“And the next time someone quotes the Cult of the Amateur to you, about how social media is ruining culture, nod wisely and agree: user generated content is user generated crap. Because, we learned from the best. If TV hadn’t taught us to enjoy rubbish, YouTube would be cleverer.”

Laurel Papworth, Why Television Should Die a Slow and Painful Death.

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YouTube Writing

May 13, 2008

I’ve spent the first half of my sabbatical attempting to “write up” the findings of my course, Learning from YouTube. Given that the heart of the experiment of the course was to learn the strengths and limitations of moving a set of common experiences (teaching, learning, “writing”) fully into the digital space by doing so, it only made sense to “write up” my course within the digital. To this end I’ve completed 6 tours of the class on YouTube which attempt to model a form of academic structure and analysis there. And I’ve “published” a paper on another academic blog. I wrote a short piece (The 5 Lessons of YouTube) for a non-academic audience that I have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to publish in Slate, Salon, and The Nation. The editors were supportive but told me that my work was “too academic,” and they must be right. Even when I use conversational language, there’s something (but what!) in my tone and approach I just can’t seem to shake. Its out to First Monday now. And of course, I’ve been blogging here. My YouTube writing has forced/allowed me to radically rethink the circulation of my work, its audience, and function. So that’s good (although my media always moved in these ways, so maybe my scholarly writing is circulating more like a video now).

Now, I’ve been asked to adapt a talk I gave at SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies), which was based on my MP:me manifesto (written as my first post here, August 27, 2007), into a written paper to be published in a book of essays on first person cinema. Now, here’s the rub. I gave the “talk” as a series of linked videos on YouTube (a method I’ve been experimenting with to present my work on YouTube) without speaking myself (or rather, I was speaking, but not live). It was a rousing failure at the conference because the technology did not work (the connection was not fast enough, so I ended up having to narrate what I had put on-line, oh the multi-layers!) I basically intercut (using the clunky YouTube playlist function) between the video chapters of my manifesto (made in homage to Vertov’s manifesto) and YouTube versions of Man with a Movie Camera. Whether it worked or not, I was hoping to demonstrate (without SAYING so) tensions and connections between modernist/post-modernist form, male and female approaches to media, the home and the city, the personal and the social, going solo and communal, film and video, the expert and the amateur, the communist and the feminist, and how the powers of new media undo or redo many of Vertov’s claims about cinema (linking, montage, the unscripted and scripted real). And now, I’m trying to figure out how to “write” about this construction between and across moving images and sounds on paper!

Its trite to observe that words fail us when we speak of images and sounds, and now we don’t need to do this anyways (hence my YouTube analysis), so who cares, let it go! Its worth noting, of course, that my students and I often wished to write papers about what we learned because this was the most specific way to get across analysis. Further, if I can figure out how to write this up for a book, the word-version will have different readers, a permanence, and a different context than it has on-line, and that’s not insignificant (if I wasn’t a full professor, I’d also say it’d help me with promotions, etc. but I am lucky enough to think outside this logic). This writing really shouldn’t be in a book. It demands the link. So it raises all my colleague Kathleen Fitzpatrick and her gang at the Institute for the Future of the Book have been modeling: they’re better on all this than I am so make sure to read what they’re about. (I have been in long conversation with these guys about my Media Praxis project somehow connecting to their work, whether this ultimately comes to pass or not, this summer I plan to model how to finally realize this project on-line). But for now, I’ll be trying the small task of translating the media-link to the word. I’ll keep you updated.

I just read Zigzagger‘s (check this out, he’s the guy who taught me how to make these very links to other web sites on my blog!) article on “ze frank and the poetics of web video” published on First Monday. It’s got me thinking. Here’s his conclusion:

“The interactive form of the The Show is a product of the Internet’s affordance, as a network of users, of bringing like–minded but geographically dispersed people together in an common, online creative space. Furthermore, with grassroots media production, producers and their audiences typically share the same basic creative idioms and the same technologies, all being do–it–yourselfers. It is crucial in the case of Ze Frank and his audience that there was a minimum of aesthetic and technological distance between producer and fan, so that all could feel like participants in the same creative community. Frank might be a singular figure, a gifted performer, a rare talent, but the sportsracers added immeasurable value to The Show.

DIY media are engendering a shift in popular taste. No longer is professionalism assumed to be the norm and standard of quality. The notion that do–it–yourself amateurism can stand on equal ground with media industry professionalism signals a democratic challenge to hierarchies of aesthetic value. And at the same time that amateur media are gaining ground, so is the communitarian alternative to traditional, top–down mass media distinctions between production and reception. Communities like the one that came together around The Show comprise artists working in a vernacular format of creative expression, using amateur tools and a primitive aesthetic. Art is always the product of what Howard S. Becker calls a “network of cooperation,” [16] but artists and their support personnel have traditionally been seen to occupy separate spheres [17]. Our contemporary mediascape threatens this notion of the autonomy of the solitary artist, revealing ways in which creative communities can function as increasingly egalitarian networks.” End of article

His findings go against several of mine, in particular those about community (which I find untenable on YouTube) and the elevation of a user or DIY-aesthetic to be on par with that of corporate media (which I understand to be separate but equal). But this, in turn, raises two significant thoughts:

1) I am certainly overstating my theory, writing manifesto-like, to allow some things to be clear (the limitations of the site and the forms it fosters), while obscuring others (like the shows and communities that are forming, like Ze Frank’s and that around my course, for instance). Can one imagine a theory of YouTube that accounts for the possibilities of resistance and re-purposing while also insisting upon the strong forces of consoidation, capital, and conformity which are already encrusting around this (new) form?

2) talent: I have been dancing around the role that talent plays in all this, as does Newman, above. What does it mean to create theories of an art form around the exemplary practices of those who are capable of pushing the form forward as opposed to thinking through the form in relation to its common vernacular (what most people do with it)? And can something by truly DIY and exceptional at once, or is this really an oxymoron?

(I just got to read Chuck Kleinhans’ paper for Consoleing Passions, “Webisodic Mock Vlogs: HoShows as Commercial Entertainment New Media” which will is under revision for  JUMP CUT no. 50. Theorizing the mediocre is his stated project: “I don’t think the HoShows have decisive meaning or are a significant contribution to the aesthetic, cultural, or institutional nature of screen media.  This stuff is profoundly mediocre.  But then, why consider it?  I think it notable as precisely a moment, a passing fancy in screen technology.  This lets us have some insight into those things, which are similar in one way or another, and the very fact of living in a rapidly changing “new media” present.  You can step in the river, but it keeps flowing. Today technological change, institutional and regulatory change, industrial change, and audience adaptation flow together in new patterns, with changing currents and interesting eddies.  So, while the specific example is not very notable, the larger trend it is a part of is worth considering.” He goes on to speak about the sit-com narrative, sex appeal, and the short form. Make sure to check it out upon publication.

I recently read on Thinking at the Interface about grad students at Iowa putting videos on YouTube about their working conditions. Then—no surprise—the English Department chair called the “director of the videos to a meeting with other senior faculty members and asked for the videos to be removed from YouTube.” Although I wrote recently (with some disdain) about when I was asked by the Washington Post to analyze the viral YouTube video of cuckolded socialite wife (Tricia Walsh-Smith) who used YouTube to air her dirty relational, sexual and financial laundry during a heated divorce, the graduate students’ use, also from the bottom side of a historic power dynamic, also revealing the unspoken (and unspeakable) economic abuse that allows large institutions to operate seems somehow less sordid. Or is it?

It does seem crucial to begin to name what can vs what should be revealed through this global open mic. Those with little access to power, media attention, and the protections afforded by capital have never been able to so easily and widely express their critique of power. Is it okay to use YouTube to expose the private financial details of a marriage or the private financial relations of a University? Why should these be private? What of the penis size of a spouse, or the class load of a T.A.? What if you’re drunk, lying or parodying when you do it?

The “English TA Experience” Page on Facebook runs a chain of emails between the chair and the students, and is introduced by an email “in defense of free speech,” by Neal Bowers, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Professor of English, Iowa State University who writes: “Mostly in private, and in collusion with his administrative staff–Dave Roberts, Connie Post, and Barb Blakely–Charlie has forced one of our graduate students to remove a posting from YouTube. He has accomplished this by meeting individually with various graduate students and, through an apparent process of intimidation, bullying them into surrendering one of their basic rights….He justifies his actions by claiming the YouTube video contained objectionable material and subjected the department and the university to legal action. He also appeals to the need for fewer rights (just like Homeland Security and George W. Bush, only instead of saying in our “post-9/11 world” Charlie alludes to the “post Virginia Tech World of campus violence”).”

Of course censorship haunts this discussion, as it does all of YouTube (and the AIDS art world I’ve been discussing here as well). It’s easy to censor on YouTube: users do it all the time. When a video troubles you, you flag it. Enough flags, down it goes. Censorship is always the first (and devastating) move of institutional power against its fears of the many it keeps in check. It also marks the place of transgressions. All the videos discussed in this blog have been taken down.

“For purposes of the First Amendment, and the values of intellectual freedom that it embodies, freedom of speech necessarily includes the right to read, view, hear, and think about the expression of others.” Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship and the Innocence of Youth

“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” Justice Robert H. Jackson

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!