Crowd Sourcing the Past


On the 22nd of November 1963, in Dallas Texas president John F Kennedy was murdered. The 26 seconds surrounding that assassination were captured on 8mm film by Abraham Zapruder. The film, that shows in grainy detail the president’s head exploding from a rifle shot, can be viewed on YouTube in various enhanced forms, is kept in the United States National Archives and has been valued at $16 million.

On the 11th of September 2001 in New York City two passenger jets were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, killing thousands. The Naudet brothers were filming for a documentary on Engine 7, Ladder 1 Firehouse at the time which put them at the centre of the single largest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour. The subsequent documentary was aired on CBS to 39.4 million viewers and is one of the only sources of footage that captured the first plane striking the North Tower.

In December 2017 social media star Logan Paul filmed a dead body hanging from a tree in the Aokigahara Forest at the base of mount Fuji, a site that is well known as a place many take their own lives. He posted it on his Youtube channel to over 15 million subscribers, many of whom are children.

The moving image has been present in public life since the Lumiere brothers first exhibited their short films in Paris in 1895. Today, the public of developed nations exhaustively record and distribute footage of our every day lives. Most people are not without a still or motion video camera at all times on a day to day basis. The prevalence of this documenting of everyday life is relatively recent, as illustrated above, and it presents some interesting questions for our future.

The rabid fear mongering of a CCTV recorded existence, observing our every move in a panopticon state of surveillance has been present since I was a child (born in 1984) from people citing the novel 1984 as a dire warning of what this would represent. The adoption of various terms and phrases from that book by the media, corporations and politicians without actually mitigating the authoritarian results suggests 1984 has done more for the political Right than it has for any other cause. And, if anything, it woefully underestimated how we would be watched and how voluntarily we would film ourselves, even going so far as to geo-tag our position when filming. Part of the Social Contract, according to Rosseau, is that we give up certain freedoms in the name of an assurance of certain protections by our state. In many ways we have given up even more freedoms than we initially sign up for but far from being unaware of this or talked into it, we do it willingly. The revelations leaked by Jon Snowden revealed how actively our privacy was being invaded and the response was a total lack of surprise. Condemnation, yes, but surprise? No. The consequences of this all-pervasive surveillance and self-documenting are yet to be seen fully but one part of this repeatedly reasserts itself as a difficulty in modern society: the interpretation of said evidence.

The unifying factor of the examples I gave above is the debate that surrounded them. The conspiracy of a second gunman persists thanks to the Zapruder film and people’s perception of it. Debate and hostility still surrounds the legitimacy of some footage of the twin towers attack, resulting in a persistent (and idiotic) belief the attack was organised internally. Or something. I'm not exactly clear what those people want out of that one. Either way, America still likes to pick at that scab. The Aryan Youtuber’s stupidity in filming the man who died by suicide received widespread condemnation but equally defence from a vocal group of supporters and even after the video was taken down copies flourished on the internet and were poured over, reacted to, re-edited and re-dubbed.

Film or video footage is often seen as incontrovertible evidence of a given event. “The camera never lies” etc. But with the advent of ever more convincing digital fakes you would think that particular misapprehension may finally be laid to rest, yet scepticism of given footage (especially online), requesting sources and generally questioning the veracity of a given media is still woefully low. Sharing the video is simple and easy on all media platforms and by then the damage is done. Proof the video or image was faked will never reach the same amount of people, such is the nature of ‘virality’.

What this should do is show us that evidence, and by extension History, is open to interpretation in all cases and it is only through accumulating evidence and testimony on a given topic we can get a relatively accurate idea of the exact nature of events that happened. Simply filming something was never the be all and end all on something. A cursory glance of anyone’s Instagram is a news feed of carefully engineered publicity. You would hope the question of who took the video, with what, how and why might become more common and – perhaps more importantly – make us look at past events and their recordings with the same level of scepticism. Context is king regarding any significant (or insignificant) event captured on video or film.

And yet, social media and news media relies on a race to the bottom. Demand for instant opinion and discussion on the given event from everyone, the rolling news coverage begging for audience supplied footage, the near immediate reinterpretation of that footage for memetic purposes, all this has developed major events into an abstract of differing interpretations, individual narratives and aggregate opinion. It’s a worrying trend that went from taking footage as gospel (by and large) to taking footage as gospel but only after it has been reinterpreted to fit our own understanding of the given topic. There is endless footage of the burning of Grenfell Tower and even footage inside after the blaze was out from a firefighter’s body cam and yet an enquiry continues, families who lived in the tower still remain homeless or without compensation. A lack of further contextual evidence has fostered a combative and unproductive debate around the traumatic and violent events of the 14th of June 2017. But there’s plenty of footage for the digital archives.

No major event will go uncaptured in the future. Crowdsourcing an archive appears more democratic and transparent, but the inherent subjectivity of the footage means desire for an objective reading of an event is a difficult and lengthy process, which does not suit the contemporary dialogue. No one source should be treated as the defining element in anything and you think that would be easier today given the prevalence footage. Instead the truth, such that it is in the ‘Post-Truth’ society, has become more malleable and, ultimately, less important. That should be of concern to all of us.