June 2008 Transcript: Micheal Newman

Joy: Welcome to First Monday Podcast I’m Joy Austria

AJ: And I’m AJ Hannah.

Joy: When we think of about the issues associated with videoblogging or You Tube, we often think about copyright infringement, politics or educational applications.

AJ: Michael Newman takes a different approach to this topic by analyzing the aesthetic and cultural value of videoblogs with his case study of The Show with Ze Frank.

Michael: Hi AJ and Joy.

Joy: Hi how are you?

Michael: Good.

Joy: Micheal why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.

Michael: Okay, well, I’m Michael Newman and I teach in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and I study movies and TV and Internet. And my training really is in studying film and I’ve come to studying video on the Internet really from that kind of approach.

Joy: How did you get interested in studying videoblogging from that perspective?

Michael: I guess, first I became interested just in watching those things, just like anybody else basically I heard about them, and I started watching them, and it was probably when lonelygirl15 was the sensation, which was two summers ago, that I first became kind of hooked on watching videos on the Web that were made for the Web.

So first it was really just as a fan that I wanted to get invested in these shows and I was becoming kind of fascinated by them and I had spent enough time watching them that I had to [laughs] begin working on them just to justify the investment of my time and interest basically.

AJ: So, how did you choose this particular videoblog to focus on?

Michael: First I just spent a lot of time reading about it and watching it and I really cared about it and wanted to understand it more, and partly I thought it was a really good example of what I was seeing online which was shifting notions of taste and new forms of creativity emerging and new forms of participation among the people who produce and consume media.

There’s an audience really eager to participate and so The Show With Ze Frank was one particular web video series that the audience fastened onto a lot, that had a really passionate, devoted, and really creative and imaginative and productive audience; they weren’t really just an audience, they were collaborators.

Joy: Let’s talk a little more about “shifting notions of tastes and new forms of creativity”. You mention The Ze Frank My Space episode where he goes on this discussion about “ugly art”. Can you explain for us what is “ugly art” and how The Show is an example of that?

Michael: Well, “ugly” is Ze Frank’s own conception of the way taste is shifting, and the example that I use that is his use of it is the way that users create designs for their MySpace pages they’re just hideous [laughs], they’re awful.

He had his audience participate in an “ugly” MySpace contest where they nominated “ugly” MySpace pages so they put a bunch of these pages up on the Website and people voted on what they thought was the “Best Ugly” or “Ugliest” or something like that. So people criticized it for being mocking, “Hey, why are you mocking these people who have no experience in professional design, why are you ridiculing these ordinary people who just want to express themselves?” and so he offered a kind of defense of “ugly” on one of the episodes of The Show in which he talked about how he sees this as a challenge to design orthodoxy and to professionalism and how exciting it is that people who have no background in media creation as a profession have the opportunity because of new tools that have become available to them to create images that they show to other people online.

And so I say that this is not a rejection of aesthetics I say that it’s a counter-aesthetic, that it’s an aesthetic of everyday people and their need to express themselves and their interest in finding kind of a language to do that that’s different from the language of the professional or correct or “good” design.

AJ: So, do you think this type of thing will have any lasting cultural value?

Michael: I’m sure it will. I think that as part of the shift in taste toward more amateurism, and I don’t think that will be the only kind of culture, I think there will still be professional design, obviously, and the need for it, and an interest in it. But the more ordinary people and young people become involved in this culture of the Internet where they’re able to be creative and make things and adapt things that have been made to personalize them, you know I don’t see that going away, I think more people are becoming involved in it.

They weren’t really just an audience, they were collaborators

AJ: You talk a lot about video and editing techniques defining which ones adhere to the current professional norms or those which seem more amateur or of a do-it-yourself (DYI) nature. At what point does someone’s work become professional? Say if a self–taught videographer or writer starts making content for a weblog and he uses higher production techniques would it still fit into the do-it-yourself ethos or does it exists as something else?

Michael: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think there’s a number of different ways of trying to gauge that. Part of it is just is this authentic personal expression or is this basically working for the major media industries? So I guess on some level, the more commercial these become and the more involved the major media industries become in making them, then the less authentic and the less DIY they are.

I would say in trying to understand how this functions as an important category, DIY, or amateur media, or alternative or independent media, I think it’s really in the eyes of the people who value these concepts. It’s in their power to determine whether these are useful labels. So I think that as long as the people who make these videoblogs think of them as authentic and DIY, that’s how we should judge them, we should judge them on the terms of the community of users who is invested in them, who considers them important, people who make and watch them, and like them. So I guess my answer is that as long as people think of DIY as an important category and still use it to understand these things, then as a media critic, as a media scholar I want to try to understand their category.

AJ: So, at what point do the people making these videoblogs run the risk of becoming “sell-outs”?

Michael: I don’t know, I don’t know if they see it that way. I mean some of them want to have a career in the major media industries, some of them want to work in Hollywood, or they want to work on TV, cable or network TV, and so to them it’s not selling out it’s buying in and they don’t have that kind of idea of authenticity that they have to uphold; like, if they take a paycheck for doing what they do then somehow they’ve compromised their integrity. So, if those are their values then I wouldn’t think of what they’re doing as selling out.

AJ: How has pull media had an effect on what you defined as push media?

Michael: Well, pull and push media, these are terms that I think they really come from marketing, and I think that these are ways that people who are trying to sell new forms of media are trying to understand the market that they’re working within and they see the pull media as newer and better and the direction for the future. The push media are the ones that are kind of forced on us and the pull media are the ones that we choose.

So I think that the idea of pull media is that there are desires that will be satisfied by these products that people will want and they’ll draw them into their world so people want to watch these five minute long videos that are funny or informative or clever or cool and they’ll want to see them every time. They keep pulling them towards themselves, they keep choosing to watch them, and so the people who are trying to make these viral videos, these videos that are circulating through kind of unconventional circuit where ordinary people are just sending videos to each other.

Now they see that as a really kind of tantalizing model, “Hey we’ll make this thing and people will want it so badly that they’ll send it to their friends and people will want to watch them because their friends recommended them”.

Watch the ordinary

Joy: Pick some of your favorite episodes from The Show With Ze Frank.

Michael: I really like the episode where it’s very kind of meta, where Ze Frank does a voiceover in which he is putting himself in the mind of his viewer and he does a kind of stream of conscious monologue where he talks about his kind of feelings about The Show. And there’s one where he talks about Scrabble, it’s around Thanksgiving and that’s another favorite where he tells you how to play Scrabble basically, and it’s a kind of satirical sort of thing. And at one point he kind of vomits out a mouthful of Scrabble tiles.

It’s just funny. He’s very funny. He’s very clever. It always amazes me that when I was watching it it always amazed me that he produced The Show everyday, that The Show I was watching at three or four o’clock in the afternoon was just the work of that day. It always seemed really inventive and just the kind of “wow factor.” How did he do that? How did he do that just today, all by himself?

Joy: Have you ever spoken to him? Are you yourself a Sports Racer[1]?

Michael: No, I’m not. I haven’t spoken to him and as I was writing the article, as I said it was kind of nearing the end of the run and I sort of sympathized with him getting all these kind of media calls, interviews for all these various places and frankly I didn’t really think that he was going to say anything to me that he hadn’t already said to a half a dozen other people, so maybe partly I was shy, but I never got in touch with him.

And as to whether or not I was a sportsracer, or am, no I don’t usually get involved that much. My form of fandom is to write a scholarly article [laughs] rather than to join in with the others.

Joy: If after listening to this, someone in our audience really wants to get into videoblogging, what are some of your recommendations for them to check out?

Michael: I think that the really impressive videoblogs that I’ve seen in addition to The Show were lonelygirl and, you know, lonelygirl especially from before it was revealed that it was fictional and so you know that’s been around for a while. And Rocketboom has been on the air for a long time and that’s an Internet news show and they’re still doing good work. You know sometimes it’s an anchor behind a desk and sometimes it’s reports from the field.

And you know in part I think the answer is just to you know to watch the ordinary, not just the kind of outstanding ones that get thousands and thousands of viewers, but the ordinary people.

Joy: Michael, we want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

AJ: Thank you Michael.

Michael: Thank you Joy and AJ. This has been a lot of fun.

This is not a rejection of aesthetics I say that it’s a counter-aesthetic, that it’s an aesthetic of everyday people

AJ: This month we’re introducing the Podcast Review section of the First Monday Podcast. Jennifer, welcome to the podcast.

Jennifer: Great to be here.

Joy: Jennifer Kelley gives us her review of The World’s Technology Podcast.

Jennifer: The World’s Technology Podcast is a news and information podcast, “keep[ing] you up to date on all the latest news in global technology”. The content includes a combination of stories that have aired on PRI’s The World as well as some original reporting. One of the expressed on-going missions of host, Clark Boyd, is to add more original content. A venture that’s become successful in the most recent podcasts, with the addition of features such as the new monthly Afrigadget interview series.

Boyd contributes much of the original content himself, occasionally repurposing stories he has reported for the parent broadcast. The Technology Podcast will often go deeper into The World’s stories, giving excerpts or backgrounds that never played on the radio show. While Boyd is clearly a professional broadcast reporter, when he is wearing his “host hat”, his tone is conversational and casual.

The wide variety of topics covered makes the Technology Podcast an appealing choice for a similarly diverse audience. While the tone of the podcast’s framework is light, the stories themselves range from serious applications of technology in the world stage, to quirkier examples, such as a recent story about Japanese efforts to launch paper airplanes from the the International Space Station.

Each podcast generally begins with a greeting from Boyd, a podcast number, and a brief rundown of the stories to come. Each show can range in length from fifteen minutes to fifty minutes, depending on the topics covered in the show and whether Boyd is hosting, or if he has a substitute covering for him as he travels. Boyd frequently provides contact information for the podcast and often requests input from listeners, seeking feedback on the podcast itself as well as ideas for future stories.

As with PRI’s The World, the Technology Podcast often refers listeners to websites and resources for further exploration or additional coverage. The podcast’s website, serves as a home-base with “online extras”, downloads, a comprehensive archive, photo gallery, and the most recent episode available in audio chapters for review or close-listening.

This three-year old podcast is still changing, with new features being added regularly. And judging by the frequent “thank you’s” that Clark Boyd offers to listeners who contribute both money and ideas, the Technology Podcast has a solid fan base and significant staying power.

You can read my full review on the First Monday Podcast website. For First Monday, I’m Jennifer Kelley.

AJ: Lots of stuff in the Extra Features section including links to Michael’s article and The Ze Frank Show.

Joy: Questions, comments or suggestions? Email us at comments [at] firstmondaypodcast [dot] org or leave us a message on our Facebook page. Thanks for listening I’m Joy Austria.

AJ: And I’m AJ Hannah and we’ll see you guys next month. End of article

[1] “Sports Racer” is the term used by Ze Frank to describe his fans.