Q&A #3 with Henry Jenkins (February 20, 2008)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This is the third of three-part 2008 blog-interview that was first published on Confessions of an Aca-Fan. Henry Jenkins had been following my blogging and speaking about teaching LFYT (we had debated its radical potential at the 24/7 conference at USC), so I asked him if we could engage in an interview as I was attempting to write (and network) concise, systematic lessons from the output and experiences of LFYT 2007, and he generously took me on. This was another attempt to organize and present the otherwise large and unruly body of student videos made for my class.
Everyday people have long made home movies about their daily lives. Home movie scholarship looks seriously at this noncommercial production as a resource for academic historiography, allowing us rare access to a people's-eye view of trauma, memory, family, and nation. YouTube scholars address how the nature of the private (or domestic) has changed online.

Censorship on YouTube has been a major concern for its users, scholars, and journalists. The multiple issues raised include YouTube being censored by the governments of specific countries and YouTube itself censoring user content, sometimes although not always, in the name of stopping copyright infringement, including a longstanding billion dollar legal battle with Viacom.

"Like a disease, narcissism is caused by certain factors, spreads through particular channels, appears as various symptoms, and might be halted by preventive measures and cures. Narcissism is a psychocultural affliction rather than a physical disease, but the model fits remarkably well."[cit]

"PageRank can be thought of as a model of user behavior. We assume there is a 'random surfer' who is given a web page at random and keeps clicking on links, never hitting 'back' but eventually gets bored and starts on another random page. The probability that the random surfer visits a page is its PageRank."[cit] If a video is about an obscure, radical, strange, private, or "unimportant" topic, it will sit idle and largely unseen in NicheTube.
(Published first on Confessions of an Aca-Fan).

HJ: Your students pointed towards a fairly limited range of representations of race and gender in YouTube content. Why might such stereotypes persist in what is in theory an open and participatory channel? More generally, what factors do you think limits the cultural and ideological diversity of current digital culture?

AJ: I ended up learning a lot from this class (particularly from its unique YouTube-like structure) and even more from its students (which is where I started—I did believe correctly that on this subject they could educate me). Their keen observations about the downside to user control were a revelation to me, a lefty media activist who has made a career around expanding media access. YouTube uses its users for almost everything: they create content, sort it, judge it, and censor it, all the while producing the revenue that runs the company by producing both its content and its consumers. There are incredible opportunities this affords us as a society: primarily unparalleled access to the thoughts, experiences, interests, and documents of the daily life of real people, as they wish to be seen and heard. However, two other key results are less beneficial, especially if we want to think of YouTube as a democratic commons, which is certainly how it sees itself and is broadly understood. First is the idea of mob rule and how it functions for censoring.

Currently, on YouTube, if a few people flag a video as being objectionable, down it may go, within an opaque system and with no recourse. My students have learned that controversial opinions, outside the norms of the society, are often so flagged and censored. This is not a commons, where everyone has a right to a voice. Furthermore, my students found that the system of user ranking, or popularity, has the effect of normative or hegemonic ideas rising to the top. Videos depicting society's already accepted opinions about race or politics, for example, are most highly ranked on the site, receive the most hits, and thus are the easiest to see.

Meanwhile, there is a lively world, just under the surface on YouTube, where opinions counter to or critical of those of the mainstream are articulated. However, given that the search function relies first upon popularity, this NicheTube is hard to locat, and is currently playing a small role in the conventionalizing standards of this new form. As I've said before, access is only one part of an equation of liberation. In this case, I'd highlight education in media literacy, aesthetics, and history as equally formative.

HJ: Many critics have praised the role of confessional video in the hands of feminist and avant-garde filmmakers$mdash;the works of Sadie Benning for example—yet you seemed critical of the ways that this mode gets deployed on YouTube. What differences do you see between the two? Patty Zimmerman's Reel Families traces the various factors which have historically turned amateur media content into "home movies," locked away in the domestic sphere, ridiculed as uninteresting to anyone beyond the immediate family. Whatever else one may say about YouTube, however, it has brought amateur media content into broader public visibility, allowing it to circulate well beyond its communities of origin and in ways that allow greater control for contributors than found in, say, America's Funniest Home Videos, an outlet Zimmerman ridiculed. Would you agree?

AJ: These two questions are closely linked in my mind. Of course I agree that YouTube has opened access to video production and distribution, and that many of these newly allowed videos appear in either the home or confessional mode (a subset of the talking-head or rant). But this is where my particular project interfaces with, or adds nuance to, that of the study or use of the home movie (or mundane or DIY media) rather than the activist or art video. I am less interested in the fact of who produces than I am in how she does so and in what context. I am most interested in media cultures that allow regular people not simply to document their lived experience, not merely to reflect their experience through and to the norms and values of the dominant culture, but to create art and/or opinions about their lives and culture, in the name of a stated goal (of world or self-changing) and to an intended community.