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A hybrid approach that suits the content

The Water Dance story by the New York Times is presented in the format of a sound slideshow and is a good example of hybrid media. The story content or message delivered in this short piece is exactly the same as any humorous slice of life piece that has come before it. Selecting a facet of big city life and revealing the funny side of how city dwellers deal with their surroundings is a very traditional example of news media content. This same story could have easily been told and probably has been told over 200 years ago. However, the method of delivery is very modern and slightly more interactive.

The topic in this human-interest piece is the humorous approaches pedestrians take to navigate sidewalks and curbs by avoiding the slush and icy puddles of a typical winter day after a heavy snowfall. The narrator and photographer of the piece, Bill Cunningham, tells the story by using the metaphor of a competitive game he calls the ‘jumping competition.’ Again, this very same approach of metaphorical story telling is a traditional part of news media and not dependent on any modern digital tool or technology. The fun, human interest in this piece is derived from the comparisons of how different people approach the challenge of hopping over deep puddles of slush and snow. Tourists are funny because they typically do not come prepared and misjudge the depth of the puddles; men are funny because invariably they never wear boots like their more fashionable and prepared female, office-worker counterparts. In the end, this jumping competition is a humorous ballet of leaps and misses that provide the content for an entertaining news piece and a traditional, ageless story.

The Water Dance story is delivered as a sound slideshow. The sound is simply a narration by Bill Cunningham, the photographer of the piece. There is no music or sound effects. The content of the dialogue is not dissimilar from a written piece and, in fact, could have been read but was delivered in a conversational manner. The show has 29 different photographs of city people jumping over icy puddles of slush. My experience of the piece was positive because the narrator tells the story in an empathic and friendly manner making it personable and enjoyable. I was able to share an emotional involvement with the story because of the personality and manner of narration.

In Marshall McLuhan’s terms, this piece takes the content of what would have been a permanent ink-on-paper ‘hot’ media story and tells the story using ‘cool’ media tools of sound and moving pictures with start and stop buttons and a slider tool for scanning the show forward and backward. This all-at-once, simultaneous display of sound and moving pictures can be engaging even if it has limits of interactivity. It is difficult to tell whether this piece could have been improved with music or sound effects but I believe this would have confused the journalistic, single person narrative. The attempt here was clear and in Laswell’s terms of who says what, in which channel, to whom and with what effect, is easy to map. The narrator, as the ‘who’, re-tells his experience by using photo examples of the variety of ways city people avoid wet and slushy curbs. He is talking to us about our own idiosyncratic patterns of behavior; we are laughing at ourselves. That is the effect he was hoping to achieve and his narration is critical to the effect. Not only are the 29 pictures more than could have been used in a print news story, the photos on their own are not humorous and are totally dependent on the narrator’s re-telling of his experience in taking the pictures. We are listening to someone else’s story of interactivity and identifying with the circumstances.

Of course, slideshows with narration have been with us now for as long as the public could afford projectors. This slideshow is really not that different. In fact, there are no zooms and very little attention to cross fades. So, by comparison to other new media, it is low on the scale of interactivity and special effects. However, it still has the power to captivate, entertain and instruct.

The ability to package a sound and slide show in such a user-friendly and easily distributed format means that it could be used in a number of different industries. For instance, it could be created to narrate and illustrate how to assemble complicated knockdown products. It could be programmed to run with different languages so the user simply selects the appropriate language before starting the show. Since it has a pause button and since the slider shows each image in the frame, one could back up or stop the show while completing the assembly before continuing. In addition, this format would be good for the performance reading and imagery of short stories, poems, fables and cartoons. Music and special effects could be added to enhance the experience.

There are many levels of interactivity that are possible with new media. All interactivity is a feature that adds to our control of the experience. Even this hybrid example of a sound slide show, while at the low end of interactive possibilities still offers pausing, moving forward, and play again features that do not distract from the intended message. We should tailor our tools to maximize communication of the message and this slideshow is a good example of measured interactivity and hybrid media at work.

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