Interactive Spectatorships: Explorations of Critical Film Viewing in the context of Digital Culture

It is perhaps already a cliché to suggest that social networking has influenced contemporary society in innumerable ways. Yet despite this ready assertion, politicians, academics and media commentators still grapple awkwardly with the implications and effects of what might broadly be called #digitalculture. On a recent Question Time (@bbcqt) panellists and the audience debated whether racist remarks made on twitter should be a prosecutable offence – opinion inevitably ranged from total free speech to government censoring of the internet (good luck with that). The effects of digital culture, viewed through a theoretical and sociological lens, postulates both positive and negative effects. A more utopian outlook may point to the possibility of an era of increasing political and cultural participation derived from technological change and its attendant new media use. An idealised generation of globally connected netcitizens share thoughts, ideas and solutions, and could eventually break down archaic barriers of national, ethnic, racial, religious and gender identities. Yet the negative implications are arguably just as compelling. Digital communication may be making us even more atomized – a generation of agoraphobes who struggle with real world interactions. New media actually encourage us to submit to more subtle forms of control which derives from a digitally amplified yet wholly superficial obsession with the self? Does the brevity of twitter destroy an already limited ability to process complex information? Obviously I am only skimming the surface here of phenomena that offers scope for myriad philosophical debate (#pretentiousacademic).

For me one of the key effects of digital technology relates to how we conceptualise the ‘audience’. There has undoubtedly been a shift in the dynamic between producer and consumer with interactivity becoming a byword for contemporary media experience. This, in turn, redefines how audiences can be constituted as active or passive. Working as a lecturer in film and digital media I see this first hand on a daily basis in the processes of engagement adopted by the students I teach. Interestingly I began to see a paradox inherent in the clash between the increasing use of social media in education (and as part of viewing practices more generally), and a more traditional understanding of what constitutes the film spectator. In film studies pedagogic practice I would argue that there is an implicit understanding of what a cinematic spectator should be. This primarily begins with the prerequisite that films should be watch in a cinema – the darkened communal space along allied to a large projected image is implicitly the essential starting point. Furthermore, the viewer herself should be model of concentration, total engaged with the cinema image but not in a passive way. She is an active critical viewer interpreting and evaluation the narrative, thematic and aesthetic merits of the cinema as art. Or so one might suppose.

Even before the emergence of social media this construction of spectatorship seems somewhat idealistic. The active/passive dichotomy has been argued over constantly with regard to research on audiences. However, with the increasingly ubiquitous use of digital communications technologies – and there encroachment into the cinematic space – the ‘pure’ practice of viewing film is even more under ‘threat’. Film studies students are expected to forsake their everyday media practice in order to conform to a specific notion of viewership yet still retain an almost philosophical awareness of their interactive engagement. It would seem there are different kinds of activity and passivity but these are sanctioned according to binaries of old and new media, not to mention the generational difference between teacher and student, and the disciplinary parameter of film studies as a subject. It seemed to me that a failure to explore the effect of social media on film spectatorship ignores the very real importance and use of communications technologies in contemporary experience and also denies the possibility that such technology could be reclaimed as a tool to improve pedagogic practice thus creating more critically astute film students.

The project I have designed as an attempt to investigate some of these issues is based on a method of film screening that relays a live twitter feed of viewer comments back to the audience as they watch a film. The aim is to facilitate an immediate, real-time viewer response, thus facilitating debate and discussion without undermining the integrity of the viewing experience, and creating a stream of critiques that can be used as the basis for subsequent seminar discussion. Live blogging and twitter #chatterboxing during live events has become a key effect of social media use and is being actively encouraged my media producers. Film is perhaps the ultimate barrier for this kind of audience participation because of its ingrained connection to a traditional understanding of spectatorship. However, I feel that the research potential of the project it considerable in two specific ways. Firstly, in terms of exploring and improving the active engagement of students who study film. Secondly the project offers a new direction in re-evaluating the very concept of the audience in context of digital communications culture.