Making Meaning

In “Invisible Australians”, Dr. Tim Sharratt addresses, in a blog post, the concern over lost context raised by the wall of faces, “…each portrait is linked back to the document it was derived from, and to the Archive’s own collection database. What is more important, I think, are the contexts that are gained”. With this explanation, Dr. Sharratt articulates what I found to be a valuable aspect of storytelling in new media: new meaning. The historical material forming the content of “Invisible Australians” still exists in the context of the National Archives, and the photos on the site are still even available in context of their documentation, and yet they have been recast to make an entirely new point. Opportunities for new perspectives not only come from the storytellers, but also from the audience.

Presenting stories in a textual, linear narrative implies that the creator is the authority. New media stories, especially factual narratives, engaging multimodal displays can make this implication fuzzier in a manner that doesn’t necessarily compromise the actual factual integrity. Effective stories can be told when users essentially make their own meaning and derive the narrative for themselves, though this is clearly presented to varying degrees. In many cases, derived meaning is an emotional response, such as a reaction to seeing the multitude of faces that were institutionally marginalized or to the town that doesn’t exist any more. Especially in the case of Pine Point, where the linearity is the most distorted, viewers are the most responsible for generating their own sense of coherency. This is less evident in “Snow Fall”, as a polished journalistic endeavor, but the invitation is still there. The embedded 911 calls, from which the John Branch extrapolated his own report, are there for readers to listen to, and have their own reaction to.

For obvious reasons, reading “Snow Fall” immediately reminded me of another project by the New York Times that came out about a month ago, “The Russia Left Behind”. Besides knowing very little about Russia and learning a fair amount, I actually found a greater thematic parallel between this and Pine Point – stories linked through their location, and the relationship of the “characters” to their location. The contrast, however, of reminiscence and journalistic exposition invites different degrees of engagement with the story and illustrates the range of perspectives that new media stories can accommodate.

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