Story-Making Machines: Zeega

Rising Voices note: This article originally appeared at, a showcase and workshop for public media, with story workshops twice yearly and a new online workshop. The article is republished with permission.

We continue with our series of talks with people who build Story-Making Machines. Transom poses some questions. They send answers with examples of their tools in use. Meet Zeega Co-Founder Kara Oehler, radio producer and online multimedia innovator.

From the Zeega website:

“Zeega is a new form of interactive media, enabling anyone to express themselves by easily combining media from the cloud and sharing these creations with the world.”

Pro Tips with Alan Watts by Rich Jones. This remix of an Alan Watts lecture set to music and GIFs is a stirring meditation centered on questions we should steadfastly ask ourselves as we make our way through life. “Better to have a short life that is full of which you like doing,” Watts counsels, “than a long life spent in a miserable way.”

Transom: What was the inspiration for creating Zeega?

Kara Oehler (Chief Creative Officer, Zeega): We named Zeega after an inspirational figure for our entire team, Dziga Vertov. Working at the turn of the 20th century, he was a filmmaker and journalist who reimagined what news and storytelling would look like at a moment when radio, film, photography and the newspaper were new media themselves.

I think we're at a similar moment now with the Internet. The web has matured. We've seen new media of an earlier time translated onto the Internet. YouTube or Vimeo are the translation of video and film onto the web. The photograph has been democratized through sites like Flickr and Instagram. But these are all existing formats.

We're now seeing new formats emerge, propelling us into the web's next era. The animated GIF was probably the first web native format, and I believe its resurgence today signals the rise of web-native culture. The Tweet is another new format, where the constraint of 140 characters and the vocabulary of @username, #tags and links has become one of the most generative forms of communication today.

To date, if you were not a programmer or sitting on a giant bucket of money, it was impossible to bring together media from across the web to create new experiences. The blog was your best option — a scrollable list — not at all immersive, and which separates different types of media. We believe now is the time we can truly invent a new medium native to the networked age. Video and photography were possible before the internet. Zeega is possible because of the internet. With Zeega anyone can easily create and share interactive, immersive, audiovisual experiences that combine personal media with media from the cloud.

Transom: What makes your application different from other storytelling solutions?

KO: One thing that makes Zeega different is one of its founders is also a radio producer; a distinct focus on audio is built into our foundation. We privilege the ability to have a consistent sound experience combined with interaction through images, animation and text. Sound plays continuously, but viewers can control the visuals by swiping through at their own pace. We've found this format works especially well on mobile, as people typically don't like to watch passively.

Zeega also makes it easy to access media that already exists in the cloud. We curate relevant media daily from across the web, and you can quickly search the expansive content libraries of SoundCloud and Flickr. As far as we know, we're the only storytelling platform that integrates Giphy, an amazing new animated GIF search engine.

Transom: How did you get started?

KO: I've long believed in the power of media to impact society. I started working a decade ago in public radio. My work, often produced with Ann Heppermann, focused upon the overlooked stories of everyday America, from the Mexican border to the South Side of Chicago, from people's memories of their first childhood songs to the experiences of refugees across the nation.

In 2005, I started experimenting with the potential for new forms of storytelling using networked technology. With Jesse Shapins, I created Yellow Arrow : Capitol of Punk, a feature length documentary about the hardcore music scene in Washington DC. It was made for the web and told through ten short videos accessed via a map-based interface.

I first began working with James Burns to create Mapping Main Street, an ongoing participatory documentary of every street named Main Street in the United States, made with Heppermann as part of AIR's Makers Quest 2.0. The Mapping Main Street site brought together media from across the web into a single player, while automatically providing proper citations. In 2011, Jesse, James, myself, and our team started working on interactive projects through AIR's Localore. These were yearlong projects about topics ranging from fracking in North Dakota to the musical subcultures of Austin.

All of these projects in one way or another led to the thinking behind Zeega.

In March 2013, we moved from Cambridge, MA to San Francisco to work on Zeega full time. We're currently a part of Matter, a new accelerator created by KQED, the Knight Foundation and PRX for companies with a shared mission to “change media for good.”

Transom: What are a few of your favorite examples (include URL, and why these appeal to you)?

KO: We released an early version of the platform in advance of a showcase of Zeegas at SFMOMA in late May with the Kitchen Sisters. A few weeks later, we made the platform fully public. Zeegas have been created by people all over the world, from over 70 countries and 6 continents and used by publishers from The Atlantic to Mother Jones to PBS's Newshour to the CBC.

“The Lives of Conductors”— This Zeega by Cozette Russell beautifully illustrates the potential for using animated GIFs in a personal narrative. She uses GIFs and atmospheric train sound to illustrate her memories.

“La métamorphose d'un paradis qui se meure avec ses anges qui souffrent”— French photographer and author Pakua created a photo essay about life in Tahiti, where almost half of the population lives under the poverty line. His piece combines his black and white photography with sounds and text to explore the reality of Tahiti versus the cliché of the Tahitian paradise portrayed in travel catalogues.

“The Graduate”— A Zeega about the common feeling of anxiety after graduation, is one of my favorites. Most social media makes us all look the same — when a group of high school students saw this they remarked how different it was from their social media feeds during graduation, which were basically all indistinguishable caps and gowns. I'm excited Zeega enables people to express interiority, our feelings — things that often can't simply be documented with a photo.

Transom: What elements (with what qualifications) can be included in your presentations; e.g., video (must be at YouTube), audio (mp3, uploaded to our site)?

KO: A Zeega can include images, audio and text.

You can directly upload your own images to Zeega or use images from Flickr, Tumblr or Giphy. Audio is hosted on SoundCloud. For now, we don't anticipate offering direct audio upload because it's non-trivial technically to encode and stream media and these sites already do it well. You can also bring media into Zeega via absolute URLs that end in .gif, .jpg and .png.

A lot of people ask why we don't support video. Our answer: the core of Zeega is developing a new form of interactive media that matches this moment in time when mobile and tablet devices are becoming the primary mode of media consumption globally. So it's critical Zeegas play well on all devices and within all apps (e.g., a Zeega linked within Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr has to work beautifully). This context creates constraints. For example, it's not possible to have a video auto-play. It must be clicked to start, then takes over the whole screen (and the audio replaces the existing audio track in the Zeega). These are technological constraints, not constraints made by Zeega. We tested incorporating YouTube with this click-to-play experience, but our users kept being frustrated. Everyone wanted to have their video auto-play and to resize it just like GIFs. Because we could not support these essential features to make videos work well and match the Zeega experience, we disabled YouTube support. Over and over, we saw Zeegas with big play buttons that took users out of the immersive experience of the Zeega. As technology evolves, further down the line, we could imagine re-incorporating video.

Transom: Can the presentations at your site be embedded elsewhere?

KO: Zeegas can be experienced on any device. They each exist at a unique URL that can be immediately shared in Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or email. And Zeegas can easily be embedded within any existing platform with a simple iframe, just like YouTube videos.

Transom: Any new features coming this year?

KO: The next big feature will be a native iOS app that lets you create Zeegas entirely on your phone. We want people to be able to make Zeegas in the moment, both for personal storytelling and to enable journalists to produce interactive stories in the field. We'll also introduce the ability to follow other Zeega creators. So you'll have an ongoing feed of their creations, which you can easily repost as Zeegas. And we're experimenting with how that process will work differently in Zeega than in other platforms. For example, if you're an author, you could allow your Zeega to be re-mixable, making it possible to spark chains of creative expression.

Transom: Any good stories about building your storytelling tool: obstacles/hard-choices/revelations?

KO: Zeega, like any experimental platform or format, has changed dramatically over time. When we began prototyping, we really pushed the boundaries of what was possible in the web browser. We were optimistic web and mobile browsers would catch up to desktop browsers within a short time. Our alpha prototype application really went to the edges, letting you layer videos and audio and excerpt them and play with as many media tracks in one Zeega as you wanted. But they wouldn't play on a phone.

This alpha was out of line with the ways in which people experience stories on their phone and on tablets. So, for the past three months, we've forced ourselves to ensure a Zeega works on every device. For the widest possible distribution, we've limited ourselves to what's possible in the mobile web browser: so Zeegas play in the Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr apps. This mobile focus has also lead to a much simpler interface, so it's as easy to create Zeegas as something like Vine or Instagram, and it's accessible to anyone, not just professional storytellers.

“Nevin Öztop, a Turkish chappuling feminist, tells us why people are protesting”:

Transom: What have you learned about telling stories? About how we view, read, and hear them?

KO: Radio is such an intimate medium because you're connecting with someone's voice and words, but you put visuals from your own experiences on the stranger's story. And that creates a connection with a story that's very different from other mediums. People can do other things while they listen to radio. And sound swells or drops out at times in order to make sure the audience notices a particular moment or phrase, or feels a certain way. I used to always do a final edit in my car, driving around and listening to notice where I stopped paying attention — where the story lost me — those moments where the pacing was off and I stopped listening.

I think telling interactive stories still requires the same attention to narrative and aesthetics as any other medium. It's just that in an interactive story your narrative devices are completely different. Editing controls the pacing of interaction.

The New York Times interactive story “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” was a hugely impactful multimedia piece. Its creators say their main challenges were all about pacing, narrative tension and story arc — the same classic challenges facing any storyteller.

In the National Film Board of Canada interactive documentary “Welcome to Pine Point”, producers Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simmons said that after creating the piece, they spent two months removing things to click on so that the actual story didn't get lost.

The biggest challenge in interactive storytelling is how to author interactions so your audience follows the story you're trying to tell. If you add interactive atmospheric elements to a story, the question is: do they add value to the story? Are they distracting? To get this right, as with any piece, you have to create the piece and then adjust for narrative tension. You have to invent the best way to tell that particular story.

With Zeega, we've tried to make it easy to have a nice blend of storytelling, interaction and immersion. So we significantly limit how much information people can put on a page; this ensures the narrative remains central, unlike the rest of the cluttered internet.

The fundamental premise of Zeega is the web is an interactive, audiovisual medium. We are living through an incredible moment of innovation in this arena. As interactive storytellers ourselves, it's so exciting. Every tool helps advance the discussion about the future of the web and what makes quality, engaging interactive experiences.

Transom: On what technologies does your product, and its embeds, depend, e.g., JavaScript, Flash, HTML5, CSS3?

KO: Zeega is a 100% HTML5-based application. There's no Flash. So it's very JavaScript heavy on the front end. Zeega is running on our own internal API built in PHP, which accesses a MongoDB database.

Transom: Can your users export their work in any format (e.g., HTML, XML), to archive it, or even use it in another application? (Putting this indelicately, if your project does not succeed, and you're forced to close doors, what can your users reclaim that might be useful elsewhere?)

KO: On the most basic technical level, a Zeega is just a JSON document that is parsed into legible HTML/CSS by the Zeega player. We plan to let users download the JSON for their Zeega. The code for the player is available on Github.

In terms of archiving, the tricky part is if you use content other than your own. While content is available through 3rd-party APIs for cloud-based playback, actually copying a file would violate copyright if it is not permitted by the existing license (e.g., Creative Commons) or if you don't have permission from the author.

KO: Kara Oehler is Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Zeega.

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