"Learning from Fred"
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
After my viral moment, when the press release about my class was picked up by the AP wire and news and commentary about this "funny" idea went everywhere, I began to be known as a "serious YouTube scholar." In this role, I was sometimes asked to write about YouTube (often about videos I didn't know about before the invitation). Fred proved one such invitation. This was published at TCR (Teacher's College Record: September 8, 2008). I have since written and spoken extensively on Fred's work, in relation to youth media, queer activism and identity, and YouTube.
Fred Figgelhorn (Lucas Cruikshank) is one of the most subscribed and viewed videomakers on YouTube. He has used this fame to leave YouTube, sell stuff, and get his own TV movie, as well. "His videos are centered on Fred Figglehorn, a fictional 6-year-old who has a dysfunctional home life and 'anger management issues.'"[cit]

Media literacy "is the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain and sell to us every day. It's the ability to bring critical thinking skills to bear on all media ... Media education encourages a probing approach to the world of media: Who is this message intended for? Who wants to reach this audience, and why? From whose perspective is this story told? Whose voices are heard, and whose are absent?"[cit]
Youth media helps "educators, youth service providers and youth use digital media and television production as essential learning tools."
[cit] There are youth media programs nationwide that "help youth create their own newspapers, websites and books, sharing the perspectives of young people with parents, teachers, youth workers, and other youth."[cit]

REACH LA is a youth driven organization committed to educating, motivating, and mobilizing urban youth to improve their own lives and communities. [cit]
(This was published at TCR: September 8, 2008)

In this commentary, I look at the highly popular video production of fourteen-year-old Lucas Cruikshank, known on YouTube as Fred. With a quarter of a million subscribers (who are primarily, it seems, other kids who—unlike me—must find the unfettered quality of Fred's juvenile humor and subject matter delightful), and with no interfering adult (or corporate) input, the fact of Fred points to the relevance, and obstacles, of YouTube for education.

In Fall 2007, I taught an innovative course, Learning from YouTube, attempting to get to the bottom of this recent phenomenon by situating our class entirely within the site's strict confines. All course assignments took the form of comments or videos, all classes were taped, uploaded, and made public on YouTube, and research was limited to within its pages. As a class we learned many ways that this poster-child for the wonders of Web 2.0 is not well suited for the hard work of teaching and learning.

In his videos, this rural boy, the illegitimate son of a mannish, drunken, largely absent mom and an imprisoned, murderer dad, uses basic editing software to speed up to the highest of squeaks his unscripted, direct-to-camera rants about life at his place: learning to shave his face like his mom does, wildly jumping on her bed when she's not around, flushing his meds down the toilet when he's home alone. Yes, regular people, even kids, can (squeakily) speak as they wish and be heard without interference, but what, we must ask, can Fred teach us, and how might he lead us to learn?

YouTube has two primary forms: the corporate video and the video blog (vblog). Fred runs one of the site's most popular vlogs in its history. His videos are the typically "bad" videos of regular folk: paying little attention to aesthetics while making use of low-end home technology to carefully attend to his daily life and thoughts. When he speeds up his voice and jump-cuts it even faster, the form goes from bad to worse, which is part of the fun and also the main joke (making it almost unbearable for sensitive adult ears; ha ha!).

All this bad form (and content) verifies the hand of an amateur and the space of the mundane while propelling Fred's images around the net, for these very same informal qualities are the mark of his authenticity (kid-made, adult-scorned, kid-approved). Like all vblogs, Fred's videos are word reliant and accrue their value through Fred's "suffering" (his mom is missing), "talent" (he gracefully dives into his teeny-tiny backyard kiddie pool: "It's so big!"), and "humor" (he cuts up his mom's pantyhose. What a bad boy!). Notably, all three of these qualities are questionable enough for me to situate them within scare-quotes; the ironic mimicry of Fred's enterprise is also definitive.

Suffering, talent, and humor are less ambiguous in YouTube's other signature form, the "corporate" video. These always look good—like mainstream media—because they are made by professionals, are stolen from professionals, or are remade mainstream production. They express ideas about dominant culture, in the music-driven, glossy vernacular of music videos, commercials, and comics.

Although Fred's videos are almost unwatchable for those of the calmer generations, we geriatrics still capable of sentences expressed in real time have much to learn from them. Their popularity among the under-fifteen set is not a fluke. Rather, it marks Fred's fans' appreciation of how Cruikshank plays against and with the already-calcifying (two-year old) stylistic distinctions I set out above.

I mark his popularity as an indication of how well Fred effortlessly situates himself within the amateur/professional divide and between three other live tensions that define our media moment, and our lives within it:

Boredom/distraction: Fred (like his teen-viewers) makes these trifles because he is stuck at home with nothing to do. He's BORED. And yet, Fred (like his adoring fans) couldn't really be exactly bored, as he's never still long enough to get to this fully depleted state. He's jumping from YouTube to texting his friend Judy to playing in his backyard and garage. Too distracted, speedy, and hyperactive to have time to get really bored (like we used to in the oh-so-media-pure days of hay rides and 4-H). But Fred knows this. His self-awareness is marked in both his rapid form and his ADD content. Fred's hyperdrive parodies the hyperactivity that is said, by grown-ups, to be born of a life lived within and never outside of media. Perhaps Lucas's life is actually slow?

Real/parody: Fred is watchable, and lovable, as is true for all vbloggers, because he is visibly himself. A regular, rural kid from Nebraska in a tract home made apparent through his consumer camcorder: plush couch, wood paneling, corn fields. And yet, this likably real Lucas is notably and obviously playing the character Fred: a boy with an alcoholic mother who probably is a prostitute and a father in the state pen. Fred artfully blends several familiar media languages of the moment. First hurrying up the mundane, boring vblog, he then inserts the comedic preoccupations of a current Hollywood favorite, the man-boy genre where adults play men who cherish the lives, loves, needs, and habits of adolescents. Fred skews it only slightly younger, creating the boy-boy genre, I suppose. Not a true picture of any boy, Fred does truly depict what boys find funny by making use of two YouTube languages (bad and good) already overly familiar to over-mediated kids.

Isolation/community: Of course, Fred is alone in Nebraska, which initiates his boredom which drives him to the web, and there he meets endless, interchangeable youths, also so driven to the Internet. And there they parody him, in less-worthy homages, and so meet, sort of, still of course stuck in their bedrooms, but endlessly reflecting each other's loneliness and boredom. This is ever the state of youth, or ever more so the state of today's digital youth who don't ever go out to play together, perhaps because they've been convinced that this "community" of doppelgangers has a higher value, allowing them, as it does, to make another video ...

YouTube draws users by fueling a desire for self-expression and community. While many come to the site to be seen and heard by others, to make friends, they are much better served by places like the real world or Facebook. For the very tools and structures for community-building that are hallmarks of web 2.0—those which link, gather, index, search, version, and allow participation, commenting, and networking—are studiously refused on the site, even as YouTube remains its poster-child. Why can't you comment in real time? Why aren't there bulletin boards? Why won't the site allow you to post other things next to your videos? YouTube is a place to upload and store (and move off) videos. The very paucity of its secondary functions underlines its primary purpose: moving its users' eyeballs aimlessly and without direction, scheme, or map, across its unparalleled archive of moving images and associated advertisements.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the same time paucity and popularity of his oeuvre, it seems critical to consider what Fred might teach educators, people interested in media literacy, or youth media. First, our work with young people needs to enter at the same precarious fault-lines that Fred highlights so well: professional/amateur, boredom/distraction, real/parody, isolation/community. Fred teaches us that these are the current preoccupations of his audience. Certainly the live classroom is typically structured differently: around an assumed expertise, attention, depth, and community. Fred's pedagogy asks us to consider whether it is possible to maintain the best of these traditional methods while unsettling others, as kids are doing without our guidance in their mediated worlds. A quality classroom can best the quick highs of isolated YouTube distraction when we also dare to bring to it some of what works well on YouTube:

1) Media literacy on YouTube: Now that more and more people can and do make media, media literacy must become a central component to this practice. Access to tools of production and distribution are a first step, but never enough on their own. Rather, students need to learn media history, aesthetics, storytelling, and analysis as they play with and enjoy newly accessible technologies. This can be part of the fun. Media literacy is a tool in itself, allowing for better images, more artful modes of expression, and access to a history of talented people who've figured out many things already. Media literacy needs to happen at school, and it should be about what students love—Fred, for instance. However, given that young people are learning what YouTube videos should look like on YouTube, media literacy must also come to them via YouTube, without adult interference.

2) Kid-authored, laugh-filled. So, who better to do this than kids? Fred's viewership proves that kids are there, watching and making. How do we tap this sea of bored, lonely teenagers to create stuff that they want to see (that is funny) but that has a media literacy content as well? Certainly, videos like Fred's—by kids for kids that kids love to watch—tell us much of what we might want to know about their current tastes, habits, and interests. And this is a form of literacy, as I've attempted to indicate above, just one focused on the more banal and juvenile of aims. Couldn't these be productively mined and focused toward aims that include, but move beyond humor and YouTube? Couldn't this be organized on YouTube?

3) Get off YouTube. Kids and others go to YouTube to waste time. YouTube is an at-home or mobile viewer-controlled delivery system of delectable media morsels. On this private postmodern TV of distraction, discrete bites of video are controlled by the discrete eye of each viewer, linked into an endless chain of immediate but forgettable gratification that can only be satisfied by another video. The best way to stop this cycle is to get off. YouTube needs to be complemented by more focused, communal, and expert-led sites of learning. Even the most moving of videos needs to be connected to something (other than another short video)--people, community, ideas, other videos to which it has a coherent link--if it is to create what education does best: action over distraction, deep knowledge instead of free-floating ideas, connection over the quick link, community instead of the isolated individual.