On Michael Wesch’s Whatever

July 18, 2009

I greatly enjoyed watching Michael Wesch’s Towards a New Future of Whatever. The two of us share a YouTube project based on pedagogy and student interaction (as an Anthropologist his research focuses on self and community, while as a Media Studies scholar, mine tends to look more closely at media forms), and because of our differences, I’m always thrilled to see what he and his gang have been up to. Their recent research on the meanings of “whatever” from conclusive, to opting out, to narcissism is funny, compelling and scary. Well done.

I also find Wesch’s findings about the hyper self-conscious YouTube self, dealing with “context collapse” to be compelling: who will see me, and which me is that anyway? Am I alone or in public? Does anyone care and do I matter? However, I also take some (constructive) issue with Wesch’s more downright rosy findings. His thesis that YouTube (and social media) allow for the possibility of “connection without constraint” relies upon blinkers regarding the many limiting corporate structures built into these sites’ architecture: the inability to speak together in written phrases longer than 500 characters as only one example. Furthermore, while I agree that both of the heroes celebrated by Wesch (see below) are inspirational, his finding that such interventionist acts are “calls to action” really minimizes the meaning of both call and action.

Writing a word on your hand, alone in your room, even if linked into a video-collage of similarly moving hands by an activist editor, may be a powerful model of (briefly) mediated community, but is certainly not a structure from whence to build social change or even its inspirational call to action. The hand act is complete in itself, providing neither theory, community nor place for its attempted completion. At minimum, communities need to be called through shared goals and analyses, built over time while in and about an acknowledged place, and in collaboration. These calls need to be focused on activities that also build upon each other and this shared logic. The work of Witness is a more compelling model than this:

3 Responses to “On Michael Wesch’s Whatever”

  1. […] on her blog analysing YouTube’s role in social movements in similar territory to this.  See it here.   She says, “At minimum, communities need to be called through shared goals and analyses, […]

  2. Hmmm … I may need to rethink the way I present “connection without constraint.” When I say it, I actually see it not as a good thing, or a bad thing, or even a neutral thing, but as something that is both very good on the one hand but very bad on the other. The mediation of the webcam, bringing people together in their most private spaces but through the mediation of a webcam and screen that can be turned off at any moment, creates the context for the *experience* of deep & profound connection (good), but this connection is not constrained by responsibility and certainly not “a structure from whence to build social change” (bad). I’m trying to make the case that these two are actually related, that people allow themselves to connect deeply precisely because those constraints are not there and that they can simply turn it all off if the connection gets too inconvenient or unrewarding for them.

    As for the specific constraints of YouTube and other corporate sites, don’t you find it equally interesting the ways in which people find to “hijack” those constraints or to work around them? (e.g. type “pwn” in front of YouTube in the address bar next time you are watching a video) – or the fact that YouTube exists as much as embeds elsewhere as on the site itself.

    It might also be important to unpack what you mean by “corporate structure” (which seems to stand in for the evils of the profit motive). YouTube’s corporate structure is fairly unique right now, in that they are owned by a ridiculously wealthy company that can afford to allow YouTube to run for several more years without making a profit. While there certainly are some divisions of YouTube racing to figure out exactly how to turn a profit, other divisions (and most people working there) are trying to (among many other things) build better structures for community, personalize content distribution (vs. the “most viewed, most favorited, etc.” model of the past), etc. — all of which will have significant effects on how people connect in that space (for better or for worse). The main point is that YouTube is not entirely profit driven. There are lots of very creative people there who have similar concerns that you and I do, and who actually have some room to work with. If you have specific suggestions for how they can make the site better for the future of the world, you should make those known to them.

    • MP:me Says:


      Thanks for the comments. I think you did represent your ambivalence about “connection without constraint,” and I very well may have mischaracterized this. Apologies. But to your point above about the freedom to turn on and off that this enables: I’d love to hear you pursue more about the nature, ethics, responsibilities and powers of such a community, and what other (if any) previous structures of community this might resemble. I can’t choose to turn off my Mom or children or even my Jewishness, for instance. On the other hand, I do choose to turn on and off my feminism or queerness.

      Thanks for the “pwn”!

      I have written extensively about what I see as the corporate driven limits on the site including its aimless structure, its needlessly impovrished search tools, the inability to create context and community (as you mention above), the use of popularity as the primary organizing structure, and the ongoing problem of censorship and role that corporations take within this. I have met one on two employees, and like you, do not believe they are involved in an evil conspiracy. However, while they still do not make money, they certainly need to strive to do so, which is their right and mission. Many things we might need from networked video will be lost as they follow their corporate mandate. Of course, we can build them elsewhere, but YouTube is the gold standard, and everything (digital video) must speak against and to its dominant language.

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