Writing Values

February 10, 2012

If you were required to make a video for a class that would get the most hits in a small amount of time, what qualities would you strive for? “S**t Girls Say at Superbowl” won just such a contest with a paltry 1400+ hits (when my students did this four years ago they got to 100,000 because, we can agree, YouTube was smaller then and easier to game). This year’s winner was timely, funny-enough, pretty well done, meta to YouTube, and socially-networked:

When asked whether this video was also a “good” video for school, however, the class agreed it was not particularly. The values of school and YouTube are linked, and not, veering in several key areas, the most critical being:

  • message: a video for school needs to have one, and better yet, its ideas should be central, original, and critical
  • effort: trying hard and getting better counts in school
  • sociality: it needs to play well on YouTube and in an intimate, lived space (like a classroom) where people actually see and know each other and are responsible to each other as well as to the established interactive norms of school

Thus, my students in LFYT ’12 voted for “Puppies and Car Crashes” as the class video best suited for school work:

After this exercise, it was most interesting to me to note that all the values of a popular YouTube video identified by my students who were trying to win the contest (connections to corporate culture and music or to amateur authenticity, feats, humor, speed, craft [or not], attractive [or not] people, spreadibility, meta-ness) count equally for a good video for a class about YouTube if and only if these qualities themselves become the central message of the work (and beyond being meta, the video needs to analytical of these valuables), and better yet also become the form of the video, and if they keep the rules of classroom sociality in site (kindness, politeness, the building of dialogue, no ad hominem attacks, no gratuitous uses of sexuality, violence, racism, or cruetly) even as they attend to the odd reverse-norms of social-networked sociality.

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.

YouTube Tour #1: Education

February 5, 2008

Today, I posted my first “tour” of the work and lessons-learned by the Learning from YouTube class.

I will try to post one per week, with accompanying blogs, for the next 8 weeks, resulting in 9 tours on: education, entertainment, popularity, vernacular, visual, user, owner, community and archive.

It took me awhile to decide how I’d like to present the many things I think we learned during that hectic semester, and I was pleased when I remembered the “tour” method, one we had devised during the semester to try to work YouTube against itself by creating a linked, sharable, and repeatable path, with associated comments, through its chaos. It seemed right to “publish” my results on YouTube, continuing to hack and use its forms to hold our analytical content and designs; to continue to use it to speak to, and about itself.

Attempting to present my analysis of the site on its pages, rather than, say, in those of an academic venue, demanded profound changes in the nature of my work, as a media scholar and educator that, as ever, prove telling about the workings of YouTube. The key differences were a matter of: time and brevity, vernacular, audience, professional standards, and language.

In brief, time is of the essence on YouTube. As I made the video for my tour, and the tour itself, I was hyper-aware that I needed to keep cutting, condensing, summarizing, and simplifying to speak effectively on YouTube (to keep the attention of its distractable, easily bored, viewer), which of course, is also a major part of its vernacular: there is a premium put on ease and efficiency, condensation and simplification. Where as my students are forced to hear me speak, or at least pretend to, the YouTube viewer must want to stay there because of my media skills, useful information, because I entertain her. A language of bullets: quick, exciting, and mobile. And here I would also add, the necssity for non-specialist language, so as to be heard effectively, which gets me to audience, for I assume a general and diverse audience on YouTube, one I do not imagine on this page, and one that has no relation to who reads me in academic journals. I can count on no shared references or lingo, other than that of popular culture, which diminishes the complexity of my thoughts even as it expands their reach. Unlike a classroom, where one speaks to undergraduates equally unschooled in scholarly discourse, but where you can and work to school them and together grow a shared language, the scattered, random nature of YouTube’s viewership demands that one always stays at the basic level, never giving the audience an opportunity to grow its vocabulary.

On a different note, the systems of proof and authority are diametrically different on YouTube from those of academia. My proof on YouTube is always another video, any video. Its existence, and mine, on YouTube’s pages gives us as much and no more authority than any other user, that is, of course, unless we have the power of numbers, glorious hits, on our side. Academic writing, on the other hand, also relies upon the affirmation of outside voices, however, what differentiates these voices is that they are accredited (through the systems of veting of publishing and other forms of accredidation) and that their arguments build relationally, one argument building slowly, and in dialogue with a tradition rather than the piecemeal character of the solo rant, or private confession, of YouTube.

Clearly, these reflections make me sound a snob, and not the proponent I have always been of a democratization of access to and discourses about the media. However, expanded access can not itself be a stand alone only goal, as I believe my remarks above attest. Access to media production, and dissemination, needs to be accompanied with the tools that allow for the growing complexity of discourse: and these are quite simply the capacities to work together and to learn from what has been done before. I speak about these ideas in greater length, and through scholarly discourse, as a “real academic talk” stuck on YouTube here:

So, after the class decided to study “popularity” on YouTube–my students making an end-run on my best intentions for the course (which were to hi-jack YouTube to make it work against itself by making it “educate”) by re-routing our attention back to what they really want from YouTube–we created an assignment, or contest really, where the student(s) who could make the most popular video, the one with the most hits in two weeks, would win a prize (an automatic A on the final). With a few notable exceptions, the videos are god-awful re-hashes of paltry popular culture. A few, the highest rated among them, are stolen music videos, re-uploaded. All the entries make use of erroneous or titillating titles, tags, and thumbnails mixed with ripped-off mainstream songs, artists, and images to make uninspiring, insipid, and inarticulate blips into the digi-sphere. Not that I blame them, they have studied YouTube seriously, and this is what they have learned works best on its pages.

Meanwhile, the very atmosphere of the classroom has begun to reflect not the (slightly more) studious air we had exhibited for the first half of the semester, but rather has become a fun free-for-all, where laughs, comraderie, and playfulness define our interaction. We get little done, learn less then we did before, and have a good time at it. Once again, the course well reflects what we are learning about digital learning and culture. We have often tried to parse out the differences between entertainment and education, and this section has been helpful at that.

So, interestingly, the class decided today that we’d had enough of the fun. The students’ best intentions seem caught between their interest in learning (the old or real way) and the fun they seem to have with popular culture and this inventive class that mirrors or remarks upon it.

For me, the few weeks we’ve spent thinking about popularity (something that has held little interest for me since Junior High when I chose against my feminist mom’s best intentions to be a cheerleader) has merely confirmed my worst estimations of YouTube, and the generation that loves it. It will be interesting to see what they wish to learn in our final weeks.

See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2eUPc3F08A&feature=PlayList&p=7AD7CD49335B9862&index=27

On YouTube

October 10, 2007

We held our first class on-line, off-classroom, on YouTube, on Tuesday. What a failure! And it’s YouTube’s fault… The comments function on the site is neither real-time or synchronous (like a chat room) nor fully outside time or asynchronous (like email), which creates a sort of deadening clunk when you post: it’ll come up soon, but who knows when, or who will read it. Also, given that the site is organized around distraction and a bonanza of moving-image riches always at your fingertips and dancing on the edge of the screen but outside your control, there was no way to be certain anyone from the class was at any of the 8 videos we were attending to at any particular time, which left me feeling isolated, even as I knew they were (most likely) there. Furthermore, without the disciplining function of the space of the classroom, I felt certain that most of the students did the bare minimum, posting their assigned two questions and then going on to play frisbee (or watch frisbee videos on YouTube), while the few actually committed participants, enjoyed the experience, were annoyed by it, and learned much from the clunkiness of the process. Now, varying levels of commitment define the “real” classroom environment as well. Not every one attends (in the sense that some miss class, and many who are there may as well not be). However, the sense of having no responsibility to this community defined the YouTube class, whereas even the least attentive of students performs the moves of community engagement when held together in a physical space. This question of discipline in the classroom, and education generally, has been raised often in the class (as students demand more discipline–or structure–even as I remind them that they are participating in their own censure); and the undisciplined nature of YouTube, its inability to provide structures, clear links, group spaces, really any kind of coherence, is its biggest fault, at least for on-line learning. Finally, while the students have certainly been pushing the form to engage in sophisticated expression and real dialogue, I find the level of interaction on YouTube to be paltry in relation to what occurs in a “real” classroom. This may be because in a shared physical space I moderate, and sometimes lead, because my presence makes the students amp up the wattage, or because the nature of the group itself in real time and space pushes people to perform. The laziness of the comments (and even videos) on YouTube including my own, points at a level of conversation supported by and conventionalizing in this environment that may well serve YouTube’s purposes but do not those of higher education.

I began my research into YouTube faulting it as a site for the building and maintaining of community and the failures of our class cement this observation.

FOX it is and FOX is it

September 21, 2007

I went to bed last night exhausted, relieved and resolute. I had survived one week in the media limelight and it was over, ending on a mid-note with my mediocre performance on CNN (see youtube.com/mediapraxisme). At last I could return to my life as teacher, scholar, and documentary-maker, speaking in a language I know to people who talk as I do and who really want to be having this conversation. I was glad enough it had happened because it was a really great learning experience about both SCALE and YouTube. Living it confirmed much I already knew, although of course until the lived experience I knew this only theoretically: for me, it is preferable to speak to people I can see and who can reply, people I know share a discourse and values about American and media culture, and in a context where ideas can be exchanged and knowledge and feeling can grow. While I am certain that there is real value in amping SCALE through numbers, exposure, reaching out, simplifying while staying honest, and speaking to people who are not yet exposed to one’s concerns or approaches, I learned last week that I am not the person to do that. The attention makes me feel self-conscious and self-critical; not to mention I spent a significant portion of last week with my stomach-clenched (not pleasant); I was distracted from the things that really matter to me (my teaching, friends, family, and intellectual and political work); and I refused reducing my thoughts to pre-orchestrated but effective sound-bites. I just don’t want to talk that way (note rambling and repetition here!), so in the end, I’m just not that good at it.

And then FOX emailed this morning. And I decided quickly… no. No more fear; no more second-guessing myself; no more wasting my time on something that proves at once inconsequential and stressful to me. But then, of course, finally… yes. I started this thing: it’s my responsibility; if I won’t stand up to say why I’m attending critically if playfully to YouTube, who will? My students? The blogisphere? That’s not fair. So, I must play the media professor, maker and scholar who wants to think about using this sudden expansion of access to media production and distribution to do better what media has always done: to try to enrich and change the lives of individuals and community, self and world. And this I will say, as best I can, and as me, when they ask me to speak, and I hope I can stay focused, and I hope I can keep on mark. I can only do my best, but I shouldn’t run away. And that’s my last post on celebrity and YouTube even if I continue to have to play this game for the time being.

On YouTube Celebrity and SCALE

September 15, 2007

An article about my class ended up on the AP wire and less then 24 hours later, I’ve done or scheduled 10 print and radio interviews, including a visit from CNN to my class scheduled for next week. It’s been on the local news in Florida, on my sister’s elevator in NY, and in the Herald International Tribune. It’s all over the web; can’t track it. Heart-pounding, adrenaline rushing, I’ve been able to do nothing else all day but worry about how I represent myself, my ideas, my course through a mainstream media which does not usually talk my language or acknowledge my concerns, given their erudite nature and political leanings (see my blog!). But reporters have been polite and intelligent, I’m an expert after all, a PhD; as have I. Why?

I knew that the form, and even content, of Learning from YouTube would be sexy, getable, marketable but I did not know what that would mean for me. Most strikingly, it has made me engage in thoughts of self-censorship (whether I will follow through or not is another matter), where I worry that the radical nature of my work will disallow me to be taken seriously, thus closing down channels before they open, and minimizing my credibility, as well as the more general and less ideological intellectual ideas raised.

But beyond this, given that my documentary, “SCALE: Ending the Bush Agenda in the Media Age,” is all about celebrity, and the power of not being known while still doing good work, and the left’s inability to successfully think through how or why to use the media machine as a way towards power and change, it seems downright ridiculous that I’m suddenly having just such a moment after having determined that the nature and focus of my work would, by definition, keep it small, intimate, in my control, and as radical as am I.

At the end of the film, I ask my sister why she never got on the morning talk shows, and she suggests that it is because she is “too left and also too right, too correct.” So, why am I being invited? I’m not too left and also not too right? That sounds correct to me. How am I being seen and used? And what can I make if this access, if anything?