“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/
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
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.