I posted my second tour today, on entertainment on YouTube.

(note the goofy performance: trying to be lively…YouTube entertainment does rely on quality performance)

This was the first thing we learned in the class: while it wasn’t any good for education, YouTube is killer for entertainment, fun, wasting time. The nature of its successful entertainment is not much different from what audiences loved before it, in fact, a considerable amount of its video is made by media professionals, crossing platforms legally or through the work of a fan: TV shows, music videos, bands performing live, commercials. What differs most is platform and duration: YouTube as at-home or mobile, viewer-controlled delivery system of delectable media morsels.

I would suggest that YouTube entertainment relies upon, integrates and condenses three effective stylistics from previous media—humor, spectacle, and self-referentiality—to create a new kind of video organized by ease, plenitude, convenience, and speed (this does sound like a TV commercial, I know). The signature YouTube video is easy to get, in both senses of the word: simple to understand, an idea reduced to an icon or gag, while also being painless to get to. Both spectacle and self-referentiality are key to this staple ease: a visual or aural sensation (crash, breast, celebrity’s face, signature beat, extreme talent, pathos) often being the iconic center, or totality, of a video (spectacle), or an already recognizable bite of media holding the same function (self-referentiality): understandable in a heartbeat, knowable without thinking, this is media already encrusted with social meaning or feeling. YouTube videos are often about YouTube videos which are most often about popular culture. They steal, parody, mash, and re-work recognizable forms, thus maintaining standard styles and tastes. Thus, humor enters through parody, the play on an already recognizable form, or slap-stick, a category of spectacle. (Interestingly, spectacle and humor were definitive of early cinema, the devolping use of this new medium that also spoke across class and continent, in a simplistic visual lingua franca. However, typically, ironic self-referentiality is understood about an art-form in its later or last stages.)

The entertainment of YouTube creates a postmodern TV of distraction, where discrete bites of cinema controlled and seen by the discrete eye of one viewer are linked intuitively, randomly, or through systems of popularity, in an endless chain of immediate but forgettable gratification that can only be satisfied by another video. I imagine that this must inevitably lead to two unpleasant, if still entertaining, outcomes: distraction forecloses action, and surface fun precludes depth.

If YouTube videos (and I am reflecting primarily on the dominant or conventional uses of the medium), or the site itself, are to be used for anything other than blind and numbing entertainment (and certainly on niche-tube, this is happening with some [small] success: more on this forthcoming in later posts), it is critical that the language of YouTube develops to include context, history, theory, and community, and by this I mean both the architecture of the site and the form of the videos theselves. At the 24/7 A DYI Video Summit that I attended last week at USC, the media activists on my panel wanted to discuss just this (new) state of affairs. Certainly more people are making and viewing media, access to channels of production and distribution are rapidly growing to an almost incomprehensible scale. However, even the most moving of videos needs to be connected to something (other than another short video)–people, community, ideas, other videos to which it has a coherent link–if it is to create action over distraction, knowledge instead of free-floating-info-zaps.

You may be wondering what I make of the “entertainment” value of millions of unique regular people speaking about their lives, and to each other, in talking-head close-ups (the style I use). While in every way a statement against corporate media, I would suggest that humor (self-mocking, irony), spectacle (of authenticity, of pathos, of individuality), and self-referentiality (to the vernacular of YouTube) also combine to create the entertainment value of this staple form, these “bad” videos. But I’ll hold on this for later posts.

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Mid-way through the semester, and I’m pleased to report how much we’ve actually learned, albeit experientially, through doing (and not doing) while stuck in all that is powerful and inane on YouTube. Every failure has been a learning experience, although organized by frustration and felt within contained chaos. Of course, I set out to run this class so that such failures would help make clear the costs (and benefits) of our rapid, giddy acceptance of new digital environments without a concurrent set of criticisms and demands about best practices for making use of this most democratic distributor, platform, and archive of moving images.

And now, just 6 weeks in, the criticisms are being well made: about public scrutiny and the ridicule of the mainstream media (leading to analysis of the role of fame and celebrity in YouTube culture); the disruptive additions of hundreds of non-class videos and comments on our class-site (leading to analysis about the making-public of the once-private on YouTube); our inability to interact in real-time, in a central space, and the site’s other weaknesses around finding and linking material (leading to analysis about what is intentionally not-well-made on a site that functions very well for the relay of entertainment); and a more keen awareness of how censorship and corporations function well on the site while community and art do not. We’ve also deduced that there are two YouTubes: the mainstream one made and maintained by Google and millions of users out to waste some time, and the innumerable experiments in form, content, behavior, and community that fall outside the logic of entertainment, advertisements, popular culture, hits, numbers, and favorites. See one and the other becomes less visible; ask a question of the other and learn little of use to understand the first. Our class falls into the second category: unseen by most, unattended to by the site’s architecture and poorly supported, barely getting by but learning nevertheless.

All this has contributed to the class’s clarity about YouTube’s ineffectual structure for higher learning even as it does other things well. In an attempt to mirror the architecture of YouTube, this “student-led” course, open to user-created flexibility and innovation, is still organized by my friendly but controlling vision and parameters. And from this controlled chaos the strengths and limitations of contemporary learning occuring digitally, publicly, visually, and in corporate-owned environments is being lived and then theorized through this doing. The students have posted their first research projects as well as mid-terms about what they’ve learned: they are systematically naming the structures, methods, limits and strengths of YouTube just as they are beginning to master its language, which is to say, we’re beginning to see a variety of strategies towards the illustrated lecture. Pressing the students to express critical content through short videos that use YouTube’s vernacular has proved to be one of the real successes of the experiment, as it is clear that over the next few years they will inhabit a culture where rich and necessary communication will occur visually, as well through the written word. They’re taking preliminary steps towards complex uses of this form of communication. Although the students had a variety of production skills going into the class (as is true for YouTubers as a whole), half-way through the class they have hacked the YouTube video to express complicated analyses of YouTube itself.

And from their work I have learned, too. About teaching, primarily. I have found that seven binaries are being disturbed during this pedagogic experiment, leading to unsettling and mostly non-productive alterations in the ways that we have typically taught and learned in higher education: public/private; amateur/expert; democratic/corporate; structured/anarchic; community/individual; entertainment/occupation; flow/depth. I hope to discuss the difficulties for teaching inspired by these up-ended binaries in later posts.
But for now, I need to attend to the more urgent fact that I am uncertain where we are going to go and what we are going to do. This is a scary time for me, as the professor, in and out of control, with students who want and yet disdain discipline (in pursuit, they say, of “fun” but ever fearful of grades), and with primarily failure as our guide. The 2nd half of the class is intentionally and completely unscripted. I expect we will choose to go off YouTube, to do some traditional research and learning, bring in specialists, read some post-modern and new media theory, turn it into a more regular class where “real” or let’s say, more traditional learning can occur. But some of the students have begged us to stick out the experiment, to consider and propose better practices for what learning in and through corporate-controlled entertainment might look like.