Send in the crowds

Recently, the BBC announced it would be creating an “open source” documentary series on the creation and impact of the World Wide Web, and I’m more than a little bit ...
August 10, 2009

Recently, the BBC announced it would be creating an “open source” documentary series on the creation and impact of the World Wide Web, and I’m more than a little bit excited to see how it all turns out.

“Digital Revolution” (w/t) has just officially begun production (according to the project’s blog) and has put the call out for contributions from around the world, through content sharing hubs such as YouTube and Flickr and through the BBC blog itself. The project, due to air in early 2010, has the support of the father of the WWW, Tim Berners-Lee, and for good reason. It really wouldn’t make much sense to make a docu series about the web – the tool that has revolutionized communication and connection – without giving people the ability to shape the larger story with their own experiences.

Social media and the inherent global reach of the ‘Net have not only revolutionized participatory media (see the number of projects incorporating Creative Commons-aided ‘remixing’ and redistribution of content) but also ‘perpetual’ media. Discourse about television programs, films, albums, et cetera continues on the web long after the projects are cancelled or the records go out of print. In a long tail world, even after the “commodity” (the content) has outlived its usefulness to the “gatekeeper” (the TV network or the record company), it can still exist in some form. It’s something that smart digital media companies realized a while back – in the digital world, if social media comprises part of an advertising campaign, then that campaign never has to end. Once the conversation has started, it can do more damage to your brand to end it. Campaigns, and by extension ideas, can live perpetually online, and be shared perpetually as well.

But the concept of sharing as it applies to social media and documentary making isn’t just limited to ideas and content. Several smaller productions are employing the ‘crowdsourcing’ or ‘crowdfunding’ method of financing, in which individuals are solicited to contribute financial donations to the production. It’s not a new movement, of course – one of the more successful examples of a crowdsourced project is Robert Greenwald’s Iraq For Sale, in which the director matched $100,000 from a major donor with over $260,000 from online donations. Age of Stupid, a “drama/documentary” project from director Franny Armstrong, has raised £450,000 through crowdfunding and will have a “global premiere” in late September, in which the airing of the film in New York will be beamed to 45 other countries. And Indie GoGo, a sort of crowdsourcing portal established in 2008, loudly trumpets the DIWO (“do it with others”) philosophy while putting money where its mouth is (and into the hands of aspiring filmmakers) – thus far, 1,782 projects are either completed or in progress. Indeed, the site partnered with online distribution platform SnagFilms in July; a relationship that brings in-progress projects to SnagFilms users, who can then provide feedback and, if they so choose, funding.

Sending in the crowds is but one way of creating, sharing and funding work. In a content-saturated marketplace, there are no guarantees that even if you do raise the bucks to complete your project, people will support it after the fact. And many have argued that while crowdfunded projects are made and supported by enthusiasts with their hearts in the right place, those enthusiasts aren’t always necessarily “filmmakers.” But ultimately, isn’t that for the marketplace to decide? Maybe, in a world of “pro-ams” (the term authors Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller use to describe the growing number of “amateurs who work to professional standards”), the work made by passionate individuals with more than a little social media savvy can carry a cultural resonance that a studio or a network can’t buy.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.