New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

National Media Summit 2012 at University of Kelaniya, 25 May 2012

New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far?

This was the title of a presentation I made at National Media Summit 2012, at University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, this morning. I was asked to talk about New Media and policies for Sri Lanka.

In my audience were academics and researchers on journalism and mass communication drawn from several universities of Sri Lanka. I was told the biennial event is to help frame new research frameworks and projects.

Now, I’m not a researcher in the conventional sense of that term, and am fond of saying I don’t have a single academic bone in my body. Despite this, occasionally, universities and research institutes invite me to join their events as speaker, panelist or moderator.

University of Kelaniya, a state university in Sri Lanka, has the island’s oldest mass communication department, started in the late 1960s.

Perhaps inertia and traditions weigh down such places — while I had a patient hearing, I found our ensuing discussion disappointing. The historical analogies, policy dilemmas and coping strategies I touched on in my presentation didn’t get much comment or questions.

Instead, rather predictably, the ill-moderated discussion meandered on about the adverse social and cultural impacts of Internet and mobile phones and the need to ‘control’ everything in the public interest (where have I heard that before?).

And much time was wasted on debating on what exactly was new media and how to define and categorise it (I’d argued: it all depends on who answers the question!).

Part of the confusion arose from many conflating private, closed communications online (e.g. Facebook) with the open, more public interest online content (e.g. news websites). Similarly, the critical need for common technical standards (to ensure inter-operability) was mistaken by some as the need for dull and dreary orthodoxy in content!

Concepts like Citizen Journalism, user-generated content, privacy, right to information were all bandied around — but without clarity, focus or depth. Admittedly we couldn’t cover everything under the Sun. But we didn’t even discuss what options and choices policy makers have when confronted with rapidly evolving new media types.

Half anticipating this, I had included a line in my talk that said: “Academics must research, analyse & advise (policy makers). But are Lankan academics thought-leaders in ICT?

I was being a polite guest by not explicitly answering my own question (but as a helpful hint, I mentioned dinosaurs a few times!). In the end, my audience provided a clear (and sadly, negative) answer: far from being path-finders or thought-leaders, they are mostly laggards who don’t even realise how much they have to catch up!

And some of them are framing Lankan media policy and/or advising government on information society issues. HELP!

Don’t take my word for it. Just try to find ANY online mention of National Media Summit 2012 that just ended a few hour ago. Google indexes content pretty fast these days — but there is NONE that I can find on Google as May 25 draws to an end (except my own PPT on SlideShare!).

Or try accessing the Mass Communication Dept at University of Kelaniya. For the past few weeks and even now, it remains inaccessible while the rest of that university website works.

New Media, Old Minds: A Bridge Too Far? YES, for now, it does seem that way…

Who’s making video clips? Not me…but does it matter anymore?

video clip

Clip, clip, clip...

I’m usually happy and eager to explain my work to anyone who asks. I keep cool when people mix up technicalities related to film and video – after all, I don’t know the finer points in other professions and industries.

One thing I’m a bit tired of hearing is the wide-spread misuse of the term ‘video clip’. I try to keep a straight face when well-meaning people ask me about recent ‘video clips’ I’ve made. The truth is, I don’t make any: I make fully edited films – sometimes long, sometimes short, but always finished (That is, if a film can ever be called ‘finished’. An industry giant once told me that no film is ever finished; it’s only abandoned…)

For example, my latest climate film Small Islands – Big Impact is slightly under 6 minutes, yet it’s a complete product. I spent two months working on actually making it, and almost 20 years covering the story itself.

But the distinction between film and clip is not widely understood. In fact, the digital revolution seems to have added to the confusion.

The Wikipedia says a media clip is a short segment of media either an audio clip or a video clip. In other words, a part of something bigger.

It further explains: “Media clips may be promotional in nature, as with movie clips. For example, to promote upcoming movies, many actors are accompanied by movie clips on their circuits. Additionally, media clips may be raw materials of other productions, such as audio clips used for sound effects.”

Video clips are short clips of video, usually part of a longer piece. Wikipedia adds, however, that this term is “also more loosely used to mean any short video less than the length of a traditional television program.”

That’s part of the confusion. With the spread of broadband Internet , which enabled greater bandwidth to both content creators and users, video clips have become very popular online., another widely used online reference, says: “A video clip is a small section of a larger video presentation. A series of video frames are run in succession to produce a short, animated video. This compilation of video frames results in a video clip.”

But that’s not all. While the TV/video industry widely accepts the above definition, the computer industry seems to use ‘video clip’ generically to mean any short video, processed or otherwise. This is how video clip is defined, for example, by and PC Magazine’s online encyclopedia.

New Real Player

Snip, snip, snip...?

In this era of media convergence, when films an TV programmes are made using non-linear technologies enabled by computers, it’s no wonder that ‘video clip’ means different things to different people.

Wikipedia also talks of an emerging clip culture: “The widespread popularity of video clips, with the aid of new distribution channels, has evolved into clip culture. It is compared to “lean-back” experience of seeing traditional movies, refers to an internet activity of sharing and viewing a short video, mostly less than 15 minutes. The culture began as early as the development of broadband network, but it sees the boom since 2005 when websites for uploading clips are emerging on the market, including Shockinghumor, YouTube, Google Video, MSN Video and Yahoo! Video. These video clips often show moments of significance, humour, oddity, or prodigy performance. Sources for video clips include news, movies, music video and amateur video shot. In addition to the clip recorded by high-quality camcorders, it is becoming common to produce clips with digital camera, webcam, and mobile phone.”

Until recently, I used to get irked when people ask me about ‘video clips’ I make. My stock answer has been: “We only make fully edited, self-contained short films of various durations…partly because less is more these days. We don’t, as a policy, make ‘clips’ which in TV industry terms means semi-edited or unedited extracts that are not self-contained.”

Maybe I should stop being such a purist. After all, as I keep reminding my colleagues, students and anyone else who cares to listen to me, media is a plural!

One thing is for sure. Literacy rates and computer literacy rates have been rising worldwide in recent decades. But when it comes to basic media literacy, our societies still have a long way to go.

PS: In July 2007, we had an interesting discussion on this blog on the shrinking durations of Nature and environment films and TV programmes. The moving images community seems divided on this, with some purists holding out that to pack complex, nuanced messages into a few minutes is akin to ‘dumbing down’. Noted film-makers like Neil Curry disagreed.

A J Gunawardana: Remembering a lost colleague…and discovering online gaps

A J Gunawardana with film director Lester James Peries

A J Gunawardana (left) with film director Lester James Peries

I have just written a 2,000-word essay recalling my times with a senior colleague and fellow media-watcher, the late Dr A J Gunawardana.

AJ, as he was affectionately known, was an outstanding university teacher, writer/journalist, cinema personality and art critic. When he died in September 1998 at the relatively young age of 65, we lost a rare intellectual who had his feet firmly on the ground, and constantly built bridges linking media, culture and society.

We shared more than our surname and involvement in the media. In fact, when I was beginning to be noticed for my journalistic writing in late 1980s and early 1990s, people kept asking me if I was AJ’s son, or at least a relation. I had to disappoint them.

My association with him was in the last decade of his life. His junior by a generation, I related to the genial professor as a fellow writer and occasional partner in mischief in the domains of media and popular culture. These are the times I have recalled in the tribute, just published on Groundviews citizen journalism website.

AJ started his career as a journalist with the then privately owned flagship of Sri Lankan journalism, Ceylon Daily News, where he was a noted arts and culture correspondent in the 1960s. He went on to obtain a doctorate in performing arts from New York University. Upon return, he pursued a career in academia as a professor of English at the Vidyodaya University (later University of Sri Jayawardenapura) and was closely associated with film and media education. He chaired a Presidential Committee of Inquiry on the Sri Lankan film industry, which issued its report in 1985.

In the arts world, he is perhaps best remembered for the screenplays he wrote for three films by Sri Lanka’s best known director Lester James Peries: Baddegama (1980), Kaliyugaya (1982) and Yuganthaya (1985). The latter two are included among the best of Sri Lankan cinema as compiled by the British Film Institute.

At the time of his death, AJ was working on a biography of the doyen of the Sri Lankan cinema, which was posthumously published in 2005 as LJP: Lester James Peries: Life and Work.

Read my full tribute:
Remembering A J Gunawardana: A creative public intellectual

In researching for this essay, I wanted to verify some biographical and filmographical specifics about AJ. The usually reliable Encyclopaedia of sri Lanka (2006) edition, compiled by Charles Gunawardena (note how we all spell our same surname differently!) had no entry on AJ, which is a bit disappointing considering the far more obscure personalities featured in this reference.

My next step was Googling for A J, using the various spellings for his and my shared surname. (Don’t ask me how and why different clans spell it differently – which must drive foreigners crazy – but it matters to us). Considering AJ published most of his journalistic writing before commercial Internet connectivity became widely available and newspapers started publishing their web editions, I wasn’t surprised by how little I could find online. I didn’t come across a single piece of AJ’s incisive writing online, although perhaps a specialised search might yet unearth a few from some depth of an archive.

This highlights an unmet need where many Asian newspapers and magazines are concerned: their archives only go back to a decade or a dozen years. Even when publishers are willing to unlock their archives and make it available, the sheer logistics involved must daunt them. This could change in time to come, with Google’s recently announced initiative to digitise newspaper archives. The search giant has begun scanning microfilm from some newspapers’ historic archives to make them searchable online, first through Google News and eventually on the papers’ own Web sites.

An aside: I remember making the same point to assembled ITU, UNESCO and other UN worthies at the WSIS Asia Preparatory Meeting in Tokyo in January 2003. In a world where search for information and records is moving increasingly to the web, I said, the old sources of Asia’s news, information and culture need to be progressively placed online. This is a huge undertaking even if we just consider only the newspaper archives. But if not done, these valuable sources may soon begin to be ignored as references.

I then turned to the Internet Movie Database, IMDB, for some specifics and was disappointed again. AJ’s main entry on IMDB listed only one of his three films, and there was no other information about him, at least in the areas allowed for free access. It was only later that I stumbled upon another IMDB entry for AJ, where the last two letters of his surname are lopped off, which keeps it out of most searches.

When the two entries are put together, one begins to get an idea of AJ’s cinematic accomplishments, but it still completely leaves out his work as a film critic.

These gaps are not unique to AJ. In fact, even though IMDb is said to be “one of the largest accumulation of data about films, television programs, direct-to-video products, and video games, reaching back to each medium’s respective beginning”, I imagine a large number of film industry creations and professionals from outside the mainstream English language cinema is currently missing or poorly indexed on it.

Clearly, there is work to be done – by film buffs from Asia, whose want their cinematic traditions and professionals featured adequately on IMDB. Although I occasionally edit entries on the Wikipedia, I haven’t figured out how to do it on IMDB.

In this era of user-generated content, we can’t just sit back and complain that the web is biased towards the English speaking west. It’s still the case, but web 2.0 allows us the opportunity and tools to go and do something about it.