Visual Ethnography of Amateur Video Makers

Home 2014-04-28 13-07-16

Author: John Hondros
Format: Website: http://www.technologystudies.org/
Published: April 2014


Research Statement

Questions

My research was a theory-led investigation into why amateur video producers adopted the Internet as a video distribution technology, how they used it, and what kinds of interactions with their audiences followed from this use.*

While YouTube appeared to be the primary focus for social scientists looking at Internet video at the time I began formulating this project in 2009, I decided to take a different approach. In particular, I felt that taking YouTube or even the Internet in general as my point of departure would foreclose some potentially interesting lines of enquiry. I decided therefore to centre my research instead on categories of producers who were using other distribution methods prior to the advent of the Internet, but who now had adopted it as a distribution technology. One consequence of this approach was that it framed Internet video distribution technologies within the wider historical context of video distribution technologies, rather than treating them as something unprecedented (see Jenkins, 2009:109 for a related approach). Secondly, I hypothesized that at least some producers who belonged to categories that used other distribution methods prior to the Internet may have had some experience with these traditional methods, or were at least aware of them and had an opinion about them relative to Internet distribution. I believed that this focus would therefore allow me to some extent to compare and contrast Internet distribution with traditional distribution methods while answering my research questions, and thereby provide a different perspective on this technology from ones that began with YouTube or the Internet as their point of departure.

The literature on categories of amateur video producers who were active before the advent of the Internet as a distribution technology mainly concerns the genres of home movies, community video, alternative video, and film and television fan videos. My research focussed on an ethnographic investigation of three of these categories, and concerned one group of amateur producers from each category. In selecting the specific groups from within these categories, I decided to restrict my search to groups that operated in English, to facilitate my in-depth engagement with them, and I concentrated on the US and UK to ensure a potentially large pool of candidates, while still maintaining some geographic focus. I was also looking for groups that were currently actively engaged in amateur video making, to enable my observation of, and participation in, their activities, and that were also of sufficient scale to potentially provide enough material to support a research project of this kind. The informant groups I finally settled upon were the California Community Media Exchange, an association of US public access television stations; visionOntv, the Internet video project of the UK activist group Undercurrents; and a group of film and television fans centred on the VividCon convention held annually in Chicago. The ethnographies I produced for each of these groups included a written component, and a visual component in the form of a video-rich website. The remainder of this statement concerns the visual component of my research only.

* Note: What is precisely meant by the term “amateur” is a complex question (Stebbins, 1992:10, Garber, 2000:Ch.1), and the situation for Internet video is further complicated by recent initiatives like the one begun by YouTube to professionalise amateurs (Burgess, 2013:56). In this statement however, I use the term in a loose sense only, and to simply differentiate the kinds of video makers I consider here from those that are employed and paid by the institutions of professional video making, such as those in the film and television industry.

Burgess, J. 2013. YouTube and the formalisation of amateur media. In: Hunter, D., Lobato, R., Richardson, M. & Thomas, J. (eds.) Amateur Media: Social, cultural and legal perspectives. Abingdon, England: Routledge, pp. 53-58.
Garber, M. 2000. Academic instincts, Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Jenkins, H. 2009. What Happened Before YouTube. In: Burgess, J. & Green, J. (eds.) YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge: Polity, pp. 109-125.
Stebbins, R. A. 1992. Amateurs, professionals, and serious leisure, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Context
Hypermedia visual ethnographic representations. While ethnographic still images are typically bound within books and articles as “figures” or “plates”, and moving images are largely confined to the genre of ethnographic film, hypermedia are an alternative representational media that can include both these visual forms, as well as written text and audio. While hypermedia (such as CD ROMs and websites) are accepted media for ethnographic representation, they are only slowly emerging (Dicks et al., 2005:159, Pink, 2007:191,192).

One reason for their acceptance is that as ethnographic media they offer some advantages and new possibilities, and I will outline some of these here in relationship to my own website. One such advantage is that hypermedia allow for different pathways to be constructed through a particular set of data, and these pathways can be used to promote both multivocality and multilinearity within an ethnography (Dicks et al., 2005:160, Pink, 2007:194). With respect to multivocality, websites could be designed with hyperlinked pathways that connect up the different media representing a particular informant (such as interview texts, photos, video clips and audio samples), which might otherwise be fragmented throughout a conventional linear ethnography and subsumed under the ethnographer’s authorial narrative. Similarly, the ethnographer may also create multiple interpretative pathways through her data set which, it is argued, may better represent the complexity and diversity of contemporary society and culture than a conventional linear ethnographic text (Dicks et al., 2005:160, Pink, 2007:194).

I have used this potential for creating different pathways in two main ways in my website. Firstly, I have allowed the user to access the different pages in the website through either the home page, which contains a short narrative on each of the three informant groups with hyperlinks to the relevant ethnographic webpages contextualised and embedded within that narrative, or through a menu structure which is repeated throughout the site. More importantly though is how I have used this potential to allow my informants’ voices to be heard. Rather than using it to connect up the different ethnographic elements representing a particular informant, which are largely consolidated in my website in any case, I employed it to connect up the online elements of the field itself related to a particular informant by embedding them within the ethnography. The user is therefore presented with alternative ways of entering into the field, which they are then able to experience for themselves, and these choices are contextualised by the ethnographic narrative within which they are embedded. For example, the ethnographic representation of Antonio Sausys and his public access television series YogiViews contains hyperlinks within the text to his Blip channel, his WordPress site, the YogiViews Facebook page and his YouTube channel. Users are also able to enter the field through the image rotator at the top of my website as the website images it contains all link through to the actual websites depicted. The user is therefore able to choose to enter the field in different ways, and once there they can see the informants’ online presence for themselves, hearing their “voices” directly within their original context, and even use the interactive elements of those sites to interact with the informants personally.

Of course, while I do not directly mediate a user’s encounter with the field once they are on an informant’s website, my selection of the particular informants to include in my website, which links to provide, the way I contextualise those links, and what images I choose to include in the rotator, mean that I still maintain an indirect mediating role. In addition, the dynamic nature of websites, especially services like Facebook, mean that what the user encounters may in some cases be very different from what I encountered. What’s more, the user is only able to encounter the online aspect of the field through the website, not the physical spaces I also engaged with (e.g. television stations, conventions). So while an ethnographic website may potentially offer a more direct encounter with the field than traditional representational media, it is still a mediated and partial one.

Another, related advantage of hypermedia is that an ethnography may contain a much larger amount of information than a conventional linear narrative without overwhelming the user. For instance, a website may contain many hours of video clips, but the user will only watch clips that are linked to the particular pathway they follow, whereas a linear ethnographic representation, such as an ethnographic film shown at a festival, requires all the footage to be viewed (unless you walk out!), and therefore it must contain far less footage given the attention span of the average potential audience member. My website also takes advantage of this feature of hypermedia as it contains nearly two and a half hours of my own and my informants’ videos broken into over a dozen different clips embedded within various pages, as well as direct links to pages that contain many more hours of video.

While hypermedia representation has these advantages, it also has some problematic aspects:

[The] dilemma of freedom versus control is one of the most contentious issues confronting hypermedia ethnographers. How can structure be introduced such that the readers can easily follow one or more authorial interpretive trails, without smothering the creative potential of hypermedia’s inherent unstructuredness? (Dicks et al., 2005:165)

Both Pink (2007:192) and Dicks et al. (2005:165) stress how considerations of hypermedia design is crucial here in balancing the need for structure to allow the user to evoke ethnographic meaning from the document, while at the same time allowing them the freedom to explore the different elements of that document in a creative way. In particular, these design considerations concern how the potential meanings the user can extract from the hypermedia document depend on how the author has integrated the written, visual and aural elements of the document, how the author has constructed the hyperlink topology that binds these elements together, the decisions the author has made about which particular pathways will run through it, and what signs are made available to the user so that they can orientate themselves within that topology.

My own design decisions have tried to balance these competing demands for structure and freedom. A user who begins with the home page will be provided with a structured narrative from where all the pages of the ethnography are contextualised within it, as already discussed above. These pages can be accessed one at a time in the sequence they are presented, and this approach provides the most structure path through the website. The user is of course free to ignore this, and can access the different pages through the menu structure, or at random from within the home page. The menu provides free access to any of the pages on the site, although the user’s choices are contextualised, but not limited, by the fact that the different menu links are organised by their relevant informant group. The third and final choice the user has is it to engage with the website through the image rotator. Here the user is taken directly to the field, as discussed above, and is free to navigate through the informants’ online world once there. This provides the least structured approach to the ethnography, although only a limited number of images with links are actually present. Those that are present have been chosen to ensure an interesting encounter for the user, even if they will not understand this encounter within the context of the ethnography unless they return to the website and choose to engage with the home page or menu structure.

The above discussion of the various design decisions I made, framed by the theoretical context, helps further our understanding of this emergent form of ethnographic representation by illustrating and elaborating upon some of its important characteristics. In addition, while the literature gives some examples of hypermedia visual ethnographies (Pink, 2011:218-221,223, Pink, 2007:202-210, Banks, 2001:164), it appears to be silent on examples of those that are of predominately online environments such as mine, and so my research also extends our understanding of this representational medium into a new domain.

Banks, M. 2001. Visual methods in social research, London, Sage.
Dicks, B., Mason, B., Coffey, A. & Atkinson, P. 2005. Qualitative research and hypermedia: Ethnography for the digital age, London, Sage.
Pink, S. 2007. Doing visual ethnography: Images, media and representation in research, London, Sage.
Pink, S. 2011. Digital Visual Anthropology: Potentials and Challenges. In: Banks, M. & Ruby, J. (eds.) Made to Be Seen: Perspectives on the History of Visual Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago, pp. 209-233.

Methods
While my research was conducted within the disciplinary framework of Media and Communications, it is centred on the cross-disciplinary ethnographic method.

Outcomes
While the construction of my visual ethnography was framed by the theoretical discussion in the “Context” section above, it was indicated there that hypermedia visual ethnographies are a nascent area of academic representation, and therefore there is still much to be learnt about hypermedia design and how to best represent online spaces. My website contributes to our understanding of this and hopefully will provide some guidance to visual ethnographers who attempt such representations in the future.

Impact
Elements from the website (my observational videos, my informants’ videos, screenshots) have been shown as part of presentations given at the Transforming Audiences 3 conference in London 2011 and the IAMCR conference in Dublin in 2013, and were shown at Social Media (the fourth Transforming Audiences conference) in London September 2013.

The website was part of my recently submitted PhD thesis at the Communications and Media Research Institute, University of Westminster, and formed the audio-visual component of my thesis. The research was funded by a University of Westminster PhD studentship.


Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows

Review 1: Accept work for DVD and/or web publication with no alterations
In many respects this is a good submission, tackling an interesting issue and doing so in an intelligent manner. The researcher has done some great background research and used it well in the construction of the submission, the website ‘technologystudies.org’. The background research and the depth of the researcher’s interest in amateur video makers here give an original insight into the ways in which amateur/activist video-makers use the internet as a mode of distribution. By using hypermedia the author presents a multi-linear ethnographic account of amateur video makers and their production/distribution methods (hyperlinking moving images with texts, sounds and photos), instead of using a linear narrative. On this notion the author states that “similarly, the ethnographer may also create multiple interpretative pathways through her data set which, it is argued, may better represent the complexity and diversity of contemporary society and culture than a conventional linear ethnographic text.”

– What are the main claims and purposes of the work?

The main claim of the author is to give a different perspective on moving image distribution technologies, such as YouTube or other video hosting services, by contrasting Internet distribution technologies with those used by amateur video producers prior to the Internet. The author hypothesises that “at least some producers who belonged to categories that used other distribution methods prior to the Internet may have had some experience with these traditional methods, or were at least aware of them and had an opinion about them relative to Internet distribution.” The author further claims that by using hypermedia in a non-linear way an ethnographer may convey much more information without overwhelming the reader than she would be able to do through a linear narrative. Thus, the author claims, the consideration of how to design hypermedia becomes crucial for the reader to derive an ethnographic meaning from the text and to allow for the readers to “orientate themselves within that topology”. The author makes us aware that although the website may offer a more direct engagement with the researched topic, it is still a mediated encounter.

– the quality of the Statement (overall organisation of the argument, theoretical and artistic context etc); How well organised and written is the Statement?

The main strength of the author’s work is his ability to apply the conceptual frameworks of an ethnographic website to his research on amateur video makers. This allows for the researcher to demonstrate an understanding and applications of those concepts. The researcher draws on some interesting examples when doing this on the website ‘technologystudies.org’.

– its writing and presentation (is it as clear as it needs to be?) How well organised and written is the Statement?

The author tackled the research question directly and for the most part persuasively. The writing is generally very clear and the work is well structured. The author has a thorough way of discussing the examples that he’s looking at and is able to present them coherently on the website ‘technologystudies.org’.
– Is there in your judgement important work that it does not know of, which would make a difference to it? suggested corrections (typos, small unclarities, etc). Are there particular changes that you would recommend to its presentation?

Concerning the significance of the work I’m missing a reference to the ‘Next 5 Minutes’ (see: http://www.tacticalmediafiles.net/n5m4/about.jsp.html). Especially a reference about the shift from analogue offline distribution to digital online distribution, which happened around the time of the ‘Next 5 Minutes III’ festival, by the end of the 90ties. At that time Indymedia IMCs tried to radically base their media distribution on online distribution systems, which, in retrospect, not always turned out to be sustainable, and only became viable at a later date.

Furthermore I’m missing an in-depth discussion of the merits and drawbacks of various CC licencing options, a critical discussion around the use of the Creative Commons license, and an argument for why using this specific license. A BY-SA license is definitively freer than a BY-NC-SA license (fewer restrictions).

Proposed minor revisions:

1) Add parts of your thesis (which by now should be in the public domain), as promised, to the ‘about’ page.

2) Add references of your theories, practices, and case studies to your ‘about’ page. There should be a bibliography/reference/links list on the ‘about’ page.

Review 2: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement

The Statement provides a clear outline and summary of the doctoral research of which the submission is a part. While coming to the website ‘blind’ would provide users with sufficient information on navigating the site and for understanding the basic rationale and objectives of the research on which it is based, the Statement enables users to get a better sense of the theoretical and practical contexts underpinning the site’s construction and the benefits and challenges of designing hypermedia visual ethnographies such as this. In this respect the Statement and website form an integral pairing and need evaluating accordingly. To a certain extent this also highlights the potential limitations of the website as a standalone resource, as users are not able to obtain the more detailed ethnographic analysis that the author would otherwise provide by way of the written thesis. As such, the author’s claim on the homepage that ‘this website functions as a standalone visual representation of my informants, and can be used without reference to any other documents as the visual and interactive elements are embedded within brief extracts from the written ethnography reworked to put those elements in a meaningful context’, needs appraising alongside his follow up caveat that ‘… the overall academic context, analytical framework and conclusions of my work will not be apparent without it being used alongside the full written component of the thesis’. While these two statements are not necessarily contradictory they do highlight the benefits of users having access to the thesis material in order to obtain a fuller and more theoretically-informed reading of the audio-visual ethnographic content. It is noted, however, that the author points out on the homepage that he will add parts of the thesis as and when they become available.

As with the aforementioned example from the homepage, in the Statement the author is also attentive to some of the potential issues that users may pick up on and reflexively draws attention to these in ways that demonstrate a good objective understanding of how users may experience the website. A case in point relates to the image rotator at the head of the homepage. Coming at this prior to reading the Statement, this method of navigating the site struck me as rather arbitrary and random and did not appear to have a clear rationale (also not all of the images on the rotator offer links). However, in his Statement the author addresses this, acknowledging that only a limited number of images have links, and explaining that this method is intended to provide the ‘least structured approach’ to the ethnography, thereby also drawing attention to one of the core dilemmas and challenges of designing hypermedia visual ethnographies: striking the right balance between ‘the need for structure to allow the user to evoke ethnographic meaning… while at the same time allowing them the freedom to explore the different elements…in a creative way’.

With regard to the visual ethnographic material itself – and comments on the limitations posed by not having access to the written thesis aside – the website provides sufficient in the way of supporting ethnographic detail as to the individual production and distribution contexts underpin the work of the informant groups in question. Importantly, the ethnographic scope of the analysis also effectively illustrates the extent to which these distribution practices are not exclusively limited – discursively or practically – to the context of the Internet and digital platforms such as YouTube, but that they also have a provenance that straddles traditional methods of distribution. Accordingly, the ethnography allows for a more comparative approach that situates these practices within a wider social and historical context. However, while noting the space constraints in the Statement format in terms of fleshing out in more detail the reasons why the author chose the particular informant groups in question, I think that the Statement does need to address this in some way. If this can be done in a concise way that allows for some degree of insight into the rationale for selecting the informants, and what they specifically bring to the analysis, that would strengthen the Statement and make clearer the methodological framework of the research.

A last, albeit otherwise minor comment (which follows on in part from the previous) relates to the category of ‘amateur’. Perhaps a brief clarification of how the term is being defined in this context might be beneficial. The growing literature on amateur filmmaking, cine-clubs, etc. provides an obvious point of overlap here, and it is not clear to what extent the examples cited by the author relate to or are distinct from these other production histories (and related distribution/exhibition methods) that fall under the banner of ‘amateur’.

Overall this submission is original, innovative and reflexively insightful, and highlights effectively both the limitations of conventional linear modes of visual ethnographic narrative as well as the advantages and challenges of multilinear hypermedia structures of ethnographic representation.

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