Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Three)

You write in the book about feminist uses and critiques of online learning technologies. What might the tradition of feminist pedagogy have to teach us about the limits of the current fascination with MOOCs?

The FemTechNet white paper http://femtechnet.newschool.edu/femtechnet-whitepaper/ emphasizes the fact that appeals for open access to education have a long history that go back to the settlement house movement, and this history continues through various cyberfeminist projects, so open education certainly didn’t begin with Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, and feminists aren’t hostile to openness, although they do value how the embodied “live” classroom can serve as a safe space to explore uncomfortable issues.

The problems begin with the fact that the “course” part often reinforces traditional power structures, because a – usually – lone white male expert – unchallenged by any dissenting opinions and divorced from dialogue with others – transmits information as gospel to a passive audience unable really to answer back.  It’s really time travel back to the pedagogy of the nineteen fifties from before the free speech movement.  At such a “massive” scale it’s also impossible to form interpersonal relationships with students and to be accountable to their personal needs.

 

One of the more provocative passages here centers around Tim Gunn’s performance on Project Runway and its various online extensions. What might academics learn about the construction of their public personas by studying how Gunn has presented himself through this series?

 

There is a lot of talk about trying to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” in the pedagogical literature and also about project-based learning in which students need to iterate, experiment, revise, explore, deliver, and reflect.  It is hard to miss these aspects of education if you like to watch episodes of Project Runway.

It’s also the rare reality show where the hugs for a disappointed student look genuine.  I tend to like the early shows the best, from when fashion mentor Tim Gunn was still an administrator at Parsons with a much more professorial personality.

I like the fact that he displays a sense of humor – as well as empathy and high standards.  It’s a spirit that I aspire to bring to my own academic appointments, although I am a much less natty dresser.

 

You argue that the current fascination with badges often confuses notions of “earning” and “learning.” Why is this an important distinction to maintain? Why do you think badges have been so appealing to educators and funding organizations? How do they illustrate some of the limits of thinking about education in terms of gamification?

Assessment is always a challenge to educators, so I understand why instructors are desperate to find methods other than high-stakes testing at which so many talented students who are good at revised work fail or alternatives to the grades that serve as a source of so much conflict and so much labor in justifying grades rather than providing feedback that actually enlightens or changes behavior.  (However, as a rhetorician I actually enjoy reading grade complaints, because they tend to be quite well-written; students have a strong sense of purpose in approaching the task of writing a grade complaint.)

I argue that badges don’t necessarily get us out of the problems that we have with grades, and they work against holistic assessments that are easier for multiple audiences to interpret.  But, as they say, “never say never.”  Right now I am working with my colleague Wayne Yang on an interesting project that might involve badges.

In the book I criticize the general trend toward gamification in education, and I would also recommend the forthcoming volume from MIT Press that is edited by Sebastian Deterding on the subject.  Like many educators interested in digital media and learning, it’s irritating to see game formats adopted very superficially without much consideration about how people learn more deeply from interacting with the rule-based systems of games.

I also have a more specific gripe about emphasizing the goal of happiness rather than the goal of understanding when thinking about how games serve as a model for learning.  Games can be a very effective way to explore the procedural character of concepts like injustice, which is important in a well-rounded education, and I don’t have much patience for advocates for positive psychology who emphasize what I think are much more simple-minded and self-centered personal rewards.

 

In the book’s conclusion, you ask: “How can we influence the digital university to be more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive?” In many ways, this is the central theme of the book. What do you see as some approaches to digital media and learning which might satisfy those criteria?

In the final chapter I propose six general principles, so if someone wants to give a copy of the book to a university president as a not very subtle hint about how to chart a new course when it comes to instructional technology, there’s essentially an executive summary with a list of recommendations.

In general, I think that “technology” is imagined too narrowly to mean only brand new digital technologies to be used only for formal traditional instruction that need to be purchased from instructional technology vendors.  But in our Culture, Art, and Technology program, we remind students that technology can encompass many things.  After all, windows that let in light or chairs that move are also instructional technologies.

I also think that we define learning far too narrowly to focus only on objectives from courses listed in catalogues and ignore all of the other things that students learn not only in college but also in many other contexts in which people interact and communicate. In Sixth College we emphasize “experiential learning” and encourage students to learn from faculty in settings other than the classroom, such as laboratories, field sites, clinical settings, or community centers.  That’s the place for exercising all those so-called “soft skills” valued by employers that higher education can develop.

If we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to digital technologies, experiment ethically, pay attention to failures, avoid fetishizing novelty, and most of all listen to our students, I think there is actually tons of hope for doing great work generating new knowledge together in the university setting. 

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

 

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Educational Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part One)

On paper, Elizabeth Losh and I can sometimes look like polar opposites: she’s definitely much more of a skeptic, much more rooted in the Critical Studies side of Rhetoric,  more likely to point to issues of corporate exploitation and government manipulation, than I am. Indeed, when we appeared together a few years back at the Mobility Shifts conference at the New School of Social Research, for what was billed as debate, Losh’s partner created two sets of race car jackets for us, demarking Team Critical Studies and Team Cultural Studies, so we could perform the culture wars which sometimes divide these frames of reference.

In practice, where education is concerned, we both end up somewhere much closer to each other, as we’ve discovered to our delight since I have moved to California and gotten to know her and her work much better. She’s someone who works closely with classroom teachers and has a firm belief in the importance of public education, someone who is invested in debunking corporate claims about new tools and platforms in favor of promoting forms of education which allow more expressive freedom and creative participation for students, and someone who is ultimately a pragmatist in terms of trying to figure out how we can change the current system from within rather than engaging in rhetoric about blowing up the schools and starting over.

We’ve written a piece together about the challenges of bringing participatory culture and learning into the schools, and so I was excited when I saw that she had a new book coming out on education to grab another chance for us to talk together about some of these mutual concerns and interests. Her new book, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, comes out in just a few more days and deals with the ways that new media is having an impact (real and imagined) on higher education.

Losh draws here on her own classroom experiences as someone who is constantly experimenting with new teaching methods and cutting edge toolkits, but she also looks at a range of national controversies and alternative imaginings (Project Runway!) through which we can think about what the university classroom might become. She examines all of these topics with the critical eye of a trained rhetorician, debunking many myths and false claims, but also articulating some ideals we as pedagogues and mentors should embrace if we are serious about making our classrooms into more participatory environments.

Here’s what I say in the blurb I wrote for the book: “Elizabeth Losh’s The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students.”

I meant it!

Throughout the book, you challenge some of the rhetorics which are used to describe the introduction of new technologies into the classroom. What would the Rhetorician Liz Losh have to say about the author Elizabeth Losh’s use of “war” as the central metaphor in her book’s title?

As a rhetorician, I am always interested in how people use language to characterize different aspects of public policy debates.  Using “war” in the title – along with “gaining ground” in the subtitle – to characterize how social computing is disrupting higher education was a very deliberate choice.  When I started to look at how faculty (and the media) talked about using instructional technology systems like Turnitin.com to monitor plagiarism in student writing, words like “weapons” and “arsenal” began to jump out at me, and I started to notice how much of our discourse about these issues is driven by military metaphors, either because we needed to stage a revolution in the university or because we need to defend our battlements against uncouth invaders. Well, we all know how the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” turned out, so I also wanted to make clear that adopting either a strategy of command and control or one of mob rule wouldn’t take us very far.

I also wanted to make learning the focus of my intervention.  So it’s really two titles: it’s about the “war on formal learning” coming from social media and other distributed knowledge dissemination systems and about the “war on informal learning” being waged by campus administrators who don’t want students subverting or gaming the system.

I proposed a book that would be a “scholarly polemic,” and then I found in writing it that my engagement with this subject matter – as an instructor myself – is much less abstract and more personal and more complicated than the binaries of an antagonistic argument, so there are also a lot of my own stories about negotiating conflict in the classroom or the lecture hall or the residence hall.  I claim that far too often people assume that a radical generational division between the “digital generation” and everyone else makes communication between students and faculty impossible when technology is involved.  Certainly the traditional system of disciplining students isn’t well suited for some of these emergent phenomena.  And then there is the weird fact that some of this conflict may even be manufactured by interested parties with an agenda for sowing discord.  Some of the most dramatic scenes of conflict – such as viral videos of professors destroying laptops or cell phones – are actually staged.

 

You begin the book by identifying some common mistakes or misunderstandings that often shape digital learning initiatives. What do you think we most often get wrong when universities seek to bring new media technologies and practices into higher education?

 

As I say in the opening, the material features – as well as the human aspects of technology that involve standards or values or design choices – are frequently underestimated, so that people have very idealized conceptions about technology in which technology exists without the mess that seems to compromise and contaminate everything else in the world.  Technology is presented as something that manifests itself as a liberating force that is characterized by its youth and radical novelty, and it isn’t supposed to be constrained by physical barriers or historical baggage.

Most famously Nicholas Negroponte, of One-Laptop-Per-Child fame, spent significant time in Being Digital differentiating between “bits” and “atoms.”  Of course Matt Kirschenbaum loves to point out that computational media depend on material components and that you can actually see bits on a surface of a hard drive.  (I also like how Paul Dourish points out that digital signals have signatures that are actually a lot less mathematically perfect, because they always depend on technology that is analog at some level.)

So universities tend to assume that digital technologies only involve shiny new gadgets combined with intellectual property – pure code to be licensed from vendors – and not physical property that institutions have to continue to maintain with labor.  Because technologies are always new we also don’t have to think about them aging or dying or about things like the infrastructure needed for support.

I particularly love the assertion that technologies are inevitably labor-saving devices and that teaching online or with a course management system will always reduce labor so that teachers can teach more efficiently.  Part of this is a mistake about misunderstanding the nature of pedagogical labor and the assumption that the affective labor of managing students’ feelings doesn’t matter because teaching is simply a logical process of transferring content from one party to another that process can be divorced from emotions or conceptions about one’s identity.

I say all this as a technophile, as someone who loves experimenting with new technologies in my teaching, as a person actively involved with initiatives like Digital Media and Learning Central, Reclaim Open Learning and FemTechNet.

 

You direct many of the book’s strongest criticisms against the “acceptance of shortsighted commodity solutions from corporate vendors.” Why do you think such “solutions” have gained such a toe-hold in the modern university and what are the consequences of thinking about digital media and learning in terms of products and services? Do such practices further a tendency to think of education in terms of consumption rather than participation?

Well, we live in a commodity culture, and I tend to be a pragmatist about how much the university can really transform our society by reshaping the individuals who participate in higher education.  In education-speak we talk about the “zone of proximal development” that describes the area of activity where intervention is most effective and the process of trying to meet people near to where they are as learners.  I might argue that the same principle holds true when we talk about a politics of public resources and common values.

The tendency to think about students as consumers that we want to keep happy with dazzling media or brand-named stuff is certainly understandable, because unhappy students might become unhappy alumni who won’t be very likely to become generous donors.  Gadget-distribution programs, such as handing out an iPad to every registered student, make for good headlines . . . until things begin to go wrong, as they did rather spectacularly for the Los Angeles Unified School District that will probably never recoup its investment.

I am often astonished at how naïve administrators can be and how susceptible to pseudo-scientific pitches from instructional technology companies with as much research to support them as a typical soda commercial.  I actually think the best strategy is to play the capitalist and to appeal to the logic of consumption by at least arguing for lower cost solutions. The thing that I find most exasperating is that treating the educational enterprise as a marketplace for experiencing high-tech goods and services is that it is really prohibitively expensive.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

Civic Paths “By Any Media Necessary” Hot Spot

 

Henry Jenkins introducing “By Any Media Necessary,” the Spring 2014 Civic Paths Hotspot Vimeo.

Hot Spot Overview: “By Any Media Necessary”

By Liana Gamber-Thompson

How do we foster a civic imagination? That’s the question Professor Henry Jenkins asks us to consider in his video intro. Of course, there is no one answer to that question. That’s why we’ve kept the topic broad for this Hot Spot, our semesterly collection of mini-blog posts organized around themes that cut across the diverse interests of participants in our research group.

We’re calling this collection of posts “By Any Media Necessary” because it gets at the myriad ways that social and political change happen in the age of digital media. Henry explains:

At the heart of the phrase “By Any Media Necessary” we’re building upon Malcolm X’s famous phrase “by any means necessary,” but we’re saying today change will come, not through a single media platform, but by the ability to coordinate your message across many different channels, to reach many different publics with multiple messages, all serving some shared vision of what political change needs to be.

In that spirit, we invite you to explore the multiplicity with us through this collection of posts that touches on many interpretations of what it means to effect change “by any media necessary.”

First, Andrew Schrock draws parallels to previous generations of “ethical engineers” to describe how “civic hackers” attempt to bring about institutional change through community-based work and technological production. He argues that civic hacking serves as a mode of political participation closer to civic engagement than hacker cultures aligned with activism or software production.

Diana Lee looks at the recent “I, Too, Am Harvard” Tumblr campaign to shed light on the ways young people are using online spaces and new media platforms to take a stand against their everyday lived experiences of racism as well as institutionalized structures of inequality.

Kari Storla examines how survivors of rape are using a variety of media forms to talk about their experiences of sexual assault and to communicate about a subject matter that is often rendered invisible in public discourse and cultural representations. She considers how humor is employed to open up conversations about rape and rape culture.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik provides her account of a recent workshop, “Think Critically, Act Creatively,” at the 2014 Digital Media and Learning conference. She draws on her experiences to think about how tapping into our civic imaginations and engaging in acts of “critical utopianism” can broaden our conceptions of what’s possible for social change.

Raffi Sarkissian shares several case studies of queer activism and shows us how the web is just one arena in which queer-identified and LGBT youth are exerting their voice and garnering visibility. He looks at both on and offline strategies used in contemporary queer activism, urging us to look at the variety of ways LGBT youth are asserting their influence.

Lastly, Yomna Elsayed describes the shifting nature of popular representations of American Muslims, examining their reception both within and without the Muslim community. From the appearance of a veiled Muslim woman in a Super Bowl Coca-Cola ad, to one Muslim woman’s attempt to normalize her experiences as a “Muslim Hipster,” she describes how such representations, however fraught, continue to broaden the national conversation about Muslims in America.

We hope this collection inspires you to think critically about what a kind of activism that relies on “any media necessary” might look like in 2014. As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments section because we believe you can’t have a theory of change unless it’s also constantly growing and evolving.

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

You describe in the book some of the kinds of “media skirmishes” that take place in the family around conflicting representational ideologies about what should be recorded and what should be shared. How do these conflicts differ from, say, earlier moments when children and youth objected to having their pictures taken? Does the presence of an online audience change these dynamics in a significant way?

It has often been assumed that kids do not think through the publication of their media while responsible parents do. I did not find such neat age-based divisions in my research. Some kids were quite savvy about what it meant to be posting things of themselves online and they did not always wish to do so. Kids did not always agree with their parents’ more public video blogging philosophies.

In addition, I have observed many instances in which parents posted images of their children in unflattering terms, and they often did so when kids were so young they did not have any sense of “choice” or understanding of what was going on. There is a point over time at which kids do become more knowledgeable and it is possible to talk about having a meaningful choice about what goes online.

However, rather than see media responsibility as solely age-driven, my book talks about mediated dispositions, and how different individuals have varying levels of interest in being in videos, for tolerating risk, and for circulating their image widely. Because mediating human images is potentially damaging and permanent, I hope that people will take away a sense of the importance of talking about choices within families.

Hopefully, people will take media skirmishes seriously, not only as a rite of passage as children grow up, but more generally as a form of collaborative media in which people negotiate different representational ideologies over the recording and circulation of human images.

 

You note that being “self taught” is a value strongly embraced by many youth included in your study and link this value back to hacker culture more generally. You write in the book’s conclusion, “scholars in informal learning should investigate why being self-taught is an important value, what is meant by this term, and under which circumstances being self-taught is productive.” What kinds of provisional answers does your book provide for these questions?

 Performing a technical identity in many facets of U.S. culture often includes a fierce allegiance to being self-taught. Reading historical accounts of hackers and talking to today’s engineers reveals a logic behind wanting to have hands-on experience with a technology. Experts want to be able to understand a technology in a fundamental way, to manipulate and achieve mastery over it.

However, interviews that I conducted revealed that being “self-taught” carries with it many connotations, not all of which are helpful for encouraging informal learning or peer-to-peer mentoring. The term tends to vary widely and should be unpacked in particular contexts. For example, for some technologists, being self-taught means it is okay to examine online tutorials and manuals, while for others, such activity is anathema.

The term self-taught cannot be taken for granted, but should be explored more fully whenever it is used, especially in research projects on informal or self-directed learning. Kids who try and maintain what they think are appropriate technical identities by eschewing tutorials may actually complicate their learning. Should their self-actualization be sacrificed on the alter of an assumed tech-savvy identity based on being “self-taught”? In an effort to appear technical, kids may risk self-sabotaging their efforts to improve by rejecting valuable resources.

Moving forward, a key challenge will be to find ways to encourage kids to take advantage of available resources. Otherwise, we might see deepening technical divides that are based not only on traditional identity variables, such as class, but also on nuanced interactions and cultural values, such as technical identity performances. Eschewing resources, perhaps unnecessarily, would be tragic given the digital resources that are available to boost digital literacies and technological skills. Being “self-taught” has many connotations, and not all approaches to being self-taught are equally effective for everyone.

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.

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

Many adults discourage youth from creating and sharing media online because of what they see of the “risks” involved. How realistic are these risk framings? How have the youth and their parents included in your study thought about these issues?

Concerns about posting materials online are logical, because posting personal material may lead to unfortunate consequences. People have gotten fired or been denied diplomas because of things they themselves posted online. We know that government organizations and businesses such as operators of social network sites are using our data for their own ends, such as for profit or to maintain forms of power. Many families continue to post images of themselves and their loved ones online without necessarily stopping to reflect on the consequences of their acts.

As I argue in my book, people often hold varying or even conflicting representational ideologies, or ideas about what is ethical to post. In some cases, people may be unaware of how their data is being used. I asked one mother how she felt about advertisements being posted to her videos, and she said she really had not yet formed an opinion. In other cases, people are more than happy to post human images, arguing that the tremendous benefits, social connections, and self-actualization that they have achieved ultimately outweigh the risks involved in being so public with their personally-expressive media.

I would expect to see many more of the type of media skirmishes that I describe in my book as people argue over who has control or ownership of their own images or images that others have taken of them. As some scholars have suggested, we may need new terms that include more collectively-oriented versus personally-generated media making, so that we can understand in a more fundamental way what collective image production entails.

Mechanisms might be developed to reduce risks such as current experiments with short-term media that is automatically deleted after a certain time. Yet, the problem with those mechanisms is that once something is mediated, it always has the potential to continue to be copied, circulated, downloaded, remembered, and viewed in perpetuity. Long ago, Kitzmann (2004) used the example of a diary left on a city bus to show how even the most quiet and personal mediation always holds the potential to become public. Think of how diaries may be used after someone’s death to understand their personality, when in reality it is only one piece of the identity puzzle.

I can envision this explosion in media potentially leading to two trends. On the one hand, the proliferation of private images online may be a kind of equalizer, in that most everyone will have pictures of them posted by their families and friends. The potential for everyone to have at least one embarrassing picture may be too common to cause serious harm to a particular individual.

On the other hand, though, we could see the emergence of a two-tiered image-based society in which those families and people who have been more cautious about circulating public media will have a status-advantage over those who have “gone Kardashian” and posted every moment, even unflattering or unethical ones, of their lives online. Unlike the Karashians however, people without financial resources who post too much of their lives online may find themselves in a digital-image-based lower class, and they may struggle to obtain access to jobs and education because of what they have publicly shared. Knowing what to post is beyond a doubt a crucial digital literacy in today’s self-image-laden media environment.

 Home movies were historically an archival medium, much like amateur photography — a way of recording the stages of the child’s growth into adulthood or the ongoing life of the family. What has changed about the kinds of media being produced in families today? What new genres of production are emerging and why?

In prior eras in the United States, home movies were, as Chalfen (1987) observed, about preserving memories and charting personal progress. The things that were recorded were often important events or milestones in a person’s life such as weddings, graduations, and the arrival of a new car.

Although those functions have not gone away, we’re seeing more experiential-type videos where people record an experience of even small moments such as going to a coffee shop or going on a walk. Part of the fun of the experience is the recording and posting of the video. The phenomenology of the mediated moment, or how we experience recording and circulating media, includes more instances in which people experience something in a way that is deeply intertwined with the delight and anticipation of sharing the media to potentially wider audiences. In some cases, people post videos for people who cannot attend the event or experience, and so the video helps friends and family go along for the ride. Posting the videos helps self-select an audience (in Warner’s [2002]) sense for those viewers who interpellate themselves as interested parties.

People often wonder why such small moments get recorded and circulated so publicly, and critics tend to see these activities as narcissism on the part of the video makers. But as some pundits have observed, it is often rather the reverse; it is narcissistic of audiences to assume that they are the central viewing target of a video that is quite clearly not at all intended for them. YouTubers and video bloggers have told me that their sense of humor or personality tends to shine through in their videos—both the planned and experiential varieties—and they often attract like minded viewers who may eventually even become friends in the traditional sense (as opposed to the casual social media sense).

Experiential videos are about cementing friendships when people cannot be physically present and attracting new friends who happen to share similar interests or worldviews but who are not physically co-located. As my ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media shows, YouTubers have continued a long Internet tradition of making an effort to meet the people with whom one has established interesting or meaningful connections online.

 There’s a tendency to talk about the public circulation of these videos in terms of self-branding or self-promotion. Is this an adequate explanation for what motivates these young people to post their works online?


Although it is certainly part of many people’s online experiences, self-branding is not the only game in town in online spaces. Social media and YouTube offer plenty of fuel for critics to express concern about how rampant self-promotion complicates authentic dialogue.

But at the same time, people share media for many reasons, often related to aspects of friendship and sociality. Sometimes, the point of making a video is to share an experience with people who are there, and with people who cannot be there. The moments may be small and unimportant to most viewers, but they hold meaning to the people who make and post these videos.

Flashy self-promotional videos may attract attention and receive more criticism in mainstream professional media because focusing on this aspect of media making, rather than the myriad other forms of socially-driven media, becomes another way of creating delineations between vernacular video and professionals. However, many kids are quite capable of shining a light on important problems that are difficult to tackle.

It is also important to keep in mind that self-promotion has long been seen as important for cultivating future job opportunities. “Networking” for jobs and opportunities is considered an essential skill, and has long been a necessary part of successful professional life. Judging young people negatively for self-promotion sometimes smuggles in a moral judgment about who should have the permission to break beyond the sometimes closed doors of professional media making, when in fact these skills are broadening across the population.

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.

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.

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

Not long after I launched this blog, I featured an interview with Mimi Ito and the graduate students from USC and Berkeley who worked with her on the Digital Youth Project. One of the first projects funded by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative, this project did a large scale,multi-site ethnography to try to understand mechanisms of informal learning and the contexts where young people were encountering digital media. From this research came the now classic typography of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” to describe different modes of engagement in and through networked technologies, a framework which has now informed everything from the design of public libraries to the development of curriculum.

Looking retrospectively, Ito and her co-P.I., the late Peter Lyman, had assembled and shaped a team of some of the top digital scholars of their generation, as becomes clearer as they have begun to publish their solo works. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know many of them through their work on this project and to have maintain contact with them through the years, watching them develop their own distinctive strands of research.

Later this month, Patricia Lange, one member of the Digital Youth team, publishes her first solo book,  Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies. I recall having her interview me for her video blog after one of my very first meetings with this group; she later shared with me a rough cut of a documentary she produced about the culture of video-blogging, and more recently, she’s shared drafts of the chapters for what has become an outstanding book about how childhood and parenting is playing out differently in an era of video sharing and other forms of participatory culture.

Patricia Lange’s Kids on YouTube raises important issues about the ways that our current participatory media practices intersect contemporary family life and help to shape the ways that young people form their sense of themselves and the world around them. Through vividly drawn accounts of the roles which media-making and sharing plays in the lives of particular families, Lange convincingly demonstrates why these activities matter in terms of fostering new literacies, enabling new social relationships, and sustaining new forms of civic engagement.

Lange has immersed herself into this culture of video production and sharing, asking core questions, and making contributions to central critical debates around participatory culture, connected learning, the risks and rewards of online publishing, the hacker ethos, gender and technology, and the development of young citizens, all of which she speaks to in the course of this extended interview.

 

We first met through your work on the Digital Youth Project. Looking backwards, this project’s report, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, has proven to be a landmark in the emergence of the Digital Media and Learning movement. Reflecting backwards, what do you see as the legacy of this project and what impact did it have on your own intellectual development?

The Digital Youth Project was a joint effort between teams of researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley who were interested in studying informal learning in digital environments. Participating in the Digital Youth project was truly an honor. I am deeply grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, and to Mimi Ito and Peter Lyman, whose vision about reformulating education through informal learning inspired the research. I think the Digital Youth Project reinforced the benefits of teamwork in conducting contemporary research in digital environments. The researchers came from many different backgrounds, and that brought advantages and challenges. But it was interesting to compare the findings of numerous projects operating under one research umbrella.

Media ecologies are complex and shifting, and it is instructive to know, are the findings gleaned by studying any particular set of technologies or websites limited to those sites, or are there patterns that reach across different theoretical lenses, methodological approaches, technological platforms, and research populations? This amazing project gave us the opportunity to explore those questions in a way that is more difficult when researchers are conducting separate projects on their own.

It was also quite exciting to see our research applied to the design of educational efforts such as the YOUmedia after school space in the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. Drawing on the findings of the Digital Youth report, the YOUmedia space acknowledges the way that youth engage in varied ways with media and technology.

Our report found that kids’ engagements range from casual, socially-motivated encounters to highly-geeked out ways of making media. Recent reports in the media seem unaware of how academics contribute to the design and improvement of everyday spaces and processes. I am proud of this implementation of our research and I am hopeful that these and other spaces that draw on our research may facilitate the kinds of educational change that many of us in the field of informal learning are trying to re-imagine.

The project began by focusing on the rubric of “digital youth.” At that time, it was obvious that kids and youth were growing up with a range of technologies that even the younger members of the team did not have access to in their own childhoods. However, as the project progressed and was completed, it became quite clear that “digital youth” were quite a varied bunch. Not all digital youth were created equally. While operating under this rubric, the research also simultaneously challenged it, which I think is also an important legacy of the project.

My project on YouTube pushed back on conceptions of “digital natives.” It became apparent that kids exhibited vastly different media dispositions with regard to how comfortable they felt sharing videos of themselves to the world. Further, my analysis of how people perform affiliation to technologies showed dramatic variation in terms of family background in technical expertise, kids’ interest in technology, and professional aspirations.

Terms such as “digital natives” imply that all kids are equally well versed in all technologies, and such was not the case in my study. In the same household, an older brother may be far more technically-oriented than a younger brother, and in some cases, it was technically savvy parents who encouraged kids to develop video blogging skills. Yet, not all kids adopted their parents’ enthusiasm for messing around with computers and creating videos. Some kids’ outright rejection of their parents’ video interests severely challenge the concept of kids’ digital autochthony. Not all kids emerge into the world ready to make videos in a seriously geeky way, and making that assumption is problematic for creating strategies to nurture diverse youth’s digital skills and interests.

I also observed bifurcated technological skills. Some kids even saw themselves as being so much more expert than some of their peers that it was difficult to mentor their less tech-savvy friends. They did not even share basic technical vocabulary, which led to a break down in informal learning opportunities. Wide gaps in technical abilities in kids urge us to question and challenge how ageist rubrics obscure the investigation of important nuances that could be instrumental in improving informal learning dynamics, which are not guaranteed to work simply because they occur among peers.

For me, one of legacies of the Digital Youth Project was to show the advantages of challenging and even pushing back on initial research rubrics, and questioning their assumptions. The project reinforced the idea that it is advantageous to ask critical questions about any research paradigm one is operating under at a given time. Rather than wait till the project is over, it is reasonable to keep an open-mind as research is being conducted. I believe the project models how it is possible and desirable to step back, even during the research process, and question a rubric while simultaneously contributing to it in a fundamental way. These kinds of self-reflective questions are challenging but ultimately healthy.

 

In your introduction, you challenge some of the established categories we use to talk about these forms of productions — including the notion of “amateur”, “grassroots,” and “Home Mode Media.” Instead, you propose a category of “personally expressive media.” What do you see as some of the limits of these more familiar categories? Why do you put such an emphasis on “personal expression”?

Years ago, Robert Stebbins (1980) wrote extensively about how “amateur” and “professional” categories are not as neatly divided as they are often assumed to be. Although he was writing generally about amateurism and professionalism and not media creation, his lessons apply in the video realm as well. We need to dust off our Stebbins and reacquaint ourselves with his ideas! Failure to do so risks aligning researchers with media discourses that seek to minimalize so-called “vernacular” accomplishments.

During my investigation, I saw a kaleidoscopic of media ontologies. In other words, videos came from many different people with a variety of backgrounds and skills. For example, I interviewed a former television producer, Ryanne Hodson, who was a champion of video blogging. She believed that making videos was another type of literacy that people should cultivate in order to spread their message. What status should her video blogs have?

She was quite literate in professional media production, but her personal blog was not operating in a professional context. She had control over her own video blog which was not produced under the auspices of traditional media institutions.

How should we categorize the work of teenagers whose family members had attended film school, or had family members who had a television show on a local cable access station? Are these creators operating in some kind of vernacular innocence? No they are not. I found that the amateur/professional divide became slippery and not particularly helpful for understanding people’s phenomenological experiences of their mediated moments of video creation.

“Home mode” is another category that is often misunderstood in research. When anthropologist Richard Chalfen (1987) initially introduced it, he was attempting to address a gap in the anthropological record on everyday media. Many people tend to wildly over-generalize anything they see on YouTube as “home mode,” because it was made at home or with friends. But home mode referred to a specific type of intimate media that was made for a relatively small group. People who made the media knew who were in the pictures and vice versa, generally speaking.

But examining his work more carefully shows that Chalfen bracketed out anyone who was trying to distribute his or her media to widespread audiences. He specifically stated that he was not interested in media created in camera clubs, or in academic settings, or by anyone else with aspirations to become more knowledgeable about making media. His research had an important theoretical purpose; it made sense to study everyday media makers at home who did not have professional or even advanced amateur aspirations.

But the people studied under the Digital Youth project, and in my study of Kids on YouTube varied tremendously with regard to their goals, skills, and what I refer to as their media dispositions. Some of them loved making videos with a passion, while others found it simply odd to make videos to show to the world. Some people may have captured home gaffes and put them online with the intention of becoming a YouTube partner and trying to make money with their “innocent” videos.

Rather than attempt to adjudicate complex questions of amateur/professional media ontologies using arbitrary criteria, I found it more useful to see this media as a form of personal expression that might shift status within and across attention and money-making economies. A video maker’s status might also depend upon their dispositions and future desires with what they hoped to gain by making media.

My research goal was to find some way of talking about media with complex or ever-shifting ontological statuses in ways that did not pre-judge videos. Such divisions are often used to minimize so-called vernacular abilities and elevate professional statuses, a binary discourse which simply does not theoretically hold when analyzing media made by so many different people, who often have direct experience of or are influenced by knowledgeable mentors in professional media-making contexts. Exploring how and to what degree people were able to develop skills to convey their personal message seemed to be a far more fruitful project.

 

 

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.

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Three)

Discussion of the internet is often polarized between those who stress the personalized or individualistic nature of net culture and those who see the network as a form of collective behavior. How might the idea of the meme clarify this discussion?

 

I think that the idea of internet memes is so powerful precisely because it bridges these two perceptions. While internet memes are all about individuals creating content, they are also all about individuals creating content with awareness of each other. Memes not only involve pervasive mimicry, they are also based on intense collaborative work and complex multi-participant choreographies. Moreover, studies conducted by Ryan Milner, Assaf Nissenbaum and Kate Miltner show that memes function as a type of cultural capital: knowledge about memes and the “right” ways to use them have become a marker of membership in some communities. In these contexts the duality of being both an individual and a part of a community is flagged on a daily basis: community members are expected to be original, but not too original, when creating memes.

 

Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on the visual nature of the meme as a mode of communication. What do you see as the implications of this shift towards the visual in contemporary net culture?

The implications of the visual turn are pervasive, going way beyond my somewhat narrow emphasis on memes. Within the scope of the book I discuss this issue mainly in the political context. I claim that visual display allows greater integration between politics and pop culture, as it becomes extremely easy to Photoshop the US president’s head on the body of a Jedi knight, for instance. A second implication of the visual nature of internet memes relates to their polysemic potential, that is, their tendency to be open to multiple readings. Whereas in verbal jokes the target of mockery and the scorn expressed towards it are often clear, the openness of visual images and the lack of a clear narrative may invoke contrasting interpretations.  A third implication relates to memes’ global spread: Images may potentially cross international borders much more easily than words. However, such international flows still depend on local norms and conversions:  In some cases, images need to be replaced or localized to make sense in new territories. For example, in the book I describe the migration of the American “Successful Black Guy” meme to Israel, which resulted in a local take titled  “Akivathe Humanist Ultra-Orthodox“.  I am currently exploring some other implications of this, focusing on photo-based memes. It seems that meme creators subvert some of the fundamental roles traditionally associated with photography, such as the notion of photographs as “windows to reality”. But I’ve just started thinking about these issues so I hope to have more to say in a couple of months…

 

 

Let’s talk a bit about what gets excluded in a meme culture. Are there some groups or individuals who are excluded — either implicitly or explicitly — from meme culture? Is it easier to use memes to support dominant frames of reference rather than to challenge existing structures of belief?

This is a crucial issue which I address only briefly in the book. It would certainly appear that many groups and individuals are excluded from meme culture.  Ryan Milner’s current work on memes traces some of the racist and misogynist modes of discourse emerging in 4chan and reddit—prominent meme hubs that seem to be governed by white, privileged men.  He shows that both gender and race representations in these websites are dominated by familiar hegemonic stereotypes. The framing of these stereotypes as ironic lulz is used in many cases to whitewash exclusion. At the very same time, Milner notes that at least in relation to gender, misogynistic framings are often resisted and attacked by many participants.  It is extremely important to continue thinking about these issues and broaden our scope of investigation beyond the major meme hubs. Phenomena such as “Shit X says”, which generated heated debates about sensitive issues, may constitute interesting cases for further research.

My main assertion in the book is that we should take memes seriously. And doing that also means – to a large extent – critically examining the power dynamics that constitute memes and that are constituted by them.

 Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part Two)

What motivates people to participate in a memetic culture, either in terms of generating new meme content or simply passing along content that has been framed in terms of a meme?

With regards to generating new content, I believe that three main types of motivation are at play—economic, social and cultural. The economic logic behind meme creation relates to the attention economy governing contemporary societies. In short, it claims that the most valuable resource in the information era is not information but the attention people pay to it. Creating memes seems to work well in this kind of economy: an emulation of a famous video may get attention because it will appear in YouTube’s suggestions bar or pop up as a highly relevant search result when one is looking for the original video. The second, social logic of meme creation can be related to what Barry Wellman and others describe as “networked individualism.” On the one hand, by uploading a self-made video or a Photoshopped image people are able to express their individuality: they signify that they are digitally literate, unique, and creative. On the other hand, the text that they upload often relates to a common, widely shared memetic video, image, or formula. Through this referencing, people simultaneously construct their individuality and their affiliation with a larger community. Finally, the cultural logic of meme creation suggests that it actually represents the continuation of norms that are rooted in the history of pop culture genres and fan cultures, as you discuss extensively in “Textual Poachers” and subsequent works.

I think that the second logic – the social one – is also extremely important when passing along content that has been framed as a “meme”. Spreading a meme signifies that someone is “in the know”, thus reflecting positively upon her personality and (often) perceived sense of humor. 

While there is a tendency to think of the content of memes as trivial or playful, there have also been some powerful examples where memes were used in the service of political speech — Pepperspray Cop and Binders of Women come to mind as examples from your book. Often, the same meme may blur the lines between entertainment and critical commentary.  In my essay, “Photoshop for Democracy,” I argued that such remixes might function as the people’s editorial cartoons, offering vivid and memorable representations of complex issues which broaden the language through which we discuss politics. Is this a legitimate description of what you’ve observed in terms of looking at memes as a form of political participation? Are there risks involved in the simplification of ideas required to produce an effective meme?

Your argument about remixes as the people’s editorial cartoons is absolutely pertinent to the ways memes function as forms of political participation. The main new element that has been added in recent years, with the labeling of many of these Photoshopped images as “memes”, relates to our previous discussion about meme genres. The tendency to create memes in particular formats turns memes into powerful bridges between the personal and the political: people express their personal opinions while consciously joining larger pleas or patterns. A striking example of this quality is the “We are the 99 Percent” meme. Born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it featured an individual holding a handwritten text depicting his or her gloomy story, leading to the shared motto, “I am the 99 percent.” This combination of repetition and variation conveyed the message that people’s miseries are not just personal problems: they stem from systemic economic and political illnesses.

As to your second question about risks—I believe that simplification is indeed a problem, yet what worries me more is the depoliticization of many memes, which come into the world as pointed political commentaries yet at some point turn into fluffy balls of amusement. For instance, alongside the political versions of the Pepper Spray Cop meme (featuring, for instance, officer Pike pepper-spraying iconic American symbols such as George Washington crossing the Delaware or the Constitution itself), other versions presented him spraying figures who are perceived as annoying, such as Keyboard Cat or Rebecca Black. In such instances, the original meaning of the meme as critical of Pike would appear to be reversed.

You make a distinction between virals and memes in the book. Explain. Why do you think these terms are so often conflated in popular discourse on the internet?

 The main feature that separates memes from virals, in my view, relates to variability:

while the viral mostly comprises a single cultural unit that propagates in many copies,  an internet meme is always a collection of texts. Therefore, a video such as “Leave Britney Alone” can be depicted as a viral video that spawned user-generated engagement and thus became part of an internet meme. Even so, this example shows that the border between memes and virals is fuzzy: Indeed, many memes started out as viral photos or videos.  This fuzziness is perhaps the reason for the constant conflation between the terms and the tendency among many people to use them interchangeably.  But I still think that even if the borderline is murky this differentiation is important: the simple act of “forwarding” or “sharing” is not the same as more creative modes of engagement with content. Moreover, the motivations associated with these two forms are not the same: the factors that lead us to share content are not the same as those that lead us to recreate or remix it.  In the book I chart some of these motivational differences, but I believe that much more work should be invested in this direction.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.

 

A Meme is a Terrible Thing to Waste: An Interview with Limor Shifman (Part One)

I have to be honest that the concept of meme is one which sets my teeth on edge. Sam Ford, Joshua Green and I spent a fair chunk of time in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, seeking to deconstruct the concept of “viral media” which has become such a common metaphor for thinking about how things circulate in digital culture, and along the way, we side-swipe Richard Dawkins’ conception of the meme for many of the same reasons. Sorry, Mr. Dawkins, but I don’t buy the concept of culture as “self-replicating”: such a concepts feels far too deterministic to me, stripping aside the role of agency at a time when the public is exerting much greater control of the content which spreads across the culture than ever before.

So, when I first met Limor Shifman at a conference held last summer by the London School of Economics, she knew I would be a hard sell in terms of the ideas being presented in her new MIT Press book, Memes in Digital Culture, but by the time our first conversation was over, she had largely disarmed my objections. She’s done her homework, reviewing previous claims which have been made about memes, and reframing the concept to better reflect the practices that have fascinated many of us about how contemporary digital culture operates.

Her approach is direct, deceptively simple, but surprisingly subtle and nuanced: she recognizes that people are making active and critical choices about what content to pass along to others in their networks, but she also recognizes that they are making tactical decisions about how to design content in order to increase the likelyhood it will circulate beyond their immediate circles. She represents the new generation of digital scholars, who came of age with the net, and have largely absorbed (and thought through) some of the core assumptions shaping its many subcultural communities and their practices.

A part of me remains skeptical that given its historic roots, the term, meme, can be redefined as fully as Shifman wants to do — or more accurately, as she claims has happened organically as 4 Chan and other net communities have applied it to their own cultural productions. Yet,  I found much of what she wrote in her book convincing and think that this project adds much needed clarity to the conversations around memes, viral media, spreadable media, call it what you wish. If nothing else, her book provides an essential introduction to the ways genres operate in a more participatory culture.

I welcomed the chance to talk through some of these issues with her as part of this interview for my blog.

Let’s start with something basic. :-) How are you defining meme within the context of this book? How does your use of the term differ from the original conception of meme proposed by Richard Dawkins and his followers?

Basic question, complex answer… There is clearly a gap between the meme concept as it was defined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s and the term meme as it is used in the context of digital culture.  My aim in this book is not to redefine the meme concept in its general sense, but to suggest a definition for the emergent phenomenon of internet memes. In other words, I limit myself to discussing memes in the digital world. I suggest defining an internet meme as (a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated, and transformed via the internet by multiple users. So, for instance, I would treat the numerous versions of “Harlem Shake” as manifestations of one, particularly successful, internet meme. It is important to note that this definition does not equate internet memes with jokes – While many memes are indeed humorous, some of them (such as the “It Gets Better” campaign) are deadly serious.

This definition departs from Dawkins’ conception in at least one fundamental way: Instead of depicting the meme as a single cultural unit that has propagated well, I treat memes as groups of content units. My shift from a singular to a plural account of memes derives from the new ways in which they are experienced in the digital age. If in the past individuals were exposed to one meme version at a given time (for instance, heard one version of a joke in a party), nowadays it takes only a couple of mouse clicks to see hundreds of versions of any meme imaginable  (try, “Heads in Freezers”, for instance J ). Thus, memes are now present in the public sphere not as sporadic entities but as enormous groups of texts and images.

 

If you are going to change Dawkins’ original formulation so dramatically, what is the continued use value of the concept?

The first answer to this question is that the term meme is a great meme. While widely disputed in academia, the concept has been enthusiastically picked up by internet users. It is flagged on a daily basis by numerous people, who describe what they do on the internet as creating, spreading or sharing “memes”.

But there is also a deeper rationale for using this term. I think that internet users are on to something. There is a fundamental compatibility between the term “meme”, as Dawkins formulated it, and the way contemporary participatory culture works. I describe this compatibility as incorporating three dimensions.

First, memes can be described as cultural information that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon. This attribute is highly congruent with the workings of contemporary participatory culture. Platforms such as YouTube, Twitter or Facebook are based on content that is spread by individuals through their social networks and may scale up to mass levels within hours.  Moreover – the basic act of “sharing” information (or spreading memes) has become – as Nicholas John suggests in recent articles – a fundamental part of what participants experience as the digital sphere.

Second, memes reproduce by various means of repackaging or imitation: people become aware of memes, process them, and then “repackage” them in order to pass them along to others. While repackaging is not absolutely necessary on the internet (people can spread content as is), a quick look around reveals that people do choose to create their own versions of internet memes, and in startling volumes. People repackage either through mimicry (the recreation of a specific text by other people), or remix (technology-based manipulations of content, such as Photoshopping).

Finally, memes diffuse through competition and selection.  While processes of cultural selection are ancient, digital media allow us to trace the spread and evolution of memes in unprecedented ways. Moreover, meta-information about processes of competition and selection (for instance “like” or “view count” numbers)  is increasingly becoming a visible and influential part of the process itself: People take it into consideration before they decide to remake a video or Photoshop a political photo. In short, while the meme concept is far from perfect, it encapsulates some fundamental aspects of digital culture, and as such, I find it of great value.

In Spreadable Media, we make an argument against viral media — and by extension, some hard versions of meme theory — for their reliance on ideas of “self-replicating culture” which strip aside the collective and individual agency involved in generating and circulating memes. What roles does cultural agency play in your analysis of memes?

I could not agree more with the assertion underpinning your question. In my opinion, the problem is not with the meme concept itself, but with some of the ways in which it has been used, and especially those that undermine the role of agency in the process of memetic diffusion. In this regard, the argument that I develop in book largely follows the criticism that you raise in Spreadable Media. I call for researchers to jettison some of the excess baggage that the term has accumulated throughout the years, and to look at memes as cultural building blocks that are articulated and diffused by active human agents. This does not mean that people do not live in social and cultural worlds that constraint them – of course they do. Yet what drives processes of cultural diffusion is not the “mysterious” power of memes but the webs of meanings and structures people build around them. 

 

Part of what I really value in your account is your stress on remixing and intertextuality within meme culture. As with all remixed culture, there’s a tendency for some to dismiss the lack of originality and “creativity” involved, yet you see these cultural practices as generative. Why is it significant that these shared genres or reference points keep recurring across a range of different communities and networks?

I’m glad that you raise this issue as I find it fundamental to the way that memes work. While people are completely free to create almost any form of content, in practice most of them choose to work within the borders of existing meme genres. This ostensive rigidity may in fact have an important social function: following shared pathways for meme production is vital for creating a sense of communality in a fragmented world. Moreover, these emergent recurring patterns – or “meme genres” – often reflect contemporary social and cultural logics in unexpected and interesting ways. Let’s take, for instance, the “Stock Character Macros” genre: a set of memes featuring images of characters that represent stereotypical behaviors accompanied by funny captions.  This list of characters includes, for example, “Scumbag Steve” (who always acts in unethical, irresponsible, and anti-social ways) and his antithesis, “Good Guy Greg” (who always tries to help, even if it brings him harm); “Success Kid” (a baby with a with a self-satisfied grin, accompanied by a caption that describes a situation that has worked out better than expected); and “Successful Black Man” (who comically subverts racist assumptions about him by acting like a member of the middle class bourgeoisie). While each of these memes may be of interest in its own right, it is their combination —or the emergent map of stock characters that represent exaggerated forms of behavior—that may tell us something interesting about contemporary digital culture.

Limor Shifman is a Senior Lectureer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  She is the author of Memes in Digital Culture (MIT Press, 2013) and Televised Humor and Social Cleavages in Israel (Magness Press, 2008 [in Hebrew]). Her work focuses on the intertwining of three fields: communication technologies, popular culture and the social construction of humor. Shifman’s journal articles explore phenomena such as internet-based humor about gender, politics and ethnicity; jokes and user-generated globalization; and memetic YouTube videos.