This is some of my talk for “Sensory Communication: Expressive Culture and Youth Media” at UCSD, April, 2010.

I will also present it to my CGU Cultural Studies Graduate course, Visual Research Methods, as an example of new media scholarship on “digital storytelling” and hope they will respond with some tough questions and insights that track some of the ideas of our course (so make sure to read comments!)

This is a Fake Fred. Too many Freds. It’s violence. Chaos! The camera spins. Gravity and gravitas lost. White suburban boys in a basement Rec Room doing what they do best: bad imitations of popular culture with slow descent into a pile up; and a magic wand. Only difference is that we can see it (all 117 of us) because it was taped and put on YouTube. But why, other than for this talk on Freds’ Fan’s Videos, would I want to watch this? Sure, Hillsforyou had fun making it. But did they learn anything, grow, become artists or citizens; and what of me, what is there for me to be taught… It’s time for Fred wars! No. No. Ow. Ow. Go to black. “Watch out for the TV!” “Yeah Kyle, get the ball out of here, I mean Fred.” Pummeling. Slapping. Another attack. I’m having fun. I’m having fun. And more fun! Fun time with Fred. Stairs and screams. TV. Ping-pong table. Wall-to-wall carpet. Fake Fred is over!

My talk is about the failures of Fred’s Fans. I’m not suggesting that these particular boys are failed people, or even failed video artists, although, as we will soon see, a significant variety of this body of video is itself, self-reflexively about the failure of these very videos and/or their makers and/or Fred, but rather, that almost nothing that has been euphorically projected about the possibilities for youth produced media is visible in this huge body of youth produced video: “Fake Fred” being only the first video from this huge body of youth media that I will share with you today thereby demonstrating my negative stake in this game. I have nothing more critical to add then what they say for themselves: too many Freds. It’s violence. Chaos. Fred wars. I’m having fun. And more fun! Fake Fred is over.

Compare this to the academic fantasia about youth media. Henry Jenkins writes: “If we want to get young people to vote, we have to start earlier, changing the processes by which they are socialized into citizenship. One way that popular culture can enable a more engaged citizenry is by allowing people to play with power at a micro-level, to exert control over imaginary worlds.”  Admittedly, here and also later, I will be using Jenkins from his multi-platinum Convergence Culture as a foil, for, in fact, I do believe that much of what he admires in fan culture can be true. Thus, the question motivating this talk serves to nuance Jenkins’ findings: what might truly regular youth culture need to be as productive, enabling and empowering as that which Harry Potter fans have found or made for themselves?

I have spent too many hours in preparation for this talk looking at uncountable, vapid videos like leafzkikass’ about which I have nothing useful to say other than that, I suppose it is true that he too is playing with power at a micro-level and exerting control over an imaginary world, or that the work is so banal, I just don’t care enough to work hard on making it make sense, thus introducing the “I don’t care” modality which will enter our lexicon a little later. I can attest that there is no evidence here (or in the previous “Fake Fred”) that this fan cultural production is producing young citizens nor critical culture. What is visible to me in these childish power plays—too much fun! Chaos! Fred wars!–is only an unsatisfying this: Freds’s Fan’s Videos are a jumble of juvenile works that make fun of Fred motivated by jealousy and through an almost uniform project of ambivalence, or even nihilism, that refuses to know the differences between a host of critical binaries, in particular those of being mean and being nice, people that suck and those who have talent, the deserving and the undeserving, caring and not caring, losing and winning, stopping or even “killing” versus tolerating, and criticizing and copying.

In the talk, I detail the words Fred’s Fans give to their own videos: parodies framed by ambivalence, striving for subscribers, that suk (intentionally?), are organized by parodic? violence, are failures (intentionally?), and don’t care anyway, because Fred is Gay or at least (not) Cool (watch the video for real proof).

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins devotes a chapter to youth media literacy by way of Harry Potter. He suggests that empowering moments of media convergence happen in this fan culture because a value placed on education is part of the text they play with and because these fans participate in and give quality feedback on each other’s writing, ultimately creating an affinity space where an “educational scaffolding” can take place: meaning their ideas and interpretations build and improve through dialogue. He explains that other skills for convergence can be readily found in many fan cultures including: the pooling of ideas to create collaborative knowledge, the sharing and comparing of value systems, making connections across scattered information, the exposing of interpretations and feelings, and the circulating of all this.

My talk attempts to show that while ready circulation has been irrevocably enabled by new technologies like YouTube, without the other conditions Jenkins lists (like a value on education, the possibilities for productive feedback, a structure for the sharing of values, interpretations and feelings) what is left is the Failed Fred Videos we’ve seen and the Fred Rant with which I’ll conclude. This and any Fred Fan Video sits in a sea of juvenilia with only the self-reflexive direction and education of Fred and his fans, who are not good teachers because they are still learners, kids, or faux kids. Fred’s Fans Fail because YouTube can not be the educational or media literacy scaffolding that developing, maturing, mediamakers deserve. Freds Fans need history, theory, community, and literacy tools that include the production of an argument, an understanding of structure and style, and a commitment to something other than hating Fred. Without this, Freds’s Fan’s Videos (like most people-made product on YouTube) will remain an uninspiring, uninteresting, unproductive jumble of juvenile works that make fun of Fred motivated by jealousy and through an almost uniform project of ambivalence, or even nihilism, that refuses to know the differences between a host of critical binaries, in particular those of being mean and being nice, people that suck and those who have talent, the deserving and the undeserving, caring and not caring, losing and winning, stopping or killing and tolerating, and criticizing and copying. At least, so vinforthewim and I rant.

In the same Learning from YouTube class where two students presented their fake documentary about convergence culture and The Hills (see video, True Life: I’m addicited to ‘The Hills’ on-line forums, embedded on the previous post below, Pushing Around Henry Jenkins), two other groups presented on political convergence culture. They made videos about their research on regular people using YouTube to enhance their participation in our current election.

I lead with the circle for two reasons: first, while the Hills project ridicules girls for wasting time engaged in close-readings of bad television, the politics projects celebrate YouTubers for doing the same. Can you have it both ways and no way at once (going round and round and round in the circle game…)?

The second round reference is to the breasts that feature prominently (if unintentionally) and centrally within all the videos featured in this intelligent, if un-critical compendium of the formats used for YouTube political convergence culture:

As we build collective intelligence about this election (and otherwise), should we be satisfied with the sexism and satire that undergirds much YouTube discourse? Is a reliance upon, and use of (even if sarcastically) often stupid popular culture even understandable as intelligence? My students suggest that moving (circling) bytes of media from one platform to another (convergence), raising its exposure and hits, is a, no the form of contemporary political participation. Given, they say, that politics is merely cynical spin, and thus there is no distinction between media about the world and the world itself, then watching and passing on videos, and sometimes commenting on them, is activism.

No more circling, I will be direct in my criticism: while any participation, and passion, and action is better than none, we must be bold enough to name ideals for the best of people’s culture (not just getting stuck in the fact of it), and retro enough to state that there remains a world outside the media hall-of-mirrors. Which is to say that participatory culture can benefit from both teachers and theorists (who pass along ideas and structures to allow for deeper engagements with culture) and reality (where the criticisms of real people leave the looking glass and alter  lived experience). As I lectured my students yesterday: there is a war, and a depression. Some bodies don’t get health care. Bodies must vote to be counted in this election. Sure, they may only know these things through parodic YouTube videos, but some bodies actually do feel these effects, and actual places and experiences are altered due to media relays. Politics is not just spin, nor is participation. Paul Willis put it this way: “the point is to increase the range, complexity, elegance, self-consciousness and purposefulness of this involvement.” (Common Culture, p. 131)

Agree? disagree? Join the YouTube dialogue, here or there.

So, I’ve been teaching the second Learning from YouTube class this fall. The more normal one. The one with books. And lately, we’ve been reading Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, after learning from Paul Willis’ related and anticipatory Common Culture. (A quick aside about the use of books in this course: while it allows for a more focused discussion–the professor makes sure the students get the ideas in the readings–it has clearly limited their YouTube creativity–their analysis is inserted into the ready-made framework of an expert).

That said, we had a really interesting class yesterday, and I wanted to share some of our work with Jenkins. When I say we were pushing him around, I use this both as a catchy title, but also to note something more meaningful, something about the linked tone, content and process of our YouTube studies. Which is to say that with Jenkins’ ideas, like seemingly everything else they think about, the approach and take home conclusions are a kind of cynical circling:  the students hover near his ideas, prodding at them gently, perhaps sarcastically, while offering their own criticisms ambiguously, circuitously. Analysis as ironic presentation. Criticism as parodic re-play. I keep asking them to STATE their opinion, and this is their opinion: unsaid, smug, vague, readable both ways. Like the YouTube videos they learn from, their point of view is expressed through self-reflexive and soft satire (note: the videos I linked to here, under soft satire, are from others students’ Jenkins research, you can see more of these projects on our class page:

Agree? disagree? Join the YouTube dialogue, here or there.