Anders and I are researching Snapchat stories. Mostly we’re watching hundreds and hundreds of stories to see what kinds of narrative techniques people use, but we also want to know what regular users actually think about stories. Do they watch stories much? Do they make stories? What do they think is a good story?
So yesterday I visited a class of media students at a local high school. They’re planning a TV journalism project for the autumn where they’ll use Snapchat as well as making more conventional news stories, so I gave a short lecture about storytelling in Snapchat and then we had the most excellent class discussion about it, after which they generously filled out a short questionnaire I had prepared. I feel like I got a lot out of this meeting, and hope to visit several other schools too – if you’re a high school teacher near Bergen and would like a visit, let me know!
I haven’t gone through the written responses yet, but there were a lot of insightful comments from the classroom discussion. So I’m using this blog post as a research journal, writing out the student comments I noted down and found particularly useful, and that I may want to quote in future research. The facts: this was a class of about forty 16-17-year olds in a Norwegian high school (VG1, medielinjen) on June 1, 2016. I didn’t make a recording, because I didn’t want to deal with handling research data that can be tied to an individual, so this is based on my handwritten notes.
The teachers started off the discussion asked why they like Snapchat – to the teachers, Snapchat stories look like badly done television, and they wondered why the students wouldn’t rather watch better-quality YouTube videos or something.
“It’s easily available,” said one student (lett tilgjengelig was the Norwegian expression), and many others supportived her. “Isn’t YouTube just as easily available?” a teacher asked. The students didn’t have a real answer for that, but they clearly felt Snapchat was more available. I suspect this might be due to the feed in Snapchat. You don’t have to think about what to watch next. You just open the app and start clicking.
A lot (maybe most?) of the students said they like Snapchat because they like seeing their friends’ lives. A substantial number of the students only have their actual friends on Snapchat (I’m guessing more than half? I’ll get the numbers when I go through the written responses) but there are also quite a few who follow celebrities and bloggers they don’t know personally. A student who does follow celebrities said she liked seeing their Snapchat stories because “it’s more personal” (det blir mer personlig når du følger kjendiser på Snapchat). Other students nodded and added that they liked the behind the scenes content.
When asked why they published snaps to their own stories, one student commented, “It’s easy, because you don’t have to plan it.” Others chimed in, saying that there was so little pressure. You can just snap something and post it without worrying too much about it. On the other hand, one student said he far preferred Instagram to Snapchat because the photos are better, precisely because people take more time and are more selective about which photos they post to Instagram.
One really interesting point that came up was the idea of a social media feed as stressful. One student said she liked Snapchat because it wasn’t stressful like Facebook is. “Why is Facebook stressful?” a teacher asked. “There’s just too much! The timeline never ends,” she said (Facebook er stress. Det er for mye på Facebook. Tidslinjen tar aldri slutt.) This seemed to be a feeling shared by many of the students. A young man echoed the first student: “There is always more on Facebook,” he said. “Yes, on Snapchat I only follow people I want to see,” another student said, but then followed up, saying “Well, except the ones I don’t really want to see. I just click through them quickly to make them go away.” I wondered why they clicked through the snaps rather than just swiped the story away, but I don’t think I really got an answer. Maybe to see whether there was something interesting at the end of the story? Or maybe because of the knowledge that the person who posted it would have
A lot of the students seemed to feel this need to cleanse their feeds or to keep their feeds empty. One of the students actually used the term cleanse (rense): “I click through all the stories to clean them away.” (Jeg klikker gjennom for å rense de vekk.) So it seems they like that they have fewer friends on Snapchat than Facebook, thus fewer items in their feeds, and that the fact that stories disappear after 24 hours maybe isn’t just about privacy but about being able to start with a clean slate, or not feel that there was more information than you could handle.
Here is of one of the survey responses I received, transcribed in my handwriting and translated from Norwegian. I’m a humanities scholar, and I’ve not done this kind of research before, so to be honest, I haven’t even figured out how to get my stack of 40 responses entered into a spreadsheet. I started bravely, but only got to the third question, where the student has (as intended) crossed off several options, before my spreadsheet broke down. Do I use several cells in the spreadsheet for each question? Maybe I don’t type in the full response but generate some kind of codes? Like this, maybe: Informant 1, uses-several-times-a-day, sent-snaps-today, didn’t-post-snapto-story-today, posted-snap-to-story-last-week. That is going to be very time-consuming. Is there better software? A better system for organising it? If you have any ideas, please let me know! I’d like to make the dataset public, so it’d be good to organise the data in a way that is useful to me as well as others. (I assume this is social science methods 101 but hey, I’m from the humanities…)
A translation of the survey I asked the high school students to answer yesterday. The handwriting is mine, I translated one of the responses so you can see what the survey was like.
We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.
It’s not actually a definition of social media, it’s a definition of social network sites, which is what we called sites like Facebook and Twitter in 2007. By 2008, people started calling them social media, and quickly adopted the definition of social network sites as a de facto definition of social media as well.
Notice, though, how that definition of social media in no way holds true for Snapchat. Snapchat is not a web-based service, individuals have no profiles, you can see which other users you follow, but not who anybody else follows, in fact, you can’t even see who follows you. You certainly can’t view and traverse other users lists of connections.
It’s as if Snapchat’s founders decided to try to create a social media that completely, in every way broke the most-cited definition of social media. Who knows, perhaps they did?
Obviously Snapchat is a wonderful example of social media. Obviously, the 2007 definition no longer holds true. The internet changed.
I spent my afternoon revising a chapter, then reading what Nathan Jurgenson has written about Snapchat. I’ve read lots of Nathan Jurgenson’s writing before, mostly on the Cyborgology blog, which he co-founded, but I guess if I did read his writing on Snapchat I just didn’t really get it at the time and so forgot it. Because yes, it took me a while to get Snapchat. Nathan currently works as a researcher for Snapchat (because yes, of course Snapchat has an in-house critical theorist) and so you can read some excellent writing from him on the Snapchat blog. Obviously. He is also on Twitter and Tumblr.
“The Liquid Self” may be my favourite of his Snapchat posts, at least today, because it so clearly uses Snapchat to show us how strange social network sites like Facebook and Twitter really are:
The social media profile attempts to convince us that life, in all its ephemeral flow, should also be its simulation; the ephemeral flow of lived experience is to be hacked into a collection of separate, discrete, objects to be shoved into the profile containers. The logic of the profile is that life should be captured, preserved, and put behind glass. It asks us to be collectors of our lives, to create a museum of our self. Moments are chunked off, put in a grid, quantified, and ranked. Permanent social media are based on such profiles, with each being more or less constraining and grid-like. Rethinking permanence means rethinking this kind of social media profile, and it introduces the possibility of a profile not as a collection preserved behind glass but something more living, fluid, and always changing.
Reading this made me think how short a time social media have been so dominant. Before social media, we called it web 2.0 for a short while. Before that, it was the blogosphere, or simply the web. Before that, we used Usenet and IRC and MUDs and MOOs, and before that, we used our modems to dial up local Bulletin Board Systems.
The internet has always been social. But we have only known the web for about twenty years. Less, if you want to talk about a really mainstream web used by everyone. That is a very short pocket of time in the grand scheme of things.
So many people (old like me) have asked me whether it doesn’t bother me that stories I post to Snapchat disappear. I’ve actually been saving most of them to YouTube, so I guess it does bother me, but increasingly I’ve been wondering about this. Why do we think permanent archival should be the norm? Broadcast media wasn’t archived, at least not in any way that was easily accessible to the general public, until quite recently online. We accepted that if we missed an episode of our favourite soap opera or didn’t watch the news, well, we would catch up next week. You could go to a library and dig in newspaper archives, but people rarely did. Even books regularly went out of print.
What if the idea that knowledge and communication should be permanent and always-archived is just a blip, not the new standard? What if the web itself turns out to be a short interlude, not the future? Maybe we’ve already moved on, but we haven’t really noticed?
I thought about this today, after finishing revising a chapter on self-representation in social media in the café at an indoor playspace where one of my kids attended a birthday party and another played intensely with her friend. Now that the kids are old enough that I can let them loose in a place like this, I’ve found I work wonderfully in this kind of chaotic environment, no doubt in part because I both get to feel like an awesome mum (the kids dote upon me for taking them there) and I get to indulge in one of my favourite activities: reading and writing about social media. It’s like this magical space where there is perfect life/work balance and no guilt whatsoever, neither the bad-mother-guilt nor the can-never-do-all-the-research-I-want-to-do guilt.
Of course it only lasts a couple of hours. And it probably wouldn’t work if I did it very often.
Here is the Snapchat Research Story I made about my thoughts today, with bonus noise and views of the play space.
It’s exhilarating to try new things. You’ll learn to think with a new tool, and that helps you think fresh.
It’s ephemeral. Your story only stays up for 24 hours, so you don’t have to worry too much about what you post. It’ll be gone tomorrow anyway. (You can download your stories if you like, and repost them to a blog or YouTube or Facebook, but you don’t have to.)
It’s visual and concrete. Walking through the world as you think about how to explain your ideas, you’ll stumble across examples that will help push your thinking.
There are no likes or shares, so you can’t worry about getting them. This is surprisingly odd, and anxiety-causing, and liberating, which I think is healthy stuff to experience. On the other hand, you get very detailed information about exactly who watched which part of your story. But most of your viewers will have weird usernames you won’t be able to connect to a real person anyway.
You can’t edit it, so you can’t spend too much time fussing over it. All you can do is record a snap (either a ten-second-or-less video or a still image) you can add text and doodles and emoji, and then you can either post it or not. Then you do the next one. You can delete an individual snap in your story, but you can’t change a snap you already posted, or insert something you forgot. It turns out this gives you an immense freedom. When I’ve tried to make videos before, I’ve always tried to do it so well, and I’ve spent so long editing and never been happy with the result so havent finished them.
Each video snap can only be ten seconds long. That means you get a lot of practice explaining your ideas in clear, simple terms. When you record a ten second video, it is instantly played back to you, and you can either redo it or post it to your story. Hearing your own words, instantly, is an amazing tool for editing speech, because you’ll immediately hear what sounds unclear or where you um and ah too much. This is great practice for giving a talk or answering a question succinctly or giving a journalist soundbites.
It doesn’t take longer to create a Snapchat story than to write a blog post. Most of my stories have taken me 45–90 minutes to make. I spend at least that long on a blog post, and often end up saving it as a draft and then never finishing it. You can’t do that with a Snapchat story. Either you post it or you don’t.
If you feel uncomfortable you can just use a silly selfie lens. It’s impossible to worry too much if you use a silly selfie lens.
If you’re still uncomfortable you can try walking while talking. People do that a lot on Snapchat and it really does take your mind off the fact that you’re talking to a screen. Or doodle and add emojis. Snapchat is fun. And silly. And makes users happier than any other social media platform.
After all that, you might actually get used to seeing yourself on video. I remember when I worked in the Student Radio, many years ago, there was a point where I finally got used to hearing my own voice on tape and didn’t find it alien anymore. To my surprise, I’m almost there with video, after just a few weeks of Snapchatting. I actually never thought I would feel this relaxed about seeing video of my wrinkly face, which I sometimes think looks pretty and sometimes think looks awful but have rarely been able to just let be what it is. I’m surprised that it’s happened this fast. And I think it’s immensely liberating. Oh, I still think I look weird?—?but I spend way less time worrying about it than I did when I started Snapchatting, just a few weeks ago.
What’s not so good?
You’ll not get a lot of feedback, although a few people might snap you. I’ve received more feedback when I post a Snapchat story to Facebook than I have on Snapchat itself.
You won’t really know who is watching. I’m not sure whether I should be imagining myself speaking to teens, fellow academics, social media experts or random friends on my contact list. Although Snapchat is very heavily a youth space, I doubt I really have that many 13–24 year olds watching my stories.
You can’t cut and paste a Snapchat story and use it in a publication, they way you can sometimes do with a blog post. But you can reuse the ideas in the same way as you might a blog post.
I can’t think of anything else bad. I suppose I could have spent those 45–90 minutes a day writing papers. But I probably wouldn’t. And since I snap chatted instead, now I have all these great ideas!
I’m jilltxt on Snapchat, and of course I’ll be snapping this.
If you’re interested in how researchers could use Snapchat, you might also want to take a look at the interview that Corinne Ruff at the Chronicle of Higher Education did with me about my Snapchat research stories. Or take a look at other scholars on snapchat. Here are some I’ve found so far:
Sunniva Rose (sunnivarose) is a Norwegian nuclear physicist who also blogs and is very prominent in Norwegian social media. Last night’s story about looking after the cyclotron was wonderful, except now I have all sorts of questions about what cyclotrons do that I didn’t even know I was interested in. Which I think is awesome.
Crystal Abidin (wishcrys) is a Singaporean/Australian anthropologist who does really interesting research on social media influencers and more. Her Snapchat story today summarises a paper on influencers and then explains how her own research shows something rather different. Oh, and Crystal has an active blog as well.
Stine Liv Johansen (stinelj) is a Danish media scholar who has been posting snaps throughout the day, giving a bit more of a slice of life-style story that may be more Snapchat-native than my attempts at cohesive stories. I’ve enjoyed seeing snaps of preparing teaching, or heading to a meeting, or comments on a conference presentation. Also that conference she went to on play last week looked pretty awesome.
I just started following Ai Zhang (aiaddysonzhang) today after I saw her tweet:
@fitch_kate i have mainly used SC 2 tell stories of my life as a teacher & a 1st generation immigrant. just followed @jilltxt on SC@kfreberg
Supermarie is a student, not a scholar, and also a professional Snapchatter (she is the snapchatter for a Norwegian insurance company, Gjensidige, and does an amazing job at it!) but I have to say I’ve loved the occasional glimpses into her studies. Like the other day, when she was unhappy about the lecturer’s continual abuse of the words “in relation to”.
I’ve seen a few other scholars on Snapchat, but they don’t have stories up today so they’re not appearing in my feed. I’ll just have to add them to my list later. If you know of other Snapchatting scholars I should mention, let me know!!
And here are my Snapchat stories so far, gathered in a single YouTube playlist 🙂
I’ve been watching lots of Snapchat stories and thinking about the narrative techniques they use – I think I need to write a paper about that. So today’s Snapchat Research Story is about Snapchat and narrative. This story is over three minutes long, which is probably way too long for Snapchat…
I really like how the ten second video limit makes you choose your words very carefully, and split what you want to say into clear points. If you ramble on you instantly see it doesn’t work and have to redo it right away which is a really good learning strategy! I find doing this is helping me clarify my thoughts. This video took me 90 minutes to make, start to finish, and wasn’t storyboarded but obviously these are things I was already thinking about.
I’m currently obsessed with storytelling in Snapchat, as you may have gleaned from my last post, and so I’ve decided to post daily Snapchat Stories about my research Monday-Friday throughout this month. Add me (I’m jilltxt) to view my stories as I post them! Here are my first three, each using slightly different narrative techniques.
Narratively, I like the first and second stories the best. The first really uses the medium as it’s about selfie lenses, but not every story can do that.
In the second one, which is a kind of book review, I actually go to the library and look for some of the books discussed in the book I review, and I think the walk-and-talk thing works well in Snapchat stories. That’s a pretty common trope for successful Snapchatters (e.g. danthedirector, tornsuits, djkhaled – OK, he usually uses his waterski rather than his legs but same idea) and having tried it, I can see why. I also feel less stilted and stiff speaking to my phone while walking than just sitting up and down.
For the third story I wanted to try snapping an event, so made a story about a research seminar in Kristine Jørgensen’s Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project. I think the walking to the seminar and explaining what it’s about works well, and I like getting a couple of the principal actors to explain very briefly what they do, but I’m not sure whether there is a good way to snap from a research presentation. It’s hard to get exactly the right 10 second soundbite from a presentation. The summary at the end works pretty well though I think. And I like silly stuff like the faceswap.
I’ve been somewhat surprised that the time use for creating these videos really isn’t greater than writing a blog post. In many ways it’s quicker, because you can’t go back and edit once you’ve posted things. So you don’t have the second-guessing and the I’ll-just-save-this-as-a-draft-and-never-return-to-it that I tend to end up with in blogging.
Obviously I’ve spent some time thinking about this and exploring Snapchat over the last couple of weeks, but the actual stories haven’t taken much time to create. I storyboarded the first one on the plane (about 30 minutes work?) and certainly thought about the topic a lot while playing with Snapchat, and of course it draws from my earlier work. Actually creating the video first took me about an hour and a half. The second video took just over an hour, which included the time to walk down to the library (15 mins) which was on my way home anyway. The third took no extra time in the sense that it was entirely created around a research seminar I was going to in any case. I recorded a bit on my way to the seminar, a bit at the seminar, and a bit walking from the seminar to a coffee shop for a bit of writing before heading off to pick up the kids from school.
Another issue is that these are supposed to be transient, right, like television and radio were before the internet. But I’m saving my stories because I don’t want to put all that work into this and have it disappear. So what does that do to the medium?
I also notice that the way I’m using Snapchat could have been made for television. There’s nothing really narratively new in these (except maybe the selfie lenses). But I never would have filmed and edited a video like this without using Snapchat. I would have thought of it as too much work and also as something unachievable for me because I’m not a video producer. On Snapchat it’s just add one short clip after another and oh, look, it turns into a video.
I’ll post more another day about how I’m seeing other researchers use Snapchat – in quite different ways – but now it’s time to get the kids up for school. Oh jetlag–I woke at 5 this morning and am sure I’ll be zonked by dinner time…
Snapchat has changed since the last time I tried it. You know, back in 2011 when I was simply too old for it. Now Snapchat has stories and has become a channel for everything: as expected it’s excellent for silly selfies and personal communication in text and images and video and gifs and everything in between. But it’s also now a news channel, a marketing channel, an information channel and a collaborative storytelling channel that has a new and fascinating aesthetics. If you weren’t on Snapchat because you were too old to have any friends on it, now is the time to pick it up again. You don’t actually need friends on it now, but if you’re interested in digital media, you need to look at the Stories. In this post I’ll explain lenses, geofilters and stories, and talk a bit about how I think scholars could use them.
The reason I picked Snapchat up again was my daughter showed me the lenses, actually, which are crazy fun. Look, you have to try them:
The lenses are updated daily, so haven’t grown old yet. And interestingly, some of them are actually ads, but in a fun way. They’re geolocated, so for instance, being in Chicago yesterday, one of the lenses I saw was a set of headphones that were an ad for the TV show Empire, with a note about when and on what channel the show was going to premiere. I forgot to take a screenshot, but here’s a selfie Kehler Jacob at On the Line Social Media took with the lens:
Next, check out the geofilters and other contextual filters you can overlay on images. Geofilters only show up when you’re in a set region. So I see none here in the Chicago suburbs, but in an urban area or a popular natural park or something there will likely be several to choose between. You find the filters by swiping from left to right on a photo or video you have taken. Community and university filters for a location can be submitted to Snapchat for free, so that’s certainly something for academics and students to consider. You can also pay for a geofilter for a company or an event, and while it might cost hundreds of dollars for a long-term filter, a filter for a conference or a one-night event might only cost a few dollars. I would love to try this for the next conference or other event I organise. Sponsored, time-dependent geofilters can also include live information, like the scores of a game, or the polling results of an election. NRKbeta has a great post (in Norwegian but even just looking at the screenshots is useful) about how Snapchat is integrating political journalism into the platform.
Geofilters for personal events, like weddings, are also possible, and you can either choose from a set of templates or create your own using a Photoshop template they provide.
But the stories are where I really see a potential for scholars. You see stories if you swipe from right to left from the main screen, where you take your photos, but do it before you actually take a photo. A story is a publicly posted series of still images and short videos shots (up to ten seconds each) that are viewable for 24 hours. After that they are gone forever, unless you took a screen capture.
I think I really got how amazing a story could be when I saw Snapchat’s own news channel, Good Luck America, which may only be available when you are in the US, and which has only shown up once since I started paying attention a week ago. The story I saw was astounding though: a political analysis of the presidential primaries told in a video aesthetics that is unlike anything I’ve seen on television. Fascinating. But it also uses tricks that aren’t available to ordinary users, like pre-edited video. If you see Good Luck America among the available stories, absolutely take a look!
The rest of us can only create stories from images and videos that are shot live in the Snapchat app. You can add filters and text to the images, and draw on them, but you cannot upload anything to Snapchat, it has to be done in the app in real time. (Although there are third party apps that let you upload stuff, and I haven’t checked these out yet.) That means stories have a particular kind of aesthetic.
As with any social media, the best way to understand it is to see how other people are using it. Obviously your friends are likely posting stories about stuff you may be interested in (where they are, what they are doing), but right now, I want to figure out how people create stories meant for a general audience, not just for their friends.
Here are a few people I have followed who are doing interesting things. Please let me know about others I should follow! To view their stories, add them as friends by clicking the yellow ghost at the top of the photo-taking screen the Snapchat opens with and entering their user names. Then view the stories by clicking the little icon in the bottom right corner of the main screen.
The only academic I know who has used Snapchat actively is Sunniva Rose (sunnivarose), a nuclear physicist in Oslo. Here is her blog post about how she uses it. I’m not sure if she is still active on Snapchat – I only just followed her!
Danthedirector is a South African photographer who sets himself challenges to take an innovative selfie every day. Each Snapchat story begins with a quote or a thought, then he uses short videos to show us how he sets up the image, which is usually a composite of several initial shots, or requires some other kind of complicated setup, like the spiderweb below. The editing is often done by a collaborator who has volunteered on Twitter, and the result is posted to Instagram later that day. Here is today’s final image:
You’ll be able to watch the story on Snapchat for about another 12 hours after I write this blog post, then it will disappear: Snapchat stories can only be seen for 24 hours after they are posted.
Danthedirector’s use of multiple platforms is particularly interesting because it is not simply reposting the same content in every channel. Far from it, he draws upon the best qualities of each channel: Snapchat for process and live engagement, Twitter for discussion and collaboration and Instagram for showcasing and archiving beautiful visual results.
Djkhaled is a social media phenomenon on many other platforms as well, and very active on Snapchat. His stories are bizarre and extremely popular – I read somewhere he has three million followers. He constantly posts videos and images about how “they” are after him and how he loves his fans and about his workout regime and all his inspirational stuff.
Thomas Moen (tornsuits) is a social media marketing expert from Norway who does daily Snapchat stories with social media marketing advice. He’s a good example of how you can make informational stories simply by recording a sequence of videos of yourself explaining something. For the few days I’ve followed him, he often speaks while walking somewhere, and the inclusion of his surroundings in the videos makes this feel quite different from a vlog on YouTube, where the surroundings of the speaker are usually downplayed, or at least unchanged for the duration of the monologue. Thomas also uses still images, filters and so on, but not to excess. This is a good example of how an individual can actually publish something useful every day to Snapchat without having thousands of collaborators like danthedirector or an entourage taking half the shots like djkhaled.
Ulrika Linnea (slottelinnea) is a young Swedish woman who is listed as a “storyteller” by Snapcodes.com. Today’s story shows leisurely videos of her riding her bike out into a beautiful sunset and then panicked selfie videos of her having lost her bike in the middle of nowhere. Apparently this was not fiction, but it just as well might have been. I’m intrigued, anyway.
Some universities are on snapchat mostly letting students show what student life is like but some, like Colorado State Univeristy (coloradostateu) and Univeristy of Michigan (uofmichigan) are doing interesting things – both those have had wellmade stories available recently.
There are some interesting Norwegian examples, too. A Bergen art museum, Kode (kode_bergen), posts almost daily stories consisting of still images of artworks in their current exhibitions, with scrawled writing across them or added text. The national broadcaster, NRK, posts news stories as series of images with text (P3nyheter). I have to admit that now that the stories play automatically as a sort of visual feed where you can’t see what is coming next, it just keeps playing, the still images feel a little, well, still, among all the video. I’ve already gotten used to video, it seems.
4. What can scholars do?
I haven’t found any scholars on Snapchat yet, at least not sharing stories about their research or about the process or day-to-day experience of being an academic. This might be because:
Academics are too old for Snapchat (except all the excellent young scholars…)
Academics who get Snapchat actually want to keep it personal.
Stories disappear after 24 hours, and academics don’t want to waste their time on something that won’t have lasting value. (But you cansave your own story and repost it on your blog or YouTube or something.)
Academics see their peers on Facebook and Twitter and so they think everyone important is on Facebook and Twitter.
Snapchat is obviously not a durable archive for scholarship, but its basic premise of immediacy and impermanence shouldn’t frighten us: that’s pretty much what television and radio have always been, right? And yet talking about your research on TV is seen as a big deal when universities measure impact and research dissemination. Academics generally don’t have enough time to be creating intricate daily stories, but short series of videos about what we’re currently working on, interspersed with relevant still images, might not be out of reach. Short reports from conferences or events seem like obvious academic uses of Snapchat. A few seconds of video of a presentation with a line of text explaining it – sure, why not?
A question is who we would be talking to as academics on Snapchat. We could use it like we tend to use Twitter and talk to each other. Or we could think of it as outreach adn try to engage young people. Those audiences are pretty different from each other.
I am sure there are zillions of other stories I should be looking at. Please let me know which ones, or send me a snap to tell me! I am jilltxt on Snapchat. I haven’t quite started posting research stories yet, but I plan to give it a go soon. I think my first story will be about the biometrics involved in the selfie lenses. I’ll let you know when I post it!
This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar in digital media aesthetics on machine vision, and in today’s class we discussed drone art, using Dziga Vertov’s manifesto from 1923 (“I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it.”) and Daniel Greene’s article “Drone Vision”, which was published in Surveillance & Society last year. The art works we discussed were James Bridle’s Dronestagram, the anonymous Texts from Drone, and Muse’s VR music video “Revolt”. I thought the class went really well, so I wanted to describe what we did.
A major point in Greene’s article is that Texts from Drone anthropomorphizes drones, whereas Bridle’s piece does not. Vertov certainly anthropomorphizes the camera in his manifesto, and I find this anthropomorphication very interesting, especially in terms of posthumanism and shared cognition between humans and machines.
I wanted the students to mark passages where the movie camera was anthropomorphized or where it was the speaker in the sentence.
Doing this in detail led to really interesting discussions. We talked about passages where it was not clear who the “I” who was speaking was. In one paragraph it’s the human authors of the text (“We affirm the kino-eye”) and in the next it seems human at first (“I make the viewer see…”) but then it’s definitely the camera speaking (“I am kino-eye. I am a builder.”) Then we leave the first person perspective for a while before sliding back into the human subject position: “I promise to drum up a parade of kinoks on Red Square.” And the conclusion positions the camera as secondary to the human: the kino-eye challenges the human eye, and the kinok-editor organises the images produced.
The students noticed that the first stage of anthropomorphising the camera was to refer to it as though it was a slave in need of liberation. Objects do not need to be emancipated. The grammar of sentences is used too, allowing the camera to be the subject of the sentence in the middle portion of the manifesto, but only to be the object in other sections (“The camera ‘carries’ the film viewer…”, “I have placed you…”).
I will definitely plan this kind of directed reading in future classes?—?it was very productive.
Next we looked at a few minutes of Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, and then moved on to Greene’s article about drone vision. The students had already written their discussion forum posts about the different art works, so they talked about each of them, but paying more attention to the question of anthropomorphisation of the drones, using the Vertov we had just read.
An important point in Greene’s argument is that Bridle’s Dronestagram in some ways buys into the military-industrial complex’s portrayal of drones as objective and precise, making war “smart”. The bloodless images are bland enough to be displayed on a coffee shop wall. The piece aims to subvert our understanding of drone warfare, but instead makes us empathise with the drone itself, or the drone pilot, not with the victims.
“Bridle mistakes the discourse of drone vision, the story of seamless, imperial visual supremacy, for its operation,” Greene writes (page 241). In fact, though, Greene argues, by trying to let the viewer occupy the drone’s eye view, we “embrace the discourse of drone vision, rather than the work of it” (page 242).
Greene contrasts this apparent bloodless objectivity to the very different Texts from Drone, a collection of memes submitted to a Tumblr. The Tumblr is now gone, but can still be viewed through the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine. Here, we don’t see as the drone sees, instead we face it as though it was a person. The drone even has a name: D-Ron. Many of the memes show it responding to texts from Obama:
But as the meme develops, other people pose questions to the drone.
D-Ron has a clear personality. It not only enjoys bombing people, it finds it funny. It doesn’t try to rationalise its slaughter as “just”, on the contrary, it enjoys “collatoral damage”. D-Ron speaks in the language of the internet, and it’s not just the grammar and spelling: its attitude is also like something you’d find on 9gag or Reddit.
Daniel Greene writes,
The real power of Texts from Drone is the degree to which D-Ron himsefl is made an actor in the work of Empire, rather than a mute instrument of its policy. He celebrates, without any pretense of military gravitas or regret over mistaken targets, his role as global police. (page 244).
We also see drone as “an ally, not an instrument,” Greene writes (244), with goals and language clearly distinct from Obama’s.
The third work of drone art we looked at was Muse’s VR music video “Revolt” (from their album Drones) which has been released on the app VRSE and can be viewed using a cheap Google Cardboard headset. A couple of the students had already seen the video (we built Google Cardboards a few weeks ago) so for the rest I hooked my phone up to the projector and showed them the non-stereoscopic version. You can get an idea of the experience by viewing it as a 360? video on YouTube, where you can click and drag to see “behind you”, if you view it in Chrome. It’s a far better experience using Google Cardboard though.
This video is entirely focalised from the point of view of a drone. The video begins with startup code, and ends when the drone is shot down. You see everything through the wide-angle lens of a surveillance drone, and at some points in the video, information about enemies or targets (the women charging the police officers) and assets (the police officers) is overlaid the image. At one point (about 4 minutes into the video, one of the musicians even kicks the drone, apparently breaking it.
We had a great discussion about how the viewer is really positioned here. The lyrics tell us “You’re not a drone!” (encouraging us to revolt) and yet we are clearly locked into the drone’s perspective. The heroes of the video and the album are clearly the women who revolt, but we see the events from the perspective of a drone who is pitted against them. The students pointed out that we seemed to switch drones at certain points (for instance after being kicked) and so rather than showing an anthropomorphic drone, perhaps the video is simply focalised from the perspective of a drone pilot working at some remote console. Much to discuss here.
I recently finished writing a chapter for The Sage Handbook of Social Media, which is being edited by Jean Burgess, Alice Marwick and Thomas Poell. My chapter is about self-representations in social media, like blogs and selfies and such, but in the table of contents, the editors put the title as “Self-presentations in social media.” Presentation, not representation. Uh oh. What, exactly, is the difference, I wondered? I have always preferred to use representation, because my background is in literary studies, art history and media studies, where we are taught to analyse representations. Representations are constructed. They are not authentic or unmediated or objective, and I like that assumption. But many scholars who study digital media prefer to think about presentation.
This is the most popular image on Instagram. Ever. It was posted by Kendall Jenner in May 2015. It shows Jenner herself, and although it is obviously not a selfie, it was posted by her to her own Instagram account and so is certainly a form of self-representation.
I ended up spending quite a while reading and thinking about the differences between representations and presentations, and Jenner’s image became a bit of a catalyst for that.
Here is what I ended up writing about the two terms?—?and yes, it includes a semiotic analysis of Jenner’s image. How could I not? But I don’t watch the Kardashians, and I don’t know all the backstory here. I expect I missed a lot. I’d really appreciate it if you share any extra knowledge you have!!
But here is what I wrote about what I think the difference is between representation and presentation.
Representation or Presentation?
Before discussing visual, written and quantitative kinds of self-representation in social media, we need to think about the term representation. Why are these forms of self-expression representations and not presentations? The short answer is that the two terms provide two different ways of looking at this phenomenon. A representation is an object, a sign that is seen as constructed in some way, and that stands instead of an object to which it refers. Talking about representations lets us analyse the selfie, the tweet or the graph of a run. A presentation is an act, something that a person does, so talking about presentations allows us to analyse the way that the person acts to present themselves.
It’s a little more complicated than this, unfortunately. The terms representation and presentation are used differently in different disciplines, making their use quite complicated in an interdisciplinary field such as internet studies.
Twentieth century linguistics, with influential scholars like Saussure and Pierce, led to the semiotic understanding of representation as a system of signs, that is, sounds, words, images or objects that stand instead of a concept or an object. For instance, the word ‘tree’ is a sign that refers to an actual tree.
As Stuart Hall explains in his textbook Representation, scholars see representations as culturally constructed (Hall 1997). Hall describes three theories of representation: reflective, intentional and constructive. In the reflective approach, the sign or the representation is thought of as a reflection of reality: ‘language functions like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists in the world’ (24). In the intentional approach, one assumes that ‘Words mean what the author intends they should mean’ (25). However, both these theories are seen as flawed by most contemporary scholars, Hall included. Most scholars today see representation as constructed. Representations can have different meanings in different cultures and in different contexts. For instance, a selfie shared on a private Instagram account to a group of friends will likely be interpreted differently from a similiar image published in a newspaper.
The most liked image on Instagram in 2015 was a photo of Kendall Jenner lying on the floor in a white, lacy dress with her hair spread around her arranged into seven heart-shapes. In semiotic terms, this is the denotation of the image: what is shown or the literal meaning of the sign.
Jenner’s photo is obviously not a selfie, as her hands are visible in the frame, folded over her stomach as though she is laid out like a corpse. She couldn’t have arranged her hair herself, either. The image can still be seen as a self-representation: deliberately staged, photographed, and posted to her Instagram account, where it gained over 3.2 million likes.
Being so clearly staged, Jenner’s image provides us with plenty of signs to analyse, and the most interesting semotic analysis is not with the descriptive analysis of the denotation of the signs, but of their connotations. Connotations are common associations connected to a sign, not private associations that only one individual might have, but associations and references that are shared by larger cultures or groups. Jenner’s image has some very obvious signs with well-established meanings or connotations in our culture.The hearts that her hair has been shaped into connote love. Her white lacy dress signifies a bride, which again signifies love, and, in a traditional sense, new, virginal but soon-to-be-consummated love in particular. The traditional wedding dress is white because white stands for innocence in Western culture. Jenner is laid out like a corpse, with her hands folded as is traditional in Western funerals, and her eyes are closed. The floor is white with a black graphic pattern and could be interpreted as suggesting a river, although this is not an interpretation I would have arrived at had not the dead maiden with her outswept hair made me think of Ophelia, the girl who loved Hamlet and drowned herself.
Paintings of Ophelia usually show her hair floating out in the water she lies in, and her dress is often shown as white.
Jenner’s photo is an example of the way that death is frequently aestheticized in Western visual culture, and we could certainly take the analysis of the image much further by thinking about why a photo showing Jenner as a dead virgin is the most liked photograph on Instagram. A semiotic analysis always begins, though, by studying the image or the text itself and considering what signs it consists of and what those signs signify.
Seeing selfies and blogposts as representations is something that makes sense if you are considering them as texts to be interpreted or from the point of view of media studies. Another important theoretical tradition has its roots with the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life(1959) is heavily referenced in scholarship about social media. Goffman wrote about the way in which we perform differently and thus present ourselves differently to different people and in different contexts. In social media, it is difficult if not impossible to keep different audiences separate. On Facebook, a typical user will be friends with close family, high school classmates, co-workers and distant relatives. Goffman describes how we perform differently in face to face interactions with these different groups of people, but in social media, it is often impossible to keep those contexts separate from each other. danah boyd calls this ‘context collision’ (boyd 2011).
If we were to analyse Jenner’s image as a presentation, rather than as a representation, we would focus less on its status as a set of signs, and more on the role Jenner was performing by posting this image, perhaps considering questions such as who the image was intended for, where and when it was posted, what responses it was met with and Jenner’s motivations for creating and sharing the image. One approach would be to interview Jenner herself and perhaps also people who had seen, commented on or reposted the image, but it would also be possible to learn a lot from the image itself, from studying Jenner’s other posts and from examining the comments and the contexts in which the image was republished or discussed. We might compare the image to other images posted by non-celebrities, or perhaps we might find a surge of homage images copying or playing upon the Jenner image. Often ethnographers and sociologists want to learn about practice across a group of people, and so a study of self-presentation rather than self-representation on Instagram might explore how users typically create and share images rather than focusing on individual examples like Jenner’s image. Other scholars simply don’t use the terms, like Katie Warfield, who prefers a phenomenological approach, arguing that focusing on the visual artifact of a selfie often means ‘neglecting the fleshy producer of the image, who in the case of selfies, is also the heart of the image’ (Warfield 2015).
Presentation and representation are also used in different ways than those I have just described. Aristotle wrote about representation as mimesis, that is, an attempt to realistically mimic the world. In theatre, some critics use the term representational acting to describe the ‘naturalistic’ form of theatre where actors do not acknowledge the presence of the audience. In this style of acting, there is an imagined ‘fourth wall’ between the actors on stage and the audience, and audience members are like flies on the wall observing the action. In presentational acting, on the other hand, actors acknowledge the audience and speak directly to them (Bakshy 1923, 12). Often these modes of acting overlap, as in literature, where the narrator may invoke the ‘dear reader’ at times while at other times telling the story with no overt acknowledgement of any reader. An almost opposite use is found in the field of interpersonal communication, where John Fiske explains that representational codes produce a text that can stand alone, whereas presentational codes are indexical and cannot “stand for something apart from themselves and their encoder,” that is the person who spoke or communicated (Fiske 2010).
Ultimately there isn’t necessarily any strict difference between the terms representation and presentation as they are used in scholarship on social media. In practice, most analyses will really view the material from both perspectives. In this chapter, I will primarily consider expressions of the self in social media as representations, but I use the term fairly broadly.
The editors said it was fine for me to change the title of my chapter to “Self-representations in social media.” So I did.
I would love to hear your opinions, though. Does this match your take on the ways that presentation and representation are used in scholarship? And what is the real background for Jenner’s Ophelia photograph?
Vi trenger humanister som kan se det digitale i historisk kontekst, som kan forstå den digitale estetikken, som kan analysere etiske problemstillinger og utvikle teknologifilosofi.
Det å forstå teknologi handler ikke bare om å kunne bygge den og programmere den. Det å forstå teknologi krever også at vi forstår hvordan teknologi, kultur og samfunn henger sammen og påvirker hverandre.
Vi trenger humanister som forstår teknologien godt nok til at de kan se hva det gjør med oss, og som kan si oss hvordan vi skal styre teknologien for å skape det samfunnet vi ønsker. Vi trenger humanister som forstår det digitale og som deltar i samfunnsdebatten, som underviser i skolene våre, som er med på å fatte beslutninger om teknologiutvikling i alle samfunnsområder.
Om vi ikke forstår teknologien, så kan vi ikke styre den. Da styrer teknologien oss.
Vi trenger humanister som kan analysere og fortolke samtiden vår.
Men humanister i dag må også kunne bruke digitale metoder i forskningen, enten det gjelder å analysere store tekstmengder, bruke kartdata, gjøre visualiseringer, utvikle ordbøker eller bruke datalingvistiske metoder. Innen digital humaniora ligger vi dessverre langt etter resten av verden.
I dag finnes det utmerkede enkeltmiljøer, men de er lite koblet sammen og lite synlige. Infrastrukturprosjekter finnes til dels, men dekker på langt nær hele behovet. Det er ikke det at det ikke finnes etablerte forskere som arbeider med digitale metoder. Tvert imot, vi var tidlig ute i Norge, med NAVFs edb-senter for humanistisk forskning alt på 70-tallet, men miljøet ble utrolig nok nedbygget rundt årtusenskiftet.
Når jeg snakker med de som har vært med lengst, virker mange slitne: de har prøvd og fått nei for mange ganger og orker ikke mer. Men det er absolutt håp: I mars i år arrangeres den første digital humaniora-konferansen i Norge. Den er dratt i gang av en stipendiat, ikke av en etablert forsker.
For å gjøre norske humanister i stand til å bruke digitale metoder på en god måte må vi synliggjøre det som finnes og finne måter å koble kompetansen og prosjektene sammen. Da får vi utnyttet det gode, men altfor spredte arbeidet som gjøres i digital humaniora i Norge.
Det er også behov for mer robust teknisk infrastruktur og særlig teknisk støtte til utvikling og vedlikehold av databaser, språksamlinger, ordbøker, digitale utgaver, arkiver og andre forskningsresultater fra digital humaniora. Humaniora har tradisjonelt vært teoriutviklende og analyserende, og det har ikke vært mye praktisk utviklingsarbeid. Dette er under endring. Klart vi fortsatt skal bevare de tradisjonelle humanistiske metodene, men vi må også finne ut hvordan vi best kan støtte humanister som utvikler teknologi som en metode for å forstå, analysere og endre verden, enten det er gjennom mediedesign, databaseutvikling eller kunstnerisk utviklingsarbeid.
En særlig utfordring er det at eksternfinansierte prosjekter gjerne dekker utviklingsbehov i prosjektperioden, men ikke etterpå. Det finnes ikke midler til teknisk drift i dagens humanistiske fakulteter. Hva skal vi gjøre med alle databasene og arkivene som utvikles og så forsvinner fordi det ikke er penger til å gjøre sikkerhetsoppdateringene og vedlikeholdet som kreves?
Og hvordan skal vi gi teknisk støtte til forskere og studenter som ønsker å bruke digitale metoder, men ikke i utgangspunktet vet hvordan gjøre det? Vi trenger stabil teknisk støtte for å kunne utvikle og vedlikeholde digital humaniora-prosjekter. Vi trenger å utvikle studietilbud som gir masterstudenter et grunnlag for å bruke digitale metoder, og vi trenger et sted forskere som ikke vet hvordan de skal gå fram kan få hjelp. Det fins ikke i dag.
Det er et problem at digital kompetanse ikke har vært prioritert i de tradisjonelle humaniorafagene. Det ville ikke vært behov for et fag som digital kultur, som jeg er professor i, dersom det digitale ble tatt på alvor i alle humanistiske fag. Men universitetets faginndeling, og kanskje særlig humanioras faginndeling er skapt for å konservere kunnskap. Faggrensene fremmer ikke tverrfaglighet eller nyskaping, og de fungerer ikke nødvendigvis godt i et samfunn som er i endring.
Vi må styrke humanioras evne til å forstå og analysere vår digitale samtid. For om vi ikke forstår hvordan teknologi og kultur henger sammen, så velger vi bort styringsmulighetene våre.