Graceful Degradation: Creating an Immersive Inauguration Experience

My remit for President Obama’s second inauguration was “simple” – come up with something cool. Normally as I conceive projects I’m subconsciously within the box of what I know I can accomplish with available tools. This was the first time I was encouraged to throw that out the window and think instead about what a developer might build.

Generating ideas

Throughout the entire election season I had struggled a bit to figure out what aspect of this event resonated for our international audience. It certainly wasn’t the ins and outs of the daily politics the way it can be for an American audience. Rather, it seemed to be something intangible about wanting to feel a part of it all, and the Obama presidency in particular. So the concept for inauguration became about providing an immersive experience for our audience. The question I asked myself was: how do Americans experience inauguration and how can we replicate that for our audience?

Eventually we landed on two concepts to pursue.

1) Using user-generated photos to create a real-time view of inauguration

With hundreds of thousands of people descending on Washington, a steady stream of photos from the National Mall and surrounding areas was nearly assured. If we could collect and showcase these, we could let our audience experience what the attendees were seeing.

The idea was to map these user-generated photos, but instead of using a standard flat map, to map them inside Google Street View, creating an interface where users could almost literally wade through through the images.

I had found a project that used the Instagram and Street View APIs to do something similar and thought we might connect and even collaborate with them.

2) Giving users a way to virtually join the celebrations

Influenced by PBS Newshour’s Ad Libs project and some work we’d been doing with popcorn.js, the idea was to create a way for people to virtually insert themselves into the events. Perhaps by allowing them to craft and “deliver” their own inauguration speech or by creating an avatar to place in the crowd in a live stream video of the event. This idea wasn’t fully fleshed out at the start, as I wanted to rely on our developer to define the scope of what was possible.

Matching ideas to reality

Although we started generating ideas fairly far in advance (November for a January event), and had a team of 4 working on it, we could only steal time from one developer, and he was also working on several other projects. So it became clear very quickly that we would need to rein these ideas in to something that would require less development work.

Each time we got together for progress reports, we found ourselves revising the project to match our new understanding of what would be achievable in the time remaining.

The idea of creating a way for people to place themselves in the inauguration celebrations very quickly landed on a much simpler version of the concept – using a flat photo of the inauguration crowd and displaying comments over it in word bubbles. We started with the goal of pulling Twitter comments and figured if we had extra development time we could add other sources. We didn’t.

The photos concept went through many different iterations. Our developer started by looking at the Instagram API and deciding he wasn’t confident in the geocoding. So we decided we needed that in order to do mapping we needed to use a controlled group of people who could inform us of their locations. After several iterations, including one that would have followed the stories of several people who were traveling to D.C. for the event, we eventually ended up using photos, tweets, videos and audio collected by our own journalists, about 25 of whom planned to be roaming the streets at some point in the day. They would post their submissions to Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Soundcloud, where a producer in the office would be able to pick them up and manually place them on a flat map of the inauguration area.

The final project didn’t have quite the wow factor we had been going for but, crucially, it kept the spirit of the original goal of providing an immersive experience. That was the key to successfully degrading from the original concept down to the final product – we knew what we were trying to achieve and were able to keep revising within that framework. If instead we had started by wanting to use a specific tool or technology, once we couldn’t employ it the whole project would have been dead.


On the day of, we had even more journalists than expected pounding the pavement and submitting for the photo project, some of whom were experimenting with Instagram or mobile media creation for the first time. We received literally hundreds of pieces of content and created a wonderfully fleshed out map. We also received about 40 usable comments from Twitter.

In terms of pageviews, it performed similarly to a solid article. That was slightly disappointing, of course, but there was still good news in there. A good article for us usually pulls in most of its traffic from search and Google News. A project like this is never going to be returned on top of those things, even if it’s SEO-friendly (nor should it; if I was searching for information on inauguration I wouldn’t want to be given a UGC project) – it should generate pageviews through buzz and word of mouth. And that’s what we saw here. Almost all the pageviews were direct or from social media. So, while I would have liked to see it get more pageviews and beat out our top articles for the day, it outperformed our other content that day in terms of social referrals, just like it should have.

And an existential question

The dilemma I’m left with is this: as you pull back a concept from blue sky thinking to achievable reality, you lose more and more of what makes it buzzworthy. As you do that you reduce its ability to spread virally. At what point do you hit a place where it’s no longer worth the time and resources for the return you’ll get, and you’re better off retreating to something simpler? Could we have generated about the same number of pageviews by dropping the map concept altogether and displaying a grid of Instagram photos or a Rebelmouse compilation instead, for example?

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