Shirky on Documentaries and the Web

How many versions of a documentary could there be?

Clay Shirky speaks at the Demos event, 'Hello Everybody' 14 July 2008
Clay Shirky at Demos, 14 July 2008. Photo by Lloyd Davis

A few months ago, sociologist Clay Shirky spoke at a Demos event around the launch of his book, Here Comes Everybody. Irritatingly, I missed the event, but did download the handy podcast. In a question about “how to use the web to make a documentary about the web, he had this to say:

If you’re making a web documentary about the future of the web, you can open it up for digital production. You can say, “make a video of yourself, talking about what you think the future will be like, or show me what you are doing, document this somehow, and send this to me as raw material.”

You can harness people for the outlet: “I’m doing a video documentary on the web and we’re going to launch it on One Web Day (or some such event), and we’re going to host virtual salons where people are going to get together to view this thing” and you can find the audience [via the web].

But the really interesting bit I think is this sort of ‘A&R plus Remix’, which is: how many versions of a documentary could there be? Because the choice for all of this stuff is, “here’s the main thread, right” but then there’s always going to be people who want more of X and less of Y. Is there a way to let people who are interested in, say, the change in music culture, have a documentary that, while keeping true to the through-line, has more of that aspect? And then for people form whom transformation of the political environment [is most interesting], you have more of that aspect instead.

And so that, it seems to me, is the really interesting thing – looking at essentially raw material; discovery; production; and distribution… and figuring our whether you can use the web at all of those touch-points.

I know the Convention on Modern Liberty will be extensively filmed. All the plenaries and breakouts will be recorded and podcast, and the main speeches will be streamed live. Some of the keynote speakers have already recorded their own thoughts in short pieces-to-camera, and the organisers have invited the public to post video responses.

Moreover, the range of freedoms under threat, and indeed the number of competing definitions of what “Modern Liberty” actually means, suggest to me that the Convention is a ripe subject for a Documentary-Plus-Remix, along the lines Shirky describes above.

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