Jenkins & Duncombe 2008: Politics in the Age of YouTube
Volume 18 Numbers 2, 3, & 4, 2008
Politics in the Age of YouTube:
A transcript of a public conversation 2/10/08
at Otis College of Art and Design
Henry Jenkins *
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Stephen Duncombe **
New York University
Context and Background: We are pleased to include in our Special
Issue a printed version of a public conversation between Henry Jenkins and
Stephen Duncombe, which was held in February 2008 at Otis College of Art and
Design. Prior to this scheduled event at Otis College, Professor Jenkins gave
a talk at University of Toronto and Dr. Boler inquired afterwards whether he
had anything he might like to contribute to this EJC Issue. Henry Jenkins mentioned
the forthcoming forum with Duncombe. Thus, quite fortunately, Boler and Gournelos
had the opportunity to develop questions specifically related to the topics
of this Special Issue, to which Jenkins and Duncombe were able to respond during
their public conversation in February 2008. Titled “Politics in the Age
of YouTube,” their discussion highlights how popular culture, user-generated
content, and diverse forms of humor reflect and influence perceptions of politics
and political candidates.
H.J.: I’m happy to be here and delighted to have a public conversation with Stephen. I greatly admire his new book, Dream, which has helped me think about issues in the current campaign. Tonight, we’ll walk through landmarks of the current political season and place them in the larger context of shifts that are occurring in the relationship between politics and popular culture, which are reshaping our conceptualization of democracy. This is a great time for this discussion, it being the week after Super Tuesday and the weekend of several significant primaries and caucuses in one of the most interesting political seasons of any of our lifetimes.
I wanted to start with the YouTube-CNN debates from last fall as an example of some of the political changes that are taking place. There’s something significant about the partnering of the new media icon YouTube and the old media icon CNN to construct a particular notion of democracy. In this debate, YouTube encouraged people to submit their questions for presidential candidates and more than 6000 video questions were submitted via YouTube in preparation for the democratic debate. CNN then vetted the questions and professional journalists chose which questions to present to the candidates. We can talk about what it means to have a participatory opening, but still have the final questions vetted or narrowed by professional newsmakers. But first let’s look at a key moment in that debate, which comes about half way through when this question gets asked:
S.D.: That question was directed to Dennis Kucinich, who with a straight face then went into a discussion about the connection between what he called global ‘warring’ and global ‘warming’ and then brought it back to touch on the snowman at the end. Within a few days the Republican contender Mitt Romney said that he thought the question of a snowman asking a question in a debate debased the whole idea of having political debates -- and this is when the Republicans were hedging around the idea of having a YouTube-CNN debate. I’ll turn this over to Henry because he’s written on this video and how to make sense of it in a political and cultural context.
H.J.: So one way to make sense of it is to look at the history of this video, which was made by two brothers in Minneapolis. The video’s life started out as a sophomoric parody made partially in tribute to Mr. Bill. In the original video a samurai comes in and lops off the head of Billiam the Snowman. And so it started off as two guys playing around with cameras, sticking their stuff on YouTube, the sort of sophomoric stunts that we’ve seen quite a bit of on YouTube. Now the fact that it’s a parody of Mr. Bill is not a coincidence. There are two things we should know about Mr. Bill. Firstly, that it emerged in an earlier moment of user-generated content in the 1970s. When Saturday Night Live was first going on the air, they did an open call for home movies to be submitted for broadcast during the program and Mr. Bill had won that competition and went on to get a contract from the network to produce 24 segments of Mr. Bill to be aired on
SNL during the first few seasons of the show. More recently, the creator of Mr. Bill emerged as an environmental activist and was starting to use Mr. Bill to comment on the issue of the wetlands of Louisiana and that was widely played on Louisiana and Mississippi television stations prior to Hurricane Katrina, warning about the potential environmental consequences that would come from global warning. So both of these points would have informed the brothers’ choice: when they made the first video they were following the footsteps of Mr. Bill as he moved from being a simply comic figure into a political figure. The insertion of this video in a debate would have been the beginning of this process. Romney’s complaint that this trivialized the debate doesn’t acknowledge that the question asked is a serious one and a substantive one.
Secondly, we’ve heard politicians for some time use cartoon characters, packs of wolves, morphed images, little girls pulling petals out of flowers to talk to voters. Now voters were using the same kind of iconography to talk back to candidates. And the snowman video spoofs several key rhetorical devices of contemporary politics. One, the snowman spoofs the notion of protecting our children. The other is the notion of embodying an issue in the town hall tradition, where people are asked to speak on behalf of particular interest groups – this is a representative woman speaking about women, this is a representative African-American speaking about African-American issues. A snowman speaking on behalf of snowmen is a spoof of identity politics and one that forces us to think about political language.
S.D.: As a question, it’s an important one yet also relatively banal: what do you do about global warming? It’s the type of question that could be asked by a CNN commentator. But what I think is interesting here is the implicit question about who gets to ask questions and how they are asked. What was important about the YouTube-CNN debate is not the questions per se but that people were creating DIY videos in order to ask the questions—it reversed the idea of who gets to frame out and ask questions, even if they were vetted by CNN journalists. Another thing Henry touched on is the use of parody. One of the things both Henry and I have been interested in for quite some time is fan culture and DIY media, and one of the things I’ve been concerned with both as an activist and a theorist is use of parody, satire, and irony in politics. The mainstream politicians essentially ignored the humor of a snowman asking a question. This is significant bec
ause parody and irony can disturb and upset the system – denaturalizing the natural, as it were.
H.J.: CNN justified its own gatekeeper role in the process by claiming that the public wasn’t taking this function seriously citing the fact that one of the most popular YouTube videos for the debate asked whether Arnold Schwarzenegger was really an android from the future sent back to deal with present problems. There was another one on Roswell and whether the government was hiding records on alien visitation and CNN cited these as signs of irresponsibility. If we think about contemporary politics in the age of YouTube, one of the things we’ve seen again and again is the public exploiting openings into the system provided it by trying to negate the rules of the system.
S.D.: That’s how I understood those mock questions, of which the snowman was the most acceptable. There’s two ways to read these questions. First, this is exactly why democracy should not be opened up to the people, as they’re going to ask ridiculous questions. But there’s another way to look at it, which is, [the videos] showed up the ridiculousness of the questions that are asked over and over again: the horse race campaign questions. What’s so ludicrous about a question asked about UFOs given the other “legitimate” questions such as “Did you really cry?”
H.J.:We can see the power to negate in the ‘vote for the worst campaign’: on American Idol, what kept Sanjaya Malakar on air last season for a long period of time was a large-scale organization that Howard Stern got behind that aimed to use the public vote to keep bad singers on the show for as long as possible, exploiting the mechanism and space for participation that the producers had opened, and saying that 'we’re going to demonstrate our power by making you do things we know you don’t want us to do by forcing your hand.' So voting for a question about whether Schwarzenegger is an android is a way of saying 'we’re going to challenge the normal frames.' The power of the mass media, its response to the public’s power to negate, is the power to marginalize.
A piece I’m working on right now talks about a guy who appeared on camera to ask a question wearing a Mexican wrestling mask. If you go to YouTube and trace that backwards that question was part of a larger debate about muzzling speech in the US and about the importance of speaking as an anonymous person in the context of this administration. But it also mobilized the figure of the lucha, the Mexican wrestler. In Mexico, wrestlers often speak politically on behalf of the dispossessed – and that association was not trivializing [the debate], rather it was aimed at connecting to a larger political movement that CNN was simply not ready to acknowledge and so just turned it into a joke. CNN stripped this guy of his voice when putting him into the broadcast, using him to illustrate how not to ask questions and be taken seriously. They showed him without explaining why he did it or even what he was asking about. CNN constructed him as an idiot rather than someone who w
as politically engaged.
S.D.: Let’s talk about this use of humor and parody. It’s common knowledge now that The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are primary news sources for young people. When many politically-minded people from an older generation hear this they wring their hands and ask, why aren’t people reading the New York Times, the LA Times, or tuning into CNN? But one of the things both of us are interested in is why people are turning to a comedy show that follows a show with sock puppets? and how do we understand this as increasingly part of mainstream political discourse?
H.J.: Comedy Central provided more hours of coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions than NBC, ABC, and CBS combined. The Obama keynote speech did not appear on any of the three major networks, but did appear on Comedy Central. So it’s not at the end of the day that Comedy Central trivializes news, it’s that news has backed away from some of its civic, educational functions in a significant way and Comedy Central provides a different way for candidates and politicians to relate to the public. There’s also been some comparative work on the range of guests appearing on ABC News’ Nightline and Comedy Central’s programs and it turns out that there’s a broader range of perspectives appearing on Comedy Central. The channel is also teaching you a healthy skepticism about how news and politicians construct reality for us, and that’s really powerful.
S.D.: There’s also an openness in its distance from the truth. When you watch Jon Stewart deconstruct something, you know what he’s doing: he’s making fun of it, he’s pulling himself back from it. This is not the distance that you get with a news commentator who’s ostensibly telling the truth. And there’s something more true, more accurate in that distance then there is in the faux objectivity of a standard news report. It reveals an important part of what politics really is: spin, perception, presentation and spectacle. I’ll never forget when I was at an election night party held by the left, liberal magazine The Nation. What news were we – sober, responsible, politically-minded intellectuals and reporters -- watching? The Daily Show, because it had more insight into what was really happening in the elections than CNN or FOX.
[Clip from The Colbert Report highlighting the “combination of comedy and political education that the show is involved with,” says Henry.] -- this clip has been subject to a takedown notice on YouTube.
S.D.: What’s wonderful is that two days after appearing on this show, [Mike Huckabee] takes Louisiana and Kansas.
H.J.: What’s amazing is he cites this appearance on some of his interviews on CNN and MSNBC as he’s trying to explain the outcome of the race and says that you have a better chance of figuring out the outcome of Texas [by playing air hockey, as on the show] than any other. His stance as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously has helped defuse much of the anxiety of his being a conservative Christian or evangelical candidate. He’s been very adept at appealing beyond the Christian base with these tactics. He was doing these shows before he started taking off and when he had little budget. He may have built his visibility as a candidate by appearing on these shows. It might have paved the way.
S.D.: You could look at Huckabee’s use of comedy in politics with horror. Huckabee has a serious immigration policy, one I don’t agree with, but a serious proposal nonetheless. But what are we to do with Huckabee’s campaign advertisement in which he presents his immigration policy as Chuck Norris standing on the border? This is a dangerous sort of politics because it can’t really be questioned since there is nothing serious to interrogate.
But I find Huckabee’s use of humor very interesting, and also predictable given his marginal stance. Marginal candidates, and advocates of marginal political causes, have often used humor and parody. Think of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which he argues that if the Irish are starving they merely need to eat their children. And this is 1729.
The power of parody -- especially in marginal political groups -- is that it ends up creating a meaning system. What parody, satire, and irony do is say, “this is what we aren’t and let’s leave what we are open to be decided by the community.” And what this does is create a bond within the community. It also functions differently in that it’s not telling the answer. Think of ‘push’ politics or ‘push’ media which are more like a lecture telling the audience this is what my policy is. This is more like ‘pull’ media which says you have to fill in the gap and create the message as you smile and laugh and fill in the blanks. And that makes for pretty powerful politics.
H.J.: Huckabee embodies a shift in the relationship between the Christian right and popular culture. I write about this shift in Convergence Culture at some length: there’s a strand in the Southern Baptist and evangelical church in general that rather than wage a battle against popular culture it’s better to mobilize popular culture effectively by creating their own popular culture. We can see Veggie Tales as an attempt at Christian counter-culture, the attempt to mimic genres of entertainment and produce it for Christian youth so that they have their own version of things. The effort to produce The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is coming out of that: the producers of those movies have strong ties to the church and have used those ties to get people into the film.
But these efforts also show a critical stance on popular culture – what’s known as the Christian discernment movement – which is a media literacy movement which seeks to understand what non-believers believe by engaging in critical dialogue with popular media texts. They produce study guides on all kinds of films that you wouldn’t expect as part of a larger conversation. You’re seeing things like Fans for Jesus, or Aime Fans for Christ, and organizations of gamers that are exploring religious themes. You can position what Huckabee is doing as part of that continuum, it’s his saying 'we’re not opposed to popular culture, we’re not sticks in the mud.' The fact that Chuck Norris has written religious books and wasn’t just a campy icon who might appeal to young voters makes his partnership with Huckabee make political sense. He was already known in the Christian community to share a particular philosophy that Huckabee endorses. So t
his is a message on dual levels: it’s both an endorsement and a spoof of an endorsement. It is both an acknowledgement of a Christian tradition and also an acknowledgement that the Christian tradition might be embracing rather than rejecting popular culture. And I think that’s part of what makes Huckabee a really interesting candidate.
S.D.: A commentator over the weekend said to Huckabee: “do the math, you can’t win this.” And he replied, “I didn’t major in math, I majored in miracles,” which, given that he’s a Southern Baptist minister, got a good chuckle. But I think we should take his mention of miracles seriously. What’s happening around the Huckabee right is sort of what’s happening around the utopian left. Both are using parody as a way of opening up what could be, posing the question: what if? Parody does this not by giving an affirmative answer—which shuts down the discussion -- but by stating the negative: this is what we don’t want. This, of course, leaves open the question of what we do want.
There’s a resonance between Christian idea of heaven and miracle and leftist utopianism. Let me give a satirical example of the latter: The Yes Men is a small lefty group of performers with nerves of steel. They pretend to be what they aren’t: figures from big business, policy wonks. They wheedle their ways into news conferences, pretending to be policy wonks making a case for slavery and they play this with a straight face and see how far they can get. Here’s one of their most effective and famous pieces: they were interviewed by the BBC on the twentieth anniversary of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal.
The idea was to push Dow, who had just bought Union Carbide, into a place where they had to say publicly what they’ve been saying privately: that they will not accept responsibility for the deaths in Bhopal. On the one hand, it was just a clever tactical prank, but instead of getting up on a soapbox and saying we believe that Union Carbide or Dow should take responsibility for the deaths in Bhopal, or that corporations are bad and don’t care about people, [The Yes Men] use a different language, a different technique, to make the same point. Again, they do not lecture, telling their audience what to think; they create openings and questions. And they aren’t unique in this type of political and communicative strategy. There are a lot of groups on the left fringe using irony and parody, and you see Huckabee using something similar on the right fringe.
Henry, why irony in this case? What does it get at that a standard demonstration against Union Carbide wouldn’t get?
H.J.: I think the Yes Men play an agent provocateur role, as you suggest. They change the discursive landscape by forcing the other side to reveal its true colors. I am reminded -- by looking at that clip -- of Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s whose notion of gonzo journalism was to be this totally inflammatory persona who inserted himself in a certain situation -- the Super Bowl, the Republican national convention -- so that he would be shut down. And then he wrote about the experiences of repression and the ways in which the system shut him down. It’s about forcing the system to reveal its true colors – think of Abbie Hoffman.
S.D.: Yes, Abbie Hoffman used to swear when he was interviewed on TV knowing that what he said would get beeped out. But, as Henry suggests, the censorship did two things simultaneously: one, it showed the repressive power of the media, but it also opened up his interview to the viewer’s imagination and encouraged people to think about what he could be saying that’s so radical that network TV is beeping him out. It was a tactic, he wrote in his book Revolution for the Hell of It, to create blank space.
H.J.: Abbie Hoffman did this stunt where he throws dollar bills into the New York Stock Exchange, knowing the news media will have to show this spectacle of these guys who stop bidding and grope at the sky for falling money. That image revealed the underlying mechanisms of the system as it is being disrupted. Part of the role of the farce is to provoke a system.
There was a case recently in Australia where an Australian television show, The Chasers, tried to see how close it could get to George Bush’s compound at a global summit. They did it by putting guys in suits running alongside a limousine adorned with the Canadian flag. The guards, one guard after another, flagged them through thinking there was nothing threatening about the Canadians going into the summit space. The pranksters were getting really shaken up because they got within inches of the center where the big global summit was going to take place. They finally chickened out, but before chickening out completely, they had a guy in the limousine dressed up as Osama Bin Laden and they shoved him out of the limousine at the gates of the summit and watched all the security guards from all the countries race over to try and stop Osama bin Laden. They put all of this on the Australian television and it’s now, like everything else in our lives, circulating via YouTu
These are examples of parody forcing repression in order to reveal the hidden mechanisms by which society regulates what one can and cannot say.
S.D.: I think these activists who use humor in this way are doing something very interesting here: they imagine a world which almost can’t be. The Yes Men, for example, imagine – publicly and visually -- the world as a place where Dow would appear on the BBC and state that they were actually going to take responsibility for their corporate actions. As you watch this something stays; what remains is the absurd and simultaneously sane questions of “why is it so crazy that a corporation would do this?” “Why is this something that has to be a prank?” “Why is it that this will never happen in our world, in our lifetime?” This creates a certain utopian space. Satire and irony can close things down and make people dispirited. For example: all politics is a joke and the best you can do is get a good laugh out of it. But there is also that critical utopian moment where things get opened up.
There are two artists, Packard Jennings and Steve Lambert, that have done a wonderful project on the streets of San Francisco. They asked a bunch of urban planners and transportation engineers from that city to imagine what San Francisco could be like. Then they, in their own words, “exaggerated” the plans a little. They got the city to put up these huge street posters and kiosks showing the San Francisco of tomorrow, and the tomorrow they display is absurd, ridiculous. One poster promoted turning SF into a wildlife refuge with pictures of office workers eating lunch with mountain gorillas. Another suggested turning Candlestick Park into an organic farm and 49ers linebackers into human plows. These crazy ideas are, on the one hand, easily dismissed, but there is also something about the very impossibility of these plans that opens up a whole terrain for radical imagining. When we are talking about talking about greening a city, why do we limit ourselves to imagin
ing a park here or a green space there? Why don’t we re-imagine what a green city could be? These impossible futures allow us to do that; they push our thinking past the possible while at the same time -- by positing absurd impossibilities --don’t limit this expansion with the “right” and final answer.
H.J.: So part of what a critical utopianism does is that it not only imagines a better world, but also uses that as a yard stick to measure the presence. When we imagine alternatives, we go back to the world we live in and ideally we also begin to think of the steps that will get us from the undesirable present to the much more desired future. When we do this in comic terms, we tackle a much older tradition of worlds turned upside down, topsy-turvydom, of carnivals, the idea of suspending the normal rules of operation, creating a counter-world where a hunchback could be crowned king. Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the classic image of carnival in which the powerless become powerful and we imagine the redistribution of power. Historically, carnival has served both as the beginnings of actual street riots and peasant uprisings. It has also served as its own kind of social mechanism so there are societies where once a year women beat their h
usbands and the women in the village take arms against the husbands who have been the most abusive to their wives. Anthropologists believe this serves some check on the abuse of power – the ability to do a comic reversal actually has this effect of forcing people to look at themselves with notions of public shame.
S.D.: In England it was called “rough music.” In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries people would go outside people’s houses and parade those who had violated community norms in the same way. The question always is: is that a safe release valve that makes us satisfied with the present or is it a stepping stone into thinking about a new future?
H.J.: As we look at the campaign season we are seeing this “rough music” directed at the candidates in a number of ways. This video about Hillary would be a good example of this. This video came out [a few weeks after the New Hampshire primary] and it does what satire does well: takes the sacred and makes it profane.
It’s an inspiring spoof. Partially it’s reactive to the Hillary Clinton crying video that people credited with having had a huge impact in New Hampshire, a video that itself circulates heavily on YouTube. Most of us read about the coverage and then went back to YouTube to find the clip and watch it.
Here the video producers are using YouTube to break that clip down and make fun of the construction of Clinton. Why should it matter so much one way or another that she cried in New Hampshire? Why have the news media pumped this into such a big event? Part of what is fascinating about this video is watching the footage of Hillary crying get recontextualized this way so quickly.
S.D.: Why this worked in a lot of ways is not because of Clinton crying, it’s about the meta-story of Hillary crying. Mainstream politics has become just a game so why not make that into a game. So in the film Election we see Reese Witherspoon getting angry and Clinton getting angry; revealing contemporary politics through this old Hollywood flick. To me then the question becomes: what does this do to politics? Does it open it up for new formations or does it actually close it down into a game of cynicism and culture?
H.J.: Part of what’s interesting is that Election itself was originally a spoof of the election that brought Bill Clinton to the White House. Tracy Fleck was supposed to be George Bush the senior who runs against the rogue figure, Bill Clinton figure, during that campaign. So the film was written as a reaction to one election, but the roles are reversed here. Part of the statement is that the Clintons are acting as everything they ran against. The young upstart is now the establishment figure; the Clintons are trying to run on experience when before they were making the case that inexperience was a virtue and that being from outside Washington would allow Bill Clinton to bring fresh perspectives and incorporate change. The Bill Clinton campaign was of a man from a town called Hope and the Obama campaign has successfully mobilized hope in this election. Obama stole the words 'hope' and 'change' out of the lexicon of the Clinton campaign and the Clintons
are forced to campaign on a platform that sounds much like what they ran on before. The irony here, I think, is the inter-textuality in using Fleck as a stand-in for Hillary Clinton.
S.D.: I think one of the things you see through YouTube politics is DIY politics in its visual activist form. It is changing the way we do and think about politics. Politics is no longer just about rational discourse, or about the policies – it’s also going to be about laughing, it’s going to be about joy. Politics will be played out on the affective as well as the intellectual level. Often times this is understood as being dangerous: politics is supposed to be about reason and reason only; we are supposed to shy away from emotion because that leads to fascism and so on. But I also think that mobilized correctly, this sort of DIY absurdity and humor introduces something very exciting into this political season: the idea that politics is about emotions and how people feel about candidates and not necessarily how they think about the issues. This is not a new insight, it’s common fodder for political commentators. What’s new is how it&rs
quo;s also happening on the margins. YouTube and DIY politics have been doing this affective political work for quite some time.
H.J.: I don’t think we have to show the Obama girl who made a brief appearance there: the reference of that constructed the campaign as a fan movement and this video uses fan knowledge of the election in a sophisticated way. An understanding of the video helps us think in new ways about these presidential candidates. Part of what’s happened is that we have changed the language of American politics, which tended to be wonkish in the Clinton mode, or tends to be in other ways exclusionary, it shuts people out through inside-of-the-beltway language. Such rhetoric doesn’t acknowledge the realities of their experience, it doesn’t touch their emotions at this point, at its best it’s hyper-rational. Instead, YouTube politics embraces a world where things we know as a consumer or as a fan become a valid point of entry into thinking critically about the political process. I think that is part of what has turned things around and why so many you
ng people are participating in the process at this go around. Primary after primary, we are seeing many more people under the age of 30 than over the age of 60 voting. This is probably the first time this is happening since 18-year-olds got the right to vote.
I was waiting in line in Boston last week for the Obama rally. Eight thousand people were waiting in the freezing cold stretched around four city blocks to get in there. As I was listening to young people around me and how they got interested in the candidate, they kept making references to The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, the Obama girl, the 1984 video spoof [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h3G-lMZxjo]. The parodies are what got their attention and made them feel like this might be a different kind of political process. From there, they tried to get more information and eventually they were pulled to this event, which was not announced by mainstream media at all. Mainstream media simply said that Obama was going to be in Boston. If you were there, you heard about it from a social networking site, text messages, or cellphone calls.
I just saw a documentary about the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Four thousand students converged on Chicago in 1968 shouting “the whole world is watching.” [In my opinion a much larger] number of people were in Boston waiting in line in the freezing cold for Obama. I have to say, I was a senior citizen in the crowd at the rally. My wife and I were there and we were by far among the top five percent in age: this was overwhelmingly an under-30 crowd and we were excited to see that level of youth participation.
S.D.: Moving from parody, we are going to look at a fan video done by a high-power fan, a member of the Black Eyed Peas, will.i.am and Jesse Dylan (Bob Dylan’s son) for Barack Obama. The video illustrates this idea of affective activism or emotional politics, but instead of mobilizing irony or satire as we have been talking about up until now, this video makes an emotional appeal firmly rooted in the authentic.
H.J.: The comments we are hearing there are from Obama’s speech in the New Hampshire primary. It’s not a victory speech, but a speech delivered after coming in second, describing the uphill struggle he still imagines for his campaign. One of the things that strikes me when I listen to the original speech is that its cadence comes straight out of Martin Luther King. The rhythms in that speech have some of the same rhythms out of the Black church which made the “I have a dream” speech so powerful. Its rhetorical strategy comes out of Walt Whitman. If you think about how that speech is organized, we’re seeing him envision an America that spans across history and connects his struggle for elected office with a long set of struggles for change, for progressive reform, of various groups coming together and being woven together. He builds it from these evocative phrases, not even complete sentences. If you go back and look at Walt Whitman&rsq
uo;s “I Sing the Body Electric,” you’ll see how Whitman describes America through the laborers, the city dwellers, and the farmers in these same kind of evocative phrases and gradually stitches them together into a unified whole. So Obama constructing a Whitmanesque vision of America, which is then layered over with a chorus singing along with him in his video. Obama is no longer speaking in a single voice, but in a collective voice with many people, and consciously choosing African-American images, Asian-American images, Chicano, and Latina images to try to construct a visual equivalent to that same narrative. Now, this is done outside of the campaign. This video was produced by Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas, who brought his friends together to work on it. He was not sanctioned by the Obama campaign, the video was outside of the campaign’s orbit and distributed almost entirely through YouTube, as far as I can tell. But it is hitting a massive number of peo
S.D.: Last time I saw there were two million views.
H.J.: The campaigns are giving up control over the political process by allowing these other groups to participate. And these other groups are shaping the way we perceive the campaign’s message.
S.D.: We saw groups in the last campaign that took messages outside the official campaigns, the 527s, organizations like MoveOn and Swift Boat Veterans, but they were still political organizations. Now this is two well-connected individuals with a good studio and good video, but individuals nonetheless. You’re seeing more and more of this on YouTube. When I was searching for advertisements for Clinton and Obama, half the stuff that would come up would be these homemade advertisements.
One of the things I find interesting about this video is the form: there is the rhetorical style you mentioned, but there is the aesthetic form that works here too: the look and feel of the music video. And just like advertising, these videos have protocols embedded within them, ways of understanding and making sense in the world. When you watch a music video, it’s emotional, it’s collective, and it’s inspirational. I think one of the reasons this video promotion for Obama works really well is because that collection of emotional responses also resonates with his message of hope and change and “Yes We Can”.
One of the things I am very interested in is how spectacle works, and this is a spectacle. A spectacle uses a language of emotions which one could not articulate in a logical sentence. Some of this is done brilliantly here. “Yes, We Can,” for example. When they keep repeating “yes, we can,” translating it once into the famous Chicano farm worker’s slogan: “si, se puede.” they are positioning themselves and Obama as part of this tradition of coming out of the farm workers’ struggle, without ever openly acknowledging this.. But they are also making an implicit argument about how culture transfers. When “yes, we can,” or “si, se puede” becomes the rallying cry, it’s basically saying that we are going to adopt a slogan from those outside society and move it into the center. The immigration policies of most of the candidates suggest that the point is to Americanize immigrants; using “yes, w
e can” as a rallying cry suggest the opposite: that we need to immigrant-ize America. It doesn’t matter what Obama’s immigration policy is, rationally speaking. It’s not Obama stating this as a platform slogan, but everything about that video that says this.
One more thing on Obama. I’m teaching a class on the New Deal and propaganda back at New York University, where we talk about rhetorical strategies. Clinton is absolutely right to ask of Obama is “what is inside the hope?” But as one of my very smart students pointed out, if you answer that then the power of the hope disappears, or at least is seriously limited. Keeping the idea of hope open and empty means that it gets filled in by the rest of us.
H.J.: That is part of the design. The “we” is perhaps the most important word here. My friend Justine Cassell at Northwestern University is a linguist and she did studies on the rhetoric of young people leading in online communities versus adults speaking in political speech. One of the things she noticed was that adult politicians use the word “I” overwhelmingly: “This is what I am going to do for you”; “this is why I am the best qualified person”; “this is my experience.” Young people online use “we” much more extensively: “what are we going to do?”; “what are our concerns?”; “what’s our agenda?”; “how do we get there?”
And Obama taps that same empowered “we” of all of us working together in an online community – within what I like to call collective intelligence culture – where people pool their knowledge and work towards a common goal is very different rhetorically. It’s no question to why we had Clinton evoking Lyndon Johnson versus Martin Luther King, trying to say that the power resides in the chief executive who leads the country, while Obama said no, that power comes from the bottom up, from the grassroots upwards. The King movement was a grassroots movement where King symbolized the vision or articulate the vision, but it was the many people who were marching in the streets who brought about change. One reason why young people feel such a connection to the Obama campaign may be its embrace of a rhetoric of shared responsibility and collective intelligence.
And it’s not just a rhetorical device. So when Clinton talks about her experience and he talks about new ideas, they are really setting up an idea of one person on top of the country (“commander in chief from Day One”) versus a collective process involving lots of people working together to bring about change. You see it in the ways that the Obama campaign mobilized around Facebook and MySpace. A social networking technology doesn’t necessarily just connect the candidate to the voter, but also connects voters to each other. What the Obama campaign is creating, then, is an infrastructure for youth-driven politics that will be in place for a long time to come as these people connect to each other as powerfully as they connect to the centralized campaign.
S.D.: I am going to rip something off from Henry’s last book, where he argues that while technology is important, there is something that is even more important going on, and that is protocol shifting. One of the things that both Henry and I are interested in is mass culture, partly because these are the places where protocols for thinking about how we operate in the world are articulated and then leak out into the political sphere. Sometimes this transfer from the cultural to the political happens consciously – and this is something I write a lot about in my Dream book and I try to do in my political activism. But sometimes this happens more or less unconsciously through the everyday process of people learning how to think on their computer or while watching TV and then demanding this way of thinking and way of being when they move out into the political sphere.
I was reading this French philosopher Jacques Rancière -- and I strongly advise doing this sitting at a pool when it’s 70 degrees out while thumping dance music is playing in the background, because doing this yesterday at the hotel where Otis put me up I think I finally understood Jacques Rancière for the first time. In any case, Rancière has this thing that he calls the “distribution of the sensible,” or, in this case, the redistribution of the sensible, by which he means that what the avant garde – be it aesthetic or political – can, and should, do is literally change what you can imagine or feel through your senses. What Henry and I are trying to say here is that something is happening that is redistributing the sensible, away from the leader-driven, expert-driven, bureaucratic, representational democracy towards a participatory, collective, emotive, affective, discursive democracy. And you see little snippets of it in the main
stream campaign showing up in the form of the snow man, with this music video, and then refusals of it by Mitt Romney, Dennis Kucinich, Hillary Clinton and so forth. Others are open to it like Obama or Huckabee. But the language and the experience of politics is changing.
H.J.: The things we are learning to do through play are quickly being applied to political life. So the game, The Movies, comes out and one of its first applications is to make a film about French democracy. Machinima [films animated using game engines] quickly becomes mobilized as a resource for political change. Just as in a hunting society we learn by playing with bows and arrows, so in an information society, we learn by playing with information. We can see that pedagogy in place in the story of the snowman which we began with, where these kids in Minnesota made a spoof and then they made a film that put a spin on a political debate.
I didn’t talk about what happened next. When Mitt Romney refused to debate a snowman, they made a series of other snowman videos calling attention to Romney’s record and some of his stances and those began to get picked up by the mainstream media. At a campaign appearance in New Hampshire, Romney held up a sign that said, “Say no to Obama, Osama and Chelsea’s Mama.” That sign got photographed by a blogger. Then someone with a camcorder on their phone in Iowa cornered Romney and asked him about it and then podcast the video showing Romney saying to the guy, “just lighten up slightly.” Then, the phrase “lighten up slightly” was used in another snowman video. CNN then took that snowman video and the surrounding controversy and put it back on television. So the kids in Minnesota had the opportunity to use CNN to direct attention back to this controversy of Romney and the sign. It was this set of connected citizens around the country
who started by playing and then got more savvy in terms of media.
Another example would be the HPAlliance [http://www.thehpalliance.org/], which is an organization of thousands of Harry Potter fans working together to bring about change. Their argument is that kids in this generation learned how to read and write through Harry Potter. Now they are learning how to change the world through Harry Potter. They are calling themselves Dumbledore’s Army and mobilizing the idea that just as Harry Potter questioned authority, stood up for what he believed in, and organized his friends in the face of restrictions, that’s what’s needed for a political life and what it takes to change the world. They have organized campaigns around Darfur, genocide, labor conditions, and Wal-Mart, and are using the fan network to organize people politically. They are mobilizing the idea of resistance in the Harry Potter fantasy series to inspire political resistance in the real world. <
S.D.: Since this is an arts school, a number of you must have read Learning from Las Vegas, which is a book by Robert Venturi and others about what architects can learn from Las Vegas. It is really a pioneering document of postmodernism, and that’s usually how it is remembered. But it is also about learning from popular culture. Venturi and his colleagues’ whole point is that architects create this idealized person and then build for that idealized person. Venturi and his colleagues argue for a different strategy: we have to step back and see what people really do and then decide how we are going to engage with what people’s real desires are no matter how banal or corrupt they may seem. (And Las Vegas can certainly seem that way.) There are two stances you can take towards popular culture and politics: one is to dismiss it and say that if people turned off their televisions, got away from their Game Boys, stopped listening to their iPods, a
nd just started reading policy papers, this world would be a better place. It probably would, but that’s not going to happen. The fact is that people are engaged in popular culture and I think Henry and I are very interested in what you can learn from that: what are people doing to popular culture in a way of dialoguing with it, moving it to places which the creators never intended, and then moving it someplace else, into the political realm to see what happens to politics as it is transformed into a place we could have never imagined.
H.J.: Popular culture is shared culture. It is not defined automatically along the ideological axis. To paraphrase Obama, they watch 24 in blue states and The West Wing in the red states. The point is that the shows that might seem ideological are watched by a large number of conservatives as well as by liberals and represent a shared vocabulary they can use to talk to each other. So, in a sense, fandom provides a political space through which to explore common ground, alternative perspectives. Fan conversations allow us another space through which to compare notes about our hopes and dreams about what kind of society we want to live in. Here, conservatives and liberals can talk outside of the predetermined terms of more overtly ideological discussions. And now that fan language is being pulled back into the political process where it’s associated with candidates like Obama or Huckabee, both of whom are trying to position themselves in a post-pa
rtisan world. Both are taking some positions that are traditionally Republican and some that are traditionally Democratic. Both are trying to create a language they think will appeal to independent voters. That’s why they are moving the images and practices of popular culture into public space, hoping to articulate a shared vision for the future grounded in our common fantasies. We had to escape the divisiveness of partisan culture before we could find any common ground about where this country needs to go.
S.D.: Often, the conversation stays within the tropes of popular culture and, as such, it can be banal, divisive and so on. But there are moments where you actually see the movement into a vibrant politicized culture. I find those to be very exciting moments as a language is developing which we actually don’t quite know the parameters of yet. What I think is interesting about Huckabee and Obama is, whether or not they win, what they have done is legitimize this discourse. And they will not be able to contain it if or when they get into power. My wife, who is actually a Clinton supporter, has asked me, “what happens if [Obama] gets into power and is not able to actually deliver any of this?” My response is that it doesn’t matter, the cat’s out of the bag. People are already dreaming and once that starts happening, you can’t stuff those dreams back in.
We’ve seen this at different times in our history, around Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was a skillful, but essentially average, politician, and yet he unleashed a set of dreams which he couldn’t contain. John F. Kennedy, too, was a middling politician, but he also unleashed a set of aspirations that he could not contain. Interestingly enough, culture was an integral part of both of their campaigns as well, and I think we’re seeing that again in this moment. Culture becomes a place in the free world where one can imagine: what if?
H.J.: We have been celebratory here about the ways popular culture is influencing the political process but we should also be clear that participatory culture does not always result in beautiful things. When you empower everyone in society to take media in their own hands and construct their own images, then some of the images that circulate are going to be nasty. As we look towards the fall campaign, as exciting as these various movements are, whether it’s Clinton or Obama, we are going to see some really ugly stuff. It will not necessarily be produced by the candidates, who will have a certain floor that they will not drop below, but by the public that will go way lower than that. We have already seen photo-shopped collages that represent Obama as Borat. We have seen those that represent Obama as the chauffeur who drives Miss Daisy, with Clinton in the back seat of the car. There is all kinds of stuff that evokes sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, anxi
ety about young people, and, on the left, anti-Mormon perspectives that are mobilized through this participatory culture.
S.D.: I think that asks us to look at the answer differently. Henry has this idea of collective intelligence and I have this idea of a bell curve of meaning and I think they are getting at the same thing. If you put a lot of answers out there, a lot of visions out there, a lot of images out there, yes, you are going to get a lot of outliers on both sides that are reprehensible. But you’re also going to get a collective middle which is articulating itself and bringing up new ideas in ways that actually transcend that left/right divide in a very exciting way.
I remember Seattle during the anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations and the chanting of, “This is what democracy looks like.” My first thought was, “oh God, no.” If this is what democracy looks like we’re in trouble because basically we had these signs and they had those signs; we were for this, they were for that; this person was wearing this…It seemed like a mess of ideas. From the distance of a couple of years, those kids were right: this is what democracy looks like. It looks different. It’s not a disciplined party, it’s a lot of voices, but through all of them arises this collective intelligence.
H.J.: I have been haunted by that phrase “this is what democracy looks like.” So what is the image bank of democracy? What does democracy look like? In this country, we have images of the American revolution and we have the images that grew out of the New Deal and those images of Norman Rockwell, Frank Capra versus the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Boston Tea Party, the spirit of ’76: those were the kinds of image banks that both the right and left have drawn on for a long time to represent democracy. In that sense, democracy has no present, it has no future, it only has the past. There are only retro-images of democracy.
Recently, at MIT, we started the Center for Future Civic Media, and part of what we want to do is figure out what the future of democracy looks like. How do we envision a new set of ideas about what a democratic society could look like and how do we create those images so that they really take hold of peoples’ imaginations?
For me, as I think about civic media, I think about Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which has a lot to say about some of these questions. Putnam talks about the 1950s bowling leagues and the ritual of people gathering together on a Friday night as a community to bowl. While you’re bowling, you have to wait for the next guy, and while you’re waiting you have conversations and those conversations intertwine peoples’ lives. They have a sense of a civic identity, which Putnam felt was lost in the privatization of culture. He suggests that television pushed people into the home causing social isolation and the breakdown of civic consciousness. Putnam blames entertainment for abandoning news for entertainment. But I think there is a way of reading Putnam’s example in Bowling Alone, which is to say that what was powerful about bowling wasn’t bowling but the conversations that took place around bowling. Pop culture or games are no more
trivial than bowling and in fact, they can perform some of the same functions in terms of providing a common ground for conversation. Whatever we’re doing when we form guilds and World of Warcraft communities, it’s not bowling alone, it’s much more in line with civic organizations that Putnam celebrated. What we may be seeing in the age of the internet is a digital equivalent of those bowling leagues that excited Putnam. We form community around things which seem trivial at first glance but become the common culture. And the conversation keeps expanding to aspects of our own lives, our hopes for the future of society and politics. Such play may be where we find out what democracy looks like for the next generation.
S.D.: What will democracy look like? Democracy, as we know it, essentially comes about with the word. We are moving into a different world, which is about the image and the word combined, which is about discussion as opposed to just dissemination. What’s coming may or may not look like what we’re used to democracy looking like. We’ve talked about the image of democracy. Maybe there won’t be an image of democracy; maybe there will be images.
H.J.: I am very interested in this concept of collective intelligence, which can be purely described as a world where nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what is known to some members is available to the group as a whole on an ad hoc basis. And I use that word ad hoc because it connects us to Cory Doctorow’s use of the word “adhocracy,” which refers to groups of people working together in short-term tactical alliances towards a common end that can disintegrate at any time but can get reconfigured when the next task presents itself. We might look at Wikipedia as an image of what democracy will look like. The pooling of knowledge, the creating of a shared space, where one has to work through and accept the diversities of ideological perspectives, where there is a notion of neutrality as a goal we work towards not by negating differences, but by acknowledging them and incorporating them into each entry. The collaborative basis of W
ikipedia may be thought of as the basis of society. What if we took Obama’s “we” and connected it backwards in time with “we the people,” and forward in time to a Wiki-nation. What if the platforms of the candidates were constructed online in an open, transparent way by people pooling their visions for the future and collaborating to produce the political stances the next generation of leaders will embrace.
S.D.: I think that’s a nice place to open up [for questions].
Q. How does this DIY culture figure in a commercial space?
S.D.: I think there are two ways to look at it. As soon as DIY gets folded into a commercial space corporate values will take over. This is the standard co-optation critique. I am less interested in the critique and the inevitable disappointment that follows once it happens and more interested in the question of what will you do once that happens?
One of the things I love about Abbie Hoffman is that he shunted his purity-loving comrades aside and said, “look, I know I am going to get misrepresented. Now, how can I get my own misrepresentation to have its own political effect?” I’d like us, the DIY producers of video and politics, to think in terms of post-commodification. That is, not anti-commodification, but post-commodification. This means that we know that commercialization is going to happen so we think about how to play it to our political and aesthetic advantage? This moves us away from the purity and danger model which has been crippling DIY politics for years and years.
H.J.: I think YouTube or whatever has credibility only as long as it allows people to do what they want to do and there are ongoing efforts to create open source platforms that will offer alternative systems of distribution for citizen media. YouTube depends on being as open as possible with a broad range of participation. Now, what worries me about YouTube are the copyright issues, and the constant struggles between the corporate model over control of intellectual property. Much of the politics we have shown here involves mobilizing images owned by other people, repurposing footage. Even Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas counts on Obama not being upset that his speech has been repurposed and recontextualized in that video. If the corporations constrain our ability to use their materials effectively as part of the public culture, then they may shut down some of the new kinds of speech we are describing. If we can’t quote our culture back and use our symbols
in powerful ways, then we are in deep trouble. Imagine if the guy who wrote The Night Before Christmas put a trademark on Santa Claus, what would have been the consequences of our society?
So we need to have this open society which enables this collaborative use of intellectual property. That may be the most important political struggle of our time: to have control over the ability to use our culture to comment on itself. That is where corporate control of media worries me much more than corporate concentration at the present time. Much of mass media may be in the hands of five people, but the tools of the online world are in the hands of many, many people. Part of what led me to write Convergence Culture was this sense: I was reading a book which said we live in a world without gatekeepers and anyone can say what they want, and another book was saying that media is controlled by five people that determine everything we access. And I said, “that’s true and that’s true, so why don’t we think about the relations between the two?” What is the interplay between those two realities that we are living in? Battles over copyright will det
ermine the relative power of participatory culture and mass media. So it doesn’t worry me that YouTube is owned by Google per se. But I do worry a great deal that corporate interests will further restrict what we can say on YouTube.
Q. What about exploitation?
H.J.: That is an important issue. I have written that 2006 is when we all embraced the fantasy of Web 2.0 and 2007 was when we woke up to the reality of unequal relations between the distributors who are making money off user-generated content and the expectations of consumers. These conflicts reflect the different values of a gift economy, where consumers produce stuff and circulate it freely among themselves, and a commodity culture, where Web 2.0 companies want to turn a profit on the free labor of their consumers. There is a huge debate about unpaid labor and what that does to creative workers. It does not negate the fact that we can use these platforms effectively to bring about change. But it does say that one of the first struggles one is involved with involves the rights of unpaid creative workers.
Q. What about the notion of the quiet consumer? [Consumers, for example, sit quietly during the duration of a film.]
S.D.: That model of the quiet consumer that reigned from the 1950s into today’s intellectual model is no longer the model. I think we’re both saying that. It may not be that we talk during the movies, but what we do is talk about the movies to each other as soon as the movie stops. The internet is filled with amateur experts.
Q. But it’s too late then, the film is already over.
S.D.: No, it’s not too late because one of the questions that people producing new movies are asking is, what are our fans thinking? I am not saying that this is not problematic and Henry can say more about this. What both of us are critiquing is the model of the passive receiver because it’s an easy, convenient model, but ultimately disempowering model of thinking about mass culture because it makes us feel like nothing can be done. What we’re saying is that stuff is being done on the ground all the time, people are citizen-consumers all the time. What we would like to see, and we’re seeing glimmers of this now, is the move of those models of active creation into the realm of citizenship, political citizenship.
H.J.: One of the things we do is quote. We have been talking about making videos, but what we haven’t talked about is grabbing moments from the endless flow of mass culture that is around us and putting those excerpts onto YouTube. If we think about the Colbert appearance at the Washington press club dinner, which many of you in this room would have seen, I’ll bet you didn’t see it on C-span, which is where it was aired briefly and ignored by the mass media. I bet you saw it on YouTube where fans kept putting it up as copyright owners slapped it down again. If you saw Keith Olbermann’s early stuff critiquing the war in Iraq, it was often through YouTube that people were sending his commentaries to each other, and gradually, as the public bubbled up and started paying attention to MSNBC, he was empowered to be a more powerful voice against the current administration than before. It’s very different than Walter Cronkite deciding to turn
against the war in Vietnam: there was grassroots support shown to Olbermann, forcing MSNBC to open up a greater space for him to offer some of those critical comments and differentiate themselves from any other news network through Olbermann’s comments. So there are a number of ways now that we individually and collectively affect the circulation of media. Some of you have seen the John McCain clip, where he makes a joke out of bombing Iran, and that was something that would have previously appeared on C-Span, but now, there are people quoting it, suspending it, and remobilizing it through these alternative distribution platforms.
S.D.: This is how we tell our stories now – we quote from the media and the culture around us. We can either bemoan the fact that the old ways of telling stories don't seem to be working anymore, or we can look at this and say, where do we want to take this? Where do we want to go with it? I think that the intelligentsia is split on this. I wouldn’t even say split: I would say the vast majority are bemoaning the fact that entirely “new” stories aren't being generated, that instead people would rather reassemble what's already out there. I think that sort of “critical” stance leads nowhere. First of all, this borrowing and reassembling of existent culture isn't new: it's the hallmark of older folk culture. But what I am interested in is not whether it's better to create out of whole cloth or poach or pirate what's already there, or whether this is a new or an old practice. The fact is that it is happening, and the younger politica
l activists and artists who work in this new (old) style are doing it because it works. The old way of communicating information, telling stories, is not working any more. They are grabbing from culture – grabbing from anything they can to produce messages that resonate with people. Starting from this point takes you past a rather impotent stance of critique and leads you into the much more interesting territory of figuring out how to use this communicative style in a way that furthers creativity and political possibilities, and does so -- and this is crucial in a democracy -- in such a way that speaks to the majority of the population.
Q. What strikes me is that you are still being suspiciously utopian in your views and perhaps putting a little too much emphasis on media or convergence systems that really aren’t capable of doing what you’re saying. And while you’re talking about collective intelligence, I am trying to understand collective ignorance. Another thing that was not brought up in today’s talk was that we have more access to more information outside of YouTube to make intelligent decisions, but at the same time, this is superficial. This idea of collective ignorance was critiqued really brilliantly by Jon Stewart when he was on Crossfire and actually took issue with the notion of the failure of that particular form of media.
H.J.: So let’s talk about some of the limitations or challenges of this. As I said in the beginning, I think about this as a critical Utopianist. What critical utopianism does is envision a change and then pose a question: where are we at now, and what are the steps to get there? And that is part of a larger re-examination. I see, in this new technology, in these new cultural practices, enormous potential for change. I think we can see, symptomatically, some real changes taking place in the political landscape right now, like massive increases in voter participation in this campaign, which I think are partially fueled by changing the language and changing the points of access. That said, there are lots of things that worry me about the new environment: your phrase “collective ignorance” is a good one. It’s still not the case that whatever we do on YouTube outweighs what happens on mass media. We still should be very concerned about the messa
ges mass media promotes even if we have the power to re-contextualize and critique them. What we build will reach a smaller subset of the viewership than the people who see anything that covers over the television screen. That is absolutely the case so there is still reason to worry about ownership and about control of message.
Secondly, we should be concerned about attempts to shut down the channels that we use to communicate. So the internet neutrality debates right now are an enormously important struggle over whether we will be able to distribute our messages with the same fluidity and speed that messages are distributed by commercial media. And that is a danger point in this.
Third is what I call the participation gap, which is fundamental. It is not just a digital divide, which we have talked about for the last 20 years, about who has access to technology. The digital divide was focused on issues of technical access, which have been largely solved. The overall majority of American youth have access to computers and network computing through schools and public libraries, if not through the home. But many do not have access to the kinds of cultural experiences, social skills, and cultural competencies necessary to become a full participant in this new society. There is a new hidden curriculum, which emerges from having easy access to these media technologies that affects students at every level. Researchers, for example have looked at the attitude towards Wikipedia among kids who only have access to the internet through school libraries rather than at home. The kids at home are more likely to understand how Wikipedia produces knowledge and to have critic
al perspectives on it than those kids who have ten minutes of access and have to get in and find the answer on the page and then pass the computer off to someone else. So it’s a kind of knowledge needed to participate that is fundamental, and many groups feel excluded or are not able to participate.
As we look at something like YouTube, that is exaggerated in two ways. One is the comments section on YouTube becomes a forum for hate speech so that anyone who wants to have a rational discussion on YouTube content takes it someplace else: into Live Journal, into blogs, into the social networking sites. You can’t have it there, anyone who submits anything there is going to be berated, and if they are black or female or queer they are going to be berated in the nastiest language possible, so it is a poisoned well. Yet in the face of that people are still providing material, then retreating elsewhere to discuss it. The overwhelming majority of the top 100 videos on YouTube are created by white, middle-class males. The user-moderated system pushes content up that is valued by a majority. It is a majoritarian set of principles that determine what gets seen at the highest level of YouTube and there is nothing there addressing the need to protect the rights of minority perspective
s or ensuring diversity.
The ideals of collective intelligence demand diversity of input. There is a real value for everyone in society to have the broadest range of opinions in a collective intelligence system because the value of the final outcome is only brought by the diversity of the perspectives that shape its decision making. We are all losing in a system that substitutes majority rule for the desire to raise diverse perspectives and ensure deliberative decision making. So I think we’ve got to question some of the current structure. So, if I am seeing a potential here for change and I am seeing change coming out of a flawed system now, then that doesn’t follow that we should sit back and passively say whatever happens next is going to be great. Rather, we need to fight to ensure that the participatory impulses in our culture are pushed further.
* Henry Jenkins is the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies
Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the
author and/or editor of nine books on various aspects of media and
popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and
Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular
Culture and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His
newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media
Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture.
Until recently, Jenkins wrote a monthly column and blogged about media
and cultural change for Technology Review Online. A longtime advocate of
games culture, he currently co-authors a column with Kurt Squire for
Computer Games magazine which seeks to promote innovation and diversity
in game design. Jenkins recently developed a white paper on the future
of media literacy education for the MacArthur Foundation, which is
leading to a three year project to develop curricular materials to help
teachers and parents better prepare young people for full participation
in contemporary culture. He is one of the principal investigators for
The Education Arcade, a consortium of educators and business leaders
working to promote the educational use of computer and video games. He
was also one of the principal investigators on collaboration with
Initiative Media to monitor audience response to American Idol with an
eye towards developing new approaches to audience measurement. He is one
of the leaders of the Convergence Culture Consortium, which consults
with leading players in the branded entertainment sector in hopes of
helping them adjust to shifts in the media environment.
** Stephen Duncombe's interests lie in media and cultural studies. He
teaches and writes on the history of mass and alternative media and the
intersection of culture and politics. He is the author of Dream:
Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and Notes from
Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture; the editor
of the Cultural Resistance Reader; and the coauthor of The Bobbed Haired
Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York. He also
writes widely on culture and politics for scholarly journals and
collections, as well as popular publications like the New York Times,
the Nation, and Playboy. In 1998, he was awarded the Chancellor's Award
for Excellence in Teaching by the State University of New York, where he
taught before coming to New York University. Professor Duncombe has been
a lifelong political activist and is currently working on a book about
propaganda during the New Deal.
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