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An interview with David Harris on Global Lives

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The case study that I have chosen for my last PhD chapter is Global Lives, by David Harris. The project is still in its development phase but it is one of the few cases of interactive documentaries where a common Governance is being tried out. Basically Global Lives is inspired by the way the Wikipedia Foundation works: a common project where participants are not just providing content, but they can also being involved in the decision making.

As my last chapter is all dedicated to participatory documentaries – where users can be part of the production process of the documentary- I thought that Global Lives was interesting in so far it pushes the boundaries one step further than just asking for user generated content. If you want to know more about Global Lives you can read the excellent post that Mandy Rose has published about it in  her Collabdocs blog.

Here is my transcript of the Skype interview I had with David. Most of my question concentrate on the structure of governance – rather than on the project itself, which I already knew quite a lot about – because that is what I needed to know for my writing.


A Skype interview with David Evan Harris about the Global Life Project

Date: 15.11.11

Interviewer: Sandra Gaudenzi


SG: Global Lives is an original project because it allows the participant to collaborate at different levels: generating content and being part of a collective. Tell me how it all started.

05.40 (very bad line, DH is on his mobile phone and moving around. There are interruptions and background noises)

DEH: In 2007 we officially incorporated because we needed a form a collective for the ?? (noise in the background – impossible to understand the precise word) in the USA to get finance. That was the first time we created a structure. I had already worked on the project for a couple of years before doing that.


SG: how do you define who take part of the collective and what is its role?

DEH: We decided that anyone that had more than 24 hrs of their time dedicated to GL becomes part of the collective. It has been challenging to find ways to engage so many people. It is difficult to have meetings with all of them. So we formed a “Production Committee of the Collective”. This is formed by the people that have been partners producing the shoots or translators who particularly want to be active. So there are some people that just want to do a shoot and that is it but generally we do ask at the end of a shoot if people want to stay involved in the future. We use Basecamp to stay all in touch. That is the place where if I have a question or a decision I would post it to everybody.

People that want to stay involved receive a mail from us every 2 to 3 months giving them an update. Sometimes we ask them for an input. Sometimes we ask them to participate to a conversation on where an organisation is going. For the first couple of months we tried to have all the members of the collective participating by Skype, but this did not work. It was too much.

When I started the “Board of Directors” we had 3 in San Francisco and 2 abroad but over the years they became less and less involved. So it was difficult to know how to deal with that. I used to work from my flat (first in Brasil and then in San Francisco). So when I moved to SF we had this issue that the enthusiastic people in SF wanted to do more stuff but it was hard to work with the others because of the time zone – and also we were privileging people with an internet connection. So we decided to have a producer of a shoot to be on the board of directors and their responsibility was to be the voice of the collective to the board so that the Board is the official Governance structure of the organization in the USA.

At any Board meeting there are one or two citizens participating to the board meetings.

The first citizen was Jason Price and he was the producer of the shoot in Malawi and he was on the Board for almost 2 years. He moved back to Malawi so now we are in the process of replacing him.



DEH: Last week-end we had a Board of Directors retreat and we discussed what is the relation between the Board of Directors of the Organization and the collective. We are 11 (me, one person representing the collective…) We try to follow the model of the Wikimedia Foundation. They have 2 or 3 seats reserved for the collective, the big problem for us is that we do not have money – so we have difficulties flying people to the board meetings from all over the world a couple of times a year. If we had money we would do that, but we do not have it.


DEH: What we did last year (in 2010) we did a meeting at the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts (San Francisco) exhibition. For that meeting we had some money to fly a Swiss and Australian to our committee (they are the producers of the Lebanon and Kazakhstan). We used Basecamp beforehand to ask all sort of question to the collective – about the strategy and all sort of other things. Then at the meeting we had about 10 people. It was not perfect representation but it was quite good. We used the meeting to see where we wanted GL to be in three years’ time.

SG: So what is exactly the relationship between the Board of Directors and the collective?


DEH: The Board of Directors understands its role as trying to secure the sustainability of the organization, making sure it has the infrastructure that it needs, but the Board also understand that it needs to meet the ideas of the collective.

When we did that meeting of the collective in February we broke the group in small areas and one of those was “Governance”. But interestingly nobody wanted to talk about it! Those guys are filmmakers and they do not want to deal with this. They want to keep filming, not decide about organisational issues. They did not want to change anything.

SG: do people not want to give ideas on what shape will their filming take? Whether it is open source or not, on the web or not?


DEH: Not really. They want to concentrate on shooting.

For the open source, I had decided from the beginning that anything we do has to be with the Creative Commons, so we are not coming back on this. We use the attribution through non-commercial (Creative Commons BY-SA-NC License) – which means that it is open source but we need to know when you are using it.

There are two issues: the copyright and the privacy, publicity rights… those are all different issues. I did send a call to the collective to change the licencing, but most people did not care. Only one person had feedback about it.

SG: in your current site one can see the videos but not download them. Are they already open sourced, or did I miss something?


DEH: For the last year I have tried to get all the content to the Internet Archive and to YouTube. It is a lot of stuff so… it is taking time. We have done a special director non-profit account with YouTube so we can upload large files but we need an intern to standardise all the videos and upload them all. It is work on progress.

SG: In your TED talk you present an interface of GL that is not the one of the current website… is this a demo?


DEH: Those are mock ups of our future website. We got a grant for $20,000 to redesign our website from a foundation in SF called the Christensen Fund and we also got commitment from the design firm behind the TED website. They have agreed to do the design part of it for free but the problem in the Internet if the coding so we are trying to raise more money for it.

It is one of those things where it is easier to find a crew to shoot for free in Kazakhstan than to find a web programmer in SF that would do it for free. Those people are getting paid a lot of money and they have no time. They are all very happy to talk to me about it, but they have no time to do it.

The website you see now is completely done by volunteers.

SG: Imagine you had the money you want to redesign the website. Who would take the decisions for what the website does and what it looks like? How would this type of decision be handled?


DEH: Last year at the committee we did talk about the website and we decided all the features that we wanted to see in it. The mock-up that you saw was the result of that collective brainstorm. There are a few features that I did not show there – one allows a sort of kickstart logic, where people can ask for donations to start the shooting in their area (and also request the help of crew members).

SG: Were you sitting on that meetings and giving your own ideas, or where you just listening to the others?


DEH: I try to shut up in those meetings!

The big problem will be when we have ten features we want to implement and we do only have the money to do a few. That is where we will have to decide which ones we do first and which ones we do not do at all.

One thing that we do have in the Board of Directors is a “Web committee”. The person that represents the collective does sit in that Web committee. My job is to raise money. Once we have it the Web committee will start meeting with the designers to figure out what is possible. So the input from the collective into the Web process will probably come through the Board. We will probably do all kind of surveys and analysis of the current website to see what the user is doing.

What do you think? What would you do?

SG: Well… the problem with collective ideas is that you still need someone to select them and bring them forward. The other option is to try to rule by consensus and ask people to vote on every single decision – but this can be messy. This is really the challenge of your type of project: to try out different logics of democracy. There is no one solution but a lot of ad hoc ones. It really depends on what you want out of your project. You have to take a political decision of authorship here.


DEH: Yeah… I try to look at the model of Wikipedia, this is a project where everything is open sourced and if you want to make a new version of our website you can. The videos are all here, and go ahead. Any forking is possible…

SG: There is difference between doing a collective encyclopaedia and a collective documentary. Everybody has an idea of what an encyclopaedia looks like but a movie…


DEH: When you spend a year of your life translating videos that other people have done you feel a real feeling of ownership of it. The people that did fork Wikipedia I assume where unhappy about behind part of something that was taking a direction they did not like.

The real question that you are maybe not asking, because you are not inside of the organization, is the idea of creating a feature long documentary. That is a conversation that we brought up after our February meeting – because it came up during the meeting. People wanted to use the GL footage to create a 90 min linear piece. This could be sent to festivals and showed in classes – it is an easier to access media.

SG: Was this idea not something that you had considered yourself before?


DEH: This is actually something that I never wanted to do when I started the project. But we have noticed that it is really hard to get 10 people together to build an installation and create an environment, while a movie would be much easier. We opened up this discussion on Basecamp and I drafted a document with things that came up in the collective and I started showing to people that work in the film industry here. There is a TV station that is interested. I came back to the collective with that and people really wanted to do it. So I started investigating about this world of feature length documentary – finding out how much they cost, how to fund it, how to work on it… and the more I found out the less I liked it.

SG: Maybe you should hand over this part of the project to someone that knows how to do documentaries and enjoys it!


DEH: That is probably what is going to happen.

SG: how can you handle doing all this work? If every time a new idea comes up in the collective you try to make it happen it can quickly become unmanageable…


DEH: I have no solution yet…

What I think is that GL is like Wikipedia a do-ocracy, based on doing, if you want to produce something and go ahead with it, off you go…

SG: Is the system you have put in place scalable? If you start employing  people do you have to change the structure of Governance?


DEH: I think that the idea of do-ocracy makes a lot of sense for us. If someone wants to do an exhibit that looks totally different from others… just do it.

As we grow the organization I would like to make it happen in a way that is not disrupting the organization as it is. There will be things that will have to change but I want to keep the principle that the staff should serve to empower the volunteers.

SG: When Wikipedia started employing people a certain division between “professional” and volunteers did create problems of roles and competences. Full time people tend to take over and control the group… could this happen with GL?


DEH: Right now I am part time with GL and I get paid the minimum wage which is not enough to live off and I have a job that pays more. I also have an employee that works full time and gets paid more than me. She helps in everything (…)

I would like to step back from my role and go back to be a volunteer and put together other exhibits. But this is impossible right now because we do not have the money to hire a director of the organization.

SG: It must be tough to constantly raise money. Do you have a regular source of funding?


DEH: Every year for the last five years we have managed to raise more money so to keep growing in that track we need to hire some staff. I am also thinking what if, like other similar organisations, we started having local offices. But for now that is far off.

SG: It is a challenge to be a non-profit organisation that is not trying to generate money, so one wonders if it is sustainable in time…


DEH: I have a problem with the idea that because you are not a product you are not sustainable. There are plenty of organizations, from Greenpeace to Wikipedia that have survived through the years purely on donations. We do not have a fee or a product but we generate money from three different sources: donations from individuals, sponsorship from foundations and we also sell some DVDs and we also have exhibit commissions. We also do events to fundraise for the project. I think that throwing out parties is actually doing pretty well. It is not a traditional business model but it is a workable model.

SG: Of course… I wish you all the best! Thank you David for your time!

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This entry was posted on Friday, February 10th, 2012


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