"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.
I found myself excitedly rushing to catch the First Annual Vloggie Award Ceremony held at the Swedish American Hall in the Castro district of San Francisco on November 4, 2006. After fighting through traffic and finally finding parking I found a seat in the already dark theater where the audience was assembled and ready for the ceremony to begin. A bank of cameras lined the back wall, and a giant screen adorned the front where the emcees for the evening—Irina Slutsky and Daniel McVicar—introduced the presenters of the awards. Palpable excitement filled the room in anticipation of the event, which in many ways resembled the form and structure of the Academy Awards. In other ways, however, the celebration was quite different. The simultaneous similarities and differences seen in many aspects of the event signify that the vlogging community is in some respects in transition between patterning themselves after old media models while exploring alternative ways of producing, exchanging, and viewing new media content and forms across what some call emerging “internets.”
The awards had many purposes including: honoring creative, business, and technical excellence in production and delivery of vlogs; celebrating the growing community of video bloggers and their contribution to producing new media for the Internet and portable platforms; and recognizing viewers who play an important role in supporting the efforts of video bloggers (http://www.vloggiessf.com/about). From the pint-sized Oscar-like statues to the fabulous after party at the Café du Nord, the ceremonies were filled with icons and symbols that called to mind the traditional structure and purpose of the Academy Awards which annually honors achievements in film. And yet, many Vloggie symbols at the ceremony were laden with other meanings that were specific to the achievements and goals of many people in the vlogging community.
The structure of the Vloggie ceremony included elegantly dressed presenters, many of whom were well-known within or financially supportive of the video blogging community. During the ceremony presenters approached the stage while music played. Once onstage, presenters exchanged Bruce Vilanch-like comedic bits and quips. Like the Academy Awards, the bits were hit or miss but ultimately not as important as the fact that the presenters had been chosen in recognition of their achievements within the vlogging community. Many of the presenters themselves went on to win awards of their own that evening. Like the Academy Awards, the audience expressed delight to see clips of the award recipients, montages of nominees, and pre-recorded acceptance speeches from important video bloggers such as Ze Frank and Ryanne Hodson who were unable to attend. Award recipients usually made acceptance speeches, although the speeches both resembled and differed from traditional Academy Award speeches. Upon receiving the award for best cooking vlog, Tanja Andrews from Freshtopia said with mock breathlessness that she had been waiting for like “three months” to win this award, reflecting the newness of video blogging as a recognized activity. After the awards, party goers toted the gift bags they had received upon entering the ceremony to the after party located next door. Party goers ate free food, drank, participated in interviews, and networked with other celebrants and business people. The Vloggie ceremony was also recorded and broadcast for those unable to be among the estimated 300 or so in attendance. Some video bloggers I spoke to who were unable to attend told me they were following the ceremony and watching the Internet as pictures form the event were posted.
Despite its outward similarities to the Academy Awards, the Vloggie ceremony also had a different flair that represented the hopes and frustrations of video bloggers in trying to produce and distribute their work. Jerry Zucker launched the evening with an inspirational keynote speech. In many ways he is a symbol of success in traditional media entertainment (having produced highly popular film comedies such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun). Yet he spoke about how the studio systems are a “mess” and he reminisced about his own beginnings experimenting with a large video tape machine in 1970. He said he would probably still be living in Milwaukee with his parents had he not been able to freely experiment in much the same way that members of the video blogging audience in attendance got started: by playing around and having fun in front of a camera. He cited as an advantage the ability to get instantaneous feedback and edit material yourself using a video recorder. But a barrier for him was how to distribute his work which required procuring a theater and a viewing audience. In contrast, he noted that video bloggers can send their material around the world using "fantastic," low-cost equipment. He stated that video blogging promised to change the way we view entertainment and implied that video bloggers today are fortunate to witness and launch the beginning of these changes.
The small statuettes that honorees received iconically resembled the Oscar statues in form. Yet it would be a mistake to see the Vloggies as equivalent to the Oscars in terms of the Vloggies’ meanings to judges, recipients, and audience members. It is important to keep in mind that the Vloggie awards have both symbolic similarities and differences to the Oscars form the perspective of video bloggers. The Vloggies resembled the Oscars in that both recognize particular creative and technical achievements between peers. However, the Vloggie ceremony bestowed two sets of awards; one set of videos was selected by a jury and the other was determined by popular vote. For example, the jury selected Alive in Baghdad as Best Vlog while, according to the Podcast Web page, the People’s Choice Award went to Ask a Ninja. Ryanne Hodson received Best Female Vlogger from the panel of judges, while Nontourage received the people’s vote for that category. While some video bloggers received both the juried prize and the popular vote such as Minnesota Stories receiving Best Community vlog for both sets, many others received only one prize. In addition, the categories of awards for the Vloggies were not exactly the same as those bestowed at the Academy Awards. Although both awards had some recognizably analogous categories, such as best male and female vloggers, best editing, and best film of the year, the Vloggie awards were often more theme-oriented rather than technical with categories such as best cooking, travel, comedy, children’s, and inspirational videos. Certainly no Academy Award yet exists for best “viral” film. Although the mechanism for selection was not explained in detail at the ceremony, it was clear that the organizers were trying to honor both expert and popular views of what constitutes important work across a range of types of participation in the vlogging community. Nevertheless, only some recipients of the juried awards were honored with a statue onstage. In addition, the people’s choice awards were distributed after the formal ceremony.
When I had first heard about the Vloggies Award Ceremony, I thought it was wonderful to have an alternative ceremony (held in an alternative cultural space in San Francisco) to honor achievements among video bloggers. However, some video bloggers whom I spoke with expressed concern about having an awards ceremony at all. They noted that having a competition-like ceremony is in some ways problematic because it tries to arbitrate between and rank what are essentially creative, non-comparable achievements (an argument often heard in interviews with actors and others who have received Academy Awards). Calling out certain videos over others by a panel of experts is for some unfortunate because it sets up a structure of media viewing—in which some films are judged as more worthy than others—that is contradictory to the spirit of what many video bloggers are trying to achieve. For many video bloggers it is important to encourage personal ability to express oneself through video on the Internet and make connections with other human beings without being judged, packaged, or censored by third parties.
Similarly, I have heard video bloggers express concern that newly available sources of corporate support and ad revenue linked to video blogs will complicate such freedom of self expression. Some video bloggers are addressing this concern by having multiple video blogs that express different aspects of the self and address different fans, friends, and corporate audiences. They may also distribute the vlogs in different venues, expecting to achieve different goals by posting on sites such as YouTube while simultaneously exhibiting their work on their own vlogging sites. Still, corporate sponsors may look across different executions from a particular video blogger and such scrutiny may ultimately shape content and complicate free-form self expression. Such questions are thorny ones for members of the community who are only just beginning to collaboratively but quietly explore possible responses. The fact remains however, that many video bloggers, especially grass roots and professional video bloggers in the entertainment field, already have representation, including some from large and reputable agencies which have formed special divisions to handle Internet media talent. It is difficult to understand the production and reception of symbolic meanings of videos without understanding the tangible, financial drivers within which video making is materially intertwined.
Despite the tensions and multiple meanings imbued in the awards and the ceremony, people who attended, in my estimation, generally seemed to enjoy themselves as a whole and appreciated not only the work that went into putting the ceremony together, but also the opportunity to participate in a social space where, as Daniel McVicar quipped, they could “finally turn the camera on themselves” and celebrate their aspirations and achievements communally. I observed one video blogger who genuinely seemed disappointed in not winning, indicating that the award did have meaning as a type of validation of one’s effort for some video bloggers. I also spoke to video bloggers who regretted being unable to attend because it deprived them of a chance to make new friends and reconnect with others who are experiencing deep human connections through video. Sean Bury of Invisible Engine films (whose video, OMG Mark Foley tied with Bullemhead’s Singing Woodchuck for the people’s choice award for most viral video) said that he appreciated the effort and expense of the ceremony’s preparations which reflect and will encourage increased attention to video blogging and Internet entertainment videos. Indeed, the Vloggies were sponsored by some visible corporate players including: Yahoo! Video; Intel; blip.tv; Dabble; GUBA; Intel; Revver, Pandora; and WebEx. Yet he also noted that the Vloggies seemed to emphasize social networks over awards. Bury said, “The idea of the Vloggies, I think, was less about the awards and more about connecting people who haven’t connected yet in person.”
Like Jerry Zucker, I too delight in being in attendance at the “first annual” of things and it was exciting to attend the first annual Vloggies. Zucker joked that attending the first annual celebration of things (such as the fictional “Beta Maxies” and “Laserdiscies”) doesn’t always pan out the way one would hope. But in this case I am confident that the First Annual Vloggies Award Ceremony is ushering in some interesting forms of video production and reception. I look forward to keeping my eye on the vlogosphere and watching how the tensions and hopes of video bloggers unfold in the coming year.