New Criticals

Learning from (Where) YouTube (Can’t Go): Inside-Out


In 2007, I engaged in what was at the time perceived to be an audacious pedagogical experiment. I taught a course both on and about YouTube. At that time, I opened out the private liberal arts classroom into the wilds of the Internet. These many years later, looking back at the experiment and also moving forward, I imagine what there might still be to learn and where there still might be to go within social media networks. Certainly much happened in the first class—virality, hilarity, hundreds of videos and interviews, caution, discipline, challenges to higher education and collegiate writing and a "book"—but here I ask, how might the continual growth of YouTube demand new places and tactics for its analysis?

In response to both my own needs as a theorist, activist, and educator, as well as what we might consider the "changes" of YouTube eight years later, I have decided to teach the class again this spring semester while taking my evolving experiment in several new directions including Inside-Out of the private college and prison. The body of this post explains the history and growth of my thinking about and activities within and without YouTube since its inception in 2005. Given the interests of Lady Justice, I will use this opportunity to consider transformations in digital and network culture over the past decade. I will also forefront how my feminist commitments to pedagogy, public intellectualism, the politics and practices of visibility and community within social media networks, and an anti-corporate media, anti-corporate academia, anti-corporate prison-industrial stance influence my many critical incursions into what I see as a pretty consistent YouTube. This has been somewhat harder to do in the course proper, and even my writing about it, as I have often taken a more "closeted" approach to my motivations in these more generic spaces (the class is an Introductory level course in Media Studies and most of the students have neither a feminist nor activist orientation to media, nor do they need to. In this and many other ways, I structure the course so that it reflects the dominating logics of YouTube, more on this below).

I am teaching the course this semester to about twenty undergraduates at Pitzer College. My public Internet writing here will also serve as their introduction to the many (un)networked locations of the course: hello! This will be my fifth (2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012) pedagogic interaction with YouTube's disorganized bonanza of what I earlier called slogans: "pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption." Each iteration of the class changes, as does YouTube and YouTube scholarship. Notably, there were books to teach about the subject published sometime after the 2007 class, including my own Learning from YouTube (MIT 2010). In the first class my undergrads were creating, not referencing, original critical Internet studies. Much of their strong work forms the content of my born-digital, free, online "video-book," itself an innovative work of critical Internet writing that experiments with shared-authorship and a focus upon pedagogy among other less common scholarly gestures.

Yet after that first semester, quickly following the initial charge I would get from learning the 2008, 2010 and 2012 memes-of-the-moment—each momentarily but forgettably audacious in their own right, this ever-reconfiguring superficial zest being one of the principles of YouTube—I found that my own practice of and pleasures in teaching the class were pretty  routine (and this is not the case for my more traditional looks at more "traditional" subjects that I teach with frequency: say, video art or feminist documentary). Studying and teaching YouTube, for a brief moment in 2007 so scintillating for me and my viral audience, so innovative in its approach, topic, and formats, also became for me—the sole person who had to do it again in each iteration—quickly and utterly boring (another structuring principle of our object of study—boredom motivates staying and clicking—reiterated in my method and pedagogy and writing about it).

For, the experiment's audaciousness was promptly and definitively gutted, thereby mirroring yet again the tempos and rules of the Internet (the class went viral, and the Internet can only laugh at something once, and only for about a week or two at that; but the gesture itself had become sort of memed-out; by 2010 lots of people did lots of wacky "let's do this online" experiments, and often monetized them, too). I found myself hacking away in the weeds of YouTube—the teacher (who hopes to learn)—with very little that seemed new or exciting or sustaining about either my effort or YouTube (other than the many to-be-expected if still-funky and always-flashy fixes). The hard work my students and I had engaged in during 2007—to create systems for studying about and in YouTube—proved adequate to cover whatever superficial changes were happening over the years in its style and infrastructure. And the repulsion factor—having to watch so much trashy media, so many advertisements and music videos, even if this did give me some useful insight into the momentary predilections of 18-22 year olds, people with whom I spend quite a bit of time—arrived earlier and louder on every subsequent pass. Really, how many bad videos does any one person need to consume?

Frankly, I'm a scholar (and maker) of independent, avant-garde and activist media for a reason. I'm not passionate about popular culture nor the questions it raises and so these were not the questions I was asking about YouTube, even though I willingly snared myself within its structuring logics of capital, censorship, popularity and entertainment, and I would follow my students' lead when they wanted to pursue such questions (for instance the popularity project of 2007).

From my students' and my own work I was quick to identify that there are actually two YouTubes, the second being what I called NicheTube, "the vast sea of little-seen YouTube videos that are hard to find given YouTube's architecture of  ranking and user-generated tags." (This and other descriptive, made-up terms necessary to adequately and efficiently critique YouTube are found in the video-book's Glossary). But any pay-off of "discovering" and then spending time in NicheTube eventually paled for me too, given the necessary trade-off of the always abusive onslaughts of crap from YouTube proper.

And yet, here I am about to teach it and there again. Why, you must certainly want to ask, if I'm such a hater? I teach and study YouTube because I think social media needs critical and productive forces within them. I also know that wonderful things already do or could exist on and are networked through YouTube and I am always eager to learn about fellow projects of critical, productive Internet use and studies. I encourage my students and others to locate, analyze and share productive changes in the culture of YouTube, or better yet to make those changes. In the conclusion of this piece, I outline many areas of change in both YouTube and my teaching about it. I finish with provocations for my students and readers.

The most obvious changes in YouTube have to do with its finances and expanding financial opportunities for its authors, including day-to-day users, corporations, and "old-media." YouTube's amazing and unstoppable growth—in numbers of videos, users, and uses—is not only a financial issue, however, but one that begs larger questions about the production, circulation, and ownership of media, knowledge, identity, and the viewing and buying habits of a great many of the world's citizens. Over its short history, YouTube (or Google, really) has written itself into nearly everything we do as a society, so understanding how YouTube is networked is a vital task of even more relevance then when I began this project. More money and viewing on YouTube, and related changes in the media sector, have also affected the quality of (many) YouTube videos, what I once called the good video/bad video divide. Technological changes have also altered the meaning of this binary. I'd love to see this considered seriously. There have been many legal changes and challenges throughout YouTube's history, primarily around copyright, but YouTube is still organized by censorship, I'd warrant. Alterations in design, architecture, and search have made some things easier to see and find. But NicheTube still exists, doesn't it? YouTube, like the Internet it reflects and produces, is clearly a much more corporate space then when I entered in 2007 (the linking of the class page to my private Google account, its monetization, and the advertisements found everywhere upon it being only some of the more obvious indications). Of course, while the students in the class always understood how serious was our focus (even if many of the videos were silly), as did the media once they talked to me or the students, academia came a bit more slowly to YouTube and other social media. But now we're here so I've actually added two sections to the newest version of the course, one on memes the other on music videos, learning from good recent scholarly books on these YouTube staples. Finally, this supposedly being "a good year for feminism" (or so it says on the Internet), we might want to consider that feminism, and other social movements have also changed since 2005 (on the Internet). 

I am teaching the course in 2015 because I am curious whether these many recent changes may have inaugurated significant and not superficial changes in YouTube (and social media) culture itself.

Conclusion: Five Questions for the 2015 class and others

My descriptive statements above and questions below are provocations for further analysis, argument, and activities. As was true for the 2007 class and all following, I am legitimately interested in learning from YouTube: its users, uses, and logics.

How has YouTube changed since 2005?

This year I added a "practicum" to the class (it is now an "Inside-Out course" connected to PEP, the California-wide Prison Education Project). A small group of Pitzer students will be taking an extra half credit of course content as we join with ten students who will be taking Learning from YouTube from within the California Rehabilitation Center at Norco, one of the few places in America (and perhaps the world) where access to YouTube (and other social media networks) is denied to human beings as a condition of their punishment.

What are the relations between social justice and social media?

Learning from YouTube was developed to mirror (and therefore make visible) the structuring principles of the site under investigation. Hyper-visibility, user-generated content, the collapsing binaries of public/private, education/entertainment, expert/amateur, and the corporatization and digitization of education, are only few of the site's structures that are also reflected in the course's design and implementation. Another critical framework for the course, like YouTube, was the hidden if also user-desired structures of discipline deeply architected into the experience.

Learning from YouTube Inside-Out has different walls, disciplining systems, and channels of access and visibility that will structure its pedagogy. It is my hope that this will reveal logics of and connections between the prison and social media. A new avenue of thought for me; I will blog about this here, after the course begins, and also look forward to my students' reflections on learning from YouTube inside-out.

What are the relations between social injustice and social media?

My more recent writing and thinking and practice within/about digital culture finds me theorizing and practicing its artful leaving, the considered departure, and ever more radical and thoughtful connections of "lived" and "Internet" spaces as a necessary part of social justice work and pedagogy. Sure, social media is part of any activist project in 2015 (and most learning projects, too), but I'd like to think of work in this space as proto-political and proto-academic. This is to say as clearly as I can: clicking, liking, reading, researching, forwarding, posting, tweeting, are a necessary component of contemporary activism that is only realized through linked, extra-mediated actions. To leave YouTube may be the best way to both know and criticize the linked systems of corporatized domination that bleed across (social) mediated America.

How and why do we leave social media?

I am curious if feminist (pedagogic) activity (and the linked social justice work of many movements) can occur in the many shiny corporate, sexist, censored emporiums we've been given for free, or does the leaving demand another making: of rooms and art and people and movements of our own. Where are these feminist social media networked spaces and what are their structuring logics?

How and why do we stay in social media? What is a social media of our own?

I look forward to where these questions can take us both inside and out of YouTube and social media.