Week 2: Steven Wheeler – Response to Viewings

In her TedX talk, “Witness Your Environment,” Kelly Matheson describes George Holliday’s videotaping of the Rodney King incident as the event that “put the Handycam on the map as a powerful human rights tool.”  The video can also be considered seminal in another, connected sense: it prefigures the growing democratization of journalism Henry Jenkins describes in his book, Spreadable Media.  As opposed to the older model, in which content filtered down via a few broadcast organizations, the newer model is more laterally organized.  As Matheson observed, “cameras are everywhere”, and with their proliferation comes the possibility that anyone and everyone can be a filmmaker.

The Witness Human Rights Channel and EngageMedia both take advantage of this brave new world, though they do so in different ways.  Given the raw, unedited nature of the footage I saw, the WITNESS pieces are interesting more as historical documents than as narrative vehicles.  They work better when there is actual action taking place, as there is in the Egypt: Gender-based Violence or West Bank: Youth pieces.  When the collections are standard interviews or talking heads, however, their efficacy falters, as few pieces are subtitled.

EngageMedia missteps here as well (see, for example, the Amos Calling or the Return shorts), but the site at least has an integrated subtitling feature where invested users can provide them.  That initial shortcoming aside, I believe their interest in creating a sense of narrative in the films they present makes for a better experience.  Shorts like Religious Freedom, in which students from ten Posentrans (Islamic boarding schools) debate religious intolerance, tell a great story, while Hardcore Poor in Kuala Lumpur did an excellent job of showcasing the brutal poverty of two sisters.

It should be noted that despite my preference, I think both do what they are designed to do quite well: raise awareness about social issues.  In the future though, both sites should include links or write-ups for users who want to dig deeper into the issues depicted.  These websites should serve as places where interest in social issues begins, not ends.

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4 comments to Week 2: Steven Wheeler – Response to Viewings

  • amandae@uoregon.edu

    Stephen: I like your suggestion that they include links to more information if readers/viewers want to dig deeper. I think the ability to do that actually qualifies their effectiveness. Many times, I find that “social justice” type sites speak to the audience that already agrees with the subject matter. It is almost imperative for sites like Witness and Engage to be welcoming to newcomers who might not know everything about the issues, in order to help make the network of action one can take more apparent.

    What do you think the format of the Witness films does in terms of actually advocating for change? If they aren’t narrative driven, are they actually effective pieces of media? Or, is this sort of media only effective when seen as part of the larger organization? Can these sorts of social justice pieces stand on their own to effect change?

    • swheeler@uoregon.edu


      You ask some fantastic questions, ones that I’m sure I’m not best qualified to answer. Since I detest punting, however, I’ll see what I can do.

      First, though, let me address your comment. I agree that many social justice websites are preaching to the converted. This is disappointing, for I think these groups could do some serious community-building by reaching out to the users or viewers of their video, by making them feel involved in the issue and giving them paths to action. I think it’s safe to assume that when presented with a social injustice most people default to the rote “That’s terrible, but what can I do?” Providing a page or section that highlights the spectrum of contributions people can make might just inspire more people to get involved. At the very least, it’s worth a go.

      Now, on to your questions. The more I thought about the Witness site (and EngageMedia, as well), the more I amazed I was with how they nailed all the difficult logistical issues: giving filmmakers the tools they need to make the videos, culling those films, verifying their authenticity, and organizing them into playlists for their potential viewers. Somehow, though, I think they managed to overlook their audience. They need to make the experience more immersive, from providing a better context for their viewers to giving them ways to get involved. Right now they host an excellent forum for showing citizen videos: they need to evolve that into something more engaging.

      As for question numbers two and three, my short answer is, “It depends.” The range of responses to the viewings would indicate that the scattershot nature of the Witness playlist works. I found the experience jarring and uneven, as you were treated to short raw clips, extended interviews, and finished pieces intercut with product adverts. As the funk philosopher Sylvester Stewart once observed, “Different strokes for different folks.”

      Finally, I think those pieces can effect change, provided they’re properly contextualized, though I’m not sure if that qualifies as a yes or no. I would say yes, in that I believe that context is necessary for something to mean anything.

      And now I have a question for you. Do you think the video in the link below is a good advocate for social change? I found this morning on the Witness site while I was thinking over your questions. I think it’s audacious, edgy, and darkly humorous, but I’m ambivalent about its efficacy in arguing for social change. What do you think?


  • epriebe@uoregon.edu

    Your last paragraph hit the proverbial nail on the head for me. I want more information! I think your point again speaks to one of the central issues we’ve been talking about in our class: what happens after the camera stops rolling? Where is the follow-up? Both WITNESS and EngageMedia do a good job of preserving the issue at a certain point in time, but I always want to know, did the video help them alleviate the problem that they were having? This question mostly comes up for videos where there is more of a narrative structure that frames an issue, and less so for the “happening right at this minute” videos that populated the WITNESS YouTube channel. If part of the point of sites like EngageMedia and WITNESS is to create awareness, then the websites should absolutely include a place where the discussion can be continued.

  • summerh@uoregon.edu

    Yes, I agree with both you and Emily here. Your suggestion for a link to more info is great and would definitely enhance the user experience. Like Emily, I was left wondering after each video I watched, what the outcome was, or what was currently happening regarding each issue. And I think having a place where the discussion could be continued would add to the democratic process and therefore to the potential for social change.

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