Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part Two)

You place a strong emphasis throughout the book on video-making as a space of learning. What do you see young videomakers learning and how/where are they learning it? Pushing this further, are there things that you and they value which they would not and could not learn through formal schooling? If so, what? Does most of the learning involve the process of producing media or is there something important about the act of posting and circulating this media to a larger public?

 

I found that on YouTube, kids learned a lot by messing around with cameras and engaging in projects that were organically interesting to them. Kids learned many different things from participating. By participating with their advanced amateur friends, sometimes less experienced kids learned about the basic technical principles of filmmaking, including the narrative strategies and technical aesthetics that are often used in mainstream films to tell stories.

Teens also reported developing more self-confidence by seeing themselves on video, and finding acceptance with the way others see them. The video gave them a self-recognition that they did not have prior to making the media. On the other end of the spectrum, technically oriented kids also learned things about leadership and teamwork, and what it means to motivate people, even when they are not as motivated to complete a task such as a video.

Several of the kids and teens whom I interviewed were home-schooled, and there seemed to be something beneficial about being able to organize their time in ways that carved out spaces for time-intensive exploration of digital activities such as making videos.

Although much of the discourse around informal learning casts it in opposition to formal schooling, I found that some kids actually got started because their teachers offered video as a possibility for them as an assignment. In some cases they were struggling with more traditional writing assignments, and the video option opened up important opportunities for self-expression.

These examples illustrate that informal learning does not have to be in competition with what happens in schools. But having open spaces of time—which is often difficult to provide in a regular curriculum—did seem to have benefits for learning time-consuming digital skills.

Informal learning is not a panacea. Sometimes kids found that they were the digital experts in their local schools and communities, which made it difficult to improve without connecting to larger audiences. Michelle Obama talks about “food deserts” to describe isolated areas that lack access to healthy food. We might adapt this term to talk  about “digital literacy deserts” where the people around kids who are interested in video are frankly are not going to make good mentors. On the flip side, going online often means risk, and encountering “haters”, cruelty from peers at school, as well as more serious threats.

One solution is a “walled garden” approach in which kids limit circulation of their work to limited audiences, say at school or in a neighborhood only.

Yet, whenever the topic of “walled gardens” comes up, die-hard technologists often cringe. The Internet was supposed to be a place where people could circulate and share ideas to inspire forms of collective intelligence. That idea gets defeated when people who are rightly concerned about bullying feel discouraged about posting their ideas and videos. But the fact is that many kids felt a soaring sense of inspiration when strangers whom they didn’t know offered advice or even just kind words of encouragement. For some kids, this encouragement was profoundly uplifting and even served to drown out the “haters.”

One problem that I see is that much research on online participation is conducted and critiqued from a synchronic perspective. For example, a website may be analyzed for its potential for say, civic engagement. If inane comments outweigh positive feedback, then the website is judged as forever useless, or so goes an extreme form of this argument. But this is a myopic, synchronic approach.

Why not take the approach that people could be trained to make better commentary online, and to handle even harsh criticism? School can supplement informal learning by teaching kids how to provide meaningful commentary in online sites. Classroom exercises could include ways to learn how to comment and present oneself online. Processes of informal learning and formal education should not be considered in opposition but rather should be in dialogue to raise the bar across the board when it comes to online digital media production and participation.

 

Several recent books have stressed the ways that especially for young girls, YouTube’s practices tend to re-enforce traditional gender roles, with even very young women getting assessed in terms of beauty and fashion rather than other aspects of their identity. Yet, your research also considers the ways that they are acquiring a sense of themselves as “tech savvy” through the process of producing and circulating videos. How might we think about the relationship between these two dimensions of what it means for a teenage girl to post a video online?

Projects that investigate how femininity or girlhood is interactively constructed online and through media are very important. Investigating such subjects will no doubt continue to yield important insights. However, moving forward I think it is important to focus more direct attention on how girls develop technical identities and skills. We need to correct a contemporary research imbalance that has been concerned with how femininity  intersects with other identity variables such as race and class.

While these subjects are important, it is vital that we understand the similarities as well as the differences between males’ and females’ sense of technical identity. I found that girls and boys share certain ideas about what it means to be technical. If we want to understand what it means to perform technical affiliation, then we need to acknowledge and understand similarities as well as differences.

Rather than assume that the central issue in developing a technologized identity is how this affects girls’ femininity, we need to analyze how a technologized identity is achieved across different groups. We need to explore how girls come to achieve pride in their technical accomplishments, not because they are girls but because they have mastered important skills as technologists.

Technological identity should be studied as a variable in its own right, rather than examined just in terms of how it interacts with other variables. Interactions between identity variables such as sex, gender, race, class, and technological ability should certainly be studied, especially when there are disparities that are inhibiting technical skill acquisition. It is important to know for example, how class affects acquisition of everyday technical skills as well as mastery of arcane technical knowledge.

But before we assume that class or any other traditional identity will be the most important factor, scholars need to approach technical identity development in a more open ended way; we need to see exactly how it is that technical identities are acquired and how they unfold. For example, many of the people whom I interviewed for my book were not particularly well off, but they nevertheless held very strong ideas about what constitutes appropriate technical skills and identity characteristics.

Although class may well be a barrier in many situations, this does not mean that class or any other identity factor will automatically drive a person’s image of their own technical persona. People across class may share certain values about being technical, such as the importance of being “self-taught.” More attention should be paid to how girls attain and achieve a sense of pride in mastering technical ideas, devices, and systems rather than only analyzing what participation online means for the construction of their “femininity.” Continuing to focus on the femininity angle risks reifying this topic as the only or most important aspect of a girl’s identity, when in fact, technological skills and mastery are also an important part of growing up.

 

We are both very interested in the role which these production practices play in the formation and expression of youth’s identities as citizens and activists. You cite examples of youth who are using these platforms to speak out about issues that concern them on all levels — from the hyperlocal to the global. What factors shape which youth are drawn towards these kinds of political expression? Are these the “usual suspects,” i.e. the kids who would become political no matter what or are there signs that these practices are increasing social engagement and political awareness for youth who might not otherwise think of themselves as activists or investigators?

The wonderful thing about media and video is that people who enjoy experimenting can try out different genres. Most kids whom I interviewed exhibited mediated dispositions that showed a preference for certain genres over others, and only a few of them engaged in civically-oriented videos. But even these modest examples showed budding signs of interest in participating in civic discourse.

The kids whom I profiled found a way in to this space through their organic interests in making videos for YouTube. It allowed them to test out their voice as part of their everyday interests in being part of a film club or video blogging.

I am currently analyzing rant videos, and I am finding that civic engagement can be found in the smallest of places. When people complain, they are often engaging in discourse about problems of collective interest, and anyone has the potential to do that. People often fault video makers for being narcissistic about complaining about problems; but many of these problems are not unique. Video makers are complaining about things that may even seem intractable, like the high cost of college education. In these kinds of cases, kids are articulating much larger problems that should receive attention.

Moving forward, it is important for educators, policy makers, and scholars to recognize and mine what I would call “civic moments” in which kids provide information about or critique collective issues. These civic moments may be buried in a variety of genres in which kids talk about their lives and discuss issues that appeal to much larger collectives. We need to find ways to nurture these civic moments in video, and peer-to-peer mentorship may or may not always provide the kind of encouragement they need.

If kids are not being encouraged by their age-level peers (some of whom are not pre-disposed to following such “geeky” topics), adults and other mentors can provide the perspective and experience to develop these skills. The key will be to keep kids involved in a sustained and life-long way. It is one thing to experiment with a video blog or a mash-up that has civic appeal, but what happens later?

These civic moments should not be taken lightly. I think the potential for being political or at least civically-minded is latent in everyone. Studies have shown in the past that a big reason for people’s lack of participation has been because no one asked. So we need to ask. We need to build on the kind of organic explorations of civic participation that appear in my book and other studies and find ways to keep kids tuned in to a civic frequency.

 Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.