Participatory Cultures and Vidding (a virtual rendition of our Digital Media and Learning 2010 workshop)

Back in February, I moderated a panel on Participatory Cultures and Vidding at the Digital Media and Learning (DML) conference. Quite a few conferences have taken place between then and now, but I feel it’s still absolutely worthwhile for us to share our thoughts on vidding here online. DML wasn’t streamed or recorded, which was certainly a pity (to put it mildly) as many invigorating conversations happened there. My fellow workshop members and I hope that perhaps we could use this post as an opportunity to trigger further conversation on methodological and pedagogic issues (among others) that arise as we explore vidding as a creative tradition and contemporary cultural force.

In this panel, because there were so many of us, we each shared our brief provocations/thoughts about vidding, and peppered our analysis with visual examples of vids. I’ll invoke a similar structure below.

In this conversation, we focus on the participatory practice of vidding, but we think about how vidding fits within larger frameworks of participatory culture, and we also consider the diverse histories and cultures within vidding.

Panelists more specifically offer perspectives on how we might understand vidding as media literacy or as constituting a range of media literacies.

Throughout the discussion that follows below, I encourage you to consider connections and comparisons between the fan works and practices that we look at and your own research or your own experiences of media culture and history. We’d love to hear those connections in the comments!

First, a brief introduction of the panelists: Francesca Coppa, from Muhlenberg College, on Musical Literacy in Vidding; Louisa Stein (that’s me, of course!), from San Diego State University (soon to be Middlebury College) on Vids as Contemporary Remix Culture; Melanie Kohnen, from Georgia Tech, on Media Literacy and Transformative Works; Tisha Turk, from the University of Minnesota, on Vidding and Vid Watching as Multiliteracies; Julie Levin Russo, from Stanford University, on Femslash Videos and Queer Literacies; and Alexis Lothian, from USC, on Vidding as Activist Critique.

Provocations this way, after the cut.

Francesca Coppa on Musical Literacy in Vidding:

[Note: This talk is a draft of a longer work in progress. Comments are welcome!]

Part I:

Vids are fan music videos made from television and film. I have previously described them as visual essays on visual texts, which is to say: an essay in the visual text’s own (visual) language. In this way, a vid is analogous to a book review, or a piece of literary criticism, which uses text to dissect text. A vid quotes visual evidence and speaks in images about images, using music—song—as a lens for the reinterpretation of those images.

My argument has always been that vids are discursive—that they are a form of conversation about a source text. It’s worth noting, in fact, that practically every fandom has a vid made to Bonnie Raitt’s song “Something To Talk About”—which is in many ways the perfect vid song. The chorus of that song is, “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About,” and the lyrics of that song are almost entirely about reinterpreting visual evidence. The lyrics begin: “People are talkin, talking ’bout people” and the song then makes arguments in favor of reinterpretating what people see: “They think we laugh just a little too loud; stand just a little too close.” The end of that verse is: “Maybe they’re seeing something we don’t.”—which is the whole ballgame, right? A vid to “Something to Talk About”, like all vids, invites us—in fact, instructs us—to scrutinize the vid’s images and reread them: in this case, for relationship subtext, but for other meanings as well. So in fact we—vid makers and vid watchers—ARE seeing something in this footage that “they” don’t, and what we see provokes discourse; i.e. this footage is something to talk about. This is a conversation.

Part II:

So I’ve been writing about this idea of vids as discourse, as a visual conversation—something to talk about—but I’ve recently come to think that my analysis is incomplete, because it only partly theorizes the role of music in vidding. This is why I want to talk about musical literacy today.

Vidders will tell you that song choice is the single most important thing in a vid—that it makes or breaks a vid—but I think we have still not sufficiently articulated why that is true.

I want to argue that music has three different functions in vidding: that it carries analytical meaning, emotional meaning, and poetic meaning.

Analytical meaning is what I’ve been talking about:

  • –wherein music is a lens for visual analysis. So, in my example of “Something to Talk About,” the music and the lyrics tell us what to look for in the visuals.
  • A vid song talks to us literally, through lyrics—(“let’s give them something to talk about”)—and asks us to consider what is happening on screen when those words are sung.
  • But a vid also talks to us musically also through beats, rhythm, syncopation, etc. What visual elements are synchronized with the beats, or a cymbal crash? What happens in the chorus vs. the verse, what visual elements are present at the climax, etc.
  • To think this way is to see the music as a kind of guide to looking, or a view-track.

Emotional Meaning.

  • But this not all vid music does. Because yes, while music in vids is the lens for analysis not all the meaning it carries is analytical meaning. Music—the highest form of art; Pater says, “all arts aspire to the condition of music”—can operate directly on the emotions and on the body, bypassing the analytical brain entirely. So we have to ask questions like: “What is the tone of the song,? What is the tempo, what key is it, is it soothing or discordant?”: in short, how is it supposed to make us feel, and then later we can ask, “In what way is that emotion meaningful or interesting vis a vis the source text?”

Poetic Meaning: Music Video IS NOT film with a soundtrack.

  • But even beyond this kind of somatic, emotional meaning–the effect of music on the body and on the emotions—I want to argue that there is another complicated (and transformative) meaning, a poetic meaning, inherent in the very genre of “music video” as distinct from “film with a soundtrack.”
  • In film with a soundtrack, the music accompanies the image, and a scene can be re-scored: i.e. you can substitute a different piece of music with a similar feel and get largely the same effect. In music video, you can’t change the music: the choice of music, and the synchronization of music and image is the entire point. A different song gets you a different vid.
  • For a fan to transform mass media film and tv into music video is to effect a radical change of genre. In fact, turning film and tv into music video is as much of a transformation as turning film and tv into prose in fan fiction.
  • In fact, just as fan fiction turns mass media drama into prose, vidding represents a change in genre from drama to poetry.

To digress for a second, I was at a film studies conference where someone noted that novels and plays were routinely turned into movies, but not poetry. So we tried to brainstorm whether any poetry had ever been adapted to film–Cats came to mind, the musical based on TS Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”— but to me, music video was the obvious genre.

If we think of music video as multimedia poetry—and I want to evoke a more classical idea of poetry, that moment where music, drama, and poetry were just about the same thing; where, in fact, poetry was dramatic narrative made musical with rhythm and other devices that appealed to the emotions—we begin to see what is at stake in making fan music video.

Much of the televisual material beloved by fans and made into vids is spectaclized and plot driven—good for the eyes, in other words, but not great at presenting emotional content or interiority. But, like fanfiction, which transforms tv and film into prose, thus allowing for multiple points of view, interior monologues, the ability to compress and stretch time, etc., vidding transforms television and film into poetry; to what effect?

  1. It allows you to express levels of emotion that would be otherwise be regarded as embarrassingly over the top. Vidding essentially turns the macho areas of genre film and television into a species of musical theatre—which is again, not a soundtrack, but a form of drama where song is inextricable, is the story, is revelation of character, etc. We allow the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, (which is Wordsworth’s definition of poetry) in musical theatre (i.e. staged poetry) and we allow them in music video: multimedia poetry.
  2. Those powerful feelings are typically located in a specific character’s point of view, giving them all the force of soliloquy. Aside from the relatively clumsy device of the voice over, film and television don’t have many structures for giving us access to characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings. Shakespeare has the soliloquy, opera has the aria, in musical theatre, characters break out into song and dance—and in this ironic modern age, we have vidding to make interiority visible.

So in conclusion, I want to sum up my thesis by going back to the lyrics to “Something to Talk About” and remind you that they conclude, “Let’s give them something to talk about…how about love?” I think this lyric encapsulates all the different parts of vidding—the discursive (i.e. that there’s something to talk about) but also the love–which is to say, how about adding these big emotions to the filmic narrative, not just as a decorative soundtrack, but as an intrinsic poetic expression of character and story.

Louisa Stein on Vids as Contemporary Remix Culture:

[My provocation at DML drew from my recent symposium piece on Supernatural Vidding as millennial discourse at Transformative Works and Cultures. I’ll post an abbreviated summary here, but for further expansion, take a brief detour to TWC here.]

I’d like us to consider what vids tell us about contemporary remix culture and also about the history of transmedia engagement. I want to suggest that we consider how vids model the logics of remix culture–which we can understand as a particular form of media literacy–transforming (as Lawrence Lessig would put it) the Read Only medium of television into a Read Write medium. I’d argue that it’s worthwhile for us to approach vids as threads in larger cultural conversations — such as the shift to remix culture–rather than as only subcultural sites of resistance.

For an example, I’d like us to turn to a fan vid that uses the television program Supernatural as its core source text. Supernatural probes such questions as the existence of god and the moral responsibilities of humanity, putting at its center questions of moral ambiguity and religiosity.

As such, it resonates with larger cultural conversations around the role of religion in the contemporary moment–and specifically around how contemporary young people (the generation known as Millennials) are engaging with religion and questions of faith.

The vid I’d like to discuss here, Obsessive24’s Fall of Man, magnifies Supernatural’s critique of religious faith. This vid focuses on a side character in Supernatural, an angel (you can recognize him as the guy in the trench coat) and visualizes his struggle as he begin to question whether god exists. To render these larger religious questions of faith and doubt, this vid draws on footage from beyond Supernatural–from B films that visualize heaven and hell and, perhaps more unexpectedly, from Renaissance art.

Because of this striking breadth of source texts, we can clearly see how this vid engages cultural discourses raised by Supernatural, but also contributes to larger cultural conversations that reach beyond Supernatural and indeed across history.

By reorienting images from Supernatural, realigning the show’s representation of angels and religious faith with other familiar cultural iconography, this vid draws out Supernatural’s somewhat submerged of religious belief and makes it, one could argue, more overt and thus more radical.

Thus I feel “Fall of Man” quite beautifully demonstrates how vids do not exist only within the vacuum of fan communities. Rather, vids contribute and respond to larger cultural conversations–in part by virtue of their speaking back to the source texts that they take inspiration from.

Melanie Kohnen on Media Literacy and Transformative Works: Notes from the Multimodal Classroom:

Over the past few years, I have used vidding to to teach students about multimodal literacy. Specifically, I used Lim’s multifandom vid called “Us” in courses that address television spectatorship or copyright debates surrounding transformative cultures. I have found that vids can be helpful tools because they make abstract debates about e.g. copyright or spectatorship more tangible to students. At the same time, I have concerns about the recontextualization that is necessary to take vids out of their subcultural context and into the classroom.

When I use vids in my classes, I situate them in mainstream conversations surrounding media convergence—my understanding and use of vids is thus similar to the broadened perspective of vids introduced by Louisa. A central concern that has crystallized for me is the following: does this recontextualization of vidding neglect or forget about crucial aspects of vidding that arise from the specific context of fan communities?

Coming back to my use of “Us,” specifically, I can say that it has always resonated with my students even though the vid is a complex commentary on fandom and its relationship to the “public”/to culture at large. I argue that this vid works so well because students can understand it in the context of their own media experience, which is increasingly multimodal and transformative, and within the contexts they learn about in class.

“Us” itself is a multimodal, transformative work: it reworks images, video, text, and music from multiple sources. The vid also insists on the value of transformative works (of, as the lyrics note, “rummaging in the pages to search for answers”). Moreover, it offers an insight into the conflicts that arise out of these practices, namely copyright’s gray areas (“they gave us a talking to”). Finally, it comments on the dismissal of fandom as a trivial or as only worthwhile as a freakshow (“the tourists come and stare at us”).

Out of these three key statements, my students rally around two, namely, the vid’s defense of transformative works and its commentary on copyright law. However, they don’t quite understand the precarious place of fandom in the public sphere. And it is this question of fandom’s cultural position that is perhaps most apparent to the fans who watch this vid.

Consequently, two conflicting positions emerge. On the one hand, a broader perspective on vidding is certainly helpful for integrating vids into the classroom. Students come to appreciate vids as complex cultural commentary even when they are not familiar with the intricate interpretive communities from which vidding emerges. On the other hand, does this recontextualization render conversations invisible that should not be invisible when it comes to vidding? Among these conversations are debates about vidding as specifically female practice, about queer vidding practices, and about visibility and privacy of the fandom community. These are the aspects that are most treasured or fought about within vidding communities and thus should not be rendered invisible.

Considering the advantages and challenges of introducing the practice of vidding to my students, the question that remains with me is the following:

By showing vids like “Us” in the classroom, do we place students in the position of the tourists who go and stare at fandom (or other subcultural communities) without understanding it, or do we open up a way for students to be part of the “us” that the vid defends?

Tisha Turk on Vidding and Vid Watching as Multiliteracies:

I originally came at vids primarily from the perspective of rhetoric, drawing on the same kind of definition that Francesca provided earlier: a vid is a visual essay that stages an argument; the vidder’s choices about what to foreground and also what to ignore are fundamentally analytical choices intended to persuade viewers to see the text her way.

But as I began talking about vids in an academic context and especially as I began to show vids to people who weren’t familiar with the form, I became more and more aware of the ways in which people who don’t know vids frequently read vids badly. Some of the vids I love most and find most affecting are just not that easy to parse if you don’t already know what you’re seeing. To borrow a term that comes out of vidding fandom itself, these vids are operating at too high a reading level for many viewers.

So these days I’m thinking about how we raise that reading level; I’m coming at vids and vidding from a composition studies or literacy studies perspective; I’m interested in vidding and vidwatching as examples of multiliteracies: multimodal literacies, 21st c. literacies, new media literacies, whatever one wants to call them. Vidwatching is all about processing multiple simultaneous streams of information, which is increasingly what’s required for full literacy in this society: reading and writing are necessary but not sufficient. And vidding means learning to manipulate those multiple streams.

Vids are especially fascinating from this point of view because they’re one of those forms of participatory culture that Henry Jenkins mentioned in his introductory remarks yesterday evening: vids and vidding predate the web and “new media” by several decades, and so studying that history can, I think, teach us something about how people learned to do this kind of literacy work, and what motivated them to do this kind of literacy work, way before the wider culture and the available technology were set up to facilitate it.

Now, the education system hasn’t really caught up with this idea of multiliteracies yet–especially, I think, at the college level, where most of us and most of our colleagues are still very caught up in traditional disciplinary models of knowledge and performance and often in very traditional information-transfer models of pedagogy. And so–again, from a literacy studies point of view–we get the participation gap that Henry Jenkins talked about yesterday: kids who can mess around with DVDs and iMovie and YouTube at home have an enormous advantage over kids who can’t, in terms of their ability to read and compose in this multiliterate mode.

My interest in vidding at this point is grounded in some of the same questions that Jim Gee’s been asking about video games and Rebecca Black’s been asking about fan fiction: How can educators tap into whatever it is that makes these incredibly difficult and time-consuming activities appealing? I’m a vidder myself; I started vidding in graduate school, and at some point I looked at the amount of time I was spending vidding and talking about vids and realized that if I was spending that same amount of time working on my dissertation I would have finished months ago. When I think about composing processes, I think about how much time vidders spend composing and revising and seeking substantive beta feedback and how little time most of my composition students spend composing and revising and seeking substantive feedback, and… let’s just say the vidders are coming out ahead.

So I think that vidding is potentially a very useful site for studying the various processes that go into composing multimedia texts: learning to vid, learning from others’ vids, conceptualizing audience, generating ideas, planning, composing, seeking feedback, responding to feedback, revising, resolving technical issues.

One of the traditional objections to pop culture in the classroom has to do with the objection that pop culture isn’t appropriate content—again, Jim Gee talks about this with video games. But that idea about learning assumes that learning is about content, and as Gee points out, learning is NOT just a matter of content; it’s a matter of social practice. Learning to be a historian doesn’t mean learning names and dates and times; it means learning to think the way a historian thinks, which means understanding the conversations that historians have: knowing what questions historians find useful, what answers count as interesting answers.

So what I would say is that in vidding, as in video games, what we’re talking about now is not content but social practices and learning processes. I mean, yes, the content matters; I would love to see the girls and women who are getting involved with vidding, getting involved with fandom, learning about software, learning to code—I would love to see the technical content they’re learning translate into different ideas about their own capabilities, a sense that they could be, say, programmers or IT professionals. That use of the content would be great. But I would argue that the content actually matters much less than the processes involved, the abilities to manage, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, critique and create multiple integrated streams of information. We’re teaching verbs, not nouns.
And as we think about what people are learning, I want us to think not only about the work of people who make vids but also about the work of people who watch vids. Vidding is a social practice embedded in the social practices of fandom, and so the semiotic domain of vidding, what Jim Gee might call the external grammar of vidding, is shaped not only by the people who make vids but by those who watch vids: what they watch, what they react to, what they comment on and how they comment.

Julie Levin Russo on Femslash Videos and Queer Literacies:

For my provocation, I examine the role of fan video within the femslash community. Femslash — or, same-sex female couples from mass media as envisioned by fans — has a partly coextensive but partly distinct history within creative media fandom.

One of its unique features is an assumed correspondence between the lesbian sexuality represented in fanworks and the lesbian sexuality of the creators and community members (obviously there are minorities, but I think it’s safe to say that the majority of femslashers identify as queer women).

Considering this fact in relation to the more prominent academic and vernacular debates about male slash suggests interesting contrasts: while in some ways femslash may be a less “queer” phenomenon because the relations it posits between gender, identity and desire are less complex, it also has a more explicit and less contested connection to a recognizable politics — the politics of lesbian visibility.

To generalize: femslash as an interpretive community assumes that we want to see queer women on television, and that we will deploy certain queer viewing literacies to see them if they’re not immediately apparent.

Thus, femslash communities coalesce around a shared vision (in two senses) of the possibilities and problems of mass media representations of lesbian desire. Along with fan fiction, graphics and other forms of production, fan videos are a creative practice that helps to celebrate, support, spread, and indeed teach this shared vision.

While there is some crossover with vidding proper as a distinct aesthetic tradition (within which a small number of femslash vids are made), the vast majority of femslash videos (and fan videos in general) would fit into the broad and nebulous category of YouTube mashups (a huge ecology of remix and tribute videos).

Some of these vids are indeed “good” by artistic standards and YouTube fan videos do have their own typical aesthetics. However, YouTube vidders don’t have the same level of historical or subcultural consciousness as the vidding community, and don’t place as much emphasis on vids being “good” (as in artistically and technically advanced).

This video is obviously very different from the others in its humorous tone — nonetheless it vividly illustrates femslash literacies. Aleatory_6’s narrative is very didactic, both affirming and teaching the queer viewing strategies of a particular interpretive community. It schematically outlines the visual codes of “subtext,” addressing an assumed lesbian viewer. It’s certainly not subtle, but there’s a value to that lack of subtlety: it’s thus more widely accessible and more expressive of community norms.

I want to point out that, in approaching fan video as a form of participatory culture, it’s important to consider the vibrant contributions by many many people outside of “vidding” and even outside of organized LJ fandom in terms of their role in fostering media literacies (as Louisa Stein has argued elsewhere). In this case queer literacies — we can see in this video an experiential engagement with visual media through visual media.

“Bad” vids contribute to defining and sustaining fan subcultures, and on YouTube they’re very much at risk. Despite legitimate fair use claims, there’s a huge amount of attrition due to copyright filters (largely for music). We should remember that online social media makes these kinds of participation more accessible but also more vulnerable by relying on corporate platforms.

Alexis Lothian on Vidding as Activist Critique:

When issues of race and class come up in discussions of vidding subculture, they are often framed in terms of a digital divide: why are vidders white? Why do so few vids center on characters of color?

Access concerns are always relevant, given that a fairly high level of geek capital is required to vid. Learning how to access and decode source and how to edit and deal with different video codecs has more barriers to entry than simply switching on a webcam and pressing record. But I want to bracket the question of “who vids?” for a moment and talk about vidding as a mode of engagement, in a way that goes beyond thinking of it as a subculture. The question I want to address is this: How can the practice of vidding, the kind of media literacy that understanding and creating vids enables, respond to questions about race, labor, colonialism, and racialized exclusion? The easiest way to answer that is it by talking about a vid.

How Much is That Geisha in the Window works with audiovisual juxtapositions to offer a reading lesson in global racial politics for science fiction media fans. It provides a three minute unpacking and interpretation it would take a long academic essay to achieve, demonstrating conflicting narratives about US history and its global politics, and challenging who gets to tell those stories.

The source text is Firefly (2002), Joss Whedon’s fan-beloved space western. The vid articulates a critique that has been aired quite widely: that Whedon created a vision of a Chinese-dominated future without employing any actual Asian actors.

The vid makes its points by focusing on Firefly’s background imagery––on the show’s world building rather than the main characters or plot. Repeated stereotyped orientalist images from the show combine with external footage from Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) to highlight Firefly’s representation of Asian cultures as interchangeable, fetishized images that appear background for a group of plucky rebels challenging interplanetary hegemony. Footage from 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and one shot from Gone with the Wind (1939) intensify the vidder’s focus on the racialized labor that underlies the images of scrappy American independence the western (space or otherwise) genre employs.

This vid is a sharp, pissed off rejoinder to Joss Whedon, as its closing statement (“Fuck you, Joss Whedon, you racist asshole”) makes quite clear. But it is also an address to fans and others to think about representation: about which kinds of racialized bodies get to star on TV, and about how US media deals with ‘other’ cultures. What do (white) Americans do when they construct imaginary futures? Demonstrate their racist and xenophobic fears of white marginalization, for one thing.

This is vidding as the making visible of subjugated knowledges. To vid is to understand how a visual text is constructed, and that is always both a technical and ideological task. To understand this vid (let alone to make it), you need to know media and history from several perspectives, and engage in a profound critique of their racial and gendered status quo. For those to whom it’s legible, the vid provides a hard-hitting lesson in the hidden histories that underline mainstream stories. For some, this will be a shock; for others, a confirmation of lived experience.

To go back to my original question, this vid is one example of what cultural literacies learned in struggle can add to our understanding of participatory engagements with digital media. It shows fan cultural production as a deconstructive and conflict-filled kind of participatory engagement. It lets us think about vidding not just as an object but also as a mode of critical study; as political intervention; and as theory happening outside institutional contexts. And so I want to finish by asking: what connections are there between producing transformative works and having one’s understanding of the world transformed?


And thus concludes our digital workshop, but hopefully not the ongoing conversation stemming from it. Please feel free to comment and/or pose questions on any of these issues in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Participatory Cultures and Vidding (a virtual rendition of our Digital Media and Learning 2010 workshop)

  1. Laura Shapiro says:

    This makes for excellent reading. I regret missing the conference — it must have been a blast!

    Melanie: I am so very, very glad that you are asking these questions.

    1. lstein says:

      It was a terrific conference–it has such a lively, engaged energy, with many workshops & panels that provoked thoughtful conversations. I just wish it had been streamed somehow! At any rate, it’s definitely one I’ll try to go to again in the future.

      Thanks for commenting, and so glad you enjoyed!

  2. Stultiloquentia says:

    Thanks very much for posting this.

    I just read an essay by poet Dennis Lee, who was trying to explain his trouble writing poetry about Canadian experience when all the words at his disposal come preloaded with British and American meanings/contexts/allusions/assumptions. As a colonial, his own (his only) vocabulary doesn’t describe or belong to him.

    I’d already been pondering how this relates to fandom in general, but the comments above, especially Julie’s and Alexis’, made me notice how vidding in particular is tremendously significant from a postcolonial perspective for its success in wresting words (images, texts) out of kyriarchal hands and forcing them to carry our own meanings. Neat-o.

  3. lstein says:

    Thank you for the very thoughtful comment! I can’t help but also see connections to Francesca Coppa’s contribution, as she considers what it means to look at vidding as poetry–as a significant shift in genre that allows access to meanings and experiences not usually afforded in the source text itself. It’s an interesting thought–both specific to vidding but also, as you suggest, significant to fan engagement and transformation as a whole.

    I’d be interested in hearing your further thoughts on the significance of vidding from a postcolonial perspective–have you elaborated on this somewhere?

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