Saturday, February 09, 2008

YouTube Confessionals

Of course, through his high-profile, much forwarded online videos The Machine is Us/ing Us and A Vision of Students Today, Michael Wesch has brought an enormous amount of public attention to otherwise relatively arcane scholarship about Internet practices. Known as a popularizer, Wesch has certainly had some critics in the academy, because of the broad generalizations stated in these films.

At the DIY Video Summit, Wesch described how he created the Machine video while working on paper about how anthropology was going to be transformed by online environments in the isolated setting of a basement of a house in St. George, Kansas. However, Wesch also decided to make a video using content from the musician Deus in the Ivory Coast. When Wesch disseminated his illustrative video to a few colleagues for feedback, he actually took a screenshot of his YouTube page to show a relatively modest 253 views the next day, which Wesch planned to include in his tenure document, because it seemed to him like a relatively large academic audience at the time. He explained that the life cycle of the video had a lot to do with web services other than YouTube: people blogged it, chose to Digg it, tagged it frequently on, and aggregated it on desktops through pull-media services like Netvibes. Eventually Wesch found his video beating out Superbowl commercials on YouTube.

In contrast, Wesch was discussing a different pedagogical project that was oriented around a smaller audience, The Digital Ethnography of YouTube Project. Like Jeffrey Bardzell, Wesch is well aware of the problems of trying to generalize about the seemingly infinite galaxy of objects of study available on the Internet. Wesch opened his talk by asking how it would be possible to do an ethnography when over seventy million videos are currently on YouTube, thus creating more content over the course of a few years than the entire output of broadcasting during its history. As someone who had done fieldwork in a small New Guinea village with two hundred inhabitants, Wesch confessed to sometimes feeling overwhelmed with the scope of the project for the class, even though he developed a methodology that involved having students camp at the "front door" of the site and collectively evaluate what they saw.

One aspect of his course at Kansas State University, involved a viral video contest among the students, which ultimately included some lowbrow films like “How to Make a YouTube Video Sure to Impress the Ladies” or "Snow Burgler." With over ten thousand hits student Becky Roth's "The Internet Has a Face" may have been one of the most successful of these experiments.

He also had his students turn their webcams on themselves to try to understand the "YouTube Community" or "YouTubia" and the strong love and hatred of people bonding on YouTube who wouldn’t bond in face-to-face situations. Once students had to take part in this particular form of "armchair participant observation," they found themselves in an "instant identity crisis" as soon as the camera was running, which Wesch ascribed to "trying to negotiate too many identities at once" with the complex dynamics at work that Erving Goffman has described. As researchers, there was also an anxiety that they might be engaging in a form of "contrived authenticity." Wesch said, however, that students reached an understanding of "moments of catharsis" and self-reflection in YouTube videos by being in the confessional position of speaking alone in front of a webcam.

Having taught a class that asked students to produce a YouTube video, I thought that Wesch's choice to highlight a particular genre on the site could have been someone limiting in that it didn't involve thinking about interfaces and the processes of editing that are also part of YouTube learning communities. When I taught my Digital Rhetoric course, I set up a low-tech failsafe option for technophobic students, so they could use the webcams in the humanities lab rather than deal with the steep learning curve associated with multimedia. Yet not one student chose this confessional option. Of course, having turned the camera on myself here and here, I certainly sympathized with Wesch's discomfort in seeing himself on camera and would probably agree that I learned something from participating in this practice.

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Blogger Professor Wesch said...

Hi Liz,
Check out Becky Roth's final project on authenticity: My students not only vlogged but also had to produce final projects with much higher production values - and this certainly meant exploring the implications of the editing interface, etc. as the insights presented in Becky's video illustrate.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

Thanks for pointing it out! It's a great video sample of high-quality student work that's a wonderful model for what could be done in the context of an academic class.

10:43 PM  

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