Month: June 2013

Instagram video: La recherche du temps perdu*

*This is my blog and I can be as pretentious as I like.

Instagram now has the capacity for sharing video. Because why have one image when you can have loads of them per second. I’ll explain a bit about the service first but the interesting thing to me is what one of the technical constraints says about meaningful communication.

The interface is kind of like vine in that you touch the screen to film and let go to stop. The movies don’t loop like on Vine, though, and the video can be up to 15 seconds long which is over twice that of a Vine.

As you might expect, once you’ve filmed your video you also have a number of filters (with names of varying degrees of sense) to apply. I’m sad that the makers didn’t experiment further with filters. Where was the one that made it look like a black and white movie from the thirties? What about red/blue 3D-ifying footage? The point of Instagram is nostalgia at the touch of a button so why not explore how that differs for video.

ANYWAY, the meaningful communication observation is tied to the requirement that video on Instagram be at least 3 seconds long. Any shorter and it simply won’t publish. When I noticed this (there’s a bar at the bottom of the recording screen with a notch to mark off that limit) I started wondering why.

To me, a child of the gif generation it seems obvious that some video sentiments benefit from brevity. Two seconds is technically all the time you need for a cat in a bee costume to fall off a couch. For example.

I wondered whether the three second rule (the Instagram one not the food one) might be a tech issue or a concession to functionality. Maybe it’s to do with storage space or perhaps shorter video without a loop function would just look glitchy and broken on the feed.

Curious, I emailed the PR who responded:

“Instagram is about capturing moments – we believe the constraints in place help create compelling and simple videos for everyone to consume in a mobile setting.”

So the three second rule is about capturing moments. But no fewer than three of them. Compelling and simple videos as defined by Instagram and parent company Facebook only exist in the range of 3-15 seconds.

In that tiny three second gap between still photograph and Instagram video is a hinterland of lost emotion and communication. I can’t imagine it’s a space which matters to many people but for me it represents a fifth less communication, a fifth less exploration and a fifth less ambition.

Last Words – Vice and the contagion of suicide [FFS]

Vice created a reprehensible fashion shoot for its magazine called Last Words. The concept was suicides and suicide attempts of famous female authors. It has now been taken down from the site (you can still get it in the print edition) and the editors have offered an apology, but I spent a lot of today circling back to why the spread had bothered me quite so much.

First and foremost, Last Words was cynical traffic-driving, social media-baiting, attention-seeking bullshit combined with the notion that if something ruffles feathers you are somehow automatically edgy and challenging of the status quo.

In many respects that’s what the Internet does every day and it breeds a kind of cynical ennui – “Oh, it’s the latest crisis on Twitter.” But for me this was different. There are a number of issues which need unpicking to make sense of the discomfort but the primary one relates to suicide.

The media as a whole is terrible at reporting suicide because it resists easy narrative. The temptation is to simplify it to reflect a more easily comprehensible version of reality. Coverage veers towards the sensational or reductive. That, in and of itself, is not surprising. News media has an agenda and complex ideas get simplified for ease of transmission. The problem is that this doesn’t take into account how suicide works.

The problem with reporting on suicide is that suicide can be contagious. David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California has authored a number of studies which investigate the relationship between coverage of suicides in the news and incidences of suicide in the period immediately afterwards. As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, The Tipping Point, “Immediately after stories about suicides appeared, suicides in the area served by the newspaper jumped.”

Phillips’ explanation of the correlation is that suicide is a permissive act. It serves as a demonstration of a possible solution or even a method of communication and, consciously or not, vulnerable people respond to it. The contagiousness of suicide is just one of the many reasons journalists have a responsibility to cover it responsibly.

With that in mind we come to Vice’s photoshoot. Vice was being deliberately provocative as per usual but this shoot crossed a line for me and it’s because it forms a type of suicide reportage.

A deliberately wide variety of suicide methods were being showcased in close connection with a desirable lifestyle (as exemplified by the clothing) and aspirational literary figures (these women were talented, complex, interesting people). Given Phillips’ studies on the effects of presenting suicide on a public forum, it struck me as abhorrent that Vice was actively pursuing a campaign to get as many eyeballs on presentations of suicide as possible.

That’s the single most important reason I am taking issue with the photoshoot. But there are other factors which bothered me and they feed into what we have created and perpetuated in terms of Internet business models.

There’s a concept called the inhuman which came up in a book I was reading recently about the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard. It’s a kind of catch-all term for when the human dimensions of a scenario are eclipsed by the technological and scientific. Here we come to the idea of page views, of brand awareness, of virality as measured by numbers blinking on a metrics dashboard. There’s no business sense in caring about the human side. These dead women. Vice – and indeed huge swathes of the Internet – is not built on compassion. It is built on page views and advertising.

This is where Jezebel gets a mention. Their censure of Vice would have been laudable had they not reproduced the entire shoot on their site as part of the criticism. Several commenters noted that they were pleased by the decision as it meant Vice didn’t profit from page views from the curious.

Lovely. Except Vice would own the copyright on those images. If they objected to Jezebel’s coverage they could presumably have forced the site to take them all down (I don’t know enough about the US law on that front but my gut instinct is that the volume of pictures Jezebel featured would go beyond fair use critique defence in the UK).

I’ve signed contracts over photoshoot image rights from magazines before and they can be draconian, particularly in terms of how you present the images critically. It’s logical to think, given those assumptions, that Jezebel’s use of Vice’s imagery still benefits Vice. It also benefits Jezebel – all those people denying Vice their web traffic by heading over to the Gawker network. Even the censure is not about people it’s still about page views.

This takes me to my last point. That the unsophisticated way we measure success in online media means all types of response and traffic tend to get classed as positives. As such the content spreads and spreads as more sites seek to make a point or a profit. Anger and action perpetuates the thing you’re fighting against and so one of the most effective weapons we have is inaction – not mentioning it, trying to starve it of publicity. That too is a manifestation of the inhuman. Where natural human emotion and response must be sublimated in order to adequately manipulate our tech and business systems to give an appropriate response. As solutions go, it’s not great.

In this scenario Vice did actually take down the shoot, but the fact that it existed in the first place, that it was presented without caveat and without context for the vulnerable, that Jezebel basically pulled the “look how dreadful this dreadful thing is – no really, have a look, we have so many pictures” trick, that we are perpetuating a system where pulling irresponsible attention-seeking shit for numbers is a valid editorial policy…

There needs to be another way.

If you’re struggling with any of the issues raised by that photoshoot or my discussion of it, the Samaritans can be reached 24 hours a day, every single day of the year.

Another Booker DeWitt in another flooded church [BioShock Infinite spoilers, I guess]

One of the last things I wrote on here was from just after finishing BioShock Infinite. It was a piece about the frustration and the disconnection I had in the world of Columbia. I could see a beautiful thing and an interesting thing and a thing built around concepts I actively enjoy thinking about or exploring. It was a game which said “we made this for you”.

Then I played it.

Columbia was a closed world. Sure I could wander round and shoot men or pick up voxophones but there was no space for me to exist. It’s a concept central to the game’s story but one which repelled. Here I am, you made a game for me to play and interact with except it isn’t a game, it’s a movie crossed with a museum and that made the sections where it required sustained active input seem so hollow. Don’t get me wrong, I like the FPS side of things and I think the game actually benefits from the violence. But between the combat sections and the wandering about sections I couldn’t find a foothold through which to insert myself into proceedings and engage with the ideas.

Last night I booted it up again, determined to find something different, a way in and a way around.

It’s a decision which has been building for a while but I didn’t act on it because I was enjoying the state of anticipation. The weeks or months between the first play and this one have been marked by a peculiar sensation — that of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I will love so much about the game this time around. Delaying that gratification has been a tease and a pleasure and I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. But a few nights ago I needed to fact check something and since then it’s been just a matter of finding the time to hit “new game”.

Maybe this will sum up the differences between playthroughs so far:

After the lighthouse, your first experience involves a flooded church. It was astonishingly beautiful the first time round but something bothered me and that was the lack of repercussions for any of your actions. As with the rest of the game all you can really do is pick up things that are glowing and interact with people in pre-determined ways. During the first playthrough I did as my trained monkey game brain desired. I picked up everything I could find, sat through the conversations and headed towards my brutal baptism. My engagement with the space was then disrupted – where was my punishment for stealing from this religion or cult?

Obviously, one of the points of BioShock Infinite is that you’re not the first Booker to have trodden this path. The Lutece coin toss set piece hints at dozens of other Bookers all unable to effect a change. With that in mind, the only interactions the game can offer you are those which can’t actually make a difference to the story. That’s the problem with the first playthrough – before the game offers you a broader hint at the difficulties of determinism and free will it signposts trashcans for you to snuffle around in and loot to pick up. The lack of censure feels bizarre and takes hold, persisting well into the rest of the game and cultivating a disconnect which is then exacerbated through the oddly punctuated battle sequences.

In terms of the flooded church, the consequence-less theft can represent both your ultimate inability to have an impact on the flow of the story and Booker’s relationship with religion. That’s not to say I now think the execution isn’t problematic. Regardless of why it happens, diminishing the player’s agency will affect their experience of the game – it definitely affected mine.

So what of this latest Booker in this latest flooded church? He picked up one single solitary coin through force of habit and then left the rest alone. He looked at everything, listened to the voxophone about sinners in relation to a redeemer, and drank in the atmosphere. That was the extent to which I knew I could exert my own agency and so this time it counted for far more. The expectation of repercussions is because games frequently encourage an externalised view of morality. It is they and their systems which will determine how good or bad you are so you behave slightly differently. This time, in response to the previous playthrough, I’m finding the tiny points of difference (moral and otherwise) where this Booker can become my Booker. I can’t change who he is overall but I can build a bridge over which we can communicate.