Category Archives: Digital Society

Digital Society – A New Hope? Comments on the assessment of contemporary culture in times of digitization

What differentiates our present society from other societal arrangements existing before? What is distinctive about the time and world we live in today? What characterises the mood of our time?

Digital technologies paired with well-worn modern notions of progress and rationalization. The focal point, it seems, around which many understandings of our present society unfold today. An apparent need and desire for new narratives guiding our futures. A desire for rest and existential protection. Sounds just like the good old times of early globalization that started losing the traditional decades ago (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002, Giddens 2002).

Well, I believe this obviously comes with little surprise. No society is distinct from the past upon which it emerged. Not distinctive but disjunctive societies. Like two spheres that partially overlap; still the same thing however slightly different at the same time. Yet still, how do we fully understand and grasp onto this blurry difference between yesterday and today?

The vital question here is how and where to make marks on the linear scale of time for comparison. Dirk Baecker (2018) does so in a media historical view, comparing modern societies and the invention of the printing press with contemporary societies and electronic media. What is decisive for our time is hence the move from an excess of critique that the printed word allowed to an excess of control that electronic media created. In this comparison, we realize that we no longer experience time as a clearly set arrow pointing towards the future, rather live in an iterative process of the future collapsing and attempts of building it up again. Reclaiming control over time hence becomes an exhaustive, political struggle. Where we once were integrated based on history, on our past and traditions, we are today based on an uncertain future.

Once a space of stability, today a field of contingency. We live in a constant state of nothing seeming to be impossible anymore while also nothing appears to be necessary. Everything could have happened otherwise. Our life taking place in what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2010, 2013, 2014) describes as broad present. The future a daunting horizon of ecological struggles and catastrophes coming towards us. The past unavoidably omnipresent with seemingly no new history coming about. Nothing moves except the ever broadening present. A present that breaks with linear conceptions of time.

We simultaneously live in two temporalities. On the one side, linear historical time (still the primary domain of politics or the humanities) in which we seek to learn from the past to in an imperceptible short present act towards and anticipate the future (that’s the historicist version of Rene Descartes’ I think, therefore I am). As Reinhart Koselleck (1985) outlined in his historical analysis of the period between 1780 and 1830, it is on the ground of the institutionalization of this linear historical time, which we confused with time itself, that modernity sat (see obviously Michel Foucault’s ‘Les mots et les choses’ here too). And it is such confusions that clouded our view from what really is or at last could be happening today that was not there yesterday.

This today, on the other side, takes place in the temporality of a broad present (the primary domain in which we live our everyday life). It is not, still following Gumbrecht here, an imperceptible short present, but rather an ever broadening one. This partial break with modernity hence gave rise to new experiences of time and accordingly our body (yet also new ways of trying to govern it). Where we once only needed to be wielders of symbols, we are now ever more often, in a perceptible present, reminded that we are also human beings of flesh and blood (Wacquant 2015). This is obviously the more formal and academic version of what started with 1960s counterculture movements and now has become integrated into the foundation of our cultures in imperatives of ‘live in the now’ and ‘be creative’. More broadly speaking institutionalized in a general aestheticization (Reckwitz 2017) and gamification of society (Sicart 2013). The creation of ever more objects whose main intention is to appeal to our senses and feelings (something which before was primarily left open to the arts).

So, how do we approach and understand this present and new human condition we, and this is important, hence caps, ALSO live in today? For instance, Andrew Abbott (1988, 2007, 2014) argued that the prevalence of general linear modelling techniques in the social sciences, the dominance of social theories based on the assumption of scarcity opposed to the one of excess, and the sociological persistence on narrative opposed to lyrical analysis hindered us to differently view and imagine the social process. Leaving us focused on a mess of ill applicable tools at hand to imagine and enact new futures for our human condition that today is a simultaneity of different temporalities.

This is not to say that we need to fundamentally reinvent the tools upon which we engage and understand our present times. Most of these tools already exist. Yet we need to arrange our methodologies, our analytical view differently. Tackling the task of understanding and imaging better futures, given the simultaneity that characterises our present human condition, requires a twofold movement. We need, again caps, because this is important, NOT ONLY follow approaches of for example Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias (2018), who seek to learn from the past to imagine better alternatives to the capitalist exploitation and manipulation that arises through increasing datafication, BUT ALSO the ones of for example Sonia Livingstone (2018), who asks us to take seriously experiences people make within and beyond such contexts. We need to institutionalize, as Anna Tsing (2015) argues, not a new political economy but an arts-of-noticing. Sharpen our view to recognize and trace the associations that already make possible the emergence of new and desirable lifeways in our contemporary capitalist ruins.

An earlier version of this piece was published at blogs.ed.ac.uk

Abbott, A. (1988). Transcending General Linear Reality. In Sociological Theory, 6(2), 169-186.
Abbott, A. (2007). Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology. In Sociological Theory, 25(1), 67-99.
Abbott, A. (2014). The Problem of Excess. In Sociological Theory, 32(1), 1-26.
Baecker, D. (2018). 4.0 oder die Lücke die der Rechner lässt. Leipzig: Merve.
Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002). Individualization. Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences. London: Sage.
Couldry, N. and Mejias, U.A. (2018). Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject. In Television & New Media, 1-14.
Giddens, A. (2002). Runaway World. How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives. London: Profile.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2010). Our Broad Present. Time and Contemporary Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2013). After 1945. Latency as Origin of the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2014). All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present. Shulman Lecture Series in Science and the Humanities, April 8, Yale University.
Koselleck, R. (1985). Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time. New York: Columbia University Press.
Livingstone, S. (2018). Audiences in an age of datafication: critical questions for media research. In Television and New Media, 1-14.
Reckwitz, A. (2017). The Invention of Creativity. Modern Society and the Culture of the New. Cambridge: Polity.
Sicart, M. (2013). Play Matters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Tsing, A.L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wacquant, L. (2015). For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood. In Qualitative Sociology, 38, 1-11.

What does the algorithm miss? On the organization and valuation of short-video contents as sites of rest

Vine was a video hosting service that allowed people to create and share six-second long looping videos. Founded in 2012, immediately acquired by Twitter, it announced its end-of-service in late 2016. During that four-year period, Vine managed to gain an active user base of 200 million. However, it was outperformed by innovations from competitors and lacked monetization options hindering a commercial success.

Yet, despite Vine’s ‘failure’, short-video contents still have a major presence today (see for instance the rapid growth of ByteDance’s TikTok). Henceforth, looking where these 200 million Vine users, their cultural contents and practices went, I’ll comment on the following questions: What’s the allure and value of short-video contents? How is their value proposition assessed and organized both community and platform sided?

One place people went and gathered old Vines in montages is YouTube. And as you can see by YouTube’s search suggestions for the query ‘vines that’, a popular way to title such montages, they are often associated with some sort of integral quality of life. The titles being deictic gestures towards Vines, a totality of six-second long videos, that affect or have affected one in the past.

Yet in how these titles are deliberately over-staged, the importance Vines can have is both questioned and reinforced in that mere act of questioning. Which corresponds to the overall leisurely and comedic style inherent to Vines. The central mood appearing to be one of a present liveliness. They continuously move towards the edge of becoming something larger, something historically more significant than life itself whilst reassuring that they are just another present moment in time. Watching Vines is a movement that covers no distance. It’s an experience of life that doesn’t need anything more to itself than itself.

And I think we can only fully understand this experience once we establish an ‘embodied vision’ as meaningful approach to audio-visual contents. For does the allure and value of these short-video contents, I argue and observe, emerge in their affective nature. In requiring an embodied vision, the implication into their presence and rhythms, rather than classical ‘reading’, our attentive selection of relevant information from an interfacing surface through cognitive and conscious faculties.

Why is this important? Through the lens of reading we are still able to account for the value of Vines that are ‘edits’ (re-cuts and remixes of existing contents) or ‘skits’ (short, staged comedic sketches). However, we can do so less for Vines that are ‘clips’ (random moments, things out of place) and ‘bits’ (stunts, tricks, rhythmic interactions and movements). All of these are short-lived and often ‘yet another’ funny moment.

They don’t really have anything more to them than being moments of life. Sure, they are embedded in the contexts of their producers, yet lack a larger narrative context. There is nothing really to learn from them. They are amateur film, bottom-up statements and documentations of life. And I believe the greatest merit of these montages lies in that they show how these short-video contents, these moments of life, matter beyond well-worn tropes of ‘humble entertainment’. They matter as a substantial experience of life (re)lived in the digital.

Again, it’s not the attention we invest into watching a single Vine, but rather the continuous movement, our embodied and rhythmic experience of the temporal gap that arises every six seconds which is constitutive for our experience of watching Vines. Their value rests most notably in their format and arrangement, not their contents. It is this format, this rhythmic experience of life that these montages seek to preserve.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe we still need to look at the contents of these videos. Neither do I want to say that there is nothing to be critical about such. But I argue that we’d do a poor job in taking seriously these emergent cultural practices and experiences unless we defend them from over generalized critique that sees them as yet another manipulative means creating docility and passivity.

Reiterating that these short-videos are created bottom-up, by the community for the community, we can argue that the community-sided organization of such cultural contents lies in the grammars of titling such montages. From within the field we observed that these signifying practices are used by the community not only to indicate Vines to be of integral value, but rather in these titles being over-staged, following a comedic and leisurely mood, that community-sided there is a boundary set to not over emphasise the impact such contents can have. Without explicitly resisting, these short-video contents are space-making practices that reclaim control over the time of experience. That they are not the be all and end all is obvious. Yet they are particular and momentary sites of existential rest. And that’s something of value.

Moving towards the platform-sided organization and assessment of this value proposition of these cultural contents, I understand the experience of watching videos on YouTube as audio-visual containment. Put simply, as the ‘interaction order’ in which people, machines, and audio-visual contents interact. The algorithmically ordered chain of videos classified as related and selected to watch. A bounded spatio-temporal arrangement in which people can make meaningful experiences.

To understand how the platform henceforth tries to organize the contents that fuel these containers, I look at the network of related videos for the search query ‘vines that’. For is this network the material upon which audio-visual containers concerning Vine montages are built, showing where these contents are positioned within the larger content traffic on YouTube.

The first and most notable observation we can make is that these montages are situated in a homogenous context. Clusters 0 and 3 are the biggest and most central ones. They feature the overall core Vine montages and drift slightly towards more major media and online contents (music video, clips from tv shows, non-Vine related montages of funny home-videos, …). The network branches out into clusters that feature separate and more specific Vine montages, yet on the sides it’s connected to the wider core YouTube content (vlogs, reactions and discussions, gaming, …). Some still focus on Vine (often created by people who gained their following their), the majority doesn’t. In general, quite unsurprisingly, there is very little presence of news or politically oriented contents. The overall embeddedness following the leisurely and comedic style inherent to Vines.

Yet is this really a symbiotic relationship between community and platform? Focusing our attention to cluster 0 we can see that the algorithm is not neutral. The interesting discrepancy to observe is between topics 5/15 and topics 6/12. All feature similar videos, namely core Vine montages. However, videos in 5 and 15 are tagged and titled with positive terms: funny, happiness, cured me, keep me alive, laugh. These videos are ‘pushed’ by the algorithm. They are more centrally placed in the network, more relevant, more likely to appear in an audio-visual container. Videos in 6 and 12 are tagged and titled with more negative sounding terms such as: depression, lost control of life, medium rare, underrated, think about. These videos are placed slightly less central than other videos.

Is the recommender algorithm, regulating the flow of cultural contents, hence a means to control the mood of unconscious users, promoting neoliberal quests of personal happiness among them? Returning to our observation of how these videos are being titled would argue against that I believe. The algorithm misses more than it seems to be controlling here. As I argued along the grammars, the signifying practices taking place within the field, these more negative terms are not only used in tropes to indicate videos being of value, but also to actively reflect and question the importance these videos can have in the long run. These signifying practices highlight not only peoples’ desire for momentary existential rest that lies in this ‘happy and humble’ entertainment. But rather, without great noise, they show an implicit awareness of cultural forces at work. Not a great revolutionary act against control, but an act of balancing the freedoms and dominations that come with it.

Parts of this piece were presented at the 4th Affect and Social Media Conference, University of East London, England/UK, November 2018 and published previously in an earlier version at blogs.ed.ac.uk.

Revisiting the selective tradition: Spaces of experience, participatory culture, and algorithmic recommendations

Since its first premiere in 2011, the HBO produced tv show Game of Thrones has become one of the most watched, illegally downloaded, critically acclaimed, put simply, one of the most anticipated tv series presently available. We may henceforth ask: in what ways and by what means does this show shape and influence contemporary culture? On what grounds and in what forms is it becoming a meaningful part of people’s lives?

To do so, we can start by revisiting Raymond Williams’ conceptualization of a selective tradition [1]. For Williams, culture is shaped and created through selective operations. Through the active engagement of people and institutions with cultural objects and experiences. An active engagement in which certain aspects of a culture once lived are selected to be of value and emphasis while others are rejected. Those of value are recorded and preserved, be it in the form of objects or practices. This recorded culture then shapes and conditions the grounds upon which a contemporary culture emerges, determining what meaningful experiences can look like in the future.

These selective operations hence don’t start from scratch. They are part of a selective tradition constantly evolving. Within this tradition, selective operations are pursued across a variety of linked ecologies, all of which are invested into culture following different objectives, visions, and desires, different histories of their own (often accompanied by conflict and controversy).

We can see this for instance in the Game of Thrones tv show being an adaption of the same-titled George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel series. Game of Throne’s cultural significance always already has been part of a larger historical trajectory of selective operations. And in doing so, the ecologies of publishers, marketers, literary critics, ‘ordinary’ readers, and fans are expanded. Production companies, tv networks, a whole other set of marketers and critics, ‘ordinary’ viewers, and dedicated fans of the show are all now also part of the selective operations surrounding this cultural conjuncture.

Trying to gain hold onto this continuous development, we can look at two areas within this tradition that we might describe as particularly new within our present digital society. Namely Game of Thrones video montages and their algorithmic ordering.

These montages highlight those parts of a participatory culture in which people negotiate and discuss their experience of the show. But further, and more crucially, they do create spaces in which the show can be experienced and re-experienced in different forms and rhythms. On the one side a discourse and collective memory, on the other a sui generis experience of the show. Their combination creating in the digital an experientially different ground to record and preserve parts of a culture once lived.

However, in being distributed on social media platforms like YouTube, the flow of these contents is regulated by the platform’s inherent logics. While this creates opportunities to connect and make accessible different contents surrounding Game of Thrones, it also raises questions of control and power. For have herein non-human entities such as algorithms, by ordering and recommending contents, become central actors carrying out selective operations, also making determinations of what parts of Game of Thrones and its experience are of value and to be emphasised.

Given the vast storylines featured within Game of Thrones, we will take House Stark as case to inquire these developments. Accordingly looking through the field of video montages related to Stark characters, we can identify four main areas House Stark as such is remembered by and presented along.

Firstly, there are montages of Ned, Benjen, and Robb Stark. They are often used to highlight themes of honour and loyalty, themes seen as integral to House Stark. While less frequent in number of videos, these montages are produced in high quality and have a broad reach and acclaim among viewers. They are edited to appear very dramatic, feature slow music yet forward paced and fast-moving images. Their focus is on action and they display lots of fighting scenes. Honour and loyalty are herein not presented as abstract concepts but as put into practice. The dramatic edit seeking to engage people into how the meaningfulness of House Starks comes to matter. Yet further these montages also seek to highlight narrative ties within the larger storyline. For instance, through cross-cuts and voiceovers, they make present connections between scenes that before where not related in the original edit of the show.

Secondly, we find montages of Brandon, Rickon, and Catelyn Stark. They are often used to showcase themes of courage and strength associated with House Stark. While these videos are seldom of high quality, they are also not that frequent. However, their existence is acknowledged when you look at what people say about them, for do they show aspects often marginalised and overlooked according to many. Courage and strength are herein presented in slow and dragging edits that retell the story of the characters. They have a particular focus on close-ups, seeking to highlight a deep reading of the characters’ emotions and their overlooked meaningfulness for the story.

Thirdly, a key strand focusses its attention on the characters Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, and Jon Snow. Doing so, they less explicitly direct attention towards House Stark, but instead focus on the themes of becoming and identity within the characters’ storylines. However, it is this development of finding and reclaiming a place within the family and world that is often seen as characteristic element of House Stark’s significance within the Game of Thrones experience. These montages seek to do so in dramatic edits. Both music and images are uprising, they are very rhythmic. Not retelling the original storyline, but rather telling a story on its own within. They vest the identity struggle and development of the characters with a rhythmic movement of images. Doing so, they primarily seek to engage people into the becoming of the characters.

Lastly, a major strand of videos focus on House Stark as such, looking at the themes of becoming and home in particular. These montages are very frequent and most of them are of high quality. They are forward paced, feature lots of cross-cuts and voiceovers, are often action laden, and incorporate a large variety of musical genres and styles that are in many cases unrelated to Game of Thrones (most of the character montages use pieces from the original score or a similar style of music). Taking this form, they less seek to retell the story of House Stark, but rather make present the feeling and mood of it; the emotional journey of finding back home. While they show key moments of and parallels between the different Stark characters, they mainly showcase the fall and rise of House Stark. Do so less in explaining the contexts surrounding this trajectory, but rather in rhythmically engaging people into this dynamic and existentially challenging movement.

Following these four areas of montages, we are confronted with a space of experience on the platform. It is within these community-created video montages that people not only highlight and negotiate different aspects of the show and why they are of value (for them an others). But rather, in that these montages are audio-visually engaging contents, they create a themed space in which the mood associated with House Stark in particular and the show in general can be made present again. Even further, they create a space in which Game of Thrones can be experienced in a form that is unique from the original tv series. A unique experience that allows people to be engaged and attuned.

While video montages are one form of engaging with the show in the digital, they are part of a larger content stream available on the platform. Contents that are ordered and made accessible via YouTube’s related video network [2]. Looking at the network for our case of House Stark, we are confronted with around 37.000 unique videos that were classified as related. Using computationally supported content analysis techniques and network modelling [3], we can identify twelve clusters or themes of videos within the overall network.

The most interesting things to observe here are the four big clusters in the centre of the network and the four clusters at the edges in the top left. These more marginal, yet still big clusters are interesting in that they feature tutorials and displays of practices that seek to recreate or materialize aspects of the show. We find a lot of videos that are piano tutorials that teach people how to play Game of Thrones themes but also many other musical scores. We can find many videos that are tutorials showing how to recreate certain symbols and artefacts from the show using woodworking or origami techniques. But there also is a group of videos in which people recreate and stage battles from the show within video games.

Moving to the centre, we have three big clusters surrounding one medium sized one. This medium sized cluster entirely consist of reaction videos, i.e. people capturing their reaction while watching certain, often very dramatic scenes of the show. The three surrounding clusters can be divided in community, commercial, and show related videos. Community related contents are especially videos that discuss the show in more depth and make connections between it and the novel series. Commercial videos feature the official behind the scenes materials, interviews with cast and production staff and connect towards the broader entertainment industry in form of late night tv contents or music videos. The show related cluster features video montages like those discussed above but also unedited clips and scenes from the show.

Put simply, looking at the related video network shows us a larger variety of different forms and formats along which House Stark and Game of Thrones (can) become a meaningful part of people’s lives. Within these clusters different ecologies are at work, following different logics, highlighting and emphasising different aspects of the show to be of value. Yet in addition to these ecologies that are directly invested into Game of Thrones, YouTube now is too. We may hence try to understand in what ways their algorithmic recommendations play a role in shaping contemporary culture.

Focussing our attention to the three central clusters featuring the community, commercial, and show related videos, we can see that YouTube is not ‘neutral’. Videos that overall discuss Game of Thrones and interviews with the cast are placed without emphasis. They are placed neutrally. However, videos that focus on specific characters, instead of the show at large, are pushed (placed more centrally in the network, are more likely to be recommended to people). Especially those video montages concerned with Jon Snow and Sansa Stark discussed above are emphasised here. However, it also pushes community videos that discuss and make predictions about the upcoming final season of the tv show.

Contents that are suspended by the algorithm (placed less centrally, are less likely to be recommended to people) mainly follow two strands. On the one side general major media content such as music videos or bits and clips from tv shows. On the other side, primarily community videos that establish and discuss connections between tv show and the novel series.

This is not to say that YouTube and its algorithms are engaging in the discussion and selective tradition with a clear and purposeful intention. But rather do they follow a logic inherent to the platform. Currently, this logic, at its core, seeks to maximize time-spent on the platform per user. In observing and quantifying their activities, they make predictions what contents will keep people interested in watching videos. Yet further, creating user-profiles from this data, they auction targeted ad space and monetize activities unfolding on the platform.

There sure is a need for more research into the impact and implication of these recommender systems. Yet while I think that them having an impact is without question, the degree to which most present research raises alarming voices about the amplification, captivation, and control that comes with such systems seems questionable (even if there are cases where I would agree). For does it feel like that this often entails doing the same mistake mainstream media studies did decades ago. Looking at what media do to the people instead of what the people do to the media.

It is thus with little surprise that scholars like Sonia Livingstone critically ask the field to take seriously the experiences people make within such digital worlds. Not to undermine the power imbalances and domains of control presently at work. However, in doing so be able to better understand, rethink, and reclaim these systems. As Nick Seaver, studying recommender systems through an anthropological lens of traps, argues, we should not aspire to free us from such systems that (seek to) captivate us. Rather, thinking about ways to reclaim control over them and the ways they (could) enrich our lives is what we need to do. Something, as Fred Turner argues, might also entail establishing democratic governance structures, laws and institutions dealing with these sites of our contemporary culture; for have, according to Turner, the ideals of connecting the world and simply amplifying and broadcasting what people do failed as did the communes of the 1960s.

This is not to argue against those sites running on a commercial basis. However, to argue in favour for them to more acknowledge the impact they have on shaping contemporary culture. The way YouTube currently is taking part in the selective tradition is one option. However, returning to our case, just as people feel that the experience of courage and strength in the characters of Brandon, Rickon, and Catelyn is often overlooked and undervalued, so do the algorithms also overlook and undervalue them.

As platform operator, it is easy to position oneself as plain mediator here. Yet, we may ask, is this the right thing to do? Is this really the best option out there, given all the data and computational resources at hand? Not that I am particularly anxious about the socio-economic futures these systems help create. But rather that I am slightly sad and disappointed about the chances for those futures they seem to miss and be unaware of day after day.

Parts of this piece were presented at the 1st International Popular Culture Conference, University of Seville, Spain, December 2018.

[1] Williams has most notably discussed this idea in The Long Revolution (1961). A more concrete application can for instance be found in Williams’ The Country and the City (1973). In tracing the persistence and historicity of the rural-urban divide in literary works since the 16th century, Williams highlights not only those selective operations that emphasised and rejected the lived experience of the country-side, but also how these shaped future experiences and socio-economic contexts of industrialisation and urbanisation accordingly.

[2] In order to personalize the experience on the platform, YouTube recommends each user videos based on a variety of factors, often with the intend to increase the likelihood to watch another video, i.e. increase time spent on the platform. Accordingly, most of the videos people watch were recommended to them by YouTube. The backbone for doing these personal recommendations is the related video network. It consists of videos that are classified as related or similar to one another based on different factors (content data, metadata, activity data) following a dynamic modelling process. This backbone dataset is then used to, based on a person’s activity data, guess what videos might be of interest to be watched next. Implicit feedback, the activity data gathered by YouTube for each user using the site and each video being watched/used on the site is hence of crucial importance here (Baluja et al. 2008, Davidson et al. 2010, Bendersky et al. 2014, Covington et al. 2016).

Reconstructing related video networks (the data is partially and with limited access available publicly) hence allows us to understand three sides of user-generated content platforms like YouTube: Firstly, what variety of contents there are available, i.e. contents created by individuals and organizations. Secondly, how the experience of watching videos related to a certain topic can look like for a broader variety of people. Lastly, how YouTube positions certain videos to be more accessible than others within a given topic, i.e. how YouTube takes part in selective operations of emphasising and rejecting contents.

[3] Network clusters are reconstructed using the Louvain community detection algorithm (Blondel et al. 2008) because, as YouTube builds relations based on similarity (see citations above), clusters within the network are assumed to be densely connected within themselves but not with the rest of the network. The Louvain algorithm maximizing the modularity measure henceforth comes in useful. Additionally, those nodes/videos connecting clusters with each other are assessed through the betweenness centrality measure (Brandes 2001). Lastly, a force-directed layout with scaled gravity is used for visualising the network (things central are placed centrally, which is further enhanced through more compact and comparable spatialization Bannister et al. 2013).

Computationally supported content analysis has become a prominent tool within sociology and the social sciences over the years (DiMaggio et al. 2013, Fuhse and Mützel 2011, Mützel 2015, Lewis et al. 2013, Lucas et al. 2015). Given the large number of videos available, these tools can be used in assessing themes of clusters through analysis of video titles and video tags. To do so, three steps are applied to each network cluster. Firstly, an inductive categorization of lower and upper bound of central (betweenness centrality) and influential nodes/videos (view count and engagement ratio) is undertaken from within the field. Secondly, central terms for each network cluster are extracted through co-occurrences analysis (Deerwester et al. 1990, Lund and Burgess 1996). These two steps are concluded by labelling each cluster. Lastly, in a final step, by fitting a structural topic modelling for each cluster with centrality and influence measures as covariates (Roberts et al. 2013), algorithmic ordering practices are sought to be reconstructed.

Bannister, M.J. et al. (2013). Force-Directed Graph Drawing Using Social Gravity and Scaling. In W. Didimo and M. Patrignani eds., Graph Drawing. GD 2012. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 7704. Berlin: Springer, 414-425.
Baluja, S. et al. (2008). Video Suggestion and Discovery for YouTube. Taking Random Walks Through the View Graph. In Proceedings of WWW 2008, Beijing, China.
Bendersky, M. et al. (2014). Up Next: Retrieval Methods for Large Scale Related Video Suggestion. Proceedings KDD 2014, New York, US.
Blondel, V.D. et al. (2008). Fast unfolding of communities in large networks. In Journal of Statistical Mechanics, P10008.
Brandes, U. (2001). A Faster Algorithm for Betweenness Centrality. In Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 25(2), 163-177.
Covington, P. et al. (2016). Deep Neural Networks for YouTube Recommendations. In Proceedings of RecSys 2016, Boston, US.
Davidson, J. et al. (2010). The YouTube Video Recommendation System. In Proceedings of RecSys 2010, Barcelona, Spain.
Deerwester, S.C. et al (1990). Indexing by latent semantic analysis. In Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 41(6), 391–407.
DiMaggio, P. et al. (2013). Exploiting affinities between topic modelling and the sociological perspective on culture. In Poetics, 41, 570-606.
Fuhse, J. and Mützel, S. (2011). Tackling connections, structure, and meaning in networks: quantitative and qualitative methods in sociological network research. In Qual Quant, 45, 1067-1089.
Lewis, S.C. et al. (2013). Content Analysis in an Era of Big Data A Hybrid Approach to Computational and Manual Methods. In Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57(1), 34-52.
Lucas, C. et al. (2015). Computer-Assisted Text Analysis for Comparative Politics. In Political Analysis, 25, 254-277.
Lund, K. and Burgess, C. (1996). Producing high-dimensional semantic spaces from lexical co-occurrence. In Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers, 28 (2), 203– 208.
Mützel, S. (2015). Facing Big Data: Making sociology relevant. In Big Data & Society, 1-4.
Roberts, M.E. et al. (2013). The structural topic model and applied social science. In Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems Workshop on Topic Models: Computation, Application, and Evaluation.
Williams, R. (1961). The Long Revolution. London: Chatto & Windus.
Williams, R. (1973). The Country and the City. London: The Hogarth Press.

Convergence culture beyond alternate readings: Movie trailers, community trailer re-cuts, and the desire to be engaged

Contemporary popular film culture is marked by franchise practices and strategies. In the centre the production of often yet another prequel, sequel, spin-off, remake, or reboot. A seemingly more manageable risk compared to the alternative of Hollywood’s spec-script market. However, creating reiterations of stories already told still comes with risks of its own. As Variety’s Owen Gleiberman puts it, scaling the same mountaintop all over again leaves ‘the audience’ more self-consciously reflecting on their experience of the franchise than being empathically engaged with the movie itself.

Creating new forms of creative collaboration among different commercial sectors, movies themselves remain a focal, yet often only one among many aspects of the socio-economic form that is the franchise. They transcend and are materialized beyond the screen, creating new revenues streams beyond the box-office for the industry. However, doing so require the transformation of people’s short-lived attention into longstanding, sophisticated, and calculable interest.

Coming from the other side, fuelled by the emergence of digital media technologies, new forms of participatory culture and amateur film practices take shape, moving from self-documentation to aesthetic appropriation. Speaking back to the franchise and industry bottom-up, creating a new shared language of popular culture. A language that seeks to reclaim control over the way popular culture takes shape and shapes people’s lives. Control over the decision what parts and forms of culture are of value, now and in the future.

And movies like ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’, one of the many recent additions to the Lucasfilm produced and Disney owned Star Wars franchise, highlight the conjuncture of these developments with ease.

For did ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ not have an easy start since its first announcement. From unworkable script to creative differences in pre-production leading to Ron Howard stepping in as director to difficulties while shooting the movie. ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ looks kind of rough from the production side already. Yet additionally, it is part of the ongoing negotiation between community and Disney owned Lucasfilm about the future of the franchise, the way it is pursued and taken out. Some fans wanted ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ to fail and, well, at least financially it didn’t meet expectations for sure. People from within the industry commenting that something like a ‘Star Wars fatigue’ remains a myth whilst highlighting the avoidable creative mistakes Disney did in managing the franchise, creating a disappointed audience they’ll probably lose in the long run.

Looking not at the movie itself, but rather the means and sites along which people are sought to be engaged and their interest sparked, we may turn our attention to movie trailers. More particular, their distribution on social media platforms which have become ever more present and important sites of control, struggle, and negotiation between industry and community (whatever fixed and imagined entities these might be).

The official trailer can easily be interpreted along a franchising logic. It starts by introducing characters already known from earlier pieces of the Star Wars Saga; creating and reactivating narratives ties within the larger story universe. While speaking to those already familiar with it, it at the same time also features lots of broadly understandable encounters and humour. The edit being slow at the start, only gaining some kind of speed moving towards the end of the trailer. The music feeling like an awkwardly keyed version of the original Star Wars scores. The overall mood being one of a ‘fun movie’.

Looking at its distribution context, unsurprisingly YouTube’s algorithms have placed it within cluster 6 – a cluster that features lots of general and major media contents such as movie trailers, interviews, clips and bits from late-night tv, and other promotional media contents that promise more focused attention towards their subject.

Looking at a community trailer re-cut, we are confronted with a different view. The trailer is edited fast and features a continuous, rhythmic movement of images. Its focus is entirely on Hans Solo; no other characters are really introduced, no narrative ties made. There is a strong absence of language and signifying practices, but rather an emphasis on action and movement. The entire edit cut onto a piece of Bestie Boys’ Sabotage. The trailer, in its form, is made resistant to interpretation. There is nothing really new we learn from it. Rather, we are only reactivated a feeling already known. The overall mood communicated being one of an ‘adventurous movie’.

Looking at its position within the larger content traffic on YouTube, it’s being placed within cluster 0 – a cluster that features lots of upcoming and on-the-market major studio productions, covering a variety of genres, also featuring more general contents such as music videos and the likes. Broadly speaking, while not placed within the more focused attention that cluster 6 promises, the community trailer re-cut still is able to push towards the centre of the discussion and content traffic on the platform.

These two trailers showcase not only two different visions of the Star Wars franchise and its future – more fun and family-friendly vs. more action-laden and adventurous – but also show different structural positions and forces at work. For are in the context of digital media, formerly promised as ‘holy land’ of participatory culture, existing structural position largely reproduced, governing attention and legitimacy over how popular culture is shaped. And while there sure is a need for more research into the ways the companies operating these digital platforms have become a newly linked ecology within popular culture, an awareness of these forces is not absent from the discussion within the audience already.

Looking at comments on the official trailer, we especially are confronted with four major topics. Many people are suspicious of positive comments on the trailer, claiming they were bought or created by bots commissioned by Disney to better position the trailer and its online presence. Others are critical of the way movie trailers can function as means of engaging people or the capabilities of Disney and Lucasfilm to control the franchise. Yet in some sense opposing these three perspectives and their inherent critique, there also is a lot of people that come back after watching the movie, commenting that it wasn’t as bad as the trailer made it look like. Going further, being critical of all the buzz created by the community around it online.

Moving to the comments on the community trailer re-cut, we, however, can make a differently interesting observation. For are people here less concerned with the vision of the franchise in the sense of its contents and production context. They are less concerned with an alternate reading of the story. But rather do they express their desire to be engaged. Their desire for an immediate and present experience within a site of popular culture they’re invested in. A site that allows them to be attuned and affected, coordinate personal and communal being.

For does the community trailer re-cut highlight a desire for rest. It doesn’t seek to move forward but rather to be a movement that covers not distance. The official trailer seeks to be more than Han Solo. The community re-cut seeks to be just Han Solo. It wants to reactive a feeling once present and substantial to many people. Not through signification and interpretation, but through rhythmic and embodied experience. Not the be all and end all of what Star Wars franchise and popular culture should look like. Not ruling out critical capacity of the audience or the necessity of creative innovation within movie and story itself. But highlighting the meaningfulness of a restful experience of movies in particular and our human life in general that often is neglected today.

It is this dimension of meaningfulness, the value of immediate and present experiences, that the trailer re-cut brings to the centre of discussion. And maybe what’s to learn from this contribution is similar to what David Ehrlich finds reviewing ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’: “More fun than funny, more clever than smart, ‘LEGO Batman’ moves too fast to acclimate audiences to the world it so eagerly dismantles and rebuilds (and too fast to make them want to stay there for a minute longer), but it serves as a frenzied reminder that laughing at the things we love is sometimes the best way to remember why we love them. Can Batman ever be happy? It’s hard to say. But, for the first time in a long time, at least his fans can be.”

Parts of this piece were presented at the 24th International Film Studies Conference, Roma Tre University, Italy, November 2018.

Suspend / Resume: Notes on digital culture and lively sensibility

Austronaut.io is a website that aggregates videos which are uploaded on YouTube yet have almost no views. It runs search queries for video titles that are in the format a camera outputs them. IMG 0540, a 54 second clip from an electronic music festival. MOV 0026, 38 seconds of people dancing at what seems to be a wedding reception in the Caucasus region. IMG 0083, 44 seconds of a slightly grumpy looking British middle-aged man driving his car and listening to the radio.

MOV 0204, my favourite. Best video I’ve ever seen on YouTube. A 2 minutes and 37 seconds long car ride, drivers view, through what seems to be a mountainy area in Canada. In the background the radio playing Moby’s ‘In This World’. The lyrics: ‘Lordy don’t leave me / All by myself / Lordy don’t leave me / All by myself’. To be honest, I reckon the 39 views on the video are either due to me watching or sending it out to all my friends [1].

Why? I grew up in the Lower-Rhine area in Germany. No mountains. Just flat land and endless country roads. Hence, when we went on vacation in autumn, going to Switzerland, there was nothing more satisfying for me to sit in the car driving by the mountains. There just is a certain immediacy to it, a certain presence of the mountains that emerges in moving by them. Something you can only experience in this kind of movement towards an object.

When I randomly found this video, I was immediately reminded of that feeling. It just felt like driving by the mountains again. Even though I wasn’t in Canada, I was sitting in my college dorm room. Even though the video was published almost a year ago (who knows when it was actually recorded). It evoked a feeling of contemporaneity. I remembered and re-lived. I related to that person whom I’ve never met (and will probably never meet). It felt present, it felt meaningful, it felt lively.

Yet how can videos like these become of meaning? I think their meaningfulness can emerge in the mere fact that there is nothing really to them. They are not primarily a representational setting of life that asks us to reflect on the situation displayed. Rather do they ask to implicate us into their liveliness. Or, well, at least they make it easier to resist the predominant notion to search for some sort of hidden and deeper meaning. They are life recorded, stored, and distributed, put simply, life assembled in the digital. And I think we can approach this more profoundly following three conceptual ideas. Mark Hansen’s worldly sensibility (2015), Bruno Latour’s network operations of suspend and resume (2005), and the way Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht understand materialities of communication (1994).

Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer understand materialities of communication as “the totality of phenomena contributing to the constitution of meaning without being meaning themselves.” (1994: 398). Accordingly, they associate it with a shift of our analytical view. Instead of interpretatively uncovering meaning structures we should instead focus on reconstructing the processes upon which meaning can at all be articulated.

In a similar trajectory, we find Latour’s network operations of suspend and resume. Confronted with crisis and conflict, something that transversally questions dominant understandings of live and living, we can either suspend this movement or resume it. In suspending that what is different from us, we control and protect the social as we know it construed. If we resume this movement, we implicate ourselves and follow “many non-social entities which might become participants later; if pursued systematically, this tracking may end up in a shared definition of a common world.” (2005: 247).

Accordingly, for Hansen, the experiences twenty-first-century media create can only be achieved “by means of the subject’s implication within its broader environmental logic.” (2015: 256). It is not an experience due to the subject’s synthesis but of becoming entwined in a larger worldly metamorphosis. He thus speaks of a worldly sensibility, the feeling of ecologically being part of a shared common world. Constituting human experience not in the conscious reflection of the other in the self but rather in the implication of the self in the assemblage of others. Yet remaining a movement that one either must suspend or resume, that according to Hansen we should embrace in contemporary digital cultures as crucial mode of being.

While talking about twenty-first-century media in their encompassing sensor technologies, approaching the worldly sensibility and our implication into this larger assembly as pre-individual, I think, understanding life as Hansen and Gumbrecht do, we might add a dimension of lively sensibility to our contemporary digital cultures. Not understood as pre-individual, but as intensified first-order individual experience of being touched by a surrounding environment.

For Gumbrecht (1997) life or the experience of liveliness is almost always accompanied by a disdain for thought. It’s what eludes subjective planning and order, instead being attributed to what is sublime and overwhelming. Accordingly, for Hansen (2004) liveliness is achieved in exactly that moments we are least contained and sovereign over ourselves. It’s achieved in the encounter with one’s constitutive incompleteness, the “condition of being consigned to life as something that cannot be assumed” (623).

Lively sensibility is thus achieved in resuming a movement in what is assemblages of life in the digital. Lively sensibility in digital cultures means being affectively engaged by the materiality of audio-visual contents and following this materiality. It’s the implication not into an all-encompassing network of sensors but into a present liveliness unfolding. It’s not the reflection of being somewhere or becoming someone else, but rather the touch of material surroundings that reminds us of our incompleteness. And when done so systematically, this touch might evoke a remembrance of what has mattered to us in the past, of what is the condition of our human life.

[1] On that note: my favourite Christmas related YouTube video (MOV 0055) which I send out on far too many occasions other than Christmas.

Gumbrecht, H.U. (1997). In 1926. Living on the Edge of Time. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. and Pfeiffer, K.L. eds. (1994). Materialities of Communication. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hansen, M. (2004). The Time of Affect, or Bearing Witness to Life. In Critical Inquiry, 30(3), 584-626.
Hansen, M. (2015). Feed-Forward. On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.