[iDC] From YouTube to YouNiversity

Ricardo Dominguez rdom at thing.net
Tue Feb 13 09:34:11 EST 2007


>From the issue dated February 16, 2007

>From YouTube to YouNiversity


Consider these developments: At the end of last year, Time named "You" its
Person of the Year "for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and
framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the
pros at their own game." Earlier in the year, Newsweek described such sites as
Flickr, MySpace, Craigslist, Digg, and YouTube as "putting the 'We' in the Web."
The business "thought leader" Tim O'Reilly has termed these new
social-network sites "Web 2.0," suggesting that they represent the next phase in
digital revolution — no longer about the technologies per se but about the
communities that have grown up around them. Some are even describing immersive
game worlds such as Second Life as the beginnings of Web 3.0. All of this talk
reflects changes that cut across culture and commerce, technology and social

Over the past few years, we have also seen a series of books (both
journalistic and academic) that analyze and interpret these new configurations
of media
power. In his recent book The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler describes the
reconfiguration of power and knowledge that occurs from the ever more complex
interplay between commercial, public, educational, nonprofit, and amateur
media producers. Grant McCracken's Plenitude talks about the "generativeness" of
this cultural churn. Chris Anderson (The Long Tail) shows how these shifts are
giving rise to niche media markets, and Thomas W. Malone (The Future of Work)
analyzes how such changes are reshaping the management of major companies. My
own book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, describes a
world where every story, image, sound, brand, and relationship plays itself out
across the widest possible array of media platforms, and where the flow of
media content is shaped as much by decisions made in teenagers' bedrooms as it
is by decisions made in corporate boardrooms.

These writers come from very different disciplinary perspectives — business,
law, anthropology, and cultural studies — and they write in very different
styles. We can't really call this work an intellectual movement: Most of us
didn't know of one another's existence until our books started to hit the
Yet taken together, these books can be read as a paradigm shift in our
understanding of media, culture, and society. This work embodies an ecological
perspective on media, one that refuses to concentrate on only one medium at a
but insists that we take it all in at once and try to understand how different
layers of media production affect one another. As such, these books represent
a new route around the ideological and methodological impasses between
political economy (with its focus on media concentration) and cultural studies
its focus on resistant audiences). And these books represent a new way of
thinking about how power operates within an informational economy, describing
media shifts are changing education, politics, religion, business, and the

Many of these books share the insight that a networked culture is enabling a
new form of bottom-up power, as diverse groups of dispersed people pool their
expertise and confront problems that are much more complex than they could
handle individually. They are able to do so because of the ways that new media
platforms support the emergence of temporary social networks that exist only as
long as they are needed to face specific challenges or respond to the
immediate needs of their members. Witness, for example, the coalition of diverse
ideological interests that came together last year to fight for the principle of
network neutrality on the Web.

The science-fiction writer and Internet activist Cory Doctorow has called
such groups "adhocracies." An adhocracy is a form of social and political
organization with few fixed structures or established relationships between
and with minimum hierarchy and maximum diversity. In other words, an adhocracy
is more or less the polar opposite of the contemporary university (which
preserves often rigid borders between disciplines and departments and even
constructs a series of legal obstacles that make it difficult to collaborate
within the same organization). Now try to imagine what would happen if academic
departments operated more like YouTube or Wikipedia, allowing for the rapid
deployment of scattered expertise and the dynamic reconfiguration of fields.
call this new form of academic unit a "YouNiversity."

How might media studies, the field most committed to mapping these changes as
they affect modern life, be taught in a YouNiversity?

First, media studies needs to become comparative, teaching critics to think
across multiple media systems and teaching media makers to produce across
multiple media systems. The modern university has inherited a set of fields and
disciplines structured around individual media — photography, cinema, digital
culture, literature, theater, and painting are studied in different departments
using different disciplinary perspectives. Programs have taken shape through an
additive logic (with members of each new generation fighting for the right to
study the new medium that affects their lives the most). For a long time, my
institution, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had a program in film
and media studies, a redundant term that strikes me as the rough equivalent of
calling the English department the books-and-literature department. For a
long time at MIT, books about film were in the architecture library, and those
television were in the humanities library — unless they were about gender, in
which case they were in the women's-studies library, or they took a Marxist
perspective, in which case they were in the economics library. Such
fragmentation does a disservice to students, so that when we ask journalism
students to
decide whether they want to go into print or broadcasting, or when we ask
business students to choose between marketing, advertising, or public relations,
don't reflect the integrated contexts within which media are produced,
marketed, and consumed.

A conceptual shift took place eight years ago at MIT when the program in film
and media studies recast itself as the program in comparative media studies —
inspired in part by the models of comparative literature and comparative
religion. The word "comparative" serves multiple functions for the program,
encouraging faculty members to think and teach across different media,
periods, national borders, and disciplinary boundaries, and to bridge the divide
between theory and practice as well as that separating academic life from
other institutions also confronting profound media change.

This comparative approach has allowed the program to respond more fully to
the needs of students with different career goals, disciplinary backgrounds, and
professional experiences. By design, about a third of our master's students
will go into Ph.D. programs and pursue careers in higher education; the rest
will take jobs as advertising executives, game designers, educational-technology
specialists, policy makers, museum curators, and journalists. Many are
returning to graduate school after the first phases of their careers, coming
with a
new urgency and determination to master the "big picture" issues shaping the
spaces where they have worked.

To educate such students, we don't so much need a faculty as we need an
intellectual network. The program has a large pool of loosely affiliated faculty
members who participate in an ad hoc manner depending on the needs and interests
of individual students: Sometimes they may contribute nothing to the program
for several years and then get drawn into a research or thesis project that
requires their particular expertise. Our students' thesis advisers come not only
from other universities around the world but also from industry; they include
Bollywood choreographers, game designers, soap-opera writers, and
journalists. We encourage our students to network broadly and draw on the best
thinking a
bout their topic, wherever they can find it.

Second, media studies needs to reflect the ways that the contemporary media
landscape is blurring the lines between media consumption and production,
between making media and thinking about media. A recent study from the Pew
& American Life Project found that 57 percent of teens online have created
their own media content. As our culture becomes more participatory, these young
people are creating their own blogs and podcasts; they are recording their
lives on LiveJournal and developing their own profiles on MySpace; they are
producing their own YouTube videos and Flickr photos; they are writing and
fan fiction or contributing to Wikipedia; they are mashing up music and
modding games. Much as engineering students learn by taking apart machines and
putting them back together, many of these teens learned how media work by taking
their culture apart and remixing it.

In such a world, the structural and historical schisms separating media
production and critical-studies classes no longer seem relevant. Students around
the country are pushing to translate their analytic insights about media into
some form of media production. And they are correctly arguing that you cannot
really understand how these new media work if you don't use them yourself.
Integrating theory and practice won't be simple. Some students in the entering
classes in the program in comparative media studies have had little or no access
to digital tools, and others have been designing their own computer games since
elementary school. Even among those who have media-production experience,
they have worked with very different production tools or produced very different
forms of media content in very different contexts.

Responding to these wildly divergent backgrounds and expectations requires us
to constantly redesign and renegotiate course expectations as we try to give
students what they need to push themselves to the next level of personal and
professional development. We have encouraged faculty members to incorporate
production opportunities in their courses so that students in a children's-media
class, for example, are asked to apply the theories they have learned to the
design of an artifact for a child (medium unspecified), then write a paper
explaining the assumptions behind their design choices. We may have students
composing their own children's books, building and programming their own
interactive toys, shooting photo essays, producing pilots for children's shows,
designing simple video games or Web sites.

Before we started our master's program, I went on the road to talk with
representatives of more than 50 companies and organizations. They told me that
value the flexibility, creativity, and social and cultural insights
liberal-arts majors bring to their operations. They also shared a devastating
list of
concerns — liberal-arts students fall behind other majors in terms of
leadership, project completion, and problem solving. In other words, they
were describing the gap between academic fields focused on fostering autonomous
learners and professional contexts demanding continuing collaborations. Those
desired skills were regularly fostered in other disciplines that have
laboratory-based cultures that test new theories and research findings through
real-world applications. At a university with strong traditions of applied
physics or
applied mathematics, we needed to embrace the ideal of applied humanities. And
as a result, we have created a context where our students put their social
and cultural knowledge to work through real-world applications such as designing
educational games, developing media-literacy materials, or consulting with
media companies about consumer relations.

Third, media studies needs to respond to the enormous hunger for public
knowledge about our present moment of profound and persistent media change.
this context, it is nothing short of criminal that so much of contemporary
media theory and analysis remains locked away in an academic ghetto, cut off
larger conversations. Media scholars have much to contribute to — and much to
learn from — the discussions occurring among designers, industry leaders,
policy makers, artists, activists, journalists, and educators about the
of our culture.

At such a moment, we need to move beyond preparing our students for future
roles as media scholars, wrapped up in their own disciplinary discourses, and
instead encourage them to acquire skills and experiences as public
intellectuals, sharing their insights with a larger public from wherever they
happen to be
situated. They need to be taught how to translate the often challenging
formulations of academic theory into a more public discourse.

Academic programs are only starting to explore how they might deploy these
new media platforms — blogs and podcasts especially — to expand the
of their research and scholarship. Consider, for example, the case of Flow, an
online journal edited at the University of Texas at Austin. Flow brings
together leading media scholars from around the world to write short,
and timely responses to contemporary media developments: In contrast with the
increasingly sluggish timetable of academic publishing, which makes any
meaningful response to the changing media environment almost impossible, a new
of Flow appears every two weeks.

Blogs represent a powerful tool for engaging in these larger public
conversations. At my university, we noticed that a growing number of students
developing blogs focused on their thesis research. Many of them were making
valuable professional contacts; some had developed real visibility while working
their master's degrees; and a few received high-level job offers based on the
professional connections they made on their blogs. Blogging has also deepened
their research, providing feedback on their arguments, connecting them to
previously unknown authorities, and pushing them forward in ways that no thesis
committee could match. Now all of our research teams are blogging not only about
their own work but also about key developments in their fields. We have
redesigned the program's home page, allowing feeds from these blogs to regularly
update our content and capture more of the continuing conversations in and
around our program. We have also started offering regular podcasts of our
departmental colloquia and are experimenting with various forms of remote access
to our
conferences and other events.

We make a mistake, though, if we understand such efforts purely in terms of
distance learning or community outreach, as if all expertise resides within
universities and needs simply to be transmitted to the world. Rather, we should
see these efforts as opportunities for us to learn from other sectors equally
committed to mapping and mastering the current media change.

Each media-studies program will need to reinvent itself to reflect the
specifics of its institutional setting and existing resources, and what works
will need to be rethought tomorrow as we deal with further shifts in the
information landscape. That's the whole point of an adhocracy: It's built to tap
current opportunities, but, like ice sculpture, it isn't made to last. The
modern university should work not by defining fields of study but by removing
obstacles so that knowledge can circulate and be reconfigured in new ways. For
media studies, that means taking down walls that separate the study of different
media, that block off full collaboration between students, that make it
difficult to combine theory and practice, and that isolate academic research
from the
larger public conversations about media change.

Until we make these changes, the best thinking (whether evaluated in terms of
process or outcome) is likely to take place outside academic institutions —
through the informal social organizations that are emerging on the Web. We may
or may not see the emergence of YouNiversities, but YouTube already exists.
And its participants are learning plenty about how media power operates in a
networked society.

Henry Jenkins is director of the program in comparative media studies at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Convergence Culture: Where
Old and New Media Collide (New York University Press, 2006).

  Section: The Chronicle Review
  Volume 53, Issue 24, Page B9

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