Kara Oehler & Jesse Shapins on Mapping Main Street

Kara Oelher & Jesse Shapins – Mapping Main Street

The following is drawn from a Skype interview with Kara and Jesse, two of the team behind Mapping Main Street. (The interview was technically a little bumpy. Kara was talking while driving and we lost the connection to her for a while. When we reconnected I forgot to restart the recording, so I missed a section of the discussion. Apologies to Kara and Jess for that, but what’s here is very valuable, nonetheless.)


Mapping Main Street is a collaborative documentary media project that creates a new map of the United States through stories, photos, and videos recorded on actual Main Streets. The project’s website seamlessly integrates and automatically maps media pulled from the APIs of NPR, Flickr and Vimeo, creating nonlinear algorithmic narratives that traverse the country. Launched in 2009, Mapping Main Street is produced with AIR, NPR, the CPB, and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.


How did the project come about?

What were your original objectives?


KO: Around the time of the election, I guess a year and a half ago, we were getting a lot of rhetoric from politicians about Main Street, and Main Street versus Wall Street, and it occurred to us that Main Street isn’t just some abstract generalised people or place. And after we did a little bit of investigation we discovered there are actually 10,466 main streets and our intention was really to point out the diversity and differences between all of these different places, you know, some are a one block gravel road in the middle of a field, some are in extremely urban environments like in Los Angeles, so we just wanted to get at how different they are, and by doing that collect stories and photographs and videos from people all over the country, and also ask people to contribute their photos, videos and stories.

CollabDocs: Were you guys scouting for a project that you might work on together?

JS: Absolutely, so the more kind of pragmatic side of the response to the project coming about is that Kara was nominated for a grant that was being initiated by the Association of Independents in Radio, which is a professional organisation that has independent producers from about ten different countries around the world and most of the states around the US, and that project, that grant was called Makers Quest 2.0. There was funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting here in the US to think about how to innovate new ways of combining traditional broadcast media with digital media. So Kara was nominated for that grant, and in the process then of thinking about what type of proposal to put together she started talking to myself, and she had been talking to her long term collaborator Anne Hepperman, and we started then together thinking about possible topics and approaches. Kara and I had also worked together previously on the interactive documentary Capital of Punk which is an online and mobile phone based tour of Washington DC through the lens of its punk rock music history. So we’ve now, I guess, known each other for a little over five years and have been continuously thinking and evolving different ideas and working together in a couple of different contexts largely focused around these issues of participatory collaborative documentary related to place.


Christopher [Allen, also a founder of UnionDocs ], Brian House and I were three close friends from college, Columbia University, and had very different but significantly overlapping interests – Brian primarily sort of looking at non-linear narrative and interactive media, his background was in computer science and religion, Christopher focussed in college largely on non-traditional experimental theatre, but theatre concepts that take place in physical spaces that take audiences on journeys, and myself largely interested in photography and the city, and different ways of telling stories about the cities. So we sort of came together after college. Christopher started working with somebody named Michael Counts who’s an experimental theatre director here in New York and in the process then assembled a team that brought myself back from Berlin at the time, and Brian was living in Sweden, and so the three of us then came together with Michael to create Yellow Arrow [a pioneering public art project which began in 2004 in which stickers pointed to a hidden “story” that could be accessed by mobile phone. And I think the project pretty much reflects these different backgrounds – people very interested in place and storytelling, and people very interested in different ways of telling stories through different forms of media and then this sort of surprising kind of theatrical performative dimension that comes into play. The initial phase of Yellow Arrow was created around these stickers that anybody could place to tell stories with text messaging. The first project that we produced that sort of built off that and started to experiment with different technologies and different approaches was something called The Secret New York. In that project the idea was to use audio, so that instead of sending a text message to an arrow and getting a [SMS] message back you’d see a larger yellow arrow and you would make a phone call, enter the code and then you would hear a short audio story about the place where you were standing. We started that project shortly after we met Kara and, with all of her expertise around audio and new media, brought her into the project, and that’s when we first started working together. “

CollabDocs: What got you interested in the idea of  participatory/collaborative projects?

[Kara made some headline comments in reply about her ethic being informed by her background in the DIY music scene but then passed the question to Jesse as she was hitting heavy traffic.]

JS: “I think for both the team involved in this project and in these previous projects that we have discussed like Yellow Arrow, I don’t think any of us have come into this with the perspective of being sort of fascinated exclusively with technologies and what they make possible. I think what Kara is suggesting and sort of seeing a link between – getting the space with some friends in an abandoned shopping mall, where they would then have different bands come through, sort of DIY culture – is a sensibility, a way of working with others and engaging others in the process of the production of culture that I think technology now is making easier, or creates different forms through which that can take place, but it is of course not something that just started with the internet alone. And I think that part of what we have always been interested in is starting with, and with Mapping Main Street this has very much been the case, thinking about topics and issues that in and of themselves we feel are important to approach, and to foster discussion around, then to think through what would be some of the more interesting and creative ways to use emerging technologies to make that conversation possible, in a more rich and democratic fashion. So that’s to say that the collaborative interest has to do with an interest around a different form of art and cultural production. I do think that all of us share a kind of scepticism around a conventional notion of the arts as a space for sort of individual, romantic kind of creative expression, that model of the loan artist in the forest, you know, toiling away to understand the depths of their soul, and to make that accessible to the world. That’s not at all the sensibility in understanding the definition of art I think that any of us would subscribe to.

It’s not to dismiss in any regard the multiplatform collaborative abilities that we find ourselves with today, I just think it’s a way that we have tried to build a certain type of working method. Because I think it is very easy to become very enthusiastic and excited, for a lot of good reasons, but to really kind of become overwhelmed by the rhetoric and the potentials that technology today offers, and I think pretty quickly projects can devolve into becoming more about what technology does than what is being said, or the content and different ideas and discussions that are being fostered. In the case of Yellow Arrow, again, a lot of what attracted people in my mind to that project was a larger idea about the hidden stories of the city, that every place has something of significance to somebody, and to kind of unlock those multiple narratives that we find ourselves around all the time. That’s a fascinating and an exciting endeavour, and mobile technology has made that a lot more possible. But its really that idea I think that grasps peoples minds much more than the idea of being able to just send a message on a phone and get another message back.

And – this is probably something that Christopher [Allen, who I had met with in NYC recently] mentioned, and I think it’s something that both Kara and I have learned a lot from him – specifically in the context of documentary media, there is the significance, the importance, of being able to bring together multiple perspectives that de-stabilise a sense of a unitary, singular truth. There is something about collaborative and participatory processes specifically connected to documentary that foreground that dimension. I think that part of what collaborative participatory media means in the context of newsmaking is to point out that this is what happened from one perspective, and that this is what happened from another perspective, and this is what happened from another perspective. I mean something definitely happened, it’s not to sort of completely relativise  – there are truths that exist in the world – but I think it is to open up the possibility for having many different vantage points that can possibly help us get to different forms of understanding truth in the process. “

CollabDocs: How do you see the role of the producer in the collaborative project?


“While being very interesting in collaborative and participatory media we are people with backgrounds in professional media production and that is to say that we’re very interested in ourselves producing work. I think we would see Mapping Main Street as something very distinct from producing on a collaborative platform like You Tube.  You Tube is in itself a very, very, generalised framework for the sharing of media,  that within itself can facilitate you know hundreds, millions of different collaborative processes, but it doesn’t have a specific approach, it doesn’t have any type of thematic focus, and I think what we’re interested in, we see are our responsibility as producers in sort of leading and designing frameworks that do have very specific constraints and that have very specific thematic and geographic focuses that then create a context for many different voices to come in. I think that that process of building those structures is really where a lot of the work of kind of professional media producers can be found today, and also then in that process to produce work that can serve as examples, as leading instances to begin a project. You know in this case the stories that Kara and Ann produced about main street then provide a very different level of depth and engagement that a few photographs simply cannot achieve and I think that that kind of multiple layers of richness and different forms of content creation are really important.

I think that this is something that we are very interested in experimenting more with in future projects; how you combine professionally produced media and citizen media and do that in a way that has, sort of, “algorithmic curation“ – where there’s some type of “interesting-ness” system or some means through which the most interesting material that is produced by both professionals as well as by citizens is brought together or foregrounded, and that the juxtapositions that are fostered are also the ones that are interesting.  I think what we wanted to try to do with Mapping Main Street was make it possible also for a project to not be a place where you go and, suddenly, you have this gigantic database and as a visitor have to make 10,000 choices about how you want to go into that system. We very intentionally make it possible for you to arrive on this site and click once and then you will be in a stream of media that hopefully provides a fairly interesting narrative and experience about the topic of main street across the country. And if you want to start following different patterns and search and follow different tags you can do that, but I think that part of what we are interested in from the user-experience perspective is making it possible to have a more immersive viewing and in that sense actually often more passive viewing experience – where you can almost fall into and let something unfold. Because I think that there is a little bit of a danger in this type of work where you can easily ask too much of your audience for them to make the connections that might be the most interesting.  And I think it is a responsibility of the producers to provide means through which a lot of those most interesting connections are made visible and made accessible without a lot of work to your audience.”

If you want to find out more about Mapping Main Street there are a couple of key resources online. A video of a presentation and Q & A with Kara, Jesse and James Burns in the Berkman Luncheon Series at Harvard explores the cultural background, production process and potential future directions of the project.

An AIR (The Association of Independents in Radio) review of the impact of the various projects supported by Web Quest 2.0 is available and includes a section on MMS. It’s worth noting that they found that MMS “came closest to matching the Centre for Public Media’s expectations for public media projects”.]