We're Not in Kansas Anymore (August 4, 2008)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
[ X ]
Origins of this content
This 2008 blog post marks my ongoing, respectful, but critical, online dialogue with fellow YouTube scholar Michael Wesch from the University of Kansas. His euphoric views and awe-inspiring skills at explaining while mobilizing social media have gained him much deserved media and scholarly attention. The blog tries to humorously account for my own self-consciousness as an instructor, and about pedagogy more generally: how our attitudes and investments are often filtered to and through our students. His students' research tends to find that YouTube produces identity and community, while my students reflect upon its cynical and insincere aspects.
Cyber studies is often bifurcated by a euphoria/pessimism divide focusing on questions like whether the internet opens or closes conversation and community, is democratic or corporate-controlled particularly around issues of copyright and intellectual property, and produces new forums for expression or calcifies prevailing borders as well as possibilities for surveillance.

"Lawrence Lessig shows us that while new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can't do with culture."[cit]
I have been closely following the work of anthropologist Michael Wesch, at Kansas State University, because, like me he has been teaching a course about and also within YouTube.

Professor Wesch and his students are engaging in a participant ethnography of "YouTube as a medium for community." Their findings, interactions, and adventures within "new forms of expression, community, and identity" have been illuminating as well as influential (Wesch created one of the smartest viral videos yet to gallop across the Internet).

With his recent digital release of the lecture he presented at the Library of Congress this month, I feel compelled, however, to reflect not on his noteworthy and clearly (and cleverly) presented findings but rather on the more difficult question of the relations between tone or feeling and scholarly inquiry.

For while I have a great deal to learn from Wesch's research and that of his students, and have also been pleased to see that many of our findings are closely synched, while watching him (our teaching and pedagogy is public, itself a strange new feature of our shared project), I have experienced tremors of self-consciousness in relation to the extreme difference of tenor that distinguish both the content and presentation of our findings. His optimism about the DIY possibilities of YouTube are matched by my own punk pessimism. His enthusiasm about what he sees is a disturbing mirror to my own dismay. While we are clearly seeing similar things on YouTube—a complex amalgam of community and individualism, independence and creativity caught up with commercialization and conformity—we are responding to it differently as YouTubers, as teachers, and as intellectuals.

Where many vlogs lead Professor Wesch to theorize the state of "aesthetic arrest," being "overwhelmed by the beauty of the human in front of them," I find a set of quickly calcifying media conventions that reduce the individual's empowerment to the space of authentic, mundane feeling.

Tellingly, while we both are interested in the crisis of authenticity embodied by the performing-but-real vblogger, Wesch falls on to the side of the "enchantment of the heart," while I am troubled by the mocking emptiness of many of these attempts (see last post on Fred, for example). Where he sees the FREE HUGS campaign as an indicator of deep connection, the "celebration of a new form of empowerment," or the lonely singer crooning in his suburban bedroom as " having the time of his life, sharing his joy, not caring what people think," I see the potential power of people being reduced to schmaltz ... (see, here's where the self-criticism hits: am I really as negative as all that? As harsh and unfriendly and unfeeling? No. Of course people are empowered by this new form, by expanded access, by meeting people, and by playing around. It is partly the function of how we are trained that we have to express our beliefs boldly and without a nod to our understanding of the truth of our findings or feelings very opposite).

The distinctions between our attitudes, our postures, and the self-representation of our beliefs enact a defining split within Web 2.0 studies during the opening stages of this field of inquiry. I think the real question is not what is right or wrong, but rather how to perform and enact work that understands both the most inspiring and alarming aspects of YouTube and social networking without having to fall into playing the roles of either Dorothy or the Wicked Witch.