Reflecting on the Access All Areas symposium
The Access All Areas symposium was, I thought, really successful and I'm already having ideas about how we do AAA2 next year as a two day event with a higher profile.
This is hardly headline news, but the focus on user-generated content (UGC) is a really productive way of addressing lots of issues in digital cultures research ― although as it turns out the term itself is disputed and, by some at least (Mandy Rose!), despised. I hadn't quite taken on how the term itself is uncomfortable for lots of us; a technocratic rationalisation of 'people' expressing themselves through connected mediations. What was UGC called before? Just 'content', amateur, access, or 'community'?
I'm not going to go into commentary and comment on individual papers, I'm hoping that over the coming weeks we can gather all the papers on the Access All Areas blog and then those involved and those interested can comment individually if you like. My headlines from the day go something like this.
One of the implications from the journalism panel and others was that 'Professional' media workers have to become more like 'curators', 'enablers', 'linkers'. These themes were strongly echoed by Sandra Gaudenzi and Mandy Rose who both talked about producers setting up the constraints, or rules of the game, then shaping the content that emerged. This is all in the spirit of Beryl Graham's insight in a 1995 essay that the skills of being a good interactive artist might turn out to be closer to the those of the good party host than those of the traditional studio bound artist. Setting up the conditions for participation.
However, for this new curatorial role to become possible, trust is an essential feature of the system. Journalists for instance need to trust contributors and vice versa ― human sympathy seems to be an important part of the process; the publish then filter has to generate trust which needs human leadership. But Kellner's 'Big Media' aren't going away ― we're just seeing a different disposition of their agency; the big trees in the media jungle are having to find new ways of exploiting the symbiosis they have always had with the creatures on the forest floor formerly known as the audience.
Why does (some) UGC move me? Why does UGC often make me feel thrilled, inspired, choked, inspired, proud? I'm thinking here about Jessica Crombie refugee blog news site from Kenya and the brilliant Ushahidi network, of the Mapping Main Street project from MAP, Tony Dowmunt's midnight ramblings from Sierra Leone, and even weird individual moments of crazed joy like the Numa Numa guy. Seeing these various examples and experiencing this set of feelings over and over through the day made me reflect on this affective quality. This has two immediate consequences. One is to revisit the work I did in Freakshow on the place of emotion in the public sphere: however whilst that was concerned with the impacts of speaking as 'I' in the public sphere of a disembodied and bourgeois 'we' this affective quality has more in common with a feeling from and for the collective. This is complex and tricky stuff but the way in which the individual experiences in for instance Video Nation were always held in a productive relationship to the polity through their framing as "Nation" is similar to the role of social networking in 'inspiring' UGC. Burgess & Green in their You Tube study stress time and again that it's the social networking aspect of this work that's new and interesting. But maybe the affectively driven social networking functionality actually really does replace directly the rhetorics of a public sphere based on rational communication. We are emotionally driven by belonging and connecting. This affect is reproduced in certain kinds of UGC experience that connect us to something human, or perhaps tribal.
The other consequence of thinking more about affect, and pleasure, is to resolve, or at least perhaps reframe, the debate between narrative and fragmentation that resurfaced during the discussion of Sandra Gaudenzi's presentation. Our fragmented navigations of online media spaces and social networks is driven not by somebody else's news agenda, about what it is imagined we ought to know but purely by own emotionally driven grazing; turns out for a lot of us the latest inanity from Perez Hilton is more compelling than banking reform; the photos uploaded by your class mates more interesting by far than anything else available today. The non narrative experience of distracted surfing is more emotionally satisfying by far since every click is driven by desire. Our navigations follow courses charted in the emotional connectivity of the social network. When we're stranded alone on a cold railway platform at night waiting for a connection why do we reach for the phone ? Because the little strokes of emotional warmth from a loved one, pinged back text offers us a tiny bit of haptic connectivity. Participation and connection may be more important than content for the mediatized subject.
Whilst the memory of the ideological critique embedded in the history of UGC was still present in Emma Agusita's account of the aims of her practice in community media and informal education it is equally clear from Dan Ashton and Martin Thayne that UGC is also a gigantic market opportunity. Here we were drawn to the reasons why UGC is such a distasteful term for some of us, it's a good example of modern newspeak in that the content in UGC is, in the Web 2.0 discourse, irrelevant. Its our activity, participating, posting, liking, sharing, rating and recommending that undertakes the massive global labour of attention aggregation.
All to play for then. More as I have to time to reflect on individual papers. Thanks to all for what I found a richly nourishing day.