On Waxing Nostalgic about Ordinary Video

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: plange@usc.edu


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

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

16 thoughts on “On Waxing Nostalgic about Ordinary Video

  1. Patricia, You’ve done a great job of introducing the ‘ordinary’ and then decomposing it. From my own work studying the professionalization of a class of video producers from amateur obscurity to six figure salaries, I find your inquiry to be exceptionally useful. Firstly, I am slightly confused about whether your point is to deconstruct the ‘ordinary,’ say something about participatory video culture, or comment on the pervasiveness of nostalgia. I see how nostalgia and video culture are often linked but the ordinary and the nostalgic don’t necessarily hook-up nor do I see much to suggest it does for the respondents. Secondly, a taxidermy of the ‘ordinary’ seems to me to be misplaced in any anthropological account. Isn’t countering the idea that there is an ‘ordinary’ exactly what the field was founded on? What video genres constitute the ordinary field of production? Why even talk about the ordinary when there isn’t such a thing, it is dependent upon false binaries, etc.? Thirdly, I am sure you are well-aware of the recent research on ‘produsage’ and ‘prosumption’ which articulates the slippery and decentered space between amateur and professional production. These concepts have their utility, but are usually celebratory of what I take as being free semi-professional labor for major digital media companies. Which brings me to my fourth point, where is the political economic perspective on the ordinary? How do the social video firms categorize the ‘ordinary’? I am sure they have much more specific categories that might be helpful to appropriate in your taxonomy. You spend a good deal of space contrasting the ‘ordinary’ to professionals but do not include how both categories are social economic constructions. Not withstanding the monetization of this content, the economics of participatory culture, the recent profitability of YouTube, etc, these ordinary video producers are enmeshed in personal and macro-economic contexts that I find impossible to ignore…

  2. Thanks for your comment, Adam. It is great to see this material resonate with other scholars working in this area. You raise many questions, let’s see if I can tackle of few of them. In regards to your first question, I would say that I was trying to do all three things (perhaps a bit ambitiously): 1) deconstruct the ordinary: 2) talk about the temporalities of participatory culture; and 3) comment on the usefulness of researching cultural nostalgia as expressed in video. I do think that many everyday participants online are making many videos that involve some form of nostalgia, not just personally. YouTube is filled with clips from TV shows, and other videos where people try to relive aspects of their past. Also, people do it with the many videos out there on place. My point was that “nostalgia” is just one lens (among many others that I hope people will suggest here) that can cut across people with different skill levels and positionings within and outside of professional media (however that might be defined). Using a lens that cuts across different roles and skill levels avoids the problem of trying to adjudicate who qualifies for a study based on their supposed “ordinary-ness.” Rank novices as well as advanced amateurs often interact with mediated nostalgia. I’d like to see what other lenses might be used to study everyday video without carving out a pure “ordinary” space in contrast to everything else. My point was the opposite of trying to taxidermy the ordinary. My argument was that although others try to do this by insisting that their studies are carefully restricted to the “ordinary,” the reality involves a more messy field with people of different skill levels. I agree that talking about the ordinary is problematic, which is why I do not use that word in my research and why I wrote this blog post. My idea was to encourage other researchers to question whether they are tempted to engage in taxidermy by insisting that a pure, ordinary, video maker can be easily located for study. It is sort of the video equivalent of telling Nanook to put down his gun. If we are looking for that pure, authentic, ordinary video making- “Nanook,” they perhaps do not exist. The last sentence was meant to say, instead of raising the “ordinary” like a zombie from the dead, why not study the way other people try to invoke their past, collectively through video. I also agree that everyday video is enmeshed in online attention economies. As I mention in my post, some people on YouTube may have started out feeling (or being perceived as) ordinary, but their success over time severely challenged that assumption.

  3. 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.

    This is a very important point, especially since we seem to know very little about how “professionals” are recruited and trained. In the ad world in which I have worked, one is continually running into people who stumbled into the business, discovered a knack for some aspect of it and wound up as famous X, where X is some professional label, copywriter, film director, stylist, whatever.

    Listening to their stories, one is also reminded of luck, the breaks of the game. Many talented people never get assigned to projects for big-name clients or, better still, adventurous ones who will let talent work its magic instead of sticking with established formulas. There is also the broader economic environment to be considered. I came to Japan in 1980 and was here for the bubble economy of the second half of that decade. When the clients sales were going up in double digits every year and people were writing books with titles like Japan as No. 1, all sorts of crazy things were possible. Now it’s a very different world. Last year ad spend was down 11.9% year-on-year. The bean counters are in control. Neither clients nor creatives are taking risks.

    There also remain to be examined the shadow world of what in Japan are called “high amateur” activities. These can start out as school clubs or company PR programs; but the upshot is that beginners have all sorts of opportunities to rub shoulders with the pros, take classes from them, interact with others who share their interests—outside the bounds of formal academic training.

    Hope this is helpful. What you are doing looks fascinating.

  4. As usual, great commentary McCreery, in my more ruthless moments with my subjects and more honest moments with myself I see all these new jobs popping up in the industrialized social media space–‘online community managers’, ‘brand integrators’, ‘social media curators’, ‘online creative executives’ as being nothing more than the industrial inventions for skills and jobs that are illly understood, important, but require very little than being a ‘people person’. In countless interviews I ask these professionals in new positions what it is that makes them so sought after and this is what they say, ‘I know people’. Emergent phenomena reacted to in illogical ways….

  5. Thanks, John for your comment. It brings up so many interesting themes to think about when considering how people learn to make media in different contexts. As you mention there are all kinds of reasons and paths to being a “professional.” I could well imagine some very interesting studies that might take on some crucial questions, like, just what and how do people learn when they achieve “professional” status in particular occupations.

  6. In countless interviews I ask these professionals in new positions what it is that makes them so sought after and this is what they say, ‘I know people’.

    Allow me to suggest that this may be a starting point for further investigation. What it is to “know people” can vary from job to job and case to case. In a crude, everyday sense, we may take “know people” to imply access to individuals in positions of power. This sort of knowing people can be very important for an account executive whose job is to drum up new business. A creative director not only knows different people but also different things about them, having more to do with skill sets, personal style, and the likelihood of angry or creative sparks flying when they are added to teams. In short, it seems to me likely that while the new roles you describe all require knowing people—a generic requirement in a business where team and project-based work is replacing routine jobs that are automated or off-shored—the specific knowledge involved may vary quite a bit. Who it is important to know and what you have to know about them is likely to differ from job to job. There is some interesting research to be done on both the classifications and sociology of knowledge in these domains.

  7. what and how do people learn when they achieve “professional” status in particular occupations.

    Great question. The first thought that comes to mind is the need to distinguish between external and internal answers. Here in Japan, the business card is the sine qua non for external recognition as a professional. If the card says that you are, for example, an Art Director at Dentsu, Japan’s largest agency, that suffices to establish your status to people outside the business. A different set of issues are in play when, inside an agency, someone is said to be a “real pro,” which seems (I am only describing impressions) to depend on being able to dependably deliver a high level of performance, which often involves a dogged persistence and fanatical insistence on getting details right. When others say “good enough,” the real pro says, “We can do better.” Here again is an area where interesting research should be possible. Is being a “real pro” the same thing for a cameraman as it is for a stylist or producer….?

  8. I really got a lot out of this post, thanks for writing it! You brought me an entirely new perspective on something I thought I knew but had never seen from these angles. As someone who teaches video making and new media production in anthropology as well as studio art, it had never occurred to me to conceive of the “ordinary” maker, or rather, my assumption was that the film-television-marketing industry was the ordinary maker.

    I was fascinated to hear about the novice/professional binary and reification of the so-called “ordinary” video maker and have often wondered whether something similar underlies the popularity of the “put cameras in the subjects’ hands” trope. Not to say this methodology is never valid/valuable, it can be, but just wanting to unpack the assumptions of “native-cam.”

    You mention that the media studies focus on “the sole media creator” is something anthropologists and ethnographers can profitably address and I couldn’t agree more. Besides the family vectors of professionalization you mention (“brother, parent, uncle, aunt…who is a professional”), something I that strikes me from seeing dozens of student media pieces every term is that “the sole media creator” is as much a mythic figure, or reified assumption, as the ordinary maker. Without even taking appropriation or remixing into account, most pieces incorporate the labor of more than one person, especially the videos where friends, roommates, and family (their bodies, cameras, and cars) are frequently drafted for projects. Give the rapid changes and technical complexities of contemporary media production, the lone genius, as an ideal to teach, is out. Even though students author individual works, their ability to harness distributed information and social networks–from image archives to code libraries to roommates–is essential to their productivity. So, indeed, the ego-centric perspective on media making leaves out much of what the ethnographer would consider the juciy bits!

  9. Reading Jenny’s and John’s comments really helps to point out also how professional discourses of artistic merit try to highlight certain works over others, which in a sense renders the non-award winners as perhaps more ordinary. I was very interested to hear the remarks (most likely prepared by someone else) by Steven Spielberg, the presenter of this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture. He said that the receiver of the award for best picture would join a very prestigious list of well-respect films, a few of which he named. He then said that the films that did not receive awards would join an equally prestigious list, and he went on to name some films that shockingly, had not won the Best Picture award.

    With regard to the fallacy of the lone media maker, it is amazing to me as I drive by crews on location in LA where I see swarms of people on a movie set that are helping to make that picture happen. These too are everyday media activities, in that they are commonly observed. In certain media studies, there is a hierarchy of media making that tends to efface these participants.

    I also agree with Jenny that the “native cam” discourse may also have echoes on some level with finding the media innocent whose opinion is more pure than the person who knows something about making media, having been “corrupted” by particular types and standards. I agree that these kinds of projects can be very interesting, if delineated the right away. But when executing them, it is worth taking a step back and exploring whether seeking an “ordinary” mythic media maker is subtly inflecting the project in certain ways, and what the ramifications of that influence may be on the results.

  10. The full citation for the Strangelove should have been: Strangelove, Michael. 2010. Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

  11. Following on what Patricia has written, it has become increasingly clear to me that the anthropological ethics of informant anonymity and non-judgmental description, combined with an engrained distaste for hierarchy, produce radically unrealistic descriptions of culture and other industries in which who’s who and incessant value judgments are fundamental elements in what is going on.

    This was brought home to me while trying to teach a fine ethnography of a Japanese advertising agency, when I realized that my students were assuming that the way the making of advertising was described in this book was the way in which advertising is made in Japan—instead, that is, of the way advertising is made by second-rate hacks who are assigned to the international division because they aren’t good enough to cut it in domestic advertising, where the budgets are orders of magnitude larger.

    It is reinforced by my work with members of teams whose ads have won awards in a major Japanese advertising contest. There are certainly good reasons to believe that contests like this one reinforce established hierarchies, especially given that the juries are made up of people who have previously won awards. They are also, however, arenas in which current hierarchies are contested, genuinely creative work is celebrated, and innovation legitimized.

    It now seems to me that anthropological theory is gutted by the assumption that a culture is uniformly shared and an ethics of professional presentation that preclude consideration of why some individuals are outstanding, instead of average, examples of what we are talking about. By focusing on the average, we lose sight of the exemplary and thus of a critical factor in social and cultural change.

  12. If we don’t examine the “average” — an object I would agree is difficult to locate (Auge’s “In the Metro” has some good discussion of this problem) — who will? Is a recognition and analysis of “genius” really lacking in the rest of our intellectual culture? Maybe I’m misunderstanding you but, much like the complaints about “the Blank Slate” from people like Pinker, it seems like a case of David and Bathsheba to me…

  13. @Andrew

    I should have written “focus exclusively” instead of “focus” alone. For those familiar with exploratory data analysis using quantitative methods, it may be useful to know that it mirrors the advice I first found in the DataDesk manual, to pay close attention to outliers, since accounting for the presence of outliers may be more informative than excluding them to focus on data points closer to the median, mean or regression line in question. Also, failure to take them into account can lead to events like the current financial crisis ( see Taleb’s Black Swan, Manderbrot’s The (Mis)behavior of Markets, or Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold).

    In any case, I am not proposing to exclude the average from consideration. Where I am coming from is summarized in the following paragraphs, cross-posted from the Open Anthropology Cooperative:

    I am not advocating a return to the führerprinzip or great man theory of history. I am, instead, wrestling in my own peculiar way with the structure-agency problem, recognizing that agents who do more than go with the flow of their structuring structures and effect serious change are, inevitably, exceptions to the habitus of the groups in which they appear. In my own research, I am wrestling with a project that when completed will include

    (1) quantitative analysis of a series of social networks: members of teams that produce the ads declared winners in a major advertising contest,

    (2) comparison of network measures with relevant economic data, to show how the changes in the networks are correlated with fluctuations in Japan’s GDP and the changing shares of major media (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines) in total ad spend during the 30-year period in question, thus building a framework within which to

    (3) consider the history of industry assessments and forecasts over the same period, leading to a look at

    (4) a long-standing debate within the organization that runs the ad contest, concerning the proper roles of advertising copy and copywriters in producing advertising, followed by

    (5) interviews with key figures, in which we discuss their careers and their take on what I think I have learned in steps 1-4.

    Yes, this is a hell of a lot of work, and it is not a project I’d recommend for anyone needing to finish a Ph.D. within the foreseeable future or publish another book before a tenure review. It is, however, an attempt to construct a framework within which to integrate the quantitative and qualitative, analytic and interpretive approaches in a way required, I believe, to extend the vision of ethnography to large-scale societies in a plausible manner.

    It will, of course, be imperfect, as all things human are. It will, however, be at least a tentative dialectical step beyond the great man versus social forces framework in which so much contemporary debate remains embedded, not a return to great man instead of social forces.

  14. P.S. to previous message.

    The problem is to understand how, confronted with certain historical conditions, which include the networks in which they become embedded and how those are affected by other material circumstances, individuals come to think and act in ways that may, on occasion, lead to their being regarded as geniuses. The fundamental premise is that deeper understanding of the processes involved may say something useful about society and history at large.

  15. Nice one, Patricia. I’m interested in what separates the novice from the professional in the image-creation of the ordinary– memory, event, or experience. Is it the presentation of the truth or the manipulation of the reality or both? I sense that among novice video makers, in the sender-receiver paradigm, their presentation of the truth has no target receivers; thus they don’t resort to manipulative practices just to be effective in telling stories and getting favorable responses. Among professionals, even framing subjects and shooting images have underlying meanings and purposes with intent to manipulate the reality they produce, so they’ll get the responses they expect through the strategic story-telling devices they use.

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