by Patricia G. Lange, USC
How do you define “ordinary” video makers? Given that online video is being generated at phenomenal rates (YouTube 2010), it is not surprising that studies are tackling previously ignored sets of everyday video practices. A number of important and insightful studies have been concerned with a special kind of the everyday, that which focuses on the so-called “ordinary” video maker. Such a figure is often ostensibly defined as a non-professional in the film industry. They have neither been trained nor are participating in mainstream film production or critique.
The focus on the ordinary video maker is initially a logical one, given that many researchers would like to understand how people learn to make videos, why they share them, and how everyday video impacts online attention economies in comparison to professional works. It some quarters, the focus on the “ordinary” is a reaction to what some see as well-covered fandom studies that focus on advanced amateurs producing cool stuff. However, it is time to re-examine what is meant by the “ordinary” and to consider how such a mythic figure threatens to reify the binary between the novice and the professional that grass-roots video making has long had the potential to challenge. It is time to explore lenses, such as collective nostalgia, that appeal to many different types of video makers. Researching generational or cultural forms of nostalgia and its influence on video making could provide a wealth of insight into the cultural desires and practices of particular social groups.
At this juncture, it is time to dust off our Stebbins (1977) and realize that the world of everyday video is quite complicated and consists of overlapping continuums not only of video making roles, but of individual talents that contribute to expressing the self through media. We also need to reconsider why the “ordinary” video maker seems to capture scholars’ imaginations. What are the consequences of seeking that ordinary person who seems to be untainted by professional or even fan-driven image making? Why are their experiences deemed more valuable, say, to the study of informal learning than people who lie somewhere in between, or engage in multiple kinds of practices?
The term “ordinary” video maker is not necessarily isomorphic with all ethnographically- observed everyday video creation. Although the “ordinary” video maker is often defined as someone who operates outside of the film industry, its assumed ontological parameters raise important questions. For example, why is a person who is a professional photographer, but not a professional filmmaker deemed “ordinary” for the purposes of studying everyday video? One study (Buckingham et al. 2011), which did not focus on photographs, did count such a person as ordinary, while another, which did examine home photography did not (Chalfen 1987). Others may define the ordinary video maker as “any amateur working outside the institutional structures of the television and movie industry” (Strangelove 2010: 3). By this definition, would someone who photographs a movie star for television be excluded from a study of ordinary video making? What about someone who photographs, say, nature pictures for magazines?
Yet, what crucial skills and literacies images might a professional or amateur photographer bring to the enterprise of making videos on the web? I have seen video bloggers commend professional photographers for their beautiful videos in the video blogging community. Clearly, people with photographic skill sets are bringing something very important to the exercise. We can ask the same questions of many other professionals, including web designers, authors, advertising executives, marketing specialists, interior designers, painters, sculptors, artists, scholars, and others who bring extremely important talents and skills to the craft of mediating a message.
Conversely, a number of people would be excluded from most such studies, even though they might be rather ordinary, in terms of their overall knowledge and approach to actually making videos. The “professional” label may over determine assumed success of osmotic learning. Are all professional actors and actresses equally knowledgeable about operating cameras, writing narrative scripts, working lights, or editing?
In addition, what does it mean to include people who fall outside the category of professionals, yet have important ties to people who are in these industries? Anthropologists and ethnographers may very profitably contribute to media studies by examining the social networks and practices of everyday media makers that are often ignored in ego-centric media studies that focus on the sole media creator. What does it mean to have a brother, parent, uncle, aunt, cousin, or other peer who is a professional media maker (Lange Forthcoming)? Studies often carve out the binary of novice- professional in a way that reifies this binary, without considering the effects of social networks that people participate in.
Finally, the category of ordinary is largely presented as a synchronic one in prior studies (Lange 2008). It freezes a video maker into an ideal type that sees no progression or change. But the term “ordinary” is, in linguistic terms, a shifter; its meaning shifts according to context and over time. What of the former television editor who decides to video blog and share her message with the world? It is quite clear that such a person is not really “ordinary,” given her skill set.
On the other side of the coin, a few people on YouTube who have no professional ties to media making have been quite successful attracting attention on the site. A person who succeeds in an online attention economy (say receiving millions of views on their videos) may not be operating in the traditional television and movie industries, but they clearly have non-ordinary skill levels or literacies of some variety to attract such substantial attention. Studying everyday and commonly-observed practices is not the same as searching for the mythic “ordinary” user, with its connotations of purity, ignorance, and mediated innocence.
If pushed too far, the notion of seeking the “ordinary” video maker as the only or most relevant category for understanding everyday media-making patterns can resemble what Rony referred to as visual taxidermy (1996). For Rony (1996: 101), ethnographic taxidermy referred to making a dead thing seem to “look as if it were still living.” If future studies overly rely on finding video makers innocent of imagery in a heavily mediated world, they risk concocting falsely authentic or “pure” media innocents who have not been too swayed by the so-called “mental pollution” (Sontag 1997: 24) of professional imaging. Characterizing intensive interactions with images as pollution rather than as opportunities for acquiring media production or interpretive skills is quite telling. Why do scholars seem to wax nostalgic for the ordinary? And what are the implications for studies that seek to freeze “ordinary” video makers’ abilities in time?
It is perhaps time to stop looking for the pure, “ordinary” non-professional video maker and seek other research questions and agendas that acknowledge the more sociologically slippery and interwoven landscape in video-making craft and online attention economies. Nostalgia offers a potentially rich area of investigation. What is of interest is not latent nostalgia for media thrown in a drawer and not seen again, but rather, active nostalgia of viewers in different age cohorts or cultures. YouTube is filled with countless clips of old professional media including television shows, commercials, parodies, and many other forms that people annotate and share with other people. It also includes videos of people who are nostalgic for places they used to visit and experiences they used to share. Why is it important to keep re-experiencing particular events of one’s past? Notably, nostalgia is a “democratic affliction,” (Boym 2001) meaning that people’s longings for the past are not purely individualized, but are often felt among cohorts of people who are dealing with similar changes in their life course (Lange 2011). Anthropologists are well-equipped to understand the relationship between media, life cycles, and different cultural cohorts’ mediated meanings and desires.
Studying nostalgia is not dependent upon binaries. Many people who are rank novices, advanced amateurs, and professionals all seem to gravitate at one time or another to creating, viewing, or sharing media that serve important cultural functions. Researchers may ask, what is accomplished for the self and social group when media or mediated memories are re-worked or circulated for large social groups online? How does the nostalgia-inflected media of one generation or cultural group differ from those of another?
Surely there are many other lenses to pursue that do not depend upon reifying particular binaries. If we are all going to wax nostalgic about video, let us not do so by seeking to taxidermy a mythic ordinary user, but rather to embrace video making as it exists in all of its non-binary, messy complexity. Let us study other people’s visual taxidermy, or rather, their nostalgic attempts at managing mediated, collective responses to change.
Patricia G. Lange is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. She is scheduled to be a keynote speaker at the Transforming Audiences 3 conference, September 1-2, 2011 at the University of Westminster in London. Website: patriciaglange.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic.
Buckingham, David, Rebekah Willett, and Maria Pini. 2011. Home Truths? Video Production and Domestic Life. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Chalfen, Richard. 1987. Snapshot Versions of Life. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
Lange, Patricia G. Forthcoming. Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies (manuscript in progress).
Lange, Patricia G. Forthcoming 2011. Video-mediated Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Technical Competencies. Visual Communication 10(1).
Lange, Patricia G. 2008. (Mis)Conceptions about YouTube,” Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube, Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer, Eds. Pp. 87-100. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, Retrieved February 28, 2011 from http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/portal/files/2008/10/vv_reader_small.pdf
Rony, Fatimah Tobing. 1996. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stebbins, Robert A. 1977. The Amateur: Two Sociological Definitions. The Pacific Sociological Review 20(4): 582-606.
YouTube. 2010. YouTube Blog. Great Scott! Over 35 Hours of Video Uploaded Every Minute to YouTube. Retrieved February 28, 2011 from http://youtube-global.blogspot.com/2010/11/great-scott-over-35-hours-of-video.html