Digitital Spectatorship: Creating virtual viewing communities

In his book, “Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access”, author Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the inevitable transition from analog film into digital video and the myriad of pros and cons concomitant with it. Dixon talks about a range of topics, from the loss of authentic film grain and “tonal ranges”, things that are specific affordances of the film medium inimitable by digital facsimiles, to the impending obsolescence of hard data formats such as DVDs, Blu-Rays, and even hard disk storage. All of these issues are results of the “digitization” of culture. However, not only is this digitization eliminating and replacing traditional media formats, it is also reinventing the method in which we consume media. “Stay Tuned” has given way to “Instantly Available”, and the act of watching movies, once revered as a unique and communal spectacle has become individual consumption.

Watching movies in movie theaters, in its heyday, was a fascinating and unique experience. The reason for this was that there were two distinct, yet simultaneous interactions going on. There was the active viewing relationship between spectacle (movie) and spectator in which the mere act of viewing the movie is a scintillating and engaging experience. The second interaction occurs between spectators, as the emotions being felt (whether it is fear, sadness, laughter) are emphasized by its resonance among the audience via raucous laughter or gasps of fear. This ability to have a personal interaction with a film which is then magnified by the voiced feelings of the entire audience is what made going to the movies such an unprecedented and evocative experience.

However, as Dixon discusses in his book, the shift into digital is revolutionizing film as a medium entirety, from production, distribution, to exhibition. In regards to exhibition, perhaps the most stark difference is the increasingly popularity of streaming on the go which results in significantly increased solo viewership. While people still occasionally choose theaters for the full cinematic experience, Dixon writes “Audiences have adjusted to viewing moving images in a variety of different ways. They may still want to see their dreams and desires projected on the large screen for the visceral thrill of the spectacle, as well as the communal aspect of any public performance” (12). However, Dixon recognizes that they are now just as like to watch Titanic on their iPod for the convenience afforded by streaming, he writes “”Now, of course, you can stream a lot of films, and the number of available titles increases daily You can screen them on your laptop, your iPad, and even your fifty-inch plasma TV, but you won’t get the experience of seeing the images on film, with all their attendant qualities and defects, and you won’t get the communal experience of seeing them with an audience” (23).

New media, as we all know, has an uncanny ability of choosing to remediate aspects of older media, creating a hybridized form oriented towards newer audiences. Despite the increase of solo-viewing, there has been an active efforts to increase the amount of individual spectators watching simultaneously. What I mean is that even though a user is watching a film all by their lonesome, they could very well be in a public-streaming site with chatroom capabilities or specialty programs like OoVoo which allows up to 11 OoVoo users to simultaneously watch YouTube and other videos. Applications such as Synaptop Theatre allow synchronized viewing of videos so that multiple users can watch movies in “real-time” in addition to sporting video and text chat interfacing. Synaptop boasts cross-platform compatibility so that it can be accessed from virtually any internet-enabled device.


Another supporter of this seemingly paradoxical solo-viewer/multiple watcher form of cinematic entertainment would be Xbox. The Xbox 360’s Netflix application takes advantage of the console’s inherent party-members dynamic and offers the party leader the option to take all party members into a virtual “theater” where they can simultaneously watch a Netflix movie. The program goes even as far as to seat each corresponding members avatar within the virtual theater before a big screen.

Xbox Live Netflix Theatre. Avatar audience and all

So even while Dixon notes, if not laments, what movie viewing in the 21st century has become, calling it “a solitary vice in which one person tunes out the rest of the world and tunes in to a digitally perfect copy of a film, without having to participate in a group experience” (25), there are obvious attempts at remediation, now and ostensibly in the future, to merge the convenience of streaming and solo-viewing with the communal and interpersonal aspects of classic cinema.

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