Runa Islam is a British artist (born in Bangladesh, 1970) who explores the nature of cinema and its conventions through installations and videoart in which 16mm film is projected on walls or suspended screens. But her work is also a reflection on the nature of viewership: as we walk through the gallery, we are exercising our mobilized virtual gaze, as we inhabit an space in which screens are still, but the spectator (us) is moving, dwelling a shared space with the artifact. The exhibition also puts the spectator in contact with film projectors, a machine that I assume many people have not seen. In the midst of today’s digitized media environment, projectors hold an almost nostalgic aura. When I attended the exhibition last Sunday, it was fascinating to see a little girl hypnotised by the projector and asking her dad what it was and how it worked. He didn’t know what to answer: although widely used in the cinema industry, 16mm projectors are now al old, retro object. Just a generation ago, they were widely used to show family footage.

Anyway, Islam´s work is currently being shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Circular Quay, Sydney. It is free. I totally recommend it.

by César Albarrán Torres

The mid-term elections in November 2, 2010, will be the trial by fire of the political innovations propagated by the Democratic Party and its satellite grassroots organisation, Organizing for America (OFA; http://www.barackobama.com), during the 2008 presidential elections and its aftermath (particularly over the Health Care Reform debate in early 2010). These innovations fall into two categories. In terms of practicality, they comprise the encouragement of militant organisation through the Internet and the activation of nodes(voters) through face-to-face interaction; in terms of ideology, they swarm around the idea of a grassroots organisation attaining power through electoral means.

The mid-term elections will also serve as a barometer as to whether the critical mass of support garnered by the movement lead by President Barack Obama is sustainable, or has been diminished by the perception of his performance in the Oval Office[1] and by the recent adoption of grassroots methods by the conservative establishment, represented by the Tea Party Patriots (TPP; http://www.teapartypatriots.org).[2] Moreover, the elections will shine some light on the unprecedented marriage of a self-proclaimed grassroots movement and the State, as well as the sustainability of this union.

Framed by network theory, this essay identifies some of the online social media strategies employed by the grassroots organization Organizing for America in the VOTE 2010 campaign, as well as the innovations it strives to propagate. It also frames these in historical perspective, and ventures into how and why the Tea Party Patriots might fill a possible void of innovation in the American electoral landscape. In particular, Duncan J. Watts’ conceptualization of networks and the way in which ideas percolate through them is a helpful tool to understanding the Obama phenomenon in 2008 and the standing of OFA as a political force in 2010, as well as the differences between the two campaigns in regards to OFA’s position in the American political arena.

Barack Obama as innovator and innovation
Watts identified the process through which an innovation (in this case a political project articulated in a campaign or collection of campaigns) permeates into a social network. He argues that the spread (percolation) of ideas “requires a trade-off between cohesion within groups and connectivity across them.” (2003: 230-231) In the case of OFA and TPP as grassroots organisations in the United States, that trade-off translates in the incorporation into the bigger scheme of the major parties (this may compromise internal bonds and establish expectations regarding the agenda), which in turn have the structural capacity to coordinate online and off-line efforts among their county and state offices. Watts also identified the presence of percolating vulnerable clusters (PVCs): that is, collections of individuals who have a low threshold and therefore are more susceptible to adopt an innovation and trigger a cascade, the fast, exponential spread of any given innovation. (Ibidem: 235)

The term innovator is also useful for the purpose of this analysis. For Watts, it “refers to a node that is activated randomly at the beginning of an innovation cycle.” (2003: 233) With his unusual ethnic background, his academic past and leftist political ideals (leftist by American standards), Obama was an innovator, but also the embodiment of an innovation in American politics. Thisinnovation was characterised by a collective, grassroots approach to electoral politics and the exercise of power. As a former community organizer that reached the highest political post in the Western world,[3] Barack Obama became an icon for a new form of grassroots politics that does not disdain electoral processes.[4]

Moreover, as Mitchell states “his hyper-visibility is also a result of his unprecedented mastery of new media. Obama is not just the first Black president; he is the first wired president. And he is wired, not only into the internet, but also into what might be thought of as its exact opposite, namely the face to face encounter.” (2009: 125) Perhaps unknowingly –and despite employing the nebulous term “new media”– Mitchell addressed a fundamental element in OFA’s strategy: the coexistence of online and face-to-face encounters as a key to a successful political strategy in the 21st century milieu. In practical terms, the innovation consists in resorting to traditional campaign methods through the organization of diverse cliques using the Internet as a communication infrastructure, rather than investing the majority of resources on mass broadcasting.

Barack Obama’s historic electoral win in 2008 is considered by many (e.g. Anstead & Chadwick, 2008; Cohen, 2009) to be a landmark in recent electoral politics and its methods, not only in the United States, but also in other Western democracies.[5] For a score of pundits and academics, it represented, moreover, a turning point in the use of Web 2.0 tools in the formation and consolidation of communities around a political movement. In network theory terms, through technology multidirectional communication bridges could be established among individuals (nodes) and groups (cliques) that shared a common goal (the election of a Democrat) but were otherwise isolated. These digital tools also helped to visualize the fragmented nature of the vote (i.e. electoral colleges, as the Federation is, after all, a network itself in which power, information and resources continuously flow), identify vulnerable clusters and assign human and informational resources to their activation. This also helped prioritize campaign efforts (i.e. insistent campaigning in the so-called “battleground states”) and revolutionize fund-raising methods. This visualisation is a salient factor in the strategies currently being employed by OFA and TPP.

In 2008 a transformation of sorts was evident and even Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser in George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, stated: “I think we’ll be analyzing this election for years as a seminal, transformative race. The year campaigns leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined. The year we went to warp speed. The year the paradigm got turned upside down and truly became bottom up instead of top down.” (Nagourney, 2008) In other words: 2008 was the year in which the innovation of political uses of the Internet (through Twitter, Facebook and primarily the remediated campaign office in the OFA blog) and grassroots activism in the institutionalized electoral landscape achieved a critical mass.

It is easy to be misled, however, by the notion that the Obama experience is the vanguard in the use of online tools for the purpose of political organization or that it translated into a change in the whole of the American population. As Sey and Castells sentence, one must escape technological determinism: “The actual influence of the Internet in politics, and on the quality of democracy, has to be established by observation, not proclaimed as fate.” (2004: 364) Similarly, when analysing the enthusiasts who invested their time and energy in Howard Dean’s[6] primary campaign in 2004, a precursor to Obama’s in method and form, Hindman notes: “[…] survey suggests that liberals visit political Web sites much more than do moderates or conservatives.” And he adds: “Among self-identified Democrats, frequent visitors to political Web sites are dramatically more liberal than the party as a whole.”[7]

This gives us an idea of who forms the cliques that surround the Obama project, and the challenges it has faced since its establishment.

The innovation, the oxymoron
The idea of a mass, transformative grassroots movement that had the potential to take over government –even if it sprouted from a political institution as monolithic as the Democratic Party–, added to the capabilities of a Web 2.0 environment[8] and the deteriorated image of President George W. Bush, formed the “perfect storm” for the Obama innovation to percolate through the network of voters. The question is if whether OFA is still the beacon of those innovations or if, in its core, it rather forms part of the networks of power epitomized by the State.

Commanded by David Axelrod (top political advisor) and David Plouffe (campaign manager),[9] the Obama 2008 campaign not only secured the support of committed Democrats, but, as mentioned above, it also made use of informational technologies to identify, make visible, coordinate and expand various networks of political allegiance that had been neglected by the two major political parties. Everett argues that “the 2008 presidential election outcome became the real politik manifestation of the insistent ‘power to the people’ imperative advanced by 1960s era Civil Rights Movement activists.” (2009: 195) For lack of a better term,[10] pundits and academics agreed with OFA’s self-depiction as a “grassroots” political organisation.[11] Of the various options that the organisation provides citizens to get involved, we can single out “joining grassroots OFA campaigns to support the President’s agenda” and “spreading the word to friends and neighbours about the President’s approach on the big issues facing our nation, like health care, energy and education”.[12] (To those, we can now add the support of the Democrats in various elections, which is now part of “the President’s agenda”.)[13]

This sort of political stance (which has the community at its core) is commonly associated to 1960s activism and speaks of a bottom-up model in which everyday citizens organize to change their immediate environment through specific and coordinated actions foreign to electoral politics. However, the innovation that the Obama campaign introduced consisted in the incorporation of the grassroots reactionary mentality to the democratic establishment of US electoral politics. Accordingly, Schultz is critical of the Obama project, and suggests that “the ruthless appropriation… of the grass roots mobilizing of the community organizing tradition, but without the opposition to or disdain for electoral politics, are suggestive of the creative reconstruction that Obama represents” (2009: 160) This “creative reconstruction” revolved around the innovation of CHANGE, the leit motif of the Obama presidency and, currently, of the Democratic Party’s campaign to maintain majority in Congress.

For Castells, the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, from which the Obama project draws, “were the affirmation of a culture of personal freedom and social autonomy, both vis-à-vis capitalism and statism, challenging the conservative establishment as well as the traditional left.” (2004: 18) Under these terms, thus, the “creative reconstruction” alluded by Schultz is, in fact, oxymoronic. However, OFA continues to propagate the pairing of Democratic presidencies and grassroots movements and the diffusion ofinnovation through citizen networks: “Each and every time we’ve made epic change –from this country’s founding to emancipation, from women’s suffrage to workers’ rights– it has not come from a man. It has come from a grassroots movement rallying around a cause. That’s what we need again.” (From OFA’s Facebook feed, September 22, 2010.)
In addition, during a political rally in support of VOTE 2010, organized at the University of Wisconsin on September 29, 2010, Obama said: “Let’s show Washington one more time that change doesn’t come from the top. It doesn’t come from millions of dollars of special interest-funded attack ads. Change happens from the bottom up.”[14]

But now he is Washington. Regardless of the oxymoronic nature of this relationship, OFA maintains President Obama as the main opinion leader, as the central node of its vast network (see Figures 1 and 7). Would the percolation of OFA’s ideas be more effective if it disassociated from the President, if the movement became larger that its first adopter? OFA’s relationship to Obama, however, might be related to a trend identified by Rogers: “One role of the opinion leader in a social system is to help reduce the uncertainty about an innovation for his or her followers.” (2003: 143)

But as President his followers are now, theoretically, the whole of the population. And 60.5% of them are uncertain.

Obama ’08-VOTE 2010-Let’s Recycle Government: redefining innovations
OFA’s success in helping put Barack Obama in the White House could be attributed to its innovation of CHANGE reaching a critical mass by identifying percolating vulnerable clusters composed not necessarily by Obama partisans, but buy citizens disenchanted with government in general. This would explain why an important element of the Obama discourse during that campaign –this has changed dramatically during the presidency– was the bipartisan nature of his political agenda. He wanted to appeal (like Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s; see Bjerre-Poulsen, 2008) to Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, to keep early adopters on his ship and activate seemingly unreachable cliques.

As mentioned above, the mid-term elections will not only serve as a measure of the public approval for the first two years of the Obama presidency, but also of the prevalence of the online social media tools and strategies employed by OFA during that period, and the permanence of the innovation of CHANGE introduced in the 2008 campaign in light of the current oxymoronic nature of the Obama-OFA dyad. Perhaps some of the percolating vulnerable clusters that made OFA’s rise possible were formed by citizens who are dissatisfied with governmental institutions in general, regardless of the incumbents that run them and their party affiliation. The electoral process will also shine some light on how the Republican Party –mainly through the Let’s Recycle Government campaign commanded by the TPP– has adapted to the changing electoral milieu configured by the Democrats through the vast and interconnected digital and physical networks of local and national political allegiance in the United States. It is possible that the TPP will target and activate some of these vulnerable clusters previously aligned to the Democratic Party.

However, it all starts with an individual node. Watts states that an early adopter is “a node that will switch from an inactive to an active state under the influence of a single active neighbor.” (2003: 233) OFA’s success lies on taking this concept literarily: the Internet only serves to open citizen dialogue but does not necessarily translate into votes. The activation of nodes through face-to-face contact is the key (see Figure 1). And the TPP has also understood this. Table 1 summarizes the innovations and strategies (in both practical and ideological terms) in this trio of campaigns (OFA’S 2008 and 2010 efforts; TPP’s current campaign):

Precursor: Obama ‘08 campaign VOTE 2010 campaign Let’s Recycle Government campaign
Ideological innovation (main political platform) CHANGE in all levels of government. Maintain political power in the US government. Ensure that “Republicans don’t take control of Congress” so CHANGE can be fulfilled. Change in the current political status quo. Stop what they deem to be increasing government intervention by the Obama administration.
Relationship with the State Opposition to George W. Bush and the conservative establishment. Leader of grassroots organization is the head of State. Confrontational. Opposition to the Obama presidency and the Democratic majority in Congress.
Percolating vulnerable clusters to which messages were/are aimed The whole of the American population. Obama stressed a bipartisan approach to politics. Organizing for America members and loyal Democrats. Voters of a conservative political inclination, but also citizens in general dissatisfied with the Obama presidency.
Strategy towards the percolation of the ideological innovation Innovative use of Web 2.0 tools that allowed the coordination of online/off-line activities. OFA intended to expand its network of political allegiance and “reach across the aisle”. Does not strive to expand the network or “reach across the aisle”, but rather to nourish and maintain the strong ties among the majority that put the Obama project in power, focusing on locality and face-to-face activism triggered by online communications. Locate vulnerable clusters of individuals who disagree with current government policies and/or are aligned with conservative ideas. Formation of local Tea Parties through the identification of potentialearly adopters, both through online and off-line channels.

Table 1. Comparison between the Obama ’08, Let’s Recycle Government and VOTE 2010 campaigns.

The sterile off-line/online dichotomy

Even in 1990, ignorant of his future stature as world and national leader, Obama recognized the importance of using channels that enable direct communication with constituents:  “Our thinking about media and public relations is equally stunted when compared to the highpowered direct mail and video approaches successfully used by conservative organizations like the Moral Majority.” (Obama, 1990) The importance of media is taken into consideration by OFA and TPP in the 2010 mid-term elections, as they have made an ample use of online organisational tools that can be related to the five resources identified by Hara and Estrada as the ones from which the Internet “especially capitalizes” when it comes to the diffusion of grassroots politics: “knowledge, interpersonal interactions, identity support, and the building of credibility and legitimacy.” (2005: 5004) The Obama ’08 campaign had these five resources, the last two at the expense of sitting President George W. Bush. However, in the 2010 mid-term elections the equation is inverted, and in the eyes of some OFA lacks the “credibility” and “legitimacy” that the TPP are starting to garner and the Republican Party is getting back.

Figure 1. Call for door-to-door and telephone campaigning. From OFA’s Facebook feed (accessed September 24, 2010)

The practical innovations introduced by OFA in VOTE 2010, however, represent the aforementioned resources of knowledge, interpersonal interactions and identity support. The iPhone application distributed by the organisation, for example, does not call for the formation of online networks, but for activation of new nodes and the clear-cut identification of existing ones in the physical realm. OFA describes this app as “a groundbreaking tool that now provides volunteers everything they need to talk face to face with voters in their neighborhoods…” (OFA, 2010) This application allows early adopters to map the networks that exist among his/her neighbours and report on the activation of a node. This way, both OFA volunteers and the organisation at large can access a visual representation of their networks of political allegiance (see Figures 2 and 3). Another strategy promoted by OFA are the “Commit to Vote House Parties”, in which members of the organisation invite neighbours and, through face-to-face interaction in a thoroughly planned mini campaign-event, induce others to commit for the voting process (it is safe to assume that the vast majority of said activated notes will vote Democrat). The TPP are vying for something similar through their “One Million Yard Signs” campaign (www.onemillionyardsigns.com), through which they will make visible the expansion of the cascade they have triggered.

As Granovetter points out in one of his seminal papers, “studies of diffusion and mass communication have shown that people rarelyact on mass-media information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955; Rogers 1962).” (1973: 1374) Obama knew this as a community organizer, and his campaign and White House teams are aware of the capabilities of the Internet to promote those “personal ties” in the physical realm, and create them in the digital milieu.


Figure 2. Banner in http://www.barackobama.com that promotes the download of OFA’s new iPhone application.


Figure 3.  OFA’s iPhone application, which maps out neighbourhoods for door-to-door campaigning and lets volunteers report on their efforts of activating nodes and promoting the creation of cliques.

Contrary to the despairing technological realities that the young Obama encountered, today what the Internet and mobile devices offer is “a way of overcoming barriers to local tie formation.” (Hampton, 2004: 225). OFA tries to either replicate political off-line practices (www.barackobama.com is a remediated campaign office) or to organise these off-line practices through the immediacy of informational networks. This reinforces the notion that in order to successfully trigger a cascade, any political campaign in the United States should be founded upon the potential of local ties to form a dense clique that will, in turn, construct bridges with other cliques (local and state OFA groups).

As Figure 5 shows, the Tea Party Patriots also rely on the identification of early adopters. They hold the advantage, nonetheless, of not only replicating a proven practical innovation, but of being the ideological innovators, the ones that hold the torch of the grassroots ideal of opposing the seemingly oppressive mechanisms of the State.

Ironically, the success of the Let’s Recycle Government! campaign might lay on OFA’s recycling of its innovations!

Figure 5. The conservative organization Tea Party Patriots has adapted and co-opted the term grassroots and replicated some of the online strategies pioneered by the Democratic Party and Organizing for America, such as the identification of early adopters (accessed October 4, 2010)


Figure 6. Through the campaign One Million Yard Signs, the Tea Party Patriots make visible the nodes that have been activated by their political innovation (accessed October 4, 2010)

Conclusions: the method is the discourse
Perhaps the fundamental question is not which tools are being used in political communication strategies to build social capital around a given movement or candidate, but which ones are being ignored and/or neglected.

In both OFA and TPP strategies a hierarchical practice of politics is still evident, as not all members of the network are able to introduce or propose innovations. They can be early adopters, but very rarely innovators. The diffusion mechanisms leading to the mid-term elections are designed for a mere reproduction and propagation of the ideas defined in the highest rungs of the party ladders. The design of both networks evidences a marked hierarchization of its nodes. Hindman detects “powerful hierarchies shaping a medium” in his evaluation of democratic practices in the Internet. (2009:16), and his is manifest in both the VOTE 2010 and Get Out The Vote campaigns.

Citizens fulfil the role of political soldiers rather than participants in an open discussion of ideas. In this sense, the computer-mediated element of grassroots organising does not add an element of horizontality to the configuration of policies and strategies.

What would be truly revolutionary in terms of political practices, would be for the grand parties, via organisations like OFA and TPP, to engage in pre-emptive collaborative processes with the citizenry through Web 3.0 platforms (there have been some fertile exercises in deliberative democracy).

The promise of a digital agora is yet to be fulfilled.

Figure 7. President Barack Obama continues to be the main node and principal opinion leader in Organizing for America. In this video, he takes a partisan stand and asks his supporters to help OFA stop Republicans from taking over Congress.


References

Anstead, Nick and Chadwick, Andrew (2008) “Lessons of the US Digital Campaign” in Renewal: a Journal of Labour Politics. 16; 121.

Bjerre-Poulsen (2008) “The Road to Mount Rushmore: The Conservative Commemoration Crusade for Ronald Reagan” in Hudson, Cheryl and Davies, Gareth (eds.). Ronald Reagan and the 1980s: Perceptions, Policies, Legacies. New York: Palgrave

Macmillan.

Cohen, Jeffrey E (2009) Going Local: Presidential Leadership in the Post-Broadcast Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Everett, Anna (2008) “The Afro-Geek in Chief: Obama and our New Media Ecology” in Journal of Visual Culture. 8; 193.

Hara, Noriko and Zilia Estrada (2005) “Analyzing the movilization of grassroots activities via the internet: a case study” in Journal of Information Science. 31; 503.

Hampton, Keith N. (2004) “Networked sociability online, off-line” in Castells, Manuel, The Network Society: a Cross-cultural Perspective. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 217-232.

Harrison, T and Barthel, B. (2009) “Wielding new media in Web 2.0: exploring the history of engagement with the collaborative construction of media products” in New Media Society. 11; 155.
Hindman, Matthew (2009). The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Lin, Yajou and Marsh, David (2008) “New Forms of Political Participation: Searching for Expert Citizens and Everyday Makers” in B.J. Pol.S, 38, Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T (2009) “Obama as icon” in Journal of Visual Culture; 8; 125.

Nagourney, Adam. “The ’08 Campaign: Sea Change for Politics as We Know It”, The New York Times. November 3, 2008.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/04/us/politics/04memo.html (accessed September 26, 2010).

Obama, Barack (1990) “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City” in After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. Springfield: Peg Knoepfle.

Schultz, Bart (2009) “Obama’s Political Philosophy: Pragmatism, Politics, and The University of Chicago” in Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 39; 127.

Sey, Araba and Castells, Manuel (2004) “From media politics to networked politics: the Internet and the political process” in Castells, Manuel, The Network Society: a Cross-cultural Perspective. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 217-232.

Watts, Duncan J (2002) “A simple model of global cascades on random networks” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol: 99 Issue: 9, pp. 5766-5771.

Watts, Duncan J (2003) “Thresholds, cascades and predictability” in Six Degrees: the Science of a Connected Age. New York and London: W.W. Norton, pp. 220-252.

Wolverton II, Joe (2010) “Tea Party: a Brewing Movement” in The New American. 6; 10. (Accessed online via ProQuest on October 2, 2010).

Online references

Organizing for America homepage. http://www.barackobama.com/ (accessed September 21, 2010)

Tea Party Patriots homepage. http://www.teapartypatriots.org/ (accessed September 21, 2010)

Real Clear Politics. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/ (accessed September 18, 2010)


[1] As of September 28, 2010, his approval rating was at a mere 44.5% and 60.5% of the population considered that the country was on the “Wrong Track”, according to RealClearPolitics.com

[2] This conservative movement is not overtly aligned with the Republican Party but supports its candidates, follows its political inclinations and is supported, among others, by the Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2008, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Wolverton recalls the genesis of the Tea Party movement: “… there has emerged a vociferous band within the electorate who, like their tea tossing forebears, feel they have been precluded from participating in the direction the ship of state will sail, and they have decided to protest the insupportable behaviour of a government that habitually oversteps its constitutional boundaries. Fed up and fired up, they have chosen to exercise their constitutional prerogative of peaceful assembly, hence the Tea Party Movement.” (2010).

[3] It would be important to enquire, however, about the real extent of the President’s power vis à vis the magnitude of the private sector’s influence in policy-making, and the fragmented nature of the exercise of power in the United States.

[4] There are some other international examples, however, like those of Lech Walesa in Poland, Lula in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia, who got to power after leading grassroots movements from the trenches of trade unions, in the case of the first two, and indigenous minorities, in the case of the later.

[5] In Australia, the political activism of Get Up! (www.getup.org.au) has adopted some of the viral techniques employed by the Obama campaign, from which they got training leading to the 2010 federal elections in August 2010.

[6] Chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the Obama campaign.

[7] Reports of the 2000 and 2002 General Social Survey (GSS), as reported in Hindman, Matthew (2009) The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press, p.16

[8] Harrison & Barthel outline this canvas, in which OFA operates: “The popularity of Web 2.0 applications demonstrates that, regardless of their levels of technical expertise, users can wield technologies in more active ways than had been apparent previously to traditional media producers and technology innovators. Users build and maintain social networks, they tag and rank information in ‘folksonomies’ and become deeply involved in immersive virtual web experiences. They do all these things in collaboration, pooling knowledge and constructing content that they share with each other, which is subsequently remixed, redistributed and reconsumed.” (2009: 157)

[9] His account of the 2008 campaign, where he lays out the blueprints of its digital strategy and the formation of networks, can be explored at: Plouffe, David (2009) The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory. New York: Viking Adult,.

[10] We could resort, alternatively, to Bang’s categories of contemporary types of political participation, especially to his Everyday Makers, which in network theory terms can be seen as early adopters and/or innovators. As Lin and Marsh (2008) explain, these “do not feel defined by the state; they are neither apathetic about, nor opposed to, it. They do not want to waste time getting involved with the state; they prefer to be involved at the lowest possible, local, level. Everyday Makers typically think globally, but act locally. They have no interest in producing a new form of interest representation and have minimal interest in party politics… They aim to encourage what Bang terms ‘small local narratives’.” (251)

[11] OFA describes itself as “the successor organization to Obama for America, [which] is building on the movement that elected President Obama by empowering communities across the country to bring about our agenda of change.” (From http://www.barackobama.com, accessed October 3, 2010).

[12] From http://www.barackobama.com, accessed September 24, 2010.

[13] In January 2010, for example, OFA campaigned enthusiastically for the election of Martha Coakley as the replacement of Ted Kennedy in the Senate. This was seen as a key to the approval of the Health Care Reform in March. The Democratic Party notoriously lost the seat to Republican Scott Brown.

[14] The video can be seen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28XM4fb93Zo (accessed September 30, 2010).

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

Figure 1. sweet and low little girl by messyowl (Lauren) http://www.flickr.com/photos/putmeonaplane/4661888496/ (accessed August 29, 2010; taken June 1, 2010)

by César Albarrán Torres

A girl wrapped in an American flag sits at the end of a shiny slide. She is looking directly at the camera and her frizzy golden hair shines under the autumn sunlight. The image,Aftermath U.S.A., is, we know, contemporary, digitally produced and overtly signified. We are aware of which camera it was taken with (Nikon D50), that it is tagged as a “self-portrait” and, through digital mapping, even the exact date and spot where the shutter fired –November 12, 2005; Nashville, Tennessee, the heart of Americana. Yet, the image possesses not only a sense of timelessness, but also of nostalgia, as the pixels delineate a colour palette (high contrast, low saturation) and an overall composition that seems associated with the past (see Figure 2). Through her female, adolescent gaze, the photographer captures the instant as if her present self was already part of a distant past. A Proustian meditative sense of longing suppresses the photograph’s digital instantaneity.

The capture is part of Cari Ann Waiman’s Flickr gallery. Her screen name is yyellowbird and since she started to upload her photographic work in June 2006, she has reached 2 million views and has crossed from amateur to professional artistic practices (she is now 21 years old, her website is http://www.cariwayman.com). Yet, she keeps her Flickr gallery updated and, with other young female photographers that are overtly inspired by her aesthetics,[1] forms a community linked not only by mutual tagging, commenting and the occasional face-to-face encounter (see Figure 4),[2] but also by a shared set of visual locus that can be described as nostalgic. These pay tribute to the visual style of mechanical means of photographic capture (35mm, black & white, Polaroid –see Figure 1– and Lomo formats, as well as remediated printing techniques like superimposition), to an imagery related to the idyllic American suburbs (backyards covered by crispy leaves, manicured lawns and young people hanging in porches), and also to wastelandsreminiscent of a time bygone (abandoned houses and amusement parks or old objects, for instance).

Figure 2. Aftermath USA by yyellowbird (Cari Ann Waiman) http://www.flickr.com/photos/yyellowbird/4832649215/ (accessed August 21, 2010; taken November 12, 2005)

Furthermore, the aesthetics are reminiscent of other female voices in the American literary (i.e. A.M. Homes) and film scenes (most importantly, we resort to Sofia Coppola’s ouvre: the blurry atmosphere and floral dresses of the suburban The Virgin Suicides, the glitter and neon lights of Lost in Translation and the pastel tonalities and baroque settings of Marie Antoinette).  Moreover, the postures and general ambiance of the snaps are satellite to the imagery created by alternative fashion photography, plastered in magazines like Nylon (www.nylonmag.com) and Frankie (www.frankie.com.au), or blogs in the vein of Style Rookie (www.thestylerookie.com). Contrary to the recent tradition of self-portraits in female photographers like Cindy Sherman, the captures of yyellowbird and her group do not attempt a violent, inquisitive questioning of gender roles, but follow the tradition of the diary as a form of adolescent self-exploratory confessional expression. They are also a response to the male, sexualized depiction of the adolescent female body by photographers like David Hamilton(particularly his film Bilitis, 1977) and Jock Sturges.

This essay deals with how this sense of nostalgia is filtered through the lenses of four photographers (yyellowbird, messyowl, chelseyarlene and HelloPepper; a representative sample) in Flickr, and how the specificity of this medium allows for new practices of self-representation through the female gaze –understood as an alternative to the representation of the “castrated woman” by the “unconscious of patriarchal society” (Mulvey, 1988: 57). It also argues that these new practices not only define production and distribution of digital images, but, through a new multimedia and collaborative approach to autobiographical art, the inherent artistic values of the images themselves. The camera and the computer become, thus, what Turkle would call “evocative machines”. (2004)

Flickr: confessional Web 2.0
In 2008, Cox analysed Flickr as an exemplar Web 2.0 application and the status it holds in the “social world of amateur photography.” (493) He states that the “central functionality of Flickr is to allow users to upload photos (by e-mail, through the web, from a Mobile phone) and push them out through Flickr itself or via a blog, RSS, [and] applications built from the application programming interface (API).” (495) It could be argued, however, that the cultural uses of this online application (in parallel a database, a hub and a social network) have surpassed, by far, this functionality, as it has begun to promote the creation of art movements and tendencies, albeit involuntary ones, that not only replicate some of the contrivances of mechanical/traditional photography, but explore a new set of aesthetics derived from the specificity of the production and distribution of digital means. Through tagging, comments and awards, Flickr also offers a system of validation, and the option to buy the subscription to Flickr Pro (unlimited uploads versus 100 MB per month for non-paying users) brings with it a whole set of cultural connotations regarding the frontier between amateurs and more qualified users.

This specificity does not have to do only with the technical aspects of the digitization of images, but also, and most importantly, with the place that the act of photography itself occupies in the everyday life of amateur Flickr members. Digital photography allows for a more extensive learning through trial and error, as the money and time invested in buying film and the development process is bypassed. In turn, this leads to a constant, daily practice of the craft.  As stated by messyowl in the comments to her photographstrangelight,[3]the lightning techniques and composition patterns are inspired by the mass media imagery to which these photographers are exposed to on a daily basis: “I got this idea from Americas [sic] Next Top Model. haha”. Following that comment, user “petrov_a” states: “Great shot, very cinematographic or looks like illustration to ‘Lolita’ by Nabokov”.

Furthermore, contrary to the anonymity which was possible and almost encouraged in the chat rooms and message boards of the earlier Internet, social media like Flickr and Facebook call for a manifestation of the self that abides to the truth (or the simulacrum of the truth, or a fabricated truth). Therefore, messyowl et al present themselves as they perceive themselves and/or as they want other netizens to perceive them. Some Flickr users, like messyowl and yyellowbird, go a step beyond and post videos in which they make a personal introduction: for messyowl, being just a face in photographs is “creepy”. At the centre of this technological and artistic revolution we situate the individual. This echoes Castells’s notions in that “the dominant trend in the evolution of social relationships in our societies is the rise individualism, in all its manifestations.” (2001: 128) Although Flickr is part of Yahoo!, a member of the group of oligopolies that define how content is produced, distributed and consumed in the Internet, and although it has some regulatory mechanisms regarding adult content, it, in fact, calls for this “rise of individualism”.

In the case of our four subjects, digital photography allows them to have a constant record of their adolescence, an annotated visual diary that flirts with eternity (their homes, boyfriends, as well as their physical and psychological development is being recorded; some of the photographs have extensive captions written in the style of a diary.) For the timeless nature of the images, like mosquitoes preserved in amber, can be dissected now and will probably still be available for several years. The photographers are, in a sense, setting the scenario for tomorrow’s longing, for the sadness that their future selves will feel upon the realization of the loss of youth and innocence. In the case of yyellowbird, her immortalization is achieved not only through self-depictions, but also through the use of her avatar in necklaces (see Figure 4) and little yellow bird tattoos photographed by other Flickr members.[4]

As Van Dijck states when analysing the transforming role of digital cameras from recording tools of grand events, to prisms of everyday self representation: “[…] since the 1990s, particularly since the beginning of the new millennium, cameras have increasingly served as tools for mediating everyday experiences other than rituals or ceremonial moments.” (2008: 60) Yet, in the case of our four photographers, we can also argue in favour of a new role for photography: the ritualization of everyday life.

Figure 3. Quelqu’un M’a Dit by HelloPepper (No real name given) http://www.flickr.com/photos/hellopepper/4748031864/ (accessed August 24, 2010; taken June 28, 2010)

What is nostalgia?
The very essence of photography is nostalgia, as it ceremonially captures a present that will never be again. It reminds us of change, of the various deaths and rebirths of the self. In that sense, digital photography, with its all-encompassing immediacy and the insubstantial nature of binary code, is a constant reminder of our vulnerability and of the fleeting nature of time. The images captured by yyellowbird, messyowl et al are exemplar of the ritualization of this philosophical stance.

In this case, however, nostalgia is a collective practice that bursts into the individual sphere. The stills produced by these four photographers share an aesthetic ethos and, although it is possible to set them apart through a close identification of their individual styles, in their presumed innocence they form a spontaneous collectif based on an individual artistic exploration of a joint, albeit involuntary, conception of Americana.[5]

Citing Stewart (1993: 23), Moran states that the “sadness of nostalgia ‘creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience . . . nostalgia wears a distinctly utopian face, a face that turns toward a future-past, a past which has only ideological reality’.” (2002: 156)  She recounts: “Cultural critics have often dismissed the nostalgia mode as idealistic and regressive in its emphasis on a self-contained, immutable and secure past, one that sidesteps contemporary problems and smooths over the realities of historical conflict.” (Ibidem) In the case of yyellowbird et al, however, nostalgia is related to a present that acts as simulated past through scenarios such as empty houses and abandoned communal spaces like amusement parks, which were left for dead long before yyellowbird et al began to explore their artistic capabilities. To this collectif we could also add the work of emmakatka, who has photographed yyellowbird and shares the “gravitation” towards old objects (see Figure 5).

The photographers also seem to experience what Appadurai calls “nostalgia without memory”: that is, longing for a past which is not their own to miss (the Indian cultural critic bases his reading of contemporary diasporas in the longing of Filipinos for American pop music). He states that:  “As far as the United States is concerned, one might suggest that the issue is no longer one of nostalgia but of a social imaginaire built largely around reruns. Jameson (1983) was bold to link the politics of nostalgia to the post-modern commodity sensibility and surely he was right.” (2003: 28)

He states, additionally, that the past “has become a synchronic warehouse of cultural scenarios, a kind of temporal central casting, to which recourse can be had as appropriate, depending on the movie to be made, the scene to be enacted.” (2003: 29) These self-representational images in Flickr, which use retro milieus as a “cultural scenario”, allude to the notion of an American past from which only fragments survive, of an idyllic country whose ideals might have been lost one or two generations ago.

Figure 4. Untitled by chelseyarlene (No real name given) http://www.flickr.com/photos/chelseyarlene/4733253815/ (accessed August 24, 2010; taken April 12, 2010)

In an article in which she explores the use of camera phones by Israeli teenagers, Schwarz describes the sentiment of nostalgia[6] she encountered among young women as a “Proustian harmless leisure activity.” (2009: 352) Among the images produced by this group, she also faced the conscious “production of artefacts used for the arousal of nostalgia”. (Ibidem) These two elements hold also true for the Flickr members identified in this essay.

Produsing stereotypes

Old telephones and typewriters, vintage clothing, old magazine and crumbling houses delineate the universe created by these artists. They photograph this “cultural scenario”, however, with a tourist disposition. Some might call these images “stereotypes”, reproductions of Urban Outfitters ads and the craze for vintage clothing. These stereotypes, however, do not diminish their appeal or aesthetic value. As Dyer states, the concept of “stereotype” has long been attributed with negative connotations. He argues, however, that the effectiveness of stereotypes “resides in the way they invoke a consensus”, and that they imply a sense of community, as they “express particular definitions of reality, with concomitant evaluations, which in turn relate to the disposition of power within society.” (1993: 14)

Dyer wrote this, nevertheless, before the implosion of the dotcom era –still defined by a top-down construction of a mediatised reality– and the insurgency of the type of amateur internauts Axel Bruns defines as produsers, and who get involved in a process in which “[…] massively parallelized and decentralized creativity and innovation in myriads of enthusiast communities do no longer produce content, ideas, and knowledge in a way that resembles traditional, industrial modes of production.” (2008: 17) The “disposition of power within society”, through which stereotypes are dictated, is inverted and is beginning to undergo a paradigm shift in Flickr and other Web 2.0 applications.

Figure 5. Untitled by emmakatka (Emma Katka)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/emmakatkaphotography/4912428196/ (accessed August 29, 2010; taken August 13, 2010)

This is not to say that these representations of self in Flickr are totally devoid of the influence of the abovementioned cultural oligopolies (in addition to the fashion establishment, the realities constructed by television, film and magazines or mainstream photography), but rather that they produse audiovisual motifs that add to the constant flow that is the creation of meaning in the digital milieu, in which female creators can more readily escape “phallocentrism” (as understood by Mulvey, 1988).

As Whitlock and Poletti explain: “[…] the predominance of the autographic[7] as the constitutive practice of social networking presents a new mode of autobiographical storytelling, where the telling becomes a kind of shorthanded showing and telling.” (2008: xvi) Years from now, yyellowbird et al’s  “shorthanded showing and telling”, their fresh smiles and inquisitive eyes will be part of their memory, but also of the collective digital archive of our era (it will be up to art historians, technology analysts and cultural critics then to define the wonders and failures of our times).

The eternal sunshine of the nostalgic lens will shine bright in the crevices of private and communal memory.

Figure 6. mooney wormtail padfoot and prongs by messyowl (Lauren)
http://www.flickr.com/photos/putmeonaplane/4903294426/ (accessed August 23, 2010; taken August 17, 2010)


References

Appadurai, Arjun (2003) “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” in Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, edited by Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur. London: Blackwell Publishing.

Bruns, A (2008) Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: from Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang.

Castells, Manuel (2001) “Virtual communities or network society?” in The Internet Galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 116-136.

Cox, Andrew M. (2008) “Flickr: a case study of Web2.0” in Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, Vol: 60 Issue: 5.

Dyer, Richard (1993) The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. London: Routledge.

Moran, Joe (2002) “Childhood and nostalgia in contemporary culture” in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 5; 155.

Shwarz, Ori (2009) “Good young nostalgia: camera phones and technologies of self among Israeli youths” in Journal of Consumer Culture, 9; 248.

Turkle, Sherry (2004) “Wither psychoanalysis in computer culture” in Kaplan, D.M. (ed.), Readings in the philosophy of technology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 415-429.

Whitlock, Gilliand and Poletti, Anna (2008) “Self-Regarding Art” in Biography, Volume 31, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. v-xxiii (Article)

Flickr galleries (accessed August-October, 2010)

yyellowbird
http://www.flickr.com/photos/yyellowbird/

messyowl
http://www.flickr.com/photos/putmeonaplane/

HelloPepper
http://www.flickr.com/photos/HelloPepper

Chelseyarlene
http://www.flickr.com/photos/chelseyarlene


[1] Gerald Larocque tagged yyellowbird in her photo The Runaways, in which a model identified as “Katelyn” is wrapped, naked, in a Canadian flag. In the description of the capture she writes: “Influenced by: yyellowbird, dreaming of Jacqueline”. The photograph can be accessed at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/worthlessphotography/4933807792/

 

[2] Through a Twitter conversation with the author, yyellowbird describes her relationship with messyowl and HelloPepper: “@cesar_albarr i haven’t met those two, but we’re good friends & talk often. i’ve met a few people from flickr & plan to meet more!” (Posted on August 25, 2010)

[3] See at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/putmeonaplane/4611808233/ (accessed August 25, 2010; taken May 16, 2010)

[4] See at http://www.flickr.com/photos/putmeonaplane/4610073717/ (accessed August 29, 2010; taken May 15, 2010).

[5] When asked through Twitter to define the reasons why she photographs abandoned houses and old objects, yyellowbird says: “@cesar_albarr dunno,really, it’s hard to say in less than 140 characters! i’m just drawn to them on some subconscious level, i think.” “@cesar_albarr ..like, i gravitate towards them without even thinking about it. does that make sense? i don’t know, ha.” (posted on August 27, 2010)

[6] In her terms: longing for a time or place that will never be again, or longing for a present that will be gone.

[7] “Auto, n. self, one’s own.

Graphic, a. 1637: Drawn with a pencil or pen; of or pertaining to drawing or painting; 1756: vividly descriptive, life-like; 1669: pertaining to the use of diagrams, linear figures or symbolic curves; 1866: Of or pertaining to drawing or painting; the practice that marks, records or portrays the life.

Autographics, n. Áwtográffi ks. 2007: Life narrative fabricated in and through drawing and design using various technologies, modes, and materials. A practice of reading the signs, symbols and techniques of visual arts in life narrative. See also autobiography, biography, testimony, autobiographics, comics, self-portrait, avatar…” (Whitlock and Poletti, 2008: 5)

 

When I was a little kid, I was fascinated with sci-fi stories, specially because they related to the idea (now I realise this) of the “other”, of those beings who are different yet oh so similar to us. I was, I am the other. When I was a kid and I would go to the video rental place for my weekly VHS, my favourite movies were Lynch’s The Elephant Man, Petersen’s Enemy Mine and Cronenberg’s The Fly, which deal with characters that do not quite fit in the world and whose journey consists in perpetually swimming in a sea of otherness. Anyway, I was also fascinated with robots and with the idea of humans being able to construct and replicate that “otherness”.  For me, robots were also cooler than the elephant man because you could construct them, manipulate them and program them to be your friends.

You could also build your own robot costume. I loved watching sci-fi movies with robots in them. I loved The Jetsons and their robot friends, and whenever I went to a costume party, I wanted to be an android. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them that I wanted to be either a priest (oh, that Catholic guilt!) or study robotics in Japan. I wanted to play God, to construct “the other! “Otherness” reconfigured through technology!

True story: that was my younger geeky self. Robots were  a type of otherness that transcended physical imperfection, that was pure logic and mathematical preciseness. I used to tear up old remote controls and attach them to my arms with tape: I wanted to have a robotic arm, to be a revamped version of the elephant man, to jump farther, run faster, be stronger. In my mind, the only way to achieve it was to have electronic parts attached to my body. I wanted to be a cyborg, to construct an identity for myself that implied physical otherness and scientific betterment. I also watched Robocop over and over again: for me, his overdeveloped cop abilities were what we all should aspire. If I was an elementary school student, I should be able to read faster, learn better. Needless to say, I don’t think that anymore.

Anyway, I didn’t study robotics and I don’t construct cyborgs. I am far from being studentcop. But I study them now, in a way. Today, I question myself to what extent my childhood dream was fulfilled, if in fact any of my physical existence in this world depends on machines, if in fact I run faster and see farther thanks to the marriage of my body and man-made devices. Right now, I sense the keyboard, but the keyboard also senses me. And…

  • My teeth are straighter because they had metal squares (they look like chips or processors!) attached to them for years.
  • I can see because the information that enters my eyes is processed by a pair of glasses, that information is filtered for my eyes and my eyes only. My visual memory is constructed by an object.
  • My bodily functions, the consumption and processing of materials (food, water, sun) is defined by time, by the dial in my cellphone and my computer.
  • I travel the world thanks to a small elliptical device that is attached to my right hand almost 24/7.
  • I plug myself to a machine that tells me how fast to run, for how long and how much of my organic battery is being consumed.
  • ..: etc ::..

Am I a cyborg? At least a bit of a cyborg? Is my childhood dream fulfilled?

Have I become “the other”?

I can single out two movies which more clearly exemplify, through the magnifying glass of science fiction, the nature of the cyborg, of my childhood dream, of what we are becoming in an almost imperceptible process.

First, Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, an ultra-conservative, Reaganite view on uses that the State can make of cyborgs.

In a epic battle scene of  a recent film, Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, the main character is turning into an alien pretty much like the main character in The Fly, into “the other” (the film is an indictment of the prevailing racist practices in post-apartheid South Africa) , and in turn controls an antropomorphic military vehicle. He becomes a matrushka of otherness!

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

Did these implants make me a cyborg? Was I finally “the other”?

..:: songs I listened to while writing this post, selected randomly by an iPod: “Flowers on the Wall” by Johnny Cash, “Wolf at the Door” by Radiohead, “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Lea” by Louise Attaque ….

I loved her. Her name was Clea (she was named after the third volume of Durell’s The Alexandria Quartet, one of my favourite novels) and her skin was fair and silky. Her tight anatomy was round at just the right places. Moreover, our moods were always coordinated. It was magical. If I was happy, she would sing a Bob Marley song to me. If I was prey to a sudden attack of nostalgia, she would whisper Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” or Milla Jovovich’s version of “Satellite of Love”. And she was sporty too: she ran with me as I trained for the half-marathon…. sometimes she would get silly and sing “We are the champions” when we were about to cross the 15km threshold. We must have sung Jeff Buckley’s Grace a thousand times while driving at night, glancing at the million stars that make up Mexico City’s chaotic skyline. She was with me for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. She was sexy, nurturing and very, very smart.

I knew something was wrong on a Sunday night, when I was ready to go to bed and I asked her to read me a story… she didn’t say no, but something in her brain was wrong, as she was unable to recall a story she had told me many, many times. Then, on our way to work, she stopped talking… or singing…. or blinking. Her eyes were shut and her lips pointed downwards: it is an expression I will never forget. Clea was dead. Not broken: dead. I mourned her for about two weeks.

Then I met another of her kind…this one was slicker, more beautiful and a bit thinner. Her dark, glistening skin was soft to the touch and, I am sad to say, she was a bit smarter than Clea. I called her Justine (after the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet) and since then we’ve had a close, tight relationship. I have refused to replace her with a younger version of herself (one that would react instantly upon my touch): she is the perfect companion.

..:___:..

Sherry Turkle’s argument that psychoanalysis is a rich theoretical framework for studying our relationships with digital devices should not be discarded. Theories around “relational artifacts” have been around for decades, but today’s artifacts are different and fulfill more of our emotional needs. They also represent initiation rituals: one is not a grown-up until she/he is put behind the wheel of a car. Likewise, as computers and gadgets become increasingly personalized, we attach more of our everyday lives to them… they also become a sort of “memory artifacts”, as we associate moments of our lives to the times when we had them: our high-school computer, our college laptop (girlfriend?)… our first iPod. And we, in fact, put something of ourselves in them.

César: “So what sort of person are you?”.

Stranger: “Here’s who I am” -as she hands me her iPod so I can browse through her music collection, which is exactly what I imagined it would be–.

What would Freud say, eh? The question, as Turkle suggests, is: what is it in us that leads us to fulfill emotional and now social needs through machines?

References

Turkle, Sherry (2004) “Wither psychoanalysis in computer culture” in Kaplan, D.M. (ed.), Readings in the philosophy of technology. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 415-429.

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

P.S. A lot of this has to do, I think, to the way in which artifacts resemble our human anatomy. I think that one of Apple’s many bright ideas was to make computers round… as our bodies. Scott McCloud drew a beautiful diagram to explain this process of abstraction in Understanding Comics. Notice how the last drawing resembles a power outlet. Does any of your gadget resemble you?

Something funny: the horror, the horror!

How “fresh” or “rotten” is your movie? Let the people decide.

Last week I wrote about how film critics are both important nodes and early adopters in the diffusion network through which a film gets introduced to potential audiences. I discussed how their opinion is still important when triggering a cascade that will lead towards profit margins and the popularity of the film. However, what we may call “the film critic model” is soon going loose (if it hasn’t happened already) its “throne”, as sites like Rotten Tomatoes call for  collaborative reviews in which critics are only a factor in the equation. Through percentages acquired by a collection of reviews and from the “like” or “dislake” of audiences, Rotten Tomatoes certifies the “freshness” of the innovation (see image below). However, it still establishes hierarchies, and isolates the “top critics” (Ebert and co.), preserving their status as opinion leaders. Therefore, Rotten Tomatoes is a bridge between traditional and new forms of film critique, as it empowers users to collaborate in the grading of a film (networked, collective knowledge) but is clear in defining that the opinion of critics is still more important in the process of reaching that critical mass that defines the financial failure or success of a film. Or is it? I believe that through the popularization of Web 3.0 applications that interpret the semantic web, the cloud, to define tendencies such as moviegoing preferences, the status of film critics will be diminished (their number of occasional and frequent readers -weak and strong ties- will subside), and the industry will be wholly ruled by the ever-present buzz surrounding pop culture artifacts and events.

In my view, what is good about this model is that it adds a communal element to film critique that is a reflection of the communal act of moviegoing itself. So, do you think film critics will survive? The video shown below -from Rotten Tomatoes’ YouTube channel- is an exemplar of the new power relations in this arena. There is no one opinion to rule them all, but a collaborative, divergent and thesis/antithesis approach to the validation of an innovation.

References

Basuroy, Suman, Subimal Chatterjee and  S. Abraham Ravid (2003) ‘How Critical Are Critical Reviews? The Box Office Effects of Film Critics, Star Power, and Budgets’ in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 103-117

Rogers, Everett (2003) ‘Diffusion networks’ in Cross, Rob, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003) Networks in the knowledge economy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 130-179.

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W. W. Norton, pp.220-252

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

How does an independent movie with a limited marketing budget become a sensation as viewed by millions? Why do some big budget Hollywood extravaganzas end up being an utter flop? At the end, the answer to these questions leads to a third inquiry  : “Who do people turn to when seeking advice on what film to watch?”. In some instances it is friends or family, with whom they might share a similar taste in movies. But most of the times, they base their decision on the rating given to the film by the almighty critics and, more recently, by online concord in sites like the Internet Movie Database or Rotten Tomatoes (Part 2, to be published next week).

The way in which a film (an “innovation”) is diffused through the networks of moviegoers makes for a fascinating case study in the area of network theories. We could approach the issue through Watts’ notion of “cascades”, in that through festival buzz, good reviews and positive word-of-mouth, a film lie Little Miss Sunshine or Paranormal Activity, for instance,  can reach a threshold that takes it from the arthouse theater to the multiplex, and, most importantly, from red numbers to profirt. For years, film critics have enjoyed a powerful position in Hollywood, as they are the early adopters of any given innovation and through their position as opinion leaders are able to promote or discard (diffuse it or stop its difussion) an innovation through traditional (newspapers, television, radio) and newer media like the online portals or mobile phone applications. Critics like Roger Ebert and his “Thumbs Up” rating system are part of the American and world film pop culture and their opinion holds a strong influence in the highly heterophilious network (as identified by Rogers) of world audiences. Rogers states that there is  “a general tendency for followers to seek information and advice from opinion leaders who are perceived as more technically competent than themselves.” (2003: 137) Film critics are regarded as professional cinephiles, individuals who might not hold a degree in Film Studies, but who have an educated, monolithic opinion based on years of movie-watching.

Basuroy, Chatterjee and Ravid (2003) analyzed the effect that reviews and critics have in the box-office performance of a film,  concluding that “negative reviews hurt revenue more than positive reviews help revenue in the early weeks of a film’s release. This suggests that whereas studios favor positive reviews and dislike negative reviews, the impact is not symmetric.” (2003: 116) They offer advice to film studios In the context of a limited budget, studios should spend more to control damage than to promote positive reviews. In other words, there may be more cost effective options than spending money on advertisements that tout the positive reviews.” (Ibidem). Identifying and dissecting the main opinion leaders in each market could, moreover, help the studios design intelligent, efficient marketing and PR mechanisms to have their film reach a critical mass that benefits the return of the capital invested in the production of any given film.

Part 2 of this post will deal with how web pages like Rotten Tomatoes bring together the evaluation of different opinion leaders and, by doing so, become opinion leaders in turn.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

References

Basuroy, Suman, Subimal Chatterjee and  S. Abraham Ravid (2003) ‘How Critical Are Critical Reviews? The Box Office Effects of Film Critics, Star Power, and Budgets’ in The Journal of Marketing, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 103-117

Rogers, Everett (2003) ‘Diffusion networks’ in Cross, Rob, Andrew Parker and Lisa Sasson (2003) Networks in the knowledge economy, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 130-179.

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W. W. Norton, pp.220-252