“When we believe a person’s authority on a subject we call them a connoisseur or specialist. If that knowledge makes us uncomfortable, we damn them as geeks or ‘self-appointed’ experts, we accuse them of lording their obscure tastes over our common, shared references.” — Dan Fox, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters
In Watching the Detectives, Canadian filmmaker and programmer Chris Kennedy recounts the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as it played out on public forum websites such as reddit and 4chan. At just thirty-six minutes in length, the silent 16mm film is a carefully assembled narrative of the pedestrian online attempts to collectively determine who was responsible, while news outlets were simultaneously updating the information they received from the FBI and continuously revising their theories regarding the identity of the culprit. Combining archival footage of the Marathon, and the bombing, with anonymously posted comments and photographs from the Internet, Kennedy’s film is a haunting rumination on digital anonymity in a world of public surveillance, online socializing, and above all, the assumed authority of asserting one’s suspicions and beliefs.
Kennedy had immediately gone onto the Marathon bombing’s subreddit (one of reddit’s constituent forums) to begin collecting images after the attack, but the subreddit was quickly taken down; a year later, however, the forum was again accessible in its entirety by way of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Kennedy then gathered about eighty percent of the material used in assembling Detectives from what amounted to 300 – 400 pages of reddit comments, and left all of the selected posts unaltered in content. Images are marked up with analysis in much the same way that television sportscasters visually explain plays with circles, arrows, and the like. “The protocols and languages of the forum will be reorganized around new aesthetic, material, and systemic demands,” notes Eyal Weizman in Forensic Architecture. “Forums are immanent, contingent, diffused, and networked; they appear, they expand and contract.” In the subreddit forum, participants followed each other in tandem with the news, trying to unveil the guilty party by cross-referencing photos and videos, pointing out who shows up in multiple scenes, who has suspicious bags on them and who can be readily profiled to fit America’s mass-media assumptions about what a radical terrorist looks like. Together the forum’s users are working towards a common goal, and together they debunk, dismiss, and contest each other’s theories.
Yet in the subreddit’s members’ determination to find the truth lies a curious phenomenon: nobody asked the public to solve this crime, and nobody said the police investigating the scene were unable to handle the task. Driven by an autonomy of patriotism, the subreddit created a space in which other similarly concerned people could follow (and challenge) each other’s lines of thinking. As philosopher Bruno Latour puts it, “All matters of fact require, in order to exist, a bewildering variety of matters of concern.” There, in the established domain of the subreddit’s crime-solving mission, the group began to grow with new participants and voyeurs alike, establishing a hierarchy of those who held authority (those who provided plausible theories or contributed scrutinized evidence) and those who were shunned (those who asked “stupid” questions or made disparaging remarks). By posting a comment, each participant gambled that their thoughts (and anonymous credentials) would either bring the group closer to identifying the bomber, or that they would be dismissed as an irrelevant deterrent. Both outcomes rely on crowdsourced confirmation bias. It’s a Darwinian survival of the fittest, where ideological positions must adapt or be left to die off.
In Detectives we are witness to bullying and racism but without any true identities or actual faces; we are given only pseudonymous usernames by which we can characterize the forum’s authors. With only comments and names to follow, the audience is left to assume that Detectives is revealing its own account of this communal cyber-sleuthing in chronological order—but who can say for certain? How many other comments, from among the hundreds of pages of archived material, has Kennedy omitted? The narrative that Kennedy has constructed is ultimately a single account of what was happening in a particular corner of the Internet, and it deliberately does not attempt to capture the broader Internet’s response to the attack. In this way, Kennedy’s selections from the Internet Archive amount to something of a metaphor for our own online participation, a sphere in which our activity is always in response to some form of stimulation or provocation.
In addition to choosing to omit certain comments and images, Kennedy also removed the metadata of the narrative itself, converting the digital material into its analog replica. Transferring the chosen content from the Internet to 16mm film, the data effectively relinquishes its online footprint (including timestamp, IP address, clickable user profile, and website analytics). By stripping away all of the content’s metadata, the film-object of Watching the Detectives evades any sort of traceable history. Celluloid is matter and nothing more; one cannot determine how many times the film has been played—or where, or by whom—by examining the film reel itself. Like paying with cash, it leaves no paper trail. Or like the bombing’s culprit who evades the hysterical crowd, unless you’re willing to do some detective work, a print of Detectives can circulate without being followed. By lending materiality to what was once only pixels on a screen, Kennedy both animates the object’s existence by requiring that the film be activated by a projectionist while simultaneously deactivating the historical content by reducing its natural potential for online engagement. “‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’” George Orwell wrote in 1984, regarding the novel’s dystopian regime of revising the news in hindsight to confirm what actually happened. “And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered.” What might have existed infinitely as a page on the Internet becomes a finite object with a shelf life in the real world. Kennedy is not rewriting the past with Watching the Detectives, but instead recounts one community’s memory of the events that took place in Boston on April 15, 2013. Kennedy successfully avoids using the privilege of today’s hindsight to reconstruct the historical narrative of the attack, choosing instead to recreate the process and tension of dispelling the unknown in its aftermath.
What could be groupthink could be Orwell’s concept of “doublethink” could be cyberbullying could be crowdsourcing: would Gertrude Stein have said that a datum is a datum is a datum? Watching the Detectives is a significant form of contemporary non-fiction that is both historical relic and selective memory. The film begs its viewers to question authority and representation. Its reconstruction plays with the new standardized modes of surveillance as normative social (media) behavior online. Participation needs no identity and passivity needs no guilt. But if the Internet is the medium through which we watch, then the message that we glean is what we know about each other.