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Michael Wesch and taking YouTube seriously

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

Alto saxophonist and composer Logan Richardson leads off our final day at Pop!Tech 2009, continuing our theme of featuring American music. First breathy and spare, a melody emerges between percussive pulses, then soars through the silence of the Opera House. He punctuates with harmonics, notes that aren’t quite a tone but hover in the silences that follow. It’s sad, lyrical and very lovely, then gains energy and intensity as he walks his horn offstage.

Logan Richardson, photo by Kris Krüg

Michael Wesch is a cultural anthropologist and professor at Kansas State University. He’s rapidly developing a reputation as an unparalled explainer of cultural – and especially online – phenomena. (I had breakfast with Micah Sifry, one of the organizers of the Personal Democracy Forum conference, and he told me that Wesch was one of only two standing ovations at his recent conference… and it takes some work for an academic to get a standing ovation at an academic conference!)

Wesch starts us back in 1984 with Neil Postman’s examination of Orwell and Huxley’s visions. Orwell had predicted a big brother, police state with banned books. Huxley didn’t worry about banning books – no one would want to read them. Orwell worried about information control, while Huxley worried that we’d drown information in a sea of irrelvance. Postman looked at the world in 1984 and suggested that we were “amusing ourselves to death” and that Huxley was right.

Postman’s analysis was based on media ecology – studying media as an environment. Media are not just tools – they mediate our conversations and dictate who can say what to who. When media changes, our conversations change. Postman was following up on McLuhan – we shape our tools and our tools shape us. McLuhan was worried about television, because it created conversations that were always entertaining (even the serious ones) and punctuated by commercials, controlled by a few speakers. Our culture becomes one of irrelavence and impotence – think about “balloon boy”. McLuhan challenges us – what do you plan to do about the serious challenges in the world. He answers for us, “You plan to do nothing.”

Fast-forwarding to 2003, he plays Dragonstea Din Tei, a Moldovan pop song which made its way from Europe to the anime subculture in Japan and then to the bedroom of a teenage boy in New Jersey. This video – known as the Numa Numa video – may have been seen 600 million times. It’s not a coincidence that YouTube started a few months later. Gary Brolsma, the guy in the video, was the first guy on the dance floor, but countless thousands have followed.

Social media is not controlled by the few, not one way, and has the potential to transform social action. And there’s a lot of it – YouTube gets 20 hours of new video every minute. Across the whole video universe, there are 1 million videos uploaded everyday. Each day, there’s more content than has been professionally created and aired on broadcast.

How are we and our communities changing in this age?

There are 20,000 videos addressed to the YouTube community uploaded every day. Why? Wesch and his students got online and started trying to understand the phenomenon. It’s a community created through webcams and screens – he shows us a young woman talking to a webcam explaining that she’s talking to the cam, not to you – she doesn’t know who you are. It’s awkward to talk to an unknown audience – Wesch shows us his own awkwardness talking to the camera. One student points to the camera and says, “it would be so much better if this thing blinked and smiled.”

The students felt awkward about the ability to watch themselves after the fact. McLuhan talked about the world of instant replay – the replay offers the ability to recall, recognition.

YouTube isn’t always a pleasant place. He quotes Lev Grossman: “Some of the comments on YouTube make you week for the future of humanity, just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.” Anonymity leads to a particularly hateful dialog. Anonymity plus physical distance and ephemeral dialog can lead to hatred as public performance.

But for others, it can lead towards a freedom to have new kinds of conversations. Sometimes this distance allows us to connect more deeply than ever before – Wesch tells us that the camera allows people to confess things to the camera that they wouldn’t say to their close friends. We see this creating new forms of community and of social understanding.

There’s a hero that emerges for our mediated culture. The guy in question goes by the name “One Man”, and we see a video of him walking around a city carrying a “Free Hugs” sign. Not only do people give him hugs, others take up the sign and start hugging. There have now been thousands of these events held around the world – it’s an example of how new media can faciliate collective action. And, of course, there’s a parody, someone offering Deluxe Hugs for $2.

What do we choose to hold up to these wired cameras? There are messages about loving yourself, loving each other. We shouldn’t see people writing wishes on their hands and holding them up to the camera as blind optimism – people wouldn’t be asking for these things if we had them. The tragedy of our times is that we are more conneced than ever, but we don’t realize it and we don’t live it.

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