Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

About Digital Youth

"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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Today on YouTube: Notes from a non-causal observer

In my daily of observations of YouTube activities I noticed a rather strong presence of texts produced by so-called Main Stream Media (MSM), mainly TV. This feature seems to be quite prominent especially on ”the most viewed” page and contradicts some predictions that were made during the big YouTube ascend (i.e., Summer/ Fall 2006.). During that period both MSM journalists and some bloggers have suggested that YouTube would displace or even replace MSM. That was the time when CNN and BBC started to show user-generated videos during their regular news broadcasts. For example in July 2006, as part of CNN's coverage of the fighting in Lebanon, the cable channel showed some YouTube clips that were taken by citizens. Furthermore, even more recently a very influential blog on social networking, Mashable has reported that 32% of frequent YouTube users say they watch less TV due to their youtubing activity.

However, just from looking the list of the most popular videos, even among heavy YouTube users TV watching seems to be still “alive and well”. The most viewed video today is the video that features Kevin Federline’s rapping for a commercial. Federline is versatile celebrity, a musician, a model, a dancer and a wrestler (!) and also (or even better) known as a former husband of the pop superstar Britney Spears.

Next to Federline on the most viewed list are two videos, both “grabs” from the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The first video features Stewart’s interview with Bill Gates promoting his new product “Windows Vista “. The second video is taken from the sequel that follows Bill Gates’ interview. The sequel features Stewart’s comment on how and why (!) B. Gates had left the show on the other day so abruptly. In addition to those two I found more Bill Gates videos that are also grabs from various news broadcasts and talk shows.

Finally on the most viewed list I also notice two videos featuring Tyra Banks, an ex model whose a “not flattering at all” bathing suit photo has been recently published in a certain magazine. The two videos were uploaded by TyraBanksShow, apparently an entity created by Tyra and/or her agents. The videos are in fact trailers for her upcoming show in which she allegedly wears the same bathing suit and confronts “haters” of all kinds…

While watching these videos, my stream of thought drifts away from the reflection about the relation between YouTube and MSM. The videos make me think about the kind of knowledge and the quality of information that are created on YouTube. I wonder how significant is the information that Kevin Federline has produced a commercial or that Tyra Banks proudly weighs over 160 pounds! Has YouTube become just another kind of repository for TV shows and celebrity mythology? Are YouTube contents merely entertaining or there some interesting learning processes that are taking place there as well.
In the continuation of my essay I am going to explore the second possibility and look for some less obvious characteristics of constructing knowledge on YouTube. This discussion will be informed by my analyses of YouTube videos, comments and interviews with YouTubers. My data collection is still in progress and below are just my preliminary thoughts.

It seems to me that however trivial the above discussed pieces of information may sound (especially to readers who are used to academic contents), they might prove relevant for facilitating youth’s participation in public discourse. YouTube serves as a massive public space, populated by people of many ages and diverse cultural, ethnic and educational backgrounds. By uploading certain content (even if it is just a “grab” from a cable program), a user creates a statement of what is relevant, interesting or funny for him/her and invites others to comment and respond to that. In that way, what was originally a solitary of activity of TV viewing, confined within private spaces of one’s apartment, becomes on YouTube a collective activity of reading and interpretation. This allows for inclusion of knowledge and competencies of others, as featured in the following excerpt from one of my interviews:
“ … I am surprised to see sometimes what people put there…. Like I watched that same game, but I did not see the hand touching the ball, I mean really, I don’t think anybody saw it, but that guy saw it and post it on youtube… the guy is unbelievable, that level of detail, i think he must be a professional or something… i mean soccer player. he made me watch the game again“ (M, 20, unemployed designer.)
And yes knowing about celebrities and their lives is important for gaining access to participation and membership in youth peer culture(s). The following quote from another interviewee well illustrates this point
“ …I go to the most viewed page… Mostly I want to know whatz up whatz cool, like what was funny on the Colbert show yesterday, and it is just there, you can browse and look for stuff.. Awesome!” (M, 18, sales associate)

So in a way I argue that on YouTube no person stands by her/himself and no video on YouTube can stand by itself. Poststructuralists like Kristeva (1980) and Barthes have introduced the notion of intertextuality, which is the idea that each text is framed and exists in relation to other texts. Each video is a response motivated by something that the viewer saw/read/heard on YouTube and elsewhere. Even more specifically I refer here to Bakhtin’s idea of addressivity. According to Bakhtin and his colleague Voloshinov, addressivity is the idea that an utterance “is always oriented toward an addressee, toward who that addressee might be… each person’s inner world and thought has its stabilized social audience that comprises the environment in which reasons, motives, values, and so on….” (Bakhtin and Emerson, 1999). In a similar vein each video on YouTube has an imagined addressee or audience and is motivated by another texts that were produced on YouTube and/or elsewhere.
Bellow are some more comments that my interviewees have provided about their viewing patterns on YouTube..
“… When I start watching YouTube, I cannot stop. Each video takes me to another video… It takes me to the author’s profile page… I like to click on related videos that YouTube gives you on the side, you know what I mean... There are always pointers to other videos“ (F, 19, student)
“ ..I often see more videos than I want.... Let’s say I saw that blasphemy video and then I looked the responses and then I looked those people … like their MySpace pages and subscriptions and their favorites… it takes a lot of time to understand what their true motives are…Like I watched that video about a girl who is incredibly skinny and she worries she is fat, but she decides to take a shot of her body….And u wonder what’s going on there.. And then I see the responses and all those girls who responded they all have some kind of eating disorder, I think it’s called BDD… like there is one girl who films the stuff she eats, loads of food, of everything and then she takes a binge… I mean they are total sickos, but u really need to look around to understand what is going on there.. (F, 20, media arts student).
These excerpts illustrate the viewer’s strategy for gaining understanding of the context within which the particular video has been produced and for identifying the targeted audience. They also express the interviewees’ ability to critically evaluate and reflect about information they gather.

I think that Henry Jenkins' idea of “convergence” (Jenkins, 2006) is very useful in understanding the relationship between YouTube and other media. YouTube is highly unlikely to displace other media including the main stream media. Through convergence of media formats, contents, and personas, YouTube changes the pattern of television viewing, enabling a higher degree of audience participation, multi-directional flow of information and collective sharing and knowledge building. As my notes also suggest navigating YouTube requires critical thinking, evaluation and intertextuality. I am not sure what are the long term consequences of youth‘s engagement with new media such as YouTube. There is a growing sense in unfinalizability of knowledge which seems to be a creative and motivating force in knowledge construction. Yet it also produces a sense of fragmentation and distrust ☹

More to come…