The new role of the viewer

26. 6. 2017



Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I will remember
Involve me and I will understand
Step back and I will act

—Chinese proverb

Viewers of interactive web documentaries (idoc) aren’t simply just viewers anymore. They have a role as navigators. They can choose from various options within the idoc and influence the content selection and dramaturgy of the story.

In Journey to the End of Coal (see our last post) the visitors navigates at their own pace through a finite, but extensive database of 'bits of information'. Choosing, for example, between different possible interview-questions, they conduct 'their own' conversations with miners in preset situations.

So, in view of this active influence he rather rides somewhere between viewer and author of the story. Between passivity and activity. Between "lean forward" and "lean back". There is no concept, which roughly describes this role. Spectator? Surfer? User? Consumer? Rather not - For he/she is more active than a spectator, more committed than a user and more self-determined than a surfer, dependent on the whim of the wave.

Internauts - Sailors between the Seas of Internet

During my research I stumbled across the catchy term „Internaut“. According to Wikipedia the term was created by the combination of internet and astronaut and „refers to a designer, operator, or technically capable user of the Internet“.

My linguist friend would add: Inter (Latin = between) and naut (Greek = sailor) evokes a sailor between the seas. Or a navigator between spectator and author.

Can you imagine better terms? We are happy about suggestions!

“A process of (re)imagining the audience is at the heart of interactive documentary production (...). Various forms of interaction and participation challenge traditional theories of film and television audience, and we have come to speak, almost routinely, of ‘new relationships’ between audiences, documentary makers and text. It is an exciting exploration that has the potential to bring the civic culture of documentary into dialogue with digital cultures and new forms of media engagement.” (

Breaking the boundaries - interactivity, participation, network...

"(Re)imaging the audience begins by calling into question the logic of mass media and interrogating the interconnected practices of production and reception." ( In this redefinition, the role of the viewer is returned to a position that exists in partnership with the other actors - the filmmaker and subjects.

More and more web documentaries not only provoke navigation but try to reach the 'highest level' of interaction and participation: the visitor joins the creative production cycle. You are invited to become co-author of the collaborative open-source project, to add your own 'found footage' or even create content yourself.

In Prison Valley (see our last post) for example the expository and observational mode of information is supplemented by inviting the users to access a chat room and a forum. There, they cannot only exchange their experiences when 'surfing' the idoc; moreover, they can get into contact with the characters of the idoc and express and document their opinion about the issues negotiated. Hence – at this level – Prison Valley can be considered as a collaborative project, expanding the primarily knowledge-driven documentary experience to (social) interaction and exchange, stimulating new forms for community organizations.

In the ideal case, a web documentary can continue to be an active platform for certain topics or communities even years after its release. The online environment, in particular its integration with social media platforms, can foster greater user engagement, interaction and collaboration, yet there is also the potential for audiences to divide into ever smaller niche interest groups.

The contexts of interactivity, participation and online network bring new dimensions to the ethical questions that have always been present in documentary about the relationship between the producer/author, the subjects and the audience. A new set of rules which -so far- none of us fully understands.

You wanna go deeper into this topic?

Check out this Presentation during i-Docs 2014 by Kate Nash, a Lecturer in Media and Communications at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. “Approaching interactive documentary through the lens of interactive reception sheds light on the connections between interpretation and interaction, the importance of play narrative and agency and the significance of context.” (

Too much information? Next week we will reflect on how interactive documentary as a form can play into our understanding of complexity...

This article series is researched and written by Tanja S. Since 2016 Tanja works at dubbed perceptions in different and ever evolving roles.

[Go to previous: Exploring WebDocs Part 2]