Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog posting written by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia R. Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
For the last two years, we (Sam Gregory and Patricia R. Zimmermann) have been collaborating on theoretical and analytical research, protocols, and best practices in the burgeoning world of international human rights social media. We've published some essays, we've organized panels at the Visible Evidence Conferences on Documentary, we've written several papers, and we've participated as featured guests on the <Empyre> new media art listserv, moderated by digital theorist Tim Murray and digital artist Renate Ferro.
In our current project (recently presented at Visible Evidence in Istanbul, Turkey), we are interested in upacking the ethical engagements of human rights social media in international networks. We ask, are these forms spreadable, contagious, viral, malleable, fluid, ubiquitous, dangerous? Or all of the above?
Our work here is organized in three parts as an opening up and exploration of the topographies and ethical issues of witnessing with mutable, spreadable, viral, and/or contagious media. In the hopes of generating a more international conversation, we've decided to post our recent work on the Open Spaces blog, to crowdsource ideas, debates, and best practices in the international human rights and documentary communities about social media formations and practices.
Part One develops a definition of social media and human rights, outlining our assumptions, and mapping some significant shifts. Part Two provides some international examples from the variegated topography of social media for human rights in terms of a set of potential ‘responsibilities’. Part Three elaborates a provisional set of working principles and protocols for ethical practices of human rights social media, where production, distribution and exhibition are collapsed into new formations. We share this last part in the hopes of inviting all of you into sharing your ideas into the ethics of circulatory networks and human rights.
Part One: Definitions, Shifts and Assumptions
Everyday witnessing and documentation of human rights violations around the globe are increasingly commonplace along a continuum of amateur to professional, casual to committed. Much is shared within a context of social media. We define social media as work that integrates Web 2.0 technology with social interaction, user participation, dissemination, sharing and feedback discussion. It incorporates a range of technologies such as social networks, blogs, and peer-to-peer modes as well as the cell-phone, in a world where there is now one cell phone account for every 1.5 persons.
The following significant and salient historical shifts have prompted our investigation into the issues of social media, human rights documentary, and viral witnessing. These include:
This topography constitutes a new, exciting, contradictory landscape for human rights documentary and documentation work. On the one hand, dissemination and engagement offer ways around limited access to information and images and engage new publics, on the other hand, their malleability, accessibility and fluidity can be dangerous.
At the same time as many of the participatory engagements of social media are contained within consumerism and state agendas so, in their more bottom up, localized, pull-in forms, these user-generated social media forms have propelled an abundance of both raw and produced social change media. With spreadability, malleability, and fluidity their operative modalities, these social media multiply opportunities for transparency, participation and action, but also provoke concerns about authenticity, factual accuracy, point-of-view, and how images transform into action, outcomes, as well as danger.
These contradictions of social media continue traditional documentary and activist documentary debates about the ethics of image making and interaction with subjects (and here we acknowledge the important writing of Brian Winston, Tom Waugh, and Bill Nichols) and open up new areas of exploration into the questions of circulatory networks, and repurposing
As visual media is reworked, remixed and re-circulated by many more people (amateur, professional, and prosumer), what responsibilities do we have as producers, circulators, curators, advocates, aggregators, re-mixers and viewers?
Stay tuned for Part II and Part III. Until then, we hope you'll join the conversation here on Open Spaces.