"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.
My story is about “Claire”, a 19 year old college student. Claire comes from a rural area and works occasionally on her family’s farm where she manages a small dairy goat herd. A year ago I stumbled upon her YouTube video entitled “I am too sexy”. The video is a remix of the song “I am too sexy” by the British pop band “Right Said Fred” (1992) and a “grab” from “My Little Pony” DVD series. Claire works with relatively basic equipment, which includes a PC computer and Windows Movie Maker software and has received a minimal training in video production.
My data include records of her videos and comments received, as well as a two hour interview, conducted through “instant messaging”. Although instant messaging has placed some constraints on the interviewing process such as the lack of eye contact, inability to monitor interviewee’s attentiveness, and the limited contextual information, I was under the impression that Claire felt comfortable and very motivated to respond to my questions.
My analysis illuminates the process of production, especially the context, circumstances and motivations for creation of this video. My interview with Claire also provides insights about her experience and personal significance of this production. I also analyze the collective readings of this text (i.e., comments and responses to “Claire’s productions).
My goal was to understand the use of video production as a tool for self-expression and for reaching self understandings.
Process of video production: Bricolage
Claire has produced her first video in 2006, and uploaded it on YouTube, after she and her friends decided “that it needed to go somewhere where a lot of people could see it.” In that respect Claire is different than my other interviewee who typically report that they started their own production after watching videos of other people.
All of her other videos (11) are what she calls “animated music videos”, i.e., remixes of clips with animated contents and popular music. Most of her videos (8) include clips from “My Little Pony” TV series. The series was produced by Sunbow and leased to Disney, which showed it in 1992.
This is how Claire describes how she made her first video and why she decided to focus on “My little pony” texts:
“…well... it sort of started in calculus class when me and a couple friends decided it would be really funny to make a my little pony role playing, which sort of got me back into my little ponies... I had collected them when I was little... my little brother got me a pony that came with a DVD and I ended up putting the footage on my computer. when I started playing with windows movie maker that was the only thing I had to work with on the computer, and I ended up putting random clips to the song "I'm too sexy" I thought it was funny so I made an actual video of it, and it just sort of snowballed from there…”
Claire’s method of production resembles the method of “bricolage”. Following Lévi-Strauss (1974), Chandler identifies “bricolage” as the main strategy for the creation of personal home pages. Bricoleurs construct contents by arranging, rearranging, omitting, and transposing with a set of available materials. For example, graphics, sounds, text, and code are often copied from other people’s pages and pasted into the page source, with or without editing. Turkle and Papert in their study of children’s Logo programming emphasize the associative “trial and error” nature of “bricolaging” that facilitates creative innovation (Turkle & Papert, 1992). The method of bricolage implies a lack of a systematic method or a plan, allowing for spontaneity and improvisation in working with “on-hand” ideas, materials, and tools. Claire’s words clearly illustrate that point:
“… I didn't really make them with anything other than amusement in mind, I didn't mean for there to be some deeper meaning in them, but I guess it sort of shows the conflict of growing up, of moving out of the childish things we're used to into the adult world and all that there is in it... umm... they[little ponies – S.B.]'re cute... and I've started collecting them again... though it feels really weird standing in the toy department dressed in mostly black and combat boots looking at ponies... there's a certain amount of holding onto childhood about them, and just being amused by simple, somewhat pointless things... and of course I can't listen to certain songs now without seeing ponies in my head… ”
Video production as creative and reflective consumption of media texts: Remix
Although made without an intention to make an ironic comment or ridicule any of the two texts, the video frequently reads as a parody. When I showed the video in the class on children and media that I taught last year, most of my students suggested that the text appears as a parody because of the contrasting elements of early childhood innocence and openly discussed sexuality in the song. From analyzing 117 comments to this video, it seems that the majority of viewers think that the video is funny (e.g., “kitkatcat” said “poor ponies didnt even know they were sexy tell now lol”), although some people also suggest that it is “kinky“ , “sexy” or just “cute”. However for “Claire” the video is much more than that. Her description of how she feels while watching that video indicates that the video has enabled her to understand the complexity of growing up and confusion around the feelings and desires that teenagers often encounter. It started with nothing “but amusement” in her mind, but the finished product has clearly stimulated Claire’s self-reflection and analysis of her feelings and mental states. Claire’s narrative contrasts her two identities – her current self “dressed in mostly black and combat boots” and her younger self, a girl who seeks amusement and comfort in playing with little ponies and simple things. This contrast reminds me of Garry Cross’ book: “The Cute and the Cool Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children's Culture” (Cross, 2004). In his book Cross analyzes two images of children and childhood that are perpetuated in popular culture: “the cute” ideal of the innocent childhood and “the cool” resistance to adults’ overprotection and patronizing. By remixing the two texts: the “innocent” images of my little ponies with the “cool” song about sex, Claire engages in creative appropriation, reshaping, and evaluation of those texts through their productive recombination and rearrangement (Davis, 1997; Manovich, 2001). Ito (2006) emphasizes that through remixing practices users build personalized relationships to those contents. In these views, remixing is seen a way to actively and creatively consume media texts through production of new texts (Baumer, 2007).
Finally in summarizing the impact of her participation on YouTube Claire gives some insightful comments:
“… it's a good way to reach a lot of people... I have over 50,000 views on the I'm too Sexy video alone, which I'm quite astounded by. it's a way to interact with other people and be as annonimous as you want. you never have to tell anyone anything about yourself, or you can tell them lots of stuff... on the other side, it's another thing that encourages people in general, not just youths, to stay inside and not really interact with other people directly”
Despite her success on YouTube and her generally positive experience with this media, Claire emphasizes that YouTube encourages people to stay “inside” and not interact with other people in face-to-face interaction. This kind of comment was actually very typical for YouTubers, including some YouTube celebrities that I interviewed, who also had implied that YouTube acts as a potential displacer of social activity. Such a view is congruent with the current public concern over digital media influences, as well as with some researchers (e.g., Nie & Hillygus, 2002; Putnam, 2000) who suggest that online activities oust more vital social and communal activities and that they create pseudo rather than real relationships and communities. Although my findings indicate that YouTube does not communication tools that support intimacy in communication with close friends, YouTube has scaled up youth’s self expression and enabled youth to reach massive audiences, while preserving anonymity.
The follow up will focus on examining further experiences on and with YouTube, and their implications on Claire’s life. For example I wonder whether Claire is going to change her method of production as she is apparently gaining more skill. I also wonder if her interaction with other YouTubers will change and perhaps become more intimate than it was the case insofar. Most of all I wonder for how long she will keep up with her YouTubing activity. I have already sensed a slight discontent with YouTube in her responses, and can imagine her “moving out” of YouTube and migrating to a media that is more is even more interesting and exciting. The growing number of social media sites that target American youth makes this prospect quite feasible.
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