Sometimes a class project takes on a life of its own. I asked the students in the CMS graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to work on teams and report on a contemporary media phenomenon, reading it against some of the theories about media change we have been studying so far this term. A team of our incoming graduate students -- Kevin Driscoll, Xiaochang Li, Lauren Silberman, and Whitney Trettien -- decided to focus their energy on examining the ways that Soulja Boy, a teenage hip hop phenomenon, used a mixture of social network sites and YouTube to push his way up into the top music charts.
A key to his success turns out to be his active encouragement of fans to sample, remix, mashup, and perform his "Crank Dat" song through whatever media channels they want. Our Convergence Culture Consortium is focusing this year on understanding what we call "spreadable media," arguing that the era when value was created by "stickiness" is giving way to one where media gains new value through grassroots circulation. If it doesn't spread, it's dead! And the best way to insure the spread of media is to give over greater control to the audience, to increase their emotional stakes in your success.
As the students discovered the vast array of different people out there who were performing "Crank Dat," they wanted to get into the act. And so they got a camera, borrowed some lab coats, used their social network accounts to draw people together, and staged their own music video, which now circulates via YouTube.
As it happened, I stumbled by between meetings, just in time to watch them lining up to dance on the dot. I stayed for a bit trying to master the for-me very challenging dance steps. I always seemed to be zooming like superman when I was supposed to be doing the pony walk. Unfortunately, the real Professor Jenkins doesn't have any of the moves that my avatar enjoys in Second Life. But, I enjoyed watching my students gamble and shake a leg.
To my pride, they showed their budding skills as public intellectuals, having managed to get the Boston Phoenix out to cover the story. Here's some of what the Phoenix reported on the unfolding scene:
In the summer of 2006, DeAndre Way, then 16, combated summer boredom in Batesville, Mississippi, by writing songs with Fruity Loops digital-audio software. He borrowed a cousin's video camera and filmed dances to accompany the music. Thanks to YouTube, Way's choreography quickly turned into a Southern dance craze -- particularly centered around a steel-pan-drum-fueled number called "Crank That (Soulja Boy)."...
This past Wednesday, a day after the release of Soulja Boy's debut album, Souljaboytellem.com, a dozen or so MIT grad students and professors gathered on a circular lawn beside Building 54 at 5:30 pm, blasting "Crank That" from a small gray CD player set on repeat. Some of the group were clad in lab coats and thick glasses as they repeated (and videotaped) the dance -- a crisscrossed jump in place, followed by a few shakes and stomps, a breast stroke-like arm spread, and four jumps to the left and right. "This will single-handedly transform the coolness factor for MIT," commented Henry Jenkins, co-founder of MIT's Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program, as he observed nearby.
The meeting of Soulja enthusiasts was organized by students -- including Kevin Driscoll, a/k/a Lone Wolf, a local DJ and former computer-science teacher -- from a CMS graduate course in media theory. Driscoll's lawn-dance party was more than just a way to add a video to the vast library of "Crank That" tributes. He hypothesizes that "Crank That" is a unique bullet point on the dance-craze timeline, symbolic of a shift in dances' virility and how they spread.
"It's by the power of the dance craze that [Soulja Boy] was picked up by a major label," says Driscoll. "It demonstrates how resources like YouTube and MySpace can be these enabling technologies, even for kids, really." The MIT Soulja Boy videos are now on YouTube (and up to about 400 views each, at press time) making them perpetuators of the very trend the participants are studying. At least it's not the Macarena.
Ever since, I've been talking up Soulja Boy as perhaps the most powerful success story we have so far of someone who taped the power of grassroots convergence to break into the commercial mainstream. Check out for example some of my comments about the phenomenon during my keynote address at our recent media literacy conference, organized by Home Inc., which were posted by Bill Densmore
One of the students on the project --xiaochang li-- wrote up her perspectives on "Crank Dat" and what she calls "Hustling 2.0" for the Convergence Culture Consortium blog and I wanted to pass this along to my readers. Next time, I will share her thoughts about how Soulja Boy's most recent music video might be seen as a textbook illustration for how convergence culture works.
Hustling 2.0: Soulja Boy and the Crank Dat Phenomenon
A little while back, Kevin, one of my colleagues here at MIT, brought the Soulja Boy YouTube phenomenon to my attention while we were discussing an upcoming project.
Fast forward to October: Soulja Boy is fending off Britney Spears and Kanye West on the Billboard Top 100, and you can now watch a rag-tag team of MIT grad students, researchers, affiliates, and Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Movement, crank that. (CMS program director Henry Jenkins even joined in the learn the dance, but sadly had to run off to something undoubtedly important before the video was shot.)
A little bit of context for those who have somehow managed to miss this craze: Soulja Boy produced his own tracks and uploaded videos of himself performing the dance onto MySpace and YouTube. People everywhere started doing their own versions and putting up their own videos, and the whole thing snowballed until people like Beyonce started incorporating the dance into her stage show. By that point, everyone from underground rap magazines to The Atlantic was talking about Soulja Boy.
Beyond the novelty of seeing everyone from Winnie the Pooh to a bunch of vaguely coordinated MIT students doing the "Crank That" dance, the rise of Soulja boy is an interesting exploration of self-promotion in the digital landscape.
Many groups have taken to social networks and video sharing as a means to self-promote, but, as anyone who has ignored dozens of friends requests from bands on myspace.com knows, the effectiveness of all these efforts is inconsistent, at best.
Part of the problem is that there isn't a significant shift in the way in which the
content is presented. Bands produce the same types of videos and promotional materials, except now they're accessible through YouTube instead of MTV. There's little consideration of the unique expectations and practices within these spaces.
In that way, Soulja Boy, who has described computer access as the turning point in the
development of his career, was far better equipped to handle his own online promotion
than any major label executive. In a move that was described on Artist Direct a> as "Hustling 2.0," Soulja took advantage of the fact that people were already downloading material from other artists, renaming his files as popular songs in order to spread his content. He also has a number of videos which use the particular video blogging aesthetic of YouTube to help brand him as a personality.
This gap in understanding between major media and cultural practices of user-generated content channels is mirrored in the official music video for "Crank That," wherein rap impresario Collipark good- naturedly mocks his own ignorance of the flourishing Web 2.0 phenomenon around Soulja Boy. The whole video, in fact, runs almost like an advertisement for the age of convergence culture, as the dance propagates over multiple channels of distribution, morphing and evolving from streaming video to mobile devices and ultimately ending up in the "real," physical world, and Soulja Boy steps away from his Webcam and chat windows to accept his record deal.
As Kevin pointed out in his blog, he takes the sign of major label recognition more like an award instead of an opportunity, payment for a job already well-done. On that note, it's interesting how the spelling varies between "Crank Dat" on many of the fan produced videos and some of the marketing on Souljaboytellem.com and "Crank That" on the official record, like a linguistic marker to differentiate the D-I-Y phenomenon from the standardization of the song and its incorporation into the established entertainment industry.
Check out the range of videos in the Soulja Boy
channel, where you can see the original dance video, the official video, and the
instructional video, in addition to a number of fan videos and clips of celebrities
doing their own versions of "Crank That."
A fairly comprehensive collection of all the audio variations on the song that have appeared. My favorite might be the Folgers Coffee version.
A blog devoted solely to videos of the many, many versions of the dance. Note how the spellings vary from video to video.
When Xiaochang's post appeared on the C3 blog, she generated some interesting responses from the hip hop blogosphere. Check out: