Earlier today Darius Kazemi released his newest project which is a bot that makes animated GIFs from a video file and its paired subtitles. In its current form, the bot is working through S2E1 of The Wire and is located at the very appropriately named Wire Scenes tumblr (note: The Wire contains lots of scenes of offensive language and so the tumblr does as well.)
I’m mostly writing this post to signal to you that this thing exists, but I also want to say a little bit here about the way that I think the bot gives us a way of thinking about labor in the contemporary period. I’ve talked with Darius about the project, and he’s spoken about it in terms of “automating fandom.” My understanding of that, or at least my way of thinking about it that might be totally unrelated to what he means by that, is that fandom is largely produced through a particular form of labor.
I’m not saying anything that fan studies as a field hasn’t already said over and over again. I think it is generally accepted that there’s a loop around all media artifacts–producers feed consumers who produce for consumers. It all feeds back and forth any any Frankfurt-style understanding of a hierarchy of media (I’m grossly simplifying all of this, I’m sorry.)
The way that I understand the creation of fandom (and I’m just spitballing, this isn’t my field) is that it is wholly a labor process that proves a familiarity with the thing that the fandom is around. So half of it is the task of finding the perfect scenes, the reaction shots, the moments that those who love the show all laughed out loud at the moment they saw them. Then there’s the labor of downloading, of cutting apart, of subbing, of pirating, of camming, of optimizing to get around Tumblr (or, long ago, Livejournal) file size limitations. There are hours of collective and personalized labor in each GIF dump. Then there’s the commenting, the reblogging, the saving, and everything else to make sure that these image files get properly circulated in the fandom.
That labor is half of an equation, though, because part of the process of proving oneself to be a part of the fandom is knowing where to look. Making the GIF is proving that you watched; reblogging is a form of “yes, me too.”
The bot makes me rethink a lot of things I take for granted about this short narrative I just spun. The labor, the time invested in the creation of the object, happens quickly. It isn’t painstaking. The bot creates based on a predetermined quality threshold–it is cutting and pasting without any discretion about what the actual content would be. It isn’t proving that it is in the “know.” It isn’t being a part of fandom in any way that I understand fandom to exist.
And yet the products are indistinguishable from those made by fandom for me.
My relationship to the various fandoms are basically the same as my relationship to the inner workings of the bot: they are totally opaque to me. I don’t understand the production of lots of different fandoms that pass through my various feeds every day, but eventually a signal emerges from the noise–I start to understand that there are Doctors instead of just Christopher Eggleston or whatever. What amazes me is that the bot is tapping into that same apophenia–eventually, a pattern will emerge here, not because there is one, but because I found one. The “and you” up there is amazing in this way. It isn’t a GIF that anyone would make and yet it still works in the same way that all of these GIFs do. You can still use it to express, it still signifies The Wire in some way, it still matters. But all the intent, all of the direction, goes away.
I’m not sure I’ve said anything worth saying here, but there’s a total excitement that consumes me when I look at the tumblr. This is the singularity of cultural production. Everything is sliding into everything else. It is wonderful.