Who is documenting 2020?

On collaborative storytelling and crowdsourced films

Vivek Menon
Digital Diplomacy


We spent 2012 rather happily, considering it was supposed to be the year the world ended. We got a fun film with John Cusack driving through collapsing cities, and Jay Sean coolly telling us to party like it’s the end of the world.

Now in 2020, as the world is displaced in different ways than anyone ever imagined, we await the release of newer outbreak films. This time, however, the world isn’t even allowed to party together through it.

Humans have always made attempts to preserve ‘culture’ in the form of time capsules, holy relics, and geocaches. Words are inscribed into trees, handprints are left in drying cement, messages are sealed into bottles, satisfying our collective need to avoid oblivion as much as possible.

When Thornwell Jacobs first buried a sealed repository of man-made objects, in 1940, this was his idea. It was the first time a conscious effort was made to curate what he called the ‘Crypt of Civilisation’ but would later, come to be known as a ‘Time Capsule’.

The concept of a Time Capsule has since been promoted all throughout popular culture. The most famous — the Voyager Golden Records, were two analog records, that contained information about mankind and about Earth. They were sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, into outer space. Care was taken to include information about a wide variety of living beings on Earth, including plants, animals, and landscapes.

Top scientists at NASA somehow believed that at least fragments of it would be understood by whichever life-form came across it, which has never made any sense to me. Aliens would need to possess dynamic abstract concepts such as language, ideograms, mathematics, and numbers in order to decipher binary code and the metric system. They would need to have eyes to see the included images, and ears to hear the music. How would they possibly get hold of the records, even if they possessed human intelligence but unfortunately were the size of ants? Personally, I think it’s all hubris on the part of human beings, but they deserve an A for effort. It is rather poetic that, as soon as the technology was available in a portable format, even if in a primitive stage, there was a desire to express ourselves and be understood by extra-terrestrials. Essentially, time capsules appear to be for ourselves, rather than for anybody ‘out there’.

It is curious to speculate what such a message would look like today, only about 4 decades since then. We could probably find easier ways to leave messages for aliens, using a wide range of mediums and minimum hardware. We also possess newer ways of creating videos — time-lapses, live-streaming, and crowdsourcing.

Modern digital databases provide all the necessary information about the Human species, probably more than required, to whichever extraterrestrials have the good fortune of landing on Earth. Memes are the modern manifestation of material culture. All of the Internet in itself is an evolving time capsule, and yet, it is important to curate the stories we want to tell about ourselves.

Ever since Time Magazine declared “You” as the ‘Person of the year’ in 2006, all of us have collectively become agents in shaping our own mass media.

It’s a bit meta…

1. At an individual level, we create and consume content.
eg. Songs, TV Shows, Artwork

2. At a second collective level, we compile content under various curated pages, categories, and trends. The metrics used to compile content can vary.
eg. Music charts, Forbes lists, Social Media profiles, Spotify playlists

3. At a third Global level, more recently in postmodern history, curating lists are no longer enough. We further create newer content documenting those curated categories, and they become content that users look forward to as well.
eg. The release of annual videos highlighting particular aspects of the year —
Google’s most popular search results.
Vox beautifully reviews each year.
Youtube Rewinds, DJ Earworm Mashups, etc.
When these videos are again curated into playlists, the cycle restarts. A new Voyager record would be easy to produce, considering we now self-sufficiently curate content as and when we create it.

A single person can independently occupy all three levels as well. For example, an Instagram influencer can post a photo daily, and also have all their own photos placed together in a single profile page. At the end of the year, they post a photo collage, as part of the ‘Best nine’ trend, highlighting their most-liked images from the year, and this further becomes content that viewers expect at specific intervals of time. This is the kind of data-generating phenomenon that then makes its way into machine-learning algorithms that pick out trending color pixels or analyze sentiment. In other words, squares beget squares beget squares…

When creators want to bring in a multitude of voices, they crowdsource content. This is not to be confused with crowdfunding, which is a type of crowdsourcing, specifically of funds. Crowdsourced or user-generated content, however, exists across a range of projects, from Wikis(collaboratively edited publications) to problem-solving and open-innovation platforms. The company GoPro has always authentically advertised its brand through user submissions, while other businesses have been built around crowdsourcing wireless networks, maps, or even to help out the visually impaired.

Most of the content we see on social media is ‘crowdsourced’. During 2020, film-makers are experimenting with marrying the time-capsule style meta-curation along with user-generated content.

This isn’t especially new, as Youtubers have done this for as long as Youtube has existed. Videos are created by stitching together content submitted by viewers. It’s also something people do when they make birthday or anniversary videos for their friends. This year, when a lot of content is produced from home, and over Zoom calls, the whole year is forcefully defined by its webcam aesthetic.

An example of a crowdsourced video from 2014
Highly orchestrated Zoom-call pranks on TikTok

Is a Zoom call basically a live, crowdsourced film?

It’s a strange thought because what a viewer is to a film, becomes a voyeur to a video-conference. 😳

On June 30th, Netflix released a series called ‘Homemade’, produced by film-makers from around the world, who created short films from within the confines of their own homes. Some of the episodes touched upon the struggles of the pandemic while others had nothing to do with it. Episodes were shot with drones and smartphones.

Another example of experimental film-making in 2020, has been the announcement of a crowdsourced sequel to the film ‘Life in a Day’, from 2011. Ridley Scott’s previous installment was one of the largest participatory film projects ever, and this time the condition remains the same — That all content be recorded on the same day, July 25th.

Modularity, in the form of distributed models of authorship, is already rapidly ubiquitous, with the rise of participatory platforms like TikTok. Smartphones may serve as a tool to participate, but content still finds itself being curated in various ways, as part of a larger process of documenting human culture.

We create and consume compilation videos and AI-generated lists. If the curation of content comes to us as easily as the creation of content, we produce better samples of Big Data, while simultaneously sorting out newer ‘units’ of media. In many ways, we are creating content not just for ourselves, but for the algorithms.

If and when the aliens come, they need only look so far.



Vivek Menon
Digital Diplomacy

Casually deliberate. Digital literary ecologies, Convergence Culture, Narratives. Designer @Microsoft