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KARON

It's Great! Whatever It Is

Interactive Media: No One Can Define It Exactly, but Everyone Likes the Idea

July 07, 1997|PAUL KARON

Here's what Liz Dubelman knows for sure about interactive new media: It's new and it involves a bunch of technologies collectively referred to as media. That's about all anybody knows for certain.

And Dubelman is one of the experts. In fact, she's one of the better-known of the Los Angeles interactive "digerati," the group that's out on the creative forefront of research and development in the effort to create something financially viable and entertaining in cyberspace.

"People are still torn about what interactive media really is," Dubelman said. On one hand, she explained, it's a broadcast medium, like radio or television, and it's starting to reveal itself as an excellent publishing model for news and journalism.

"But fortunately or unfortunately," she said, "it's none of those things exactly, because it's truly interactive, and no one in media is really used to having so much audience input."

For now, interactive developers like Dubelman are playing a role not completely unlike that of entertainment industry screenwriters and producers. They'll pitch their ideas and hope to get hired by content-hungry cyberspace players such as America Online, Microsoft Network, Time Warner's PathFinder online service or one of the many Web sites run by Hollywood movie studios or television networks.

So what does this interactive content look like? Dubelman's newest interactive project will debut this month on the Microsoft Network online service. Named Great Stuff, the program will enable participants to collaborate with each other and with established novelists, political and social commentators, even visual artists.

Dubelman's goal was to provide a framework that would help people who weren't experienced writers or artists take part in the creation of works of fiction, essays or graphic art.

Great Stuff has three subsections. In the first, the Great American Novel, four published novelists submit short texts that begin an interactive novel. The writers are well-known, including Michael Chabon and Maggie Estep, but no one knows which writer penned which entry. The story evolves as participants vote for the text and story line they like best.

The second and third segments--the Great American Masterpiece and the Great American Commentary, the latter featuring Arianna Huffington and monologuist Spalding Gray--use the same technique to unite viewers and professionals as they create graphic artworks or essays about social issues.

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Another of the new online "shows" Dubelman is developing has the working title "Show of Hands." It's a political participation program that's intelligent and community-oriented. The site will provide background information on bills before Congress, along with elected officials' personal spins. Participants will be able to debate among themselves in the online electronic forum, then actually take a straw vote, said Dubelman.

Not originally a computer type, Dubelman's professional history offers some clues as to what kinds of talents are valued in new media--and why Los Angeles is at the center of the action. She spent a decade as an assistant camera operator for filmmakers in New York--including a four-year stint working for director Woody Allen--and in 1989 started directing and producing television programs, eventually winning two Emmy awards.

But in the early 1990s, Dubelman took notice of computer bulletin board services, one of the early forms of electronically mediated group participation. Her interest in computers was piqued, and she took a left turn into the emerging new field, intent on finding some way to harness the community-building and interactive capabilities of computers.

"I quickly saw bulletin boards and the interactive technology as a chance to really make a difference in building the information superhighway," Dubelman said. Her forays into new media brought her to Los Angeles and to a career as an independent producer of interactive content. She has created online content for major movie studios, including Warner Bros., Fox Films and Sony Pictures Entertainment, and created BuzzOnline, Buzz magazine's first Web site.

Though she has high hopes, Dubelman is the first to admit that the notion of an interactive mass media has a long way to go before it becomes a reality. Interest among would-be producers and investors has far outpaced the interest of consumers, and the streets of cyberspace are already littered with failed projects and companies.

"It might be that we need to figure out a new language for online interactivity--a new way of communicating--before we can really make it accessible to a mass audience," she said. "But the fact that we are in a position now to really shape what it's going to be is just too exciting for me to ignore."

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Freelance writer Paul Karon can be reached via e-mail at pkaron@pacbell.net

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