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Did you ever read someone’s Facebook status messages and learned about his personal stories through it? Did you ever read personal blogs and vlogs and felt that you are witnessing a real life story?

Last semester I lectured in a course in IDC about online storytelling, together with Noa Morag and Roni Abolafia. I wrote about it here, here and here. However I was asked several times to provide a wider overview on the topic. So here it is – an overview of immersive storytelling:

What is immersive storytelling?

Immersive storytelling is the use of social web and online video to tell a linear fictional story, through the social activities of the characters.

In cinematic storytelling, viewers experience stories by looking through a non existent wall (usually referred to as the 4th wall). The camera is accepted as given, a kind of an agreement between viewer and the actors that says: yep, we both know there is a camera here, but we accept it and actually ignore it. The emotional attachment to the characters on screen is achieved by suspension of disbelief – viewers leave their sense of reality at the entrance to the movie theater, and accept that robots, time machines[8.3/10 rating][8.3/10 rating] and radioactive naked people actually exist. In some cases, directors choose to break this rule – and change the viewers’ perspective on on-screen activities.


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Ian Richardson as F. Urqhuhart in House of Cards broke the 4th wall in several episodes

But what about the stories that happen to people around us? People in real life? Did you ever read someone’s Facebook status messages and learned about his personal stories through it? Did you ever read personal blogs and vlogs and felt that you are witnessing a real life story?

This is the basic concept of immersive storytelling – the movie theater is replaced by Facebook and Twitter profiles, blogs, and personal vblogs.

The roles of the viewers

Unlike Alternate Reality Games, viewers do not affect the story-line. The story itself is linear, with the usual story arc. Immersive storytelling is focused on the delivery and presentation of the story, and its innovation lies in the way that the viewers experience it.

Some examples

One of the groups in our course, wrote a story about an adopted kid who, at the age of 18, decided to find his biological mother. After receiving her phone number, he called her, and found out she wasn’t interested in any relationship with him. He decided to follow her, and realized she went to AA meetings. He joined her group under a nickname, and became her friend. At the end of the story, he decided not to reveal his true identity, in exchange for her friendship.

Another story was about a single fashion designer who lost her dog. A guy found it, and contacted her. They fall in love.

The first story was told through a personal blog and vlog of the kid, and his Facebook profile. Readers got updates on his search for his mother, the emotional turmoil he went through, and his resolution not to contact her.

The second story was more complex – it was told in two separate blogs on two separate social networks, in order to make the characters more reliable (it didn’t make sense to have one of them on Facebook). Viewers had to follow both blogs in order to get the full scope of the story.

The students created the online entities couple of weeks prior to the beginning of the story, and then ran the story for a week.

Results

What amazed me most in this project is the emotional responses from viewers. The fact that one had to actually connect to a Facebook profile in order to be a part of the experience increased the involvement of the viewers. Also, as the students created full characters, with friends, hobbies, pictures that are not related to the story itself and day to day life, the experience was fundamentally different then most online experiences. It seems that the viewers, though some realized it a scripted drama, actually identified with the characters – the most challenging part of storytelling.

The most emotional story, with the adopted kid, got a lot of reactions and emails.

Some of the viewers were ahead of the curve. In the love story, couple of days after the woman lost her dog, one of the viewers emailed the characters, and wrote that he thought that the other character found a dog that fits the description. What is really amazing in this example is that the two characters were on completely separate social networks, with no common friends.

Challenges

As a relatively young art form, there are several challenges in any such project:

1. How to create a reliable, full and deep character? I wrote about this issue here.

2. What is ethically permitted in this art form? As the stories are told through regular social profiles, many believed that these are real people. We had to create methods to deal with it, in order not to mislead the audience.

3. How to drive viewers to the right profiles and blogs? We employed several tactics – but still there is a work to be done here.

4. How to adequately produce content, without harming its reliability? I wrote about it here.

Summary

Immersive storytelling as an art form is in its infancy. There are stories around us who are waiting to be told, and social web and online video provide powerful tools not only to distribute these stories – but also create emotional attachment that is so coveted by so many creators today.

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