Write Design Multimedia

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

'Us Mob' by Suzi

Most people will never set foot in an Aboriginal town camp of Alice Springs. But that doesn’t mean you won’t ever get to visit one…..

‘Us Mob’ is Australia’s first Aboriginal children’s television series and interactive website. You are transported into the real-life Aboriginal town camp of Hidden Valley, on the outskirts of Alice Springs in Central Australia. You are embedded in the challenges and daily lives of Harry, Della, Charlie, Jacquita and their Aboriginal bush community friends and family. The site features 8 short films with multi-path endings, designed to be received once per week over 8 weeks to fit into a school term. The films are supported by video and text diaries, interactive forums, virtual self-guided tours, games and comprehensive info sheets on everything from Aboriginal history to skin names. The website was designed to create community and cross-cultural understanding between school children around the world (Ginsberg, 1).

Background: Cyber Storytelling

As this website features multiple different avenues for interactivity, the focus for this report will be on the on-line storytelling component, delivered via the 8 short films. The site is centred around these films, with the other elements supporting the content and encouraging discussion surrounding them.

Typically, on-line storytelling is created either as text or video, and requires the user to register before being able to access it. They then receive downloads of episodes. Interactivity commonly comes into play via ‘choose your own endings’ and/or web forums, games and email correspondence.

Meadows has observed the current, untapped potential for web-based storytelling, observing that most website designers seem to consider the internet as ‘little more than a globally-distributed brochure’ (Meadows, 2). Cloninger has also argued that a compelling, engaging ‘narrative voice’ is frequently absent from interactive media, and he considers this factor even more important than style and content (Cloninger, 3). Storytelling, he argues, is still the most powerful way of emotionally impacting people – whether the ends is to sell a product or service, or create a new art form. Meadows touched on the key to the potential inherent in interactive narrative when he commented that ‘the more power a user has to control the narrative himself, the more a user will ‘own’ that narrative’ (Meadows, 2). In other words, by creating an on-line story with compelling characters and narrative, then by involving users in the direction of that tale, they become a part of the story itself.

The creators of Us Mob drew inspiration from one of the world’s first on-line drama series, initiated by trailblazer UK organisation, XPT. Entitled ‘On-line Caroline’ (XPT), it focussed on the exploits of a young, hip English-Greek woman, Caroline. Remember how one of the first ever public film screenings, of an approaching train, prompted audiences to bolt from the theatre in fright? Quaint as those reactions seem, history repeats when it comes to embracing the Brave New World of cyber-technology. ‘Online Caroline’ featured an early episode where Caroline was being robbed, resulting in earnest people around the UK calling police to help their cyber friend, unable to offer more than her email address! This left Us Mob web producer Chris Joyner and director, David Vadiveloo, in no doubt as to the potential impact of this new storytelling medium (Joyner, 17/03/06).

Us Mob in Focus……

Whereas film and documentary traditionally created a ‘window’ into another world, Us Mob creates the window then pushes you through it and into that world.

Us Mob was created at a time when mainstream media discourses largely represent Indigenous Australians in the context of various Indigenous malaises – lack of health, lack of money, lack of jobs, lack of housing, and so on. It was created in the context of an education discourse in which Aboriginal culture, perspectives and history is still, quite often, not even represented at all.

Vadiveloo explained that the objective of Us Mob was to build a ‘dynamic communication bridge’ between Arrernte kids of Alice Springs, and children around the world (Ginsberg, 1). Us Mob derives its power not just from the engaging characters and realistic stories, but also from the way these tales are embedded so completely in an extensive range of additional interactive features. What better way to break down perceptual barriers, than to literally navigate yourself around an Aboriginal town camp home on a cyber-tour? You can travel alongside the kids in the films and they become like friends – you learn about their families and hobbies through their ‘scrapbooks’, watch their video diaries, email them letters and post your own info on the web. The discussion forum features messages posted from other Indigenous kids around Australia, from a Zibi in Poland and a Queensland Mununjali woman now living in Germany! The computer games such as ‘Bush Survivor’ drop you in the middle of the desert and challenge you to learn how to survive, Aboriginal way! (A refreshing alternative to the abundance of video games online, characterised by violence, competition and destruction.)

The website’s prime audience is school children in late primary and early to middle secondary years. It is, by nature, well-aligned with classroom use, as the shift from linear to interactive approaches in media is paralleled in contemporary education theory and practice as well. Students, like audiences, are no longer broadcasted or taught to, in a traditional didactic way. They are now challenged to access, interact and engage with knowledge as critical, savvy agents rather than as passive, unquestioning recipients.

The Flipside of the ‘Digital Age’

There are two flipsides to the emergence of this sophisticated technology, and the creators of Us Mob have created strong precedents for ways to address them both.

Firstly, as long as the Internet exists, there will be issues associated with unbridled access to information. How can digital storytellers ensure that their content is appropriately accessed and disseminated? When you’re providing content that’s free, how do you ensure that your work doesn’t get de-valued, by default? In the first encounter with the Us Mob home page, you are invited in but, as it would be if you visited the Arrernte kids on their town camp in Alice Springs, it notifies you that you need a permit to visit. Us Mob and Hidden Valley suggest another perspective on the digital age that invites kids from "elsewhere" to come over and play on their side (Ginsberg, 2). In other ways, Us Mob subverts the historically ethnocentric legacy of Indigenous discourse by foregrounding the Aboriginal experience and voice. The stories and content come straight from the community themselves – Vadiveloo’s community consultation had an overall gestation period of around 7 years. It is relevant that the elders requested that one of the films, which deals with the issue of petrol sniffing, only be accessed by people who have demonstrated a commitment to viewing the preceding films, so that they approach this particular film with a deeper understanding of the broader context in which this kind of substance abuse occurs (Joyner, 17/3/06). It’s an Aboriginal approach to knowledge which so much of the Internet is at odds with– where sharing knowledge is considered a privilege, a gift – not an assumed right – and there is the expectation that it’s given and received responsibly.

Secondly, despite the utopian promises of the ‘global village’ bringing people together, the flipside to the ‘digital age’ is the ‘digital divide’, creating further social stratification around the world between those who are ‘in’ the cyber community and those who get ‘left behind’ (Ginsberg, 1). In this more sombre light, projects like Us Mob which equip a highly marginalised group of people with the voice and skills to create the content and keep abreast of the technology, are of particular importance.

Conclusion

Us Mob exemplifies one of many exciting future paths for powerful storytelling using digital technology. It opens up many possibilities as to the future of media – and, for that matter, education - that is truly interactive in every sense of the word. Already, there is a whisper that in just a couple of years, classrooms will only exist in cyberspace, with students following internet-based curriculum from the comfort of their own homes. And just around the corner, we will find interactive storytelling replacing the television set on every home’s PC, where people will be able to choose from a range of stories (dramas, soaps, films, news) when they want and have the option of engaging with associated video games, correspondence and on-line forums, not unlike the current Us Mob site.

FOOTNOTES
1. One of the Us Mob films is as follows:
On screen, an Aboriginal boy piggybacks a friend on an old bike past a sacred site near a golf course in Alice Springs. The sky is clear and the landscape beautifully lit as they stop at a tap to drink. Looking around, they notice a shiny, expensive bike, unattended. Together they make a decision that could change everything . . . fade to black (Ginsberg, 1). At this point, the user must choose from alternative endings. In one scenario, the police are involved and in the other, friends fight as one boy challenges the other. It creates instant engagement with the story and characters, and a strong place to launch discussion about consequences and community.

2. The creators of Us Mob are currently seeking funding for on-going employment of Aboriginal people, through Alice Springs’ Tangentyere Council, to be responsible for the maintenance and development of the Us Mob website (Joyner, 17/03.06). Additionally, they run workshops in communities around Australia on basic video and web production.

Bibliography
1. Clonginger, C., ‘A Case for Web Storytelling’, 13/08/05 in www.alistapart.com/articles/storytelling (Accessed: 14/3/06)
2. Debelle, P., ‘Living Next Door to Alice’, in www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/ 10/15/1097784032642.html?oneclick=true, (18.10.04)
3. Dorner, J., ‘Writing for the Internet’, Oxford University Press, 2002, UK. 1-20.
4. Ginsberg, F., ‘Rethinking the Digital Age’, in Flow, Critical Forum on TV and Media Culture; www.jot.communication.utexas.edu/flow/?jot=view&id=528 1, (Accessed: 13/3/06)
5. Joyner, C., Interview with Suzi Taylor, 17/03/06
6. Meadows, M.S., “Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative’, p2 exerpts available at www.pause-effect.com (accessed 16/3/06)
7. Telstra Broadband Fund Overview; www.broadbandfund.telstra.com (accessed 14.3.06)
8. Us Mob: www.usmob.com.au (accessed 20/03/06)
9. XPT, ‘Online Caroline’, www.onlinecaroline.com, (Accessed 14/3/06)
10. Zion, L., ‘Projecting its own Image’, in European Network for Indigenous Australians; www.eniar.org/news/usmob.html

2 Comments:

  • Really good, thorough examination of a website and some of the general and specific issues around it.

    By Blogger Administration, at 11:31 am  

  • For anyone who wants to check it out, we've got access at ACMI in the Memory Grid. It's really popular! We had it off for a while and people kept asking for it to come back.

    By Blogger Nick Verso, at 6:59 pm  

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