In 2004, the Beastie Boys handed out 50 cameras to fans attending a concert at Madison Square Garden. It was touted as a democratizing media coup. But the culminating product has gone down in history as a fairly mediocre documentary that, as Laura Sinagra put it for the Village Voice, “plays like a hype victory lap rather than a boundary-smashing study of fan curiosity or pathology.”
Yesterday, Twitter unveiled Moments, AKA Project Lightning, to a select few users. It’s largely the same idea. A series of tweets, videos, photos, taken by the masses, are assembled into brief crowdsourced views of events like the Astros-Yankees wildcard game, the South Carolina floods, and a visit to the Galapagos islands.
While the future may not be on my side, I have to agree with Sinagra a decade later, that it all feels more like a social media victory lap than a tool for our greater understanding of the world. Because ultimately, it’s a display of their power and reach, and all it makes me understand is something that I’d prefer not to think about: that the human experience isn’t all that unique.
Call it crowdsourced montage. It’s the newest trend in social media platforms that want to become news, or maybe better put, social experience platforms. In July, I watched 14 million pilgrims visit Mecca during Ramadan, through the lens of dozens of users on Snapchat. Loading Instagram’s new Search & Explore tab, I’ve been able to visit the Black Rock desert for Burning Man via the hivemind of burner photographers. Meanwhile, the new smartphone streaming services Periscope and Meerkat both allow live broadcast by single people of single events, but it seems almost inevitable at this point that, with enough user uptake, a service like Periscope would combine all of the livestreams of people witnessing one thing in one area into the same product. And why not? Rather than flipping between the channels (and thereby cameras) of NBC, ABC, and CBS news affiliates during a breaking news emergency like an explosion or car chase, a human curator or algorithm, sitting in the cloud, can cut together the perspectives of an entire GPS-locatable network of iPhone users instead. It’s the seemingly inevitable future, a tipping point of high quality pocket cameras, high speed 4G data infrastructure, a billion oversharers, and a few social media companies that are anxious to evolve–and grow–in an unending thirst for our content and eyeballs.
The only problem is that, even already, these crowdsourced experiences are feeling so often the same. For every Mecca during Ramadan–the one truly gut-pulling use I’ve seen of the medium, but maybe largely because I’m such an outsider to that culture–there are a dozen football games, concerts, and Redbull events. And these are all told with a monotonous, now-predictable cadence. Wide shot of a bunch of people going in. Selfie. Group of people cheering in anticipation. Chanting. Another selfie. A blurry, shaky Mediocre Thing That Happened (a catch or a short burst of a song). Somebody eating a churro with a caption like “CHURROOOOOO!” A Well Shot Potentially Big Thing That Happened (a game winning play, or some unexpected celebrity coming onto stage). And then, the event wraps with the same series of group shots, selfies, and chants.
To be fair, there’s an underlying reason why a lot of this feels the same: many of our experiences are actually the same! A sporting event or concert is always going to involve a mass of humanity going into a stadium. And more than that, existing news services, like your local NBC affiliate, have long-developed their own predictable cadence to telling a story: Anchor introduces an event in the studio with a chyron over his right shoulder. Two-shot of both anchors cutting to a reporter. Waist-up shot of reporter on location stands in front of a Whatever Thing (mass shooting or local fruit-themed festival). Cut to B-roll. Back to the reporter. Back to the studio.
Every story we see is told by careful design. Visual communication, especially, relies on these templates which seem so silly explained out in text but, upon a few hundred viewings, just melt away to the viewer. So this viewer is left not contemplating the nature of mold-formed media content produced to rubric (let alone if that treatment does justice to the story), but rapidly absorbing a pre-chewed gist of what happened.
Still, you might you agree, something just feels different now with these new, crowdsourced experience platforms. The narrative strings behind our selfies seem more apparent than they were when reporters were just cutting to b-roll. The events themselves, covered with more eyeballs and cameras than ever in history, actually feel more monotonous than ever before.
Now, we’re only in the first year of this stuff! Maybe it’s just that the products of Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are still developing their perfect rubrics. (So far, Twitter has definitely kept their clips a bit tighter-cut than Snapchat, with less crowdsourcing, and more clean, illustrative clips uploaded by official parties–and so it feels more like a news cast than a montage.) Or maybe it’s just that we haven’t had these rubrics stamped into our brains enough times to forget that we’re seeing them.
But I can’t help but wonder if there’s a third option, that all of this rubric monotony works for news broadcast because, when we watch the news, we just want clear information. However, more often than not, the montage-based social networks don’t want to give us clean news; they want to capture and share a moment of the human experience. And when Snapchat story after Snapchat story makes an attempt at this mighty feat, through our own cameras and 4-inch screens, it inevitably falls short and thereby conveys something else.
We’re all the same old people doing the same old shit the same old way. From any one perspective, it’s literally the experience of a lifetime. Chopped up and extruded out en masse, it’s actually pretty boring.
It’s why, when I Instagram the Eiffel Tower, I know better than to click that link for everyone else’s photos of the Eiffel Tower. If I let myself realize that 20,000 other people took the exact same photo, first, it won’t make me feel more connected to humanity. It’ll just make me realize that my life, for all its perfect, ephemeral grandeur, is a cliché.