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MediaBASE

Research Report by Nowell Marshall
(created 6/14/06; version 1.1 on 6/26/06)

Related Categories: Browsing Practices | Social Networking Systems

Original Object for Study description

Summary:
MediaBASE is collaborative, multimedia-authoring software developed by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California. The Institute envisions MediaBASE as having two basic purposes. First, the software is a communication tool comprised of three basic discourse units: compositions, media objects, and concepts (defined below). These key elements allow integrated multimedia creation within a pre-defined user group. As its name suggests, MediaBASE also functions as a dynamic database. The software offers two methods of accessing media objects: users can import individual objects or an administrator can provide an entire archive of material for a given user group in advance.

Description:
The Institute for Multimedia Literacy describes MediaBASE as “a software application for creating, sharing and exchanging media objects and compositions within a delimited social context.” The software “places rich media authorship—ordinarily confined to discrete, resource-intensive media projects—in the hands of casual users, who are able to manipulate and exchange media compositions with the speed and informality of text-centric technologies such as weblogs, chat rooms, instant messaging, discussion forums and e-mail.” While the designers suggest the casual user as the software’s target audience, they also provide a number of institutional, educational, and artistic uses that seem to fall outside the purview of the casual user: “MediaBASE can be used: to augment existing discourse communities, such as a school, course, museum, local forum or design collective; to provide a common forum for linked classes and remote user groups; to create networks around a given topic or body of material, such as an online art collection or digital archive.” As such, MediaBASE holds vast potential as a pedagogical tool, and could become a successor or supplement to the Blackboard software widely used by universities.

The Institute for Multimedia Literacy considers MediaBASE both a communication tool and a dynamic database. As a communication tool, the software relies on three fundamental units of discourse termed composition, media object, and concept. The Institute defines these terms as follows: “Compositions consist of imported and edited media objects, text, and verbal ‘concepts’ selected from a palette of pre-defined terms. Media objects are any of a range of rich media, including still and moving images and sound files.” Within the software’s database framework, objects imported for individual compositions become instantly available to all members of the user group and “can be viewed separately with accompanying metadata, or incorporated into other compositions and resized, cropped, positioned, etc. using a set of built-in tools.”

In addition, entire or partial compositions can be “rubber-stamped” into other compositions, enabling interactive “responses to synthetic claims or arguments embodied in design and compositional choices. Dialogs can be navigated chronologically, or reconstructed virtually through a search function, which seeks associations between compositions by number of shared objects or concepts, or by directly inserted links.” Thus, the software offers broad potential for collaboration, archiving, and critical dialogue.

Research Context:
MediaBASE contributes to research in database design, interactive media authoring, and communication systems. The software provides casual users with resources to individually or collaboratively author the type of complex media projects that have historically been accessible only to larger institutions (corporations, universities, etc.) Insofar as MediaBASE integrates communication and database technologies to synthesize new ways of multimedia authoring, it should interest not only scholars in related fields such as computer and information science, media studies, and the creative arts, but also appeal to groups traditionally excluded from using such technologies by economic factors. As a result, the designer’s focus on casual users may be the project’s largest contribution as the software suggests the next wave in online authoring and could potentially replace or supplement popular existing systems such as Blogger, LiveJournal, and MySpace by adding the capacity for user to generate their own complex multimedia content.

Technical Analysis:
While MediaBASE targets the casual user, its design remains largely hierarchical: “The concept palette, intended to provide a conceptual framework for a given user group, is input ahead of usage time, and updated by an administrator.” In this sense, the context surrounding implementation of the software (e.g. who fulfills the role of “administrator”) could radically change the software’s use value and utopian potential. The software also seems to offer mixed benefits in terms of its collaborative options. The designers emphasize the benefits of the software’s collaborative features, arguing that

while each object is tagged with ‘objective’ metadata during the importation process, it also accretes cumulative ‘subjective’ metadata during usage by virtue of its associations with concepts, discursive text and other objects in compositions. As older compositions are sampled and repurposed for new ones, the media objects contained within them develop deep histories especially meaningful to the user community. Over a period of time, MediaBASE could provide a valuable ethnographic tool for exposing a cross-sectional view of media artifacts and the social structures and networks that surround them.

While such features offer benefits in terms of interdisciplinary research and data collection, such accumulation of data presents a problem similar to that raised by Google’s gmail when it launched: increased searching and archiving capacity suggests increased surveillance potential. Given the ongoing debates over the Patriot Act, unauthorized government surveillance, and privacy rights in the United States, the question of who has access to such compiled data becomes crucial to any large-scale, popular implementation of this type of software.

The software’s ability to accrete “cumulative ‘subjective’ metadata during usage by virtue of its associations with concepts, discursive text and other objects in compositions” is so poorly integrated into the existing software that how the system works remains unclear. Such an accretion of metadata suggests an electronic social-tagging system whose intertextuality would create the “ethnographic tool for exposing a cross-sectional view of media artifacts and the social structures and networks that surround them” that the developers envision. However, the version of the software available for download doesn’t allow the user to effectively test said features in either a functional or non-functional way.

Testing the full capacity of the software based on the version available for download (the demo) proved difficult because given wide enough distribution, the question of full capacity itself might prove irrelevant—capacity could theoretically become infinite. Neither the Institute nor the software suggests a maximum number of users that could be linked using the software. Presumably, such limitations would rely on hardware configurations (server capacity, individual user’s computer memory limitations, etc.) and the specific goals of the administrator and/or the user (how many people they choose to include in a given authoring group).

Because the software is not currently linked to other users, it was difficult to test some of its more promising features, most notably its collaborative database and communication capacities. In terms of interface design and usability, the software performs moderately well. The interface is fairly transparent, supports drag-and-drop editing popularized by companies such as Microsoft and Adobe, and comes preloaded with a variety of audio- and visual-media objects that allow users new to the software to experiment without having to import their own libraries of media objects. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the software is that it seems to lack help or interface support menus. This made testing some features much more difficult as testing often became a process of clicking and guessing. A built-in tutorial would improve this software and could clarify the contribution that the developers’ envision the software making through its accumulation of metadata.


Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:

As a project that facilitates collaborative multimedia authoring, MediaBASE offers one of many available models for interface design. How useful MediaBASE is to Transliteracies as a long-term model of interface design will depend on the degree to which Transliteracies focuses on collaborative models of reading versus individual models and how much it privileges intertextual media archiving. Regardless of which of these aspects Transliteracies chooses as a focus, MediaBASE’s lack of help or support menus provides a good example of poor interface design. On the other hand, the designer’s emphasis on the casual user suggests compatibility with Transliteracies’s broad definition of online reading, which engages institutional, educational, and popular reading practices.

Resources for Further Study:

  • Kearney, Mary. Girls Make Media. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • MediaBASE website.
  • Rice, Ronald A., Maureen McCreadie, and Shan-Ju L. Chang Accessing and Browsing Information and Communication. Cambridge: MIT, 2001.
  • Samsel, Jon and Darryl Wimberley. Writing for Interactive Media: The Complete Guide. New York: Allworth, 1998.
  • Selfe, Cynthia. Technology and Literacy in the Twenty-First Century: The Importance of Paying Attention. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1999.

Point(s) for Expansion:
Given the dual status of MediaBASE as communications and database software that relies heavily on practices of browsing and information retrieval, implementation of this software would benefit from consideration of Accessing and Browsing Information and Communication, which has also been reviewed as a research report the Transliteracies website.

  tl, 06.14.06

One Response to MediaBASE

  1. jtobias says:

    Reading MediaBASE: Design as Debate in the Digital Humanities

    James Tobias
    University of California, Riverside

    The web presentation of the MediaBASE software concludes with these words:

    ‘The concept palette, intended to provide a conceptual framework for a given user group, is input ahead of usage time, and updated by an administrator. Thus, while each object is tagged with “objective” metadata during the importation process, it also accretes cumulative “subjective” metadata during usage by virtue of its associations with concepts, discursive text and other objects in compositions. As older compositions are sampled and repurposed for new ones, the media objects contained within them develop deep histories especially meaningful to the user community. Over a period of time, MediaBASE could provide a valuable ethnographic tool for exposing a cross-sectional view of media artifacts and the social structures and networks that surround them.’

    It’s apparent here that the MediaBASE design project attempts to provide a basis for forging user communities around media composition activities, providing concept-based analysis of digital texts, with the idea that these concepts, and descriptive data associated with them, can then be used as meta-data tags, or used to determine additional species of tags, that would allow the recording of how digital authors put together, use, exchange, and re-use multimedia compositions.

    Read the rest of this entry