immersed in understanding

BCM241 class of 2019, we are an odd bunch.

We all, it seems, are very particular about our cinema tastes. We have a favourite seat. A favourite snack. And a devotion to whatever it is we’re watching.

We hate talkers. We’re afraid to crunch on food out loud. And we have no qualms with getting up and leaving mid-movie should the situation call for it.

After a closer ethnographic examination of our cinema rituals through participant observation, we now also are more aware of how Torsten Hagerstrand’s (1969) constraints of coupling, capability, and authority unconsciously impact our cinematic experiences.

When Mikayla Stott of Generally Unimpressed tried to see ‘The Lion King’, her experience was ruined by unexpected capability problems, culminating in her taking early leave of the movie.

It took Taylah Ide-Miller of TayTay’s Blog three attempts to have an ideal experience when she tried to see the much-anticipated ‘Avengers Endgame’ movie. Mostly thanks to a series of authority and capability issues.

Such deep understandings would not be possible had these researchers not observed these experiences from the inside-out through participation. 

This immersive approach distinguishes itself from anthropology in accordance with Erik Lassiter’s reflections in his article ‘A Brief Guide to Collaborative Ethnography’ (2005).

He notes that ethnography avoids the harmful phenomenon of ‘othering’; of portraying the observed culture as separate, merely a shallow curiosity. When applied to the ethnography of the cinema, this form of research places ourselves in the context of viewer/experiencer-culture and our understandings are enriched.

I hope to use these insights about the power of participant observation in my capstone research project. 

One of my ideas revolves around the retail space; how different the discourse surrounding retail employment is between ‘real-life’ and online spheres, such as the subreddit titled ‘Retail Hell’.

Another concept I believe will be interesting is the interaction between the built environment and the digital world; how one prompts action in another and vice versa.

Whatever I choose to explore, I know that I must dive deep into the experience because adventure awaits.

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a friendship across the ages

I vividly remember my dance teacher, Miss T, telling our class not to worry about going to high school. Not because it would be okay, or anything that was actually comforting. But because we wouldn’t have to be concerned about staying in touch with our primary school friends. She told us that we would find better friends. That that the friendships we had in that moment were irrelevant.

She was not my favourite teacher.

When I first began high school, I lost touch with most people from primary—I didn’t much like them anyway. There were, however, a few select friends who I was sad to let go.

Opportunity came knocking with the launch of the social messaging app Kik. Introduced to me by the one primary school friend with whom I had maintained contact through dancing; I decided it was the perfect opportunity to re-establish contact with the few people I missed.

From there it became a regular after school activity to sit on the couch and message back and forth with this group of five (including that friend from dance). Our friendship was reaffirmed when a few of us started attending the same youth group for a couple years—all organised over Kik; a semi-long-distance friendship.

These girls became my closest friends.

We lost a few along the way. Falling outs, differing interests. Until there were just three of us left—Steph, Tara and myself.

Around year 10 we made the switch to Facebook and Facebook Messenger. We were able to share more of our lives and communicate more authentically. It was easier to organise ourselves and we were motivated to do more together.

It was great to have people who were always there to talk to—they wouldn’t get annoyed with the all-hours messaging. We stuck by each other and pushed each other to be better people as we dealt with the troubles of growing up.

They were my closest friends, even more so than the ones I had at school.

Year 12 was the most stressful time of our lives. We moved from messaging each other to Skyping each other so we could study ‘together’. It was far more motivating to sit down and do work if you were amongst friends, even if it was only digital.

We’re still friends now. It feels like all those years of partially separated friendship prepared us for the long-distance kind.

Our lives now are crazy and time-consuming. It’s impossible to maintain the high constancy of social media contact that we once did. Though there may now be gaps between when we talk, our bond is still just as strong.

Looking back it’s amazing to see how social media has been the glue that has held us together. How it has impacted everything from our nicknames—Stephy, Taz, Chrissy—to what we wore when we went out.

Take that, Miss T.

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alone, together

The term ‘networked home’ elicits two-dimensional images of an entranced someone, their face always awash in cold light generated by 0s and 1s. We imagine a person whose first hello every morning is their lock screen, and last goodnight is their social-media-night-cap of choice. This person ignores the “real world”, and is always grafted in some way to a digital device no matter where in the home they are.

Such surface-level evocations may unwittingly lead us down a dystopic garden path.

As someone who frequents the digital spaces of social media as much as I do my own bedroom, I find it difficult to reconcile this chilling image with the dynamic reality of the networked home.

Sherry Turkle argues that social media and the networked home makes us distant from people in the “real world”. It is her belief that we are prevented from developing the social skills necessary for navigating relationships. Thus, we miss out on the human connection we inherently crave.

I disagree.

Since moving out of home, my life has been enriched by the capabilities of the networked home, because social media is really the ‘heart of contemporary culture’ (boyd 2014).

An ethnographic snapshot of my networked home:

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  • Me, tagging my roommate (who is sitting in the next room) in Facebook memes, to prompt various outbursts of reaction, that to the outside onlooker would appear unprovoked.
  • Conversations over Snapchat about random and entirely hilarious subject matter—these visuals add nonverbal cues that are often feared to be lost in digital communication.
  • Finding and RSVPing to nearby events that my friends and I can attend together, e.g. concerts, trips and uni nights.
  • Video-chatting and texting my friends and family in Sydney whom I miss and wish I could see more often.
  • Scrolling through the #SurvivorAU and #BachelorAU feeds to feel gratified in stranger’s reactions.
  • Using Pinterest to inspire my real life and to find content to entertain when I am at my most bored.

For me, an enhanced life from the use of social media in the networked home comes down to its ability to foster real-world interaction/strengthening of relationships, and its ability to connect us when we feel lonely or are isolated.

Turkle makes an additional point of reclaiming ‘sacred’ spaces for “real world” conversations. Spaces like the kitchen or the dining table.

Her pleas in this fashion are a reflection of her time. In 2019 we are increasingly aware of the impact that technology use has on physical interactions in the home.

We sometimes have these purist sacred spaces or moments where technology use is banned in lieu of physical conversation. However, more often (and most true in my home) we multitask between the two spaces. Using one to reinforce the other rather than to escape it.

The still-image of my networked home is an injustice to its complexity. It doesn’t demonstrate the strength of relationships it has allowed me to build, nor the sense of belonging it has fostered. It doesn’t acknowledge that we are all bettered by it.

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boyd, d. 2014, Its complicated, Yale University, e-book, accessed 26 August 2019, <https://seeingcollaborations.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/itscomplicated.pdf>

Turkle, S. 2012, Connected, but alone?, online video, TED, viewed 29 August 2019, <https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together/transcript>

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

in times of broken-hearted trouble,​ the television comes to me

As a child, TV was more than just convenient leisure. I felt like more than just a consumer. I find it strange that Nick Couldry in his ethnographic article ‘Theorising media as practice’ (2004) identifies these as some of the key qualities of a child’s television watching.

As a more-lonely-than-not child, I survived on a steady diet of other worlds fed to me directly from the ‘hands’ of the TV. To me it was an escape; an adventure all laid out for me.

And it always had a happy ending.

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I do however find that Couldry’s remarks upon the diminishing parental mediation of their children’s television viewing are relatable. I am thankful that my parents were relaxed in this sense as it allowed me the space to experiment with my watching habits and find content that I enjoyed.

Couldry observes that parents would decreasingly regulate the length of their child’s TV screen-time. True for me.

He also points out that parents would not evaluate what their child was watching with so much stringency. Again, true for me—I was watching Lord of the Rings before I was watching Disney (and I still love it).

Lastly, he also notes that co-use of the television with children declined, meaning there was less discussion about the programs. Also true.

Of the few fragmented memories of my childhood TV watching, these are clearest:

After school. Come home, find a snack. Sit in front of the TV, channel on ABC Kids/ABC3; don’t move until Rollercoaster ends at 6pm and the news starts.

School holidays. I stayed in and watched all ten seasons of Stargate SG1. Then all five seasons of Stargate Atlantis. It was addictive; I did this way too much. I still do this sometimes (don’t judge me).

As I grew older my relationship with TV changed. In high school I would only switch on for reality TV.

The other memory I have is unique against the rest.

I had just come home from school, probably my last day for the year. I got a strange text from my dad, something along the lines of ‘Don’t go into Sydney’. It confused me. Some instinct that told me to turn the TV on like I used to all those years before.

What I saw filled me with dread. A terror attack. Martin Place, Sydney. Hostages, snipers, telephone demands–a siege. Endless loops of news reporters saying the same things. Waiting for new information and hoping something would change. Praying.

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Picture: Channel 7 Source:Channel 7

It was in that moment I wished that my parents would come home from work and sit with me. Turn the TV off, change the channel, talk to me about it, mediate what I was doing somehow. But they wouldn’t.

What had once been a security blanket had become a window into the darkest parts of the world. And I didn’t like what I saw.

Without at first realising it, from then on, I chose for my media consumption to come from a controllable place on my computer. From streaming services and social media.

But I’ll never forget what it was like that day. The sun blaring through the window; my legs sticking to the leather couch. My eyes burning into the screen, and my fear ice-cold.

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Couldry, N 2004, ‘Theorising Media as practice’, Social Semiotics, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 115-130

Photo by 阿江 on Unsplash

Photo by Ramon Kagie on Unsplash

i’m good, thanks for asking

I’ve been replaced.

By, of all things, the not-so-humble smartphone.

Maybe not in the literal sense. Nonetheless, it is hard to grasp the fact that as a sales assistant I was once trusted with dishing out sage fashion advice. Now, I am merely the grunt that greets customers and scans shoes with a sweet-as-candy smile.

It is a replacement so seamless that nobody notices it has happened. After all, I am still *technically* here.

Let me explain in Marsha Berry‘s (2015) ethnographic vignette style:

Jess and Stacy are on the hunt for a pair of shoes for their Year 12 formal. Once they’re shown to the size 8 section, they wave away any offers of help from the store person. Jess intently scrolls through her dedicated Pinterest board, trying to see if any of her saved looks match what she sees on the shelves. Stacy wades her way through the store’s website, attempting to locate the shoes that she fell in love with a few days earlier.

Indecision sets in as they try on their choices. Jess takes some photos of herself wearing different heels and posts them on her Snapchat story. Within minutes her friends reply, all touting advice and admiration. Meanwhile, Stacy FaceTimes her dad—a fruitless effort as Stacy finds his opinions to be stylistically misguided. She then holds her phone up, squinting. She displays a picture of herself wearing her formal dress in her bedroom, envisioning what the shoes would look like as part of the ensemble. Do they match?

The answer—it seems—is yes. The girls pay, one with their Apple Wallet and the other with Afterpay. In politeness, they thank the lady behind the counter and move on to the next store, phones still clutched tightly in hand.

Marsha Berry’s article ‘Out in the open: Locating new camera practices with smartphone cameras’ (2015) highlights the interrelationship between an individual’s daily routine and technology—particularly social media. She describes how these connections between the human and the network are “complex and messy” and enmeshed in our everyday comings and goings.

She observes how our digital interactions “evoke [in others] a sense of what it is like to be here and now in the physical world in a visceral multi-sensory way.” The contemporary experience of space is atomised as places become unbounded and transitional—able to be shared with anyone.

The individuals who engage in this ecology are labelled ‘digital wayfarers’. They share their explorations of the real world on social media with people in their network. Almost everyone now participates in this ‘virtual co-presence’ as it has become a “key factor in our daily encounters with physical places.”

As Jess and Stacy demonstrate, the digital world is now spliced to our lived experience.

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Berry, M 2015, ‘Out in the Open: Locating new vernacular practices with smartphone cameras’, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 53-64

Photo by Ramon Kagie on Unsplash

ritual cinema

Twenty films in, seeing a new Marvel movie at the cinema has become a ritual. Everything is planned out like clockwork and done with the same feeling of fevered excitement.

Every action is unconsciously molded by Hagerstand’s theory of space and time in geography. The constraints of capability, coupling, and authority guide its logistics. Each of these factors contributes toward a shared social experience, elevating patrons beyond mere ‘spectator’ status.

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The sacred rite of Marvel-Movie-Watching can be understood in my most recent experience watching ‘Spiderman: Far from Home’.

My roommate, my friend and I chose the closest location, Wollongong Cinema. We were so keen (as always), we HAD to go on the opening day—but were forced to choose the evening time slot because we were all busy during the day.

Every time, we arrive at least 40 minutes early. We park next to McCabe Park to avoid paying in the centre parking-lots; my roommate drives because I don’t own a car. We do this because Wollongong cinema is very popular and doesn’t have assigned seating. Being early allows us to be first in line outside the cinema door.

This aspect of the ritual relates to ‘capability’. My movements were limited by the lack of local cinemas (a physical factor) and the willingness of my roommate to drive us only so far (an environmental factor).

The next part of the ritual is the candy bar. On this one occasion, we scored $9 tickets, and I also got my usual packet of overpriced peanut M&Ms (the tour-de-force of cinema snacks).

Once we’re stocked up, the real wait begins. We camp in front of the door, marking our territory at the front of the line. I use the bathroom twice to prevent my bladder from forcing me to bail out of the 2-hour 9-minute extravaganza early. (The twice part is a tried and true method.)

The ticketing relates to ‘authority’ held by the cinema. They own the screening and can, therefore, allow entry only whom they choose. The aspects of lining up and taking a bathroom break relate to the constraint of ‘coupling’. They establish ideal conditions for myself as I will need to be ready for the movie to begin at a specific time, and prepared to be there for a length of time there-after.

We rush in once the doors open. Our seats are always near the front—in the first row after the door. Far enough back to see comfortably and with no view of the door lights or people entering/exiting.

Nobody talks during this movie. The only motions are hungry hands pinching up more popcorn. The only sounds, our laughter and cries in unison as the movie hits the right chords of emotion.

We don’t simply watch the movie, we are enveloped by it; together.

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next stop: media ethnography

We all know that one obnoxious person who at some point has said, “I wish we could go back to the good old days where people actually spoke to each other on the train. It’s really sad to see everyone just on their phones and ignoring the real world these days.”

*Cue eye roll*

I’m just going to put it out there… NOBODY WANTS THAT.

People love to keep to themselves. I’d go as far as to say that it’s a national Aussie pastime to ignore fellow commuters as much as humanly possible. Minimum interaction is my no.1 tip for surviving on Sydney trains—this includes avoiding eye contact.

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As a professional in the sport of ‘keeping to myself’, I regularly listen to podcasts on my long commute to Sydney. On this treacherous journey (dubbed as such due to the extended mobile data dead zone), I notice people employing a multitude of other techniques to avoid people: reading, listening to music and… oh wait that’s all I can think of; I guess that what happens when you’re that good at actively ignoring people (whoops).

I find podcasts to be the most effective way of sustaining a degree of separation from the transient masses. Like music, podcasts benefit from the ‘headphones on, don’t f**king talk to me’ rule of 21st-century lore. However, they also take the best parts of other media formats in one easy-to-transport bundle.

If you don’t want to lug a book around everywhere you go, just listen to a podcast.

If you want to watch your favourite Youtuber but don’t have the data, download their podcast before your trip.

If you miss ye olde days of listening to radio shows, then they’re on there too.

And if you want to up-skill in your spare time then educative podcasts are the perfect opportunity.

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I love podcasts because they’re interesting and engaging, with minimal effort from my end. I get to dive into complex stories and plumb the depths of others’ knowledge without going out of my way in my day-to-day. Due to their compact nature, I also don’t have to worry about judgment from the odd sticky-beak like I would when I lose yet another game of Catan (my go-to alternative train activity). They’re also pretty handy when you’re forced to stand up for the entire two-hour journey.

Frequently, I listen to the Hamish and Andy podcast. I might do this as I gaze out the window at the South Pacific, or as I scroll aimlessly across social media in those small pockets of decent 4G connection. The trip goes faster. People don’t talk to me. I’m entertained. And whoever is sitting next to me may be a little disturbed if I accidentally let slip some uncontrolled laughter—

—But it’s hard to see this as a negative if it causes them to inch a bit away from my seat (more space for me—yay!).

So, next time that irritating person comments on how socially checked-out people are on public transport “these days”, after their enlightening 1am trip to Wollongong with a random meth-head… just ignore them. Because you have the wonderful world of podcasts, and they only have the empty hope that that this line of discussion makes them look intelligent.

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