February 20, 2017
YouTube is a new kind of nation-state rooted in, and ruled by, self-aware performances about the rules and truths of its own conditions and practices. Like the internet it is built in and builds, it is a self-aware production about the conditions and experiences of social media labor, affect, ownership, and politics that also teeters on, and sits uncomfortably within, the true/fake divide.
Note to readers: With a heavy heart I link to this video. You need not watch it to understand its astounding connections to and revelations of the internet’s self-aware s of labor, politics, economics, the nation-state, and the truth/fiction divide. Its status as real and fake news is definitive of the medium, the message, and the man.
Further Reading on Performance and #100hardtruths-#fakenews:
February 20, 2017
#100truths-fakenews #9 is taken from John Herman’s “YouTube Monster: PewDiePie and His Populist Revolt,” NYTimes, February 16, 2017:
For now, most of the biggest internet platforms are understood as venues for communication, expression and consumption. YouTube has given us a glimpse at what happens when users start associating social platforms with something more: livelihoods … With more than a billion users, YouTube has become not merely a platform but almost a kind of internet nation-state: the host of a gigantic economy and a set of cultures governed by a new and novel sort of corporation, sometimes at arm’s length and other times up close.
Herman goes on to explain how YouTube’s recent firing of PewDiePie, one of its biggest and top-earning celebrities, for his either real or fake alt-right leanings (does it matter? can we ever know?) exposes a cluster of truths about this platform, truths that I have been documenting since the site’s inception, and which both he and I understand as bellwethers for other “developing” social networks and the internet that has been built by and on them. Namely, that YouTube is a “performatively self-aware” political-economy (Truth #10); that is, a new kind of nation-state rooted in, and ruled by, self-aware performances about the rules and truths of its own conditions and practices; that is, self-aware productions about the conditions and experiences of social media labor, affect, ownership, and politics that also teeter on, or sit uncomfortably in, the true/fake divide.
December 5, 2016
This is how I begin the longer piece on Jstor Daily: Let me begin with four fake truths that I hold to be self-evident. What follows is their brief elaboration and my suggestion for a shared effort to produce an informed, digitally literate citizenry.
- Today’s internet is built on, with, and through an unruly sea of lies, deceptions, and distortions, as well as a few certainties, cables, and algorithms.
- This week’s viral-wonder—the crisis of “fake news” in the wake of the 2016 presidential election—is a logical and necessary outgrowth of the web’s sordid infrastructure, prurient daily pleasures, and neoliberal political economy.
- Today’s saccharine hand-wringing and the too-late fixes erupting from the mouthpieces for the corporate, media, and political interests responsible for this mess are as bogus as Lonelygirl15.
- Today’s media consumer cannot trust the internet, its news, or networks—fake or otherwise. Given the wretched state of today’s internet, skeptical, self-aware interaction with digital data is the critical foundation upon which democracy may be maintained.
Yes the real internet is a fake, the fake news is very real, and thus Trump is indeed our rightful internet president. (see more at Jstor Daily)
May 21, 2015
I taught Learning from YouTube (LFYT) for the fifth time this year. The first iteration was in 2007, fresh into the early years of the still short life of YouTube and social media more generally. I taught the course again this semester, after a several year hiatus, because I was interested in two things: accounting for what has changed in these 8 years as well as for the confounding relations between social (in)justice and social media (which I have reflected upon twice at Lady Justice a part of New Criticals committed to “reconsidering gender and technology in the age of the distributed network”).
While the most obvious changes on YouTube are 1) its unimaginable and consistently escalating scale (seemingly as large as the world, or at least the world of media, more on this later), which itself is connected to the ever shortening time-scale of memes (see video above by LFYT student, Samantha Abernathey, one of several videos made for 2015’s Meme Project) and 2) the marked consolidations of its professional and financial infrastructures and outputs (allowing for new modes of mediamaking and their monetization that sit precociously between amateur and expert media and which actually do make people/corporations/YouTube/Google money). What I will focus on here is another glaring, although perhaps more variegated change, 3) the nature of feminism on YouTube as a way to think about the massive cultural, political, and personal shifts associated with the rapid maturation of social media. In the brief observations that follow, I will press my course (which, surprisingly [definitively?] was taken by 14 women, “feminists” all, and 2 men, probably “feminists” too; whereas in its past iterations it had been dominated by male students, often [definitively?] basketball players, probably not “feminists”) into conversation with another example of feminist media pedagogy, a memorable symposium I just attended at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan: Feminist Video Documentary Strategies in Social Dissent and Change (organized by Michigan art professor, Carol Jacobsen with Vicki Patraka and Joanne Leonard). There, in Ann Arbor, in conversation for three intense and fully-scheduled days with eleven hand-picked feminist scholars, artists, and activists, ranging from their mid-forties to mid-seventies, fully-formed, carefully-schooled, and highly– and deservedly-vetted for their diverse and stunning bodies of activist feminist documentary work, built in some cases beginning in the 1970s, and occurring all over the world and in regards to feminist issues as diverse as prison reform, domestic abuse, racism, homophobia and Chevron, and the dreams of female Indonesian domestic workers in training—an anti-YouTube if ever there was one—I encountered a feminist media space that itself put the changes at YouTube into another form of stark release.
In 2010, thinking about my teaching and writing about YouTube within my video-book about this, I suggested that my feminism, and feminism more broadly on YouTube, was closeted. With a tip of the hat to both film scholar and critic, B. Ruby Rich and feminist poet and theorist, Adrienne Rich, I attempted to create sign-posts to better mark and see the “nowheres and everywheres” of this new closet, one which I named as holding many hidden-away in plain sites for feminisms:
- ARCHITECTURAL or ARCHAIC feminism occurs at a deep and structural level
- UN-NAMED feminism that in so doing sees itself newly
- MORPHING feminism transforms to encapsulate other beliefs in feminism’s name
- FRAMING feminism that umbrellas the social justice work of trans, anti-war, anti-racism and other activisms
- ASSERTIVE or INSERTIVE feminism that names its relevance in places where it wasn’t deemed important
- COMMON-CULTURAL feminism that assumes feminism is the shared space of production
- ACCESS feminism that doesn’t only speak to feminists and also speaks to feminists by opening access to unusual places
- TECHNO feminism that engages in collaborative, goal-oriented, placed, critical self-expression online
- ASSUMPTIONAL or PRESUMPTIVE feminism that always assumes that feminism counts and that feminists speak
- OVERT feminism that names itself proudly and often attached to equally proud descriptors (i.e. Black, trans, queer)
- TRENDY feminism that attaches to memes, celebrities, and products
- WARRING feminism that pits feminists against each other
- TWITTER and TUMBLER and INSTAGRAM and PINTERST feminisms that spread, link and grow transmedially
- TROLLING (against) feminism that harasses, stalks, demeans, threatens, bullies and endangers
YouTube is truly a (corporate) space where everything and everybody is (with notable blind spots both self-chosen and socially deployed). As proved true for the feminist demographic and associated conversations within my 2015 class, YouTube has become a place of, for and by feminists and this overt engagement has brought clarity and confusion. My students, like all of us who are engaged with social media, name an anxiety, cynicism, and consumerism that is core to their new media experience even when they are being “political” (in the production, or more definitively consumption of overtly “feminist” media) but especially when they are not, when they are taking a much-deserved break from the onslaught of “feminism” that now greets them there and so are watching the innocent, fun, funny, trivial (corporate) content that surrounds the feminist media also readily-available.
Meanwhile, the Michigan feminists also attested to a level of fatigue, anxiety, and hard-to-manage overwhelmedness brought on by new and social media consumption practices. I suggested that media production and its feeding feminist process, now radically accessible to so many, is a final feminist frontier in that it can maintain attention, ethical conditions, non-corporate environments, and clearer boundaries of commitment that now seem nearly impossible in the space of new media reception given the noise, hyper-visibility, and corporate domination of this space. As you see, these conversations circled around architectural metaphors and material considerations attempting to describe possible feminist media spaces, norms, and histories that might be defined by counter-, concordant-, and/or immersive YouTube practices (a project I have being pursuing in my Feminist Online Spaces work).
The twenty-five year plus bodies of work shared by many of our group who have devoted their careers to ongoing, careful, connected, personal and political media projects help refine vocabularies for feminist media practices that can and do share the broader media ecology with YouTube and social media. For instance, our host, Carol Jacobsen, has been making photo and video for over twenty-five years as part of her work as the Coordinator of the Michigan Women’s Clemency Project, advocating for the human rights of women prisoners and seeking freedom for women wrongly incarcerated. Her feminist media work has been shown in galleries, used by activists, lawyers and policy people, and contributed to the release of nine wrongfully-incarcerated women. Some of it is on Vimeo while also sitting elsewhere across the Internet.
I would like to conclude by thinking through the experiences in Michigan (where we sat for two-plus days in an isolated, quiet, and window-less conference room while each participant took an hour or more to present her work, and we listened and responded with heightened focus) as a way to also see some of the notable dark spots that are by definition lost to the eye within our (new) place of feminist hyper and over-visibility. Critically, these eleven women were significantly older than your typical “YouTube feminist.” Each had an institutional home that she may have fought to achieve over most of her career, that she had made herself by creating this counter-institution on her own or with others, or that she was precariously connected to or even retiring from. But notably, the diverse feminist media activism of this group shares certain core values, practices, and infrastructures quite different from the ones I have mapped through YouTube thus far, ones which signal time, space, connection and attention as core:
- SEQUESTERED feminism where the environment to share the work is small, closed, respectful, and supportive.
- SLOW feminism during which we took time, were not rushed, and no one multitasked; we listened, watched and were focused (thanks to Meena Nanji for this term and the previous one).
- RESEARCH feminism where work is anchored in (often) funded and mostly multi-year engagements
- AESTHETIC feminism where the refinement of a personal practice takes place in conversation with other artists and traditions
- HISTORIC feminism that knows and marks where it comes from
- PLACED feminism grounded in and connected to a lived or political community
- VERSIONED feminism occurring over time and in conversation with other work, changing audiences, and history
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve already suggested that everything and everybody is on YouTube, which by definition puts all of these women, their methods, and projects there, too (or not if they inhabit the dark space by choice or exclusion).
Furthermore, a significant subset of “Hashtag” or “Twitter” feminism functions quite similarly to what I have named above. Lisa Nakamura’s recent work on This Bridge Called my Back on Tumblr being only one of innumerable examples of such practices. I am not suggesting that social media can’t or doesn’t attend to architectural, historic, or sustaining feminisms. Rather, I am curious about how these many feminist modalities map onto or next to each other, how they feed or frustrate us, how we can build experiences and media for feminisms with intentionality and purpose given the conflicting norms of the many media spaces that are now available to us. Thus, the current state of YouTube feminism is not a matter of medium (or age or even institution) and entirely one of métier: taking the time, making the space, producing the architecture, community, and history from which to make, receive, and relish our very best work.
April 13, 2015
On Sunday, April 5, an invaluable opinion piece was published in the New York Times: “Help Us Learn in Prison” by John J. Lennon. An inmate at Attica Correctional Facility in New York, Lennon makes a nuanced request about education and technology within the American prison. He considers why inmates are allowed and even encouraged to watch television all day while their access to the Internet is limited or more often than not prohibited. He ends with a plea: why not change the accessible technology of choice from TV to MOOCs?
In this post, I’d like to use Lennon’s piece as an opportunity to continue several avenues of thinking and activism of grave concern for me, namely:
- a situated critique of MOOCs
- a situated critique of education and technology in the prison
- a situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube and social media more generally
As a founding member of FemTechNet, the collective that successfully offers the DOCC (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) at places of higher learning around the world, I have worked with others to criticize MOOCs from feminist perspectives on education, technology, and neo-liberalism. One of our ongoing claims is that education needs to be situated in the lived environments of learners, whether that be institutional (are you at a community college or an art school?), regional (California or Calcutta?), cultural (what traditions and values matter where we live and learn and how do we speak about them?), or personal (what matters to me?) In their top-down, one-size-fits-all, elitist, scale-and-profit-driven underpinnings, most MOOCs are not particularly responsive to or even interested in the situated, lived differences that make learning (and teaching) both exciting and challenging.
This situated critique of MOOCs allows me to heartily second Lennon’s request. I believe that MOOCs are terrific for prisoners and support unlimited access to them as part of a technologically-assisted education.
I began to understand a critically unnamed truth about social justice and social media only made visible through the structuring denial of access to the Internet and other technology as a fundamental feature of contemporary punishment: technologies of care, conversation, and personal liberation through education need no more tools than access to each other. I was more than ready and able to teach about YouTube this Spring without an Internet connection. I was going to assign books on the subject (with a few pages excised, mostly due to their discussion of sexuality on YouTube), exercises where prisoners would write screenplays to be shot by their fellow-students who had access to cameras and the Internet, and conversations about the meanings of all of our varied and regulated access to technology. (Along this vein, prisoners’ near universal access to cellphones as a contraband of choice, despite prisons’ concerted efforts to keep phones out of the prison, radically underlines what it means to say “prisoners don’t have access to the Internet or social media.”) I had learned before that while the prison and its administrators can systematically strip me, and my students, of tools and technologies (pens, videos, the Internet), our desires and abilities to communally learn—and thereby escape its lines, signs, limits, and holes of available information, if only fleetingly—falls completely outside the of logic of technology-based punishment.
That is until I was denied access to teach and learn inside.
Which gets me to my conclusion: my situated critique of education and technology outside the prison, particularly on YouTube. For I am indeed teaching the class, again, for the fifth time since 2007 at Pitzer College. I did not get to stretch and learn and teach as I had hoped with my prisoner students who have so much to teach us about technology, as they are denied access to social media and are therefore uniquely situated to see it, but I have learned about social media and social justice this semester from other students and teachers.
Since I began teaching the class in 2007, in the matter of just these few short years, access to social media has exploded (for those not denied it as a condition of their punishment). We have been told (and sold) that this access is critical for our expression, community-building, political citizenship, and well-being. We have been led to believe that access to social media is a form of liberation. As Nicole Rufus, a current LFYT student explains in her class video below, YouTube matters because it has made her a better person and contributed to her education, just as Lennon suggests.
But two more related things have also become quite clear in the 2015 iteration of the class Learning from YouTube (sans prisoners):
- In contra-distinction to the experience of prisoners, for my students, the Internet is the very air they breath in a way that was simply not true in 2007 (as much as my students thought it was). Young people today (as is true of their teachers) inhabit the Internet, speak its language, and have an agility, familiarity, and jaded acceptance of its norms and (aspects of) its history that is at once stunning and enervating (see Samantha Abernathey’s class video on memes below):
Stunning is the speed and complexity of this familiarity; enervating is its occlusion of familiarity with and interest in the other norms, places, and histories that we might once have understood as part of being institutionally, culturally and personally “situated.” The current version of the course makes me feel at once stimulated and enervated because I have seemingly nothing and everything to teach them. Nowhere and everywhere to go. “The internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but not it only remains as a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404. If it ever existed, we couldn’t see it. Because it has no shape. It has no face, just this name that describes everything and nothing at the same time. Yet we’re still trying to climb on board, to get inside, to be part of the network, to get in on the language game, to show up in searches, to appear to exist.”
I long for the views of my prisoner students: humans who can teach us a thing or two about place, liberation, punishment and control sans the Internet.
- for, this place of liberation, the Internet, has quickly become its opposite (“emancipation without end, but also without exit” according to Aranda, Wood, and Vidokle)—a prison (although not a punishment, as it is always entered willingly and ever with the promise of pleasure); a highly-structured corporate-dominated sink-hole. “In the past few years many people—basically everybody—have noticed that the internet feels awkward, too. It is obvious. It is completely surveilled, monopolized, and sanitized by common sense, copyright control, and conformism. (Hito Steyerl)
“This moment,” according to my students, is defined by anxious, cynical, consumption-based Internet experience that is linked to ever more desperate Internet-based attempts at escape into a nostalgic (“old”) Internet that is imagined as low-tech, slow, user-made, fun, real, innocent, awkward, less-sexualized, and de-politicized (outside or before the petty, bitter Internet “politics” about the Middle East, feminism, racism, rape, and the environment from which escape deeper into the Internet is so desperately needed.) The new Internet is a prison from which escape is to fantasy of an older, innocent Internet.
In her contribution to the eflux journal issue “The Internet Does Not Exist,” from which I’ve been quoting extensively in this last section, video artist Hito Steyerl pens an article entitled “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” There she answers herself: “the internet is probably not dead. It has rather gone all out. Or more precisely: it is all over.”
But of course, Steyerl knows, as must we all, that while the Internet feels like it is the whole world, or perhaps too much world, there are blank spots on the map where the Internet can not see, there are ways not to be seen, and there are dark spots in our situated communities where the Internet can’t or perhaps is not allowed to go.
If we theorize the Internet, or education, from these blank spots, from the place of too-little, (in)access, quiet, and darkness (as does Lennon), we see values, uses, and needs for MOOCs, YouTube, technology, and education that are not clear from an anxious state of hyper-abundance. This is not to romanticize the punitive lacks of the prison. Rather I ask us to draw from what becomes visible when we situate thinking about learning, technology, punishment and escape in places where education is not primarily linked to tawdry pop-songs, tutorials, consumer goods, flame wars, and self-reference to Internet culture but rather to the fundamental questions of liberation, learning, and empowerment that those stripped of technology have unique access to in the quiet and (in)access of their punishment.
January 19, 2015
Tamsyn Gilbert at New Criticals kindly invited me to write a piece about the changes in networked new media and feminist scholarship about it for the section of the publication called Lady Justice. I used this as an opportunity to revisit Learning from YouTube given that I’ll be teaching it again this spring with some interesting new twists and turns. The intro to the piece is here, and you can read my five provocations as well. The rest of the piece is found via the links above I’d love to hear from you!
In 2007, I engaged in what was at the time perceived to be an audacious pedagogical experiment. I taught a course both on and about YouTube. At that time, I opened out the private liberal arts classroom into the wilds of the Internet. These many years later, looking back at the experiment and also moving forward, I imagine what there might still be to learn and where there still might be to go within social media networks. Certainly much happened in the first class—virality, hilarity, hundreds of videos and interviews, caution, discipline, challenges to higher education and collegiate writing and a “book“—but here I ask, how might the continual growth of YouTube demand new places and tactics for its analysis?
In response to both my own needs as a theorist, activist, and educator, as well as what we might consider the “changes” of YouTube eight years later, I have decided to teach the class again this spring semester while taking my evolving experiment in several new directions including Inside-Out of the private college and prison. The body of this post explains the history and growth of my thinking about and activities within and without YouTube since its inception in 2005. Given the interests of Lady Justice, I will use this opportunity to consider transformations in digital and network culture over the past decade. I will also forefront how my feminist commitments to pedagogy, public intellectualism, the politics and practices of visibility and community within social media networks, and an anti-corporate media, anti-corporate academia, anti-corporate prison-industrial stance influence my many critical incursions into what I see as a pretty consistent YouTube. This has been somewhat harder to do in the course proper, and even my writing about it, as I have often taken a more “closeted” approach to my motivations in these more generic spaces (the class is an Introductory level course in Media Studies and most of the students have neither a feminist nor activist orientation to media, nor do they need to. In this and many other ways, I structure the course so that it reflects the dominating logics of YouTube, more on this below).
[this lengthier part about changes in YouTube and my decision to teach part of the class in a prison is at Lady Justice]
Conclusion: 5 Questions for the 2015 class and others:
As was true for the 2007 class and all following, I am legitimately interested in learning from YouTube: its users, uses, and logics. My statements above and questions below are provocations for further analysis, argument, and activities. I look forward to where they will take us over the next few months:I am curious whether these many recent changes may have inaugurated significant and not superficial changes in YouTube (and social media) culture itself. Frankly, I doubt it. I challenge my students to locate, name, and analyze structural differences:
How has YouTube changed since 2005?
What are the relations between social justice and social media?
What are the relations between social injustice and social media?
How and why do we leave social media?
How and why do we stay in social media?
What is a social media of our own?