Uncertainties in amateur media for 2012

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.

Last post about politics and media, this one less about 2008 than 2012. My final assignment to my ITP class on amateur media and the election (i.e. created by political amateurs, not necessarily media amateurs) was to ask them write a memo with advice on the subject that would be relevant to the 2012 Presidential election The responses ranged in style from a memo to Schwarzenegger to a letter from a young Democrat to Republican friends.

One that became clear from reading those memos were the critical uncertainties -- issues that will matter enormously, but whose outcome we don't yet know, something I can describe best using an example the students brought up in class in the early weeks of the semester:

In August of 2008, a video called Sing for Change went up. Made by a Venice, CA music instructor, it featured a couple dozen kids, ages 5 to 12, singing a song their teacher had written about Obama. The video itself was fairly straightforward -- it was just the kids standing on stage, wearing "Hope" t-shirts made for the occasion, and singing a song about how wonderful Obama is.

As you might imagine from that brief description, the video is a horror. My class skews liberal, and we all watched it slack-jawed, animated by a single question: "What were they thinking?" When it launched, the Republican blogosphere went nuts, while the Democratic reaction was mostly a muted "Well, I guess she was trying to help..." The public feedback was so intensely negative that the makers quickly took it down, but the warranty ran out on that strategy long ago, and copies were instantly re-posted, many with explicit references to Hitler Youth or North Korea in the title.

The videomaker may have thought she was advancing the cause, but she was actually preaching to (and with) the choir; there was a "Look at me!" quality to the work that destroyed any intended political utility. It's clear that not one person involved said "Let's see...kids too young to vote, in identical costumes, singing words we've literally put in their mouths? Maybe we should re-think this..." before the video was uploaded. It takes a truly jaded mind to understand that people who disagree with you have to be engaged, not just emoted at.

So here are two key uncertainties for 2012 (Congressional as well as Presidential), extrapolating from Sing for Change and my students' work:

1) What happens to the motivational landscape? Amateurs differ from professionals in part because of motivation -- Barely Political's Obama Girl video was designed to get attention for...Barely Political; name recognition for Obama himself was a side-effect. In 2012, will the motivations driving amateur political media be more political and strategic, or will they stay largely personal and attention-getting?

2) Will the average quality of politically amateur media rise or fall? Average quality of amateur digital production rises over the long haul, but there are also periods where the in-rush of amateurs floods the zone with dreck (desktop publishing ca. 1990, web design ca 1995) before communities of practice can form.

Two uncertainties produce four possible futures. Consider the future where the motivation of amateurs turns political and average quality rises; we could label this "The New Agora", where online video becomes a key arena of political argument. The opposite of that world would be most amateurs making video for personal motivation, and falling average quality. In this world -- call it "Lost in the Noise" -- in-jokes and me-tooism would make amateur political video a sideshow, compared to 2008.

One can also imagine a world of mainly personal motivation by the creators, but rising average quality. You could call this "Obama Girl Nation" -- there's lots of great political material people tune into, but its effect on the campaign will be secondary to the pursuit of boffo laffs. The opposite would be more political engagement but falling quality. In this future, call it "A Few Gems", most of the work wouldn't be worth the time of day, but there could be a couple of game-changing works by amateurs. (You could also call this future "Status Quo Plus", since it's closest to the election we just had.)

That, of course, is just one set of uncertainties played off on each other (and of course different futures can come true for different groups of people.) There are several other open questions: How much more active will the campaigns be in trying to shape amateur production? (Too much and they risk buzz kill, the FEC, and being damned for work they didn't produce.) How much coordination will we see, away from media mostly produced by individuals and small groups, towards media produced and spread by large organized collectives? How much will mobile devices change the landscape? How much will new archives allow crowdsourced opposition research? And so on.

Some of my students have agreed to let me release their memos; they make good reading for politics junkies trying to think through what's next. As Don Derosby of GBN says "There's no data on the future. That's what makes it interesting."

Zipped file of 2012 Amateur Political memoranda. (The students whose memos are linked here are Alexander Reeder, Amanda Bernsohn, Amit Snyderman, Andrea Dulko, Cheryl Furjanic, Corey Menscher, Dave Spector, John Dimatos, John Randall, Kristen Smart, Matt Parker, Steven Lehrburger, Thomas Robertson.)


  1. The massive majority of dreck won’t end until the barriers to entry increase. The average quality might rise, and the production quality of the best amateur stuff will improve, but as long as you can post to YouTube from a web cam, most of it’ll always be shit.

    Desktop and web publishing are poor analogs, because neither do nearly as much for vanity as video.

  2. Here’s what I don’t understand: OK, so Sing For Change was judged a horror by Democrats. But why isn’t this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mr5mvNPyV1I judged a horror by breast cancer victims? And why do Christians appear to lap up schlock like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc9mWrLCT6o ??

    Personally I find all three of these videos about equally repellent — but why is one of them (arguably the most sincere/least cynical one) rejected by its target audience community, while the other two are welcomed? Surely it can’t be anything as crass as production values? And/or endorsement by an authority?

    Or here’s another hypothesis: peer pressure. If the initial Democrat response to Sing For Change had happened to be positive (eg ‘Aww, look at the cute kids singing their hearts out for the Change that their parents believe in’) would everyone have subsequently jumped the other way in their judgment here? (It shouldn’t be too hard to design a Milgram-type experiment to test this hypothesis.)

  3. misterfricative, I think there are two big differences between Sing for Change and other kid-vid.

    First, the right to vote, though more honored than used, is specifically reserved for adults. The political opinion of children doesn’t matter, by design. (Doubly so when they are (literally) rehearsed in the expression of those opinions.

    Second, and probably more importantly, indoctrination only looks creepy to people who disagree with the doctrine. In a majority Christian nation, Christian indoctrination looks fine to a big chunk of the population. Politics, on the other hand, makes scrutiny by enemies inevitable, and that in turn makes even pro-Obama people able to see Sing for Change as a failed effort.

    As a corollary, btw, amateur media had a very different effect in the primaries, where Obama Girl and will.i.am’s Yes We Can were introducing Obama in laudatory terms, but only to Democrats. It doesn’t matter what Republican think during the primary, so that kind of media is safer early on, when the ‘scrutiny by enemies’ effect is small.

  4. CSHIRKY said:

    Second, and probably more importantly, indoctrination only looks creepy to people who disagree with the doctrine.

    I disagree, I think there are too many similar images in the collective memory that are negative that this video would creep out both political sides, not just those that oppose the doctrine they sing of. The basis for the video being creepy is it looks too much like (as the OP refered to) the Hitler Youth or a room full of school children singing “Happy Birthday” to foreign dictator (North Korea, Iraq, Lybia, etc.).

    You can like a presidential candidate and still be creeped out by watching children being forced to sing about him/her… The only way it isn;t creepy is if the children decided to sing about their choice for president on their own volition, and here in America, we just don’t do that. The teacher that put the above tape together just shot her entire load of Warhol-guaranteed 15 minutes of fame on this creepy video…

  5. @Clay (#4) Yes, obviously these kids were well below voting age, and equally obviously, they’re likely to be reflecting their parents’ values, but I think you go too far in suggesting they have no sense of social values. And that their political opinion doesn’t matter!

    And to restate your second point: you’re saying that Democrats (excluding the Obama-voting parents who were seen in the video cheering their children on) didn’t like the video not because they were appalled by it, but mainly because they recognized that it would be good ammunition in the hands of Republicans? OK, if so, then the problem seems to be one of execution, not content. That is, the video fails not because of the indoctrination, or the emotional manipulation, but because the producers failed to achieve the slick teflon finish of the disabled vet video for McCain — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG4fe9GlWS8 — ie the real trick here is to make clips that are impossible to criticize without coming off as churlish toward either the vet or the kids.

    Lordy, how depressing. There’s just no moral high ground here at all, is there? If they call economics the dismal science, then what does that make politics?

  6. This seemed like such a dogwhistle to right-wingers–young children being indoctrinated by those noted Stalinists called public school teachers; see also the kids who saw a lesbian couple married in California prior to Prop. 8 passing–that I’d suspected it was possibly Republican ratfucking. Of course, one could always craft a response featuring highlights of Jesus Camp, featuring Ted “I am not a crack-smoking, self-loathing gay man” Haggard, but that may not whip up the center and left in the same way.

  7. Sorry to burst your little anti-liberal bubble, but many, many kids see their parent’s and their lives going in the direction of a downward spiral. Dad laid off, not enough money for food, clothes etc. These kids – especially age 9 and above – could have picked up the “Change” and “Hope” message very easily all by their little selves. Of course they want change. All their lives all they’ve known is war, fear, and that the “American Dream” is a fairy tale to them. Let’s give them the world they deserve.

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