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.