Outside the Frame: Documentary Filmmaker Louis Abelman Tries Twitter

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Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.

Do you tweet?
I’m not being fresh: To “tweet” means to post a message (in 140 characters or less) to a Web service called Twitter. Some of Twitter’s most active users post up to 30 times a day — about everything from the serious to the mundane, from whimsical observations of fellow commuters to first-hand reporting of natural disasters like last summer’s Hurricane Gustav. (For more about Twitter, check out online journalist Mark Glaser’s comprehensive overview over at PBS’ MediaShift.)

A screenshot of the POV twitter feed

POV’s Twitter feed.

As an active Twitter user myself, I wondered: What would a documentary filmmaker make of the Twitterverse? Here’s a place where people posted information about themselves and the world around them all day, every day. Wouldn’t that pique a storyteller’s curiosity? I thought it would.

To test my hypothesis, I invited Louis Abelman — independent media maker and co-director of the documentary Lumo, which aired in ’07 on POV — to try Twitter for a week and share his impressions. Below is a transcript of our email discussion.
I know you’ve blogged before, so I’m wondering — how foreign was the experience of Twitter to you? Did it seem very strange, or was it pretty much in line with other ways you use the web?

Louis AbelmanLouis: As a Facebook user I was not completely at sea as a new Twitter user — the Facebook status message is similar to a tweet. But Facebook is a more laid-back medium than Twitter, or at least the Twitter community that I have developed after a week of use.
Twitter is just enough of a new thing that it draws you into a world, a place with codes and ways of behaving that need to be learned. Friends “welcomed” me to the new place — call it the Twitterverse — as if I had just joined a club. That sense of newness provided interest and novelty, but it wasn’t strange — at least, no stranger than all the other manifestations of Web culture springing into all of our lives. Once you’ve gotten over the big social networking hump, where it stops seeming sort of gauche and embarrassing to display yourself in public (a barrier I passed when I joined Friendster in 2003, MySpace in 2006 and Facebook last year), then every new thing that comes along isn’t so strange. But if you stop to think about it all, I guess it still is.

Were you interested in other people’s “tweets”? Do you feel like you saw a different side of people you know in other contexts, by following them on Twitter? Did you learn information you might not have otherwise encountered?
Louis: I was very interested in others’ tweets — that was surely the main draw. I am social and nosy by nature, and peeking into other people’s lives is always a draw for me (but I’ll insist I’ve limited myself to following pundits and friends, not celebrities — yet).

I still don’t have all that many friends on Twitter, at least in comparison to Facebook, but the ones who are on Twitter tend to be the more early-adopting, techno-literate types, obviously, active in journalism and politics circles, and usually passing on interesting links to their Internet explorations. One friend in particular is someone who has become more and more successful in the media world and who is so busy I never actually get to see him. It was great to be able to “catch up” in a sense by following his manic twittering, which provided a window into his interesting projects and lifestyle in Washington.

Another friend has just embarked on a volunteering expedition to a remote island on Lake Victoria in Uganda. She won’t have Internet access for the most part, so she has set up her cell phone to be able to post Twitter updates via text message, which is pretty convenient.

What was it like to experience the inauguration via Twitter?
Louis: As I’d hoped to attend the inauguration but didn’t in the end, following events on Twitter (especially following some folks who were lucky enough to run around the balls that night) was a touch bittersweet. I think something the Twitter medium is good at is capturing the texture of moments, and the inauguration was filled with charged moments of emotion. Sharing in others’ emotions, being able to check and gauge one’s own reactions to others’: that is one of the great promises of Twitter. It unifies and brings everyone down to earth. It makes big events intimate, or it can.

Did you follow anyone twittering from Sundance?

Louis: I did not follow Sundance much on Twitter, but I did keep up with (POV series producer) Yance Ford by following POV’s Twitter feed. In this case Twitter pointed me to the POV Blog’s coverage of Sundance, which I probably caught up on more quickly than I normally would.
Thinking about the art and process of documentary filmmaking, and then thinking about how people “document” their lives via Twitter — can you envision ways you might use Twitter as part of your work or storytelling?
Louis: Since the only kind of documentary work I’ve been involved in has been vérité style, in which the camera must stay with the subject for a long time, potentially years, in slow and deliberate accumulation of material that will be distilled down, I can see similarities between that process and Twitter. Certainly you can observe a lot about someone by reading the accumulation of in-the-moment information they have left behind in tweets. In that sense, it is similar to vérité. It is, at least to those who use it un-self-consciously, a window into personality. If a documentary subject were a Twitter user, you would definitely want to follow their feed — it would be a gold mine of inside information that could lead to new ideas and possibilities in your film.

I haven’t found a filmmaking community on Twitter yet, but I can envision that it could be extremely useful. One of the best aspects of Twitter is growing a network of people with various kinds of expertise and being able to quickly mine them for information in an instant. Twitter could be helpful for producers on location — in strange places where you need recommendations of some kind or help with logistics. Also, working with editing software, there’s always someone who has better skills that can help you resolve some sticky problem. Sharing and getting recommendations about films, events, and networking in any field… on this level, at least, Twitter could be helpful.

Would you recommend Twitter to your friends who are filmmakers?

Louis: I don’t think I have explored this world enough yet to come up with a definitive response. I admit I’m still skeptical about what my relationship to Twitter will be in the future. I am not really an evangelist of Web 2.0 stuff — I still sort of hate myself for participating and am really a luddite at heart. As are many of my filmmaking friends!

To people promoting films, I might point out, were they to be unaware, the marketing possibilities in the social networking complex, and the need to participate in it.

But then again, I need more Twitter feeds to follow! Maybe I will ask a few people to join.
Do you use Twitter? If so, what do like most about it — and what do you like least? Do you see its potential as a tool for filmmakers and other artists interested in human stories? Share your thoughts using the comments feature below.

Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch
Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.
  • http://chutry.wordherders.net/wp Chuck

    FOREIGNID: 18194
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Interesting observations. I’m an avid Twitter user, and my reasons are twofold: First, it can be incredibly social. I was able to watch the inauguration and some of the debates with other Twitter users and to share the experiences with others even though I was physically alone (a Twitter friend refers to this as a kind of “ambient intimacy”).
    Second, it is useful as a quick reference tool. I’ve been able to share and receive ideas (about teaching, about research) from others who have similar interests. I think it helps to have a moderately large collection of followers (I follow about 200 and have nearly 300 followers) to make the conversations worthwhile. In fact, my tweet frequency has increased significantly (from about four tweets a day to about ten) as my circle has widened.

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