Pragmatics of Definitions (“Dad, what is a videoblog?”)

Enric has recently proposed the following definition of a videoblog:

Videoblog: Video in a blog format with entries in reverse chronological order that can be syndicated for distribution. The creation and distribution of the videoblog entries are personally controlled by the videoblogger(s) without approval required from any media gatekeeper.

The videoblogging list has had various goes at debating the definition of videoblogging. So much so that one of the rationales for establishing the videoblogging theory list was to move the discussions somewhere else, and I guess to also sharpen it a bit more. The most recent effort seems to have been sparked by the personality clash dash crisis that became RocketBoom 1.0. So, let’s think about Enric’s definition.

1. Well, it says you need to have video, within a blog. That makes sense. What does that simple statement imply? For example does it matter how much video there is in the blog? Do 50% of posts need to be video? Less? More? What about if I only made one video post a month, but it was really long – quantity of content making it more video than text?

And what does ‘video’ mean. Since outside of the computer video pretty much refers to a medium of recording and image production that produces a continuous signal (television, video art, and so on), so that the hallmark of video is that it occupies current time (hence television’s ability to be ‘live’ and cinema’s fascination with memory). But on the computer, as most of my research and practice explores, this is no longer the case. In QuickTime I can have a soundtrack with a single image track, which technically is one frame of image that is held ‘still’ by QuickTime as the soundtrack plays. I can make a slide show, in QuickTime, and while it might have .mov as a file name at what point is it ‘video’? Similarly I can make a presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote and publish that as QuickTime, is it now ‘video’? If so, and I published all my lectures as .movs in my teaching blog, is that now a video blog? Why?

Now, I don’t have a problem with saying that a videoblog needs to have video in a blog. Not to say that would be, well, asinine. My point with the questions is not to say it doesn’t work as a definition, though it does point out that definitions, by definition, must be pragmatic. For example if I said I’m going to a movie tonight, we have a pragmatic sense about what that object (and activity) may involve. Projection, screen, possibly public venue but I can also watch it at home (or on an iPod). We still, at the moment, call it a movie. So it has a particular length, uses recording and reproductive technologies for image and sound, is reproducible and so requires some form of playback which is separate from the time of production (which is also one of the differences between video and film). Similarly if I said I’m reading a book. For each of these we could tease out the definitions (since book actually means a serially organised page, print and graphic based fiction or nonfiction work that requires a specific act of hermeneutic reading to use), which is why we can pragmatically ‘read’ our street directories but we don’t call them ‘books’ (though they meet much of the material criteria – pages, covers, printed, and so on).

Lost my thread. Definitions need to be pragmatic. If you push any definition they break. (This is an issue in speciation – at what point does species A become species B? In science this is based on empirical data, the problem is that our ability to ‘see’ differences now includes statistical models based on any variables you like so in some cases you can no longer distinguish species in the field.) So to say a videoblog needs video in a blog seems to me pretty much it. Which brings us to:

2. “without approval required from any media gatekeeper”. Here things break way too easily. This is a definition that moves away from the material content of the medium towards a social or cultural definition. This does not work. Espen Aarseth has often made the point (informally as far as I know) that media are easily defined by their media, film is film, a book is a book (his problem was that this didn’t work for games). Now, while a definition needs to be pragmatic, so that when I say “I videoblog” there is some consent about what I (and others) might do or think we do, but a definition also needs to be specific enough so that it does not also easily describe other activities. And that’s the problem here.

The use of a term like ‘gatekeeper’ goes straight to old skool media and communication theory, and prejudges media as that which has a gatekeeper. Media is not this, some media institutions and forms utilise gatekeeping, but this is not inherent to media as a practice or institution, and so relies on the pragmatic meaning of ‘media’ to mean mass media. But that is not the problem. I can self publish a novel, a poem, exhibit a painting, or produce my own magazine, all outside of traditional old media gatekeeping. It isn’t even a feature of video, where with home video and vcrs it has been trivial for many years to film whatever you wish (which is why cheap semi professional video equipment was a boon to pornography and erotic media makers – amateur and professional). The difference that makes a difference is simply that what you make can now be internationally distributed, which of course is enormous change, but has nothing to do with gatekeeping.

A second problem with the role of gatekeeper is to recognise that it includes not only a professional editorial role which judges professional ‘standards’ but also of course acts in terms of legal constraints. Now, with videoblogging there is no lessening of the legal requirements of being a media publisher, just because you’re online you are not immune from the general media laws and restrictions that apply to other media. In other words the regime of copyright, libel, slander and other relevant laws still apply, and are still, in that sense, gatekeeping. Of course in my context, where I teach at a university and have students videoblogging (and/or podcasting) gatekeeping is essential – I, and the university would be liable if they breach these laws and were prosecuted, yet these students still a) videoblog successfully, and b) produce personal content. Which would indicate that the second half of Enric’s definition is just wrong.

Begs the question of what would my definition of videoblogging be. But I’ll leave that for another time, this has gone on way long enough!

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