I’ve had a wonderful time in an unseasonably sunny London this week, which has included a keynote presentation at the Creative Citizens conference at the Royal College of Art. As promised, below are the slides and speaker notes from my presentation, which covers the relationship between everyday creativity, citizenship, and digital media platforms over the past ten years or so.
Just a quick note to say that I’ve started blogging elsewhere as part of the 3-year ARC Discovery project I’m working on with Axel Bruns.
The project’s official title is “New Media and Public Communication: Mapping Australian User-Created Content in Online Social Networks”, and the blog is called Mapping Online Publics. We’ve been posting mainly about ways of working with public Twitter data around the rapidly-approaching Australian election (and Masterchef!) since setting it up last month, but we’ll be covering a much wider range of topics once that’s all over.
The Video Vortex Reader is the first collection of critical texts to deal with the rapidly emerging world of online video – from its explosive rise in 2005 with YouTube, to its future as a significant form of personal media.
After years of talk about digital convergence and crossmedia platforms we now witness the merger of the Internet and television at a pace no-one predicted. These contributions from scholars, artists and curators evolved from the first two Video Vortex conferences in Brussels and Amsterdam in 2007 which focused on responses to YouTube, and address key issues around independent production and distribution of online video content. What does this new distribution platform mean for artists and activists? What are the alternatives?
Contributors: Tilman Baumgärtel, Jean Burgess, Dominick Chen, Sarah Cook, Sean Cubitt, Stefaan Decostere, Thomas Elsaesser, David Garcia, Alexandra Juhasz, Nelli Kambouri and Pavlos Hatzopoulos, Minke Kampman, Seth Keen, Sarah Késenne, Marsha Kinder, Patricia Lange, Elizabeth Losh, Geert Lovink, Andrew Lowenthal, Lev Manovich, Adrian Miles, Matthew Mitchem, Sabine Niederer, Ana Peraica, Birgit Richard, Keith Sanborn, Florian Schneider, Tom Sherman, Jan Simons, Thomas Thiel, Vera Tollmann, Andreas Treske, Peter Westenberg.
That’s a very good line-up of scholars and practitioners coming from a range of disciplinary perspectives, so check it out.
I have a chapter in it called ‘All Your Chocolate Rain Are Belong to Us? Viral Video, YouTube and the Dynamics of Participatory Culture.’ I used the creative activity that occurred around two of the most popular videos of 2007 – Chocolate Rain and Guitar – to reconsider the dynamics of popular culture in YouTube, according to a distributed and participatory framework rather than a ‘producerly’ one.
So Flickr finally ended the years of rumour-mongering and actually rolled out video. I was interested to see the way the official announcement carefully positioned the purposes of video on Flickr within the company’s (tasteful, cosmopolitan, playfully grown-up) brand identity, and its focus on self-created content:
we thought long and hard about how video would complement the flickrverse. If you’ve memorized the Community Guidelines, you know that Flickr is all about sharing photos that you yourself have taken. Video will be no different and so what quickly bubbled up was the idea of “long photos,” of capturing slices of life to share. [emphasis added, which possibly comes across as me being a bit pedantic]
They even give a carefully diverse range of quotidian examples–covering cats, places, events and people, of course.
There’s some really interesting protest going on within the sections of the Flickr community who are really invested in capital-P Photography, including this well-populated anti-video group, with some surprisingly hostile comments about the company. A lot of people seem to be worried that somehow the introduction of video will directly cause a ‘flood’ of banal, crass, and unlovely content, and will turn a photography-oriented community into ‘just another YouTube’. The controversy is tremendously interesting to me in its own right, of course–there’s technological determinism combined with symbolic boundary work and a fair amount of amnesia about Flickr’s mundane origins–at least as far as I remember there was a lot more emphasis on lifelogging using the (then) newly available camera phone than there was on digital camera arms races, fine art techniques, and so on.
So, controversy aside, how is it turning out? What do you really get when you start with a mature online social network with social and cultural norms increasingly organised around ‘quality’ content, introduce the ability to upload very short video clips (but only to Pro members), presented within the often carefully cultivated ‘photo streams’ of individual users, combined with a way of accounting for value that takes into account far more than the number of people who been tempted (or tricked) into viewing a particular piece of content?
I’m sure there will be some silliness, and unlike the Fotografrs who are protesting the move, I also really hope there will be some very cute cat videos.
But there will also be lovely slideshows designed to curate and exhibit small sets of photographic images, like this beautiful video–which is much more than a slideshow–by Timo Arnall [thanks anne, again]
The thing about the best portraits is how they capture the essence of a person.
Maybe the wrinkles on their hands, or the expression in their eyes, tell you about the life they’ve had.
So what if you had 30 seconds to capture that person, instead of a nanosecond shutter-click? And what if the person could talk? Whoa. Crazy, we know. We call it a long portrait.
Which sounds a lot like a micro digital story: a focus on the personal and first-person, within elegant aesthetic constraints, done with attention to detail and respect for the co-creator. Photojojo even links to the interviewing guide on the StoryCorps website to assist newbie micro-documentarists in learning the art of capturing these snapshots of individual human lives.
I really think the idea of the ‘long portrait’ is quite brilliant.
Aside from that, the collective shaping of the meanings and uses of video within Flickr’s existing community of practice is going to be extremely interesting to watch.
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the PostSecret thing, now ported to YouTube for Valentine’s day as a video montage complete with hipster ‘home-made’ animation:
[the video is an advertisement for the books, btw, which is entirely appropriate for this made-up ‘holiday’]
Happy Hallmark Card Day.
Update: I didn’t realise how many Postsecret fanvids there were until just now. Such a nice change for me from the Jonas Brothers. Some of them are masterful examples of the ubiquitous Ken Burns effect, some of them have entirely too much pink cursive writing and Tori Amos. But I liked this one:
And after watching about another 20 of those, I am at least a little bit sick of the postsecret thing now.
The other day I had the pleasure of participating in this week’s episode of Spark, a CBC Radio One show on tech culture news and ideas. It was a lot of fun being part of such a smart show – yay, public service broadcasting, long may it reign.
The full show and related info, links etc is now available at the Spark website.
I was there to provide some comments from a cultural research point of view on Dan Ackerman Greenberg’s now-notorious ‘secret strategies’ for manufacturing ‘virality’. My main point really was that I didn’t think you could use the virus metaphor to simply describe a piece of content becoming very popular through word-of-mouth or peer-to-peer distribution. However I do think it is tremendously interesting to think about the ways in which ideas, recipes, and practices become available for re-use via mass replication and variation; to try to understand what these little units of knowledge actually are, and how it all works.
Actually, moving away from video and to mix the metaphors, it is so-called ‘internet memes’ like the lolcats that are the best examples.
With those, you have a form, a set of essential elements, and a set of constantly evolving ‘rules’ for practice, producing apparently infinite lol-possibilities. These ‘rules’ are like cultural building blocks that can be re-used, remixed, and re-combined to produce new ideas, always hybrid, always – in a particular sense of the word – creative. This is far more interesting to me than the banal quest to get more eyeballs onto your piece of ‘content’.
The catch is, it seems to be almost entirely unpredictable which of these ideas will be repeated and built on to the extent that they go truly ‘viral’.
Do you doubt me?
Oh, and by the way, Joshua Green and I are very busily writing a book about YouTube that draws on our collaborative research project. It will be out on Polity Press later this year, and, to misappropriate physics instead of biology, it will hopefully provide some useful angles to think through the politics of participatory culture, using YouTube as a lens through which to refract the competing dynamics of user-created content, expertise and agency. That’s keeping me quiet and away from the blog a bit, but I’ll be posting updates (and attempting to generate enough hype to make the book go ‘viral’) later on.
So, Oprah has her own YouTube channel. I was very interested to see how the user community would respond to Oprah’s debut on the site, given the stirrings of discontent I’d been detecting recently around a perceived ‘dumbing down’, sensationalising or mainstreaming of the content that makes it to the top of the YouTube rankings lately.
There’s a good roundup of the discussion on the excellent blog YouTube Stars, including a whole bunch of videos responding to this development:
The YouTube community has reacted with ambivalence to Oprah’s new channel. Some think it will bring new viewers for everyone’s videos. But others object to Oprah’s apparent “one-way conversation” – she seems to want to advertise to us without accepting feedback. It has also been lamented that the “golden age” of YouTube is over. With the corporate accounts racking up lots of viewers, its hard to get on the most discussed or most viewed lists without resorting to histrionics and sensationalism. YouTube seemed more like a community of videomakers before “partners” came on to advertise to us. But, all this was inevitable. YouTube was spending millions on the computer power and bandwidth necessary to provide this free service to the uploaders and viewers of the thousands of new videos posted weekly on the site.
I’m not sure this trend really is inevitable. When I spoke to the Convergence Culture Consortium partners at MIT earlier in the year, I tried to argue that it would be a mistake to think of user-created content as a placeholder for ‘real’ (quality, industry-produced) content. I argued that we now have sufficient evidence to say that ‘ordinary’ people are interested in each others’ content, and that it is the social practices around content creation, and not just the ‘content’ itself, that actually cause the platforms designed around user-created content to grow in a sustainable way. It is the collective activities of those users who are engaged in both creative practice and social interaction, wherever they are along the ‘continuum of participation’, that produces the value of each network, and that is what in turn creates loyalty.
At the time, I argued that Flickr was a model of best practice in this regard – cultivating loyalty among its users, deliberately instilling (and if necessary enforcing) social and creative norms designed to maintain the integrity of the community even as it scaled, preserving and respecting the rights of its users, and being selective about who it partners with. I’m not saying there hasn’t been any trouble in Flickr-land, but I still stand by the ‘best practice’ idea, even if it’s “the best you can do if you’re owned by a big company like Yahoo!”.
Going back to the matter at hand, it doesn’t surprise me that the core participants in the YouTube community – the YouTubers – might see the entrance of the Oprah brand, and the way YouTube has responded to it, as something of a disappointment. As many of the comments by dissenting YouTubers demonstrate, the complaint is not really about sharing the space with the mainstream media, it’s about the way that attempts on the behalf of the mainstream media and YouTube itself to exploit the scale of the network are causing ecological changes to YouTube’s economy of attention, so that it is becoming harder and harder to find quality grassroots or niche content. That’s the perception, anyway – it’s hard to say for certain without doing some tracking over time.
Another point made by several YouTube commenters is that Oprah is importing the celebrity + control mentality of big media into the social media space (e.g. by disallowing or filtering comments) and therefore ignoring the cultural norms that have developed over the life of the network; a situation only exacerbated by YouTube’s practice of featuring and partnering with mainstream media companies and celebrities who haven’t done the ‘hard yards’ in the subculture. See this vlog entry by Hughsnews for an example of this kind of critique:
Star vlogger Renato (aka Paul Robinett) is having none of it, suggesting that the lead users might know better than the company what this thing called YouTube is actually for:
Renato may have a point, despite the whiff of sour grapes in the air, and despite the fact that as a YouTube partner himself he is viewed by some users as a bit of a sell-out.
Today marks the first day of a new project aimed at better understanding the needs and wants of our users. The “YouTube Community Council” consists of a handful of volunteers (who will rotate every six months) eager to share their opinions about the site and the community with us on a consistent basis. They’re kicking off their tenure by visiting us in San Bruno over the next few days, giving feedback directly to the team that makes it happen behind the scenes.
There’s also a video that introduces the team and a link to their channels. I’ll be interested to see how this goes – and I’d love to know what other community engagement/management strategies are in place already, because on its own this initiative looks like a case of too little, too late.
I’ve been thinking again about relational aesthetics thanks to Kris Cohen who has been shooting me some of the discussions occurring around it and related matters in art theory, and generally hurting my brain, in a really good way. Being the intellectual dilettante I am, I’m just genuinely interested, but as before, I’m also trying to think through whether there’s any mileage in reworking art or literary theory concepts for popular culture and/or “vernacular creativity”. Not just whether I could do it, but whether I should bother.
Because maybe I’ve just got it back to front. Not for the first time, it’s crossed my mind that maybe cultural studies approaches to the active audience in relation to both television and music already has me where I need to go. I’m really just talking about identifying media that constitutes the relationship between the ‘producer’, the ‘text’, and the ‘audience’ in a particular way – a way that respects the audiences’ intelligence, demonstrates an understanding of the dynamics of engagement as social practice, and constitutes textuality as a vehicle for that engagement, and not the other way round. That is the juice that participatory popular culture runs on, and this beautiful video does just that, with grace, warmth and a sense of humility. It represents audienceing quite literally as the practice of folding music into individual but shared social experience.
And hey, it helps that it’s one of my favourite love songs.
I worked from a script, but the full paper still has to be written into existence. When it’s done I’ll upload it to the MIT5 website. In the meantime, please enjoy the Flickr-ness of the slides that went with the talk.
Given that busking paid my rent over several summers back in the day, I have a special place in my heart for buskers, and street drummers are super cool. I captured this video (on my phone, sorry!) while out strolling around sunny Boston with all the other tourists this afternoon. Enjoy. Here’s a direct link in case the embed doesn’t work in your feed reader.
If you want to try this at home, all you really need is a couple of sticks, some old paint cans, good coordination, a killer sense of rhythm, and years and years and years of practice.
Here’s a video of a different Boston street drummer with a much more esoteric style. Hope he’s still around!