The World is Watching and You are Listening

“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves…. We proclaim our devotion to [our passion or dream], but we sadly practice the very opposite of [its] creed. … This strange dichotomy, this agonising gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love

 

Yellow Fever: FULL from Ng’endo Mukii on Vimeo.

 

This past week or two has been what I might call my test at confronting the tragedy of not crossing the gulf between practice and profession, between what needs to be done and what I do instead. It ended in giving the talk of my life at TEDxUofM on my Bottomlines YouTube research about the digital ‘net worth of black girls ages 13-17 and younger on YouTube. I talked about the racialized and sexualized disparities in search results, views as currency, and in the comments directed towards white girls vs. black girls. No one had to tell me I accomplished something spectacular when I left the stage. I’d done more than I ever imagined and felt it was some of my very best work as a writer, a speaker and even as a singer.

When I left the stage, my former voice teacher, the renowned MET tenor George Shirley with whom I studied for 2-1/2 years at the University of Michigan, was waiting to congratulate me backstage. What a joy that moment was!! I hadn’t seen him for over 20 years. He said “You sound good!” And we spent about an hour over tea talking about the work you must do to do you best and how that work will eventually pay off in whatever you do. Even if you don’t sing for a living. He intimated that the work he saw me do on the stage of Power Center in Ann Arbor was my life’s mission, what I was made to do on this earth. I fell and felt that way. It was like belonging and being all rolled into one and finally the place or my skin didn’t matter. I wasn’t diminishing my own voice anymore.

For 20 years I’ve been studying the intersection of race and gender in black expressive cultures through the lens of black girlhood and their musical play. For the last 2 years, my attention has focused on online black girls who are “messing around” on YouTube–uploading videos with editing, twerking to invisible audiences from the “privacy” of their bedrooms while others degrade their practices below their videos treating them like call girls and sluts. On YouTube you are who others say you are, or so it seems for online black girls. And so it has seemed for me as a black woman, as an African American citizen whose family has been in these lands for 9 generations and still suffers the effects of institutional racism.

The Life Course for Black Girls and Women

The black women in my family are not far ahead of the stats from 2010 that says we have zero or negative net worth and yet we come from an ancestral connection to middle class values. My grandmother was educated at the Mary McLeod Bethune Finishing School and almost went to the New England Conservatory of Music before she married my maternal grandfather, a Navy cook. My mother and her older and younger sisters had two parents at home. I was an only child but our lives were still touched by drugs, by gettin’ by cause the system didn’t seem to allow black folks after Desegregation to have a sovereign way of life or earn a real living that had comparable worth to white women or white men and their families.

So, for me to return to a stage where I’d had some of my worst moments of stage fright and give a talk that spoke to the self-worth and digital ‘net worth of African American girls who twerk!! It was a revolutionary moment for me and I hope for the 1300 people witnessing my shedding of skin and releasing of burdens. Mine and others. And not just black folk.

The view of the online adolescent black girls that I study in YouTube twerking videos are being shaped in ways I never was offline by interactions with people who don’t understand our history or the history of white superiority and hegemony in this country. They just adopt the stereotypical positions that black girls are ratchet, low-class, baby mamas or reckless and ignorant or that their parents don’t no know better. They are slut shamed and respectability shamed by whites and blacks online. Who will protect them from doing what all of us are doing online–playing with sharing our identities and trying on new things.

We were being introduced to one of the most precious of American freedoms, which is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others. — Ralph Ellison (1986, 186).

This past 7 days I’ve given my talk on The Bottomlines Project: On Black Girls’ Digital ‘Net Worth in Ann Arbor, at the Nassau Community College in Long Island, and at City College (CCNY) in an evening of work about hip-hop by  my dear brother media assassin Harry Allen and fellow ethnomusicologist Tim Mangin.    The TEDxUofM talk should be available online soon.

Confronting the Weight Not the Burden

I don’t feel tragically divided this week and with that feeling I realize that 2015 must be a line in the sand for me about my life goals and my ethics and my mission as a scholar and professor. It also must be the year I handle my biology and my health since black girls and women are the top demographic for obesity and I know now how absolutely essential to where I am heading that my well-being is to my success. I know but there I am still a bit tragically divided. I haven’t been to the gym for almost 2 weeks. I know what I ought to do but the gulf is there between what is.

So when my old American U collegemate Ken Brown tagged me on this video this morning, I knew I’d post it here. The world is listening, Kyra, and that world includes YOU! As India Arie sang, “The words that come from your mouth, you’re the first to hear!”  #towerk  #twerk

So today, I werk. I write. I write articles to publish. To get back in a tenure track job. I am here and I’m bringing new knowledge for a weary world. New insights that inspire and challenge us to grow with online black girls. #whywecantwait

H/T to Ari Gagne, a fellow ethnomusicologist who writes and studies the bounce scene in NOLA. He pointed me towards the Ellison quote and is educating me about bounce and its queens.

Chescaleigh of YouTube on #BlackOutDay

“Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our own skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness.”

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

 

#BlackOutDay

Wish I participated! Thanks for vlogging about it @chescaleigh!! If you don’t know her, she along with Issa Rae are among the most recognized YouTubers (and notice I didn’t say black YouTubers). Please subscriber to her channel!!

 

PS This was my 150th blog post! Small celebration! Woo-hoo!

Out of Place: Whether in Segregation or Integration

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Flickr: Bushwick, Brooklyn

Flickr: Bushwick, Brooklyn

Education, Liberation – I LOVE YOU!

Just got off the phone with my mom. She and I graduated–spent our last years of adolescent black girlhoodat the same predominately white public school, Richard Montgomery High. It’s located in Rockville, Maryland just outside the beltway in Washington, D.C. Mama was in the 2nd class after Segregation ended (pun not intended, but … take it as it comes). I believe she attended 1958 – 1961. I attended 20 years later from 1977-79. I graduated at the age of 16. With my birthday in September this sounds amazing but it was not. That’s an altogether different story for another time. It sure looked good in the eyes of others to graduate at 16 but the real circumstances were not cute. I might write about it in another postif folks are interested.

It’s early Saturday morning and I’m sharing about my upcoming TEDx talk I’m givingMarch 20th at my alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The talk will be about race, value and black girls’ self-worth so I can really talk about racialization, sexualization and structural racism on YouTube. I am planning on starting my talk with a story about stage fright at my first audition at UofM.

Somehow we got to talking about our different experiences with Integration across our life courses. I was recording it in case I said something good for my talk. I transcribed the exchange because it rich with meaning and relevance esp. as I finish up an article highlighting the re-segregation of black girls on YouTube. Wanted to find a way to talk about segregated spaces on and off line, the blurring of public/privacy, the meaning of publicity in what are essentially segregated bedrooms broadcast online, and the inherent racialization of adolescent black female body and image while valorizing their white female counterparts. Even though big butts are valued they are stigmatized on black bodies.  Kim Khardasian can “Break the Internet” but when black girls try in twerking videos…as Nicki Minaj put it when talking about black girls doing a black thing, “it ain’t that poppin’!”

My new friend and one of the newest TED Fellows (Rock the TED Stage girl!!), choreographer Camille A. Brown articulated the dilemma we black girls face today, young and old,

Your body has value, but not on you!

Un-gawa, Black Powa

My conversation with my Mama is always like a roller-coaster. We cover lots of emotional terrain — sometimes it’s not easy but this was one of the more precious moments I want to remember forever.

She mentions the store Zaire’s which was a local department store in Wheaton, MD that my mom went to most of my childhood. She paid for new school clothes put on law-a-way often working 2 jobs a day. I got my first brown cordoroy bell-bottoms at Zaire’s when they were the “in” thing. Wish I had a copy of my 7th grade picture sportin those pants as the cheerleading squad assistant. Ungawa, Black Power was one of the cheers we black girls brought to the white junior high squad.

TRANSCRIPT

23:47″

Me: Ye-ah!
I was an integration baby. So you were supposed to fit in. I was always– the only black student in classical music until I got to Michigan. [That’s a little exaggerated. Tony Scales and his friend Virgil were in the music department with me to Montgomery College but no one else for 10 years of my classical training from 1979 until Michigan in 1988].

What made Michigan great for me was that there were THIRTY OTHER BLACK STUDENTS there. It was AWESOME! But…we didn’t see each other, ya know.  Even when I was [back] at Julius West [Junior High I thought] all of the black students, I thought we were in different classes, because I never saw them at school [in the spaces of learning, in the classroom; I saw them everyday at lunch. We played Spades on the regular]. [I later learned]  They were [all] in another class [tracking them vocational ed and not college prep].

24:19″
Mama:  The bad part of that was, in order for you to get a half-way decent chance to go to higher learning [college], I had to be on [them]… making sure you were in the right courses. Because there was some courses where the kids just played in the class all day [ME: a function of curriculum design not student laziness]. And that mighta been fun but in the long run. I mean…

24:59″  I never thought that Integration was the best thing.
I wanted to have the experience of being… [of] graduating from Carver High School. George Washington Carver high school!!   I wanted to graduate from there!!

25:09″  But..but  they– said–[parents and school authorities brokering the transtion], I was a student that who would be successful in going to the white schools.
I didn’t like it!!
And when I started to have problems with the teachers, my father said “you oughta be glad you’re going to school with whites.” That’s what he said.

Me: Ye-ah! Our…our experiences are like mirrors ..

25:35″
Mama:  We all had things we had to go through, ya know?  and I had a few teachers at Richard Montgomery — my U.S. history teacher — probably if it wasn’t for her I probably wouldn’t had — her and maybe Mr. Preston — I would have had just a TERRIBLE time at Rich’rd Montgomery all together. I mean 9…well…I had…well, less than 50% good experience there most of my time there, and I was just glad to get outta there! (she laughs at the irony)

26: 19″  And I had to work at Zaire’s behind the food counter! [It was] my first job after I got outta high school.

Me: Wow, I didn’t know that. [She’d never told me this before. And we continued shopping there for years.]

Mama: YE-AH!!! So what was the… ya know..
                                                               Me: ..the benefit…
Mama: Ye-ah!

Me: You got to go to a white school with white people but you didn’t get any better of a job.                                                                                                              Mama: Right!!!

Mama: … an’ COULDN’T SIT AT THE COUN’ER!

Me: WOW!!!!!! <pause>  Really??!?

Mama: YE-AH!!

     ————-

The Flawed System of Race

Notice how even as black woman’s own daughter, I respond in disbelief at racism. That my moms went to a predominately white school–we have arrived–to still deal with segregation in the rest of society, in her first workplace, after getting her degree.  This ish is a trip! And this trip around the sun for black folks has come with way too much ish.  Situations matter. There is not global solution to the racial ideology that still fools far too many of us into thinking what we do online or off is ok if I own my own body. No man, woman and child is an island.

We are all accomplices, co-creators — past and present — the shaping black girls’ social identity and their self-worth.  That’s it for now. But our conversation reminded me of a poem set to music in an African American art song by David Nathaniel Baker.  Thought the poem was by Langston Hughes. Delighted to learn and remember it was written by Mari Evans, whom I spoke to when writing my first book. She wrote a fabulous poem about black women and the poem “status symbol” [note the lower case spelling] is from her book I am a Black Woman (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1970).

 

status symbol

By Mari Evans

i

Have Arrived

I

am the

New Negro

I

      am the result of

           President Lincoln

  World War I

and Paris

the

          Red Ball Express

                   white drinking fountains

    sitdowns and

sit-ins

       Federal Troops

                     Marches on Washington

  And

       prayer meetings

today

   They hired me

  it

is a status

job . . .

along

      with my papers

They

    gave me my

       Status Symbol

the

key

to the

                 White . . . Locked . . .

John.

Publicity Means No More Locked Doors, Right?.

The Gap: What Media Teaches 7 Year Olds About Being Female

“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: “It’s a girl.”
Shirley Chisholm

 

My intro anthro courses will be conducting video content analysis on the 1000 videos of black girls (13-17 and younger) twerking in my dataset. We will analyze the intersectionality of race, gender and age on YouTube.

They will work in pairs to analyze 15 videos each based on scholarly research on video coding and content analysis. I am working out the intersectional categories they will focus on together. With many teams we can analyze subcultural features at the same time. Each team will choose a code or two to analyze in their subset of videos. It might be focusing on sexualization of adolescent girls, YouTube personal vlogging, rap music videos and video vixens, or new media ecology, etc. They will find three scholarly articles to help them think like a social scientist about video content analysis and/or YouTube content creation.

Today I got this email from one of my 90 students. She is a non-black, twenty-something year old, undergrad. She wrote:

Hello professor,
I had an interesting experience today that I wanted to tell you about.

Today, I was babysitting a young girl, 7yo, and we were creating things out of clay. We decided to make a couple and she asked me to help her making the girl. She told me that the girl has to be tall and has to have a GAP BETWEEN HER TIGHTS! I asked her why and she said that that is how pretty and skinny girls look like. I told her that I don’t have gap between my tights and asked her if she things I am fat or ugly (believe me we have very honest and good relationship-we tell each other things). And she just froze and said no. And I could see how honestly she meant that and how she started thinking how come I am not ugly or fat when I don’t have gap between my tights. ( I messed up her mental map [of reality–a concept from our anthro textbook] I guess- can that be the case?)

And that make me think about twerking. If we communicate to a girl at tender age of seven this twisted image of how beautiful girl/woman looks like, couldn’t one of the reasons for black girls to twerk [sic] be that this is what cool/desirable/…. girls(women) do?

I am not sure if that has any value for our research, but I wanted to share my thoughts with you.”

I wrote her back with glee “YES!!!” This is one of those turning points in the learning process. It makes teaching and learning around vulnerable topics all the more worthwhile.

Our textbook introduced the concept of “zeros”

Zeros

Elements of a story or a picture that are not told or seen and yet offer key insights into issues that might be too sensitive to discuss or display publicly.

Most students would not think like me that mentioning a “thigh gap” likely tells me that the little girl is not black. Perhaps it’s biology–I rarely see black women with thigh gaps. Perhaps it’s because we tend to be thick versus thin in our hips. Surely there are black girls with and who desire a thigh gap. I did when Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince aired on commercial TV from 1975 to 1979. That was a year before Roots aired on ABC.

I was a true adolescent when I was watching actress Linda Carter twirl into her supernatural power. She was sexy and it was all about her body. Her thigh gap was real but I knew her powers were not. This was TV! After watching, I looked at my body in the mirror and thought…and this sounds crazy in hindsight only…but I thought “I don’t have a gap so how will I be able to have sex? There’s no room down there.” In other words, who will find me attractive? I didn’t see it in myself.  All I noticed was that I was missing that gap and from my adolescent point of view it signified what it meant to be a wonder, to be alluring, to be a woman.  That way of seeing still has me decades later.

That thought plagued my adolescent brain as my looking-glass self kept reminding me how I needed/wanted to be viewed by others. To be liked. I wanted to conform or contort my body to fit some hegemonic view imposed from merely watching television. No one told me you need a gap. My mother had no thigh gap. No boy said “Oh, I wish you had a gap!” I recall talking with other girls about it once. But none of my friends had thigh gaps. Well, Bernadette did! She was a neighborhood girl who tortured me later in high school. She was light-skinned-ed, skinny and tall compared to the rest of the girls in 8th grade. I was a loner. And I didn’t share my thoughts with other girls. I rarely do now. This is why voice is so important to the work I am doing. Finding your voice is key to empowering girls in my view to combat how prevalent the body is around the socialization of the female body in social and televised media.

Vids of Very Young Girls

My students, 90 in all in Spring 2015 semester, are just starting to learn how to conduct fieldwork and ethnography from Chapter 3 in the textbook titled Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age by my department colleague Ken Guest.

Since this is a new textbook I am using this term, I took a suggestion from a senior sociology colleague and friend at the CUNY Grad Center. He suggested I have my students participate in a research project around my data instead of having them write papers as I ordinarily do.

So far, I have only introduced my students this term to one twerking video. Two week ago I blogged about it.I recently changed the title to: “Privacy? (No!) Adversity? (You Bet!): Black Girls’ Bedroom Twerking”. It features an 8 year old twerking on YouTube. I’ve flagged this video on March 6th for child abuse because the girl is below the YouTube age minimum and the comments are “grooming” her to make another video in her “panties”.  In the past, flagging videos has not worked but it’s something I am hoping to publicize to protect very young girls from such harm.

The Vulnerable Classroom

Teaching around this ethnographic fieldwork is really, really complicated as danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated points to. It involves virtual impressions and moving images that are misread, misinterpreted and often stigmatized. It features underage girls whom far too many of us do not assign agency. We perceive their lack of agency as being complicit in some symbolic action of soliciting sexual attention and they they are giving consent to male viewers to slut-shame them.

It involves dance moves that are racialized and sexualized by generalized others. These moves in visual motion can awaken sensual reactions that are usually reserved for private encounters and are perceived and sensed differently by women and men, girls and boys, in ways that are blurred by the broadcast nature of the medium.  And watching twerking videos mirrors a reality, no more accurately, it mirrors a mental map of reality that for many role-takers (parents, teachers, older folk, strangers, moral high grounders, etc.) in public are highly agitated by. It’s particularly agitating when it comes to any association with stigmas about black girls or  sexual adolescent girls. Another thing, it’s all about the female realm in a domestic sphere — bedroom culture — which given the emphasis on race and gender, on black femaleness, it’s complicated by issues of culture, power, hegemony, and stratification. Topics most undergrads are not facile with understanding yet. Oh!! And if that isn’t complicated enough,  my students and I occasionally watch these videos in a disembodied academic setting, a college classroom at a public university known for its wide range of ethnicity diversity as well as religions. THIS. IS. COMPLICATED ETHNOGRAPHIC WORK AND PEDAGOGY.

This is vulnerable ethnography as well as vulnerable and critical teaching and learning in mixed company. I have to help these diverse emerging adults accept that there are risks affecting the youngest, darkest, and socially most vulnerable YouTube participants and convince them that this is academic work. I have to help them not get lost in the fascination with what’s viral–YouTube viral videos–and learn to critically analyze a rich and extremely educative site of study–digital media and new media ecologies. I, too, am constantly challenging my own mental maps of reality as a result.

More soon.

New YouTube Kids App. Don’t Forget to Search for Their Digital Traces!

 Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

 

What an amazing week! I want to give you a little review what’s been going on in my academic life and what’s been happening in digital media land, esp. YouTube at the intersection of race, gender and adolescents online.  Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been rebranding how I talk about my digital ethnographic research. I’m recoding the 1000 videos I’ve collected that feature adolescent black girls (ages 13-17 and younger) broadcasting while they twerk from the “privacy” of their bedrooms in a participatory research project with my three intro to anthro courses. More on that soon.

This weekend since Friday I have been attending the Eastern Sociological Association meeting here in New York City. It’s being held at the Millennium Broadway Hotel in Times Square. Any local New Yorker knows that how much we loath having to go to Times Square’s Tourist Trap. But because my friend (online and off-line) sociology professor Jessie Daniels (@JessieNYC) organized and is hosting a digital sociology mini conference it was well worth the trouble. And it’s been amazing. You can follow our live tweeting of the conference at #DigitalSociology on Twitter.

YouTube App Just for Kids Launched

This week YouTube announced a new app designed for kids and their gardens. It’s called  kids.

On February 23, 2015,  U2 launched a new kid-focused app for parents and guardians to download.  YouTube video advertising the new  access is pretty compelling. They also released a remarkable playlist of viral videos featuring kids titled Kids We Love.  It starts with of one my favorites  “Worry about yourself” featuring a little toddler in her car seat telling her dad to leave her alone, she can take care of herself. Many of the videos I’ve seen before. One is precious.  It’s called Kids play with paint a get it all over their faces. Reminds me of when I was that age.


Kyra-Kyra on the Wall/
Who’s the Fairest of Them All?

I was 4 or 5 years old staying at my Granny’s while my mother was at work. I’d been playing in my youngest aunt’s Avon powder … without permission. I’d been told not to play with my aunt’s makeup. I was having a ball with that powder puff imitating (or I thought mirroring) what I saw in a Warner Brothers’ cartoon.  I was too young to notice that I was different from the white female figure in the cartoon. The white powder became invisible, it disappeared on her skin. I had no idea that the Avon product betrayed my lie, and defined my otherness at the same time. My aunt’s tall dresser did not have a mirror attached so I never saw how I looked. When I heard my mother unexpectedly came in the front door after work, I jumped off a chair I had placed to reach her makeup and stood outsider my aunt’s room as if I had not been doing anything.  My mother, Ardell, asked me, “What have you been doing, Kyra??!!” I stood on the step and said “Nothing.” My little brown face was covered in white talcum powder and she still tells the story about how she tried not to laugh. Parents had a rough job before the Internet. Image telling a child to not watch YouTube. Or moreover, don’t upload any videos of yourself without my permission. Uh-oh!!!

From Dusty Faces to Digital Traces

Parents may be pleased with this but they also need to start search the YouTube archive for images of their kids by name. Even if videos are removed from a channel, they may still exist in the search archive. Check for the digital traces. They are not as obvious as the powder was on my brown face decades before digital video and mobile devices were tethered to today’s youth.

If I made the playlist for Kids We Love it would definitely include Princess973 or Princess Maji representin’ Jersey. Here’s her dancing to a remix of “Let it Go” from Frozen–clearly every parents favorite song they could stand not to hear one more time. Princess Maji is black girl genius!! She is much more incredible at dancing, if you asked me, than any of the kids represented in YouTube’s present playlist.

Misoynoir: Flirting with the Webcam From the Bedroom and the Backdoor

“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” – Junot Diaz

Bailey first used the term [misogynoir] in an essay titled, ‘They Aren’t Talking About Me’ for the Crunk Feminist Collective. She defines it as a “word I made up to describe the particular brand of hatred directed at Black women in American visual and popular culture.” Examples of Misogynoir include the rejection of Black women’s natural hair and ‘twerking’. http://www.thevisibilityproject.com/2014/05/27/on-moya-bailey-misogynoir-and-why-both-are-important/

 

Twerk Reconsider

 

An Ethnography of YouTube Twerking

More and more I’m realizing what’s emphasized in this week’s chapter in my new intro to cultural anthro textbook by Ken Guest (which is the bomb!!!). Chapter 3 is on fieldwork and ethnography. Guest frames ethnography as both a social scientific method of study and an art because of the use of fiction strategies to tell stories about people and structures of power.

Doing ethnography is such a fit for me as an artist and a thinker. I’m increasingly aware of how precious it is that I ended up teaching anthro and not just ethnomusicology to music majors who tend to spend all their time in notes and aesthetics and not enough time in the world of power and inequality. Think of the remarkable Bobby McFerrin and his apolitical stance. Ain’t knockin it but it’s only one way to be a musician in the world.  He’s not the Michael Jordan of music — his politics to eradicate differences show up in his art, but the talk of the full dimensions of say race, class, and gender are not prominent in either’s public discourse. I am sure privately it’s another matter.

Exploring Race, Gender and YouTube in Class

This semester I have merged my ethnography of YouTube and twerking with my intro course. We are recoding the 1000 videos collected in past classes. They will split into pairs, get 15 videos, find 3 scholarly articles that suggests how they can code for race, gender and or digital video/YouTube and then we will present all we learned. From the hive mind we will come up with 10 codes to then re-code all the videos with the same variables. Each of my 3 sections will have a different set of 10. It’s going to be amazing.

Yesterday I made a connection between the first viral video Numa Numa by Gary Broulsma in Jersey in Dec 2004 dancing in his bedroom to the Numa Numa song (aka Dragostea din tei by Ozone) which appeared on a website called Newgrounds.com. Until 2012 with PSY’s Gangnam Style is was the 2nd most watched viral video of all time with over 7 million views. Since then it sits behind Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus (2013) and just ahead of Thrift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis (2012). (Visit the most-watched YouTube videos list updated regularly on Wikipedia You can look at past changes as a subscriber there, too).

YouTube the domain was registered Feb 14th, 2005– 10 years ago — and it’s first video launched April 23, 2005. In only 10 years it’s become the 2nd most popular search engine on the Internet, the most public archive of user-generated and professional videos, and the source of revenue for both old legacy video and hundreds of everyday people who earn six figures from making videos online.

“YouTube fizzled in an early version, [Jawed] Karim [one of three founders] says: A dating site called Tune In Hook Up drew little interest. The founders later developed the current site, now broadcasting 100 million short videos daily on myriad subjects.” (Hopkins, USA Today, 11 Oct 2006).

The dating site initially offered $100 through Craigslist to attractive girls who posted ten or more videos but the ad ploy failed. Reportedly they didn’t get a single reply (Gannes 2006 in Burgess and Green 2009, 2).

A Select History of Viral Video Memes

Yesterday in class I mentioned that it’s not that easy to make a viral video on YouTube anymore. I added that the concept of viral videos–which students seemed to be unable to name in the academic ecology of the classroom; I’d asked them what they call a video that lots of people follow–came from the notion of memes by Richard Dawkins and that some argue that memes mirror the behavior of viruses and/or genes. To borrow from Yiddish, there is always a lot of michigas or craziness around the discourse of genes, women and black people in the US and the West. So you can imagine what happens to black girls historically and stereotypically. More about that another time.

The first viral video on YouTube uploaded on August 24, 2005 was the “Hey Clip” by Tasha and Dishka aka Lital Mizel and Adi Fremerman of Ramlee or “Ramla, city in Israel, on the coastal plain southeast of Tel Aviv-Yafo. Ramla is the only city founded by the Arabs in Palestine.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica). By 2006 it had 13 million views. Both Gary Broulsma and Tasha and Dishka recorded themselves with a webcam from their bedrooms and lip synched on camera, Gary used a shoot and upload approach flirting with the camera dancing in his bedroom desk chair while the Ramlee women, both 22 y/o, used significant video editing to stage their own music video for a boyfriend of one of the girls. THe former was set to the Numa Numa song which is from Moldova. The Hey Clip was danced to “Hey” by the Boston rock band The Pixies which inspired the alt rock boom of the 1990s according to Wikipedia (got research to do here but its a start).

Hidden in the shadows of these videos black girls were uploading dance videos from their own bedrooms with their desktop webcams and mobile phones as early as 2006 on YouTube if not earlier. 2005 the year YouTube launched was also the year of the costliest natural disaster and one of the 5 most deadliest in the history of the U.S. Hurricane Katrina left its devastation in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast where millions were left homeless and 800,000 New Orleaneans were displaced to all points throughout the nation. http://earlywarn.blogspot.com/2013/01/distribution-of-katrina-refugees.html

map shows the dispersion of the 800,000 refugees from Louisiana that fled as a result of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster measured by FEMA

map shows the dispersion of the 800,000 refugees from Louisiana that fled as a result of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster measured by FEMA

The youth of the Dirty South rap scene known as Bounce in NOLA lost everything –shelter and the sonic force of their records, DJs and sound systems but not the soul of their dance and rap. YouTube’s availability helped them connect while apart.

So when black girls started uploading videos a two way transference of culture began with digital video that was not possible to the degree it became with the very features that made YouTube a huge innovation in social media. It’s ability to allow ordinary users not only to broadcast themselves but to easily share and comment on each others’ audio-visual content.

Just as the intersections of race and gender affect access jobs and wealth and who gets on commercial TV and radio–traditional old media–these aspects of identity and power also live in the YouTube community but we have not learned to distinguish as easily or critically as we have been educated to do with the old mass media because of the asynchronous nature of new media — available anywhere, anytime by over a billion unique visitors a month. The sheer volume is hard to grasp and analyze ordinarily.

Flirting vs. Twerking:
Screening Difference Differently

People read Gary Broulsma and the Hey Clip in hindsight as cute and playful while videos of black girls twerking then and now are viewed very differently even among middle class blacks. A student sent me the meme at the top of this blog post last week. I’d seen before. Found it about a year ago in my research. She uploaded this version to her Instagram timeline. It reads “HOW TO TWERK” and after a line break below it reads “STEP 1: Reconsider.”

Why aren’t adolescent/teen black girls viewed as playfully flirting when broadcasting with the webcam? Some answers to this seem obvious. The culture of personal vlogging on YouTube usually involves face-to-face work, the deep and loose ambient intimacy of talking to strangers about the most personal things in one’s private life from the bedroom. Black girls are butt to face and their voices are lost in the translation of their expressive culture to audiences of people who do not know from where or from whom twerking emanated and how in the ambient ecosystem of YouTube.

You cannot see their intentions nor the pathway from them to Miley Cyrus’s Facebook upload in February of 2013 that led her to be considered for person of the year. YOU–Yes, You was Time Magazine’s person of the year in 2005 with the launch of various social networking sites that allowed you, the user, to shift from audience to broadcasting yourself, uploading and sharing content you produced for the world without any mediation…or so it seemed. You could freely traffic in getting views. The cultural institution of YouTube, YouTube itself and entities like VEVO, are not distributing this content for free even if adolescent youth and other produsers think so. They sell us produsers to advertisers. The ads are not the products–as Joshua Meyrowitz writes in his book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985)–we are the products. YouTube sells not only our eyes to advertisers but we advertise the products for both YouTube and its advertisers and distributors like VEVO.

9 out 10 viral videos are made today according to WSJ by professional content creators rather than users like Gary Broulsma or Lital and Adi in the mid 2000s. And the most watched videos on YouTube are music videos. 9 out of 10 are VEVO videos. The exceptions are the novelty hits of the original CBMF (Charlie Bit My Finger) video and the Gummy Bear Song and  PSY’s Gangnam Style (which left Justin Bieber’s “Baby” in the dust, produced for a professional Korean recording artist), all of which are not distributed by VEVO.

These are my questions to my students today as we explore the full scope of human diversity by studying both people on YouTube and structures of power within the YouTube community and ecology.

  • How do black girls fit into the full scope of human diversity on YouTube?
  • How does the intersection of race and gender affect our perceptions of Gary, Lital and Adi, and the nameless but seemingly known black girls who twerk on YouTube and other digital video sharing sites?
  • How do we learn to apply the knowledge you are newly acquiring about fieldwork and ethnography to learning how people learn to see race and gender on YouTube and how they see twerking and/or black girls who broadcast while they twerk?
  • Are there differences when Miley Cyrus or Iggy Azalea twerks versus Nicky Minaj, Beyoncé or Rihanna? What factors could we code to map differences even if you think they might not be there? How to we objectively check without qualitative content analysis and scholarly research about race, gender and YouTube not to mention adolescent and teen black girls?
  • How do we learn to understand twerking and YouTube from a global scope, starting with the people and communities on YouTube (and beyond), and how do we study both the people and the structures of power within YouTube to better understand how all humans are interconnected?

That’s our semester’s mission. See my previous post on privacy for a discussion of the 8 yr old video I found late last week that I introduced in class this week. You need to 13 and up to officially register as a subscriber on YouTube. One black male student in my 2nd class urged us to consider that the title of that video suggests that it is not Wame’s video at all. Perhaps another example of the digital sex-trafficking of minor black girls on YouTube.

Issues about segregation keep surfacing in my mind which is why the “back door” is used in the title. Whites only entrances and segregation of public accommodations seems so far away from user-generated spaces and free participatory media publics. But YouTube is not as different from offline space as we think when it comes to race, gender and power differences.

Privacy? (No!) Adversity? (You Bet!): Black Girls’ Bedroom Twerking

 “All have their worth and each contributes to the worth of the others.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

“Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our own skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness.”
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Adverse Childhood Experience: Black Girls and YouTube

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris in pediatric care is one of my sheroes, esp. for children in communities of color who suffer high levels of childhood trauma including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. 

Below I share her persuasive and passionate TED Talk that introduces viewers to the The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

As I wrote up a new abstract today about the re-segregation of black girls’ musical identities in the blurred public of YouTube, I am increasingly present to the emotional and cognitive impact of new media and digital video on the socialization of black girls’ adolescent brains and their views of how they see themselves differently than others. We must bring more of a sociological lens to our ethnographic and ethnomusicological study to help us all understand the social forces that do not empower online black girls’ value in their own eyes and perhaps more importantly in others. Their ecological fitness is at stake.

Seeing ourselves through Technology:
What Do Black Girls See?

I am writing an article titled Mirrors, Monsters and Webcams about the ways in which girls learn to see/hear themselves through technology from the 1970s to now. I was thinking about how the policy of Desegregation affected me and my view of my self identity when I was an adolescent learning to fit my body into the latest dance in the mirror just outside my bedroom. A white woman about my age with whom I was sharing about this article reminded me how we 2nd generation television teen girls would dance with the TV screen, too.  I am making an argument for public/private and public/domestic spaces that hinges on an understanding of Segregation policies and early social media practices of radio and television in the 1970s.

The twerking videos I study of black girls who broadcast from the “privacy” of their bedrooms always make me think about how segregated that space–the bedroom–was and still remains for black girls’ dancing. In public settings there is more exposure to harm and the bedroom was a barrier to public groping but also an easy target for domestic abuse. Your closed door symbolized safety, temporary as it might have been. Having privacy was a key to adolescence. The webcam has changed how privacy works for everyone. But that change didn’t begin with Web 2.0.

The differences then and now are both complicated. It wasn’t simple when American Bandstand was broadcast into your family’s living room or bedroom (we had a TV in my mom’s master bedroom, too). It was uncomplicated when Soul Train blew its horn into the soundscapes of domestic life. Even my local show The New Dance Show with its host the Moonman in DC shaped how I wanted to perform my Self when I finally entered the public sphere. The private space of home back then also became a place for advertising the consumption of musical media to teens through radio and television. Parents began to lose more and more control before kids ever left their front doors. Today on YouTube it’s much more complicated with forms of segregation in mixed engagement that is both alarming and invisible to far too many. That’s what I am working out teasing out in my latest article.

You Betta Be In Before Dark!:
What is Public Safety on YouTube?

Adolescent play with strangers was rare when I was a kid. And parents tried to protect you by insisting you stay within shouting distance. The boundary was always marked by the onset of twilight. You better be home before it’s dark. Parents born before Desegregation in the South where I grew up knew or remembered that the general public was never save for dark-skinned folk. Daytime was dangerous, too. What was really a concern was the possibility of not being under a caring watchful eye when visibility decreased. What happens when being visible to strangers you meet online becomes the norm for adolescent girls of any color, but particularly for black girls?
Two days ago, I found a twerking video uploaded that same day by an 8 year old black (seemingly Afro-Brit) girl. YouTube’s age minimum is 13.  Her brother, who is recording the video and seemed a bit younger than her based on the sound of his voice and what frames he was capturing with a mobile webcam–he seemed fascinated with the technological capacities of the camera; with what it can do.
This adolescent 8 year old in contrast to her brother was all into the technology of her body–which is an important aspect of socialization for black girls historically and for young American girls in general. She was so into managing and performing the technology of twerking, of self-presenting herself like what she perhaps had seen before, that she seemed almost unaware of the implications of the camera. She was clear she would be made visible from its upload, I am sure. The video appears to be her channel with her actual name, which is mentioned in the performance by her brother. Her channel only has 2 videos. This video received over 600 views in less than one day. What’s more disturbing is the engagement below it. 3 comments, all by males, designed for “grooming” — like pimps and predators groom girls or boys for sexual abus — inviting her to expose or unclothe more of body. No comments per se about her dance.

I am sure you will find this as disturbing as I have.  I could say much more about this video and how YouTube is not monitoring it’s content for harm to minors. I could also talk about the appetite that the porn industry produces that leads young men and strangers to solicit hooking up with this girl.
Screen Shot from YouTube 2015-02-21 at 2.34.53 PM

Screen Shot from YouTube 2015-02-21 at 2.34.53 PM

Who Poisoned the Well in the First Place?:
YouTube’s Ecology meets Systemic Bias

Dr. Burke Harris’s talk speaks to learning how much adversity can harm children’s cognitive growth and emotional well-being not to mention their life chances and health well into their adulthood.  This is why my research matters so much.  I am trying to link the pleasure of messing around online for girls to the need for better digital media literacy and attention to not simply their social agency but their cognitive fitness in the most crucial years of their brain development. YouTube is not always the best environment for girls’ public health.
Dr. Burke-Harris states in her TED Talk, which I watched live last year:

I did a master’s degree in public health, and one of the things that they teach you in public health school is that if you’re a doctor and you see 100 kids that all drink from the same well, and 98 of them develop diarrhea, you can go ahead and write that prescription for dose after dose after dose of antibiotics, or you can walk over and say, “What the hell is in this well?” So I began reading everything that I could get my hands on about how exposure to adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children.

http://go.ted.com/X5Y

 

♥ Watch Your Back! Stop Messing Around with Your Assets, Love!

 ♡ ♥ A Valentine Weekend Post ♥ ♡

Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval….[It is] a bid for the attention of strangers — … hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see. – Jon Ronson, NYT, Feb 12, 2015

If we’re going to be watched, judged and constantly commented on? We’ll choose just what that is, thanks very much. – Daisy Buchanan, “Anti-Selfie Day,” The Telegraph, Feb 14, 2015

Feminism is worthless without intersectionality and inclusion

One tweet. Just one off-handed tweet that was read at the intersection of whiteness, AIDS and colliding contexts of meaning (i.e., context collapse) cost a young PR director her job. It happened while Justine Sacco was “flying while white” from the United States to South Africa–the land where she was actually born. It took one tweet to have career to fall from sky of privilege. The NYT article about it is a must read for anyone interested in learning from social media blunders including literally-read tweets and the role of public shaming at the hands of your own self-generated digital content today.

My interest in the piece concerns digital self-presentation and the costs of such content. It speaks to two concerns that I’ll sum up in 140 characters (or less).

Number 1:  to the consequences of social media costs more than money and can last a lifetime. Wake up! Stop giving away your assets.

I witness indifference among black girls who broadcast while they twerk. What I notice is their indifference to their own digital ‘net worth – their social capital or assets. Not only what they could make from their content but the consequences of what others see or think about their content that may not matter now but may cost them later. What concerns me is their ecological fitness in a patriarchal, white supremacist, and capitalist world that was not and is not designed for their gain or growth and development. The impact that twerking videos may have on their future net worth — their monetary assets after debts owed — also concerns me. Both your digital and future net worth involve your online reputation now.

The music media of television and radio got us first. We’ve been hoodwinked into believing the struggle is and has been over being consumers of media.  Joshua Meyrowitz corrects this thinking in his book No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985). We were not consuming TV, we were being consumed by it (to paraphrase a powerful expression from a young black woman at a conference I attended on gender, sexuality and hip-hop). We actually were and still are the products of media. Social media platforms sell us to advertisers. That is how the business model of media has always worked. So, even as black girls create their own content, they are being sold to media companies by the eyefull including rap artists like Wacka Flocka Flame, Juicy J and K-Stylis who create twerk songs by the dozen to advertise their “art”. We are all being bought and sold on Facebook and on YouTube to the highest advertising bidders which is … Facebook and YouTube along with VEVO and Amazon and many others.  This is the media ecology of online living. So the issue of your reputation comes second to what advertisers are selling on the back of your videos, tweets, likes and updates. If you lose your job, they still make it rain no matter what.

This is why the study of black girls twerking on YouTube can be insightful and go well beyond being about us vs. them. If a young white woman heading up PR at a firm can lose her job and threaten her future reputation from one off-handed and indiscriminate tweet, what do you think is the cost for you? Studying twerking YouTube videos, videos that will persist for years and years to come for black girls and others of any class or background has a lot to offer in thinking about digital reputations online and off.

Number 2: On social media, your assets can be your best friend and your worst enemy. Protect your future ‘net worth now! Beware 

The misogynoir — the anti-black sexism (as well as the anti-female racism) faced by black women in social media reflect forms of structural inequalities that young girls of color, esp. black girls, on YouTube may learn way too late not unlike Justine Sacco. Dare I say that “the stakes are highest for those who are darkest” in any visual social media on the Internet. They are highest for those who use their bodies to tell stories that strangers (even if black and female) may not be able to decode from your point of view.

Strangers — both people you’ve never met and those you call friends that you only know online–simply cannot decipher others’ behaviors, esp. adolescent play or the messing around that black girls who make twerking videos are doing just like other kids playing around with video production and content creation on YouTube. Black girls generally shoot and upload their twerking videos so their motives — their cultural as well as their technical intentions in making videos — are not apparent. If they were using filters and screen caps or adding verbal commentary to accompany their twerking, the context might be more apparent and more significant to strangers. Friends they know in real life tend to get it. But the issue of what advertisers and media figures get is a whole ‘nother conversation.

Kstylis_Twerk_Music-back-large

Most of us cannot read between the lines of twerking videos, or between the “bottomlines.” This is even more complicated when watching a black teen twerk or bounce her ass to songs like “Trampoline Booty” or “Kangaroo Booty” or even “Booty Hopscotch“–all popular songs by Memphis artist Kstylis.  His songs dominate the dataset of 1000 videos I have collected.

On Cognitive Assets: “The Booty Don’t Lie” (So Saith Monae)

Last summer while conducting this research, I suggested to a white male student that he allow himself to see these young girls are merely having fun online, messing around. He quipped, “I don’t see emotion in an ass!”

This student, in my view, was not trying to be funny or glib. This was not his modus operandi. In class he always demonstrated a slightly older, more mature mindset. He was open but he was also stuck.He couldn’t, at first glance, see past what he imagined was nothing more than sexual, nothing more than (and this is my take not his) “asking for it”; enticing the wrong kind of male attention; all he could see is the notion of soliciting sex with that ass, to be blunt. (Again, this is my take on his reaction, not his).

This is why I have been exploring what I call the “cognitive justice” aspects of digital media studies and media ecology. The part of the brain that is threatened by seeing things different than what we already know–the amygdala that does no critical thinking but does pull patterns from your past for usefulness in what it perceives is happening now —  is alive and well when we confront implicit biases of race and sex. That part of our brain keeps us thinking we are safe–safe knowing that “those” people are get short-shrifted because they are deserve it. Our mind is being confronted with a truth that is difficult to set free. That day that student was cognitively stuck by my suggestion that black girls were just playing. Yet, that moment of cognitive distortion eventually did set him free.  He became one of the best interpreters of the video micro-culture of adolescent black girls twerking in the entire class last summer.  He also did some of the best ethnographic vlogging, too.

We must teach ourselves and teach girls that their cognitive assets come first! That don’t mean you can’t make twerking videos anymore. But it we could see more geeking out in those videos, learning techniques that give you social and cultural capital as a content creator, the conversations which switch from your ass to your real assets.

Just Messing Around on YouTube

Sharing images of oneself is lingua franca for online adolescent and teen girls. It is shaped by hegemonic masculinity and femininity. When we consider issues at the intersection of race, gender and age, we who are older KNOW that some will pay a higher cost for the digital presence and views of their body than others. Reputation politics are not equal. AND the long-term consequences of one’s digital reputation and how others perceive you can lead to future shaming. Your digital footprint (the images you leave on line) as well as your digital shadows (the traces that others leave behind associated with you or your imags) can give new meaning to the expression “Your first impression may be your last” or “First impressions are the most lasting.”  These footprints and shadows can lay dormant for years and then surface during your adulthood when you least expect it 3, 15, or 30 years from now.

Why make life any harder for yourself in the future? Managing one’s future reputation is a hard lesson to learn at a young age. It is  perhaps even more difficult to teach adolescents and teens (without the experience of a significant failure or loss. The adolescent brain and its cognitive resources are operating on impulse and emotion as it begins to prune what it really needs to survive in life and online. Adolescents use social media they way I used to use a mirror. The difference is that black girls as well as their male and female counterparts on YouTube are trying to find themselves through social media, through a networked public of people they do not know in real life, they only know online, and alongside a tiny micro-public of people they actually know both off- and online.  The former trump the latter in the long run.

Watch Your Back: What Happens on YouTube, Stays …

Twerking to Nice and Slow UsherThose of us who are older face the same trouble. We are all must learn that online spaces are not our friends. We all must learn what it means to create a single identity that occupies space online and off, across time and space, between jobs and on-the-job, and find ways to create safe play spaces that do not diminish the marketplace reputation we must begin to build at a much younger age and one that last throughout our lifetime.

Let me tell you. I, of all people, have had my share of public humiliation via social media. I know first-hand regret from my own radical transparency. It matters now that I am noticing just how naive and arrogant I was during my work-life until about 3 years ago. I am still learning.  Your digital reputation requires a new kind of digital literacy for black girls and women that is about much more than what platform you are on and know how to use. We have not begun to fully take into account what our digital ‘net worth means in a racialized, sexualized patriarchal world. It’s about more than shaming we often discuss around respectability politics. It’s bigger than #BlackTwitter!