On Vine Vids and Videographic Criticism
Louisa Stein / Middlebury College

Vine App

Vine application

Starting in 2012, microblogging sites began featuring short form video with accompanying audio options. Vine introduced moving images with sound in 2012 as its primary form, and was shortly thereafter bought out by Twitter. Vine, Twitter, and Instagram all now allow viewers to post videos and to toggle soundtracks on short videos on and off. The resulting audiovisual forms in these different sites (site specifically and collectively) are in their nascent form(s). (See, for example, the Vine account “Vidder Vines.”) What are the current realities and future possibilities of short form fan audiovisual authorship on Vine, Instagram, Twitter, and, by extension through embedding and crossposting, the fan-favored interface, Tumblr?

Vine Vids as Self-Reflexive Depiction of Vidding Process

Perhaps not surprisingly, fan video on Vine and Instagram mostly offer extensions of or paratexts to vidding as the central form. Nonetheless these Vine or Instagram short videos also exist as their own discrete works, playing on the interfaces they have been released within, looping by design, limited to 6 seconds (Vine) or 15 seconds (Instagram). Often signposted by the hashtag #vidding and/or #fanvid, many of these Vine or Instagram vids function in part as documentation of a vidder’s process in the making of another, longer-form vid. For example, the following Vine by BatB Vines, with the accompanying text “when I’m bored,” showcases the vidder’s use of particular filter and transition techniques and highlights the technical choices being made:

Since this video consists of a video capture, it also shows the metadata that accompanies the making of a vid, depicting in image the editing software and thus including the advancing frames, frame rate, and aspect ratio/frame size.

Sometimes Vine vids depict the moment when everything goes wrong—the pain that comes with the labor of production, as in this Vine vid with the accompanying text “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s fucked up and lost it all.”

This Vine vid includes its own musical track that is likely not that of the lost vid, but rather a playful evocation of the drama of technological meltdown.

These short vid-in-process excerpts are part of the attention being paid to the labor of authorship via digital social media tools. These Vine vids exist in part to allow vidders to share work in progress rather than waiting until a work is completely done to share it with others. They also exist as self-branding and transmedia positioning for the vidder, highlighting their ongoing creative labor. Just as actors tweet from sets and writers tweet from writers’ rooms with tantalizing details of a TV series’ or film’s production, so to do vidders release moments of their works-in-progress as teasers for the full videos (or as advertisements upon the video’s release).

For example, the Vine vid “Monster” is an excerpt of a key transitional moment from an already released vid of the same title, and the text accompanying the Vine lists the vidder’s YouTube name and says “YouTube |Dexter || Monster|” thus referring to the vid being excerpted and directing the viewer to YouTube to view the full vid. The vidder’s name is not coincidentally the same on Vine and YouTube, thus rendering their YouTube and Vine part of a purposefully self-branded transmedia spread, with the Vine vid serving as advertisement for the vid as a whole.

The Evolving Aesthetics of Vine Vids

Although in some cases—such as shared works-in-progress, and short form teasers—we might consider these short videos secondary or tertiary texts, nonetheless these 6-15 second videos also have their own distinct independent life. They exist as discrete elements that circulate within their home interface and moreover, anywhere in which they are embedded, including new streams and multiauthored contexts in Tumblr etc. Thus, what of the Vine, or Instagram video as an independent form or aesthetic? One could certainly argue that the documenting of editing labor is its own aesthetic, one that calls attention to fan intervention and power via digital tools. But the 15 or 6 second limit and on/off audio toggle offer their own stimulating/formative creative limits. Like the drabbles or comment fic I referred to in my previous post, or like the 100×100 pixel icon art form that Kristina Busse and I wrote about in “Limit Play,” the Vine vid and Instagram vid offer restrictive constraints that can force creators to pare down and concentrate, to make a point or argument within a tight audiovisual economy. But despite the formal limits, the conceptual possibilities are still abundant and multiplicitious, a la the infinite scroll I talked about in my last post. That is, editing tools can weave together multiple textual references within even a six second Vine vid. For example, Brian Rovia’s “Murder Dads vs. Dadstiel,” which combines and parallels the TV series Hannibal and Supernatural.

That such Vine vids may be excerpts of fuller vids does not undermine their status as objects of their own with their own formal and cultural demands. Not every six seconds of a vid will work as an independent module, looping on its own. I found this out in a very tangible way. Initially for this blog post, I planned to make a Hannibal/The Lodger fanvid that I would also release as a series of six second Vines as I went, with each Vine drawn from a single episode. I found out very quickly that the demands of a six second Vine are quite different from the pacing and build of a three minute video, and the two sets of expectations fought one another. I may still continue with this experiment, but I am less confident that both can be simultaneously equally successful. I was able to make one Hannibal Vine vid that I am reasonably happy with. However, to keep up on this level of audiovisual pacing would, I think, make for an exhausting vid. At least that’s my hypothesis. But this points us to the evolving aesthetics of Vine vids, even those that are excerpts of longer vids, in that they need to effectively flow in a continuous loop, creating a sustained visual impact, inviting viewers to ponder the repeated visuals, effects, and audiovisual relationships. To me, a successful Vine vid is in part mesmerizing; watching one is a meditation on another’s meditative reworking of a source text.

Vine Vidding and the Videographic Essay

While the formal limits of the Vine vid or Instagram vid may be fairly restrictive, this doesn’t mean that they can’t evolve particular aesthetic expectations (as discussed above) or make sophisticated critical arguments. I want to focus for the remainder here on the latter: the potential for the short fan video form to make complex and/or purposeful critical interventions. In doing so, I’d like to put forth a connection between the Vine vid (and for that matter, “full size” vids as well) with another evolving aesthetic form—the videographic essay or videographic criticism. With the introduction of the journal [In]Transition and the increased incorporation of works of audiovisual scholarship by media studies academic in, for example, on a panel on “New Directions in Videographic Criticism” at the upcoming Society for Cinema and Media Studies, media studies academics are increasingly bridging the assumed divide between authoring about media and authoring with media. [In]Transition’s call for “papers” defines the form in broad terms as follows: “The work, which can be of any length, should produce new knowledge about its subject, or about film and moving image studies, through its audiovisual form.” Where videographic essays create new knowledge about the subject or moving image studies, vids and Vine vids create new knowledge about their media source and/or the shared knowledges of fandom and audience culture.

For example, Brian Rovia’s “Murder Dads vs. Dadstiel” not only combines Hannibal and Supernatural, but makes a pointed comparison between the alternate family structures that fans recognize on both series, spelling out how not only that fans see Hannibal and Will as unlikely #murderhusbands but also “Murder Dads” as they attempt to care for Abigail; likewise, fans read monster-hunter Dean and angel Castiel as having not only reached the status of old married couple, but so evidenced through their care for teen girl Claire. This short 6 second Vine vid argues for the presence of these arguably queer, alternate family structures in both shows, and more largely points to this alternate family structure as a trope reaching beyond a single text. Thus this Vine vid creates “new knowledge” about the media sources invoked, about the preoccupations of contemporary television, and about fan investment in the tropes of contemporary television.


Although not identical forms, the vid, the Vine vid, and the videographic essay coexist in an ecosystem in which their authors use audiovisual editing to critically engage with media texts, digging deep into individual texts and mapping out the relationships between them. Moreover, through these seemingly divergent forms, authors also articulate their own positioning within a multi-textual culture and within communities of readers, be they academic, popular, fannish, or a mix of all three. Rather than relegating them to separate realms of culture, I encourage us to think about the potentials for conversation between these evolving popular and academic forms of video remix culture.

Image Credits:

1. Vine App

Please feel free to comment.

The Limits of Infinite Scroll: Gifsets and Fanmixes as Evolving Fan Traditions Louisa Stein / Middlebury College

Tumblr's posting functions

Tumblr’s posting functions

As fan communities shift their favored interfaces, the tenor of fan communication and creativity changes. Fans may choose interfaces because they better fit the mood of a particular fandom or the evolving aesthetics and foci of the larger multifannish culture, but at the same time, fan aesthetic traditions evolve in response to the affordances and limitations of particular interfaces. Kristina Busse and I wrote about this a while back now, in our essay “Limit Play,” specifically focusing on Livejournal and LiveJournal specific forms such as the 100by100 pixel icon and comment tree fan fiction, which as forms celebrate and depend upon the constraining limits of the LiveJournal interface. [ (( Louisa Stein and Kristina Busse, “Limit Play: Fan Authorship between Source Text, Intertext, and Context” Popular Communication 7.4 (2009), 192-207. ))]

The favored interfaces and resulting evolving aesthetics of contemporary fan culture are perhaps harder to pin down. LiveJournal and Dreamwidth still offer the same frames for creativity as LJ did back in the early 2000s. But the ubiquity of fan culture on the visual microblogging site Tumblr, and also the introduction of other interfaces, such as the music streaming site 8tracks, highlight an aesthetic of abundant multiplicity and multidirectional flow. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in Tumblr’s “infinite scrolling.” Where the interface limitations of Tumblr are many, and can make it feel very opaque and confusing to newcomers, at the same time Tumblr conveys a sensation of limitlessness; no need to click on an arrow or the word “next” to see what else fans have created, just keep scrolling and the Tumblr posts keep coming; (although there may indeed be a limit to how much we can take in as we endlessly scroll…) Likewise, 8tracks, while showcasing fan-created playlists of often 8-15 songs, autoplays from one playlist to the next, and after the first play of a given playlist, shuffles order of the songs (for licensing reasons), thus presenting any single playlist in infinite combination.

In this post I examine two aesthetic forms that have evolved within this interface emphasis on multiplicitous plentitude: the gifset and the fanmix. These fan aesthetic forms did not emerge from nowhere; that is, they’ve evolved out of already existing fan practices, and it is useful to think of them both in relation to previous fan creative traditions and as evolving forms of fan authorship in their own right.

The Gifset

Let’s start with gifsets: sets of images, sometimes animated, sometimes not, arranged in a grid of sorts to communicate as a whole. Fandom gifsets as a form have evolved primarily on Tumblr, where the interface allows for easy juxtaposition of multiple animated or still gifs. Fans use Photoshop and other image editing tools to make gifs, which they then upload to Tumblr to create gifsets. Various mobile device apps also facilitate gif and gif collage creation, meaning that fans can create gifsets on their computer, phone, or mobile device.

Gifsets that incorporate lyrics have a clear corollary in the practices of fan vidding. Indeed, these gifsets with lyric overlays function much like early vids that used still images edited to follow one another against a song’s audio background, with editing choices usually driven by the progression of the lyrics. But moreover, I’d argue that fan gifsets in general can be usefully read through the lens of vidding in the sense that, like vidding, they select particular moments from the source text, some highly recognizable, some not, and recontextualize them among one another, in so doing revealing or establishing new visual and thematic patterns, offering distilled readings or new meanings born of new contexts and juxtapositions. [ (( Vidder kiki_miserychic spoke in a workshop we held at Vividcon about how gifsests could serve as vidding inspiration, research, and brainstorming.Kikimiserychic, “Meta – Vividcon 2013 Infinite Diversity in Vidding Combination Panel (tumblr),” Livejournal.com, http://kiki-miserychic.livejournal.com/223241.html. Paul Booth explores “GIF fics,” in which the combination of images in a gifset tell a story. Playing Fans (University of Iowa Press, 2015), 25-52. ))] From this perspective, gifsets are like little minivids minus the musical track, played out across space rather than (or as well as) time. Gifsets that incorporate lyrics introduce the imagined shared audio of the song that the lyrics come from, provided the lyrics and song are familiar to the viewer. For example, Darlingbenny’s “Some Nights…” includes only two still images, both of Martin Freeman’s John Watson looking distressed at his desk, overlayed upon which are simple white capital font with lyrics from Fun’s “Some Nights”: “But I still Wake up/I Still See Your Ghost.”


Darlingbenny’s “Some Nights…”

With a relatively succinct visual and textual economy, this Gifset references a particular moment—when John thinks Sherlock is dead following the events of Sherlock’s “The Reichenbach Fall.” Rather than reproducing extensive lyrics and a complex play of associations, this gifset asks us to activate through memory the full emotional source of Fun’s “Some Nights” through minimal citation of lyrics, and also focuses our interpretation through the small selection of lyrics included. Typography is obviously important to this form, for gifsets create meaning not only through the presence of the words themselves, but also through the aesthetic choices of font style, size, color, opacity, and positioning. In this case, the minimalist modern white caps (accompanying as it does the desaturated almost black and white images) uphold the quick impact of this gifset.

Other gifsets sprawl further in their visual and verbal associations, with perhaps more extensive quoting of lyrics, or the inclusion of many more images. Some gifsets combine multiple visual sources together, weaving them through juxtaposition into one universe, or highlighting their commonalities or differences (thematic or visual). Sometimes, multifandom gifsets incorporate lyrics to render their comparative interpretation, and sometimes the audio invoked through lyrics (or even through image) is in itself the fannish object. For example, these West Wing/Hamilton gifsets layer Hamilton lyrics over West Wing imagery, or West Wing dialogue over Hamilton imagery, cumulatively orchestrating a multimodal conversation between these two fannishly beloved sources that represent American political issues and history.



The Hamilton West Wing Tumblr

The Fanmix

Like gifsets, fanmixes have the potential to evoke associations narrow and broad, through audio and visual combination, and like gifsets, fanmixes in their current evolving form reflect the changing tenor of fan culture and the interfaces fans are currently deploying. First, a brief definition: fanmixes are fan musical playlists dedicated to a series, character, relationship, or sometimes to a particular fan-authored universe or fanwork. Fanmixes are like the inverse of lyric gifsets. Where gifsets ask you to recall and superimpose the remembered internal audio on the imagery, fanmixes and playlists ask the listener to bring their recollection of the visuals, narrative, storyworld, and characters to their listening of a given fanmix. In both cases, gifsets and fanmixes can encourage a conversation between the fan-beloved source and other media texts, fannish and non. [ (( Indeed, Bethan Jones argues that fanmixes shape listener’s future readings of the source text. “The Fanmix as Fan-adopted Paratext.” Contemporary Screen Narratives Conference, University of Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, 17 May 2012. ))]

In the past, fanmixes were predominantly shared in locked communities like those on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal, where fanmix authors provided links to (or sometimes direct downloads to) the music in their playlist, in combination with album cover art and sometimes snippets of lyrics or even fanfic. The locked communities offered perceived protection from the copyright issues involved in remixing and redistributing full songs. Fans also distributed fanmixes in the form of lists of songs and album art without the songs themselves, so that the playlist existed as a map or instructions for the potential listener to create the audio flow themselves.

However, these fanmix distribution practices are increasingly being replaced by fans’ use of newer interfaces for creating “playlists” on line, using sites like the fan-popular 8Tracks. This shift in interface impacts the fanmix as a form. Previously meaning was in significant part constructed by the flow of the mix, with the order of songs potentially telling a story or progressing an arc. However, with the popularity of 8tracks as home for fanmixes, the importance of a playlist’s linear architecture has shifted; any mix on 8tracks is destined to be auto-remixed, so to speak, that is, played in a different order for licensing reasons after the first playing of the mix. So if a fanmix track author has an intent regarding the build of the songs, they craft it knowing that hearing the mix in that order will be an ephemeral and limited experience, and that the playlist must/will also communicate meaning in its cumulation and any accompanying art and author notes.

8tracks screengrab

8track’s search listings

Where the order of the songs cannot be assumed as a constant in this new version of the fanmix, album art imagery, author notes, hashtags and resulting recommendations on 8tracks further offer interpretative frame, identifying not only the fandom but pairing (The Unexpected Romance of Sherlock and Molly), character (Morstran), tone and genre (Teen!Lock), and perhaps even particular fan fiction universe invoked (The Paradox Series: The Soundtrack). As with gifsets, the order of edited songs matters less than the cumulative impression of the juxtaposition and synthesis, and the overall impact of the playlist as it can be (and if you love it, likely will be) played over and over again, sometimes within a longer flow of favorited playlists, other times on its own as a singular (albeit also multiplicitous) object.

And yet, the fan desire for control of the creative dimension inherent in song ordering still remains, as articulated by the fanmixer morethanonepage: “For me, putting the songs in the ‘right’ order is just as important as picking them.” [ (( Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, “The Evolution of Fandom Mixtape Culture,” The Daily Dot, July 15, 2013, http://www.dailydot.com/fandom/fandom-mixtape-culture-tumblr-spotify-8tracks/ ))] Fanmixes, perhaps with order delineated but playback not, come to join gifsets in the infinite scrolling of Tumblr, where they together commingle with creative forms from other fandoms, and alongside images and memes and conversations that we might not label as fannish at all. These larger contexts, and the individual ways in which they are experienced by particular users and fans, also determine the evolving aesthetic forms of fan works.

Image Credits

1. Tumblr’s posting functions
2. Darlingbenny’s “Some Nights…”
3. The Hamilton West Wing Tumblr
4. The Hamilton West Wing Tumblr
5. 8track’s search listings (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment

Fandom in Transition: Long Live the Landslide
Louisa Ellen Stein / Middlebury College

Behind the scenes footage of Lord of the Rings

Behind the scenes footage from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings

“A love-letter to a fandom I’m not really in anymore”: That’s how Gwenfrankenstien describes her vid, “Long Live,” a Lord of the Rings fan video made from the Return of the King DVD extras, edited to Taylor Swift’s anthem of the same name.

I find Gwenfrankenstien’s description of her vid very evocative. “Long Live” captures the power and the transience of the fan experience, and I’m saying that as someone who is not really a Lord of the Rings fan by any definition. But I’m still moved by this vid every time I watch it. In part, I’m struck by its vision of the journey shared by media producers as they (re)create a fan-loved media text. The Taylor Swift song’s proclamation “long live the magic we made” helps amplify the vids’ vision of the producers and actors of Return of the King coming together, via technology, performance, and creative teamwork to transform a collective imagined fantasy into a filmed reality. The magic, it suggests, is in the lived process of that creation as much as (if not more than) in the final product, and thus cannot be fully contained in the form of a movie or even in DVD extras. “Long Live” celebrates the vision and determination of media producers, and (to me at least) in doing so likens their community experience to that shared by fans. Indeed, I can’t help but see fans not only as the recipient of this video’s love letter, but as represented by proxy in its images of producers, actors, interviews, and award shows.

While I’m not part of the particular fandom represented here, I am part of a different sort of fandom that was also the intended audience for “Long Live,” the vidding fandom, that is, fans of fan-authored remix videos. This video was made for Festivids, an annual fannish vid exchange. Many festivids vidders also participate in Vividcon, an annual convention in which vidders submit premiering and recent videos, and host vid shows and panels on particular subjects of interest to vidders and vid-viewers. I saw “Long Live” for the first time in the “Nearly New” vidshow at Vividcon 2015. I was especially struck by how connected I felt to this video about a fandom I wasn’t in, which I was watching within a fan community that precisely brings together multiple, diverse fandoms, with participants connected together by their love for a particular form rather than a particular source text.

Although the multiplicity of fandom is a core feature of both Festivids and Vividcon, that multiplicity isn’t without its friction points, friction points that emerge from the power and transience of fandom highlighted in Gwenfrankenstien’s vid. The Vividcon vidding community has evolved over the decades across not only the rise and fall of multiple fandoms, but also over multiple interfaces held in tandem, built on prior histories of vidding and fan conventions. Francesca Coppa and Henry Jenkins have written about early years of vidding, the cultures of vidding collectives working with the technology of dual VCRs [ (( See Jenkins, Henry. “’Layers of Meaning’: Fan Music Video and the Poetics of Poaching.” Textual Poachers, Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Routledge, 2013. p. 223-249. And Coppa, Francesca, “Women, Star Trek, and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding.” Transformative Works and Cultures 1 (2008). http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/44. doi:10.3983/twc.2008.0044 ))]. They and other scholars have argued that since its origins in the 1980s, through into the era of digital editing, vidding has fostered often-female communities of practice in which fans turn video authors, taking ownership of and speaking back to mainstream media, and in so doing developing alternative aesthetic traditions and perspectives.

Vividcon 2015

Vividcon 2015 logo, edited within Community

When I began to participate in vidding in 2006, vidders mostly shared their videos in locked communities or behind password protected servers. Even as YouTube grew in popularity and breadth, vidders were very tentative about sharing their work there for fear of copyright takedowns and IP issues. As Francesca Coppa has argued, this tentativeness threated to erase the creative work of the mostly female vidding community while the more often male remix artist were posting their work publicly on YouTube [ (( Coppa, 2008. ))].

But at the same time that Vividcon vidders were hesitant to post on YouTube and to share their work publicly, new fan video traditions were evolving on YouTube. There were and are many vidders and fan vidding communities on YouTube that did not necessarily emerge from or align themselves with the traditions of Vividcon and/or VCR vidding. The vids that these “YouTube vidders” (as they are sometimes called) created/create look significantly different from the still dominant aesthetic at Vividcon, one which highlights professional-feeling clean cuts, minimal special effects, music rather than dialogue for audio, and linear, legible narrative or analytic structure [ (( Katharina Freund, “I Thought I Made a Vid, But Then You Told Me That I Didn’t: Aesthetics and Boundary Work in the Fan Vidding Community,” in eds. Eduardo Navas, Owen Gallagher, and xtine burrough, The Routledge Companion To Remix Studies (New York: Routledge, 2015). ))]. In contrast, many “YouTube vids” layer dialogue as well as image, and incorporate filters and overlays, sometimes/often in abundance.

At Vividcon, congoers have debated the relationship between the Vividcon community and other evolving fan vidding and remix traditions, aesthetics, and interfaces for sharing, in panels like the 2007 “Town Hall on Vidding and Visibility.” At the 2012 Vividcon panel entitled “Forever Reblog: Vid Audiences on Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, etc.,” we talked about whether vidders should experiment, migrate, and embed these new interfaces and/or the aesthetics evolving on them. The overall tone was open and encouraging, with people giving tips about how to publicize, self brand, and link across interfaces.

Vividcon 2015

Vividcon 2015

Now, in 2015, Vividcon has grown in tremendous ways—most notably its streaming vidshows that have allowed greater access to those unable to attend the conference in person. Its panel and vid show topics continue also to encourage a diversity of approaches, perspectives, and fannish identification. And yet I fear that the vidding community might still be facing its own transience—that it might not live on if it does not enter more fully into conversation with evolving fan video and remix video cultures. Yes, Vividcon has a Tumblr and many vids circulate on Tumblr, and a fair amount of vidders post their work to YouTube as well as to Vimeo. But an us versus them/ours versus theirs mentality still lurks, not shared by all, but it’s there, arguably motivated by an understandable fear of loss—loss of the aesthetics, culture, and values specific to the vidding/Vividcon communities.

For me there was one vid at Vividcon 2015 that stood out, in part because it spoke to these issues and in part because it seemed to me a poignant counterpart to “Long Live”: Millylicious’ 2015 Vividcon premiere, “Landslide.” This Harry Potter vid conjures up the specifics of the passage of time for Harry Potter and its fandom, through the powerful conceit of a Hogwarts point of view (at least that’s how I read it). I find myself especially moved by this video, as I am currently re-engaging with Harry Potter through the eyes/ears of my eight year old daughter and thus am very aware of Harry Potter fandom as something past and present, continued yet fundamentally different from what it was. Harry Potter lives on but its initial fandom movement was specific to place, time, interface, and technology.

And yet I don’t read Milly’s “Landslide” as only about Harry Potter and HP fandom, to me it is about fandom’s evolutions and revolutions and changes more broadly, and now for me at least it is also inextricably about Vividcon specifically, the changing culture there, and the vidding cultures that are growing in other interfaces with other sets of aesthetic norms and expectations. Vividcon vidding and community is not what it was, even as many vidders still hold up strict lines to defend against the more diverse practices of vidding in YouTube, Tumblr, and fan culture(s). I don’t think that VVC and vidding should erase those boundaries from history, but if they/we don’t move forward in more open ways, I fear we may face endings rather than evolution, a practice tied to a moment and its technologies rather than one fluid enough to move into new but related traditions that stand on the backs of old ones.

I believe we must honor the specifics of communities and specific fan practices while acknowledging and embracing the larger cultural creative frameworks that contain diverse practices. Let’s not reify cultural divides in our self-definitions of media fans and fan practices.

Image Credits:

1. Lord of the Rings behind the scenes footage
2. 2015 VividCon Logo
3. Vividcon 2015

Please feel free to comment

It’s Contagious: Twitter and the Palimpsest of Authorship
Louisa Stein / San Diego State University


A screenshot of tweedeck – one way individuals keep up with tweets

We’re living in a den of thieves, rummaging for answers in the pages. We’re living in a den of thieves, and it’s contagious. Regina Spektor, as used in Lim’s “Us”

Increasingly, our daily engagement with multiple, interlocking interfaces highlights the ways in which engagement with culture is a creative process of borrowing, decontextualizing, and recontextualizing. In this essay I will argue that forms as diverse as fanvids and twitter share the same impetus: authorship through layering, with each authorial voice a thread in an ever-growing fabric. As a medium, twitter exemplifies the prismatic processes of individual and collective authoring that have characterized the more seemingly-cult practices of fan creativity.


Lim’s vid offers a vision of fan engagement and creativity that we can recognize as resonating with larger cultural shifts. Through the intercutting and layering of iconic images and figures from Star Trek, The Matrix, Dr. Who, and V from Vendetta, to name only a few, Lim inscribes the interplay of desire and power, authorship, and investment at work when media audiences channel their viewing experiences into authorship in the form of fandom and fan communities. She captures a sense of the dynamic tensions of fan engagement through the spectacle of fleeting yet recognizable images that slip from one into the other, and upon which she writes, traces, and erases, creating a palimpsest of fan investment and display. The copyright sign shines like the bat signal over the teeming city of reused icons, signifying the way in which culture beyond fandom strives to assert control over modes of creative engagement and viewing experiences made visible through digital media and social networks.

This vid’s meaning is borne, as are all vids, out of montage, bricolage, pastiche, the collision and layering of image after image after image, recontextualized but not fully decontextualized. Each image of sequence carries with it echoes of old meanings and contexts and investments, available or unavailable in different ways to different viewers. Vids depend on a balance of constraint and creativity, bound by the source texts from which they draw and the communities within which they circulate. At the same time, they represent the radical decentralization of the media texts they use, and of the powers of authorship, breaking those texts down into new shot alignments, new collisions of visual and sound, new meanings.

novel in 3 lines

Novel in 3 Lines Twitter Profile

“Us” speaks to the power of this decentralization within the (albeit ever expanding) limits of fandom. The same impulse–an embrace of ever multiplying contexts and their consequent limits–characterizes the many digital social networking tools that are shaping and reshaping popular culture more broadly. Twitter offers us a potent demonstration of these shifts, of the slippage of decontextualization and recontextualization captured by “Us.” The processes of fragmentation and reunification seem built into the very framework of twitter as a medium, dependent as it is on sequences of fragments. The conceit of twitter may appear to be centered around constraint: the seemingly stringent 140 character limit defines twitter; but how that constraint plays out depends entirely on community and cultural expectations, on the layered constraints of multiple contexts. Each potential 140 characters unit forms not only a limit but also a building block, one shot in a montage, one layer in a palimpsest.

Indeed, few tweets fully maintain internal coherence within said 140 characters. Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon comes to mind as, in some sense, the exception that proves the rule. These size-restricted narratives are imported to twitter from a different (limited) context, published as they were originally in the French newspaper, Le Matin, in the early 1900s. But these often grim short novels transform with the change in context, their morbidity at times undercut when aligned in the often more mundane flow of twitter, as they are juxtaposed against reports of meals enjoyed, papers graded, TV programs watched, and children picked up from school. The transformed context of reading reshapes the meaning communicated within each 140 character set.

blair twitter

Gossip Girls’s Blair Waldorf’s Twitter Profile

Most tweets depend upon larger context for their meaning, and thus how you read a tweet plays a key role in its production of meaning. You can read a tweet within the flow of all of the twitters you follow, or you can come to a tweet via a hashtag search, or within the flow of a given user. Or, as many first experience twitter, you may encounter tweets that have been imported into the flow of another online interface. Importing tweets to other interfaces detaches them from the microflow of twitter and reintroduces them into new contexts, into the flow of LiveJournal friendslists, blog widgets, or facebook status updates. Readers thus encounter a synthesis of layers, multiauthored at the intersection of multiple interfaces. This interplay between interfaces creates an ever-changing, decentralized landscape of cultural conversation.

I’m not, however, suggesting that the tweet-author has no control in authorship, lost to the incomprehensibility of mass authorship and decentralized interpretation. Indeed, we see authorship-control manifest in the many different ways in which people twitter sorts through a compellingly diverse range of inscription: off hand (and often illegible to others) conversations between friends, personal recordings of ephemeral moments, recordings of media consumed or reactions to other media, the inner thoughts of fictional characters (manifest in twitter role playing games), celebrities addressing fans, and fans addressing celebrities. Performances of self at the intersection of intimate and public collide in montage with listings for thrifted clothing for sale and conference notes. At the recent Media in Transition , we witnessed media academia trying twitter on for size, as conference-goers tweeted summaries and responses, lunch meet-ups and provocative questions, and then in the aftermath sifted through the results to see what what representations of conference conversation remained.


MIT6 twitter wordle

Twitter offers collapsible, malleable, and contradictory layers that slip through our fingers like liquid, but like glue map connections between more seemingly internally-coherent interfaces like LiveJournal and Facebook. Like the vid “Us,” individual tweets and the flow of twitter offer enriched readings when understood within context, and yet also stand alone as captivating glimpses of creative expression through digital media. And like “Us,” twitter makes visible the robustness and emergent nature of spectatorship, as spectators become authors, orchestrators, and conductors of digital media flow.

Louisa Stein is Assistant Professor of Television, Film, and New Media at San Diego State University. She is co-editor of Teen Television: Essays on Programming and Fandom. Her current book project is entitled Millennial Noir.

Image Credits:
1. screenshot of tweedeck – one way individuals keep up with tweets
2. Novel in 3 Lines Twitter Profile, author screenshot
3. Blair Waldorf’s Twitter Profile, author screenshot
4. MIT6 Wordle

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