February 27, 2010

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Amateur Media Production in a Networked Ecology

Publications

CSCW 2010 Closing Keynote
February 10, 2010
Savannah, Georgia

I know most of you have been here for many days now in beautiful Savannah. But I just made it through snowy Chicago this morning to get here for this talk and I’m very conscious of the fact that I'm the only thing standing between you and snowstorms, flight delays, and whatever is waiting for you at home. I have this image of you digesting all the stimulation from the week, but also being mentally halfway home already. So I hope you'll indulge me in this talk, to have a little bit of fun to keep you all engaged, as well as hopefully provide something informative to take home with you. I’ve structured this as less a traditional research presentation than a rumination on how my own work fits within the broader context of rapidly evolving Internet cultures, illustrated along the way with lots of Internet videos.

My topic today is amateur media production, and I'll use Internet video as my central cases. This talk will be focusing on creative play and entertainment, but along with way, I'll be pointing to what I think are quite serious and important topics in our understanding of networked social life and the future of our cultural production.

My central point is that we can learn a tremendous amount from amateur media production communities about how to effectively communicate, innovate, and create high quality work. We tend to think of amateur as synonymous with bad, or maybe even more condescendingly as a quaint domain of bake sales, boring home videos, and painful piano recitals. I want to challenge this view and suggest that amateur media is one of the most important sites of social, cultural, and technical innovation in today's networked media environment.

Amateur media production is distinctive cultural domain characterized by an ethic of peer-to-peer appropriation and experimentation that differs fundamentally from more professionalized forms of media production. And this networked culture is fueling a whole host of social, cultural, and technical innovations that are radically reshaping our media landscape. I want to walk through three case studies of Internet video that illustrate key components of the amateur media ecology - participation, innovation, and reputation.

Among the research communities I frequent, attention to the amateur space is growing but is still relatively sparse. We've spent a tremendous amount of time, for obvious and very good reasons, looking at professional cultural and knowledge production and the technical systems that support it. These are high stakes domains of commercial production. On the other side of the divide, particularly among anthropologists and sociologists, we've been interested in everyday communication, practice, and social networks that are widespread in our culture. Amateur media production has fallen between the gaps between these two research areas.

But nowadays, amateur media is difficult to ignore. Terms like user-generated content, prosumers, pro-ams and crowdsourcing have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Scholars like Henry Jenkins, Lawrence Lessig, Clay Shirky, and Yochai Benkler have urged us to take into account fannish and non-market domains of culture. Blogs, open source software, and wikipedia have demonstrated that amateur and non commercial media production are forces to be reckoned with that can do more than just nip at the heels of the pros. What we have today is a growing ecology of amateur cultural and knowledge production that is really taking on a life of it's own. More and more of us are starting to look at this area, but overall we're very early in our research and theorizing, in part because there isn't the same depth and history of research in this area.

My sense is that we're somewhere near the end of the beginning and the beginning of the middle of this big shift which is reordering this balance of power between amateur and professional media. In the amateur space, we're staring to see the emergence of somewhat stabilized cultural genres and social practices, certain technical infrastructures and designs that are being effectively reproduced across different communities. And we're beginning to see the glimmers of what a media environment might look like where amateur and nonmarket culture and knowledge has a central if not dominant place in the media that we consume. Amateur networked media is just starting to come of age.

What I'd like to do in the time I have today, is to make an appeal to you all to take the amateur space seriously by illustrating a few of what I think are the characteristics of this ecology - specifically, open participation, appropriative innovation, and niche reputation.

Case 1: Jonathan Coulton

The first story I want to tell is of the uptake of a particular song by Jonathan Coulton. Coulton is a software developer who turned into a successful musician that caters to a niche geek audience. He is known for having an intimate and interactive relationship with his fans. He releases all his work on a creative commons license. He writes on the CC blog, “I could give my songs legs, so that they could walk around the world and find their way into places I would never dream of sending them.”

He’s managed to make a successful career out of this model of open sharing. He’s certainly not a Britney Spears or a Bruce Springstein, but he’s definitely gone pro. He’s moved from being an amateur musician to a niche professional with a devoted fan following who really identifies with his music and his geek identity.

I want to show you a sequence of videos that will give you a sense of Coulton’s relationship to his fans and the culture of fannish participation that he fosters. These are all videos that take up his popular song, "Code Monkey." This first is a live action version.

This next one is a machinima version.

This last one is a video that became very popular on YouTube.

This last video is concert footage shot by someone in the audience, which gives a sense of Coulton's relationship to his fans.

What you see in this example is Coulton and his song acting as a kind of social glue for a community of fans. But where this goes beyond traditional fandom is that the fans are also creating their own amateur media, and they are sharing it among each other, and then becoming fans of each other’s work.

One important principle of amateur and hobby culture is that it is about social belonging, identity, and participation. Amateurs do create a tremendous amount of valuable content. But this innovation and creativity is often a side-effect of social participation not the other way around. Emily is not trying to become a professional dancer or a musician, but she is getting tremendous value out of participating in the community surrounding Coulton’s music. Coulton says it best. It’s about building a collaborative community around his work. “The act of creation becomes not the end, but the beginning of a creative process that links complete strangers together in collaboration.”

I’d like to highlight the fact that this culture of participation is being fueled not just by Coulton’s openness to fan participation, but also concrete IP standards and online video sharing infrastructures that make participation and appropriation possible and accessible to everyday folks. The ethic of open participation is a complex alchemy of establishing new social practices and cultural norms, as well as having supporting infrastructures and policies.

Case 2: YouTube Lip Synch Viral Vids

I want to turn to another case that highlights the second dimension of amateur media culture that I wanted to illustrate, appropriative innovation. I want to show you a recent video, made last year, shared with me recently by YouTube ethnographer Michael Wesch.

I thought you might all appreciate how this gives a new spin to "computer supported cooperative work."

This video may seem like just a quirky collab video that a few people in a workspace decided to put together. And it is. But it's also a video that in many ways epitomizes our current moment in amateur digital video culture. It's amateurish in just the right ways - apparently created by a group of co-workers who are not professional performers. Their workplace is incredibly generic, and doesn't have any elements that indicate that these are media professionals. The pleasure we get from this video is that it appears as a break from the workaday grind, a moment of joy and play shared on the wide open Internet for others to enjoy. It also has some key elements of a successful viral video in that it references well established Internet memes and genres - in this case, the genre of the lip synch video and visual conventions of the webcam, as well as a song that is well established in viral video culture. But it takes all these existing elements of the culture and introduces some creative innovations, specifically in the unique real time coordination and synchronization. Let me do a little bit of excavation of these claims.

Like other genres such as cut up, mashup, the reenactment or cover, the webcam lip synch is a well established genre of Internet video. Most people would trace the origins of the Internet viral lip synch video to Numa Numa. Just as a reminder, this was a video from 2004, an eon ago in Internet time, before the birth of YouTube.

This is the video that rivals the star wars kid as the most viewed video on the internet. What's important about this video is not just how it demonstrated the power of P2P and viral video, but the way in which it set up a new amateur media genre. Since then, the genre of the webcam lip synch video has evolved and diversified.

Now what about the song? About a year after Numa Numa, the Back Dorm Boys lipsynchers became a huge hit eventually became famous enough to get mentions in mainstream US media and clinch professional media deals in China.

The workplace backstreet boys video is both an imitation as well as an incremental innovation on these prior innovations. It epitomizes the kind of work that is born out of the contemporary amateur video ecosystem. Experimental, building on an existing viral meme, existing genres and techniques, using language of appropriation, and a silly, playful, amateurish collaborative production, it's also transgressive, mashing up the serious context of the workplace with ecstatic play, trangressing the private space of a home, dorm room or workplace with the public display YouTube. In the five years since Numa Numa, the ecology of Internet video has evolved at a stunning pace, and we see a whole visual and performative language that is unique to amateur online video.

In tandem, the technical infrastructure supporting this P2P ecology has become much more sophisticated with the additions of video responses, recommendations, and mechanisms for sharing, ranking, and favoriting that were not available in the early years of YouTube or Newgrounds where Numa Numa was first released.

The growing sophistication of the ecology of amateur media production and distribution has also pushed things beyond simple playful experimentation towards a more highly polished mode. Here's one video that illustrates this trend. Where the workplace video is in many ways typical of today’s YouTube scene, this video I want to show you is exceptional.

Like the other videos I've shown you, this video is also in a trajectory of incremental innovations that can be traced back to Numa Numa, but it takes the genre of the lip synch to a new level. It's a collaboration between the professional media creator - the band Sour and it's fan base. The video was orchestrated by the band, but shot entirely by web cams of performances by fans around the world. It's an example of a video at the interface between amateur innovation and professional production quality, leveraging the power and authenticity of participatory media culture and the resources and distribution power of a professional group.

The point I want to make with this story, this archaeology of the lip synch webcam video, is to trace a bit of the contours of a complex innovation ecosystem that supports everything from the accidental success of Numa Numa to the highly produced and self-conscious Hibi no Neiro. The amateur ecosystem drives experimentation, innovation, and ongoing productive failure. In turn, the successful innovations get taken up and widely imitated and disseminated, eventually to be appropriated by the pros, just as the amateurs originally appropriated the pros to begin with.

Case 3: Anime Fan Vids

Let me turn to my last set of examples, and these come from my fieldwork with anime fans. Unlike the examples that I have shown you so far, video production in the anime fandom is embedded in a much more tightly organized fan and creative scene. The anime fandom is one of the most active and wired youth subcultures on the Internet today, and they engage in a wide range of online practices, including fan fiction, fan art, and online gaming. My work has focused specifically on video remixes, known as anime music videos (AMVS), and amateur subtitling, known as fansubbing. All of these activities have a history spanning decades and a well established set of online and offline infrastructures. Because of this long history and a set of well-established social norms and practices, the anime fandom gives us a view into the processes of social differentiation, hierarchy building, and reputation that characterizes robust amateur media scenes.

Fansubbing is is in many ways the backbone of the online anime fandom. Although English-language fans consume a great deal of media that is commercially translated and subtitled, a large proportion of anime distribution happens through amateur fan networks, where fans will do the translation and subtitling of the work before it is commercially released overseas. In many cases fansubs are the only foreign-language source of anime that fans have access to, as many anime series are never commercially released out of Japan. In the early years of the anime fandom, fansubbers usually worked in local anime clubs, and distributed video tapes to other clubs around the country. After the advent of digital distribution, the digisubbing scene exploded, and fansubtitled works reach millions of fans around the world in multiple languages.

There are dozens of groups in the scene with different reputations. Some known for quality, some known for speed, some known for different genres of anime. Some speed sub groups that translate the most popular anime will try to turn an anime episode around within 24 hours broadcast in Japan. They will sometimes have people working in assembly-line fashion in different time zones around the world so they can expedite the workflow for faster release. Combined with sophisticated peer-to-peer distribution networks that give fans instant access to these anime episodes, these groups reach hundreds of thousands of fans within hours of online release.

In fansub groups, there is a high degree of specialization and collaboration within each production team as well as in the community overall. Each fansub group will have a “raw provider” who collects the original episode in Japanese, a translator, an editor, a timer who times the length of time the subtitles should be on screen, a typesetter, an encoder, and usually several quality checkers who review the final episodes. Although many fansubbers will experiment with different roles in a group, they will usually have a specialty that they will build their reputation around. For example, one encoder described how initially he became attracted to the specialty because of the depth of knowledge that he could pursue within an expert community. “It just got interesting because other encoders were like, ‘here are some tips and tricks’...there were so many tricks in how to handle that stuff that it got pretty interesting.” Mastering esoteric knowledge becomes a source of status and reputation. After gaining this status as an expert, a subber will find that their services are in great demand in the tight-knit community.

One subber describes for me how he got involved in fansubbing as a teenager. As early as middle school he had discovered fansubbed episodes of anime that were not available commercially in the US. By high school he was actively tracking different fansub groups online and had taken a particular liking to one fansub group known for the high quality of their translations. "When they advertised for a position of quality checking for their group he jumped at the opportunity. I was particularly impressed with releases by 'Kami' Fansubs. I idled in their channel. Then in October 2004 they ran ads that they were recruiting QC. I thought it a dream come true to work for them… I’d QC everything as soon as they came in. I made lots and lots of suggestions. I wanted to let the team know they did the right thing by picking me." (Lantis, 23)

Lantis is a connoisseur of anime and of fansubs. He appreciates the minute differences in quality that distinguishes a carefully crafted work. Nobody in the fansub world gets paid. But like other subbers, Lantis takes his own work as a fansubber very seriously, and knows that thousands of people will be viewing the episodes that he has worked on. Lantis says, "I just feel so good when I can release something that conforms to my standards, and make it available to the world of anime."

And Lantis is not the only one who cares about quality in fansubs. Although the industry might dispute this, most fans believe that good fansubs far exceed the quality of professionally produced subtitles. Fansub comparison site will pick apart and critique the details of different fansubs - looking at the quality of the typesetting, translation, and encoding of episodes released by different fansub groups.

This peer based ecology of review and critique is how the community develops and maintain standards and reputations. This is how good groups get recognized, and specialization and skill rewarded. Comparison sites are part of an entire ecology of collaboration and competition that is supported by a wide range of online tools. Web forums provide contexts for discussion and debate, bittorent and irc fserves are the primary distribution mechanisms, fansub wikis coordinate between different competing teams who make decisions based on who else is subbing a series. And irc is where fansubbers congregate for real time discussion and work coordination. Most subbers are connected to irc 24/7 as a way of maintaining close coordination with their team. This is a global media production scene that is mobilized almost entirely on the Internet with very little real life contact. Collectively, they are able to turn out subtitles for almost every major anime released in Japan, in multiple languages, and at a generally high level of quality.

This massive mobilization of volunteer labor is motivated and sustained almost entirely through the force of systems of recognition and reputation that validate the subbers’ work and craft. Subbers describe how they enjoy the social life of being a team, and the sense that they are evangelizing anime. But most will point to the satisfaction they get from knowing that others are viewing their work, and that they are developing a reputation within the scene.

They are motivated to produce good work not only to meet the standards set by their peers, but also to appeal to their audiences. The ability to gain wide recognition and publicity for the work that they do is one of the affordances of online publics that make it so radically different from the kinds of publics that amateurs have historically had access to. Fansubbers are competing with commercial media localization industries to get their work out and viewed by fans, and they generally succeed in getting broader audiences than what most companies see with their DVD releases.

Fansub groups and individual fansubbers develop their reputations in niches within the cult media of anime. While this might seem like a narrow space, when aggregated across a massive networked ecology, the numbers of people interested in even micro and marginal content can be immense, and those working in amateur and nonmarket spaces can get more respect and admiration than they do in the day jobs or in their schools. One subbed, I interviewed noted, "Deep down inside, every fansubber wants to have their work watched and a high amount of viewers causes them some kind of joy whether or not they express it or not."

This kind of reputational dynamic is also evident with AMVs. AMVs are remix videos that involve taking Japanese anime and remixing to a soundtrack of the editors choosing. Usually this is popular Euro-American music, but it may be the sound track of a movie trailer or dialog from a U.S. movie. What's common across these videos is that they involve remixing of the visual media, and mashing it up with audio media from another culture. The best way to explain what AMVs are is with a video - this is an oldie but goodie that illustrates some of what goes into making an AMV.

What’s important to realize about AMVs is that they have been around in since the early eighties, and have been mostly supported by the existing infrastructure of fan conventions that got creators together periodically. But like in the case of fansubbing, with the advent of digital video editing and online distribution, barriers to entry dropped, and the scene has expanded dramatically. Now you can find hundreds of thousands of AMVs on the dedicated site, animemusicvideos.org, as well as on other video sharing sites all over the net.

Many that I interviewed in this scene started in their early teens, messing around by matching music to their favorite anime episodes. But just like the fansub scene, AMV makers are also honing their craft within a competitive environment of peer-based evaluation and reputation building. As the base of the AMV scene has expanded, the community has developed more and more mechanisms to recognize work that is notable and of high quality, and to develop hierarchy and reputation within the scene.

The mechanisms for recognizing and celebrating good work in the scene are diverse - including competitions at conventions and various reviews and rankings online. Although AMVs circulate on all kinds of video sharing sites, the core creative community congregates on animemsucivideos.org. This is a site that has been handcrafted by the community to cater to their specialized needs. Although many viewers of AMVs watch on sites like YouTube, the core community doesn’t like general purpose aggregator sites. In fact, on the discussion forums of animemusicvideos.org, any mentions of "YouTube" are filtered out. The community places a high value on specialized knowledge and expertise and informed critique.

Animemusicvideos.org has a wide range of mechanisms for ranking, reviewing, and competing. These more formal review and ranking schemes interact with more more informal and peer-based practices for developing reputation. One of the creators I interviewed, AbsoluteDestiny, describes the trajectory that editors can traverse to move from entry-level participation to a more central role in the AMV scene. Becoming part of the editing elite means both developing social connections in the scene as well as producing quality work.

You move from first trying to make something and showing it to a few friends. And then if you start getting to know some people online you might upload it to the org. Or you could enter a competition. When you decide to go to a big convention and meet other AMV creators, then that’s another level again. It’s at the big AMV conventions, when we get together to talk about each other’s videos, that you start to understand that the videos are actually conversations among AMV creators. You wouldn’t necessarily know that just from downloading the videos. The videos are a result of conversations that editors are having through a lot of private channels like at conventions or on IM.

AbsoluteDestiny describes how he got notoriety for his signature Shameless Rock Video by first participating actively online, and becoming known by other editors, and then eventually releasing a video that made a splash and went on to win competition awards. He says the social connection with other editors gives people the initial impetus to take a look at a video. "Having some sort of name recognition even if it's not for your videos but for your general participation in the community, will aide your presence…When there are so many videos out there now, it's incredibly difficult to get noticed."


Note: to see this video with the audio track, go to animemusicvideoos.org.

Shameless Rock Video was the video that put AbsoluteDestiny on the map, gaining recognition online, and going on to win many prestigious competitions at anime conventions. The most successful editors in the scene produce works of professional quality, and have an aura of celebrity among anime fans. They often have committed fandoms of their own and are mobbed at conventions by aspiring creators.

With this discussion of celebrity in the AMV scene, I’ve taken you full circle from a discussion of the open, participatory ethos of sharing and appropriation, to the development of hierarchy and distinction within an amateur media scene. It may seem like these two ethos are diametrically opposed. On one hand we have a culture of peer-to-peer and open participation that is welcoming to newcomers, and infrastructures that support free sharing and appropriation. On the other hand we have reputational schemes that rank and reward creators for developing work of professional production quality.

What’s important to understand, though, is all of these dynamics, or openness, of appropriation, and of reputation building are highly dependent on one another, and are part of an entire ecosystem of innovation and creative energy that makes the amateur scene distinctive from both the personal and professional media creation. AbsoluteDestiny quips, "I think it's the point in which any community becomes a real community is when a selection of that community gets accused of being elitist."

The AMV scene is an example of a creative community that has been highly successful in recruiting a very broad base of young creators into video editing practices, keeping barriers to entry low and the pleasure of creation high. At the same time, the community has developed ways of highlighting and celebrating the work of those who have the commitment and skills to develop exceptional work. Although participants in the scene experience tension between the more "common" and "elite" forms of participation in the AMV scene, both are integrally related and synergistic. The health of the AMV scene as a thriving amateur, non-commercial, and networked creative practice is predicated on the diversity and hierarchies that have evolved over the years.

The same could be said for the YouTube scene and the fansub scene and many other amateur media scenes on the net, whether it is fan fiction, photography, art, or the blogosphere. A vibrant amateur media ecology supports diverse ways of participating within an ecology of appropriative innovation. New creators can model the work or peers that are at their level or within their niche community, as well as appropriate and learn from the work of more experienced and famous creators.

In the past decade, we have seen social practices, cultural norms, media genres, and online infrastructures evolve in tandem with one another to build this unique ecology. In this talk, I’ve only scratched the surface of understanding the dynamics of participation, innovation, and the drive for excellence in this space. I hope you’ll join me in appreciating some of the value being generated by amateur cultures that have historically been denigrated as a domain of wannabes and low quality work. And I also hope that you might take an interest in both the study and development of these new media ecologies.


Posted by Mizuko Ito at February 27, 2010 6:44 AM

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