Thursday, 16 September 2010

Grammar of Twitter

• @ - @ functions as an indicator (in the same way your 'index finger' does). As such it is used 'conversationally' to initiate contact, refer to a twitter user, act as calling-card or introduction, and as a phatic instrument. [N/B @ spam is therefore a common problem on twitter].

• Retweet [auto] - the 'auto-retweet' function causes you to echo a tweet without editorial comment. It is the principle mechanism in twitters 'cascade-casting' [where twitter become a broadcast media - try auto-retweeting and you'll see what I mean].

• RT - the RT mark is used when manually retweeting and although originally used to simply 'cascade-cast' tweets is now, following the introduction of auto-retweet, used to comment on a tweet. An editorial retweet if you like.

• follow & followers - the follow option causes the tweets of the followed twitter user to appear in your 'tweet stream' [the flow or feed of tweets that constitutes your twitter home page] this is the whole point of twitter and it's most important mechanism. The more people who follow your twitter feed the greater the count of your follows (those who have chosen to follow you) and thus the wider your tweets are 'cascade-cast'. So far follower count has been a function of already existing fame and celebrity and noons has become famous from twitter use in the way the myspace popularity was, in at least one case, used to achieve celebrity status. [N/B follow spam is therefore a very common problem in twitter].

• lock - a privacy mechanism in twitter that restricts who can see your tweets and prevents them being retweeted.

• 'in reply to' - this is a 'threading' tool that allows one to follow the line of a twitter conversation back though the tangle of tweets that make up any given stream. As such it is a marker of conversation and conversational action.

• 140 character limit - twitter was originally conceived as a 'text-to' service that users would SMS. This required twitter to restrict the length of any tweet to 140 characters to allow the easy translation of SMS to web via their servers and thus save them server space (& costs). This limitation then became the most important mark of twitter as a media form. So a technical limitation became the convention of the form and is retained on that form basis rather than for technical reasons; as tweets could now be of any length or type what so ever.

• integrating services and clients - a wide variety of other services integrate with twitter and expand it. Twitpic, tweetlonger, wefollow, all extend the functionality of twitter. Various 'clients' (local software that sits on your computer and or phone) allow for the integration of twitter with a your local computer and a variety of services but most importantly allow for a re-ordering and presentation of the informational structure of twitter in new and different ways (see tweetdeck, osfoora, etc).

• hypertext - hypertext is the essential mark and element of the WWW. The web is a massively- multiple-distributed set of hypertext documents (that exists on the Internet, which is an ICT infrastructure) and twitter is a part of this. This means that any tweet can 'link-to' any other part of the web via hypertext and the sharing of links is one of the most common activities on twitter.

• url shorteners - The 140 character limit of twitter causes some hypertext problems as some www.addresses.of.sites. are far longer than 140 characters. As it is conventional to give web addresses as URL domain-names ( and not as IP addresses (012.345.678.910) it has become necessary to use a URL shortener such as to provide a reduced format URL in twitter b

• Phatic communication - phatic discourse is any kind of communication that enables, opens and/or maintains social interaction. Saying 'hello', talking about the weather, making 'small-talk', discussing shared experiences, etc, are all phatic actions. Twitter is a phatic space par-excellence because the restrictions of the form prevent overly-long statements, inhibit complex interaction (twitter arguments are very hard to conduct and even more difficult to follow), and because of its hypertextual nature encourages distraction and movement away from the main twitter space (although the coming redesign and some twitter 'clients' may address this).

Thursday, 29 July 2010

What Counts as Documentary: Redux p.s.

historypin neatly illustrates the mixed nature of the new forms of documentary appearing online.  Combining the googlemaps and streetview interfaces with audience provided photographic material and comment historypin clearly displays the characteristics of Flickr and Googlemaps discussed in my previous post.  historypin is not unique as the Museum of London's Street Museum offers a similar approach, although with a more interesting means of interacting with the 'augmented reality' potential of this material. 

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

What Counts as Documentary: Redux

One of the issues we need to confront in the current media ecology is the many forms of documentary (and its hybrid forms) that appear on the internet. Video and audio forms (originally from Cinema, TV, and Radio) now mingel freely with Photo-Documentary (originally a print form; photo-journalism) and written documentary forms (e.g. reportage). It is the hybridity of all these forms of documentary that is most interesting. Documentary has always hybridised with journalism (and with fiction to some extent - consider Hunter S Thompson's roman à clef 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' which is a form of documentary but one that has been strongly interpenetrated by the fictive) and online this cross-over is even stronger. The capability of the internet to blend audio, video, image and text recourses into one coherent montage has dragged documentary forms ever closer to one another and this is before we get to the really odd documentary forms present in the online world.

Adam Curtis (who I posted about here) maintains a wonderful blog at the BBC that must surely count as documentary in some fashion but which is clearly quite, quite different to the more established forms we are used to. Similarly Dr Michael Wesch has made some remarkable works about peoples' use of the internet that are worth looking at and which again must count as some form of documentary but quite which form is hard to say. In both cases it is the other concerns of the writers (documentarian and academic anthropologist respectively) that cause some of these issues of categorisation that these works present us with. Both of these documentaries are still recognisable as such however and it is the next set of online documentary forms that give us the greatest difficulties.

Let's start with Flickr. This massive repository of photographs is a 'metadocumentary' in that it is multiple sets of series of documentaries made by its participants, can be turned to documentary purposes by searching through it, and is it self a documentary of photographic practice and concerns. This makes the whole site a mixed and odd documentary form (almost) all of its own. The need to interact with the site in order to turn it into a documentary - of a personal & temporary kind - is the key characteristic of the form that Flickr is part of but exactly which form is an open question.

Which brings us to the last of our odd/new documentary forms: Google Maps & Street View. There are some specific implementations of googlemaps allowing access to information some of it of a documentary nature (especially Tate) but the important and interesting thing is streetview itself. This massive photographic record of the streets of the vast majority of the 'developed world' (an issue of post-colonialism in the digital world) is a documentary but of a most peculiar kind. As with Flickr it needs to be interacted with and interrogated by us the users in order to turn it into a documentary and as with the more obvious online documentary forms there is this mixture of image and (in this case) maps and the cartographic. However, the sheer scale of streetview and its changing nature (the images are updated from time to time) renders our use of it for documentary purposes rather limited because the effort necessary to 'documentise' it is so huge. That said it is clearly a most remarkable documentary of the quotidian.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Documenting the Crisis

The BBC's Adam Curtis is the most interesting documentarian I can think of and his work is consistently astonishing. Not just in the subject matter (HeLa/Henrietta Lacks), or in his remarkable technique of interview/archival/montage (which any of his documentaries displays but is easy to see in the posts on his blog - such as this) but also, and most importantly, in his insistent focus on the twisted filaments of power the generate our society and culture (this can be seen most astonishingly in his The Trap).
This concentration on power and its interactions/fluctuations and the things that power creates is atypical for documentarians. Indeed it is more typical to find such concerns in social theory, especially in the work of Michel Foucault (see here, here and here), rather than in tv documentaries.
This concern with the twisted paths of power and the people, ideas, places and events it, power, creates is perhaps most apparent in Curtis' stunning demolition of neo-conservativism & radical Islamic fundamentalism in his The Power of Nightmares.

The means by which the documentary makes its argument (constructs its discourse) is remarkable and the conclusions it comes to are shocking but its mode of address is actual rather quiet and conversational. Indeed, because the documentarian is only present as voice-over narration this is an even more quiet and self-effacing mode than that adopted my Nick Broomfield. This seemingly neutral presentation is a part of the great strength of Curtis' approach.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


One on of the big problems we face is distinguishing it from other genres; especially other 'factual' genres such as news, sport, etc.

We can see that the hybrid forms of (broadcast) documentary give us some clues;

  • Mockumentary (e.g. The Office, Spinal Tap, etc) shows that documentary is not comedy or satire because it has to cross with that other genre to produce this hydrid.
  • Reality TV (or Banality TV - see Taylor PA, & Harris JL, Critical theories of mass media: then and now, Open University Press, 2007) (e.g. BigBrother, Survivor, Ship Wrecked, The Apprentice, etc) shows that documentary is not game show.
  • Docu-Soap (e.g.The Osbournes, Driving School, Airport, etc) shows it is not soap-opera.
  • Pseudo-Soap (e.g. The Hills) shows the popularity of docusoap as a form and the ease with which it can be bent to suit the needs of producers.
  • Docufiction (e.g. City of God) shows that documentary is not not Cinéma Vérité (even if they are closely related). Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) is 8 hours of slow motion footage of The Empire State building composed in massive takes without editing and is clearly not documentary.
  • Docudrama (e.g. United 93, The Battle of Algiers, Bloody Sunday, Battle for Haditha, Hillsborough) shows that documentary is not drama.

Things are less clear in other media, i.e ‘e-media’ & print, because most of what we might consider to be ‘documentary’ can be subsumed into journalism, photography, or other fields. The two main areas of documentary action in these media are photo-journalism & reportage and both are hybrids with journalism.

Photo-Journalism - It is hard to be certain what counts as photo-journalism and what is photography more broadly. The work of Weegee, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Don McCullin et al was documentary but Ansel Adams, Atget, and all other photographers also documented. A very delicate modality judgement about what is to be included and what excluded is necessary and it is not always clear whether the photographic is documentary (consider the problematic nature of google street view).

Reportage - In many ways reportage is even more loosely governed and problematic than photo-journalism. The works of Ryszard Kapuściński seem emblematic of the form but Hunter S Thompson’s far more complex and literary works would also fit into this generic category (even Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas could be seen as reportage). Again it is a question of modality and judgement.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Contexts of Reception

The audience's act of reception of a text is always situated within a socio-cultural context the nature of which provides the frameworks on/from which the meaning (or meanings) of the text is constructed. The text does not posses meaning in & of itself. Rather it's meaning lies in it's use within a given set of rules of use in a given setting. The text will be encoded with meaning by the producers and medium of the text but the acceptance (or otherwise) of that preferred reading is an act of the audience not of the text producers or its medium (although it must not be forgotten that the creators of the text and its medium are a part of and or have an effect on the socio-cultural context of reception and so are more involved in the act of reception than in just the provision of an encoded text to be worked on by the audience; see below).

This Wittgensteinian point has been made by Stuart Hall (Encoding/Decoding), David Morely (Family Television & Nationwide), Roland Barthes (Denotation-Connotation), and other proponents of Reception Theory.

The heart of the matter lies not with the text (although it's 'encoding' is a part of the act of reception it is not necessarily essential) but with the socio-cultural context. It is that context that provides the arena in which the text is used and it is in that use that its meaning lies.

This meaning need not be just of the text and its elements (i.e. of plot etc) but of the text in context. The meaning of a TV drama (for instance) can be constructed to show a range of ideological, narrative, representational messages but its meanings also involve its quality as entertainment or as group interaction (family time or as part of a friendship) or indeed as interpersonal communion (a date). The range of meaning of the text within its socio-cultural context also involves distinction (from Bourdieu), social-status, phatic communication (what the USA calls the 'water-cooler moment'; it gives something to talk about), the establishment of social solidarity (i.e. from Durkheim) in that it can create a connection between people, finally we could consider the range of communities that could be formed around the text ('fandom').


Michael Moore - 2002

Whenever we 'read' a documentary we are concerned with 4 principle issues.
1. What argument is the documentary making?
2. What is the role of the documentarian in this text?
3. What techniques does the documentary use to make its argument?
4. What techniques does the documentary use to establish itself as realistic?

The latter is a key concern of documentaries if they are not acceptable as realistic then they are not documentaries. To achieve a level of realism such that the text is accepted as realistic is the minimum goal of a documentary. So when ever you 'read' a documentary you must consider what its discourse of realism is.

1. Polemic - In many ways Moore is more a polemicist than a documentarian in that making an argument is his most important goal. This is not necessarily a bad thing as all documentaries contain ideological content and Moore foregrounds his own ideology so that we can engage with it; a form of polemical honesty. Documentaries that claim to be just showing 'x' as it really is are constructing a claim to truth and are in many ways more suspicious than documentaries with very strong arguments because they don't wont to engage with the audience in regard of their ideology.
2. 'Facticity' - As this text is a polemic with a very specific ideological message it has been attacked, attacked and attacked again on the basis that it misleads, lies, and distorts 'the truth' (a quick google will throw up plenty of examples of this). Such criticism rather fundamentally misses the point; there is no truth to distort only representations to be constructed and contested. Moore has initiated a representational struggle over guns and fear within the USA and the many responses denigrating Moore and Bowling for Columbine represent participation in this representational struggle. Of course pro-Moore participation also occurs and he and his films have many defenders. For the moment its worth noting that many of the editing techniques used by Moore to construct his representation are common to all documentarians and that anything other than the replay of raw footage (such as Andy Warhol's Empire - his 1964 8 hour long real time film of the Empire State building) would be unacceptable as documentary if Moore's critics had their way.
3. Techniques - The techniques of documentary must always be part of our consideration when reading such a text. Consider the role of each of the following in the construction of the text.
The selection and compression of filmed material - Interviews and other film sequences are always edited often with the intention of creating a specific effect.
relation of sound to image - the sound being heard and the images being seen need not have been captured simultaneously and could have been edited together later.
editing - the process of cutting from one scene to another structures the meaning of the documentary and cannot help but have an effect on our understanding of the text.
use of narrative - narrative is a key concept in media studies and so the use of narratives in documentaries ought to warn us that more is at stake in even the simplest seemingly non-ideological documentary then the simple depiction of the real. For the moment consider;
what does the narrative include and exclude?
what is the relationship of plot to description?
around who or what is the narrative focused?
does the narrative follow Todorov's schema?
what is the mode of address of the text?
function of narrator - A narrator is present in most documentaries and is the central instrument for the presentation of the preferred reading of the text.
set-ups - It is not always possible to tell how much preparation went into each filmed section of a documentary. Some sequences of all documentaries take huge amounts of preparation and therefore need to be approached carefully.
Filmed Vs Found - There is in every documentary always a tension between material freshly filmed for the documentary and found material that is used for illustrative and/or informative (comparison/contrast, etc.) reasons. The editing process can make it hard to distinguish the two types of material.
effect of camera and crew - the presence of the camera changes peoples actions and re-actions and so it must always be remembered that every situation depicted in a documentary is artificial in that the camera would not normally be present.
entertainment functions - documentaries do not exist solely to inform and educate it is also a part of their purpose to entertain. The balance of inform, educate, and entertain is very hard to maintain and most documentaries favour one over the others.


Structuralism is an area of social & cultural theory that focused on and analysed the structures found in human society. It was very important in the early & middle C.20th and is still a very useful perspective even though there have been several more recent developments (such as Post-Structuralism & Deconstruction).

Structuralism emerged from the realisation of certain linguistic & literary theorist and anthropologist that all human societies and cultures possessed shared elements. Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, noticed the universal prevalence of incest-taboos and binary oppositions in narratives (e.g. good/bad, man/women, young/old).

Most structural theory of narrative isn’t that immediately useful to us but three things certainly are;

The Death of the Author

The ‘equilibrium’ theory of Todorov

The ‘narrative codes’ of Roland Barthes

The Death of the Author - This is the title of an essay by Barthes on why authors are unimportant in the understanding of a text and which draws its inspiration from the remarkable finding of structuralist anthropology and literary theory that all stories contained the same or similar elements regardless of the society and/or culture they originated from. All human stories were made up from the same narrative elements (see Propp, The Brothers Grimm, the aforementioned Levi-Strauss, Todorov & Barthes (see below) and so all an ‘author’ really does it reform those existing elements into a specific (not even necessarily new) pattern. If the creators of texts are not their ‘authors’, in the sense of the originating force, then we should only think of them as writers and relegate them to the background of analysis.

The ‘equilibrium’ theory of Todorov - Todorov established that most narratives could be shown to conform to one narrative pattern and that this pattern was indicative of a conservative ideology. Equilibrium - Todorov suggests that a narrative pattern based on equilibrium - disruption - return to equilibrium - new (or re-established) equilibrium. By which we mean that this narrative pattern would present itself in a text as some form of social stability (family life, a peaceful setting, daily life, political stability) which is disrupted (murder, revolution, the return of a prodigal family member, the appearance of a super villain) this disruption needs to be worked through (by investigating the crime, the superhero struggling for good, the family mending itself, society repairing itself or being repaired) so that a new or re-establish social stability is in place for the conclusion of the text (the hero defeats the villain and his evil plan, the murderer is apprehended, the family is at peace with itself, the safety of the old order is repaired). Todorov did not contend that all narratives conformed to this pattern but that a majority of them did and that they did so for ideological reasons. Todorov shows this pattern to be an ideological tool that acts against change and in favour of the status quo.

The ‘narrative codes’ of Barthes - Barthes extended the structural analysis of narrative by suggesting that all narratives where built up from five interweaving codes. These codes, the hermeneutic (based on enigma), the proairetic (based on action), the ‘semantic’ (based on connotation), the ‘symbolic’ code (based on antithesis), and the ‘cultural’ code (based on shared knowledge & intertextuality), are mixed in different ways throughout different texts. For our purposes (A-level media studies) the first two codes, the hermeneutic (enigma) and the proairetic (action) are the most important because they are the most obvious. We can see them at work whenever there is a mystery to be solved or when action is needed to resolve a situation (they are very commonly seen in crime & thriller fiction) and they both have a strong interpellative effect in that they draw us in to the text. This is useful because we can see how narrative elements are used ideologically.

Links for further reading:

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Meta Blog: Wordle conceptualises this blog

This is a wordle composition of this blog which shows the relative frequency of words used in these postings and so gives us a snap shot of the actual content of the blog far more effectively than a tag cloud could ever do.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Phantasmagoria: Walter Benjamin and the World of Tomorrow

Benjamin was very interested in culture and what it could tell us. Culture here does not mean 'high culture' (art, literature, opera, etc) but the more mundane artefacts of the quotidian; posters, prints and printing, cinema, TV, and everything that one encounters in daily life. Indeed all of the ephemeral and evanescent stuff that we could absent-mindedly throw away or forget about whether it be material or conceptual (i.e. small-talk or other conversation). Indeed Benjamin's most important work - The Arcades Project - is specifically concerned with what all of this seemingly throw away stuff could tell us about the history of Paris in the 19th century and thus about the history of the 19th century more generally.

For our purposes - the study of the media and of society more generally - this concern with culture is very useful (Benjamin's concern with culture prefigures Stuart Hall and the CCCS and is therefore an essential point of contact). Benjamin was a member of the Frankfurt School and so was also concerned with the role and function of power and domination in society. This can be most clearly seen in his critical analysis of the Haussmannization of Paris in his Paris; Capital of the Nineteenth Century. This 'renovation' (we would call it 'urban regeneration' today) of Paris in the period of the Second Empire was seen by Benjamin to be a means of controlling the urban space (the great wide boulevards that Haussman's project introduced were far harder to barricade) and of policing its people by forcing the poor from the centre into the periphery.

Benjamin's most famous essay - on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction - helps us to think about and understand a lot of the issues involved in the current media landscape. Benjamin's argument in this essay is simple; the ease with which 'art' can be reproduced and disseminated is democratic.

This needs some expansion;

The ease with which 'art' (which we can take to mean cultural artefacts of any kind)

can be reproduced, either mechanically (printing, photography, photocopier, cd/dvd burner) or digitally (computer, digital photography, scanner, etc),

and disseminated, again either mechanically (post, courier, etc), institutionally (library, etc) or digitally (TV, Internet, BitTorrent, etc),

is democratic (benefits the people and breaks down the structures of domination in society).

Benjamin welcomed the very problem faced by contemporary media corporations whereby they spend a great deal of money creating a media artefact that then costs nothing to digitally reproduced & disseminate (given the existence of, and access to by the participants, the astonishing communications infrastructure we call the internet).

The current political problems around the Digital Economy Bill [here, here & here] are exactly concerned with the problems that Benjamin identified. The efforts of the Big-IP combines (the big four, the big six, the other big six, etc) to turn state power to the effort to control their property and thus defend their profits against the democratizing effect of the reproducibility of culture.

Basic Media Concepts List


This list of concept areas and associated ideas is a useful checklist for any work one could be doing in Media Studies. It is just an outline intended to be used to jog your memory rather than a fully fledged plan or approach to essay writing or exam practice. However, whenever you write about Media and/or Culture you should use it as a framework for thinking and planning.


Media & Medium



Representational Nature of the media






Reality Effect [Barthes]

Hyperreality [Baudrillard]{Post-Modernism}

Discourse of realism



Base/Superstructure Model

'opiate of the masses'


Ideology as 'lived experience'

Ideological State Apparatus




Use of representations as a means of ideological control

the 'manufacture of consent'


Sign/Signified (referent)/Signification

Arbitrary nature of the sign

Ambiguity of the sign



Denotation is the surface meaning of the sign

Connotation is the wider world of signification that we bring to the sign

Connotive Communities: Audience groups with shared connotive standards

Myth (Barthes)

the rhetorical or propaganda use of signs

Modes of Signs









Metaphoric Communities (see Connotive Communities).


Reference to and use of texts by texts

Genre, Narrative, Metaphor

intertextuality can provide a context for signs

Characters are intertextual, film stars are intertexual


Dimensions of intertextuality: Horizontal, vertical



From Work to Text

The Death of The Author

Narrative Codes



Elements of Narrative












'Equilibrium' & ideology


Narrative codes



The Death of the Author (again)

(Derrida etc)


Codes & Conventions

what are the rules and regulations of belonging to a particular group of texts


Ownership and Control

'Propaganda Model'




Reception Theory

ambiguity and arbitrariness of signs leads to polysemy


What is the Audience?

Target Audience

Intended Audience

Accidental Audience

Total Audience


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