traditional documentary film, but the thing that is different is that the story doesnt end if you do it right. A lot of people say these narratives have a beginning, middle and an end, but with a project like Private Art your audience gets so drawn in and involved.
For a digital story to be successful it has to tell the story so well that your audience gets so drawn in that they become part of the story. We have people constantly contributing things they want us to add to the site, by e-mail, and snail-mail too. Thats what digital storytelling is. Just like the campfire metaphor where a story brings on another story, and that brings on another story. So how digital storytelling differs is that its a story that just goes on.
Marty Lucas: Users, we need a different word dont we? We need a new word for people who visit Web sites. Tufte points out that the only other group that is referred to as users are narcotics users, so maybe we need to come up with a better word.
Rebecca Hargrave: Maybe we should use participant.
Marty Lucas: Visitor perhaps.
Rebecca Hargrave: That seems like an outsider.
Marty Lucas: It does, doesnt it? We need to work on that.
The reviews of Private Art universally positive, it seems point out that Private Art is completely non-commercial, and they intend that as a good thing. I couldnt help but thinking, Yes, but it was made by a top-flight Web firm, and the success isnt just because its got great content, but its also because its delivered very well. The delivery matters. Whats your advice to people who have a story like Private Arts that theyd like to get on the Web, and get it out there with the impact that Private Art has?
Rebecca Hargrave: The biggest challenge for a web designer wanting to create a successful Web narrative is that you really have to understand the characters I guess in digital story telling-speak, thats your point of view. There are multiple points of view in Private Art but you dont really have to understand all the details. Im not an expert on WWII, but the more important thing is to understand human emotions, which include the emotions of the characters in your story, and the emotions of the people that visit your site.
Im the director of Private Art, like a director of a movie. But directing a Web site happens in real time. If I see something catching on Ill play that up on the site, because I know thats what people want. To do digital storytelling right, the process should be very organic. It should change over time. A digital storyteller needs to be dedicated. To keep the story going you have to discipline yourself to listen to your users. You need to know the content that is on your site so that you can use it to your best advantage. Does that make sense?
Marty Lucas: That makes a lot of sense.
Rebecca Hargrave: Did you expect me to say, I used PhotoShop?
Marty Lucas: Thats exactly what I didnt expect you to say, but the fact is I happen to know youre pretty good with it
I often hear people say, go put this out on the Web, its really easy. I dont think its necessarily all that easy to do a really good job of it. Do you think that people that have a good story need to go out and try to find a good producer? Obviously that entails paying money, but some people could do that, some institutions could do that too. Whats your advice on that?
Rebecca Hargrave: There are a few Web studios that specialize in digital storytelling. Its not something that everyone can do, either. I mean, the beauty of the Web is that anybody can tell their own story, but if you want to do something with the impact of Private Art you would need a professional. There are several top echelon firms, like Second Story, Terra Incognita enviro|media was one of them until we were acquired by Invisible Worlds. These are people that specialize in the art of digital storytelling. What all these firms have in common is that they understand human emotions and they let the content tell the story. They dont override the narrative. The concept supports the storyline.
I mean, all the bells and whistles if you are aware of the delivery method, be it Shockwave or whatever, then the storytelling isnt at the forefront. Private Art is a relatively low-tech site when you consider what a lot of people are doing with Flash and DHTML, but it doesnt move people any less. And thats because of the content, and the fact that everything supports the storyline.
I really wanted people to see what I was seeing when I looked at Private Arts letters and to hear what I heard when I was talking to Art and Rose. If theres any kind of method to the madness, its that I want people to feel what I felt when I was sifting through that box.
We used scans of the actual content. We didnt have to go hire professional photographers and pay tons of money. These are pictures by real people. These are real things.
You have to be driven by the content. A lot of people today think you can just design Web templates and dump content in them. Thats not necessarily the case if you really want people to become involved in what you are trying to say.
As far as the documentation of the letters themselves, sole credit goes to Rose on that. The core document that she handed me was a Microsoft Word document she prepared for her own family. That included all the letters and the comments: the notes that she put in there. All she really wanted to do was preserve as accurately as possible for her family what happened to their patriarch. Little did she know that other people were going to share in this, but shes having a blast with the site.
She calls herself the site historian now! Thats how she signs her e-mail.
Send her a note at email@example.com! I bet shell answer you!
Marty Lucas: Didnt this site come out at about the same time as
Saving Private Ryan?
We like to say, Private Art came first, because after Private Art launched on the Web, Steven Spielberg released Saving Private Ryan. That brought a lot of traffic to the site, but we were first. The thing about a movie is that its a finite thing. If you cover, like Ken Burns does, vast expanses with hours and hours and film, it still might leave you wanting more. Because all you get is snippets.
But in the case of Private Art you get the whole story from one person. I think people just get really involved in that. With the Web its a totally user-controlled experience theres that user word again you can just go, I want more, I want more.
Or, you can turn it off. You get however much you want.
Most people do read the site from beginning to end and then they
come back and explore and create their own story.
Marty Lucas: A recurring theme in your work has been a sense of history, sometimes nostalgia. From the music of the swing era, to your work with Retro magazine, or Private Art, or going even further back to the medieval images that give Mappa.Mundi Magazine its unique look. What are your thoughts about integrating the history of art into a medium that doesnt always show a whole lot of respect for the past?
Rebecca Hargrave: I think both you and I are of a similar mindset that anything that makes the Web more humanistic is a good thing. We get tired of the beveled buttons, the spinning logos and the swoosh logos that are everywhere.
I often get asked why I dont have a personal Web site. I get more of a charge from doing a site about concepts or topics that interest me. Its more about the work than about me. When the Web was young I met a lot of like-minded people that had similar interests as me in terms of music; people that were really interested in keeping a certain genre of music alive. Thats why I worked on all those sites like
People were really concerned about the Great American Songbook fading into obscurity. A big part of those sites is that the content and emotion drive the design.
I just think that too many people are trying to turn the Web into a formula. I mean if we put all of this down at the left, and all of this across the top, and we get it done in X amount of time, then well be able to get this many pages up by Friday. People just need to slow down and get into the work more.
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