Tara Brabazon: YouTube has merit, but enough already of cat videos

There are plenty of opportunities for academics to take advantage of social media, but it’s important to separate the gems of revelation from the nonsense

December 2, 2009

Like many oddities in academic life, our story commences during morning tea at a conference. The coffee had the quality of milky dishwater that had lost the battle with a macaroni cheese dish. The biscuits were so hard that a dental appointment was required after consumption. The conversations emerging from such culinary disappointments were lively. Delegates revelled in the technological transformations punctuating our lives.

After discussing a provocative point with one delegate, I asked if he had elaborated on the idea in a refereed article. He replied with a windscreen-wiper gesture – part hypnotist and part drag queen – that he had not presented the concept in a journal because all his dissemination is via lectures uploaded to YouTube.

Cue quiet pause from the huddled group of caffeine-starved academics. The gathered scholars looked at our YouTubing colleague. He was in his late 50s, wearing a shiny grey suit with just a little bit too much polyester to gain managerial credibility. Not a great voice. No charisma. Nothing marked him as distinct from any other 50-something academic in the crowd. Yet he had decided that not only was YouTube signalling a new age of broadcasting, but that uploaded lectures were the future of the academy.

After scanning YouTube at the conclusion of the conference, it became clear that the suited scholar was true to his word. Every lecture delivered in the past three years had been recorded and uploaded. The value of the sessions was dubious. Watching academics lecture is as exciting as changing the time on a microwave oven. The idea that underprepared PowerPoint lectures are uploaded so that even more people can feel their higher intellectual functions leak through their nose with boredom is a decision worthy of some attention.

The relationship between universities and social media is mature enough to track trends, best practices and – to cite Craig Revel Horwood – “dias-a-a-a-sters”. Writers such as Jean Burgess and Joshua Green confirm that YouTube is “useful for understanding the evolving relationships between new media technologies, the creative industries, and the politics of popular culture”. Even with this wider media attention, its role in the contemporary academy is underwritten.

The public relations narrative is well worn. YouTube is a company that was founded by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim. Launched in June 2005 and now owned by Google, users upload content that is watched by digitally literate audiences who occasionally comment on it. While there is much discussion in the research literature about how participatory culture and “democracy” are enabled through affordable software and hardware, the characteristic of YouTube is uneven involvement. Most users are casual consumers, watching an occasional video and then exiting the portal. As with all social media, only a small group of core users comment, critique, rank and respond.

Like the best 2.0 platforms, YouTube is easy to use, with a clean interface assisting intuitive uploading of videos, quick access and simple structures for interaction. As an aggregator of content – rather than a producer of content – YouTube facilitates searching and embedding of files. David Weinberger termed it a “meta business”. As a metaphor for our era, YouTube is better than most: it produces nothing, but gathers, frames and enhances what already exists.

Video capture has been possible for some time. Mobile phones, webcams and standalone cameras are small and cheap. Editing software is easy to deploy. Amateurs not only gather footage of their friends and families but also of tumultuous events like the tsunami and the Virginia Tech shooting. YouTube solved the problem of video sharing by automating uploading so that most users only press play to see footage. With free signup and no software to install, YouTube facilitates a culture of connectivity via streaming, not downloading. The site’s great benefit for web designers and educators is the simplicity: its ease of embedding video into other websites. This means, with minimal knowledge of html, visual content can be integrated into personal and professional portals.

YouTube has many uses for academics. The first function is signalled by the original description of the website before the now-famous “Broadcast Yourself”. The site’s previous byline was “Your Digital Video Repository”. While academics earnestly contribute to institutional repositories, YouTube’s original purpose was to store videos for reuse. It still has – even through the copyright breaches – great power as a gateway to popular culture. Digital rights management and copyright violation fears have made it risky and inefficient to use commercial videos in our teaching. In such an environment, YouTube is an easy and accessible method to share popular culture. Clips may be played in classrooms or embedded in online learning environments.

The second use of YouTube for academics is as an archive of non-commercial material. Video blogs present commentaries and testimonies from web-literate users. Such presentations introduce ethical issues in discussions of oral history, along with the consequences of broadcasting personal stories. Before web streaming, it was necessary for researchers to travel to specialist archives to see amateur video of family life. Currently, thousands of individual cataloguers capture, upload, view and comment on an array of experiences, stories, narratives and struggles.

Obviously, this do-it-yourself initiative activates a key critique of the YouTube discourse. Digitally literate and broadband-enabled consumers gain another avenue to express their “creativity” and “voice”. The digitally excluded lose the opportunity to see alternative views and present their own. In other words, the impact of digital exclusion in a 2.0 environment is much more serious and expansive than a disconnection from the read-only web.

In logging these silences and absences in the read-write web, the third great use of YouTube for academics is as an intellectual repository, a visual archive for precious and rare scholarly moments. Five examples convey this value.

• A discussion between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault on the nature of humanity, creativity, freedom, governmentality and anarcho-syndicalism.

An interview with David Harvey, via the University of California channel, UCTV.

• The urbane and sophisticated Helene Cixous questioning the nature of intellectual life.

• A shuffling and brilliant Slavoj Zizek improvises when a mobile telephone rings during his presentation. In response, he takes a phonecall from God.

A Cornel West interview with Tavis Smiley reveals his commitment to a wide dissemination of ideas. The phrases “bling bling” and “vanilla suburbs” have never been used as effectively in the one sentence.

The scale of significant lectures is extraordinary. As an archival record of academic life, they are irreplaceable.

A fourth use of YouTube is for university marketing. Many institutions have a channel where they upload promotional videos and advertisements. As an exercise in disintermediation, university marketers cut away links in the media supply chain so that they are not reliant on paying for newspaper, radio or television coverage. A convincing model of this process is the University of Aucklands YouTube commercial, featuring Dr Elana Curtis. If students are interested in an institution, then they can go to the university’s channel to find material and assess the comments in response to the footage. Another example of this use is Massey University’s film, which followed two students Stuart and Lana through their day.

A fifth deployment of YouTube for academics is offering a review function and a “how to” guide for users of software and hardware. In an act of participatory reintermediation – replacing institutional gatekeepers for a consumer’s perspective – viewers create or see reviews of hardware, software, books, music or films. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), for example, presents a guide to Blackboard. Another example of online skill development is a user demonstrating the Acoustica Mixcraft track-building process. Instead of journalistic or corporate advertising, we can learn how users understand and operate software and hardware.

A sixth use of the portal for academics is as a mode of dissemination for new strategies in teaching and learning. So much of our teaching lives is isolated in classrooms, lecture theatres and seminar rooms. The chance to watch and understand other teachers’ choices improves our professional lives. The University of Utah’s Best practices for teaching in a video environment is professionally produced and can be the basis of future development by other institutions.

For students, seeing how peers learn and construct assignments provides vicarious mentoring, intellectual scaffolding and motivation. YouTube is a great portal for – and about – our students’ work. An example of this use is the University of Hulls School of Arts and New Media animation show reel. Employers can access the footage and it provides a trajectory of student development through a degree.

One final application of YouTube for academics, which may increase through the research excellence framework’s focus on “impact”, is the use of the portal to disseminate research. YouTube provides a space to repackage findings for different audiences, updating results and generating tailored video to embed in online-refereed articles. These alternative modes of dissemination can link to an article lodged in an institutional repository.

Vodcasting, like podcasting, is cheap to produce and disseminate. While the production values may not be high, the spontaneity and speed of response is a great advantage. Through YouTube, there is a chance to remake an old institution into a new university. This is not (only) about brand management, but is also a chance for universities to (re)claim a position of thought leadership.

While “new media” are maturing and developing into a more complex, intricate and diverse environment than any of us could have imagined a decade ago, there are still too many commentators who frame the 2.0 community as one composed of benevolent, anti-corporate vegan hippies, continuing the summer of love in digital form. Too many members of the online “community” need to:

• Forget about that woman who dumped them in the second year of their degree.

• Sober up at some point, perhaps delaying that first drink until – say – after 5pm.

• Increase their medication.

• Attend anger management classes before they next go online.

• Recognise that the world does not require further confirmation that they are misogynist/racist/homophobic sycophants who have no friends outside of Facebook, do not read anything beyond their own blog and have no life beyond commenting about other people’s friends, reading patterns and blogs.

We know that there is a lot of nonsense online. There are also gems of revelation. In recognising the consequences of these two statements, our task in universities is clear. At every opportunity, we should embed media literacy theory into our curriculum. We have a chance and responsibility to teach generations of students the skills to sort and sift online data into a workable shape for analysis and evaluation.

It is also our responsibility to improve the calibre of online information. One strategy to enact this goal is to add a step to the dissemination of research. In the analogue age, a refereed article and a couple of conference appearances satisfied funding agencies and research managers. Now we have an opportunity and imperative to repurpose our scholarship for audiences who would never read an academic article or an annual review of university research. Creating effective video is more difficult than producing strong audio content. Innovative attempts that trial new modes of dissemination should be acknowledged, beyond recording or videoing lectures or conference presentations.

A key moment of revelation for those working with the online environment is when we realise that simply because a new technology, platform or portal is invented, this does not mean that it will be used well. For more than a decade, many have been swept away with – or seriously burnt by – managerial decisions that have equated new technology with effective teaching and learning. “New” and “effective” are different words. They are not synonymous or causally linked.

Richard Harrington and Mark Weiser stated that: “Consumer-controlled video is the future.” They may be right. However, academics and students have a key role in such an environment: to increase the quality of media, information and debate. YouTube has suffered through the reputation of featuring too many videos of cats/children/brides jumping/dancing/falling awkwardly. It is used for – and has the potential to offer – much more than footage of a tipsy wedding party behaving badly. It may transform from “consumer-controlled video” to a new opportunity for learning.

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