July 26, 2016

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Vlogging, Teens, and Literacy: Engaging Youth

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Educators and librarians should be paying attention to vlogs and what this new platform means for our understanding of literacy. For many teens, vlogs are the medium of choice when it comes to gathering information on popular culture and the latest news and trends.

Vlogging: Acts of production and acts of curation

At its base level, vlogging (creating video blogs) isn’t all that innovative a medium: press record, stare at a camera, and speak your mind. However, this genre’s stylistic quirks, creative uses of self-referential memes, and interaction with viewers mean that it is well suited within the participatory landscape of youth culture today. Topics ranging from cooking East Asian fusion cuisine to the ins and outs of Euro-style tabletop board games are only a click away. The diversity of content is staggering in ways in which network television cannot compete. And this content is available at the whim of one’s own viewing habits; vlogs are typically archived on sites such as YouTube, making subscribing to an individual creator’s videos a simple process.

And while vlogging can offer tremendous value in building literacy skills and relationships in classrooms and libraries, it is important for educators to remember two important things about the genre:

  • One size does NOT fit all. Even if the general formats of vlogs look the same from one channel to another, the range of available content means that playing a singular channel and expecting to gain a class-wide buy-in won’t work. The opportunity to personalize which vlogs to share with which students is precisely why this content is so different from more traditional channels of media distribution. At the same time, the similarities across otherwise disparate vlog channels make the genre particularly well suited for multimodal analysis and class projects.
  • Vlogging is an ephemeral act. Popular vloggers respond quickly to news updates, comments, and questions posted on Twitter and Tumblr and discuss upcoming events. Unlike works of film and literature, vlogs are nimble and produced rapidly (though still with a flourish of clever editing). Errors and unpolished elements of a vlog are often part of the charm that endears vloggers to their audience (and makes them more relatable). At the same time, the transient nature of the medium is one that must be considered when using vlogs for instructional purposes: a vlog that attracts interest this year/month/week may be entirely played out by the time a new class arrives in your classroom or library.

I spend much of my time as a researcher looking critically at how literacies are expanding. Vlogging is a venue for youth consumption and production regularly identified as an important space for educators to consider within their practice. While vlogging is a multimodal form of communication, it might also be a return to an oral tradition. Alongside social networking platforms such as Vine and Snapchat, fleeting videos and their circulation are not the text-based modes of engagement we have been using in the classroom. From complex emojis to Instagram to hashtags functioning as complex spaces for organizing, what we traditionally understand as “text” is changing. For educators, this means that the literacy practices that we’re versed in (print-based literature and Standard English) are secondary to how youth are actually communicating. Just as we can take a genre-based approach to literacy instruction vis-à-vis vlogging, we must also be aware that it is our students who are the true experts when it comes to this platform.

Finally, we must remember that while a lot of professional texts celebrate youth culture’s role as creators—a trend that media scholar Henry Jenkins has contextualized as part of a “participatory culture”—young adults still like to consume media just as we did in our teens. Our roles as educators include supporting youth production of vlogs and curating the channels that they can access. Offering tutorials on makeup application, riffing about something seen on the subway, or repeatedly failing at video games: these are all legitimate varieties of content that teens are watching, viewing, and learning about and from. And that’s pretty neat. But it also warrants vigilant viewing and engagement on our parts. I do not mean censoring. However, I believe we have a responsibility to talk about the issues and interests visible in our classrooms and libraries, and vlogs offer an opportunity to engage in relationship building.

Youth don’t want my MTV

As an adolescent, I would race home after school to flip on the TV and soak in the news that was relevant to me and my peers: I would watch a lot of MTV. The lingua franca of school social life during the 1990s relied on knowing the ins and outs of the information that flashed across the network. Who sang what, the dating lives of the rich and famous, the products that companies wanted me to buy: the entire stream of MTV content became part of how I communicated and demonstrated that I was in the know with my friends.

Generations prior to mine also crowded around singular media sources—magazines, television programs, radio—which functioned to disseminate youth culture (and to sell myriad products to impressionable teens). I don’t think MTV or any other major network channel serves youth in a similar fashion anymore.

On the one hand, youth culture is so much more diverse in terms of accepted avenues of fandom and interest than ever before. (Yes, MTV had pockets of programming for hip-hop, electronica, and metal, but these were clearly separate from the prominent pop-music milieu that dominated the channel.) On the other hand, you could argue that youth culture is exactly the same. Today, youth do still get their cultural knowledge from a singular source: the Internet.

And perhaps no other format of communication is being taken up and shaping youth culture more than the incredibly DIY genre of vlogging.

Moore’s Law and keeping up with youth culture

Read a couple of books about tech innovators like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk and inevitably you will run into the idea of Moore’s Law. Though Gordon E. Moore was originally discussing the amount of information on circuits in 1965, the general notion of Moore’s Law is one that suggests that technological advances double every 18 months. The computer you have now, will be twice as sophisticated as the computer you could have purchased just a handful of months in the past.

And while innovations in technology and computer hardware has largely conformed to Moore’s projections, I wonder if we should consider such exponential forms of growth as they are occurring in youth culture. The hottest thing out there varies so greatly today and the number of different genres of fandom that exist are growing by the day. In my classes at Colorado State University where I teach pre-service English teachers, I’ve asked my students if they regularly write fan fiction or update a Tumblr account, or if they have a vlog channel that most students may not know about. The number of affirmative responses highlights the ways in which the future generation of educators is attuned to the participatory spaces of the Internet. An implication of a pop-culture version of Moore’s Law is that our students will want to engage with and produce vlogs on such specific topics that our responsibility as curators of information may be stretched.

The capitalism of participatory, vlogged culture

What’s not discussed in Moore’s Law about the rapid development of new technology is how this work is produced through a capitalist lens. For every faster, sleeker device that is created on the market, a need for consumers to buy these new contraptions exists. Innovation comes with a cost and consumption of the new drives development for the future. And that’s just the case with vlogging as well. Right now, YouTube is unveiling YouTube Red: a $10 a month subscription service that allows viewers to skip ads on their platform. Though viewers and vloggers have questioned the value of this service, it is a reminder that YouTube (the primary place that vlogs are seen) is still a business. Just like those ads for face wash and amusement parks and sugary food stuffs that filled the screen while soaking in MTV in my youth, the ads and sponsorship associated with vlogs show that they are not simply about individual producers communicating with a beloved audience. They drive millions of dollars of revenue in ways that reflect traditional media business practices. This, too, is a lesson of vlogging and critical media literacy that we must discuss with our students.

Antero Garcia is an assistant professor of education in the English department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO.

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Comments

  1. Antero Garcia always takes a creative and deeply percetiove look
    at the culture of yoiuth

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