18 Days in Egypt Co-Creators Jigar Mehta and Yasmin Elayat

18 Days in Egypt, a crowdsourced documentary created by Jigar Mehta, a documentary filmmaker and journalist, and Yasmin Elayat, an interaction designer, aims to create a new form of documentary that enables participants to chronicle the Egyptian Revolution through their own voices by uploading their footage, photos, tweets, and Facebook status updates.

Both of the founders connected and experienced the Egyptian Revolution online, Mehta from a journalism point of view, and Elayat, from a personal point of view, having her family go through this major upheaval in her home country. They realized that the best way to tell the most authentic story was through the people who were actually there.

With the partnership of Emerge Technology, an Egyptian software company, the creators have created an interactive platform that allows an audience to explore the stories on their own and builds a community of wide-ranging narratives. I spoke with Mehta about the decisions, process, and adjustments made in launching a crowdsourced documentary.

What was the idea behind the project?

The idea behind 18 Days in Egypt is to really re-envision the documentary of the future and to get the audience closer to the storytellers. In our case, the storytellers are the people that actually lived these experiences and what we want to do is collect hundreds of moments through people’s social media they created in those moments and using the photos and the videos people took on their cell phones and cameras to be the start of their own storytelling experience.

We really believe that each individual media piece that someone created, whether in the 18 days or the time since, are the start of a much larger story. We want to encourage those stories to be told by people directly or through the assistance of our fellows.

How does the storytelling work?

A lot of the narratives are pooled by the fellows. You can see text cards to guide the user through the experience. It works in a lot of different ways. Some are more traditionally narrative-driven, taking you through a journey. Other people just upload the media they created, whether tweets or photos or videos, and they kind of just mash it together and say this was my experience on this day. Obviously some are more crafted. Those probably come from people who are more natural storytellers, whether they are journalists or filmmakers or our fellows. Others are just more for those who come to our site who want to tell a story and want to tell it quickly.

Can you talk about the decision to use fellows? Why did you start out with a small group of users?

The 18 Days in Egypt fellows are responsible for gathering media, conducting interviews and serving as a bridge between the online community and offline world.

We see this as a longitudinal project. It’s not something that we go, OK, we’re going to do it for two weeks, and then move on. This is a people’s history, and history takes a long time.

Two main ideas behind the fellows. One was to help set the tone of the project and for us, to really experiment and understand what are the stories that work best on the site, and having that close group that we can work immediately with. Second thing is that besides being able to rapidly prototype with them… this is essentially a new country, not in practice, but in mentality, and these young fellows that work with us, this is their country. They are going to be the next storytellers, journalists and filmmakers that will tell the story of Egypt five, 10, 30 years from now. For me, it was important to have a fellowship program that encourages them to take ownership of their story. One way to do that is to give them agency.

You mentioned in an article that the fellows act as a bridge. Do you think having a bridge between the online platform and the offline world (the Egyptians telling their stories) is a key element to producing a successful crowdsourced documentary?

Absolutely. I think every crowdsourced effort has to have that bridge. You need to have that core group of users who will either supply content to the site or be evangelists for the site, be out there promoting and saying why this thing is important. We only have so many hours of the day. There are so many things fighting for our attention. You really do need someone out there to be that bridge.

Some stories are in English, while others are in Arabic. Who’s your target audience and how is language factored into this?

The 18 Days in Egypt website features streams of crowdsourced stories.

We built this site both in English and Arabic. Right now, we do see the Egyptian population as more of the audience at this point. There’s this idea of the collective history, and the history still needs to be written. We’ll round out a larger experience for a more global audience, but to get there, I would like to see the best stories being told in both English and Arabic. We are at the equivalent of an “assembly edit” in a documentary. You need to come to the site having an understanding where the project is to understand what you’re looking at, and we get that. That’s why the audience right now is much more focused on the Egyptian audience, and not a global audience.

That said, the way the site looks now, it would never look this way again. It’s an evolving project. It changes every time. We learn from it. Recently, we released this feature where you can start following the different participants in the project. If you click on any of the bylines, you can actually pull up a user page, and it shows all the stories that person has been a part of. That’s a powerful way of saying there’s a thousands of stories, but I want to see the stories that Dina or Mustafa did or were a part of, in which, you can see their individual experience. These are some of the filters that we want to see more and more of.

What is the process of reaching out to people to tell these stories?

It’s a multi-faceted campaign. We definitely have a social media outreach. We try to be active on Facebook and Twitter, and where we can find the natural storytellers already. Secondly, we also have an on-the-ground effort through our fellows. We’re trying to become more robust with our partnership, working with organizations, whether they’re student groups at the American University in Cairo or NGOs who have been doing work throughout the revolution since it started helping to tell their stories along the site. The third partner we would like to work with are filmmakers who are there either having already done films or are doing films now related to the revolution.

How do users experience these stories?

The technology team has built a simple slideshow. We want users to have an instant story that they can share, but we realize that we need to build this site in a way that can always evolve – using the data to create new experiences. We haven’t actually settled on what the final experience will be yet of these stories, but we do know what we want is to have any audience coming into our site to feel empathy for the characters. We understand that the way most people who experienced the Egyptian revolution was that millions of people came out into the streets and overthrew a regime. The individual characters or participants in that movement has been lost, other than the few characters who have been amplified by the media. The millions of people have been boiled down to those few characters.

18daysinegypt.com solicits user-contributed stories with a beta tool called Groupstre.am.

We want to show that the millions of people that have experienced the revolution are real people, and they all have their own experiences. By showing you many many stories, and having the users decide who to keep following, we think that’s a strong way of building empathy with a character and getting that insight, the really interesting key moments on what was it like for them on their first day at Tahrir or their first time voting. Like how did Dina vote? What was her experience? Or Farah or Mohamed? More people are going on Facebook or Twitter to see the news that their friends are sharing. We all want to make a personal connection to every story.

What are some of the challenges of crowdsourcing a documentary?

Momentum, for sure. It’s easy to get people excited, but it’s hard to maintain the enthusiasm. We always have to think of new clever ways to get people back and getting more involved and sharing. Verification is a thing that comes up often. We try to use the community to verify stories as well and that’s a challenge.

We approach the project more as a startup rather than a documentary. The way I think about it is to get the first expressions out as soon as possible. The only way you can learn from [an] interactive [project] is to have the audience interact with the project.

Why do you see the project more as a startup than a documentary?

I always feel like it’s more dynamic and more of a living thing than a documentary in that sense. Having done documentaries, it’s much more of a smaller network. There’s the director, producer, shooter and editor. You go off and do it in your small group. You interact with your subjects but they’re not in the process. You make the film and then you debut the film. With this, the first thing we did was we made a statement saying, this is what we’re going to do — a crowdsourced documentary. We had to figure out what it is we’re actually going to do and then start testing it. What kind of stories are people submitting? People are not submitting clean, raw footage, but cut videos. How do we adjust the project to what people are contributing? The sooner you get it out, the sooner you learn how people are using it, and kind of adjust along the way.

What were the adjustments that you’ve had to make?

One was how to actually get people to include more context. We asked what day of the story it happened, who was with you, where did it happened. We created these extra graphs, data nodes. We can see where the spikes of the storytelling was happening. It’s happening on the anniversary, election day… We can do our own social graph of the entire network of the 18 days. It’s interesting to see those types of connections. It’s also important to not forget about film when you do an interactive project. I think it’s important to have debuts, to drive people to a site for a reason like how people go to a film festival to see a film for the first time or on an opening night.

In some cases, it’s important to have an authoritative voice in a project. In a project like ours, our voices are setting up the story world. This is the world that we want the story to be about. Everything else is authentic to the person who’s telling the story. So we don’t get involved in each of the story, but our involvement is much wider — that we want it to be a place where the Egyptian revolution is being told.

I think it’s important to know where the boundaries are as a filmmaker so the participant can give us their story, but we can edit and recut it. With projects like this, the audience being such a key factor in both the content and consumption, it’s really important to have a clear statement what the relationship is. It doesn’t have to be published, but just know internally what that relationship is because that drives a lot of the decisions along the way.

What are you guys looking for in the future?

We’re realizing the power of these tools in people’s hands at the front line of the story. It’s incredibly powerful. There’s such an incredible wealth of storytelling out there. We want to learn so much from this experience and start applying it to other stories. We’re really passionate about the Egyptian Revolution, but we know there are thousands and thousands of stories out there that want to be told. So our hope is that we really take the best of the project and start applying to other projects as well. We want to see the industry grow. We want to see more interactive works being done.

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Anne Zhou is a Spring 2012 intern with POV Digital. She is a double major in media studies (documentary production concentration) and Chinese at CUNY Hunter College.