Sometimes a class project takes on a life of its own.
I asked the students in the CMS graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to work on teams and report on a contemporary media phenomenon, reading it against some of the theories about media change we have been studying so far this term. A team of our incoming graduate students — Kevin Driscoll, Xiaochang Li, Lauren Silberman, and Whitney Trettien — decided to focus their energy on examining the ways that Soulja Boy, a teenage hip hop phenomenon, used a mixture of social network sites and YouTube to push his way up into the top music charts.
A key to his success turns out to be his active encouragement of fans to sample, remix, mashup, and perform his “Crank Dat” song through whatever media channels they want. Our Convergence Culture Consortium is focusing this year on understanding what we call “spreadable media,” arguing that the era when value was created by “stickiness” is giving way to one where media gains new value through grassroots circulation. If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead! And the best way to insure the spread of media is to give over greater control to the audience, to increase their emotional stakes in your success.
As the students discovered the vast array of different people out there who were performing “Crank Dat,” they wanted to get into the act. And so they got a camera, borrowed some lab coats, used their social network accounts to draw people together, and staged their own music video, which now circulates via YouTube.
As it happened, I stumbled by between meetings, just in time to watch them lining up to dance on the dot. I stayed for a bit trying to master the for-me very challenging dance steps. I always seemed to be zooming like superman when I was supposed to be doing the pony walk. Unfortunately, the real Professor Jenkins doesn’t have any of the moves that my avatar enjoys in Second Life. But, I enjoyed watching my students gamble and shake a leg.
To my pride, they showed their budding skills as public intellectuals, having managed to get the Boston Phoenix out to cover the story. Here’s some of what the Phoenix reported on the unfolding scene:
In the summer of 2006, DeAndre Way, then 16, combated summer boredom in Batesville, Mississippi, by writing songs with Fruity Loops digital-audio software. He borrowed a cousin’s video camera and filmed dances to accompany the music. Thanks to YouTube, Way’s choreography quickly turned into a Southern dance craze — particularly centered around a steel-pan-drum-fueled number called “Crank That (Soulja Boy).”…
This past Wednesday, a day after the release of Soulja Boy’s debut album, Souljaboytellem.com, a dozen or so MIT grad students and professors gathered on a circular lawn beside Building 54 at 5:30 pm, blasting “Crank That” from a small gray CD player set on repeat. Some of the group were clad in lab coats and thick glasses as they repeated (and videotaped) the dance — a crisscrossed jump in place, followed by a few shakes and stomps, a breast stroke-like arm spread, and four jumps to the left and right. “This will single-handedly transform the coolness factor for MIT,” commented Henry Jenkins, co-founder of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program, as he observed nearby.
The meeting of Soulja enthusiasts was organized by students — including Kevin Driscoll, a/k/a Lone Wolf, a local DJ and former computer-science teacher — from a CMS graduate course in media theory. Driscoll’s lawn-dance party was more than just a way to add a video to the vast library of “Crank That” tributes. He hypothesizes that “Crank That” is a unique bullet point on the dance-craze timeline, symbolic of a shift in dances’ virility and how they spread.
“It’s by the power of the dance craze that [Soulja Boy] was picked up by a major label,” says Driscoll. “It demonstrates how resources like YouTube and MySpace can be these enabling technologies, even for kids, really.” The MIT Soulja Boy videos are now on YouTube (and up to about 400 views each, at press time) making them perpetuators of the very trend the participants are studying. At least it’s not the Macarena.
Ever since, I’ve been talking up Soulja Boy as perhaps the most powerful success story we have so far of someone who taped the power of grassroots convergence to break into the commercial mainstream. Check out for example some of my comments about the phenomenon during my keynote address at our recent media literacy conference, organized by Home Inc., which were posted by Bill Densmore
One of the students on the project –xiaochang li– wrote up her perspectives on “Crank Dat” and what she calls “Hustling 2.0” for the Convergence Culture Consortium blog and I wanted to pass this along to my readers. Next time, I will share her thoughts about how Soulja Boy’s most recent music video might be seen as a textbook illustration for how convergence culture works.