From YouTube to WeTube…

Last week’s 24/7 DYI Video Conference at the University of Southern California represented a gathering of the tribes, bringing together and sparking conversations between many of the different communities which have been involved in producing and distributing “amateur” media content in recent years.

Mimi Ito and Steve Anderson, the conference organizers, have worked for several years to develop a curatorial process which would respect the different norms and practices of these diverse DIY cultures while providing a context for them to compare notes about how the introduction of new digital production and distribution tools have impacted their communities. The conference featured screenings focused on 8 different traditions of production– Political Remix, Activist Media, Independent Arts Video, Youth Media, Machinima, Fan Vids, Videoblogging, Anime Music Video. The inclusiveness of the conference is suggested by the range of categories here — with avant garde and activist videos shown side by side with youth media, machinima, anime music videos, and fanvids. The curators were not outsiders, selecting works based on arbitrary criteria, but insiders, who sought to reflect the ways these communities understood and evaluated their own work. Paul Marino, who directed Hardly Workin’, and who has helped organize the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences, put together a crackerjack program which took us from the very earliest use of games as animation engines through the most contemporary and cutting edge work, spanning across a range of different gaming platforms, and mixing videos which are about the games world with those which have a more activist or experimental thrust. Laura Shapiro, an experienced video-maker, brought together a range of fan music videos, again representing a diverse cross-section of fandoms, while Francesca Coppa offered informed critical commentary which identified the schools represented and their aesthetic and thematic goals for their works. Tim Park, an experienced AMV producer, put together a program of anime videos drawn from more than half a dozen different countries.

Even in those categories I thought I knew well, I was familiar with only a fragment of the works shown, and even where I thought I knew a work well, I understood it differently when read in the context the curators provided. In some cases, these materials were being shown outside their subcultural community for perhaps the first time. Having written about fanvids since the 1980s, I was delighted to see them gain a public exhibition in this context and for media students to get a sense of the aesthetic complexity and emotional density that is possible working within this form. Again and again, speakers at the conference urged us to place our current moment of participatory culture in a larger historical context, and so it was refreshing to see that a larger historical trajectory was incorporated into most of the programs. The fanvids traced their traditions back to Kandy Fong’s slide shows at the early Star Trek conventions; the program on political remix video (organized by Jonathan McIntosh) included some works from the late 1980s and early 1990s; and the program on activist documentary (Curated by Jon Stout) took us from the people’s media movements in the streets of Chicago in 1968 through the Indie Media movements of more recent years through a shared focus on works documenting protests at the presidential nominating conventions.

In introducing the fan vids panel, Francesca Coppa quoted a recent news story which traced fan videos back to “the dawn of Youtube” before citing more than 30 years of productions by fan women repurposing the content of television shows and insisting on the importance of this history being part of our understanding of contemporary remix culture. Again and again, speakers at the conference referenced much earlier efforts by citizens to take media in their own hands, as well as the challenges which they faced in gaining distribution and audiences for their works.

One of the things that has excited me about YouTube is the ways that it represents a shared portal where all of these different groups circulate their videos, thus opening up possibilities for cross-polination. Yet, as many at the conference suggests, the mechanisms of YouTube as a platform work to discourage the real exchange of work. YouTube is a participatory channel but it lacks mechanisms which might encourage real diversity or the exchange of ideas. The Forums on YouTube are superficial at best and filled with hate speech at worst, meaning that anyone who tries to do work beyond the mainstream (however narrowly this is defined) is apt to face ridicule and harrasment. The user-moderation system on YouTube, designed to insure the “best content” rises to the top, follow majoritarian assumptions which can often hide minority works from view. Perhaps the biggest problem has to do with the way YouTube strips individual works from their larger contexts — this was an issue even here where “Closer,” a fanvid considered to be emotionally serious within slash fandom, drew laughter from a crowd which hadn’t anticipated this construction of same sex desire between Kirk and Spock. This conference, from its preplanning sessions which encouraged people from different communities to work together towards a common end, through the main conference screening which finally juxtaposed videos around shared themes rather than respecting the borders between different traditions, and through conference panels and hallway conversation and hands-on workshops, created a space where different DIY communities could learn from each other (and perhaps as importantly, learn to respect each other’s work).

Throughout the conference, there was some healthy questioning of the concept of DIY (Do It Yourself) Media from several angles. One group, perhaps best represented by Alexandra Juhasz, was questioning the expansion of the term from its origins in countercultural politics and its connections with an ongoing critique of mainstream media to incorporate some of the more mundane and everyday practices of video production and distribution in the era of YouTube. I find myself taking a different perspective, drawing on the old feminist claim that “the personal is political” and thus that many of the films about “everyday” matters might still speak within a larger political framework. A case in point might be a disturbing video shown during the youth media session (which was curated by young people from Open Youth Networks and Mindy Farber): a young man had been filming in a school cafeteria when a teacher demands that he stops; when he refuses, she leads him to the principal’s office, berating him every step along the way, and then the two of them threaten to confiscate his camera, all the time unaware that it is continuing to film what they are saying. The young man distributed the video via YouTube, thus exposing what took place behind closed doors to greater scrutiny by a larger public. Read on one level, this is a trivial matter — a misbehaving youth gets punished, rightly or wrongly. But on another level, the video speaks powerfully about what it is like to be a student subjected to manditory education and the strategies by which adult authorites seek to isolate the boy from any base of support he might have in the larger community of students and feels free to say and do what they want behind closed doors. Even where videos remain on the level of sophmoric “jackass” humor, there’s no way of predicting when and how these filmmakers may apply skills learned in these trivial pursuits towards larger purposes. We may never know how many of the activists involved in the indie media movement learned their skills recording skateboard stunts or capturing their grafitti exploits. And that’s why there’s something powerful about a world where all kinds of everyday people can take media in their own hands. As we saw at the screenings of Fan Vids or Machinima, the line between the political/aesthetic avant garde and more popular forms of production is blurry. Works in these programs might engage in quite sophisticated formal experiments or may deal with political issues at unexpected moments.

A second critique of the phrase, DIY, had to do with the focus on the individual rather than on collective forms of expression. Some called for us to talk about DWO (Doing It With Others) or DIT (Doing It Together). I argued that there was a fundamental ambiguity in the “You” in Youtube since in English, You is both singular and collective. When we talked about YouTube, then, we often end up dealing with videos and their producers in isolation, while many of them come from much larger traditions of the kind represented on the currated programs. I ended up one set of remarks with the suggestion that we might think about what it would mean to have a WeTube, rather than a YouTube.

I am writing this post on the airplane on the way back from Los Angeles and am still warm with afterglow of the conference. I was inspired by fellow speakers, such as Marc Davis, Howard Rheingold, John Seely Brown, Yochai Benkler, Joi Ito, Juan Devis, Sam Gregory, and so many others. Ulrike Reinhard has posted some segments from the plenary panel, Envisioning the Future of DIY, which I highly recommend to anyone who missed the event. I was inspired even more by the broad range of different kinds and modes of video production I saw throughout the screening program at this event. I am sure to be drawing on this experience in the weeks and months ahead.