Week 8: Steven Wheeler – Response to Viewings

During our last in-class session, Dr. Zimmerman remarked that our struggle with projects like Witness and EngageMedia may stem from the fact that we are not their primary audience or, to use a term coined by Umberto Eco, “model readers.”  This observation may seem like a truism to some, but it’s one I’ve been slowly digesting over the past couple weeks, thinking about who these model readers are and what happens when media texts make their to way to other, unintended audiences.


PostSecret, along with similar projects like Found, flip the aforementioned script — the unintended audience is their model reader.  Without any of the standard contextual cues to ground a reading, and with an author shrouded in mystery, their entries net an almost unique result in that the very act of reading them produces a generative effect.  In order to make sense of each post, readers must construct their own story, in effect transforming them into writers.


There are certainly other websites that encourage audience participation (La Buena Vida or Curious City comes to mind), but none that encode it (voluntarily or otherwise) into the process of reading.  This seems like a great way to engage viewers, but can it be expanded beyond PostSecret’s format?  Is there a way, for example, we could place such open-ended media in our projects?

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2 comments to Week 8: Steven Wheeler – Response to Viewings

  • Amanda

    Steven: I too found myself thinking about the nature of participation during each of the viewings this week, and I agree that PostSecret was the most immediate in it’s ability to draw (anyone) in and feel inherently participatory. It’s not just the subject matter, as the Hurricane subject matter is equally as compelling, but the universal frame of the subject: we all have secrets we don’t share. I also think the simplicity and the scrolling blog format that allows you to engage and continue engaging if you want to, is why we respond more easily to it. Minimizing clicks and backs and forwards is really important to “read” fluidly.

    My question around participation, however, is how to make it a natural part of the process. I noticed that on the Buena Vida website, only four people had submit online answers to the question. It was simple to interact with the Hurricane one, just something that looks like a Google form, but it’s clear that there’s curation of the submissions. What I noticed about all of these experiences is the different ways they appropriated the idea of participatory, for better or for worse. In a sense, it felt like the Buena Vida site was only participatory so that it could be called such, but I felt it was much more extractive. The hurricane one allowed for participation, but I found myself wanting it to truly take off and be a place where people uploaded stories, but I could feel the invisible hand of the archivist in its format. On the other hand, PostSecret, which doesn’t solicit, but only works if people submit, was the most honestly compelling for one to participate.

    What is participatory media? Is participation a necessary element of all of these pieces, or could they exist without it?

  • Joel

    Steven, I really like the observations you’ve made. I’m curious in particular about how you intend the term ‘encoding,’ and whether that is different from the idea of ‘engaging’ audiences. If someone is engaged it would seem that they’d be applying at least a weak form of activity on the object apprehended, which would entail some kind of organizing narrative. Would that be ‘encoding’? Submitting replies or user responses technically does encode data, but commentary is essentially separated from the subject of discussion, so I’m not sure that would count as being encoded into the process of reading (open discussions being excepted). I wonder whether ‘encoding’ unnecessarily privileges the external preservation of content when the meaning I take to be the focus of your discussion is more concerned with the imagination users apply to construct context for works perceived (in which case, we’re back to engagement).

    Alternatively, the Matrix website referenced in Spreadable Media might be a more concrete example of user-encoded reading. (Though it’s no longer live, the site (whatisthematrix.warnerbros.com) is still accessible via Webarchive.org.) I recall exploring the site after the first Matrix movie came out- it was an incredibly engaging because I could continue the sense of wonder I felt at the film, and because I felt like I was getting a chance to see content not widely available, since, in addition to being an obscure site, content was both hidden away through Easter eggs on the site and only released gradually. Both these factors increased user intrigue, which increases the amount users continue to extrapolate and interpret the content they’ve seen after they’ve come to the end of it. There’s your generative engagement, and as we later found, the encoding arrived with the creation of two more movies and a more complete series of the comics teased on the site, based on user interest and feedback based on the site. Notably, there was way to submit feedback on the site besides shedding data, and so the process of encoding was not so quick and direct as a comments field.

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