There was a moment on location last year while filming the BBC2 documentary series The Virtual Revolution when I realised we were actually creating two projects. I was uploading a photo I had taken on the shoot to my Flickr site, or dispatching another update to my Twitter followers, when the director of photography asked: “Why?”

For him and the rest of the crew, I was doing a lot of extra work that was distracting from the real reason we were there: to create a piece of non-interactive storytelling that would broadcast to a mainstream audience in a primetime slot. For me, I was contributing to an interactive archive of a process that explained our thesis about the social, political, economic and psychological impact of the world wide web. When I jokingly described him as one of the “linear people”, he looked utterly bewildered, as if I’d created a category out of thin air. I was convinced that media consumers had already graduated to a multi¬≠platform world, and that the old ways of storytelling were becoming obsolete.

From the start of the process in early 2009, The Virtual Revolution’s production team envisaged two audiences: the first would be an online community who would help to develop the themes we would explore, clarify hard-to-grasp technological concepts, tell us when we were heading in the right or wrong directions, and really put their stamp on the finished programmes. In the tradition of the new breed of wikinovels, wikiarticles and wikifilms, this would be an open and collaborative project within a larger old media landscape that hoped to engage an increasingly disjointed and distracted audience in a new media way. In return, they’d have access to our rushes that they could use to spin their own documentaries about the web.

As someone who has spent my professional life flirting with old and new media, the openness and collaboration was one of the biggest draws when I was approached by the series producer last March. From my point of view, it would be a gross oversight to create something on this subject without the input of the online peanut gallery.

The second audience would be the BBC2 viewing public. They needed grabby content “on rails”, as game developers describe it, evoking images of a journey viewed through a window. This was the paydirt audience: watching the show that would get the reviews and the ratings. The complex concepts that we worked through with the online community would be presented in an easier-to-consume, more streamlined way. And, despite my interactive bias, it turned out that this was where the art of storytelling really emerged.

It was also where the conflict between the linear and multiplatform aspects really came to a head. By the time we had started production with each of the directors and producers for the four films, we had an enormous archive of debates and ideas from hundreds of virtual participants, including people who eventually took part in the series, such as the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, and the author Andrew Keene.

It was the production teams’ job to reduce this into a clear, single journey, and to put our own stamp on it. Only five people decided what each film would become: the executive and series producers, the film’s director and assistant producer, and me. Mirroring the conclusions of the first programme, The Great Levelling?, we were the gatekeepers that curated the content that people saw. Our experiment has produced excellent results: four authored films and a huge public archive that has recorded a snapshot of what the web thinks the web has done in 20 years. And, despite the scepticism of my linear director of photography, we also have my diary made up of hundreds of entries of less than 140 characters each.

Originally published in The Guardian on 8 February 2010.

Read more