Story Circle: Chapter 16 -“Commercialization and Digital Storytelling in China”

Story Circle: Digital Storytelling Around the World (2009), is a collection of essays “devoted to a comprehensive international study of the digital storytelling movement.” For this assignment, I chose to read Chapter 16: “Commercialization and Digital Storytelling in China,” by Wu Qiongli. The paper begins with a background and explanation of digital storytelling (DST), providing a summary of how it is distinct, mainly in its story-oriented, collaborative, direct nature; the use of simple, accessible technological tools and found materials; and a multimedia perspective. The author’s interest lies in the ways DST can and has impacted commercial practices in China.

Wu explains that there is a previously untapped group of consumers which may be the key to both spreading DST more widely internationally and boost revenue for commercial companies. In the age of the internet, there are both consumers and creators, and these groups have increasingly overlapped as technology has advanced. This intersection of internet participants (called “netizens”) and creators who showcase their work online (“prosumers”) becomes a group called “Generation C,” whose creativity and innovation can be used in business outreach.

To begin utilizing this phenomenon to the advantage of both DST and commercial interests, Wu suggests a digital storytelling solution based on the way new original music has been proliferated in online spaces. She details a model for a website whose commitment to DST would result in increased revenue, community building, and creative output. To reach this goal, the website would need to first provide the opportunity for netizens to learn digital storytelling methods. Once these consumers have the tools and education to participate, they can then be encouraged to create their own content to be posted on the site, which would then be aggregated and sorted by a popularity algorithm (239). At this point, the most watched or rated stories could be commercialized and played on television as advertisements for a product or experience, such as cultural tourism in China.

Wu’s ideas for building up digital storytelling using a business framework is innovative and relevant to our time. Her explanation of this type of business model seems like it could flourish, especially because Generation C is increasingly interested in multimedia storytelling, as can be seen with the popularity of certain content creators on YouTube, who have reached celebrity status in recent years. However, I am concerned about possible exploitation of prosumers, and would hope that if a web model like this were developed, Generation C creators would be compensated for their work if it became commercialized.

Story Center vs Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Digital Storytelling Project

“Raise a Man” (2012) by Jessie Jordan III on the Story Center website is about the passing of Jordan’s great-grandmother, who he calls “Granny.” The video begins with a recounting of the moment he found out she had died, and his realization that he would never be able to spend time with her again. He then speaks about his relationship with Granny, and reflects on their conversations about family. He connects her life and lineage to his own by then describing how she believed that he would carry on her legacy as the emotional rock of the family. The video ends with a statement about the speaker realizing “how hard it is to be a man, and to raise a man” while remembering how his great-grandmother raised three generations of his family. Though the connection between the title and the bulk of the content of the video might seem unrelated at first glance, it is apparent that the speaker views his own role as a parent through what he has learned from being raised by his great-grandmother. The video follows the format of narration over images, where a story is told about a person/event/etc. and ends on a turn that shows what the speaker has learned. This seems to be a formula that the stories on Story Center especially follow, but can also be seen in other, unaffiliated digital storytelling projects.

In an effort to raise awareness about health disparities, the Fred Hutchinson (Fred Hutch) Cancer Research Center in Washington started a digital storytelling project in 2013 to empower its patients to tell their stories. These stories range from narratives about diabetes to struggles with cancer, and allow patients to document their experiences to share with the world. I watched Josefina S. Sepulveda’s video, “Cancer stole my breast, but not my spirit,” from the Fred Hutch YouTube channel.

Sepulva takes the viewer through her experiences with cancer, from a misdiagnosis to a second opinion and treatment. She details the impact her cancer had on her family, and how her daughter had to grow up faster than she should have because from a young age, she helped to take care of Sepulva through the cancer treatments. This video was similar to the Story Center video in that it has a narrative that ends in some sort of lesson or advice. However, it seemed to flow better into the ending, which noted her thankfulness for her family for being there through her illness, her support of Relay for Life and other organizations looking for a cure, and the purpose for the making of this video: “to promote faith in oneself, […] and to always seek a second opinion.” In the Fred Hutch video, the narrative fits a progression from tragedy to triumph that the Story Center video did not, which resulted in a less dissonant relation between the title and the content.

Documentary Feature as Cultural Document

John H. Weakland writes in his essay for Principles of Visual Anthropology, “Feature Films as Cultural Documents,” that feature films can be used as cultural documents in anthropological studies if analysis is carried out through “direct, comprehensive, unbiased observation of the raw data, and adherence to a few basic orienting principles in making and reflecting on such observation” (55). While his arguments are particular to feature films, which generally depict fictional stories, I believe that his point can be applied to feature documentaries as well. The documentary form has expanded over the years to include varying forms; it is no longer only a medium for observation or anthropological study of a group of people. Documentaries of that form or documentaries that are framed around a political message continue to be made and thrive, but the genre has evolved to include personal ethnographies/autoethnographies.

I heard about the movie Twinsters (2015) a few years ago when the filmmakers began fundraising on Kickstarter for money to complete their film. The documentary showcases the story of Sam Futerman and Anaïs Bordier, transnational adoptees who look exactly alike and grew up separately, in Los Angeles and France respectively. When they were 25 years old, they found each other through the powers of the internet, and this film gives viewers a look at their experiences after discovering that the other exists.

I was intrigued by this story of loss and reconnection, and was excited to see that it was available on Netflix. The film opens with Sam speaking directly to the camera, giving the viewer a background of her life as a girl who was born in Korea and adopted into a white U.S. family. Interspersed with her voiceover narrative are gorgeous shots of Los Angeles (including Koreatown), as well as home videos and photos from her childhood that situate her life. As she continues, she explains that a few days before, someone had tweeted at her to check her Facebook, where she found a friend request from Anaïs. What’s shown onscreen is the interactions between the two of them through Facebook messages, and later through text/chat bubbles overlaid on more shots of LA. Their many Skype sessions with each other, their family members, and even the director of the Twin Studies Center at CSU Fullerton are shown throughout the film as well.

Twinsters is very different from the traditional, anthropological documentary that usually tries to observe and evaluate the dynamics within a specific community. It differs in that it is more of a condensed narrative; the film is focused on two people and their discovery and interactions with each other moving forward, rather than a broad community or society. Because issues of adoption, racial identity, and family are explored, I would classify this film as ethnographic. However, I think the documentary can be discussed in anthropological film studies as a cultural document as well.

The way Twinsters is presented, with the inclusion of various social media interactions, is a product of the society we live in, a world where our everyday is facilitated by the technology that is increasingly available. If a scholar in anthropological film studies can come to conclusions about the culture of a society by observing how a feature film is put together, the same should be said for documentaries whose purpose it is to entertain and showcase specific moments. Twinsters would not have been possible—or perhaps, would have been at least more difficult—without both luck and the technology that was available to both twins. They might have never found each other were it not for YouTube and social media, and the filmmakers acknowledge that through their display of various social media interactions throughout the film. From an anthropological perspective, paying attention to the choices made in the creation of documentaries like this one, as well as the circumstances that made the stories possible, is a valuable tool when trying to glean conclusions about society in a certain time or place.

Against Essays, For Accessibility

In “Part V: Teaching the Digital Humanities” of Debates in the Digital Humanities, Mark L. Sample writes about alternative forms of assessing students in the classroom. Perhaps ironically, his essay called “What’s Wrong With Writing Essays” deems the essay an obsolete form that does not function well in the capacity for which it has been widely accepted as a method: to train scholars in critical thinking. While I do think there is value in the essay as an avenue of assessment—there is something to be said for developing analytical skills through structured reasoning and the process of research—I also agree with Sample when he says that encouraging students to write more publicly (e.g. in the form of blogs) and/or to create more visual, auditory, or physical forms of manifesting their ideas can be equally as fulfilling, or even more insightful.

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Sample’s student Sid Meier’s “Pirates Mapped in 3D”

In fact, these alternative methods can convey certain concepts more complexly than can a traditional essay. Sample talks about a student’s project involving a piece of wood that visualizes the processes of a video game, showcasing them spatially in a way that “says what words cannot” and providing a physical representation of the patterns the student pulled from studying the video game. He says he asks his students to “weave,” to build a “critical thinking practice” through the process of assemblage. I believe he is right, that there are a myriad of ways for people to learn, and that constricting academic training only to the traditional essay can result in a homogenous group of scholars.

What Sample doesn’t mention in his relatively short piece, however, is that the effort to include technology and different forms of assessment in a course can actually open up the classroom to a more diverse set of abilities, and result in a richer and more productive learning environment. According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of undergraduate students in both 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 were reported to have a disability. Since not everyone reports their disability, it can be assumed that this number is a low estimate, and that an educator will encounter at least a few disabled students in each of their classes. That said, Sample’s suggestion to assign more alternative projects can be an asset in creating a learning environment where students are able to utilize different skill sets, with the bonus that those with certain disabilities might find these methods preferable to essay writing. Many students have learning disabilities or disabilities that interfere with executive functioning, and expanding what counts as academic work to include digital or artistic projects can provide more accessible options where some students might be at a disadvantage.

Shedding Skin: The Story of a Girl on Fire

For this project, I wanted to tell my story about my experiences with eczema and how that’s affected my life, but I didn’t want to do it in the traditional or formulaic way that the Digital Storytelling Cookbook or StoryCorps did theirs. I think there’s a lot of value for those forms of digital storytelling, but I wanted something less straightforward that would still convey my experiences accurately to the viewer.

I had already written the first poem and had wanted to just make a video around that, but realized that it would only take up about a minute and a half of time, at most. So I took two drafts I had written previously that also had to do with my skin, and revised them for this project. The hardest part of the process was trying to find images to correspond to my words. A lot of them aren’t literal representations of the lines, which both helped to evoke a more general feeling of the piece but also could be confusing when viewed. I’m actually really lucky that I found a video of a woman who decided to make a mask of her own face for halloween and paint herself like a snake, but even that wasn’t as helpful as I thought it would be, and it was difficult process cutting the scenes I needed for my video. The voiceover was especially frustrating because I was reading each poem four or five times, trying to get the perfect sound in one take. Of course, there are portions of the voiceover where I’m not happy with the tone, but I finally gave up and chose the ones I liked best so that I could move on to the actual editing of the film rather than just recording over and over.

Overall, I enjoyed making this film and playing around with all the layers of images, music, voiceover, and video to create something that I feel does represent and enhance the meaning of the poems themselves. I loved telling my story this way and might do more of this kind of project combining audiovisual with poetry in the future.

(One) Perspective on Queer Life in China

I started this project with the intention of showcasing one or two perspectives on LGBT life in China, because this was a subject I was unfamiliar with and I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. The subject was also chosen due to proximity, as I work with Lingxiao at the Queer Resource Center and I’ve wanted to ask her about her perspective as an queer international student for awhile. I had intended to search for at least one other person to interview so that I would be able to weave in more perspectives and juxtapose their similarities and differences (especially because China is big country and even two people would not be close to comprehensive representation), but I got super sick for almost three weeks and did not have the energy to search for and interview another person. In the end, it was good that I was only able to interview Lingxiao, because there was only so much I could include in five minutes, and there is already a lot that didn’t make it into the video.

I started with a few questions and asked follow-up questions as they came up when I needed clarification. These are the questions I wrote before the interview:

  1. What was your experience growing up in China (in general)?
  2. Tell me about when you first realized you were queer/that you were attracted to women.
  3. Was coming out an option for you? What was the process like? Is there a concept of “coming out” in Chinese culture, and how is it different from in the U.S.?
  4. How did you parents/friends/family react?
  5. What is queer life like in China?
  6. How was the transition to the U.S.?

What I learned through this process was that it’s really hard to make a documentary or ethnographic film of this length if you’re also trying to be sensitive to cultural nuances. I really did not want to fall into the trap of representing a culture inaccurately, which is why I titled it “Perspective on…”, to make it clear that this was only one person’s perspective rather than a film that could be used to form definitive conclusions about queer culture in China. That is what makes it ethnographic rather than documentary, since it’s more in line with an oral history.

I think if I had had more time to create the film, and if I could have lengthened the runtime, I could have created a better film in terms of validity as documentary. I tried my best, but even though this finalized product seems cohesive, I fear that through the editing process, I left out something important, or that I somehow misrepresented something the interviewee said. Without the constraints of time, I would have gone more in depth about her experiences as a Chinese person in general and then her experiences as a queer person in China, her transition to her time here in the States, and the differences she identified during our interview. There was one clip where she talked about how public displays of affection were frowned upon in queer couples, but that they would elicit the same sort of reaction even if the couples were straight, due to the culture of separation between public and private life in China. There was simply no room to include that, as well as the discussion on the differences between how the older generations dealt with queerness versus younger generations. The hardest part was figuring out which aspects to cut and which to keep in, while trying to maintain a balance in the film of negative and positive observations. I hope I was successful in that, but I’ll let others be the judge.

One of the other problems I had was my struggle to find footage to splice into the film while the subject was talking. I didn’t want the film to be just footage of an oral history, but I had to show something that enhanced the rest of the film. I ended up filming her walking around, talking to classmates, and studying. I also got some shots of the walls in the Queer Resource Center and of her office, but I am unhappy with that part of the film and think I could have utilized the space better, perhaps with photos from her high school and college days, maps or illustrations of her hometown or school, etc. This is something to keep in mind for future documentary projects, to make sure that the footage actually adds something to the film rather than acting as filler.

Overall, I’m pleased with my final video because I honestly did not think I would be able to complete it in time. I wish the camera I used wasn’t so old that most of the footage was a little blurry, but that can’t be helped. Ultimately, I think I was able to showcase an experience that may not get a lot of attention in the U.S., and I’m proud of the work that I did to complete the project.

Digital Humanities & Online Culture

For the first week, we read from the first and second sections (“Defining/Theorizing the Digital Humanities,” respectively) of Debates in the Digital Humanities, a collection of essays discussing the field of digital humanities. Having had no previous experience with the field, I was excited to learn that the digital humanities is a methodological field that utilizes technology to enhance and further research in the humanities. I was intrigued by the conclusion of the first piece in the book, by Matthew Kirschenbaum.

“Whatever else it might be, then, the digital humanities today is about a scholarship (and a pedagogy) that is publicly visible in ways to which we are generally unaccustomed, a scholarship and pedagogy that are bound up with infrastructure in ways that are deeper and more explicit than we are generally accustomed to, a scholarship and pedagogy that are collaborative and depend on networks of people and that live an active, 24-7 life online.”

— Matthew Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?“, Debates in the Digital Humanities

The idea that a key element of the digital humanities is public visibility, and Kirschenbaum’s discussion of Twitter, led me to think about the recent trend of “Twitter activism” that has become more prominent in media thinkpieces since 2012/2013. I use the term “Twitter activism” not to be flippant, as many who use the term do as a way to discredit participants, but to signify the specific culture that has developed over Twitter, Tumblr, and other micro/blogging platforms. I have used Tumblr since 2010—Twitter more recently—and have noticed an increase in conversations that have happened through those platforms that further discourse in ways that echo academia but are more accessible to those that aren’t part of the university system. Specifically, many feminist writers who are women of color have facilitated dialogues wherein critical thought and discussion have led to better understandings of systems of power like racism and sexism. Participants included both academics and non-academics, people unaffiliated with formal scholarship who still had unique and critical thoughts to contribute. I have seen Twitter and Tumblr become spaces of learning and education that far outreach the relatively small, often exclusive sphere of higher education. So reading Kirschenbaum’s piece gives me hope that academia, at least in the digital humanities, is changing to model the type of collaborative learning and furthering of ideas that have been integral to my own intellectual growth. This is important because it signals a trend toward access to knowledge and critical thought for people who may not have the ability or the resources to formally enter higher education.

However, the public visibility piece of the digital humanities does bring up worries of plagiarism, and discussions of ownership. When scholarship is published online through platforms that may not have copyright rules in place, it becomes easy for others to formulate new scholarship without crediting or referencing the writers who helped them to begin their process. The questions that come up are then about the definition of ownership and how the rules change when thoughts are presented online rather than in peer-reviewed journals or books. Whose writing is considered legitimate, and how do readers differentiate between credible sources and those that are not? What is the etiquette when it comes to citing blog posts, Facebook posts, or Tweets, and how will that become regulated (and does it need to be)? Conversations about these issues are already being had among women of color bloggers who have had their tweets taken and republished by journalists without having been asked permission or been paid for their contributions, and oftentimes without credit to them as well. These are questions I hope to continue exploring as we delve deeper into learning about the digital humanities.

Happy Birthday To Me & This Blog

Hello everyone!

It’s my birthday and I’m also starting this blog as part of CLST 455: Visual Research Methods, a course I’m taking at Claremont Graduate University. I am a second semester Master’s student in the Cultural Studies department, and I am a recent graduate from Smith College with a BA in the Study of Women and Gender. I’m very excited to see what this class brings in terms of growth in both my knowledge of visual media and personally, as a critical thinker and writer. I am also looking forward to seeing the projects my classmates and I come up with throughout the semester, and am ready to absorb new and different ways of examining material.

I have relatively little background in visual media, but television and film are two particular mediums that have resonated with me in deep ways. Currently, I’m most interested in how dystopia is presented within science fiction narratives that imagine the future of humanity, and how notions of queerness, race, and disability play into the motivations that drive those stories. I am also always intrigued by im/migration stories, histories of radical movement-building, dis/ability analysis, and representations of queer people of color in media—particularly Asian/Americans.

I hope to continue this blog long after this course ends, and I’m grateful for the push to launch into being a project I have thought about starting for awhile.