Posts Tagged ‘online interpretation’

In the months leading up to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November this year, the German Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde [1], the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam [2] and the populist newspaper Bild together created a Twitter-Account that live-tweeted the events that took place on that day, at that hour 25 years ago (@Mauerfall89).

I really enjoyed that. It had an element of surprise – things suddenly popped up in my Twitter feed that I hadn’t remembered. And because I hadn’t remembered them, they had a similar impact as the real events at the time. The first pictures they tweeted of the Trabbis coming across the border made me well up with tears, and I remembered watching the footage on TV at the time, crying back then also. There was also the stuff that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before: hand-scribbled memos from the SED leaders, for example, as they frantically tried to control the situation.

I couldn’t find any rationale or mission statement for the project. Neither of the organisations involved have a mission of ‘educating’ the general public [3]. So they probably didn’t think about interpretation when they put this together, and yet as I followed the tweets I kept wondering whether I considered this interpretation.

It would be easy to dismiss it on the basis of the standard definitions of interpretation [4]. There was certainly no first hand experience involved, neither of the artefacts (photos, documents) nor the places. No effort was made to ‘reveal’ any meaning: this was basically a news feed, with a few archival documents thrown in that weren’t available at the time things happened. It provided no help in making sense of or understanding more about the events, nor was there any communication of significant ideas: what happened is what you got.

But that is also precisely why it (mostly) worked for me. This bare bones approach, ‘live’ and in ‘real time’, gave it the immediacy that surprised me, moved me, and activated my memory. It used the real stuff (the news, photos, documents), but with drama (the ‘breaking news’ of a historical event). I never once thought about the medium, or the 140 characters constraint. This wasn’t artificially trying to make a historical narrative hip by forcing it into the Twitter format. These were news pieces like we get them through our feeds daily – only the news was 25 years old. It worked [5]. And it made room for my own remembering where I was when I first heard these stories, saw these pictures: any secondary commentary would have stood in the way.

Where it slightly fell short for me was the lack of links. It did make me want to find out more, but the tweets offered no second layer. That probably meant that in many cases that first impulse wasn’t followed up: while I might have clicked on a link, I didn’t go out of my way to google the information. But that’s a minor point that could easily have been addressed.

To me, the ‘Heute vor 25 Jahren’ tweets on the fall of the Berlin Wall were a good example of where interpretation becomes brilliant by inspired use of a medium [6]. The content fits the medium naturally and it conveys the same feeling as people had back then. There are plenty of other projects that also use Twitter for interpretation, but in a more traditional sense: intriguing, revealing, provoking. That’s fine, it just doesn’t have that same inspired use of the medium – and thus, for me personally, the same impact. I’m not generally a huge fan of Twitter, but this project made me think that maybe it has a place in interpretive media after all. I shall have to look out for studies of this kind of intervention – if you know of any, as always: please share in the comments.

[1] Its full title translates into the unwieldy ‘Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic’.

[2] A centre for the scientific study of contemporary history.

[3] The ZZF Potsdam does have the objective to share their research, but only with other researchers and related organisations.

[4] These, thankfully, are slowly being reconsidered, for example in the case of NAI’s recent open discussion on their definition. This brought up some really interesting, and progressive views.

[5] I would venture to say that the impact on those that haven’t lived through the actual fall of the Berlin Wall will have been similar, minus of course the memory activation aspects. Everyone in today’s Germany has grown up with the story of the fall of the wall, and German reunification on the back of it. I imagine this gave them a sense of what it was like back then, as the news unfolded.

[6] Yes, I’m going to say this having doubted already that the makers of the project gave interpretation as single thought. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t interpretation that they wanted to create.

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A few months ago, I came across the Secret Annex Online on the Anne Frank House website. It has all the ingredients of great interpretation: it tells a story using different media, there is a hierarchy of information that you can access depending on your interests, and you can quite literally choose where to go within the annex. It’s not lifeless either; there is an audio track of background voices, which makes it feel as if you had quite literally stepped into the house, and the audio narration and video options liven up the content further. Most importantly, however, it feels as if someone has really thought this through. The different media hold together, each exploring an aspect of the story according to its own strengths. The interpretation is not simply delivered digitally, it is digital, from the ground up. It gives a real sense of place for those that are not onsite. For some, this may be their only opportunity to explore Anne Frank’s hiding place, and it does the job really well. For others like me, it may make them doubly determined to see the place first hand.

I’d like to see more online interpretation like this: stuff that makes the best use of the medium’s strength and that responds to what off-site visitors may want and need, either before or after a visit, or indeed instead of a visit altogether. Too many projects seem to view ‘online’ as merely a repository of digitised collections, or whole collections management databases. These have a place, of course; participants in recent focus groups we did asked for just that. But these were the (art, in this case) experts. Other people have different needs. And for them, just as with other interpretive audiences, it is not enough to simply provide the raw stuff, the bare-bones catalogue information.

Sometimes, even where interpretation is the intended goal, the online medium seems to get treated as just another 2D platform. The impression is of reproduced panels or worse, of guidebook text that is split into clickable chapters, more or less graphically worked up into separate webpages. Whatever may be the original thematic link immediately disintegrates into separated fragments. The use of images as links becomes almost cliché, and just as meaningless.

Hyperlinks, intended no doubt to take the online visitor from one thematically linked piece to the next, also often do little more than string separate interventions together. Rather than weave a story they are like bubbles floating through the ether: the sum is definitely not greater than its parts.

I am no expert in online interpretation. But it seems to me that just as with any other form of interpretation, the key is to understand the medium and its strengths, and be clear how these can support what it is that you’re trying to facilitate. Online offers a wealth of unique communication opportunities that go far beyond hyperlinked text or the provision of digital images, video, or audio. It’s the intelligent interplay of these that make online exciting. And then, of course, there is the unique context of the visitor. Surveys that I’ve done in my work and my own research bear out other data, for example from the British Household Surveys, that suggests that people do a lot of research online. They appreciate stories that put something into context, while offering access to material that they wouldn’t otherwise see, and which they would not want to engage with while onsite. That’s all important, and I hope that there are studies about this out there that I’m just not familiar with – if you know of them, please drop me a line.

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