Update June 28: Here is the dataset of my survey of these students on Google Sheets or download it from Figshare. Feel free to use it but please let me know!!
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 thirty-five 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…)
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.
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.
Before class, the students had written discussion forum posts discussing one of the art works using Vertov, so we had a place to start our discussion. However, it seemed as though they had mostly used the six page description of Vertov’s work they had read rather than relying on Vertov’s own words (or to be exact, the words of “the council of three”, consisting of Vertov, Elizaveta Svilova and Mikhail Kaufman), so I wanted to focus our attention on the actual manifesto. So I made copies, foraged some highlighters and pens from the department storeroom, and strategically placed them with an assignment around the seminar room table before class. (Here is the same text online, the section titled “The Council of Three”, from page 14 on.)
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.
Here is the reading list for the class.