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COMMONERS VOICES

Communics – a project in comics-based digital storytelling to foster inclusion and mutual understanding between migrants and Italians

After my master degree in Philosophy at the University of Milan, I decided to move to Trento and attend the Post-Master’s programme in Smart Community Design and Management, to improve my methodological and technological skills in designing, building,  and monitoring communities of people engaged in socially impactful projects and activities. 

I  put in practice such skills through an internship at Fondazione Bruno Kessler (FBK).  I worked in a project focused on digital storytelling. More specifically, the FBK team, composed by Massimo Zancanaro, Gianluca Schiavo, and Alessandro Cappelletti, and I were using digital storytelling in order to enable collaborative storytelling between Italian “natives” and migrants. The overall goal is to reduce Italian people hostility and stereotypes toward migrants. 

The system we were using for this project is Communics[1]. Communics is a digital storytelling application intended as a means to deconstruct stereotypes, scaffold collaboration and support reconciliation of intergroup conflict.
 
There are two main benefits that the application could provide to people and communities. On the one hand, migrants should be provided the opportunity to be fully included in the society, to get in touch with local people and get to know about social habits in the new country. On the other hand, Italians should have the possibility to approach migrants and understand their culture. This contact between citizens and migrants can reduce perceptions of threat that could have devastating effects and, in some cases, lead not only to harsh policies but also to violence. 

But… what’s exactly Communics? How does it work?

Communics is an application for collaboratively building shared narrations in the form of comics. The narratives are composed by 2-users, one migrant and one Italian. The users build a shared narration in a turn-based way. Each participant, sitting in the same room but using a different computer, adds as many elements as he or she wants and then passes the turn to the other user. The narration is built by choosing backgrounds, characters, and pre-prepared textual material from a library. Each user selects phrases for the speech balloons taken from a library of predetermined phrases. The same phrase is available in the language of each participant, as it has already been translated in the native languages. Using the interface and predetermined phrases in the native language of the participant is a key feature designed in order to facilitate a multi-lingual narrative activity without requiring users to understand each other language.


When I arrived in Fondazione Bruno Kessler…

It emerged the need to focus on the implementation of the predetermined text. Based on previous projects, an implementation of the textual content was required for Communics to provide users with more choices for the building of the narrations. 

But… how did the FBK team and I decide to implement the content?

The FBK team and I decided to handle three focus groups plus a questionnaire in order to analyze deeply mainly one feature of the application: the expressiveness related to the textual content. The description above collects the decisions made during and through the study. 

During the focus groups, it emerged the importance of three main themes that could have been seen also as places where migrants and Italians have the possibility to face each other. Therefore, we decided to structure the textual content focusing on those categories and to prepare the textual and graphical material accordingly. 

There are three main themes that emerged: “school ”, “square ” and ”home ”. 

  • The school theme. In Italy, this theme is relevant concerning the migrant issue for two reasons: on the one hand, some Italians would like to have a different school for migrants based on the argument that  Italian students could otherwise be slowed down; on the other hand, the Italian public school system seeks to integrate migrant students into Italian (mainstream) culture.

  • The square theme. This theme provides the opportunity to discuss about life in outdoor areas and public places such as streets and squares. Traditionally, the public square has a strong value in the Italian culture as the place where people meet, talk and discuss. Since public squares are also places were migrants typically gather, some Italians started to think that public spaces have been “invaded” or “taken over” by migrants. In particular, during the months preceding my internship, many protests against migrants took place in the country.    

  • The home theme. This last theme was included in Communics since the place home could be seen as a link between two different cultures. 

Moreover, we decided to add a fourth section related to general topic/daily conversation. This section is always available and contains elements that can be used in all themes (e.g. greetings, general questions, etc.). 

Each theme comes with its related graphical content: characters, backgrounds, objects and emotion pictures. For instance, for the “home theme”, traditional Italian and Muslim homes were added in the graphic multimedia presentation offering the opportunity to discuss different traditions regarding, for instance, food and clothes.

 

[1] Zancanaro M, Stock O, Eisikovits Z, Koren C, Weiss PL, Co-narrating a Conflict: an Interactive Tabletop to Facilitate Attitudinal Shifts. In ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 2012; 19(3):1-30.

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