15 Megabytes of Fame

Michael Wesch’s compelling video An anthropological introduction to YouTube is a Rosetta Stone for the current state (give or take a few years) of the video blog or vlog.


He highlights and translates a possible meaning for the shared experiences of Gary Brolsma’s Numa Numa, Juan Mann’s Free Hugs, and Lonely Girl 15, while thankfully leaving Brittany alone.

What is intriguing yet utterly confusing to me is the need to share one’s innermost thoughts or outright silliness with this cold and cynical world. Where would Numa Numa Gary have lipsinked before YouTube? Would Free Hugs Juan still be seeking a little warmth in a pre-internet life? How would he have been received by passers by? And what about Lonely Girl 15? Would she still be a soap opera queen in training, but in a different venue?

And what about all the copycats?


Is this any different than me and my friends pretending to be The Supremes when we were kids? We were just having fun, sharing the experience of a song we loved and at the tender age of 8, a group we emulated. When the eccentric Charles Caleb Colton wrote “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” I doubt he had his kid brother in mind. Yet hundreds of emulators and autotuners are only sharing the love, right? What makes us want to imitate and remix and mashup? Is this the only way we can acquire our god given 15 megabytes of fame?

When I invite my students into the visual rhetoric conversation, where will I draw the line? How do I grade a re-envisioning of mashup of a repost?


While I love the absolute joy and liberation from the drudgery of grad school that free-form video allows, I am ever practical and looking for a way to teach this genre of visual rhetoric without losing site of critical thinking. Your thoughts and ideas are most welcome below.

Addendum and Reflection

I went to a Community of Practice workshop yesterday sponsored by Berkeley City College and The Academy for College Excellence. My takeaway is that there are definitely more inspiring uses of online video and social networking that I can share and discuss with students. I do not look down on the imitators, autotuners and mashup artistes of the world. Collective entertainment and shared experience has its place and makes me laugh. However, at the end of the day, I want a bit more substance. For example, look at the work of Oluwaseun Odewale, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. He writes about elections in his home country, Nigeria:

Of the 87 million mobile phone users in Nigeria (44 million of which have access to the Internet), it was an interesting trend to see how social media, for the first time, was adopted and, quite interestingly, adapted, to ensure credibility of the electoral process in Nigeria.

And then there is the social justice work we are doing with ACE, to promote success for basic skills students.


2 comments on “15 Megabytes of Fame

  1. I loved your drop about imitating the Supremes… it evokes a whole scene of kids enacting the poses they’d seen on TV. To speak in overly broad strokes, I think the TV generation and the YouTube generation share a longing to join their imitative/expressive impulses with the forms public spectacle that so often stirs inspiration. One difference of course is the greater accessibility to today’s technologies of representation.

    In thinking about these issues, I find myself thinking back to Guy Debord, who was fond of aphorisms such as, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

    In the age of read/write culture, many of Debord’s insights seem less subtle than they may have in 1967, when few media consumers were also able to create and distribute works similar in form to those which they consumed. It seems the distance between the technologies of capturing representation and the technologies of distribution has all but collapsed; corporate mediators of the past sought to nest within the gap.

    When I first pledged my genX heart to Indie Rock in the 90s, such a choice implied a rejection of anything but grass roots commodity-cultural affiliation; independent radio and non-corporate record labels were the communicative pinnacles of such a worldview. Indie culture, once underground or sidestream, now has the technological acumen to bypass corporate media altogether.
    I do think the elements of social critique, self-abnegation, and public abjuration that were implicit in a devotion to 90s-style indie culture are often lost today. Indie producers on Youtube don’t necessarily reject the idea of seeking fame as a crass desire, a thoughtless internalization of the ideological impulses of an unfair society. Perhaps we were to hard on ourselves, and everyone else, in the 1990s; perhaps our moment’s foreclosure of any easy distribution options allowed us to feel our cultural/expressive intentions were more different in kind than those of the mainstream media than they really were.

    Interestingly, the egalitarian nature of today’s representational economies seems to be in complete contrast with the burgeoning inequality of our more material economies; we seem to have accepted the ballooning of upper class disposable wealth as an ineluctable fact of globalized commerce. Perhaps the expressive options serve, in some unconscious ideological way, to contain or counterbalance the implications of the economic reality. We have less, and public goods are under attack, but, on the flip, thousands of others can watch our videos of us telling our children that we’ve eaten the Halloween candy.

    I think one new, perhaps unforeseen wrinkle of the current technologies is the commodification of affect, rather than sales. We used to track #1 songs, such as “Stop in the Name of Love,” and record sales. Now we track affirmative gestures themselves, “views,” “likes,” and whatnot. In a word suffused with spectacle, what can be more valuable than being seen, and knowing you are being seen? Without such digitized measures, advertisers might well be lost in the carnival of expression that roils online. Thanks to the self- surveilling qualities of our media, capital need not bestir itself to parse qualities from the exponentially increasing quantities of representation; the digital imprint of our pleasures leave a more than sufficient trail of crumbs to guide the beast.

  2. I guess this is really a reply to Jordan’s comment: “Interestingly, the egalitarian nature of today’s representational economies seems to be in complete contrast with the burgeoning inequality of our more material economies; we seem to have accepted the ballooning of upper class disposable wealth as an ineluctable fact of globalized commerce.” If I understand what you mean by “representational economies” (and there is no simple definition I can Google; the best I can do is define it as the cultural trade in what things mean and how those things are important or influential to us), I’m not sure that any “representational economy” is anywhere near egalitarian…technology, and access to it, is not evenly distributed everywhere, I’m sure you would agree. Can you tell me more about this (if you see this comment in the next couple of days)?

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