Category Archives: social media

from individuals to arguments

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 1.28.11 PMThe Dream is Now is a participatory “documentary” about undocumented children in the US, deriving its content from UGC ‘confessional video’ style pieces to camera.

This doco captures, to great effect, is the moment – in this it replicates the strength of social media, the ability to take the pulse of now. But what happens when the situation changes – if these people get what they so ardently want, for example. Sure, they could then upload a new vid celebrating the event, but the structure and design of this doco is unable to represent that something has changed. It would be a matter of chance if the viewer uncovered the historical trajectory of events. We can’t sort it; we can’t interrogate the database, let alone follow a suggested (ie, editorialised) path.

What this may mean is that complex arguments, or sophisticated philosophical positions, are unlikely to emerge. The genre becomes a type of propaganda. Although the footage is very modest – people talking to web cams to mobile phone videos – Lene Reifenstahl would have understood this style of documentary (if not, necessarily, the specific message). Structurally, the creators have made no room for complexity – and the more I think about it, the more reservations I have about calling it a documentary at all.

Of Michael Renov’s 4 ‘aesthetic functions’ of documentary:
1. To record, reveal, or preserve–derived from photographic antecedents, a documentary’s realism, a film-maker’s primary desire to ‘record life as it is’… (Renov p 75);
2. To persuade or promote–to mount an argument in favour of a position on some issue of social or cultural import. State-supported propaganda films are extreme examples of this function;
3. To express–perhaps the most controversial, a documentary-makers use of aesthetics to ‘add value’ to the raw record, thus possibly distorting it;
4. To analyze or interrogate–perhaps the most overlooked, this function seeks to analyze and question the very record that justifies the doco in the first place (Renov 83).

I figure The Dream is Now only really does justice to (2).


Renov, M (2004). The subject of documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp 191-215.

Curation is the zeitgeist of our times

Screen Shot 2012-12-30 at 11.32.25 AMProducer Steve Rosenbaum‘s antidote to digital overload:

To separate signal from noise, there’s an emerging class of information superheroes called Content Curators. They’ve got ties to a number of legacy job descriptions, but they’re in some ways extraordinarily new. Think of them like Journalists who’ve climbed into a time machine and been transported to the future, where there are more sources, and more tools, and stunning and sometimes reckless speed.

Curators are both collectors and creators. Capturing the zeitgeist of the web, and knitting together images, text, links, and video along with their own original content to create a focused, contextually relevant editorial for an overloaded world. For a journalist the decision is simple. Embrace your new role as a curator and be part of solving digital overload, or continue to create stand-alone acts of original journalism and have your voice increasingly drowned out by the rising tide of unfiltered information.

But can’t people curate their own stuff? No.

People will pay for clarity, authority, context, and speed. So, how does the changing nature of the web change the need for curation?. It turns out – it speeds it up. We’re now moving to a place where a large amount of the information being created and consumed is images. Cisco, the web technology and networking giant, predicts that 62% of web traffic will be video by the year 2015.

Which makes video a big prize for curators, and a big pain point in the world of digital overload

So, a new job description is born:

…what the web needs most are focused, topic oriented editorial specialists. Individuals who can gather information, provide context, separate information and ideas from data and noise. A new brand of journalist that can bring a distinct editorial voice to a curated content environment.

For some journalists, the idea of being both a finder/filter of content and a creator may seem like they’re giving up the part of the job that they most love. But rising tide of Digital Overload has created an over abundance of unfiltered content, and a growing need for curators to turn a noisy web into a infinite number of trusted verticals.

[image: a Wordle of a paper I'm writing, in which I argue that UGC curation is the future for documentary]

an activist UGC doco

Rise Like Lions: OWS and the Seeds of Revolution (2011) by Scott Noble is a tribute to good editing, as Noble manages to bring together UGC from various sources, captured various ways, and makes it work together.

The approach gives the work a very different, participatory mood. It’s more like a tribute to a movement / community. There is no voiceover, but textual interstices act as segues and extra information, which somehow seem less intrusive. The camerawork was, in the main, filmed ‘on the run’ and illustrates that wobblycam lack of tripod look, however it seems appropriate to the theme. Although presumably all shot on domestic equipment, it doesn’t seem problematic for small screen viewing, and since it appears to be aimed at an internet based audience, its lodef quality doesn’t intrude. Stills have also been effectively incorporated. Truly some genius editing here, pulling it all together.

Some people don’t like the image quality, but for me using UGC and found footage gives this doco an authority it wouldn’t otherwise have.

This is one of the films listed in Films for Action, a great resource for activist documentaries.

[Still from Rise Like Lions by Scott Noble]

the ‘industrialisation’ of electronic media

The US movie industry developed into its current form in the 1910′s and 1920′s for a number of reasons – technical, financial, cultural and social. In the USA, it resulted in bodies to control the distribution of ‘sanctioned’ films; a new profession, the film distributor middle-man; the star system (Dominick, p 204-5), and a system of better quality cinemas. As a result, extravagant movie-length features became the norm (Dominick, p 204-5; Demers, p 156), and increased costs led to the consolidation of the industry into iconic Hollywood companies, combining production and distribution.

‘Talkies’, in the late 1920′s, led by Warner Brothers, proved very popular and eventually led to an exponential growth (Dominick 207; Demers p 157). By this time, the motion picture industry was attracting significant negative attention from moral arbiters, with its penchant for ‘sex, crime and violence’ (Demers 156-7).

Meanwhile, radio in the 1920′s was working out how to operate on a commercial basis through on-air advertising (Dominick, p 152). Linking radio stations into networks further reduced production costs. The economic power of the networks were able to attract and pay for star announcers. The success of commercial radio led to Federal regulation and licensing in the US in 1927, ad hybrid partly state supported broadcasting corporations in many Commonwealth nations (Kovarik 217-8):

Thus, by the end of the 1920′s, the framework for modern radio broadcasting was in place. It would be a commercial supported mass media dominated by networks and regulated by an agency of the federal government. ((Dominick, p 153)

Sound and doco

What did technical innovation do to specific genres? Let us take documentary as an example. The first Lumiere ‘documentarie’s (or actualities) were developed as a result of technical advances in cameras and projection (the cinematograph) (Demers p 153). According to Bill Nichols:

In the silent film era, documentary as a mode of representation that offered perspectives on the historical world – sustained by an institutional framework and community of practitioners, and armed with specific conventions corresponding to distinct audience expectations – did not yet exist. (Nichols)

A change of technology eventually led to a significant reconceptualisation of the documentary concept:

…the advent of sound in documentary posed an array of alternatives. These ranged from poetic narratives to evocative portraits and from studio-produced commentary to the actual speech of people in their everyday life. The choices made among these alternatives are part of a larger story of the nature and function of documentary film in the period from the late 1920s to the late 1930s when a dominant mode of expository documentary took hold and became the equivalent of the classic Hollywood mode of production.

Kovarick (p. 151) comments that sound documentaries was particularly good at propaganda. The earliest American talkie documentaries were Pare Lorentz’s U.S. government sponsored films The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). The use of sound changed the dominant tone of documentary from ‘longings, enchantment, and idylls’ to ‘exhortation, warnings, and proposals’, largely carried by the audio track (Nichols).

Ideas about editing and collage were also revised in the light of sound:

Through the first half of the 1930s, the use of sound took many forms, often furthering the principles of collage through contrapuntal and non-synchronous forms (in The Song of Ceylon (1934), Night Mail (1936), Vertov’s Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Don Basin (1931), Rotha’s Pett and Pott (1934) and Flaherty’s Industrial Britain, produced by John Grierson (1933)). Grierson’s efforts to define and make popular the documentary as an alternative to Hollywood in fact led him to encourage considerable experimentation with sound in the early 1930s. As Lovell and Hillier note, under Grierson the documentary movement became “a laboratory for experiments in the non-naturalistic use of sound.”

Eventually, however, a dominant mode arose within the British documentary movement that took hold in America as well. It concentrated sound into speech and yoked speech to a rhetorical assertion. The speech became known as the voice of God and the assertions became labeled didacticism, or propaganda. It was into this increasingly dominant tradition, which included later British works like Housing Problems (1935) and The Smoke Menace (1937) as well as sound newsreels like The March of Time (1935), that Pare Lorentz stepped when he made his two most famous films. The ethnographic impulse became argumentative rather than observational, as it was to remain in anthropology or in the later work in cinéma verité and cinéma direct. Collage became flattened upon the Procrustean bed of expository logic, in which images serve primarily as illustration for the rhetorical claims of a spoken commentary with its problem-solving bent rather than allowing the potential of images as assembled fragments to attain full force. Collage, sound, and documentary became tamed, placed at the service of sponsors. The sponsors could vary radically in their politics and ambitions (from Stalinism to the New Deal), but their impact everywhere was both to give to documentary a dominant form at the same time as they robbed it of more complex diversity and potential subversiveness. By the late 1930s the coming of sound was complete (if not entirely embraced) and documentary was both richer (in potential) and poorer (in its prevailing practice) for it. (Nichols)

Web 2.0 and doco

If the impact of sound was to embed exposition and propagandistic argument as the dominant mode of documentary for the following 30 or 40 years, what might the impact of the network, with its hyperlinks, granular searchability, interactivity and user-generated content? The Web 1.0 era gave us many interesting documentary experiments, mianly exploring the user of hyperlinks to form non-linear paths and richly designed environments combining rich media with static html pages. In retrospect however, such documentaries did not really reinvent the documentary concept, which has always been a genre typified less by linear narrative than the mounting of arguments whose needs were forced, and indeed, ‘contained’ by linear heritage media, rather than presupposing it.

What seems more important to the documentary form since it was conceived by the industrial era of mass communication is the delivery of some sort of coherent position – conceived argumentatively, politically, or aethetically. Even documentaries in the poetic mode (or essay films) must, perhaps, attain an aesthetic, or perhaps psychological coherence to be successful. Web 2.0, typified by user-generated content and social media, threatens the possibility of such coherence.

The response of documentary makers to the challenge of Web 2.0 has to date been piecemeal. Few, if any, seem to found a way to gracefully incorporate user generated content into arguments, let alone aesthetics. Doing so will surely lead to a revolution in the documentary form. However, incorporating found content into documentary might also change the economics of making documentaries, allowing for the possibility of niche documentaries with small budgets, disseminated freely with, perhaps, sponsorship to underwrite them.


Demers, D (2007). History and future of mass media: an integrated perspective. New Jersey: Hampton Press.

Dominick, J R The dynamics of mass communication: media in transition. 11th edition.

Kovarik, B (2011). Revolutions in communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the digital age. New York: Continuum.

Nichols, Bill Documentary and the coming of sound. (accessed 7 December 2012)

[Poster for The Jazz Singer (1927)]

youtube confessions

We’ve all seen them – heartfelt autobiographical pieces to the computer camera, uploaded, with little or no editing, to Youtube. How are we to understand the phenomenon of the Youtube confession?

Michael Renov argues that it is a function of the personal video camera to elicit this type of media, in comparison to the industrial film cameras of heritage media. Autobiography has made a leap of mediums in the post-industrial age because of technology. He excavates the pre-history of the Youtube confession, starting with Jean Rouch in Chronique d’un ete (1961), who muses:

…the camera… becomes a kind of psychoanalytic stimulant which lets people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. (Rouch quoted by Renov, p 197)

Rouch continues:

…the camera… was not a brake but let’s say, to use an automotive term, an accelerator. You push these people to confess themselves and it seemed to us without any limit. Some of the public who saw the film said the film was a film of exhibitionists. I don’t think so. It’s not exactly exhibitionism: it’s a very strange kind of confession in front of the camera, where the camera is, let’s say, a mirror, and also a window open to the outside. (quoted by Renov, p 197)

Thus, Renov argues that the camera has become:

…a kind of two-way glass that retains a double function: it is a window that delivers the profilmic to an absent gaze and, at the same moment, a reflective surface that reintroduces us to ourselves. Rouch’s insight brilliantly anticipates what the video apparatus (with the playback monitor mounted alongside the camera) realizes. (Renov, p 197)

The new personal video technology meant that people could have a different relationship with the moving image, because the subject of the moving image could become the self, and the camera becomes a “camera-stylo”, the moving image equivalent to the pen (Renov, p 198).

Confession can serve many ends, as Renov reveals in a number of video confession works. In Anger (1986) by Maxis Cohen ‘confession has taken the place of penance’:

I am suggesting that first-person video confessions, addressed to an absent confessor/Other, mediated through an ever-present apparatus, constitute a discursive formation significantly different from the truncated dialogue, one that offers particular insight into the specificities and potentialities of the medium itself.
First-person video confessions satisfy Foucault’s formulation of confession as ‘a discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement,’ with the ‘speaking subject’ understood as necessarily and simultaneously the ‘enunciating subject’. (Renov, p200)

Video gives the confession ‘exchange value’:

Video preserves and deepens that dynamic of privatization and entrepreneurship. Now, with the help of their cameras, videomakers can exhume their deepest fears and indiscretions all on their own–then put their neuroses on display. In a sense, first-person video confession is uniquely suited to its moment. Born of late-stage capitalism, it endows therapeautic practice with exchange value.
There are other ways to understand the advantage of the first-person format. As Rouch demonstrated with Marceline’s soliloquy in Chronique d’un ete, the presence of the camera or recorder is sufficient to spur self-revelation. In the case of video confessions, the virtual presence of a parter–the imagined other effectuated by the technology–turns out to be a more powerful facilitator of emotion than flesh-and-blood interlocutors. (Renov, p 204)

The reality TV phenomenon illustrates another of late capitalism’s fetishes (see Fetveit 1999), which also, arguably, feeds into the impetus to confess.

The confessional moment establishes a ‘zone of liminality’ (Renov, p 212), even if it functions outside criminological, religious, or other formal institutional settings, because, so long as it is addressed to a public, it is a ‘threshold moment’ (Renov, p 212), holding a promise of moving on to another state. On the criminal confession a la Detective John Kelly in NYPD Blue:

“By confessing, he finds the first possibility of a return to the community after he had put himself, through his deed, outside its limits.” In that liminal zone, no emotion, no promise, no sign of remorse remains unthinkable. (Renov, p 212, including quote by Reik).

What, then is the role of the internet, as publisher and distributor, of a confessional video? It amplifies effects already identified by Renov, that:

To return to Foucault’s characterization, ‘one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile’.(Renov, including quote of Foucault, p 203)

It is as if the performer is confessing to her own conscience (super-ego) which has been manifested in the internet, second-gessing all the ways her behaviour might be assessed and trying to repond to them. The limits of the confession is her own sense of self, and it is perhaps those limits in which revelation most lies. The internet is the authority, the public(s) to which the confessor addresses. The confessor must possess an internalised sense of who this public is, its likely values and interests, so that s/he knows how to confess – what the scope of the confession should be, where the guilt, or shame, or despair lies that needs explaining.

If the ear of the other indeed contributes to the (re)construction of the speaking self, it is only on condition that the positions of self and other, confessor and confessant, remain fluid and reciprocal. (Renov, p 214)

An interesting observation, when transferred to a confession published online, in which there can be no expectation of any specific person confessing, but rather a potential for specific people to confess; meanwhile, the culture of confession that generally pervades social media platforms impart a sense of generalised reciprocity.

The impact of incorporating confessional video footage into a documentary may be profound (leaving aside the ethical issues).

Speaking in the first person edges the documentary form toward the diary, essay, and aspects of avant-garde or experimental film and video. The emphasis may shift from convincing the audience of a particular point of view or approach to a problem to the representation of a personal, clearly subjective view of things (Nichols, 14).

Such documentaries may become subjective, exploratory, and rather melancholic; with a subtext about an attempt to communicate. Exposition may counter to their power.

In The Love Tapes (1978-?) by Wendy Clarke, Renov explores the power of seeing your confession on the auto-playback screen attached to the camera:

The screen/mirror also becomes a blank surface on which an active projection of the self, rather than a scrictly receptive introjection, reigns triumphant. At last, in a reversal of broadcast fortunes close to Brecht’s dream, the television stops talking and just listens. Video becomes the eye that sees and the ear that listens, powerfully but without judegement or reprisal. (Renov p 206)

I think we don’t listen to social media and UGC all that often. It can be hard work, because it is not professionally made. But if we did, we’d find much wonderful, powerful, disturbing content.


Fetveit, Arild ‘Reality TV in the digital era: a paradox in visual culture?’ Media Culture Society 1999 21: 787
Nichols, B (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press,
Renov, M (2004). ‘Video confessions’, in The subject of documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp 191-215.

[Scene from Chronique d'un ete (1961) by Jean Rouch]

an intimate distance

What sort of authority does social media provide as documentary source material? I’m going to ponder this question by contrasting the idea of social-media-as-archive with the Albert Kahn archive, as discussed by Paula Amad in her recent book. The Kahn archive doesn’t contain documentaries, but raw, unedited footage – source material for possible documentaries.

Kahn cameramen were asked to capture the everyday:

…Brunhes [one of the Archive founders] focussed on the unknown within what was already visible. He stressed that human geography was not driven by ‘the ambition to discover on the earth phenomena which have never been seen before’… but rather its role was to perceive already known phenomena ‘under a particular light’. Far from adhering to some naive fascination with just looking, Brunhes and Kahn were united in their desire to learn how to see the ordinary and the banal with new eyes. In fact, Brunhes warned his operators before they left on their missions that they must ‘know how to see, learn how to see’. (Amad, p77)

Brunhes ‘… expected an order to arise out of the disorder of multiple facts in constant evolution that characterised the true geographical landscape.’ (Amad, p 71)

The institution of some sort of order is one way to understand the distinction between pre-documentary and documentary. Indeed, Amad quotes Greirson’s critique of archives such as Kahn’s:

The little daily doings, however finely symphonized, are not enough. One must pile up beyond doing or process to creation itself, before one hits the higher reaches of art. (Grierson, quoted by Amad, p90)

Bill Nichols seems to accept the Griersonian project when he describes ‘the passage of document to documentary’, which Amad elaborates as “..the path, that is, from a fragmented accumulation of filmed views to a deliberate arrangement of filmed facts within a larger poetic or persuasive narrative form’ (Amad p 65).

It is as if Kahn and Brunhes were asking the archive viewer to assemble their own documentary, according to their own tastes and historical perspective. They were, it seems, totally focussed on the future historical reception of the archive. Each category in the Kahn archive was understood by Brunhes as “in a state of Bergsonian “becoming” resonant of a wider condition of modernity in which everything around us is in a state of change and ‘nothing is really stable’.” (Amad, p77)

Thus the Kahn cameramen toured the world trying to capture an everyday that would never be the same again.

I don’t think many social media authors are focussed on the historical reception of their document. They are trying to communicate, here and now, about what is on their mind, and this communication often borders on ‘the horror of the everyday’ (I’m misquoting Amad here, pg. 95):

The speaker is making all her editorial decisions, and aesthetics more or less go out the window in her desperation to communicate. The intimate distance that this video diary creates is painful to us in more ways than one. It’s raw. It rambles. But we get a stranger’s pain.

This one tiny episode from the virtually infinite social media archive that is growing by the second, which could be pre-documentary source material if only professional documentarians would come along and organise it. In its anonymity and unprofessionalism, it throws up questions of authority which are quite different from those of the Kahn archive. With Kahn, we want to know why this scene and was any of it staged (apparently some of it was). My authority questions concerning this woman all concern her identity. She is her own authority, I need to know her name (her username is not her real name). I need to create some sort of consensus idea of her, I need to see that all her digital traces add up. I want to be able to quote her properly. But I’m not doubting the veracity of her lived experience. I don’t think she’s staging anything. Maybe I’m being naive, but I can’t imagine any motivation other than a desperate desire not to feel so isolated. and if I can get all that, then perhaps I can start adding her story to other stories, start finding the pattern, the bigger picture. It will take a lot of listening.

One of the most recognizable ways in which pre-documentary film emphasized the simple, if never innocent, process of ‘just looking’ is through the omnipresent acknowledgement of the camera by those being filmed–one of the dominant characteristics of the Kahn films. In reaction to the overwhelmingly visible (or acknowledged) camera in early nonfiction films, by the 1920′s support had developed for the idea that a hidden (or unacknowledged) camera resulted in a more candid and truthful depiction (and eventual decoding) of everyday life. This position actually became a point of principle in emerging and more socially radical forms of “fly on the wall” observational filmmaking … Kahn’s films, however, encapsulate a prior model of filming in which the diclosed witnessing of social reality–implicitly (if not explicitly) understood as a reality necessarily (and even more so in the case of the autochromes) shaped by the presence of the camera–provided the norm. (pp73-4)

Video diaries published in Youtube are the antithesis of fly on the wall observational film-making. The performance is all about the existence of the camera. She pressed the record button herself! But that doesn’t damage their authenticity. It certainly promotes an ethic. But these works are their own genre, and documentarians attempting to appropriate such work must acknowledge the material and psychological circumstances that underpin their production.


Amad, P (2010). Chapter 2. Counter-archive: film, the everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planete. New York: Columbia university Press, pp 64-95.

Ante-natal depression via Spundge

Spundge is a tool that helps you do online research. One of these days I’d like to make some sort of documentary on ante-natal depression, which is an under-recognised consition that I suffered from myself (looking for interviewees, btw). So I have made a Spundge notebook to keep track of what get published online about this theme. In a round-about way it picks up what is going on in heritage media too (because ppl comment on it in social media). As you can see, you can embed it similar to a Storify.

ante-natal depression

ante-natal depression, pre-natal depression

View ante-natal depression on Spundge

the anthropology of social media

Claude Levi-Strauss thought that it was the anthropologist’s job to endure the dross of everyday routine,

…the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose…

in order to get from them some unknown or new information about the subject people (Amad, page 66). Of course, Levi-Strauss developed his structuralist approach out of his observations, but perhaps the observation of everyday life may be justified less in terms of a grand narrative, and more in terms of compact, thematic journeys such as are material for documentary makers.

Albert Kahn was a French banker.

From 1909 to 1931, he commissioned photographers and film cameramen to record life in over 50 countries. The images were held in the Archive of the Planet, a collection of 180,000 metres of b/w film and more than 72,000 autochrome plates, the first industrial process for true colour photography, of which the museum now has the largest collection in the world. (The Albert Kahn Archive)

Famously, there is no middleman collector in social media, other than the system/s itself, the system that displays our efforts, that categorises and ranks their popularity, that archives them or makes them inaccessible with software updates. As we progress to Web 3, that system is getting more and more predictive; its ‘editorial’ ability requires more active intervention to get to gems like this one from newlywed08 – nearly unwatchable in terms of its production quality, but rich as an anthropological artefact. A young woman tells her story of suffering from ante-natal depression, which is usually under-acknowledged in a family’s euphoria surrounding the approaching birth of a new child.

So many questions arise – the ‘need for immediate medication’ – why now and not three months ago? Is that a good idea when so pregnant? The subject’s apparent isolation and lack of support; the subject’s own apparent acceptance of the medicalisation of her condition; why did she want to create a video diary about this? Was this her only way to get any support? She seems to be addressing her friends – who are they? Are they F2F friends? Are there bigger issues? Are there reasons why life in early twenty-first century New Zealand (and other similar nations) might give rise to ante-natal depression? Or has it always been a condition that goes under-reported? Might there be other ways to understand it, apart from the medicalised one?

A documentary-maker must transform that which is merely endured into something if not celebrated, at least re-conceived and reworked so as to extract the stuff good documentaries may be made of – connections to bigger issues, emotionally appropriate expressivity, universal or social contextualisation, as well as what this already is, an artefact from the real world/lived experience.

The archive of social media has a different nature than that of the Khan Archive, which was captured and curated by Western men and whose subject matter was ostensibly not themselves. One of its founders, Brunhes, proclaimed its purpose was

…to employ those instruments which have just been born [color photography and cinematography] in order to capture and conserve the facts of the planet which are about to die (Brunhes, quoted an interpolated by Amad, page 69)

Rarely does social media exhibit such an organised sense of mission, or such dramatic urgency – perhaps when it covers the unfolding of some newsworthy catastrophe. You could say that the Kahn archive is not really fascinated by the everyday at all, because the material looks forward to a future (now) when what has been recorded is not everyday.

On Topsy, ‘coffee’ has been mentioned 152,000 times in the last 7 days. And that is only the tweets that Topsy considered significant.

There is something extraordinary about this statistic, but it is also completely everyday. This is the sort of information only possible from social media. Extracting it, and adding it to the latent coffee narrative that can be created … that’s how we lift the social media document out of its insignificance and into documentary.


Amad, P (2010). ‘Chapter 2: Keep your eyes open – From pre-documentary to documentary film in the Kahn Archives’, in Counter-Archive: Film, the Everyday, and Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planete, New York: Columbia University Press.

[image from the Kahn Archive]

Documentary and self-promotion don’t mix

A declaration of interdependence was directed by Tiffany Schlain and is “an exhilarating montage of user-generated videos and graphics, a global mash-up demonstrating the vast potential of creative collaboration in the 21st century”. Part of a series that Schlain and team are creating, she hopes to develop a new form of cloud documentary. Her principles are:

  1. To use the cloud to collaboratively create films with people from all over the world.
  2. To create films about ideas that speak to the most universal qualities of human life, focusing on what connects us, rather than what divides us.
  3. To give back as much as is received, by offering free customized films to organizations around the world to further their message.
  4. To use the cloud to translate films into as many languages as possible.
  5. To push the boundaries of both filmmaking and distribution by combining the newest collaborative tools available online with the potential of all the people in the world.

Interdependence is visually lovely and uplifting, but is it a documentary? And how deep runs the collaboration? Can we say that this is the sort of social media inspired documentary that I’m looking for?

Let us remind ourselves of Renov’s 4 principles for documentary aesthetics:

  • To record, reveal, or preserve–derived from photographic antecedents, a documentary’s realism, a film-maker’s primary desire to ‘record life as it is’, in Mekas’ words (Renov p 75);
  • To persuade or promote–to mount an argument in favour of a position on some issue of social or cultural import. State-supported propaganda films are extreme examples of this function;
  • To express–perhaps the most controversial, a documentary-makers use of aesethics to ‘add value’ to the raw record, thus possibly distorting it;
  • To analyze or interrogate–perhaps the most overlooked, this function seeks to analyze and question the very record that justifies the doco in the first place (Renov 83).

Interdependence probably achieves the first three, although expression runs amok, and it is easy to lose track of the actual argument. It makes no attempt at the fourth function, but as I’ve said elsewhere, many docos don’t, and Renov sets a high bar. So why am I so suspicious? Yes, I’m feeling conned, and the con goes something like this: I’m a director and going to pretend to give something to the world, but I’m really telling you about me. The message is too slick, too easy and empty. I like the odd idealistic statement, but this time I feel it’s in aid of another message: look at me. The look at me is contained in all the media surrounding the work itself, and the work itself just isn’t enough.

In internet based work in particular, the line between documentary and marketing is becoming so blurry, particularly given the ease with which social media can be made to serve marketing. When I’m talking about using social media in documentary work, I need that use to be much more substantive than marketing.

Schlain invites us to ‘engage’ by

  • Spread your message: We will create a free customized version of this film for your organization that will have your call to action (completing the sentence “Engage by…”) and your url at the end….
  • Tell us how you’ll engage: Not part of an organization? We still want to hear your ideas! After watching Engage, share with us the ways you engage in the world around you.
  • Translate: Help translate Engage [another film in her series] into as many languages as possible!…
  • Share: Please post, tweet, forward this film to your networks for a positive ripple effect….

Well, OK. But real engagement would be adding your own media, telling your own story. EG, become Youtube etc, and in the process dissolve Schlain’s own authorial voice. Instead, the people that appear in Interdependence are reading her script, and I suspect that she and her team have attempted to recruit for diversity rather than accepted whoever knocked on her virtual door (I might be wrong there but the range of people seem too perfectly diverse. Wouldn’t more Americans have been attracted to participating?).

Am I asking too much? Quite possibly. But if Schlain was a little more modest in her claims I probably wouldn’t feel as affronted. The packaging has drowned the message. What remains is artistry and rhetoric, and a latent auteurism that just won’t fly in the context of social media inspired documentary.

Documentaries shouldn’t be glib. They should be complex and multivocal.


Renov, M (2004). ‘Lost, Lost, Lost: Mekas as Essayist.’ In The subject of documentary, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 69-89

social media, documentary and #alanjones

In this continuing exploration of the emergent relationship between social media and documentary, I attempt to taxonomise social media into ways in which it could be used for documentary practice.

Why would we use social media in documentary? Isn’t it full of heresay and slander; rarely authoritative, and generally too brief or informal for any type of evidentiary purpose. We may know next to nothing about the author (who may be using a pseudonym), and its engagement either with the minutiae of daily life, or the passing parade of pop culture make its subject matter either obscure or transitory.

But it is exactly to capture the flavour of lives lived that we would want to appropriate it; not in an attempt to capture and can ‘the ‘truth’, but to harvest a sense of the experience of living in this moment, this place. Social media offers a different sort of ‘truth’ from the primary sources of traditional documentary, and its widespread use would, presumably, result in a different sort of documentary.

Dorothy E Smith wrote about truth in documentary before the social media era. Her dismantling of the sort of truth relied on in traditional, expository, authoritative documentary offers a perspective on the ‘truth’ of social media. She wants to make

…a preliminary treatment of aspects of the social organization of society which are fundamental to how it is ruled, managed and administered…. Our relation to others in our society and beyond it is mediated by the social organization of its ruling. Our “knowledge” is thus ideological in the sense that this social organisation preserves conceptions and means of description which represent the world as it is for those who rule it, rather than as it is for those who are ruled. (p 267)

Even during Web 1.0 we were arguing that the Web was a great equalising and democratising force. Social media appears to be the ultimate democratic expression. But is it? Does it undermine older forms of authority and their truths? If so, how? By erecting a new truth to replace the old? Or is it merely a negative force, critical, but barely constructive? If we want to use social media in documentary contexts, we’d better be able to say why we should.

Smith’s argument is interesting and complex, but for me her most controversial move is her diagram on page 260, which I reproduce here:

The move which I question is the separation ‘social organization of production of account’ and ‘account’. Perhaps the sorts of bureaucratic and institutionalized ‘facts’ that Smith refers to can be seen in this way – an event occurs; it has an identifiable perpetrator, and the retelling of the event is organised around that perpetrator into some neat narrative resulting in actions, outcomes and possibly even morals. Told from the authority’s point of view, such narratives are written, archived, possibly even published in a coherent way with all sorts of unobserved presuppositions about what is important and what not. Such ‘truth narratives’ need a level of orchestration, to ‘get the facts straight’, before the account is actually written.

Compare, for example, a Twitter exchange about a specific topic, or a chat session in a Facebook group. Nobody is orchestrating the content and performance of social media. Sure, people like Mark Zuckerberg are determining the envelope in which things may or may not be said, but within that envelop there is a lot of wriggle room, even if you only have 140 characters. Things get said; they either fade away, or they might get retweeted, favourited and liked, and thus gain a bit more traction. Statements circulate, and a consensus of sorts emerge, if, for example, you follow the debate surrounding a hashtag like #alanjones in the time period of my graph above. The ‘text’ which is the series of tweets using #alanjones has a communal authority which emerges from the conversation, and there is no organisation of the account other than its performance over time, which swells and subsides as events unfold.

The ‘stabilized’ text (p 160) that emerges (ie, the one that gets archived on backup servers) is not seamless and univocal – it may become more so as the controversy dies and consensus emerges, but the evidence of its ‘drafts’ remain. Where Smith worries about the invisibility of the processes and structures that give rise to the final account, in social media those processes and structures are in the text; perhaps, indeed, they are the text.

Social media, in all its guises and daily practices, is surely the greatest archive-in-development that ever there was. It represents a treasure trove of quotidien opinion and pre-occupation. But the ways that social media can act as a primary source are various.

1. What’s trending
My #alanjones example. Via the use of aggregators and automated data-extractors, you can use social media to determine how important a particular topic is on a particular day, and the tenor of the emergent conversation. Even retweets and reblogs are fodder for this type of primary source – while a retweet and a reblog is a curatorial act, and perhaps the lowest form of originality, someone somewhere was interested enough to pres a button, and have that topic permanently affixed to their social record.

2. social reportage
Perhaps the most well-known and respected type of social media primary source, because it has been embraced by heritage media: ordinary people stumbling across an event and capturing it, for example, footage of the 2010 London riots. Such media may be transparently remediated into documentary (copyright notwithstanding). While it may be the most transparent use of user-generated content, as it merely extends the arm of the citizen journalist concept, it is not particularly revolutionary.

3. Confessional social media
Perhaps the hardest social media to quantify and re-appropriate, because it is personal, idiosyncratic and often boasting very amatuer production values, video diaries, instagram-style location based photos, Facebook homepages, and some uses of Twitter can provide documentary makers with insights into the events and opinions in an individual’s life. A documentarian’s interest in using such material is likely to stem from the individual’s bizarre behaviour – the Facebook page they left behind after their suicide, for example, and ethical questions can arise. However, as with Samuel Pepys among others, such diaristic behaviour is historical primary source material par excellence, a rich source of semiotic analysis, and a greatly under-explored archive.

4. Live performance
Documentary makers can incorporate social media into their actual documentary to make it a permanently evolving and up-to-date performance piece. i’m still waiting to see a good example of this.


Dorothy E Smith (1974) ‘The Social Construction of Documentary Reality’ Sociological Inquiry Volume: 44, Issue: 4, Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc., Pages: 257-268

[graph by geniwate]