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24 hours: The life and death of a social media documentary


A company offering its expertise in navigating the digital space to others certainly needs to prove innovation and a sound understanding of the do’s and don’ts and the how’s and why’s. This is why frayintermedia decided to step up and innovate, showing a willingness to experiment, with an Instagram Documentary.

What we did

For this social media experiment we decided to track a group of American student journalists in Johannesburg as they moved to cover stories. For a whole week we documented them as they documented others for their stories - a tad bit of inception, we must admit!

The following week we took to posting the content - day by day - as Instagram Stories, a feature that allows users to post content that does not show up in the regular Instagram feed and disappears after 24 hours.

Each of the stories was posted exactly one week after the experience, which the first Monday documented posted the following week Monday as #Day1. Tuesday’s experiences were posted the following Tuesday as #Day2 and so the week continued. Each day’s post made use of the same opening slides to introduce the stories as a series and ended with a slide advising users to “Catch us again tomorrow…"

By the time the next episode of the documentary series appeared, the previous day’s posts would almost all have disappeared already. Our content included videos of the journalists interviewing their subjects, ‘selfie-diaries’ by the journalists in the evenings that captured the day’s events, videos of the group discussing interviews amongst themselves, photos of their production processes and snippets of quotes by interviewees.

Documentaries - The long form article of visual storytelling. Usually associated with factual information, video documentation of real-life events and old men in Khaki shorts and Land Rovers.

The conversation

The thought of creating a visual experience best described as something of a hybrid between documentaries and social media stories feels a little bit dirty. Factual, real-life stories published on social media only to disappear after 24 hours as if they never even happened?

The possibility has the feel of a black hole - one of internal conversations and inner conflict that threatens to suck you in, swallow you whole and spit out the pieces - a bit like Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch movie where viewers are able to make choices for characters which then lead them to one of five possible endings. This, the first adult version of “choose-your-own-adventure” (which Netflix is now being sued for) had viewers excitedly engaged in heated debates about whether this could be the future of films.

Social media documentaries may not have a function (just yet) that allows you to decide what the character does, but they are certainly an integral part of the conversation when it comes to the future of content, video, viewer engagement and the newfound power the viewer is given to interact with and influence the narrative.

How to make a social media documentary

The ‘social media’ element of social media documentaries mean that you as content creator need to be reactive to your audience. If you track your views on #Day1 slide by slide and you pinpoint the exact point that your viewers start dropping off, you can make sure not to repeat the same mistakes the next day. This changes many elements of how we think about production compared to traditional documentary making - now mere viewership and audience engagement changes the look, and sometimes even the narrative, of what happens next.

Further engagement includes viewers posting questions or comments, either about content or about delivery that may change the creator’s storytelling considerations or what they include in their next episode.

One thing that you need to be aware of is that your target audience is constantly shifting. On the one hand you know your content will be seen by your regular following - those people who are most likely to be interested in the same content as you. But on the other hand you could attract a whole new crowd to your page and your product through creative use of hashtags and mentions that may not traditionally appear in your feed.

Packaging of your documentary is important. It is exactly this that will set you apart from other accounts and from those on the platform in a personal, non-professional capacity. Creating a graphic or video intro with a jingle for the series will give viewers context and a feel for what you are posting. It also shows that your posts have been well thought-through and have a structure. By doing this, you as creator are stepping into a position of authority over the content you post.

But not everything in new media has to be new. As creator, you may still consider techniques used in traditional documentaries to aid storytelling - there may still be a place for elements like cutaways and narration. For example, if your subject is referring to something that dominated news headlines in the past, a creator could consider adding a screenshot of a news article or video or sound snippet from a news broadcast.

Narration could take the form of an on-camera presenter or a text slide explaining parts of the story. Narration helps you as a storyteller to tie up loose ends and connect content or concepts from previous days or previous episodes. This requires you to write a script beforehand, outlining a number of considerations and asking some important questions. What does every episode in the series look like? Which parts should be posted and how does each piece of content add to the documentary in its entirety? As with any script, you need to decide on an introduction, a middle and an end. Once you decide on your story’s narrative, you should be able to proceed and only tweak minor details as you go along and realise shortfalls in your content. Proper content planning can also help you avoid mistakes - if you post the wrong slide you can delete it, but you cannot go back and repost it.

Lastly, and the most important part - your content. To keep your offerings professional, content needs to look good, use good filming techniques, sound good and have clear audio. Your footage should be steady and have good lighting, which means a good phone and sound camera abilities are important. Instagram limits the size and length of the video you can upload - about 10 seconds - before it cuts out and posts the rest of your video as a following slide.

You may not always be lucky enough to have a clip of the perfect length with a steady beginning and end. While most phones already have a built-in function to trim your video, there are many apps to download that fulfil the same function. Adobe recently launched Premiere Rush, an application similar to Premiere Pro (a professional desktop video editing app) but tailor-made for your smartphone.

And there you have it - you are now ready to take up the challenge and create your own social media documentary. Step into the future - a thrilling experience of instant publishing and real time feedback, coupled with the bittersweet tug as you watch your content disappear again, slide by slide, the next morning.

#Bandersnatch #Instagramdocumentary #BlackMirror #Howtomakeadocumentary

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