Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Fourth Wall

Today, YouTube celebrity James Kotecki came to my U.C. Irvine upper-division digital rhetoric class via a teleconference hook-up with the University of California office in Washington D.C., in which he emphasized the importance of being wiling to at first "narrowcast" or choose a highly specific and thereby original topic, which in his case was the presidential candidates' use of YouTube on which he now presents himself as an expert.

Normally, I hate anything that smacks of distance learning. Even though I do a lot of advocacy for teaching with technology, I don't believe in remote instruction, since I think nothing can really replace live pedagogical interactions and trying to do so generally does students a disservice. In fact, over the years I've noticed that the university administrators who are most enthusiastic about distance learning are those who don't actually stand at the front of a classroom and therefore know little about what makes for successful face-to-face interactions.

However, today's use of the university's teleconference services might be the one case where the technology was suited to the occasion, since virtuality and camera presence turned out to be topics in the conversation. I was even pleasantly surprised by the fact that almost every student in the class talked during the bi-coastal session, despite the fact that our guest was a complete stranger on the other side of the screen in another time zone.

I first heard about Kotecki's exploits from my colleague Mark Nunes from a talk at the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association. Kotecki found fame by making videos that critiqued the YouTube footage of presidential candidates, which were shot in his Georgetown dorm room, featured comically simple props, such as pencil stick puppets of the candidates, and in post-production were assembled with low-tech Windows Movie Maker. Nonetheless, soon the campaigns were paying attention: some candidates made videos that responded to Kotecki's comments, and some of the presidential hopefuls in the rear of the race actually came to his college dorm room to be interviewed in person. (This Washington Post story, "Candidates Try Web Video, and the Reviews are Mixed," explains Kotecki's rise to punditry in more detail.)

Sitting in a conference room chair under lights that periodically turned off to save on the state's electricity bills, Kotecki described how he bought a sixty dollar webcam as a college senior and decided to post about politics on the popular video-sharing site. His first two videos he dismissed as relatively unremarkable expressions of his personal opinions. It was only when he decided to address the candidates personally and respond to a video by Christopher Dodd that he said he started to get subscribers. He told my class that Dodd not only looked like he was in a "warehouse," but actually that he looked like he had been taken "hostage" in the white-haired senator's unfortunate early attempts in an unfamiliar medium.

As a teacher who wants to encourage critical thinking, I was pleased to see that my students didn't let him off too easily, even if they found him a likable peer. One student accused him of potentially trivializing issues in the news and playing up personality politics, especially in the case of this video about the only female candidate running. Kotecki responded by admitting that he might "skew toward entertainment" when he only had two minutes for three stories designed to give viewers a "quick political fix for the day." Or, as he put it somewhat cynically, "facts, analysis, and opinion" are "essentially commodities" that he would like his viewers to be able to get only from him.

Another student contested his assertion that he started off at a disadvantage because he wasn't a "hot, young girl" who could "successfully build audience" by talking about nothing but her day. She argued that a female college student wouldn't have been able to get the candidates to come to her dorm room, particularly because candidates like Ron Paul and Mike Gravel might have been more hesitant to risk accusations of potential impropriety by being in the room of a female co-ed.

Still another student argued that featuring the Obama girl in one of his videos was a questionable choice, both from the perspective of gender politics and of journalistic integrity. He responded that it was both a pragmatic bid to increase his audience share and a recognition that her image had become a part of "Americana." Against the implicit accusation of being sexist, he also pointed to his camaraderie with Melissa Jenna and the video he made about online misogyny with the Resident about "vile sexist," "racist," and "homophobic" comments.

Kotecki's sense of humor certainly helped him in what would otherwise have been a pretty alienating scenario in which we could sometimes see and hear him, but he couldn't see or hear us, when the tech guy couldn't be found. For example, he described how after landing his present gig at, he decided to parody the accusations that he had sold out and had gone mainstream in an intentionally pompous and self-mocking work of seeming narcissism, "James Kotecki: Video Blogger."

Students clearly identified with the approachable Kotecki and asked personal questions about his undergraduate major (International Politics with a focus on international security), most relevant classes (a public speaking course and anything that improved his writing), research techniques (slow to be acknowledged as such, since largely drawn from the mainstream media, but a significant part of his prep time), and influences in forming his media persona (John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and strangely Jim Cramer of Mad Money).

Many of them also asked about the split between public and private selves in online venues and "real" and performed identities. For example, a rap he did when he reached the 1,000 subscribers mark may be a case where he either broke character or solidified it, depending on your point of view. He attributed much of his popularity to being perceived as a "real person" and said that his use of Facebook had reinforced this ethos of approachability. Before signing off, he won more points with my students by giving them his e-mail address.

In closing, when asked about the upcoming YouTube debate with Republican candidates, Kotecki said that he was pleased that Mitt Romney would be joining in the program. Although potentially slanted, he argued that his highly targeted online mockery of Mitt Romney didn't show any political bias, since his one consistently stated position about the election has been that he thought candidates should participate in two-way exchanges on YouTube regardless of party affiliation. He told the class that ironically he had also been accused of being a pro-Republican partisan when he adopted the mantle of a citizen-journalist to contest descriptions of "police brutality" against protesters at a Karl Rove speech.

Looking back on the election so far and the previous YouTube debate with Democrats, Kotecki acknowledged that he regretted the fact that the medium that had leveled the playing field hadn't always made it truly level and that politicians who didn't answer direct questions in live town hall meetings could be just as evasive on YouTube. Although he remains an optimistic CNN/YouTube supporter, he also plugged alternative sites like and Tech President.

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Blogger Lupton said...

What a great experience for your students -- and an exemplary use of teleconferencing.

3:57 PM  

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