I’ve promised myself that I’ll read through the pile of anthropology journals that has begun to tower so high on my coffee table that I need to stand to peer over it. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but there are close to 2000 pages awaiting my attention. Today’s post is inspired by a review essay by Jennifer Cool from last March’s issue of American Anthropologist, entitled “Gardening Metadata in the New Media Ecology: A Manifesto (of Sorts) for Ethnographic Film”*. She addresses the questions of how ethnographic film will change in the digital environment and how to ensure the genre will grow and be supported. I’m intrigued by that, but even more by audiovisual archives in general.
The topic of the future of ethnographic film came up in a class I took a couple of years ago. My suggestion was that we have crowdsourced the collection of images in the age of mobile phone cameras and social media; what we need are curators and interpreters. I don’t meant to diminish the role of an insightful and talented ethnographer and filmmaker, but simply to point out that there is a wealth of video and still images being generated around the globe every day that could be valuable for the future, yet will be rendered useless due to sheer quantity and lack of categorization and filtering.
Ethnographic films can be challenging. Without understanding the content in its own cultural context, we may be inclined to label practices, rituals, costumes, beliefs, and behaviors as “crazy” or “ridiculous” (Maya Deren’s “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti” comes up often as an example of this). Cool writes about the broader distribution channels available now for ethnographic films, not just academic spaces but everywhere from Hulu to Netflix to iTunes. I can lay on my bed and watch The Koyas on YouTube on a tablet. When I first considered this, I worried about the increased marginalization of some groups that could come from clueless people watching videos of “unusual” practices, yet on the other hand as someone who seeks this sort of content, I wish there was more available.
Part of the difficulty when there is so much raw material, however, is how to sort through it all and find what you’re seeking. Cool has talked with many video technologists in her research and says that many of those conversations turn to what she has labeled “the dream of the perfect archive”:
They speak enthusiastically about the prospect of being able to find and watch on demand “every episode” of a particular television show, or “every appearance of Kurt Cobain in the mediaverse, ” or “every one of FDR’s fireside chats.” It is a dream of total and instant access, an imaginary of technopower that is highly appealing in this culture. I have found myself translating their dream examples into my own reveries, imagining at my fingertips the power to call up all the films of Jean Rouch (most of which have never seen U.S. distribution) or any anthropological footage made before 1914.
Cool goes on to explain that taking away the idea of instant online viewing, there remains the issue of metadata: the data about the data. Metadata has been the bane of my existence for a long time. Bad metadata is why a DVR suddenly decides that every repeat of The Daily Show is a new episode. Bad metadata is (one of the many reasons) why the Second Life Marketplace is a crappy shopping experience. I spent a couple years working as the video product manager for an Internet company; part of my job was taking videos provided by cable channels, independent providers, and movie studios and putting them online on our clients’ websites. Not only did I have to hire someone just to convert files from a variety of formats into usable online video, but I also needed an employee to tag the files with useful metadata — air date, expiration date, title, network, genre, description, stars, etc. — so that viewers could navigate the video sites. With extensive and high-quality metadata, we can have usable databases that can be searched and organized in many ways. With shitty metadata, you get shitty results, and you never reach that perfect archive dream.
The author wraps up her essay by proposing a Wiki for ethnographic film, which she sees as needing a group of volunteer “gardeners” to enter, prune, and maintain the metadata. Personally, I think that librarians and curators and editors — the titles I’ll use instead of gardener — are key not only to higher quality archives of things from the past, but also in ensuring that the vast oceans of content we create every day are searchable and categorizable. It starts with individual producers: if you don’t want your content to settle to the bottom and get buried forever, use keywords and tags and add descriptions and meaningful titles. Mind your metadata.
* American Anthropologist, Vol. 116, No. 1, pp. 173-185