We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

August 4, 2008

I have been closely following the work of Michael Wesch, at Kansas State University, because he, like me, has been teaching a course about and also within YouTube. An anthropologist, Professor Wesch, with his students, is engaging in a participant ethnography of “YouTube as a medium for community.” Their findings, interactions, and adventures within “new forms of expression, community, and identity” have been illuminating, as well as influential (Professor Wesch created one of the smartest viral videos yet to gallop across the wireless).

With his recent digital release of the lecture he presented at the Library of Congress this month, I feel compelled, however, to reflect not on his noteworthy and clearly (and cleverly) presented findings but rather on the more difficult question of the relations between tone or feeling and scholarly inquiry.

For, while I have a great deal to learn from Dr. Wesch’s research, and that of his students, and have also been pleased to see that many of our findings are closely synched, while watching him (itself a strange new feature of our shared project, our teaching and pedagogy is public), I have experienced tremors of self-consciousness in relation to the extreme difference of tenor that distinguish both the content and presentation of our findings. His optimism about the possibilities of YouTube are matched by my own dour pessimism. His enthusiasm about what he sees is a disturbing mirror to my own dismay.

While we are clearly seeing similar things on YouTube—a complex amalgam of community and individualism, independence and creativity caught up with commercialization and conformity—we are responding to it differently: as YouTubers as teachers and as intellectuals. Where many vlog images lead Michael to theorize the state of “aesthetic-arrest,” being “overwhelmed by the beauty of the human in front of them,” I find a set of quickly calsifying media conventions that reduce the individual’s empowerment to the realm of authentic, mundane feeling. Tellingly, while we both are interested in the crisis of authenticity embodied by the performing-but-real-vlogger, Professor Wesch will fall to the side of the “enchantment of the heart,” while I am troubled by the mocking emptiness of many of these attempts (see last post on Fred, for example). Where Michael might see the FREE HUGS campaign as an indicator of deep connection, the “celebration of a new form of empowerment,” or the lonely singer crooning in his suburban bedroom as “having the time of his life, sharing his joy, not caring what people think,” I see the potential power of people being reduced to… (see, here’s where the self-criticism hits, am I really as negative as all that! As harsh and unfriendly and unfeeling. No. Of course people are empowered by this new form, by expanded access, by meeting people, and playing around. It is partly the function of how we are trained that we have to express our beliefs boldly and without a nod to our understanding of the truth of our finding’s–or feeling’s–very reverse).

The distinctions between our attitudes, our postures, and the self-representation of our beliefs enact a defining split within web 2.0 studies during the opening stages of this field of inquiry. I think the real question is not what is right or wrong, but rather how to perform, and enact work, that understands both the most inspiring and alarming aspects of YouTube, and social networking, without, ourselves, having to fall into playing the roles of either Dorothy or the Wicked Witch.


9 Responses to “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore”

  1. Mike Wesch Says:

    This is such a great post. I think you are right. We are seeing basically the same “truths” but with different tone and feeling. And these different tones make us more or less heard in different contexts – even as we are expressing some of the same insights. My goal is to help people see the hidden structures and implications of media so they can be more empowered – so they can “use the media” rather than letting the media “use them.” I think you share the same goal. And yet we are both criticized, often on the basis of mere tone and feeling. I am labeled a techno-optimist, a label I don’t like, though I do admit that I am optimistic about humanity – especially a humanity empowered with media literacy and an understanding of the hidden effects and implications of new technologies. That’s why we do what we do, and I think both of our approaches our valuable in this regard. We’re kind of like the pair of detectives in I Heart Huckabees. If we do our job right, maybe some people will have the same revelatory moments exhibited in the movie’s final scene:

    – Looks like you saw some truth.
    – Looks like you saw some truth.

    – What’d you see?
    – Well, the interconnection thing is definitely for real.

    – It is! I didn’t think it was.
    – I can’t believe it. It’s so fantastic!

    – That’s amazing.
    – I know.

    – But it’s also nothing special.

    – Yeah, because it grows from the manure of human trouble.

    – You see, the detectives, they just wanted to gloss right over that.

    – But in fact, no manure, no magic.

    You can see the scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YXZJDT0mHg

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  2. MP:me Says:


    Thanks for your gracious response. I love the clip you suggest!

    I’m not sure you know, but much of my work pre-YouTube was about working with affected/committed communities to make political media about issues that mattered to them (AIDS, for instance) using the best of ethnographic film/cross-cultural media as my guide. My criticism with YouTube is founded in the condition that many of the techniques that people have developed to empower real people to represent themselves and their communities, via technology, did not come hand in hand with the unveiling of YouTube (media literacy education for instance, or basic training in media aesthetics and history), given its corporate imperatives. How do we imagine an empowered people who have access to complex ideas and histories of media, and to a community that shares an explicit agenda outside of media, rather than to the tools of production and dissemination alone?

  3. Mike Wesch Says:

    I don’t “have” an answer to your question. I think we (you, me, and other media scholars) *are* part of the answer. Your question is like the guide that moves us forward. As media scholars, we need to help empower people by increasing “access to complex ideas and histories of media.” Instead of celebrating new tools of production and dissemination in themselves, we need to teach (or even better, inspire people to learn) about these tools in a way that they understand the broader implications of them – not just how to use them – but also how they change the context in which they might be used.

    Do your criticisms extend to all widely-accessible asynchronous video communication / user-generated video platforms? Or is it the corporate imperatives of YouTube that concern you?

  4. MP:me Says:

    My concern has always been that the corporate imperatives of YouTube has kept it from needing to build in the deep, enabling functionality that offers the best of web 2.0: namely context, multi-authoring, versioning, real-time interaction, rational archiving and searching, etc. While you can leave the site to get this, the site is quickly producing the new forms for video, and these are limited by the structure of the site.

    As for modeling, leading, teaching, the joy and empowerment which is the very lack of expertise on YouTube allows us to see that this revolution is not going to be led by scholars, professionals, or experts. We must refigure what we can offer, and the scope of our role, and I do think that this is probably through video.

  5. […] Update: I came across this excellent critique by Alexandra Juhasz and an exchange between Wesch about his video/project. It’s here. […]

  6. John Postill Says:

    There’s an interesting discussion about YouTube (at least to this casual user of YouTube) from 3 very different perspectives by the media scholars Henry Jenkins, Mark Deuze and John Hartley in relation to contemporary changes and continuities in the media industries (both audio and transcript available here), see post on media anthropology blog:


  7. […] Juhasz blogged about the work of Wesch and it looks like they may be having an interesting dialogue, which we can all learn from. […]

  8. […] who also, but not due to age or non-native-status, views YouTube as a happy community-building Kool-aid dispenser. I’ve suggested in a variety of fora on-line and off—sarcastically, sorta—that his cheery […]

  9. […] as the theorist/critic/nay-sayer/female. I role I think I’ve played […]

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