On Upper-Crass Video and the Washington Post (April 17, 2008)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
This 2008 blog post was a result of my occasional experiences as a YouTube pundit (in this case for the Washington Post), and the contradictions this raises for me as someone who thinks about this mainstream phenomenon but in relation to radical concerns about and traditions within the (alternative) media.
According to The Sun: "British actress Tricia Walsh-Smith chose the unlikely setting of her kitchen to perform a bitter online rant describing her 'sexless' marriage to 76-year-old New York theater impresario Philip Smith. Next, she broadcast her diatribe on the internet, effectively starting the world's first YouTube divorce."[cit]

Independent, radical, or committed media[cit] refer to uses of mediation technologies that take place outside corporate and conventional structures of finance, form, or function—that is, media that is meant for personal or artistic expression, community building, political intervention, or education. YouTube at once is and is not alternative media.

"For 23 years Deep Dish has been a laboratory for new, democratic and empowering ways to make and distribute video. It is a hub linking thousands of artists, independent videomakers, programmers and social activists."[cit]

Marlon Riggs was known for making insightful and controversial documentary films confronting racism and homophobia that thrust him onto center stage in America's "cultural wars."[cit]

I write elsewhere: "AIDS activist video was ... a matter of life and death that forced interaction across and inside communities that might not otherwise have needed to communicate ... narrowcasting to the many audiences who demanded education, self-representation, and mobilization because of AIDS."[cit]
Yesterday I got a query from a journalist at the Washington Post. Did she want my opinions on AIDS video or feminist media history? No! Hillary v. Obama (Obama, duh)? ... Not at all! I am one of America's "YouTube specialists," she wondered what I thought about the "shaming-by-YouTube" scandal involving Philip Smith and his estranged and angry wife, Tricia Walsh-Smith. I knew nothing about it, even though it had been covered by Good Morning America and the rest of the blogisphere that very morning.

I watched the video, read a few related posts, and then tried to decide what to do. As I've oft repeated on this blog: as a scholar I'm not particularly interested in popular culture. Sure, I'm aware of the latest tabloid moments; I read the paper every morning. But my academic work (including that on YouTube) is about activist, political, educated uses of the medium for self-empowerment and social change. And the video I was being asked to speak about is anything but that.

What to do? And, more importantly what does this mean about my current interests and obligations?

I was going to tell the writer that I was just not her expert. Then I decided that she could decide this for herself. We talked for awhile, and it was lively and fun. I do have thoughts about YouTube that were relevant for her, and she is smart. We talked about the reality/fiction line, the developing place of the citizen-journalist expose, the vblog as an outlet for real people who will never be featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and how Walsh-Smith's video blurs those functions and media outlets. I mentioned the question of an evolving ethics of Web 2.0 video built upon the backs of user indiscretions. Our conversation ended up creating some of the frame for her piece, and I think that's pretty cool, really.

But I'm interested in radical-culture, not upper-crass video. I'm currently writing a lecture for the Fowler Museum at UCLA about the history of AIDS video (see last post). And five people are going to be interested in what I have to say, damn it! This unmaking of distinctions between my interests in high culture (not low), people's DIY production (not corporate media), elitist vs. populist pursuits, and scholar versus public intellectual is getting very confusing for me. Is AIDS video elitist or populist? What about the complaints of a rich woman? And what about me complaining about it? Where does work like mine sit on this old and changing spectrum?

My work on YouTube is my only body of writing (or video making, really) that is relevant to regular people. Certainly the feminists I write about and for, or the queers, or the AIDS activists, are "regular people." They are all humans with bodies and genetic material. But these counter-cultural communities and art practices are self-consciously, and belovedly, removed from the daily, tawdry goings on of mainstream America. And I love them, and am them, for it.

Suddenly, while thinking from my usual angle (how regular-if-political people can speak against and to the dominant culture using media), I'm talking about a phenomenon being encountered by most people and, thus I have something to say to most people. I've actually just written, and am trying to publish, a short article about my YouTube findings for a mainstream, not scholarly outlet.

In making work on and about YouTube, writing this blog, and reading other blogs, I've certainly found a community of other scholars, students, and smart nonacademic people asking whether these new (networking) technologies can be used for discourse outside and in opposition to corporate culture. But their reach is so deep, their breaking of binaries and distinctions so complete, it seems impossible to think and talk about such interests without succumbing to, and becoming, that to which we are opposed.

Funnily, the questions I'm asking are raised through my sister's experience in my documentary about her, SCALE. But she stays true to the antiwar cause, while I'm hardly sure what my cause might be in this instance ...

"Say no to Trash video!"
"Rich wives off YouTube!"
"Say yes to women's voices!"

Who knows? Who cares!