By Xiaochang Li | June 4, 2009
[This was originally written for the Convergence Culture Consortium blog]
I’ve been thinking a lot recently on audiences and audienceship, and what it means for media audiences and the communities they form when being part of an audience can increasingly involve collaborating on the (re)production, distribution, and curation of content.
One of the sites that for me really begins to touch upon the participatory potential of new media audienceship is Viikii.net, a collaborative translation and subtitling platform for streaming video that distributes that tasks of translating television shows and other media from around the world across an entire community of users.
The site has been around since early 2008, but I stumbled across it last December, when I realized that fans were joining in a distributed labor network to subtitle a popular Korean drama that was airing at the time within hours of it being broadcast in Asia. The astonishing speed, as well as the decentralized collaboration system caught my eye and I’ve been talking excitedly about the site to people ever since.
The way Viikii.net work is that people can register for the site and contribute to subtitling uploaded video files in over 200 languages, line by line. Users can also edit and revise each other’s translations, refine the timing of the subtitles, or upload new files and put in requests for translations. The subtitles are added then and there, so that viewers on the site can see files even when they’re partially translated, so that you may come across a Korea drama that has had 80% translated into English, 30% complete in Spanish, and so forth. The video files are sectioned, so that people can contribute as much or as little as they want, much like a wiki for adding subtitles rather than general information.
The idea behind the site, according to the articles on the viikii blog was to help generate cultural understanding and language education through the use of popular media, since popular media was a means through which people could come to understand “not only language, but also the social texture that harbors it, the people who use it.” While this idea isn’t particularly novel, what makes viikii.net compelling is its radically collaborative and decentralized structure. Collaboration and decentralization of power and participation is one of the fundamental principles behind the found of the site as well:
“We people are who make, use, and live in all these languages; we built language, and so its barriers, which means that we’re the ones to tear these walls down. No super-power can do this alone, we must come together to do this, hail the potential of joined force! We already see wonders created by collaboration, made possible by WWW” (about viikii)
A significant portion of transnational media audience are no strangers to the phenomenon of fansubbing — amateur, fan-made subtitles for foreign media content. But even though fansubbing is undertaken by people who consider themselves part of the fan audience, it nevertheless creates certain social hierarchies within the community. More importantly, the flow of content is shaped by what content fansubbers decide to translate. Despite the significantly increased ease of fansubbing with digital technology, the time, technical skill, and resource commitment needed to fansub full episodes or entire television series in a timely manner still limited who could contribute.
Viikii.net takes the notion of “by us for us” behind fansubbing to the next level, opening up participation and lowering the barriers of entry significantly for anyone who wants to try their hand at helping translate, and shape the meaning of, the media content that they are consuming. By breaking down the units of contribution into single lines of dialogue, as well as creating a platform through which people could collaborate without having to even know one another, it has opened up the practice to a far wider range of participants, broadening even more — and for more people — what it means to be part of an audience.