Columbia’s first annual Digital Dozen awards

Columbia’s first annual Digital Dozen awards

January 29, 2016

This is the final post in the Deep Media blog.

What began in 2009 as an experimental testing ground for The Art of Immersion—then a work in progress—gradually evolved into something more like journalism. By that point, with the awards program and my Strategic Storytelling seminar at Columbia taking up more and more time, it made sense to focus my journalistic efforts on my work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

From the moment I published The Art of Immersion—what, five years ago?—I’ve been focused on the idea that digital means blurring boundaries. The in­dustrial age was all about categorization, in media as elsewhere: You had news­papers, magazines, movies, radio, television, each with its own dis­tinctive format and delivery mechanism. To see a movie you went to a movie theater; to listen to radio you turned on the radio; to watch television you turned on the TV set; to read a newspaper you had to pick it up from the driveway. But now, except for the movie theater (sometimes), that’s all rapidly becoming history.

So why do digital me­dia—books, video, video games, advertising, art, journal­ism—still exist for the most part in their own separate universes? Not that they’d ever be the same thing, but you might expect more crossover. That was one of the questions I had in mind when I helped launch the Colum­bia Digital Storytelling Lab’s “Digital Dozen: Break­throughs in Story­telling” awards.

A bit of background: I’ve been involved for awhile with the Digital Story­telling Lab, which Lance Weiler founded a few years back with several other Colum­bia people, most notably Ira Deutch­man, indie movie producer and then-chair of the film program at Colum­bia Univer­sity School of the Arts, and David K. Park, the univer­sity’s Dean of Strategic Initia­tives. We met one after­noon to discuss future projects, and a day or two later it occurred to me that while there were numerous honors and awards for different cate­gories of dig­ital me­dia—the Webbies, the Cannes Lions’ Tita­nium awards, the Tribeca Film Fes­tival’s Story­scapes, and so on—there was nothing that cut across those lines. So I emailed Lance and the others—including Paul Wool­mington, with whom I launched the Columbia exec ed seminar in Dig­ital Story­telling Strategy—and we quickly decided to put together a list of the past year’s breakthrough ex­periences in digital narrative.

There was no shortage of projects to consider. I pay pretty close attention to art, movies, and journalism, among other things. Paul—who was recently named CEO of the startup media agency Canvas Worldwide—is deep into marketing and advertising. Lance—who’s been leading his own inno­vative story­tell­ing project, “Sherlock Holmes and the Inter­net of Things,” with lab asso­ciate and award-winning game designer Nick For­tugno—is on top of all things experi­mental, be they docs or books or games.

What we came up with is a cross-section of digital and digitally enhanced narratives. They rely on a wide range of technologies, from beacons to vir­tual reality to face-substitution software. Some take place entirely online; others exist as purely physical experiences; still others bridge the gap. And in terms of genres, they include a novel, a video game, an ad campaign, journalism, apps, artworks, even an opera. In that sense, one of the key breakthroughs was, literally, breaking through.

Here’s the list (in alphabetical order). For a fuller description of the projects, please visit the Digital Dozen website. And we are planning to make this an annual event—so if you have any thoughts on this or any suggestions for next year’s list, please let me know in the comments section below.

Absolut Silverpoint, an app-based advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka that for two weeks in London combined game, story, immersive theater, and (for some) a free drink.

The Deeper They Bury Me: A Call from Herman Wallace, an online doc­umen­tary in the form of a phone call from a man who spent 40 years in sol­itary.

The Displaced, a vir­tual reality experience that introduced readers of The New York Times Magazine to three of the 30,000 children who are among the world’s refugees.

Door into the Dark, a physic­ally immersive experi­ence that uses digital tech­nology to encourage people to think about what it means to be lost.

Freedom, an art installa­tion that employs video and life-sized Tele­tubby statues in SWAT team gear to provide a caustic commentary on police vio­lence, per­sonal data, and political dys­function.

The Hopscotch Opera, an opera per­formed in private limo­usines and in iconic lo­ca­tions in and around down­town Los Angeles, with scenes presented seem­ingly at random.

Karen, an app from a “life coach” who starts off profession­ally enough but quick­ly veers into inappro­priate territory.

Life Is Strange, a video game about a high-school girl who discovers she can re­wind time—a useful gift that at a certain point turns unexpectedly prob­lematic.

Mukto-Mona, an online community for Bengali free-thinkers and secularists that lost its founder, its founder’s book publisher, and two of its bloggers to machete-wielding Islamic fundamentalists in Bangladesh last year.

Network Effect: Human Life on the Internet, an online video experience that por­trays Internet existence as frenetic and obsessive and suggests we periodic­ally disconnect.

The Pickle Index, a comic novel told in three forms: a paperback book, a lav­ishly illustrated two-volume hardcover, and a mobile app that thrusts the read­er into the world of the story.

This Is the Story of One Block in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, a New York magazine cover story about urban gentrification that appears online in its true form—as a nonlinear series of linked narratives and data visualizations.

The Sea We Swim In

"'The Sea We Swim In' is an essential master class in how to think about that next pitch you need to make, letter you want to write, speech you have to deliver, or anything else you hope will be persuasive. The right story can open up a person's heart and change their mind far more effectively than an argument or set of data—and Frank Rose explains it all beautifully."

—Daniel J. Levitin, best-selling author of "This Is Your Brain on Music" and "The Organized Mind"

The Art of Immersion

"For anyone even remotely interested in a how-we-got-here-and-where-we’re-going guide to interactive, socially networked entertainment, it’s an essential read."

— Empire (UK)

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