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Oct. 31, 2011, 2 p.m.

Zeega makes interactive storytelling simple (but don’t call it a WYSIWYG)

The software taps the brainpower of visual artists, technologists, and journalists to deliver surprising user experiences.

Zeega logoJournalists and coders on Sunday got a first look at Zeega, a web application that aims to help journalists create rich, interactive stories with drag-and-drop ease. Co-founder Jesse Shapins showed it off at WFMU’s Radiovision Festival, which brought together storytellers and coders to discuss the future of radio and civic media.

The still-in-alpha software feels like Storify for multimedia: As you travel across the web, use a simple bookmarklet to collect media fragments — a Flickr image, a YouTube video, a track from the Free Music Archive — and dump it into a project bin. You can share your project bin and invite others to collaborate on the story. The editor interface is simple: Select a few seconds from a video, cut it with a few seconds of another video, drop in a music track, and suddenly you have a little story. You can even prompt the user to call a number or send a text message, delivering a surprising bit of audio in return. The output is pure HTML5, no Flash.

The Storify analogy is limited, Shapins said. The web app — which may not hit beta for several months — is just part of the mission. He sees the project as, eventually, “an OS within which you can write applications.” Zeega is not new software, he says — it’s a new medium.

“We’ve been inspired by the communities that have formed around independent audio and film — really remarkable groups of people that are passionate about telling stories in really powerful ways, but also communities of design and programming that have formed around projects like Processing, where you have an incredible group of people that are testing and inventing experimental visualizations and hacking on physical objects,” Shapins told me.

“The community that we’re trying to build with Zeega is one where those come together, where you have that design and creative technology community sharing a common space with the documentary/storytelling/journalism community.”

The Zeega team itself is as diverse as the community it wants to serve. Shapins is a self-described media theorist and student of architecture; editor Kara Oehler is a radio documentarian; technology director James Burns is a trained economist and self-taught programmer and artist.

Zeega got a shot in the arm this summer with a $420,000 Knight News Challenge grant. The startup is an outgrowth of Harvard’s Berkman Center and now resides at a new Harvard space called metaLAB.

“You should have a culture within journalism of creativity around interaction, around the ways in which code works, and what the code makes possible.”

The organization is partnering with the Association of Independents in Radio for Localore, a competitive grant program that will pair up new-media producers with public radio stations across the country. The 10 winners will be able to use the Zeega software for their projects.

Tools that make this sort of chop-and-remix work easier often face a backlash from traditionalists who would rather people learn the harder underlying skills, whether that’s writing code or mastering Final Cut. I asked Shapins if Zeega is just another WYSIWYG.

“I strongly believe that it’s a really good idea to create great user interfaces that allow people to make things that are really fun for other people to experience. I wouldn’t call it a WYSIWYG,” Shapins said.

“I do think you should have a culture within journalism of creativity around interaction, around the ways in which code works, and what the code makes possible. That doesn’t mean making a journalist learn to write every single programming language that exists. If they’re able to have a rich understanding of the creative possibilities, they can creatively approach the projects that they create.”

The project raises interesting questions of intellectual property rights, since users are encouraged to use other people’s work for their own mashups. Shapins insists the software passes fair-use muster, both because credit is attached to each piece of media and because the Zeega servers don’t host the files. If you can quote from a text, why can’t you “quote” a few frames from a video or animated GIF?

Zeega, by the way, is named for Dziga Vertov, a documentary filmmaker who lived at the turn of the 20th century. Vertov’s real name was Denis Kaufman, but he is said to have adopted the name because he loved the “z-z-z-z” sound of cranking a camera.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2011, 2 p.m.
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