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]