Digital Essay by Marina Hassapopoulou, New York University
Introduction: Much More to the Digital (Humanities)
There is more to the digital than the computational and, therefore, more to the Digital Humanities (DH) than the much discussed “computational turn.” With this in mind, I would like to use my analysis of a collaborative, multimedia class project as a way of thinking beyond the computational for Humanities research, while still maintaining the experimental ethos that characterizes DH-related projects. The featured project analyzes the potential contributions of social networking tools to the documentation of personal moments in film history, and proposes an alternative, networked mode of film historiography. In this hybrid learning assignment, students are tasked with creatively using social media such as Twitter, Facebook, FaceTime, Vine, iMessage, Instagram, Snapchat, and live blogging to document and reflect on their experience of watching a specific film. The assignment has a problem-solving component characteristic of multimodal learning: students are challenged to use networked media they interact with on a regular basis as makeshift archival tools to produce their unique perspective on a film screening and, collectively, contribute to audience reception studies in a digital context.
Click on the icons on the interactive image to learn more about the assignment, learning outcomes, and links to student media
This multimodal pedagogical approach suggests an expanded understanding of DH methods for Film Studies research – a methodology that uses digital media to propose new modes of inquiry without relying on computational methods, and reminding students that there are many more tools for DH research than data mining, GIS mapping, and data-driven visualizations. As an educator with a strong stake in the development of Film and Media Studies, I feel it is important to propose broader definitions of Digital Humanities approaches in order to maintain certain productive modes of inquiry that stem from older fields. In keeping with the experimental ethos that initially prompted the Humanities’ appropriation of computational methods, I’m proposing — through this teaching experiment and also through my research and other projects — that the critical repurposing of existing media platforms towards the objective of generating new modes of literacy should be more integrated into DH methodologies. This approach further expands Tara McPherson’s definition of the multimodal humanist who “brings together databases, scholarly tools, networked writing, and peer-to-peer commentary while also leveraging the potential of visual and aural media…” (McPherson 120).
The assignment offers new ways of engaging students through popular culture and multimodal learning methods that fuse technological, visual, aural, kinesthetic, problem-solving, and learning-through-play techniques to promote blended learning. Multimodal assignments enable students to invent ways of analyzing moving images that go beyond written communication, and experiment with hybrid and hypertextual modes of composing film analysis. The objective of designing hybrid assignments is to help students feel invested in new modes of generating innovative film scholarship by contributing something unique to the field of study. In collaborative multimodal assignments, the class functions as a “collective intelligence” knowledge community – inspired by Pierre Lévy’s philosophy – that favors synergistic learning and shared goals (Lévy). In a collective intelligence classroom community, every student is aware of his/her potential to actively contribute to the development of the course. When students become aware of this potential, they tend to be more invested in the overall success of the course.
Bringing the Cinematic “Excess” into the Classroom Through Pop Culture
The question of how to incorporate new media and popular culture trends (such as the “selfie” and animated .gifs) the students are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about into the learning process provided the starting point for designing hybrid learning assignments for my Film and Media Studies courses. Experimenting with new methodologies and repurposing existing tools (such as social media platforms) for film analysis paves the way for non-traditional modes of engaging with cinema in the digital age. Open-ended assignments that blend analytical skills with the use of technology assist students in acquiring diverse skills and, as an added bonus, offer students the opportunity to teach their peers and instructor something new.
I structured this particular classroom assignment around social media platforms because of their immense potential as DIY amateur archives. As students in the course are aware, social media already function as sites for enormous data mining and, in addition to this, cultural and national institutions such as the Library of Congress and Britain’s National Archives have launched projects dedicated to preserving our user-generated digital heritage. Archiving vast amounts of social media data can, however, be overwhelming – as the Library of Congress discovered in its still-incomplete Twitter archiving initiative that began in 2010 (Zimmer).
What happens to social, user-generated data that cannot be quantified? Even though DH work indicates a clear shift from quantitative to qualitative analytical methods, there are still subjective data that fall between the cracks of what is deemed computationally useful. What do we do with this “excess” that falls between the cracks of data analysis and distant reading methods? These between-the-cracks data are particularly important when studying film audiences, for instance. Social media have made us even more aware of the status of cinema as a site of reception, cultural exchange, and circulation of ideas. The release of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), as the most up-to-date example, has filled cyberspace with seemingly endless amounts of fan-driven modes of consumption, including remixes, memes, gifs, tweets, forum discussions and Reddit debates that cannot possibly be quantified and managed into computational databases. The most interesting activity tends to happen outside of the realm of the computationable. More than falling under the rubric of “big data,” social media production represents and extends aspects of human nature that cannot be fully broken down into trends and hashtags.
Even before the rise of DH and the popularity of digital social media, film historians, theorists, and aca-fans began to draw attention to “a people’s history of cinema” that acknowledges the importance of local and community production/ consumption as integral aspects of movie history (Klenotic). While computational methods, data analytics, text mining, and GIS mapping have made certain aspects of these micro-histories more accessible –such as the collaborative “new cinema history” project AusCinemas, an interactive map visualization of Australian cinemas, that includes quantitative information within an analytical framework – there is much more critical analysis to be done when “a people’s history of cinema” extends into online social networks and real-time mediated experiences (Bowles et al). Going along with Richard Maltby’s agenda of further emphasizing “the social experience of cinema” and focusing on “topics not previously thought to possess a history,” I wanted to focus on social media as tools for distilling viewers’ cinematic encounters into 140 characters or less, and other prescribed formats (Maltby 32). By exploring what Francesco Casetti identifies as the “diffusion of screens in our daily life […that] allows cinema to continue to survive, even as it adapts to a new landscape,” students not only critically reflect on the “relocation of cinema” but also contribute to it by producing their own digital traces of their cinematic experiences in the classroom (Casetti). When social media are introduced into film screenings, cinema once again becomes a social milieu, although this time technology amplifies the social aspects to create forms of transparent connectivity that depart from non-mediated, pre-digital, and proto-cinematic notions of social cinema.
Critical and Theoretical Background on Archiving Ephemeral Experiences
“Any objective description of the experience of phenomena cannot be truly objective unless it also accommodates the subjective mode of that experience and addresses the life-world in which we live as sensible and significant beings.” (Sobchack 308)
The assignment was designed for an upper-division and graduate course titled “Mind Games in Film” (University of South Florida, Spring 2014), but can be adjusted to various other Film and Media Studies courses that have screening sessions. The focus of this particular course is on experimental mind-bending films that cognitively and affectively incorporate the viewer into the interpretation of the cinematic narrative. The course focuses on films that defy classical narrative conventions and challenge existing film theories of spectatorship (such as apparatus and feminist theories). Students explore media spectatorship from varying historical perspectives, diverse cultural contexts, biocultural factors, changing materialities, mind-body philosophies, and alternative screening sites in order to analyze new and hybrid forms of film reception in the digital age.
Using Casetti’s philosophical and Vivian Sobchack’s phenomenological approach to the cinematic experience as starting points, the assignment aims to reincorporate “the spectator’s uniquely situated and embodied consciousness” into the analysis of film (1992: 308). Sobchack’s phenomenological approach alerts students to the existence of a network of multi-directional filmic encounters (embodied, pre-reflective, reflective, collective) and to the impossibility of a uniform and predictable mode of film interaction. Film history does not typically consider individual experiences that are part of a collective “body” of spectatorship because empirical records are difficult to theorize and quantify unless they fall into cohesive patterns. As Sobchack notes, in the practices of mainstream cinema and in theories of spectatorship, “the particular human lived-body (specifically lived as ‘my body’)” is missing because it is “in excess of the historical and analytic systems available to codify, contain, and even negate it” (147).
Although Sobchack was writing during a pre-DH time, her emphasis on the heterogeneity of spectatorship comes, almost prophetically, close to my own skepticism regarding processes of standardization and pattern-making that are now much more easily facilitated through technology. In influentially studying the intersections between technology and memory studies, José van Dijck argues, from a different interdisciplinary angle than Sobchack, that “personal (re)collections are often subsumed as building blocks of collective history rather than considered in their own right”(28). However, in dialogue with Judith Mayne’s theories of spectatorship, it is still relatively unclear what the historical and theoretical contributions of diverse viewer responses to cinema are in the field of Film and Media Studies (53). The open-ended nature of this line of inquiry allows students to come up with their own theory-practice responses and to reflect on the value of subjective, audience-generated “data” in larger questions about viewership.
Another open-ended question that prompted the assignment is that of the documentation of ephemera. How are subjective experiences documented, shared, archived, and (re)mediated in public domains? What remains after we watch a movie, and how can we use the technologies at our disposal (cell phones, laptops, cameras, etc) to capture and store our subjective experiences so that we can relive them and convey them to others? The assignment’s approach to using social media as sites that remediate individual and collective memory is meant to confirm Derrida’s assertion that “the archivization produces as much as it records the event” (17). And in fact, the reflection on which social medium to use and how use it for memory storage became an integral part of the cinematic experience students were trying to capture and remediate.
Since the notion of cinema as prosthetic memory was a prominent theme for the course [to be explained further in the Description section], I wanted students to use social media (such as Instagram photos, memes, live feed, and Twitter updates) as external mnemonic devices that will help them document and store specific moments from the film screening. Ultimately, I wanted the class to engage in an assignment that would challenge them to use media they have not used before for film analysis to (re)capture the experience of watching the medium of film. These new media would become the students’ writing tools to generate unique ways of analyzing the moving image in the 21st century. I therefore reversed the classroom’s typical “No Cell Phones” policy to an “All Media Allowed” policy and let the students indulge their natural enthusiasm for interacting with media to produce an alternative mode of real-time collective film historiography.
More on the Interactive Assignment and Description of Learning Objectives
The chosen film for the screening, Late Fragment (Cloran, Doron and Guez 2007), is by nature interactive and requires audience members to choose the narrative direction of the film out of thousands of potential trajectories and scene combinations. This film was chosen because it fit with the mind-games/ puzzle films theme of the course, but the assignment can be adapted to any film. (In fact, some students said that a non-interactive film might work better in other contexts because the audience will not be required to participate in the unfolding of the narrative and will instead be able to focus solely on the task of recording their impressions of the screening – I’m planning on trying this soon in a different film course).
Asking students to record mementos of the screening to convey their subjective point of view and spark their memory of the event at a later time was inspired by our analysis of mnemonic devices in Memento (Nolan 2000) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry 2004), as well as Lev Manovich, Alison Landsberg and Jose van Dijck’s theories on audiovisual technologies serving as prosthetic and/or expanded mnemonical devices that enhance and [arguably] rewire our brain’s cognitive and, in particular, memory-making abilities. Alison Landsberg uses the term prosthetic memory to refer to individuals relating mediated images of the past to their own life experiences in an empathetic manner. Individuals therefore internalize those borrowed images by integrating them into moments they have directly experienced, such as the experience of watching a film where the filmic images themselves can become subsumed into the viewer’s total memory of that experience. Cinema then becomes an “experiential site,” and in this particular assignment, the digital traces of the cinematic encounters have the capacity to virtually create surrogate experiences for people who did not participate in the interactive film screening (Landsberg 4).
Furthermore, after covering Lev Manovich’s chapter on a historical overview of technology-assisted attempts to visualize and represent the human mind, “Visual Technologies as Cognitive Prostheses,” I wanted students to analyze – through both theory and practice – the capabilities of digital media to externalize and alter cognitive processes of memory making (particularly in “real-time”). By exteriorizing the ways we watch and relate to films, and by attempting to capture the ephemera of cinema-as-event, the collective contributions of students would create a hive of digital traces that can offer insights about spectatorship in the age of networked communications. This is what I identify as technomemory: a type of hybrid memory that exemplifies the fusion of (digital) technologies with biological processes of recollection, information retrieval, and sociocultural associations.
It should be noted here that the theoretical scope – like the parameters of the interactive screening and the film shown– can be adaptable to the theme of each course, since the objective is to help students reflect on the complexities of documenting shared events and of conveying highly subjective cinematic experiences through digital media.
After the screening, students were asked to upload the highlights of their chosen method of recording their film experience to their individual WordPress blogs, along with a 1-2 paragraph summary of their impressions of the film and the process of documenting the experience for posterity. When all assignments were posted, I compiled them on a single blog, which can be accessed here, along with links to each individual entry. The multiple perspectives on a single screening were pieced together to produce a heterogeneous view of the event; this approach reminded students of films previously seen in class that challenge the totality of a single version of the “truth” and raise epistemological questions about mediation and subjectivity in cinema (and beyond), such as Rashomon (Kurosawa 1950), LoveFilm (Szabo 1970), Run Lola Run (Tykwer 1998), Memento (Nolan 2000) and Oldboy (Park 2003).
The learning objectives for the class project have to do with both theoretical and practical skills. The project aims to stimulate critical reflection on the complexities of documenting shared events and of conveying highly subjective cinematic experiences. The convergence of multiple means of capturing and remediating an “original” event provides students with new and innovative ideas on what it means to archive in the age of digital communications and social media. Cinema is re-established as a social and communal experience by using the latest social media platforms and other digital tools to document individual and collective impressions of the chosen film. The focus expands beyond the screen into audience participation, interaction, and the (digitally) tangible fragments that are ultimately pieced together to recreate the students’ impressions of this interactive film experience. Students are also given the chance to explore the archival potential of social/digital media, and the potential contributions social networking tools can make to the documentation of subjective moments in film history. In order to help students feel more invested in the larger scope of the project, the objective of contributing to new experimental methodologies in Film and Media Studies was also emphasized.
Discussion of Outcomes and Student Responses
Students rose to the challenge by proposing innovative ways to capture their film experience, such as selfies, memes, and real-time picture message exchange. Before the in-class assignment, I asked the students to brainstorm ideas in the Comments section of the assignment page. Each student claimed a specific medium, and briefly explained how they plan on using it during the interactive screening in the Comments section. Students were also asked to comment on any potential issues that could arise during the screening, in order to help us anticipate and resolve any glitches ahead of time.
A voting poll was set up to help us pick a fitting title for the assignment and its scope. The problem-solving aspect of the assignment helped students feel more invested in the successful completion of the task, and also assisted in fostering a collaborative atmosphere prior to the assignment. During the brainstorming phase, students proposed some collaborative approaches to the assignment, and gave feedback on each other’s chosen medium.
On the day of the in-class assignment, students brought their laptops, cell phones and videocameras (depending on the medium they chose). Some of the approaches to Late Fragment included: live blogging, iMessage with screenshot captions, exchange of Snapchat photo messages, selfies, memes and .gifs, panoramic and photoshopped images (using smartphone apps), Facebook status updates, and videos. The assignment can be adjusted to the technical competency level of each student and the electronics they have at their disposal.
Students reacted with enthusiasm to the assignment, and enjoyed engaging in a project that was different and experimental. Some students used their chosen medium to convey their thoughts on interactive narratives in experimental cinema, to speculate on which out of the 3 converging storylines the majority gravitated towards, and to reflect on multitasking as part of the cinematic experience.
Some of them additionally reflected on medium specificity, by analyzing the limitations and advantages of their chosen medium as a form of DIY amateur archive. For instance, a student suggested that iMessage’s “ability to see that the other person is typing before they send their message […] adds to that “real-time” feeling” (Alexandra).
For more, click on this interactive mosaic gallery with links to each student’s contributions
The subsequent analysis of the assignment revealed that some students appreciated the aspect of multitasking while watching a film, while others found it too distracting. This made students compare older notions of social cinema to our improvised version, and explore the overlap between them. Furthermore, we revisited in our class discussion the ongoing question of whether new modes of interaction are capable of habitually rewiring our brain by training us to, for instance, watch films differently, or whether multitasking is indeed too much for our brain to handle (Hassapopoulou).
The only clear consensus among the varied responses is that students enjoyed the communal aspects of the screening. They also enjoyed looking at each other’s approach to the assignment, and interacting with each other during the live event. One student noted that interacting with her classmate via iMessage made the screening “far more interesting than trying to work it out previously. We were able to put together our theories and even predict what we think might happen and see how a specific story panned out (even if we did not get to see all of it on the screen)” (Shandra). Another student reflected on the unconventional conditions of spectatorship during the interactive screening by blogging, “it was enthralling to have a well-light screening room, versus the norm of having the lights off when viewing a film. This made the experience communally engaging […] the ability to see my classmates’ interactions and engagement is what became the focal point for my viewing experience” (Nicholas).
In 1967, after screening of one of the world’s first audience-centered interactive film, Kinoautomat, its main director, Radúz Činčera, recognized that the audience interaction during the screening comprised “a sociological and psychological study about group behavior” (Kappler 28C). While active audience engagement is something we tend to take for granted nowadays, the incorporation of social media into the film experience was reminiscent of Činčera’s commentary about group mentality. Činčera used technology to standardize audience responses (via majority vote) in his choose-your-own-adventure-type film, while my class used technology to diversify their impressions. In both cases, however, individual impressions of the film’s narrative and aesthetics fuse with collective audience reactions and the technologies used to document the experience.
Even moments of dissonance between “the two ways of knowing” – the computational and the humanistic – can be productive, according to scholars like Miriam Posner (Posner). In addition to expanding the definition of data here to include student-generated input, I argue that incompatible clusters of data can shed light on new film/ media reception practices even in their resistance to be neatly classified into patterns. As Steve Anderson argues, “the most interesting histories are not necessarily those with the greatest capacity for multiplicity, reconfigurability, or even managing quantities of diverse data” (Anderson 140).
New ways of making and documenting personal and collective experiences can create an epistemological shift in how we view the historical narratives of the past. Moreover, the context collapse that is often associated with media practices such as remix and appropriation can produce a radically new sense of historicity. Social networking sites, as Joanne Garde-Hansen aptly puts it, “could pose serious challenges to the hegemony of the historical imagination that has dominated Western thought in the last century. They should not be dismissed as frivolous, time-consuming, dangerous, addictive or as the claiming of a bit of cyberspace for the marketing of a youthful self.” (Garde-Hansen 135)
This should be a strong enough justification for any educator wishing to seriously incorporate social media into the classroom. In addition, as scholars like Katherine Groo and Geoffrey Cubitt have advocated, the methodological boundaries of our fields need to become more open (even in supposedly more open fields like the DH) in order to fill in historical and epistemological gaps in the production of historical awareness (Groo; Cubitt, 234). Under this rationale, amateur DIY memory archives that are both individual and collective by association have their own place in a non-linear, multi-temporal historiography of the cinematic experience.
Encouraging students to explore ways of audio/visual writing that are closer to the audiovisual media they are analyzing can lead to more creative endeavors. Experimental assignments like the one analyzed stimulate reflection on the impact of digitization on memory, new versions and methods of historiography, and new forms of film criticism. The interactive and collaborative components of this multimodal assignment adhere to new DH approaches to learning that promote idea sharing, crowdsourcing, and collaboration in order to produce new modes of knowledge and interrogate our current assumptions about spectatorship and – by extension – citizenship in the digital age.
For more media and analysis of the assignment, visit https://marinahassap.wordpress.com/interactive/.
Links to Student Blogs
Hector Sotomayor – Live Blogging
Jill Barnhardt – Twitter, TwitPics, and iPhone apps
Christie Callan – Snapchat and Screenshots [no longer accessible; photos archived]
Abrams, J.J., dir. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Lucasfilm, 2015. Film.
Anderson, Steve. Technologies of History: Visual Media and the Eccentricity of the Past. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth UP, 2011. Print.
Bowles, Kate, Richard Maltby, Deb Verhoeven and Mike Walsh. The New Cinema History: A Guide. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. Print.
Casetti, Francesco. “The Relocation of Cinema.” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies 22 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2015. < http://www.necsus-ejms.org/the-relocation-of-cinema/ >
Cloran, Daryl, Anita Doron, and Mateo Guez. Late Fragment. Canadian Film Center and National Film Board of Canada, 2007. Film.
Cubitt, Geoffrey. History and Memory. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007. Print.
Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1996. Print.
Garde-Hansen, Joanne. “MyMemories?: Personal Digital Archive Fever and Facebook.” Save As…Digital. Ed. Joanne Garde-Hansen, Andrew Hoskins and Anna Reading. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009. 135-150. Print.
Groo, Katherine. “Cut, Paste, Glitch, and Stutter: Remixing Film History.” Frames Cinema Journal 2 July 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://framescinemajournal.com/article/cut-paste-glitch-and-stutter/>
Hassapopoulou, Marina. “Reconfiguring Film Studies Through Software Cinema and Procedural Spectatorship” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies 3.2 (2014): n. pag. Web.
Kappler, Frank. “The Mixed Media – Communication that Puzzles, Excites and Involves.” Life Magazine 14 July 1967, 28A-C. Print.
Klenotic, Jeffrey. “Four Hours of Hootin’ and Hollerin’: Moviegoing and Everyday Life Outside the Movie Palace”, in Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes eds., Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social Experience of Cinema, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, pp.130-154. 2007.
Landsberg, Alison. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print.
Levy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books, 1999. Print.
Maltby, Richard. “New Cinema Histories.” Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies. Ed. Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst, and Philippe Meers. Malden: MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 3-40. Print.
Manovich, Lev. “Visual Technologies as Cognitive Prostheses: A Short History of the Externalization of the Mind.” The Prosthetic Impulse: From a Posthuman Present to a Biocultural Future. Ed. Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006. 203-219. Print.
Mayne, Judith. Cinema and Spectatorship (New York: Routledge, 1993). Print.
McPherson, Tara. “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities.” Cinema Journal 48.2 (2009): 119-123. Print.
Posner, Miriam. “Digital Humanities and Media Studies: Staging an Encounter.” Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference, Chicago, March 8, 2013. Workshop lecture.
Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1992. Print.
Van Dijck, Jose. Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. Print.
Zimmer, Michael. “The Twitter Archive at the Library of Congress: Challenges for Information Practice and Information Policy. First Monday 20.7 6 July 2015. Web. 20 August 2015. <http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5619/4653>
 Ironically, some of the media used to document the ephemeral aspects of film spectatorship are no longer available on some of the student blogs. In more recent assignments, I have asked students to document and preserve their work on multiple platforms and use open-source archiving tools such as Webrecorder as a means of countering the precariousness of the digital realm. Visit this site for some ideas on how to curate diverse student content using blogging platforms, interactive tools, and hyperlinked media galleries.
Marina Hassapopoulou is Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has published articles on topics including digital and social media, cultural studies, interactive cinema, transnational cinema, European cinema, and hybrid pedagogy. She is part of the organizing committee for the first conference of a series of events that focus on the intersection between Cinema Studies and the Digital Humanities, Transformations I: Cinema and Media Studies Research Meets Digital Humanities Tools, and has created teaching guides and research resources related to the topic. She is currently working on her book, Interactive Cinema: An Alternative History of Moving Images, which focuses on participatory experiments in the history of cinema and develops new theoretical frameworks for understanding spectatorship in the digital age. You can find out more about her work by visiting her site, https://marinahassap.wordpress.com.