Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the uses of multimedia files

One of my jobs at Arcade is to contact humanities centers about the possibility of cross-posting their audio and video recordings of events. Being the Transactions editor at Arcade has brought home a lot of facts about the use of multimedia in the research humanities.

First of all, nobody has settled on a standard way of handling multimedia. I mean--any standard ways of doing anything. File types (audio, video), file formats, presentation, venue (e.g. YouTube, iTunesU,, self-hosted), and even what to call these files or where to put them ("events," "library," "multimedia," "podcasts," "check it out!" etc.) vary widely across humanities centers. One humanities center that will remain nameless even streams its files using Real Video, hand to God. Nothing can surprise me now. So research humanities multimedia are a Wild West even logistically.

Here are some examples of humanities center web pages with multimedia files. All of the humanities centers shown below have good collections, arranged with some kind of logic that you can get behind when you think about it, but which are all completely different. Some use video; some use audio; some are all business; some have pretty pictures; some use highly portable file formats; some use proprietary formats.

UC Berkeley's Townsend Center links to separate landing pages for each talk, each of which contains an embedded YouTube video. They're termed "webcasts."

The Institute for the Humanities at Michigan has a number of good talks, but they're buried under a section called "Library." The actual videos are several clicks deep and use proprietary formats.

The University of Chicago's Franke Institute arranges its audio files by lecture series and by chronology. There's an excellent collection with attractive pictures, though no useful abstracts or keywords. They use a highly compatible format (mp3).

The University of Washington's Simpson Center has two lecture series for which it offers audio. The streaming audio player is right on the index page.

But part of the reason there's so much variation in how these files are handled is that nobody seems quite sure what role multimedia are supposed to be playing in the research humanities. There seems to be a sense that recording talks at humanities centers is a good thing, but nobody knows for what.

I think the general lack of strategy attending the posting of multimedia files is evidenced by that fact that, in many cases, the videos are not produced as videos. Instead, they pointedly announce their camera-in-the-back-of-the-room quality: they're an automatic transcription of a ninety-minute period, taken from one fixed point of view, artlessly and objectively. So styled, these videos efface their status as videos; they're faithful if paler representations of what happened in the room. They ostentatiously defer to the live event by being just like the live event, only non-interactive and with poorer sound quality.

I'm not saying this in order to casually denigrate humanities video recordings as such. After all, I'm the Transactions editor at Arcade, and video falls under my vast and evil domain. I am basically in favor of video. But it's a fact that the average humanities center recorded talk advertises itself as a slightly speckled photocopy of a real event that happened in time. What are the possible uses of a video that cedes its authority as video, that defers to a past event and announces its own insufficiency?

Just to be clear, I don't think it's necessarily a problem that humanities videos tend to announce their insufficiency and defer to the event. But this way of thinking about the video will produce certain uses for it, and it's by no means clear to me that these uses have been developed intentionally or strategically.

Offhand, I can think of two ways to use a video construed in this manner.

  1. The truth-function that always attends recording, evidence of activity. "We sometimes host awesome people: here's proof!" There certainly is some practical, if not necessarily intellectual, benefit to such a function.

  2. The archival impulse. People don't get to work in the humanities by wanting to forget things; they get there by being obsessive hoarders of documents, facts, memorabilia, ephemera, aura. Someone might need it for their research someday. I mean, right?

Both of these uses imagine the role of the video precisely as subordinate to the event. The archival impulse is particularly evinced by the near-total lack of curation or organization on humanities center websites. Multimedia files are (currently) almost always arranged by date, not by subject or name of speaker, and usually no browsing tools of any power (sort by name of speaker, search by keyword, etc.) are offered. The one advantage that the video indisputably offers over the live experience--freedom from the bounds of time--is denied, as the video is subordinated once again to a timeline.

I suspect it's time to rethink what it is that the research humanities actually has to do with online videos of talks, what we really want out of them. Do we have a good reason for posting these talks, or do we just have them because all the kids are posting to the YouTube and the Vimeo these days and we want to Keep Up With The Times?

The two uses I mentioned above aren't bad ones. It definitely helps to have visible evidence that you're Doing Stuff with your meager funding. And I, too, cling to the preservation fantasy that animates the archival impulse.

Yet I wonder how many downloads various centers are getting. I can see the stats at Arcade, and they're nontrivial even in light of the small collection we currently have, but truthfully these videos vary widely in quality, and I wonder how many are actually watched all the way through. We've all been to talks, yes? Some talks are frankly terrible. Must they all be recorded for posterity?

Well, yes and no, right? Suppose Professor Famous recycles a talk at three or four humanities centers; that's worthwhile in the flesh, because people who attend the talk can participate in a lively Q & A session, or use the opportunity to ambush their hard-to-pin-down advisors,* or cadge cheap departmental wine at the reception, or whatever. There are myriad goods that come out of a live talk for which the talk itself is but an excuse (and if the talk itself is good, so much the better). But every time, some underpaid humanities center staffer is wrangling files and paperwork and uploading that puppy to the web, usually in some unlikely and hard-to-find location. All we have is the talk itself, sans advisor, sans cheap wine. Are we adding to the body of knowledge, in that case? Or improving public access to it? I'm not sure.

I mention access advisedly, because within the archival impulse, there seems to be embedded a vague belief, or rather a hope, that posting these videos constitutes outreach in some sense, because it's the internet, and anyone (who has broadband) could find it and watch these videos. So, to summarize, outreach consists of: (1) taking a talk by a professional addressed to professionals (2) posting it three or four clicks deep on a humanities center website (or on Arcade). And that's...not really reasonable. If access is a real goal in posting these videos, we need something more strategic, and if it's not the goal, then we need to decide what is.

The "we do stuff" function of online videos is perfectly fine, I think. But I believe that we need to rethink the archival impulse, and also begin to consider what uses the videos have that live talks don't have--i.e. why they're good as videos.

That means curation. Talks that are good for ambushing your advisor are not necessarily talks that are good as talks. Talks that have a great Q&A are not necessarily talks that you want to watch on video. Somebody needs to be vetting this, and yes, this would take a good amount of time and a little moxy to boot.

Someone also needs to identify the intellectual content of these talks and organize them accordingly. You really might go to a live talk because it's at the Townsend Center this week. Time and place matter a lot with a live talk. Once the talk is on video, though, the specific content of the talk matters a lot more. People will rarely seek out the video of a talk because it was delivered at the Franklin Humanities Institute in Fall 2009. Yet that's exactly how most of these files are currently arranged--by date and by place rather than by speaker or subfield.

I'm hoping that the Arcade multimedia section can ultimately do some of that work, but it can't do all of it. Arcade has particular areas of interest (genre, translation, environmental humanities, to name a few), and we're almost exclusively collecting files that correspond with those areas of interest. Yet there's a sea of humanities multimedia files out there, assiduously recorded and uploaded but languishing in obscurity.

If the humanities are really going to engage productively with new media, then we need to be more strategic about how we use it. As far as I can tell, actual research in the digital humanities rarely deals with audio and video, for perfectly sound reasons. There's a disconnect between the way that "regular humanists" use new media and digital humanists and new media theorists** use them, and you'd think we'd be drawing on the expertise of people who actually think about these media for a living. These jobs can't really be farmed out to the work-study student, because they're substantive intellectual tasks. And isn't that, after all, a good thing?

*Standard disclaimer: my own co-chairs were and are lovely people, and I never had to resort to ambushing them at a talk.

**I recognize that digital humanities can't be conflated with new media studies.

1 comment:

skg said...

These are good questions, I think. I'd note that some DH types would work more on audio and video (and some of them *do*, but) if copyright and permissions were less sticky. Sometimes they are sticky for a reason beyond avarice: there are cultural and perspective-based issues, too.

Also, re: video as/without authority: even Film Studies folk don't work very publicly yet on vidding, AFAIK. The only person I can think of is Francesca Coppa, a co-founder of OTW; a little context is in this interview. And, of course, I know her name via fannish, only latently scholarly pursuits, not via academy-front-and-center ones.