Blogs and Documentary (all middle)

Well, that was the title I gave myself for my part of the panel I participated on last week at Ozdox in Sydney. I had a presentation with pretty pictures and text, but here I’m just pulling out the points and embellishing a bit. It is long (around 2000 words).

Blogs are Documentaries
This was my opening point and I pretty much left it at that. Blogs (real blogs, not those corporate things that use blogs as delivery engines in the faint hope that they’ll gain some street cred by being ‘bloggy’ – much like filming your ad in black and white because, you know, it’s more real) are personal come essay documentaries. They’re what would happen if Ross McElwee was a computer nerd and not a doco nerd. They are non fiction, up to a point, and they document. They have a voice, a point of view, and they seek to communicate. Sometimes just to document, but mostly there is a view in there somewhere. Like a good essay film blogs mix our multiple voices. So a blog contains posts in different languages, the voice of the teacher, then over there it’s the parent, and here it is the academic practitioner, and so on. Sort of documentary with thick description accruing through serialisation (and so time).

Obviously blogs started out as primarily textual (though photoblogs were pretty much happening at the same time as text blogs) but now it is trivial to include images, audio and video within a blog. It is not much harder to also syndicate your video or audio (pod and video casting). However, it might be useful to remember that text still rules here. You need to be able to play around a bit with code to make most of these things happen. None of it is very complicated, but underneath all blogging, of all flavours, remains some very basic text.

The next point about blogs as documentaries, which I’ll probably repeat, is that blogs gather audiences over time (assuming they are active). They absolutely are a serial form, just like Mr Dicken’s figured out and so really well suited to televisual storytelling since television has long understood and successfully developed serial narrative forms extending from the 30 second commercial through to the mini-series (with the soap opera remaining exemplary – this is pretty much my paper at the recent AoIR conference in Brisbane). The point of difference for the traditional documentary maker is to recognise that to use a blog as documentary, and not just to use the blog to promote or document a documentary that is happening and being realised elsewhere, is that you are not making a large single work, but a progressively evolving and emerging work. So imagine 2 minutes of finished footage a week being distributed via the blog, with commentary, with blog posts about the project, progress, etc. You could still recut all this for the TV 55 minute form, but just think of all that footage you get in documentary that ends up on the floor. Not any more.

Now, if blogs are documentaries then this raises all sorts of problems for ‘real’ documentary film makers. The first one is that, outside of television (which might appear big but is a very minor way for your work to be seen, traditionally broadcast once and then gone), it is not clear how documentary will be commissioned in the future because of the rise of these other forms. If anyone out of media school can now use a domestic camera to shoot, edit and now distribute their work, what makes your work different? YouTube should demonstrate that for much work it is not ‘professional’ production values (whatever they are, since most seem to assume a particular Hollywood aesthetic there). The point is not whether your work is good, it is how will it separate itself from all the other good work that is now being produced by amateurs? (One answer is niche expertise. Documentaries for TV must work for a mass audience, documentaries online do not.)

Be Distributed
This is a mantra that needs to be stenciled across the top of your editing screen. Blogs are distributed. They are made up of small, loosely joined parts. Just like shots in a film as they lie there in the trim bin. Because of this it is trivial to rejoin them into new sets of arrangements. It is called editing. But the difference that blogs introduced (the difference that makes a difference) is that these loose parts stay loose after publication. This is not the case with a traditional documentary film, where once published it is treated as one big lump. Blogs are lumpy all the time, and each lump (a post) makes some sort of reasonable sense all by itself – much like most shots in a documentary still make some sort of sense by themselves.

This thing about things being in parts is the very heart of the web. I put photos in flickr, but there they stay as individual photos. From there I can blog them, turn them into slideshows, and of course find other’s photos. I can even participate in creative collaborations. Since most of my photos have specific creative commons rights attached to them, others can use them too. Remember what is stenciled across your editing screen (you did do that didn’t you?), the photos stay as single photos even though they are now tagged by me and others, turn up in my blog, form archives, slideshows, and so on. Their granularity is not broken through publication. The same applies for video and audio. This is what is meant by user generated content, which does not just mean a mountain of wannabe’s pumping out their content (a loud shout of “me!”) but it is also a willingness to share this and to rework and build with each other’s material.

So, if you want to work natively on the web, in this ‘space’ (it isn’t really a space, it is defined more strongly by temporality than spatiality – much like cinema) your work needs to support and survive this sort of use.

(Which doesn’t mean you can’t use the web to distribute your finished work. It is a brilliant way to get round the lack of a screen for your content. But keep in mind that that is what we call “shovelware”. You are making old media and piggybacking that onto the net as a distribution device. It is not making a documentary on the web, or a webbed documentary. While I’m at it, keep in mind here I’m writing about blogs and documentary, not interactive documentary. Different kettles of fish.)

This is simple to do, particularly if you were to publish your work in small parts regularly. These parts might be used by others in different ways (if you like, but realise people will, regardless of what you ask). It also means that this particular blog post, as an example, does not do this. If I were writing this for my blog, and not to document a larger activity, then I’d actually treat this as at least 3 blog posts, one for each of what the headings inside the post. Why? Because this gives me more content (same words, but more posts, much like choosing to shoot in a long take, or having several set ups, if you only have one long take you don’t have many edit options, do you?), but it also makes it easier for othres to use my material. People might want to comment and pick up just one key idea, but now that this one post is over 2000 words how on earth would you link to that one idea inside such a big chunk?

Video to the Web today is as Books were to the Web in 1995
Becoming a recent scratched record on this one. In the mid 90s writers and publishers were beginning to take notice of the web. There was a whole pile of activity around ebooks, ebook imprints, and ebook readers. Stephen King even tried to write a serialised story on the basis that readers would pay for it. Most of these are only memories now. Now, this is not because the world was not ready for ebooks, or any other nonsense. It is that books aren’t a very good model for what makes compelling content and uses in networked environments. Blogs, which are text centric and have exploded in a manner that probably outstrips the Web itself for growth, clearly demonstrate that people are willing and able to handle a lot of text online. It just isn’t in one place in one chunk.

Now, the other side of the same mid 90s problem is that the authors who started coming to the web did so as authors. They wrote large sorts of things (novellas, novels and so on) and so saw the web as a delivery medium. That’s right, more shovelware. I write this thing over here (probably in Word), then I can distribute it as a, oh, pdf, that’s cool. It still looks like a book and everything! It works, but you’re not in the web, you’re just harnessing some bandwidth find a way to distribute some old media content. Again, nothing wrong with that, just don’t be surprised when not a lot actually happens around that content (and let’s face it, not a lot actually did, how many ebook readers do you see on the train each morning?).

(I recently saw some commentary about ebooks coming back on the rise of the iPod. I don’t know how much these executives get paid but they really should be handing some of that money back to somebody, or donating it to a charity that actually does good. The problem with this is that it still has the old media content model. Doesn’t matter how much you sex it up, it is still mutton dressed as lamb, and as every Gen Y business guru worth their speakers fee knows, your audience is a media savvy lot not particularly fond of mutton.)

This is where video on the web is now. Existing media companies and practitioners who are busy making big chunked media (tv half and hour content) are looking at ways to distribute this online. Now, this will half work. After all with a video iPod or even with some hardware in the loungeroom I can download some content and watch it. However there is nothing in that model that causes anyone to pause and to rethink the actual object itself, what video or TV might be when it is actually a networked object, or a network native event. Just as text online moved from big chunks to the highly granular, densely linked blog form, expect to see the same happen with audiovisual content. YouTube is a small first step, but still lacks the things that really shift video into being networked video.

For example, imagine video that could talk to the same trackback engine as text in our blogs so that my video could ping your video because my video is quoting or mentioning (discussing?) something about your video. Or including a time based link inside a video, over only a small part of the video, so that my video can then link to other material in the same way that we take it for granted with text. Or even if, just like quotation, I could quote some of your video inside of my own video. Each of these are small things to do. They might not even be the right things to do. But each is trivial to implement right now, all of the technologies exist, the impediment is that there are no simple software tools to allow this, (eZediaQTi gets close but not quite, eZediaMX might).

To make documentary content like this is to work differently. It is not only a move to digital practice, nor is it just a move to the web. It is the next step where your practice is not on the web as in the web. If you like, a banal (and historically inaccurate) analogy is to think about early cinema and its penchant for filming static tableau of stage plays. This we all recognise as a new media (cinema) not knowing itself and so simply recording an old media (plays). Today we work in cinema, not on it. So to move to the web is a similar shift. It is a change is practice which changes content, modes of production, and consumption. The forms are different. They become plural, remixed, granular. Things don’t have an end. They are woven from distributed parts. And if you’re a professional in the field of documentary, the thing that separates your content from someone elses will not be the lighting, or the quality of camera work (that will help, but they’re criteria that at the end of the day are really only judged as a value by other professionals) it will be the quality of the distributed media experience you provide.