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.

Thinking through education on YouTube, after teaching a class using its many resources and even greater limitations, I found that the specificity of the site, and some of the features more generally of Web 2.0, served to unsettle six binaries that typically structure the academic classroom. As these rigid binaries dismantle, the nature of teaching and learning shifts. I’d like to quickly outline the nature of these changing conditions and some of the thoughts they have opened for me about teaching in a digital world.

Please note: these thoughts are rudimentary and changing. Your responses and criticism are greatly appreciated.

Public/Private: The elite liberal arts classroom, usually (or in the ideal) comprised of an intimate and “safe” gathering of high-paying, and carefully selected students, depends upon privacy to create a communal pedagogy. Get me, I’m no advocate of this as the final and end all form for learning, in fact, as a practioner of “critical pedagogy” I am always undoing typical structures of education. That said, for me, YouTube took things in new and unchartered directions, and it is these I want to explore here. In m typical classroom, doors are closed, and students are asked to actively contribute their interpretations, and sometimes personal experience or knowledge, always knowing that they are not experts, but are certainly experts-in-training. The construction of a confidence of voice, particularly in relaying a complex analysis is one of the “services” we hope to provide. Students, often vulnerable in the eyes of their fellow students, and their esteemed professor, are challenged to add their voices to the building dialogue, one in which they are an active, continuing member. I am ever aware of the power dynamics that structure the classroom, allowing some to speak with comfort and others not, and engage in strategies to alter the “safety” of the space. Of course, this lofty dynamic shifts when anyone and everyone can see and also participate. During the class, students felt and actually were judged by critical YouTube viewers we would never see or know, who may or may not be aware of the history of our conversations, the subtle dynamics in the room, or the particularities of the speaker. While access grew, the structures in place (attendance, grading, community responsibility) to insure that our viewers were as committed and attentive as were we, did not. Note the role of discipline here, see Control/Chaos below.

Aural/Visual: The capacity to express ideas through words is almost entirely closed down on YouTube where both the 500 character limit, and the sandlot culture of web-expression, produces a dumbing-down more or less impossible to improve upon. The place to speak and be heard on YouTube is through video: which effortlessly links sounds, language and images, and where it might be argued, images dominate. However, most newly empowered videomakers on YouTube are not educated or adept in the language of the visual, and thus depend on the relaying of their recorded words, primarily through talking-heads, or rants. Meanwhile, professional content on YouTube abounds, making use of the flashiest, fastest gizmos available. This raises the question of competing standards on YouTube: those of the “bad” videos of the amateurs, and the “good” videos of the pros, which itself indicates that this is not the level or uniform playing field people want to pretend it to be. I am interested in thinking about how YouTube is changing the standards of video-production: how “bad” videos (poorly shot and composed, unedited, weak performances, all-talking all-the-time) are sometimes thought to be “good.” More on that later.
However, I will end here by saying that I have previously written about the reliance upon talking-heads in the beginning of film movements (by women, AIDS activists, queers and the like), and how people speaking new truths to power directly through newly available technologies is not necessarily the naïve step the elite may imagine. However, in the case of YouTube, rather than say, AIDS activism, I would suggest that the site’s force to keep its makers from unifying around style, from organizing around ideas, from learning from the words and images of others, keeps this “bad” video less complex than I might wish.

Body/Digital: Teaching and learning depend in significant ways upon presence: the forceful, dynamic, inspiring, rigorous performance of the teacher, the alert attention and participation of the student. While in a typical classroom this may not function in the ideal sense, in that the professor can be uninspiring or uninspired and the students may be there in body but not in mind, the YouTube classroom diminishes this further, losing entirely the powers of eye contact, professorial censure (control again…), and expressions of boredom or enthusiasm writ large on the bodies of students in exchange for expanded access. When we attempted on-line classes through YouTube, they simply fizzled and died (see my blog entry, On YouTube). There is something in the shared exchange that creates the atmosphere for education that is not possible on this site.

Amateur/Expert: On YouTube, amateurs rule, experts are deflated, and authority is flattened. While it is exciting to hear from new and varied people, and while this undoubtedly widens and opens our knowledge-base, it is difficult to learn in an environment where vying opinions rule, where data is helter-skelter and hard to locate, and where no one can take the lead. Again, the role of discipline within the academic setting proves the rule. Without it, ideas stay vague and dispersed, there is no system for evaluation, and you can’t find things or build upon them.

Entertainment/Education: Today’s students, schooled on YouTube, iphones, and Wiis, want their information relayed with ease and fun: they want it pleasurable, simplified, and funny. They don’t want to be bored; even as they are always distracted. They want school to speak to them in the language they like and know and deserve. While I’m the first to admit that a good professor makes “hard” information understandable, this does not mean that I do not expect my students to take pleasure in the work of understanding it. While I have always been aware that I am a performer, entertaining my students while sneaking in critical theory, avant-garde forms, and radical politics, much of what I perform is the delight and beauty of the complex: the life of the mind, the work of the artist, the experience of the counter-culture.

Control/Chaos: The college classroom is a disciplined space where knowledge moves in a formal and structured routine familiar to all the players. While the critical classroom begins to alter this script by giving more real power to the students, and allowing knowledge to be created dynamically, this is not the random chaos of information and power which is YouTube. For effective education, structure is needed in all kinds of ways: to control conversation, to allow ideas to build in succession permitting things to grow steadily more complex, to be able to find things once and then again.

I recently read an article by two professors equally underwhelmed by social networking in a classroom setting posted on the Wired Classroom. In “Learning to Leisure?  Failure, Flame, Blame, Shame, Homophobia and Other Everyday Practices in Online Education,” Juliet Eve and Tara Brabazon at the University of Brighton, argue that the “blurring of leisure and learning has corroded the respect that is necessary to commence a scholarly journey.”

As I built the fist tour, on education, I was working from an outline I had created for a talk (which will, in fact, be the tour) that I am slated to present this Friday, at USC’s DIY Summit (proposal below). To move these ideas from the academic page to YouTube, I did two things: I quoted my own words directly as comments on the videos I selected (working against the standard form of the YouTube comment: LOL!, loved the video):

1: Maia plays with the destablization of the aural/visual binary by using her well-written words in a self-consciously “bad” video (it rolls too fast; it has no images) to illustrate the decline of the word on YouTube, and yet, how we still rely upon and need words, in long-form, within higher education.

2. Dan pushes us to consider what we might gain from, and how we need to approach, the waning of the strength of the entertainment/education binary. On YouTube, learning comes best from speed, summary, repetition, humor, and the popular.

3. Ben celebrates YouTube’s “limitless supply of knowledge.” Signature YouTube, he cynically but comically parodies this newly available library of the inane and private, while displaying what results when the binaries of public/private and expert/amateur are undone. YouTube does humor, sincerity, the democratization of voice, and the increased access to an immense archive of moving images and viewpoints really well. But none of these are particularly conducive for higher learning.

4. Delaine’s self-referential performance, as is true for many successful YouTube videos, does and shows the thing itself, in this case the unsettled and unsettling separation of the Aural from the Visual, the Cyber from the Real.

5 Sonya performs a new mode of viewing the same old popular culture. Now, YouTube uses its users to create banal content, self-censorship, and ad revenue providing in return a postmodern television/townsquare whose corporate ownership promotes dominant culture, while forecloseing complex conversation and sustained community in favor of the aimless, disoriented pleasures of the individual (eyeball) or ear.

6. Salim, and his partners in crime, contribute another self-referential video about and formed by YouTube videos about and formed by popular culture, where critique is not popular. Like all the videos in this tour, it is “bad,” at least by the standards of film school. YouTube demands and creates new video standards based upon brevity, consolidation, humor, self-reference, and popular opinion.

And I summarized (always the summary…) in the video I created to begin the tour:

That’s the beginning of the tour. The whole thing takes 20 minutes.

And here’s is what I said I’d cover when I proposed my talk to my fellow panelists via email:

“YouTube is not a successful educational site or site for education.

While many things work well on the site–entertainment, humor, sincerity, viewer control, viewer’s ability to gain voice, increased access to images, and immensity of offerings–none of these are particularly conducive for higher learning. Meanwhile, the site inadequately provides many of the elements most critical for critical pedagogy: the ability to search, link, comment, version, use written language or long-form, and particularly to connect across texts or individuals so as to build and maintain ideas and community. YouTube uses its users to create content, self-censorship, and ad revenue providing in return a postmodern television/townsquare whose corporate ownership forecloses complex conversation and sustained community in favor of the aimless, disoriented pleasures of the individual (eyeball). While my students learned to hack YouTube by reformatting its standard forms to hold academic content, we are certain its best pedagogic use is in tandem with other digital and non-digital resources. This said, using YouTube as a learning platform/subject did allow us to see exciting if destabilizling tensions between several dyads which are usually kept in better isolation within more standard sites and forms of pedagogy: public/private, aural/visual, reality/cyber, entertainment/education, amateur/expert, control/chaos. While interesting to observe, each of these destablizations made the course hard to teach, and the content difficult to learn. The course begs us to consider what education will/does/should look like as it becomes a more public, corporate, digital, amateur-created, but uncontrolled form of entertainment.”

Perhaps I’ll reflect on what worked and what did not after I present at USC on Friday.

Slogan Nine

September 28, 2007

“The more we assert our own identities as historically marginalized groups, the more we expose the tyranny of a so-called center.”
Pratibha Parmar

YouTube serves the de-centering mandate of post-identity politics by creating a logic of dispersal and network. Yet it fails to re-link these fragments in any rational or sustaining way. There is no possibility to make collectives through its architecture. Information can not become knowledge without a map, a structure, and an ethics.

Editing SCALE 3

September 27, 2007

August 8, 2007

Back home after a month in Columbus OH defined, in the end, by the concerns addressed in my earlier posts: what it means to be an artist-on-my-own and how I can be true to my own uncertainties and also my sister’s fortitude. Home again in Pasadena with one-hour documentary in hand, I hope that I may have succeeded. I want to believe that SCALE accomplishes multiple, self-nourishing goals:

SCALE ricoches and reflects between the power and limitations of the small and large. My muddy and sloppy camera reveals complexity and feeling while the smooth operations of Robbie’s camera give the world a gloss that is convincing and familiar. Both have power. And that’s not even going to Oprah.

SCALE links the personal and the political, insisting that what happens between people (emotions, ideas, trust, betrayal, power, kindness) mirrors and combats the largest operations of dominance and control in our world (war, wealth, politics).

SCALE believes that small things, the things regular people do in the space of their own lives and through the reach of their own actions, do have effect. Although the doc would never presume to be able to measure such effect.

SCALE believes that groups of people magnify the power explained above. Although, again, the doc would never deign to calculate the scale of such power.

I hope the documentary can be used for organizing, both naming for people through the awesome words of my sister some of the crimes of the Bush regime, and pointing them towards avenues of action including writing, speaking, demonstrating, and making media. I hope the documentary will challenge people to think about the role of their own activism and action in the media age.

Slogan Seven

September 20, 2007

“By empowering ordinary people to speak as experts, they question a basic assumption of dominant ideology, that only those already in power, those who have a stake in defending the status quo, are entitled to speak as if they know something.”
Barbara Halpern Martineau

YouTube allows everyone and anyone (with access to the technologies) to speak about everything and anything they please. Alone in a room, caught at a lectern, the much-maligned (confessional) talking-head proves to be the entitlement devise of choice. I speak, you listen, but without context, so who cares, and more critically, then what?

Editing SCALE 2

September 17, 2007

July 16, 2007. It has been a really great first week. I have been editing with concentration and fervor helped and abetted by the Wexner’s master editor, Paul Hill. We’ve made huge headway, primarily humanizing the piece by adding more of me. And letting me take some of the emotional slack. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put in more of Antonia’s amazing optimism and energy, as the story had become more and more about how she was captured by the intrigue of the limelight, and less and less about how she continued to do the hard work of being smart and on and present and committed even for that short while when she also though the book might become a bestseller.

While I am certain I will finish the film, and assured that it will be better then when I came, and close to all I want to say, my real fear at this stage is that I am not a powerful enough artist to kick it up to that final stage that this work deserves. And, of course, this is linked to SCALE because while I have always chosen for my work to remain small, primarily out of theoretical and political and artistic commitments to what happens when real people make small work about and within communities they belong, I have also not expanded my scale because I gave up on the endless exhaustion and humiliation of fund-raising, pitching, and altering my work and self to fill other’s agendas. And then, frankly, as much as I have resisted this waste of time, pulling me from the issue at hand and the pleasure of working, I’ve never been that good or capable at the pitch, the schmoozing. I get self-conscious and embarrassed. I’d rather be aloof, outside this humiliating economy. Finally, there’s always the strong possibility that I can’t get funding—slogging away at grant apps, floundering at meetings with commissioning officers—because I’m just not really good enough.

While my world view—that everyone can and should be able to express their ideas about themselves and their world—supports that everyone, including me, deserves the grace of self-expression, I do also believe in innate talent. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Self-trained in video; never a “real” artist; I hit against a wall that is my innate creativity (or lack thereof), often. Also, of course, I’m too intellectual to be a good artist. And probably too dogmatic, and out of touch with regular Americans, not to mention disdainful of the media traditions that make most people comfortable. I’ve sat here in the small mostly because it’s where I should be: reaching the audience to whom I can speak, a limited crowd interested in the ideas and values that concern me which include

-the relevance of small, personal work and activism and the real voices of real people not pundits

-the fact that getting bigger corrupts, exhausts, and punishes and that staying small allows for an attention to inter-personal ethics

-and the fact that these ideas seem hopelessly out-dated, some kind of nostalgic homage to a ’60s that was never this good anyways, and are downright ineffective against the new kinds of fast, huge, networks of corporate power that rule us.