Just back from the Console-ing Passions conference, where I attended a panel on blogging where people joked that people might blog on the conference and the panel. Well. Melissa Click spoke about the ways that blogging has and has not been beneficial for feminist media scholars. She described, as did Elizabeth Ellcessor, a silencing climate for many feminist (and anti-racist, queer) academic bloggers. While I have not felt this to date, or at least in any way that has slowed me down, it did make me become aware that I am most comfortable blogging about YouTube (imagining a techy/bloggy readership of those interested in technology and blogs), over my more political work (on the war or AIDS for example). But that, even so, as a female academic, I am strongly protected by my rank as Full Professor. I did worry that a culture of women theorizing women-as-victims, and women-as-there-to-be-scared-away (while always true) may not be the most effective place from which to mobilize our writerly empowerment (I’ve written on this in relation to the tradition of the victim documentary), but their statistics and qualitative findings were pretty chilling. (I recently read a smart blog on this “Prejudice in Internet Communities.” Given my later posting on censorship, it seems really complicated to balance out the fact of hating, the power of the disenfranchised through these technologies, and our abilities to be other than victim). While I’m still really figuring this whole blog thing out, it has been pretty great so far, mostly in the ways it allows my ideas to reach people and audiences far afield from my small(er) worlds of queer, feminist media studies and production. I recently blogged about YouTube for OpenCulture to some viral success, for instance, and I think that brings new readers here, although, who’s ever really to know (are you there?).

I wanted to mention some of the cool things I heard about YouTube there. It was nice to be engaged, live with a community of scholars about this topic. Sometimes I feel like I’m blogging to the wind. Yes, I see there are readers, but what are you thinking?

Caetlin Benson-Allot spoke about how the “minimal mediation” or “low-bandwidth aesthetic” (often now an affectation) of what I have called “bad” videos insures their claim to a liveness similar to that of the actualities of early cinema. She suggested that this using/liveness creates a new kind of spectator and critic—the self-as-user—and the sheer doing of user-generation trumps artistry, or even subjective expression (hence the ubiquitous YouTube cover of a cover of a cover). I like to think of my attempt to speak about YouTube using YouTube as an effort to be her user-generator-critic.

On my panel about New Media and Public and Educational Space, Chuck Tryone, of the Chutry Experiment, speaking on political mash-up videos, talked about their “critical-digital-intertextuality,” which is a useful nuance to my ongoing ruminations on self-reflexivity. He, among many others (including David Gurney and Ian Reilly) is thinking about the uses of parody, satire, and other effects-of-faking in contemporary political/video culture. Through my earlier work on the fake documentary, I’ve ruminated that these forms are neither progressive or regressive in their own right, although we must remember that parody and satire are always conservative in that they stay anchored to their target text (this is Linda Hutcheon). I am looking forward to these scholars trying to nuance how and when these tactics can be radical, as I’ve pretty much steam-rolled over humor in my writing about YouTube.

Finally, Rosalind Morris, talking about

in a great panel on images of militarization post 9/11, discussed how YouTube works best by communication through affect in a culture where you can be sure you will not be listened to . Even as we speak and speak, broadcasting ourselves on YouTube and blogs, we become less convinced that we are heard (note my paranoia about readership).

Yesterday I got a query from a journalist at the Washington Post. Did she want my opinions on AIDS video or feminist media history? No! Hillary v Obama (Obama, duh)… Not at all!

As one of America’s “YouTube specialists” she wondered what I thought about the “shaming-by-YouTube” scandal involving Philip Smith, and his estanged and angry wife, Tricia Walsh-Smith. I knew nothing about it, even though it had been covered by Good Morning America that very morning.

I watched the video, read a few related posts, and then tried to decide what to do. As I’ve oft repeated on this blog, as a scholar, I’m not particularly interested in popular culture. Sure, I’m aware of the latest tabloid moments; I read the paper every morning. But my academic work (including that on YouTube) is about activist, political, educated uses of the medium for self empowerment and social change. And the video I was being asked to speak about is anything but that.

What to do? And more importantly, what does this mean about my current interests and obligations?

I was going to tell the writer that I was just not her expert. Then I decided, she could decide this herself. We talked for awhile, and it was lively and fun. I do have thoughts about YouTube that were relevant for her, and she was smart. We talked about the reality/fiction line, about the developing place of the citizen-journalist expose, about the vlog as outlet for real people who can’t get featured on the Lives of the Rich and Famous and how the video under consideration blurred those functions and media outlets. I mentioned the question of an evolving ethics of web 2.0 video built upon the backs of user indiscretions. Our conversation ended up creating some of the frame for her piece, and I think that’s pretty cool, really.

But, I’m interested in radical-culture, not upper-crass video. I’m currently writing a lecture for the Fowler Museum at UCLA about the history of AIDS video (see last post). And 5 people are going to be interested in what I have to say, damn it! This unmaking of distinctions between my interests in high culture (not low), people’s production (not corporate), elitist vs populist pursuits, and scholar versus public intellectual is getting very confusing for me. Is AIDS video elitist or populist? What about the complaints of a rich woman? And what about me complaining about it? Where does work like mine sit on this old and changing spectrum?

My work on YouTube is my only body of writing (or videomaking, really) that is relevant to regular people. Certainly the feminists I write about and for, or the queers, or AIDS activists are “regular people.” They are all humans with bodies and genetic material. But these counter-cultural communities and art practices are self-consciously, and belovedly removed from the daily, tawdry goings on of mainstream America. And I love them, and am them, for it.

Suddenly, while thinking from my usual angle (how can regular-if-political people speak against and to dominant culture using media), I’m talking about a phenomenon being encountered by most people, and thus, I have something to say to most people. I’ve actually just written, and am trying to publish, a short article about my YouTube findings for a mainstream, and not scholarly outlet.

Making work on and about YouTube, writing this blog, reading other blogs, I’ve certainly found a community of other scholars, students, and smart people asking whether these new (networking) technologies can be used for discourse outside and in opposition to corporate culture. But the bleed is so deep, the breaking of binaries and distinctions so complete, it seems impossible to think and talk about such interests without succumbing to, and becoming that which we are opposed to. Funnily, the questions I’m asking are raised through my sisters’ experience in my documentary about her, SCALE. But she stays true to the anti-war cause, while I’m hardly sure what my cause might be in this instance…”Say no to Trash video!” “Rich wives off YouTube!” “Say yes to women’s voices!” Who knows? Who cares!

Thoughts anyone?

At last the tours are through! While I found them increasingly tedious, they did prove a useful exercise in that I made some sense of the hundreds of videos my class produced (and from these tours I am going to teach Learning from Learning from YouTube in fall 2008, stay tuned), and I got to organize my thoughts thematically. So, I end with the failures of YouTube’s archive and how this structures its problems with community.

Importantly, the architecture and ownership of YouTube draw users by fueling their desire for community. While many come to the site to be seen and heard by others, to make friends, they are much better served by the world, or MySpace. For, the very tools and structures for community-building which are hallmarks of web 2.o (or a library or classroom)–those which link, gather, index, search, version, allow participation, commenting, and networking–are studiously refused on the site, even as it remains the poster-child of web 2.0. People go elsewhere for these functions, dragging their favorite YouTube videos with them to more hospitable platforms (with YouTube’s permission).

YouTube is a site to upload, store (and move off) videos. The very paucity of its other functions feeds its primary purpose: moving users’ eyeballs aimlessly and without direction, scheme, or map, across its unparalleled archive of moving images. YouTube is a mess: videos are hard to find, easy to misname, and quick to lose. While it’s users would certainly be aided by a good archivist, the site signals to us in its conscientious failings that it is not a place to hunker down or hang out with others, not a place within which to seriously research or study, not a place for anything but solo-play. Enjoy!

The user is told she is free, but this is not the case. Nowhere near it. She makes work in forms that best serve the master’s (oops) owner’s needs. Her ideas, spoken freely through newly accessible cameras, and on little screens encircled by ads, reflect those that the master taught her. They move freely across the internet, insulting some along the way, encrusted by flames of others the longer they sit still.

The user feels she is free, and so she speaks. But the owner uses other users to censor her as the owner sees fit. The user might be a person, she’s often a corporation, but more often yet, she’s an individual servicing a corporation for free! Even though all of this is done gratis, justifying YouTube’s highly celebrated “democratic” claims, little of this labor works outside the corporate economy (even for non-profits) that does very well by users’ work.

The owner, well, he has very little to do! The user (slave, oops) does all the work, and for no pay! Makes the content; rates it; censors it; watches it (and gets her eyeballs to the ads).

This is from my fifth tour. Yes, I know it’s too negative. Yes, I know people get to speak and be heard. But this is what my students learned, (perhaps because I am their teacher [master, OOPS!]):

“In computer networking, master/slave is a model for a communication protocol in which one device or process (known as the master) controls one or more other devices or processes (known as slaves). Once the master/slave relationship is established, the direction of control is always from the master to the slave(s). The County of Los Angeles, saying the term master/slave may be offensive to some of its residents, has asked equipment manufacturers not to use the term.”

In my Tour #4, The Vernacular, Visual and the Vlog, I propose that there are two dominant forms of video YouTube: the vlog, characterized by its poor quality and vox populi, and the corporate video, easily identifiable because it is all the vlog is not: high quality production values referring to corporate culture. My students nuance this list by suggesting that there are 5 forms (see “The Video Forms of YouTube,” mperry08)—talking heads, spoofs, corporate videos, inside jokes, and appropriated—but I think these fall nicely into my big two.

“Bad” videos are made by regular people, using low-end technology, with little attention to form or aesthetics while attending to the daily life, feelings, and thoughts of the individual (so here we’d include dumb inside jokes and also badly-shot event-footage: birthdays, parades, baby’s first step). They are typically unedited, word or spectacle reliant, and accrue value through the pathos, talent, or humor of the individual. “Corporate” videos look good, like TV, because they are made by professionals, are stolen from TV, or are re-cut TV. They express ideas about the products of mainstream culture, in the music-driven, quickly-edited, glossy, slogan-like vernacular of music videos, commercials, and comix. Vlogs depend upon the intimate, mundane communication of the spoken word. Corporate videos are driven by strong images, sounds, and sentiments; they consolidate ideas into icons. Meaning is lost to feeling. (See “Worst Movie Ever Made,” by baxteric1)

YouTube is a radical development in that the production of real people holds half of the vernacular of the medium, and undoubtedly this dramatic opening up of expression profoundly alters how we must think about media. However, by reifying the distinctions between the amateur and the professional, the personal and the social, in both form and content, YouTube currently maintains operating distinctions about who can own, make, and change culture.

And, what to make of those very many videos that fall off this binary—beautifully rendered art video, professional documentaries on politics, the video essays my students and I experimented with for this class? Yes, the serious work of those attending to form and ideology outside of dominant culture can be found on NicheTube, but this functions as does all alternative media in its ongoing role as marginal, if inter-dependent with mainstream media, force-of-conscience. Given the imperatives of corporate culture, YouTube is already thought of as a joke, a place for jokes, a place for regular people whose role and interests are not of real merit. A people’s forum but not a revolution, YouTube video manifests the deep hold of corporate culture on our psyches, re-establishing that we are most at home as consumers (even when we are producers).

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.”