Research: No Really, It IS a Research Project (#captions)

Tired of Fail Focus

As several of my earlier posts indicate, I'm pretty focused on #captions at the moment. Nice to be back in the fold caring about something that is interesting. I'm still working through potential topics. I definitely like the close reading approach: examining patterns in captioning. In contrast, I don't feel that just identifying captioning fails is really the way to go. Not for me. I can see the value, sure, but it feels like an approach that does not work well in teaching writing or composition: only identifying patterns of error.

Writing Analogy

When teaching writing, when learning writing, you don't want to just know where things stink. Of course it helps a bit, but if all you hear is, "Fail. Fail. Fail," that gets old pretty quick. Yes, you might want to change it, but it's all negative. All stick, no carrot. No direction is given on which way to go or how to roll. Of course we can do the "Here are three strengths; here are three areas for improvement approach." That worked pretty well--it balances things out, at least in terms of writing.

Wealthy Conglomerates are Cheap

When looking at captioning, though, I'm not sure that offering this kind of suggestion or feedback is going to have much, if any, impact on the captioning industry itself. Come on, if HBO is not willing to pay to have their scrolling captions changed to decent captions--much less get the timing consistent--then I'm not sure that any arguments about aesthetics or best practices is going to change the economic approach to captioning by the entertainment industry. Let me correct myself: I believe that the professional captioners who do the captioning would LOVE to do proper captioning, timing, etc., and have the most effective captions possible. That, however, costs money. From what I can tell, the entertainment industry as well as the entertainment delivery system, pay as little as possible--in most cases--to deliver the minimal legal requirement.

Example 1: Just look at this mess.

Oliver is brilliant, funny, and engaging. Yet HBOnow is presenting this show's captions if it is live. It's not live--it's a recording! You have the transcripts! Can it be that hard to go through and actually caption this properly? It won't cost that much money--for real.

So, considering that the entertainment industry and its deliverers seem to have little interest in doing more than the least possible (if you know otherwise, I'd love to hear about exemplary groups that support top notch captioning--truly!), suggestions about best practices and ways to innovate need not be directed towards industry.

Innovate Where It Matters

Suggestions about innovation, change, best practices, and so forth should be directed towards the captioning community--people who love and care about captioning--as well as citizens and artists who are interested in the interplay of text with image, who like working with pop culture materials, and who might want to try something different. Doubt there's anything new or revolutionary stated here, but I still feel like it needs to be written.

In order to offer meaningful suggestions and feedback, you have to care. You have to be invested. It's hard to be really upset about something like captions in a show if you don't care about the show. Why would you watch a program if you don't want to be informed, entertained, or somehow emotionally connected--even if that emotion is escapism or numbing? To do those things, you need clear messages from the captions; you need captions that not only provide an equivalent experience--you should have captions that expand experience beyond what the show is without captions.

That is ideal captioning. Facilitating that is the challenge. Support and drive for that is rarely going to come from big industry.

What we can do, though, as individuals, as people who like captions and pop culture media, we can run close analyses on texts, we can generate alternatives, we can speculate and build alternative caption models--and all of this falls under the protection of scholarship and Fair Use (assuming you actually transform the work, and why else would you bother investing that much time unless it was transformative?).

But we still have to care.

I know what I care about. I care about, and become invested in, several types of shows. First, the Inspector Morse trilogy: Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, and Endeavour. There are plenty of similar shows that are great, too, like Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries

A second genre are conspiracy thrillers, often with female leads. Alias, Orphan Black, and Dollhouse. Put in a dystopian theme, and I'm all over that.

I used to get into more police shows, but there's too much violence in them. Before my tolerance for violence dropped through the floor, I really enjoyed Rome and The Wire. I still like The Wire, but I can only watch so much before I have to turn it off. I'm at the point where I go looking for specific episodes or specific scenes with characters. I've watched all five seasons twice, and I'm on my third time through. So, yes, I like to watch Bunk at his finest and Omar ripping dealers.

As a person who lives in his small world a bit too much, I was at a bit of a loss as to what other shows fall in related genres. Yes, I can trust Amazon and Netflix; however, past couple months, I spend time looking for shows only to end up watching shows I know for the third time. Maybe I just need something comforting? Or maybe I just don't know what to watch.

Now, though, getting back into captions has me thinking: what body of shows can I analyze? What themes am I going to look for? What types of content do I want to explore?

"Heck ya," said I to myself, "this is the perfect way to be entertained and do scholarship." So I posted a request on Facebook to my peeps. "Peeps," I said, "Hook me up."

Actually, here's what I said:

The responses were great! Here they are:

  • Fringe
  • Buffy
  • X-Files
  • Prime Suspect
  • Covert Affairs
  • Agent Carter
  • Damages
  • The 100
  • Battlestar Galactica (reboot)
  • Dark Angel
  • Sense8

What this means is that I now get to go spend some quality time looking into shows--checking them out--and seeing which ones I end up caring about and being invested in. If I'm going to watch and read the shows, and focus some serious engagement and analysis--not to mention reading the dialogue between two to five times for each show that I look at (if not more times), the show better be good. There had better be something there.

While it might sound strange, one lens I have on this approach is akin to fan fiction. By engaging and investing in the show, the character, the narrative, you get a strong sense of the story, setting, and context. Having this experience, perspective, and understanding--authentic engagement--helps frame where, how, why, and when captions could be tweaked or changed or improved in order to support the overall story and experience.

Obviously my thinking is still developing, and clearly my experience is still pretty limited. However, after years of watching captions and thinking about what I'm watching, this field just seems so exciting, ripe, and engaging--ideas are going in all directions. It will be interesting to watch and track where things settle.

In the mean time, while some of this settles, I plan to keep focused on my Orphan Black analysis, reading of related scholarship, and working with After Effects.