What the Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown Experiment Can Teach Journalism

The Arcade Fire just teamed up with Google for an incredible new kind of music video that isn’t just about introducing people to new music, but also introducing people to a new way of experiencing the web. The project – dubbed “The Wilderness Downtown” – is a multi-modal, multi-browser, personalized, music video that was built to showcase the HTML5 web standard.

I’m not a programmer, and I can’t give you a run down of HTML5, but I can tell you that this video is one of those moments that reinstates a sense of awe into web browsing. It is an example of just how powerful the web can be, and points at some important lessons about where media online is headed. If you haven’t visited “The Wilderness Downtown” yet. Go. Now. I’ll wait.

So what might “The Wilderness Downtown” suggest for the future of media and journalism online?

Make it well.
First and foremost, each of the elements of this project are well made. The graphics are lovely, the music is fantastic, and it runs smoothly. While the overall product was designed to showcase some flashy new technology, all of its individual pieces were top notch. This is important. Sometimes the future of journalism conversation get’s too wrapped up on the next new tech tool – tablets, apps, databases – but none of that is relevant if we don’t have the quality journalism, vital news, and meaningful analysis that we need and want. This video combines the excitement of a novel experience built on the foundation of quality content.

Make it local.
The first thing you do when you go to the project website is enter you childhood street address. Using that info, the music video is built around you and your personal geography. Images and maps of your home are interwoven with the video. This is a powerful component of the video and reminds us of two things: 1) people’s homes, their local communities, matter deeply to them and 2) people are increasingly looking for ways to add context to the content they consume online by connecting it more fully to the world beyond their computers. People don’t want mass produced AP wire stories, they want local coverage of local issues and analysis of how national news impacts them.

Make it personal.
Inherent in the local element described above is also a personal element. By personal I don’t necessarily mean customizable. Instead, I mean that it should be relevant, meaningful, and useful to the reader. Jay Rosen captured this notion of the personal in a recent interview with the Economist. He said, “Journalists should describe the world in a way that helps us participate in political life. That is what they are ‘for’. But too often they position us as savvy analysts of a scene we are encouraged to view from a certain distance, as if we were spectators to our own democracy.” Thus, making it person is fundamentally about both the reader and the journalist. It’s about resisting the “view from nowhere” (another Rosen term) and asserting instead the voice of the journalists over the institution.

Make it together.
This project was an incredible collaboration: Arcade Fire’s music, Google’s technology, and Chris Milk’s directing combine to create something entirely new and fresh. Reporting and distribution partnerships are a growing trend in journalism (see my inventory of new journalism collaborations here). However, there are some projects where people and organizations are coming together to build things none of them could have done on their own. I think of The Media Consortium, Hacks and Hackers, and PubMedia Camps, as well as others. We need to see more of this kid of collaboration. The “Wilderness Downtown” also partners with the audience, inviting them to help shape the project, not just by putting in their address but also by writing virtual postcards that become part of the online exhibit (more on that below).

Make it shareable.
“The Wilderness Downtown” includes a number of ways that people can share it. You can send your personalized video, with your neighborhood embedded in it, to others, and you can share a static URL of the postcard you write. You can browse other people’s postcards, write comments, and start a conversation. This is just the most recent in a long string of ways Arcade Fire is engaging its audience and using social media to spread their music. Earlier this month they streamed a concert live on YouTube (and let viewers online be the director, choosing camera angles) and they have partnered with Amazon and Twitter on special deals on CDs and downloads. (h/t to Mashable for their piece on Arcade Fire). As journalism becomes more shareable it becomes the building blocks for a national conversation, and as people share, comment and connect stories with others it builds better context.

Make it and remake it.
What makes this project more than just another web fad is the way the band is collaborating with their fans to connect the virtual world with the physical world. On the site they indicate that their upcoming tour will include “The Wilderness Machine,” which will take these virtual postcards and print them on special paper embedded with seeds, that concert goers can take, read, share, add to and even plant. The lessons here for journalism are two fold: 1) Journalism is a process, it’s ongoing. Stories develop over time, build and change. We should think about how our stories develop across platforms and connect the pieces through time. 2) There is great value in bringing your audience into that process. Talking Points Memo exemplifies this model, making transparent the way a story develops over time, as others have noted.

Of course not every story will employ all of these various techniques – nor should it. At it’s most basic, what the “The Wilderness Downtown” does is point out a new way of telling stories online. It is beautiful, immersive, and engaging. It calls us to participate, to follow up, to stay engaged. It challenges us, inspires us, awes us. All of these are qualities we need in the news.

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11 thoughts on “What the Arcade Fire’s Wilderness Downtown Experiment Can Teach Journalism

  1. Great post, Josh. the challenge is always to get beyond some of the technology and start thinking about the types of possibilities you list here. It won’t be easy, but there’s exciting potential here.

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  3. I have been checking out the project all day with friends and we are having trouble.When we enter postcard codes to retrieve we get an error message on THE WILDERNESS DOWNTOWN…Google Chrome experiment

  4. thanks for this thoughtful response to WD. I am currently working on ideas of how works like this could be handled in a library/museum setting as far as exhibition, curation and archiving–
    It is interesting how we will try to preserve these types of works.

    thanks.
    a

    • I would love to hear more about how things like this could be used in libraries – seems a fantastic way to connect and engage communities in art, texts, information and discussion.

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