ON DIGITAL CONTENT covers topics related to digital media of any kind.


On the Need for Artistic Expression in Radical Times

by Alice O’Connell


“I tell you, my dear, Narcissus was no egoist… he was merely another of us who, in our unshatterable isolation, 

recognized, on seeing his reflection, the one beautiful comrade, the only inseparable love… 

poor Narcissus, possibly the only human who was ever honest on this point.”

  • Truman Capote

Emotions are high in the news and on social media – that much we can all agree on. 

Fingers point from left to right (and right to left), from white to black (and black to white), and from male to female (and female to male). Identity politics on both sides gets carried to its natural and absurd ending: the fracturing of our sense of the humanity in one other. Billionaires profit from social media platforms that fuel this discourse. Identity politics, it turns out, generates great, viral “content.” On each side we see discussions becoming increasingly polarized.

Identity politics on the left gives way to stereotypes which gives way to prejudice.  We find ourselves caught in a sea of identity-driven emotional reactions: the insecurity of white Americans, the historical oppression of black Americans mixes with continued feelings of oppression, the pressure mounting on women to break glass ceilings, on men to step aside as glass ceilings get broken, on black men to succeed, on black women to right the ship, on Latino Americans, on Asian Americans, etc. We begin to navigate ever dividing lines. Left-leaning politics becomes a kind of oppression-based, matchmaking system. The merit of intersectionality (of which there is plenty) gives way to an absurdly high value put on petty differences. Anyone who does not seek radical change (or who says the wrong thing) becomes an enemy.

The right is by no means an exception to this. Identity politics on the right becomes a populist movement dependent on a romanticized, semi-truthful view of the past. The greatness of America becomes a carrot on the stick to mobilize the masses. Legitimate claims of mistreatment and misrepresentation (of the ever-growing inequality) give way to outlandish claims about the ruling class, about the liberal elite ruling the world. Patriotism gives way to nationalism. Anyone who would vote against nationalism becomes an enemy of the state.

Each side calls the other racist, sexists, or money-hungry to delegitimize their opponents.

Each side gets angry.

People feel tired.

Then they feel angry.

Then they feel demoralized.

The only common denominator seems to be this: the form that the discussions and the content takes is always simple (on social media, in particular). On the left, we tell stories of a racist mob voting for racists and sexists. On the right, we tell stories of a racist mob voting against the interest of America. Two-dimensional views of the world in the form of bad identity politics, bad social media content, unimaginative thinking, and a lack of radical art takes over like a disease. We point fingers. Nuance is lost, and we find ourselves in a digital roller-coaster ride designed by unimaginative, mediocre techies trying to make a ton of money (think Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc.). We lionize profit-driven, and fundamentally mediocre "thought leaders," who design and manipulate civil discourse like a particularly damaging digital roller coaster ride." 

Nuance is my obsession.  Put simply, two-sided views of the world bore me. Unimaginative thinking, unimaginative criticisms, and unimaginative ways of talking about each other sound to me like the bully in high school who sought to belittle people in an effort to make himself/herself feel more powerful. 

It is very easy to see others as enemies. It is very easy to feel angry, to feel bitter, and to find hatred as tools to find meaning as one navigates the political landscape. It is far more challenging, however, to maintain a tender heart in the face of hatred. It is far more challenging to embrace the complexity of our country with grace.

In fact, unimaginative thinking is not only easy, but it is also encouraged by today's digital landscape. The platforms by which we receive information are built around generating as many views as possible (think, Facebook's estimated value of somewhere between 400 and 600 billion dollars USERSHIP STAT!!!!!).  Platforms encourage us to share, like, and comment on issues that we care about. Our views of the world are designed by algorithms that have figured out the best ways to give us heightened emotional reaction. Algorithms put content in front of us that are most likely to trigger an emotional response. In this way, our emotions take the foreground. Our news feeds (designed by very mediocre techies: think Mark Zuckerberg & company) tell us less about our world and more about ourselves. We become like Narcissus, staring at our reflections, overwhelmed with emotions.  We mistake the familiarity of the reflection of ourselves for that which is real; we fall in love (or fall to hate); and we experience a deadening of our awareness, a simplification of our views, and an overall lack of recognition for the humanity in one another.

The only way to break through this is to create radical art. We need radical expression to break through these algorithms. We need radical & challenging words, images, and videos to reframe the ever growing two-dimensional views of the world.

I wonder how many people reading this stay up late at night dreaming about a better world?

What is it that fills your quietest moments?

When was the last time you sat for hours at end reading a book, filled with madness at the complexity of life?

Have you spoken poetry as if it came from the mouth of God?

Do you find sacredness in your relationships?

Do you feel moved to tears by books, music, and films? 

Do you cry out for the beauty and tragic nature of all things?

When was the last time that you found yourself shaking from head to toe, shaking down to the core of yourself, shaking like an Autumn leaf ready to break off and fall slowly, drifting silently down in the wind, then turning again, slowly, being carried by the wind, drifting in and out of yourself, falling? Have you felt like a falling leaf lately? 

Have you felt so afraid and so filled with life that you find yourself drifting, downwards, outwards, towards the unknown, away from that which would hold you still, that which would hold you in a worldview fixated on enemies, on dichotomies, on false prophets who would tell you that they can make the change that you have the power to do all on your own?

Find yourself fixated by the smallest moments.

Find yourself filled with madness.

Find yourself filled with relationships and a deep sense of connection to yourself and to the others in your life.

Then go out and sow compassion wherever you go. And when you see radical art, weep out of joy, as if it is the only thing keeping you, you.

A Short Essay on the Fiction of Documentary Film


“Never wrestle with a pig – it gets mud all over you and the pig likes it.”

The documentary tradition has long held a claim on truth. From Nanook of the North to Hoop Dreams to Icarus, documentary films have been talked about as an art form that is revealing of reality, that show us life as it is. Today’s climate is no different. Documentaries are talked about with terms like, “behind the scenes” “unprecedented access” “groundbreaking insight” “the true story of” “access to voices” “gives voice to those who have none” etc. These claims are used as marketing tools for filmmakers to attract an interested audience with the promise that what audiences are seeing is true.  Audiences find immense enjoyment in viewing a film that gives them an impression of truth. The financial success of the documentary style is dependent upon these marketing techniques. 

We have seen in recent years, however, the co-opting of the documentary style to serve the purposes of propaganda (If I had more time in this short essay, I would argue this has been happening all along, and only recently this has shaken power structures to the point that they are dealing with it new ways.). Short and feature-length documentaries have popped up on our TVs, newsfeeds, computers, Ipads, etc. Many of them have political agendas, corporate agendas (branded content), or social agendas. Many of these documentaries seek to reveal “truth” in an effort to empower the creator of the content (political parties, corporations, startups, non-profits, etc.).  

It is for this reason that the belief that documentary films reveal the truth needs to be challenged. Today’s media world is a world where quasi-journalism, fake news, and outright propaganda masquerade as art and as documentary filmmaking. To combat this trend, it is essential that the documentary world, the festivals, the patrons of the arts, and the gatekeepers value, above all else, the craft itself. Ideologies can no longer drive films. We need more beautiful, artistic films, and we need new criteria to sift through the varied forms of propaganda that proliferate throughout our media.  

How do we tell the difference between propaganda, art, and journalism?  What are the criteria that we use to sift through the vast array of videos that masquerade as documentary films?  Audiences have more access to documentaries than they have ever before, and documentary films are shaping world views in ways they have never done. However, there exist very underdeveloped ways of understanding, comparing, or critiquing the techniques used in the documentary film style. And why should there be?  Film has only been around 100 years, and the documentary style has really only been popular for half that. Fake news videos are an extreme example of a growing trend: documentaries disguised as journalism creating new realities (“alternate realities” as Kellyanne Conway called them). Branded content falls under this category.  Corporations are falling over one another trying to create the new, hit web-series with their brand plastered across the images. They all march bearing the flag of “truth” or “documentary” (see the latest documentary series being produced by Goldman Sachs . . .).  

I suggest we destroy the concept of documentary films. There is no such thing anymore (To be honest, I am not sure if there ever was.). There is only the documentary technique, which results in a movie no more or less true than other films.  We can not use the term “documentary” anymore. It is a bad marketing technique, the success of which depends on audiences’ blind acceptance of truth. 

Documentarians (filmmakers who use the documentary style) need to accept that we create fiction.  We create new representations of life as we see it through a very specific lens. This lens is controlled in part by the filmmaker and in part by the distributors (i.e. the people who have money) This is true of any art form. This is true when you put pen to paper, when you put a paintbrush to a canvas, and when you put light to a sensor in your camera. When we work with our subjects to tell a story, we create fiction. This is a statement that frightens filmmakers who use the documentary style. It reaches the heart of many documentarians because they feel deep down that they are acting in a way that is ultimately moral. Documentarians like to believe they are creating art with a higher moral cause (to change the world, to open minds, for example). This is false. There is no moral difference among techniques. The only morality that exists in filmmaking is that which lies in the craft, in the pursuit of images.

By David Delaney Mayer