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Interactive Journalism: An Introduction to Web Documentaries

(Bollendorff, 2008)

In this age of cutting-edge technology and global connectivity, cinemas are dominated by 3D technology and video games are being transformed by VR (virtual reality) goggles and gadgets. At the same time, documentary storytelling has also changed due to technological advancements.

The web documentary (web doc) or interactive documentary is emerging as a whole new way of expression for filmmakers and journalists. Sure, it can be argued that a documentary can be seen in 3D, but web docs offer more than just the spectacle of tridimensional cinema. This article explores the evolution and theory of web documentaries, and gives relevant examples.

The Evolution of Documentary

The digital revolution of the past years has transformed traditional media and opened possibilities for the emergence of new interactive structures. This has been the case with the documentary, which has evolved to offer the spectator more than just a passive experience. With the help of interactive and engaging tools, the viewer can now explore the documentary as an active user and is given the power to navigate easily through the narrative. First, however, to understand this new way of making and experiencing a documentary, one must look back at the traditions of the genre.

What makes a documentary? The general perspective is that any film that records reality instead of fiction, is a documentary. However, the documentary genre is not that simple to define. Some writers focus on the social function of this type of film, saying that a documentary "speaks to the viewer as citizen, as a member of the social collective, as putative participant in the public sphere" (Chanan, 2007, p. 16). Film theorist David Bordwell gives a somewhat standard definition but focuses on the authorship of the filmmaker: “Every documentary aims to present factual information about the world, but the ways in which this can be done are just as varied as for fiction films" (Thompson & Bordwell, 2008, p. 338).

(Vertov, 1929)

With the development of interactive and collaborative online projects and the emergence of social media, the documentary has also evolved to become more participatory and opened its structure, which offered the viewer more freedom. The new type of documentary can be studied as what is known nowadays as an apparatus. According to philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the aim of the apparatus is “to manage, govern, control and orient - in a way that purports to be useful - the behaviors, gestures, and thoughts of human beings" (Agamben, 2009, p. 12). From this definition, it seems that the documentary has evolved to be somewhat restrictive, which is not true, given the logic of interactivity which characterizes it in the digital age. These new socio-cultural products are flexible and possess the ability to create a community around them, a characteristic that is borrowed from social media.

The evolution of traditional documentary is also part of what is known as media convergence. According to media expert Henry Jenkins, this concept means: “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want" (Jenkins, 2006, p. 2). Convergence relies heavily on consumer participation, an aspect that will affect the genre of the documentary. While the technical aspect of the convergence culture is important, Jenkins argues that it should not be understood primarily as a technological process. Instead, the scholar says that: "convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content” (Jenkins, 2006, p. 3).

The Genre of Web Documentary

Defining the new documentary is a difficult task because it is still an emergent genre and it can be studied from many perspectives. However, there is a body of relevant literature that explains and places the new documentary into a socio-cultural context.

Media lecturer Kate Nash focuses on the internet as a unique platform by saying that the concept of web documentary: ”describes a body of documentary work, distributed via the internet that is both multi-media and interactive" (Nash, 2012, p. 197).

This seems like a concise and workable definition but other scholars believe these documentaries are even more expansive. For example, multimedia researcher Arnau Gifreu defines these digital projects by calling them by another name: ”interactive online/offline applications, carried out with the intention to represent reality with their own mechanisms, which we will call navigation and interaction modalities, depending on the degree of participation under consideration" (Gifreu, 2011, p. 358).

These definitions make clear references to the traditional documentary. Kate Nash studied the relation between the two types of documentaries from several perspectives and found similarities that place the web doc within the documentary tradition: "the institutions and contexts of production, textual conventions and continuities of purpose" (Nash, 2012, p.197). At the same time, web documentaries use the same form as traditional ones, utilizing interviews and observational sequences, sound and images collected on location, and other elements associated with the reportage. Moreover, the socially conscious philosophy of the old documentary is also retained by the interactive one. Perhaps even more engaged in political and social life, online documentarists and journalists turn their attention to humanitarian and environmental issues.

(Simons & Shoebridge, 2011)

While there are many similarities between the traditional documentary and the web documentary, there is, however, an aspect that has changed with the emergence of interactivity and that is the position of the filmmaker/author. Questions of control, vision, and message are raised in an interactive environment in which the user can choose what to explore from the product and how to explore it.

Most scholars and artists insist that this is not the end of authorship but an opportunity to explore the form. Interactive artist Sharon Daniel considers that her job as the author is to provide “the means, or tools that will induce others to speak for themselves, and the context in which they may be heard" (Daniel, 2012, p.217).

Sandra Gaudenzi is probably the most important researcher in the new documentary area. Her taxonomy of openness is perhaps the most workable when it comes to understanding web docs.

The Logic of Openness

Gaudenzi’s idea of openness is split into three categories: ”semi-closed (when the user can browse but not change the content), semi-open (when the user can participate but not change the structure of the interactive documentary) or completely open (when the user and the interactive documentary constantly change and adapt to each other)" (Gaudenzi, 2013, p.177).

An example of a semi-closed documentary is Welcome to Pine Point (2010), a collage of film and photography, which explores the former mining community of Pine Point, Canada. The documentary, created by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge, seems like a linear one, the story being unfolded through written passages. However, the user can choose to browse through images as well. The project also includes clickable sketches and drawings which give the participant a feeling of nostalgia. Apart from this feature, the user can also interact with other objects like badges and various advertisement cards, which complete the interactive story of Pine Point.

The semi-open project Journey to the End of Coal (2008) tells the story of migrant workers who risk their lives every day, in Chinese coal mines. Samuel Bollendorff's documentary consists of hundreds of photographs, three hours of film, and 10 hours of sound materials and it truly captures the claustrophobic atmosphere of a mine. The viewer can ask questions to the miners, choose the direction of the film, and collect additional information. This project can be considered more open than the first one due to two aspects. Firstly, the cinematic and photographic techniques are more engaging. The filmmakers shot the footage from the first-person point of view and placed the miners in front of the camera. Secondly, the interactive element draws more inspiration from game elements; the user is immersed in the role of a journalist in the middle of an active investigation.

(Bard, 2007)

The completely open documentary challenges its users to adapt to its constantly changing content. This is the case with an interesting project launched in 2007, called Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake. Visual artist Perry Bard encourages users to upload images reinterpreting Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In Bard's experiment, the screen is split in half and the classic documentary is being played on the left side while the shot-for-shot remake is shown on the right. Sometimes, the right part is blank because no one has uploaded anything for that moment. It is important to know that a new version of the remake is built every day. Multiple uploads on a single shot are rotated each day and that is the essence of a completely open interactive documentary. The process changes the way the audience relates to the content and it also removes the 1929 film from its original context. Vertov's film documents the progression of one full day by combining footage from Kyiv, Riga, and Moscow. The almost chaotic camera concentrates on things such as rail tracks, streets, and parks. Humans are just extras in this complicated symphony dedicated to the city. Moreover, the images do not seem to be shot in different cities and they still retain some elements of communist propaganda. Through the interactive documentary, Bard takes the celebration of movement from the 1929 film and places it in a context that is dominated by diversity and connectivity.

This genre of the web documentary represents a fresh presence in the new media paradigm. It is a new, interactive way of building a compelling story, which is used by journalists and filmmakers who wish to engage with their audience and build a cohesive community around their projects. As it’s evolving, the new documentary continues to pose questions about authorship and agency. By answering these questions and exploring the works of interactive documentarists and journalists, scholars and viewers/users can understand this new medium marked by convergence and help its development.


  • Chanan, M. (2007). The Politics of Documentary, British Film Institute

  • Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film Art: An Introduction (8nd ed.). McGraw-Hil Publishing Company

  • Agamben, G. (2009). What is an apparatus? and other essays. Translated by Kishik, D., & Pedatella, S., Stanford University Press

  • Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture, New York: New York University Press

  • Nash, K. (2012). Modes of interactivity: analysing the webdoc. Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 34, No. 2, p.195-210

  • Gifreu, A. (2011). The Interactive Documentary. Definition Proposal and Basic Features of the Emerging Genre. McLuhan Galaxy Conference Proceedings, p.354-365

  • Daniel, S. (2012). On Politics and Aesthetics: A Case Study of ‘Public Secrets’ and ‘Blood Sugar’. . Studies in Documentary Film, Vol. 6, No. 2, p.215–227

  • Gaudenzi, S. (2013). The Living Documentary: from representing reality to co-creating reality in digital interactive documentary. University of Goldsmiths, Centre for Cultural Studies, London

Image References:

  • Bollendorff, S. (2008). Journey to the End of Coal. [Photo]

  • Vertov, D. (1929). Man with a Movie Camera. [Photo]

  • Simons, M. & Shoebridge, P. (2011). Welcome to Pine Point. [Photo]

  • Bard, P. (2007). Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake. [Photo]


Didem Bezek
Didem Bezek
Jan 10, 2022

I love the article! It informs how well journalism is adapted to our current time with digital necessities.


Patricia Estenoso
Patricia Estenoso
Jan 10, 2022

A great article explaining how interactive journalism works. Truly relevant in a world where hyper realistic technology makes everything possible!

Author Photo

Sergiu Inizian

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