Writing, or media production, is how we express ideas. We develop and shape these ideas. We give them life and credibility through our voice. We do this for a particular audience, and for a particular purpose. We take advantage of whatever codes or conventions are prevalent in our chosen medium and genre. We publish or submit. The result is either effective or it is not.
It’s pretty cohesive, all the stuff that goes into writing. It applies no matter what you’re trying to produce. But for our students, simply knowing the concepts do not make for inspired and motivated writers.
One reason may be a perceived lack of authenticity in the production tasks they’re typically assigned in school. Yes, you can tell students to pretend. Pretend you’re writing an article. Pretend it’s for a teen audience. Pretend you have strong opinions about this or that issue. But in the end, for too many, the results reflect an uninspired, inauthentic, by-the-numbers academic exercise.
Another possible disconnect is that students may not see enough of themselves in the model texts they’re shown. The models may be too perfect. There is a lot of variation in how ideas are served up. It’s an art as well as a craft, but after a while, too much modeled perfection gives an impression of homogeneity. And that’s inauthentic as well.
So what would make our students motivated and inspired writers and producers? Well, maybe it’s easier to discover what makes them motivated and inspired readers and viewers first. Where do they go to see people closer to their own age getting their ideas and voice out there, for real audiences and real purposes? And where can they see a wide variety of models, both good and bad, in an authentic context?
YouTube. In its infancy it garnered attention for being a place to revel in novelty; a place where anyone tries to get their 15 minutes of fame by having their uploaded video go viral. To do that you have to be pretty attention-grabbing. You have to shock, or impress, or gross-out, or cause people to shake their heads in mock commiseration around something so stupid you can’t help but laugh. Because why not? Social media is democratic and the ease of publication means no gate-keepers screening for quality. Sometimes it seems the stupider, the better.
In this new TV-like context, it soon made sense for advertisers to want in. Wherever a lot of people are paying attention to something, for whatever reason, let there be advertising. Then, once people realized YouTube would offer money to people through advertising, and scale it to the number of subscribers, likes, shares, and comments you could attract, consistency became more important than novelty. Viewers have to keep coming back to your videos, and to do that you have to make more of them. You also have to build a fanbase for your work. Your audience.
These are more compelling reasons to become a producer. There’s money to be made and a real audience to attract… or not. There are, after all, a lot of people out there trying to do this. This is where all those things learned in ELA apply with undeniable authenticity. Ideas. Voice. Convention. Purpose. Audience. If these elements are not handled well… or well enough, you don’t attract a wider audience. You’re on your own and there are too many people in this new, noisy, wild and democratic frontier. You need to stand out and be effective. It’s not an option.
So what do people make videos about beyond cute kittens? There are some broad categories. There are people who build channels around what they already do in the real world. These are musicians, artists, home repair enthusiasts, cooks, video game players, hobbyists and crafty people of every type. Then there are people who build channels around being an analyst, commentator, reactor, or reviewer of what others produce, such as music, books, movies, video games, sports franchises, celebrity gossip, and even other YouTubers.
Since ELA is a literacy-based program, let’s consider our production criteria while looking at some videos on Youtube. And for an example, let’s look at “book-tubers”. Yes, they’re a thing. Of course they’re a thing! Why wouldn’t they be?
Search for a video topic, something like “top 10 cozy mysteries”. That’s a super-specific, yet popular sub-genre. And the “top 10” or ranking format is quite common as it’s always enticing and provocative for an audience. Now notice just how many people are out there trying to attract and build an audience around their personal brand of book-related content. Watch a few. Assuming this topic interests you, which book-tubers would you choose to follow? For an additionally insightful exercise, whip out a response rubric and see what applies as a viewer.
This is where a variety of model texts can be found. Every book-tuber has ideas which they attempt to develop and shape. They work to engage their audience through all aspects of their “voice”. They have a purpose for their content, and they employ various conventions to deliver their message. As individual producers, they may be more or less effective than the next person.
As a member of the audience, you have a reaction. Maybe you can put it into words, justifying why or why not. But at the very least, you vote with your clicks. The quality, or sometimes the notoriety of a video may be reflected in the number of view counts, likes, comments, or subscribers. But to be fair this could also be a factor of how long the video or YouTuber has been around.
The point is, audiences are won or lost by the quality and consistency of the YouTuber’s output. Popularity is not a marker of quality by everyone’s standards, but it is evidence that some effective production decisions were made. People won’t choose to keep watching what doesn’t reach them in some way.
I remember when a light turned on for me about what YouTube affords in a sea of content options. My son was watching a video from what sounded like a young man doing quite a bit of talking. It was titled “The Fall of the Simpsons”. Yes, video titles are necessarily clickbait-y. For me the video was simply a noise playing in the background. A voice with deliberate affectation intoned commentary over various cartoon clips from The Simpsons. It came off as serious content. This cognitive dissonance, exacerbated by my lack of proper attention, tempted me to prejudge it unfavorably.
It took some time and convincing from my son to get me to realize that this was actually a thirty-minute video “essay”. And it had over seven million views! This young man had something deep and sophisticated to say about what, in his opinion, was the qualitative downfall of a once extremely popular TV show. He was never on camera, but he wrote it, performed it, and edited clips to illustrate his points. When I actually stopped to properly watch the video, I found it gripping. Thirty minutes of academic-style commentary and analysis. Seven million views.
If models are needed, YouTube can provide some of the best and the worst. No doubt. But what you won’t see is anyone pretending to make a video, for a pretend reason, or a pretend audience. All that means is that we can remind students how all those powerful concepts in ELA have authentic application and consequence outside the classroom today. And it’s already where they’re spending a lot of their time and attention.
A theme in my writing and in my teaching practice is leverage. What qualities can we find in what’s already familiar? How can we bring what’s familiar to the classroom to meet students halfway, in order to push them further? As fans we can still think critically about many different ideas, wherever we find them. Now more than ever, it’s easier to see what people are inspired to craft or think about. We can work to see the connections between what we unabashedly love and how we learn. So I say let’s remind our students. Anything can be worthwhile if we leverage those connections.
It makes for an authentic life.