Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Imitation, Improvisation, and Performance

The videos shown at this year's 24/7 DIY Video State of the Art screening at the Hammer Museum ended with a succession of video homages to YouTube's famed "JK Wedding Entrance Dance," including the "JK Divorce Entrance Dance" and the "MK Wedding Entrance Dance by Chippendales." This conclusion was meant to provide a feel-good montage of celebratory and irreverent YouTube videos to highlight the theme of this year's event: collective action.

After the lights came up at the end of the screening, Henry Jenkins gave a talk about "How YouTube Became OurTube." (USC's Jenkins was accurately characterized as a "commentator," "participator," and "icon" in fan remix culture in an introduction by Mimi Ito that gave audience members a sense of his importance in media studies and the study of popular culture.)

I'll try to summarize Jenkins' argument for how to understand 24/7 DIY video and then offer a few thoughts of my own, by using my own wedding dance example.

Jenkins and I have differed before, but our exchanges are always friendly, collegial, and supportive. After all, we both ground our arguments in our own community membership, and we both share loyalties to DML Central, scouting, K-12 education, and urban Los Angeles.

I'm interested in potential shortcomings in Jenkins' arguments because I want him to be right not because I want him to be wrong.

(Another person who has been similarly generous in our exchanges is John Palfrey, who opens the "Afterward" of the new edition of Born Digital with a very kind mention of my work.)

Although Jenkins began by reminding the audience that the Google-owned company was controlled by a "proprietary interest," he noted that the "you" of YouTube seemed to be both singular and plural, much as the "you" in "DIY" and "broadcast youself"could refer to both self-branding and collective engagement with community.

He then showed a slide that he often shows to praise the virtues of "participatory culture." Jenkins defines this kind of cultural production by its low barriers to entry, focus on sharing and informal mentoring, and merit-system of contribution and opinion. He also noted that the slide itself was a product of user-generated content, although he didn't cite its precise origin in this presentation.

Then Jenkins granted that "ninety-five percent" of what is on YouTube is "crap," but described such "crap" as "glorious," because people "need a place to be bad and get better." He also showed another slide by Gary Hayes that often appears in talks and blog postings about Web 2.0, although he quibbled with 1995 date for the launch of the web and reminded the audience that his own history of participatory culture goes back to "Web Negative 10" and his interest in toy printing presses used during the Civil War.

Next Jenkins talked about the many fan responses to the Saturday Night Live digital short "I'm on a Boat" that opened the 24/7 DIY video program, which included a capella versions like this and the riding of other kinds of vehicles like Harry Potter-inspired brooms and Yu-Gi-Oh! parodying blimps. (I was sorry not to see my favorite "I Want a Goat" video in the program.)

In introducing "spreadable media," the subject of his forthcoming book, Jenkins explained his own antipathy to the label of "viral ideas" by quoting from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and its explanation of the appeal of dehumanizing self-replicating information:

We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.

Jenkins similarly scoffed at using "memes" to describe these phenomena by citing the slavish imitation at work in how Richard Dawkins describes cultural ideas, symbols, or practices traveling from brain to brain. Overvaluing "fidelity," "fecundity," and "longevity" could cause critics to misunderstand the Internet events as they unfold onscreen and the potentially transformative power of seemingly trivial media-making in the moment. He referred members of the audience to Ethan Zuckerman's "Cute Cate Theory of Digital Activism" to support the thesis that "any medium sufficiently powerful to enable the distribution of cute cat pictures can also, under the right circumstances, be deployed to bring down a government."

In characterizing the line-up of videos, Jenkins insisted that they were less about individual expression and more about the collective ethos of participatory culture. After all, he asserted, even the hero of "Where the Hell is Matt" leaves the isolation of his early videos to become part of a gyrating crowd. (Creator Matt Harding was a no-show at the Hammer event, although organizers had hoped to shoot him dancing with audience members congregated around him on the stage.)

Online bystanders like this female vlogger collectively mourned the death of Derrion Albert and the urban violence that took his life with multiple response videos, and anti-homophobia activists generated "fuck you very much" collaborative videos like this one from France. Despite its slick information graphics and use of broadcast news video, Jenkins also thought that the citizen testimonies aggregated in "Why Would Anyone Stop You from Voting?" were also emblematic of this trend.

Jenkins lauded his mentor in the study of popular culture, John Fiske, the subject of a recent conference about his influence on cultural studies, but argued that his ideas about "cultural resources" were born out by Internet practices that he probably couldn't have forseen. At this point, Jenkins cited a few non-YouTube examples, such as the use of altered images of Dora the Explorer in the debate about immigration or depictions of superheroes doing jobs generally done by illegal aliens.

Having interviewed Jenkins in a discussion about the analogy between the online practices and democracy (and the limitations of that analogy), it was interesting to see the theme of "pluralism" being so central to his thought about civic participation. The videorecorded commentary I shot over a year ago mostly focused on the theme of "access."

It was also interesting to see Jenkins looking to film history in a way that he rarely does in his highly accessible public lectures. He noted that Eisenstein was interested in juxtaposition within shots as well as between shots and that fan vidders in the "Deconstructing Our Icons" portion of the program used similar techniques.

Over the course of what he described as thirty years of research on vidding, Jenkins said he had observed how political remix content-creators and fans were learning from each other. He did, however, express concern about the "flow of content," when video of Obama's pastor created for one purpose and audience migrate to use by oppositional camps. Yet in the era of "tactical consumption" Jenkins saw a more global participatory culture for whom the "hallmark is Iran." Even if calling Iranian online activism a "Twitter revolution" is a misnomer that omits certain facts about the role of other technologies and forms of political organization, he credited a culture highly literate in blogging and other diasporic forms of Internet communication.

In understanding what he called "new kinds of political speech" that include Avatar protests on the West Bank by Palestinian activist fans and the latest Glenn Beck Donald Duck mash-up.

Jenkins also used the work of Bolter and Grusin on "remediation" to point out forms of "hypermediation" at work in the DIY 24/7 program, whether it be created with Autotune or multiple windows. Such forms of software use "demystify broadcast media," according to Jenkins, even if the subjects of such videos may seem lowbrow icons like "drama hamster" and "keyboard kat."

Enter "lip dubs" or "lipdubs" into the YouTube search box and Jenkins argued that you would soon find hundreds of examples of "collective joy and mutual performance." With these one-take videos that can be almost as ambitious as the one-shot film Russian Ark, "every environment can become a performance space." (I have embedded a video that wasn't in the DIY 24/7 line-up.)

Jenkins pointed out that the changes wrought by this "OurTube" weren't just about user-generated content. As an example of "grassroots media circulation" of professionally produced broadcast media content, he pointed to Susan Boyle's performance in the same week of the finale of American Idol, which only garnered 40 million views in comparison to the 200 million who watched Boyle's performance on a similar English show online.

As "people sort through a sea" of cultural content, the battle over cultural resources could become complex. Jenkins emphasized two fundamental problems: 1) digital rights and 2) digital inclusion. For example, he noted the imitators of "Limelight" by Rush who jockeyed to get their fingering good enough to lead to an automated YouTube takedown by its matching algorithm until they became involved in a battle over copyright led by Kevin Driscoll (from whom it seems I have less than six degrees of separation) called "Tribute Is Not Theft." Jenkins also raised the question of what's not on YouTube in his conclusion and left the audience to think about a "participation gap" that results in "ideas and diversity we don't see" much like the "systemic bias" in Wikipedia articles where some topics get more digital print than others.

In the question-and-answer session afterward, he reiterated a narrative about the twentieth-century assault on folk culture, which is also familiar to readers of Lawrence Lessig. As Jenkins put it, "my grandmother was a remixer," because she was a quilter who actively participated in a folk culture of reuse and reappropriation. During the twentieth century he charactered fan cultures as "pockets of resistance." He also argued that because Latin America preserved its folk culture in samba schools and carnival traditions, they might embrace "different forms of digital creation" as they go online. He argued that "most artists" were "building on other people's stories" throughout literary history, and that the century which just passed was the exception rather than the rule.

There were also a number of questions about current events and upcoming policy decisions involving cameras in courtroom and net neutrality, which Jenkins saw as critical in "struggles over rights and liberties" that were central to his civic concerns. However, he argued that free and open access to video wasn't always desirable as Sam Gregory of WITNESS has pointed out when the pain of a victim becomes "comedy" or "pornography."

The last word went to a question about remixes out of China and highly coded or indirect forms of political speech that involve Kung Fu Panda material.

There was a video camera recording events at my own wedding, as The Del Rubio Triplets and King Cotton played live music, but the moving images were never digitized much less put online.

I'm a fan of the vast human archive of vernacular dancing on YouTube, but I wonder what it might mean for our celebrations and rituals if everything is to be choreographed for display and replay on the web.

Perhaps there are cautionary tales in both Ondi Timoner's "We Live in Public" and Ian Bogost's "We Think in Public."

The people dancing with me in this photograph are not looking at the camera; the action is meaningful because it is not synchronized; they don't need to be part of a collective. What possibilities for interaction and intimacy would have been foreclosed by enforcing an elaborate choreographed routine? What romance and wistfulness would have been refused?

What if those lip dubs aren't always just about "collective joy and mutual performance"? In what ways are interactions in call centers, chain stores, hospitals, laboratories, schools, military bases and prisons constrained by the rules of neoliberalism and the membership economy and new schemes for scientific management?

For more about Henry Jenkins on this blog and his sparring with Virtualpolitik friend Bogost, see "Who Will Be Voted Off the Island?" For more about the conference in 2008, go here and scroll down.

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