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Classmates, Family, Friends, Followers, Allies, Opponents, Enemies, Bosses, Trolls, Haters, Users, and Google: Understanding Digital Audiences On YouTube

Abstract

For well over a decade now, college writing teachers have recognized a “digital imperative” to empower and guide students to compose and publish digital work. The choice to publish to the complex audiences of the internet offers remarkable opportunities, raises critical issues, and involves some real risks. Since 2013, students in Sean Molloy’s college writing classes have posted their “3-minute movie” video essays to YouTube and thought about the kinds of audiences they might reach there. (Carissa Kelly posted her video in 2016.) Some of these video essays have now reached growing audiences for eight years. By sharing these publicly posted movies with new writing classes, we have built an academic conversation about intended and unintended YouTube audiences which has extended across classrooms, semesters, and two colleges. Gradually, we have developed a YouTube audience model that we share and discuss here, including some new insights based on Carissa’s case-study analysis of YouTube’s creator studio data for her video. We offer this report of our eight-year conversation about reaching YouTube audiences as one way to transcend the constraints of the writing classroom and semester—while also critically examining Google/YouTube’s power to mediate access to these audiences.

With two billion current users, the potential YouTube audience is huge and complex. In 2010, anthropologist Michael Wesch argued YouTube videos could reach millions of viewers, build participatory networks, enact change, and empower every voice. Now a few videos even reach billions of views. But while YouTube has embraced a social media culture that values “community, openness and authenticity,” this same “participatory culture is also YouTube’s core business” (Burgess and Green 2018, vii). View counts track both rhetorical and financial success in this massive digital marketplace, as engineers quit NASA for careers creating squirrel obstacle course videos. The competition for eyes is fierce: five hundred hours of video are uploaded every minute. And viewers are often fickle; twenty percent may leave if they are not hooked in the first ten seconds. Unintended audiences are complex too. Videos can anger or alienate family, friends, followers, colleagues, and employers. Copyright claimants can intervene to edit, monetize, or delete videos. Trolls lurk everywhere. And behind the scenes, YouTube/Google manipulates everything to maximize its profit and its power.

YouTube as a Site For Studying Digital Persuasion and Audiences

About sixteen years ago, new Web 2.0 platforms began to encourage mass audiences to join in new participatory and collaborative digital dialogues. In 2004, NCTE guidelines urged writing teachers to “accommodate the explosion in technology from the world around us” (7). A growing sense of urgency developed about the growing gap between school writing and students’ lives as digital composers and publishers (Richardson 2009, 5). Kathleen Yancey issued a “call for action” to writing teachers to “join the future” (2009, 1). Liz Clark argued that writing teachers faced a “digital imperative” (2010, 27). By 2014, Kristine Blair observed a “tectonic shift from alphabetic to multimodal composing at all levels of the writing curriculum.”

Some writing teachers began to focus on video and YouTube. By 2009, Brian Jackson and Jon Wallin saw the “informal, messy process” of “back-and-forthness” on YouTube as a model for teaching digital rhetoric (375). In 2010, Michelle Barbeau saw the powerful potential for YouTube as an object of study in college writing courses that could “appeal to digital natives, increase awareness of contemporary rhetorical communities, lessen the gap between teacher and student, and spark excitement in the classroom” (2). By 2013, Sarah Arroyo recognized that online video was “becoming the prototypical experience” of the internet, cultivating a culture that was “already permeating the institutions of our daily lives,” especially on YouTube; she called for a “participatory composition” pedagogy to interrogate that culture (2). In 2018, Christina Colvin found that assigning collaborative video essays offered her students broad opportunities to study process, mediation, and argument.

Since 2013, students in Sean Molloy’s college writing classes have been posting their “3-minute movie” video essays to YouTube and thinking about the kinds of audiences they might reach there. (Carissa Kelly posted her video in 2016.) In an informal longitudinal study, Sean has tracked the monthly view counts for all those students who chose to make their videos “Public.” He also shared the publicly posted videos with new writing classes, building an extended academic conversation about YouTube audiences. Gradually, our classes developed the YouTube audience model that we share here, together with some new insights based on Carissa’s case study of her video’s audiences using her data from YouTube’s creator studio. We offer this report of our eight-year conversation about reaching YouTube audiences as one way to transcend the constraints of the writing classroom and semester—while also critically examining Google/YouTube’s power to mediate access to these audiences.

Studying YouTube Audiences at Hunter and WPU 2013–2020

Sean began to ask first-year writing students to “reimagine” a text essay as a “3-minute-movie” in 2009. Most students submitted those movies on DVDs and the assignment focused largely on multimodal composing processes. In the Spring of 2013, Sean revived the movie assignment at Hunter College. In this “writing about writing” course model with an inquiry focus, students developed their own individual writing projects and research studies. They addressed the same thesis question for both a text-based and a video essay. Students posted all drafts to their own YouTube accounts. First and second drafts were all “Unlisted” to allow for teacher comments, peer review, and revision. Each student then chose whether to go “Public,” as well as how long to stay public after the semester. In Fall 2016, Sean brought the same writing course model and three-minute-movie assignment to William Paterson University.

Although they worked on other essays, many students at both colleges chose to reimagine their research studies as videos. We soon saw that many videos tended to move from inquiry toward direct arguments and/or public advocacy. Isabella (2014) challenged gender stereotyping in commercials. Hannah (2019) demonstrated the harmful effects of Cosmopolitan ads on young women. Rehma (2014) mocked stereotypical portrayals of Muslim families. Tanya (2014) concluded that Sean’s writing class did not meet all of Friere’s requirements for praxis. Ashley (2017) conducted a self-study to prove veganism can be affordable. Gregory (2013) argued against gender barriers in nursing. Meredith (2019) offered college students tips for professional success.

An array of screenshots from YouTube videos of movie essays. One shows women sitting at a table with a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine, the next a picture of a male nurse in front of the statistic: 'Men in nursing, 9.6%, 333,000,' the next a black and white image of a man sitting on a couch reading a newspaper while a woman in a skirt picks up his coat; the bottom row features a mock portrayal of a student's mother wearing a niqab while washing dishes in the kitchen,  a chart labeled 'Experience' with four labeled dots underneath pointing to each other, labeled 'practice,' 'learning,' 'experience,' and 'success,' a shopping cart with produce and groceries inside, and an image of Sean standing near a seated student and they are both looking at a laptop.
Figure 1. Screenshots from student movie essays. Top row, left to right: Hannah, Gregory, and Isabella. Bottom row, left to right: Rehma, Meredith, Ashley, and Tanya.

Composing, publishing and studying video essays changed how students saw themselves, their teacher, and their work. Sean offered extra credit to students who chose to go public and also to promote their movies to substantial audiences. Publishing videos for audiences beyond our classroom raised new questions. (Do I want my brother to see this movie about our dad? Will I lose followers? What will my boss think?) The video medium and the “movie” genre often allowed, suggested, or even required students to shift away from some constraints of academic/school writing. (Can I be funny? How do I add a creative commons or public domain soundtrack? How about animation? How many words can I put on text slides if viewers watch on phones? Can I create a mock movie trailer? Should I narrate face to camera? Should I add other faces or voices? How do I get informed permission? Should I use my real name?) Peer review exercises soon demonstrated that classmates were sophisticated consumers and creators of social media and video arguments with sharp instincts for adding power.

In 2013–14, many Hunter students chose not to go public. Over the years since, others deleted their movies, or relisted them as private/unpublished. But in March of 2021, eleven were still up and public; most were still adding new viewers.[1] For example, Nicole (2014) used her rhetorical analysis of dorm room decorations to explain Kenneth Burke’s ideas about arguments of identification.

This line graph shows Nicole's movie essay views started at 0 in January 2015 and have steadily climbed to 3,500 views in July 2020.
Figure 2. Nicole’s Burke Essay’s YouTube Views chart from January 2015 to March 2021.

Her audience has consistently grown since 2014. And a clear pattern has emerged: this serious academic subject draws more new viewers during the fall and spring academic semesters and fewer during summer and winter breaks (Figure 2).

Gradually, Sean began to see how the videos shattered the constraints of both the classroom and the semester. First, they reached growing audiences around the world for months or years. Second, the lessons learned from videos carried over to later semesters as new classes reanalyzed their situations and audiences. Third, we began to spread the conversation to other teachers and students. Between 2014 and 2021, six Hunter and WPU students have presented insights about their videos to groups of students and teachers. Sean also posted his related assignment on avoiding intellectual property and copyright problems to a CUNY graduate student website in 2014. He co-published a gallery of public student movies with introductions by the student composers in 2015. He published an online package of teaching materials for his “3-Minute Movie” assignment in 2016.

Our Fall 2016 Writing Class

Carissa took Sean’s first year writing course in Fall 2016. She was a new paraprofessional at a school for children and young adults with autism and she wanted to pursue teaching. While she enjoyed her job, Carissa saw students being treated in ways that didn’t make sense. A nonspeaking student was told to stop singing in class. A boy rocking in his chair was told to have a “quiet body.” A girl scripting to soothe herself was told to have a “quiet mouth.” Why suppress these students’ natural ways of communicating or interacting with the world? The answer was the Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy model used by the school. After doing some research on the topic and looking for the opinions of those in the Autistic community, Carissa learned that ABA was rooted in ableism, or “the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior” (Olson 2019). ABA therapy was developed from the 1960s through the 1980s by behavioral psychologist Ivar Lovaas who believed that “you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense—they have hair, a nose and a mouth—but they are not people in the psychological sense… You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person” (Kronstein 2018).

Carissa thought Sean’s independent research project would be a good way to learn more about ABA. With her school’s permission, she conducted a rhetorical analysis of their in-house ABA procedures manual. She wrote a formal academic report, concluding that the ABA manual contributed to ableism in her school and published it to the website she created for Sean’s writing course, which she chose to make “Public.”[2]

With her classmates, Carissa watched some of the Hunter student movies and discussed the situations those students had faced. She chose to reimagine her ABA manual analysis as an advocacy piece, hoping to alert educators and parents about the potential harm from ABA therapy. Although she was passionate about the idea, she was still new to the topic and wary of sharing her criticism about such a widely accepted therapy, especially since her own workplace used it. Suddenly, the idea of “audience” was much more authentic: she risked losing her job if her bosses watched her video.

Carissa composed her video in four drafts. In the first draft, she talked through a plan on camera. In the second draft, she added a scripted narration, citing research and using technical jargon. Unable to include children due to ethical concerns, Carissa used her cats to model the therapy. In draft three, she used the cats more and moved them up to the first twenty seconds to hook viewers and lighten the overall tone. In this draft Carissa also cut the jargon way down, added citations to research studies to build credibility, and edited the running time down to 3:02. Small edits in the fourth (and final) version cut the video down to 2:43. After weighing the pros and cons, Carissa decided to go “Public,” expecting she would reach only a few dozen viewers.

Our YouTube Audience Model

As we learned more about YouTube audiences for our movies, Sean’s classes began to develop an audience chart model and revise it across semesters.[3] As the assignment developed over time, students read Laura Bolin Carroll’s (2010) “Backpacks and Briefcases,” together with the developing chart and a selection of student movies. (In the last year, Sean has assigned drafts of this article.) We quickly realized that these audiences were not separate tiers but one ecosystem—all interacting in different ways in each situation as soon as we click “Public.”

Audience Types Potential Size Examples Time Arc
Classroom 1–20 Teacher, Class Days or weeks.

[Views end with semester.]

Promoted 1 to 4000+ Family, Friends,

Social Media

Days.

[Views spike and then flatten.]

Sponsored

(Academic)

30 to 300+ Other Writing Classes

Teachers/Educators

Other college students

From time to time.

In person screenings

[Views make small jumps.]

Intended/Ideal/

Target/Organic

1 to 7000+ Effective Agents (Bitzer)

Partners/Collaborators

Affected Communities

Academic Communities

Months or Years.

[Views grow steadily.]

Suggested by Google/YouTube 1 to 6000+ Also Organic—but views are initiated by YouTube Years

[Views grow in spurts.]

By Device 1 to 7000+ Mobile, Desktop, Tablet, TV, Game Console Years.
Online Hostile 1 to 200+ Hostile Views,

Trolls and Haters

Until you delete or go “Private”

But videos can be copied.

Real Life Hostile/Unintended Not many but possible big impacts Copyright Claimants, Employers, Family, Friends,

future life partners, etc.

Until you delete or go “Private”

But videos can be copied.

Corporate One YouTube/Google Google has it forever.
Table 1. Types of YouTube audiences.

Classroom Audiences

Most college writing assignments have an audience of one teacher and maybe one or two peer-reviewer classmates. Each student video starts with that audience too, first with teacher and peer reviews of drafts, and then in a “movie night” where creators introduce and screen their final movies to the whole class.

Promoted Audiences

If students go Public, they can also choose to promote their movie and build a quick base of viewers by the semester-end, perhaps also becoming more visible to search engines. A three-minute movie is often a lot easier and more comfortable to share on Facebook or Instagram than a ten-page study or essay, even one posted to a blog or website. But self-promotion to friends, family, followers, and work colleagues can feel trickier than sharing work with two billion strangers just by marking a video “Public.”

Direct promotion can also reach members of your intended audience. Abdus (2017) designed and ran a study that administered a “push” survey to warn fifty customers in his donut shop about the harmful effects of sugary sodas and sweetened coffees. His survey was effective: forty of fifty subjects (80 percent) chose a healthier drink.

This line graph shows Abdus's movie essay views started at 0 in January 2018 and made a sharp increase to approximately 3,500 within a month. After that initial jump, the line flattens out and stays around 4,000 views up until July 2020.
Figure 3. Abdus’s Sugary Drinks Essay’s YouTube Views chart from December 2017 to March 2021.

But YouTube offered Abdus a chance to warn many more people. In a single week, Abdus used social media (with a big assist from his brother) to promote his video version of his study to over one thousand viewers. When Sean created a small winter-break promotion contest, Abdus added over 2,500 additional views. Even with 3,500 total views in its first month, this movie did not get much help from YouTube’s search and suggestion systems, and new views soon flattened out. In October 2019, another one of Sean’s writing classes decided to promote Abdus’s movie again as a team project; their promotion added another 270 views. In all, the three promotion efforts enabled Abdus to warn almost 4,000 people about harmful sugary drinks—all with almost no help from YouTube.

On the other hand, promotion may also push a movie toward unintended and/or hostile audiences. Carissa wanted to get her message out but she decided to not promote her video on social media where her coworkers might see it. It felt important to consider not just whether they saw it—but also how they found it. She did not want to appear to be pushing her criticism of a therapy they used in their faces. However, she saw less risk if they happened to come across it on their own.

Maybe Google/YouTube won’t suggest a movie with one hundred views to larger audiences. But some of our videos with a couple of hundred views have gone on to find new eyes month after month. At the same time, videos with only a handful of initial views (even excellent ones) often draw no new eyes over time. And even if a video’s audiences flatten out after a short promotional spike, reaching any real-world audience beyond the classroom is still a powerful choice that breaks free from the normal constraints of classroom writing.

Sponsored (Academic) Audiences

Every semester Sean shares old videos with new classes. This sponsorship creates a type of academic audience somewhere between promoted and organic. These students are not choosing to watch due to their needs and interests, except as a model for their own videos, a way to study audiences, and/or to get course credit. But they can be organic in some ways too. Carly’s (2016) study traced how her NJ high school failed to prepare students for writing expectations at a number of colleges. Many of Carly’s four-hundred–plus viewers have been Sean’s writing students. This past summer, Carly’s movie (with her consent) was added to WPU’s writing teacher resource website. This is, in one sense, another form of sponsorship by WPU writing teachers. But the line between sponsored and organic growth gets pretty blurry.

“Organic” Intended Audiences

When ancient Greek rhetors studied persuasion 2,400 years ago, their audiences and situations were small and simple. A persuader spoke to a single, visible “Public” or audience at one time and in one place. They could see each other and interact; they often knew each other; they had similar privileges, beliefs, and values. But as Phillip Gallagher (2019) notes, today’s digital audiences are far more complicated, “redefined by attributes of digital spaces and online communications.” Gallagher observes that as digital platforms “blur the boundaries between private and public domains,” they also splinter any single Public/audience into many different “knowledge cultures” each of which is an “organic assemblage of individuals into a group around a particular topic of interest.” Melanie Gagich (2018) also focuses on finding the ideal organic audience for any particular argument. She replaced an “imagined audience” assignment with digital composing and publication, which urged students “to address a ‘real’ community that they know from experience.”

Defining organic YouTube audiences early on (Who is this for? What work will it do?) has led students to often find multiple organic audiences. Like Gallagher’s knowledge communities, some of these audiences share a “topic of interest.” But others feel more like Gagich’s description of real communities that they know. For example, the intended audience for Sil’s (2018) anti-gang movie was complicated.

This line graph shows Silvester's movie essay views which begin at 0 in April 2018 and reach approximately 1,600 by July 2020.
Figure 4. Silvester’s Movie Essay’s YouTube Views chart from April 2018 to March 2021.

He wanted to warn young people and parents in his home town of Atlantic City, as well as families in similar communities. But he was also speaking to people who did not understand the struggles of families in towns like Atlantic City. A steady audience found Sil’s video every month for over two years. But in June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the nation and focused increased attention on the devastating effects of structural racism, Sil’s new views spiked up. He has again seen sharper growth in early 2021 (Figure 4).

Deanna’s (2019) conversation with her mom about converting to Judaism had, in one sense, a large potential organic audience of people considering conversion. But Deanna’s main purpose soon became to create an oral history for her own family. Nakia’s (2019) interviews about the “talks” black parents give their children to try to keep them safe also began with her family as her organic audience. But Nakia also promoted her movie to almost two hundred viewers at the end of our Fall 2019 class and its organic audience has grown slowly since, including a noticeable jump in the month after George Floyd’s murder.

The movie assignment can also draw audiences in “writing about literature” courses, at least in Sean’s horror-themed sections. But the organic audiences feel much closer to the “knowledge cultures” focused “topics of interest” proposed by Gallagher. These essays can discuss less serious issues of broad interest to large organic audiences of pop culture fans. Matt (2019) analyzes the monster in Bird Box (2019), arguing that it is H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. He did not promote his movie and its audience grew slowly for two months. But starting in September, an audience began to find it and his monthly views increased for seven months before slowly declining in early 2021— possibly as interest in the Birdbox movie waned (Figure 5).

Matt's YouTube views chart shows his views starting at 0 in May 2019 and having a slow increase up until September 2019 where it reaches about 100 views. After September they increase to about 90 views a month reaching 1,000 views by March 2020.
Figure 5. Matt’s Birdbox Essay’s YouTube Views chart from May 2019 to March 2021.

We have been surprised by how much of the organic audience growth for different movies is close to linear over months or even years. Sometimes organic audiences curve up for a few months or slowly level out. But we are also increasingly aware that explanations about audience growth based on real world factors must be understood as refracted and distorted through the sheer power that is exerted by Google itself. A closer look at Carissa’s audience growth since 2016 demonstrates this power.

Two Views of Carissa’s Organic Audience

In 2017, Sean could see Carissa find a growing organic audience. From March to September 2017, her growth rate was viral, climbing to over five hundred views a month. Then her rate of new viewers gradually declined, with a small surge in early 2021 (Figure 6). Sean could only guess as to why Carissa’s audience grew so quickly during 2017 and then slowed.

Carissa's movie views chart starts at 0 views in December 2016 and begins to make viral growth from March to September 2017. After September her views continue to grow but at a much lower rate. As of June 2020, the chart shows her video has surpassed 7,000 views.
Figure 6. Carissa’s ABA Essay’s YouTube Views chart from December 2019 to March 2021.

When Carissa studied the data available to her in YouTube’s creator studio through mid-2020, she was able to learn a lot more about how her organic audience found her video. YouTube breaks viewer sources into five key categories: YouTube searches, YouTube suggestions, external sources (like websites or Facebook), other YouTube features, and browse features (these last two are also suggestions and features inside YouTube.) The largest source of what YouTube calls “traffic” (3,765 of total 7,355 views) came directly from YouTube searches, most often “aba therapy.” YouTube’s suggestions to viewers of other videos generated 1,577 more views. (We discuss Suggested Audience below.) Carissa had hoped that audiences would find her video through searches. But she didn’t anticipate how much the internal YouTube searches and suggestions—as opposed to general Google searches or human referrals—would dominate audiences’ access to her movie. And it turned out that the YouTube search algorithm treated her video very differently over time.

External recommendations sometimes appeared to influence YouTube search results and suggestions. In January 2017, a Facebook advocacy group dedicated to “better ways than ABA” found and recommended her video which generated three small 2017 viewership bumps: about twenty in January, fifteen in May, and about sixty-five in August and September. (See the blue dotted line in Figure 7.)

This chart breaks down the places where the external views on Carissa's video came from: 1. Google/Google Search, 2. Facebook, and 3. Rutgers. The Facebook line has three small 2017 viewership bumps: about 20 in January, 15 in May, and about 65 in August and September. Rutgers has a bump of about 15 in June 2017. And Google/Google Searches has a peak of ten alongside Rutgers in June 2017 and another bump of about 18 views in November 2017.
Figure 7. External Traffic Sources chart for Carissa’s movie essay from December 2016 to December 2017.

Before the first bump, YouTube’s search, suggestions, and other features did not seem to offer or suggest Carissa’s movie to viewers. But right after the Facebook group voiced their support, new views from YouTube searches, YouTube suggested videos, and other YouTube features all spiked up (Figure 8).

The data in this “traffic sources” chart is taken directly from YouTube’s creator studio and breaks down the sources of where the views come from: 1. YouTube searches, 2. Suggested Videos, 3. External Sources and Direct and Unknown sources, 4. Other YouTube features, 5. Browse features, Channel pages, Playlists, Notifications, playlist pages, and the End Screen. YouTube Searches and Suggested Videos peaks to about 250 and 180 views respectively in September 2017. The chart shows the first bump in views came from YouTube Searches and External sources in January 2017.
Figure 8. Traffic Sources chart for Carissa’s movie essay from December 2016 to June 2020.

YouTube’s support added significant new viewers, peaking in September 2017. Viewers from YouTube suggestions and other features dropped off after only a few months. But new viewers from YouTube searches decreased more gradually over three years as YouTube stopped including it in search results.

Later referrals from credible human sources did not revive the algorithm’s support. A George Mason University recommendation has added about thirty views every September, January, and May, coinciding with Fall, Spring, and Summer semesters beginning in 2018. Rutgers University and Seneca College also sent viewers to Carissa’s movie. Another external recommendation came from a Slovakian forum for expectant mothers which generated thirty-four views in May of 2019. In the end, this more detailed analysis reaffirms the power of YouTube as a bridge or a gatekeeper to Carissa’s organic audience.

Audiences By Device

Although this does not measure a kind of audience community, we were surprised when Carissa studied her own YouTube data that over half of her total views over four years were on mobile devices. Computer views were only 39 percent, with 8 percent on tablets and smaller slices on TVs and game consoles (Figure 9). We’ve added this category to the audience chart to inform future composing choices.

This pie chart breaks down what device the total 7,345 viewers were using. 3720 were from mobile devices, 2862 were from desktops, 588 were from tablets, 122 were from TVs and 53 were from game consoles.
Figure 9. Carissa’s Movie Views by Device pie chart from June 2020.

Unintended/Hostile Audiences

As creators and advocates, we often focus on organic audiences—the eyes we want to reach, the minds we can persuade to act, the people who can identify with our interests and struggles. But we have learned that thinking about unintended audiences can be just as important. Every creator who borrows content must consider possible copyright claims. Students who could not resist a Lady Gaga soundtrack or Disney video clip risked having ads inserted in their videos or having the videos muted or deleted. So, we review creative commons content, public domain rules, and murky “fair use” considerations. Both going “Public” and choosing to promote videos presses many students to think carefully about how people in both their real lives and in their online lives will react.

Trolls and haters have been an unavoidable part of YouTube’s ecosystem from its birth. Some harsh and even antagonistic comments can be forms of sincere engagement. But Burgess and Green observe that it has become evident in recent years that some trolls mount coordinated campaigns of disinformation or harassment, even “weaponizing” comments to silence diverse and progressive voices (2018, 120). They argue that learning to manage trolls, “both practically and emotionally, is one of the core competencies required” for successful YouTubers (2018, 119).

This is a screenshot taken from the comment section of Carissa’s video. The first commenter, user Iassus prophetam, says: This was a very cute way to show people in a non offensive way some very offensive things they’re done by the APA. User Laura Markland replies, y’all are so ignorant and quotes Iassus’s misspelling: “Thinks that are done by the APA.” Then she says, “You guys have no idea what ABA practitioners are taught to do as I am about to complete my degree and take the board exam to be licensed. It is a scientifically proven method. User Barfo281 replies to Laura, It’s not scientifically proven, you liar. User Homo Sapiens Logicus replies, “Scientifically ‘proven’ method” … I.E. Scientists, that is social scientists, used captive institutionalized children, 60–70 years ago, to prove that with enough torture you can get some of those children to obey commands some of the time. We had to tone it down a bit, after there were no more institutions to hide what we were doing, but the technique has never really been refined and we never follow up on the ‘patients’ to find out.
Figure 10. A view of the comment section on Carissa’s ABA YouTube movie.

In theory, robust, heated, and even hostile comments may change how we think about the original videos as finite and fixed arguments by a single creator. But in practice, student creators/advocates may face abuse and trauma. The comments on Carissa’s movie started coming in early 2017. She expected opposition; in a way it marked her success. For a while, she tried to peacefully engage with skeptical and even hostile viewers, choosing to become a public advocate in a new way. But she soon became overwhelmed and took a step back. Returning months later, Carissa noticed that the comment section had taken on a life of its own as her viewers began to debate each other. To this day, the comments grow with new debates, even though Carissa has not rejoined them.

Suggestions and Our Corporate Audience: YouTube/Google

Purchased by Google in 2006, YouTube is an arm of one the world’s largest four corporations, with Amazon, Apple and Microsoft. Together These “big four” dominate internet commerce and our digital lives. In 2017, John Herrman criticized the ways in which these “all-encompassing internet platforms” assume innocent “costumes of liberal democracies,” while they are in fact “always a commercial simulation,” inducing us all to entrust increasing portions of our “private and public” lives to “advertising and data mining” firms. In this complex new reality, we two billion users are also two billion products. YouTube/Google mines our data to sell targeted ads and instant purchase buttons—earning $15 billion in 2019 (Duffy 2020).

YouTube always fills your screen with suggested videos to lure you to stay on the platform as long as possible. As Carissa’s video began to find its organic audience, YouTube began to suggest it to viewers of similar videos. Over time, what YouTube describes as “views from suggestions appearing alongside or after other videos” added 1,577 viewers, her second largest audience. We realized we had not considered this side to YouTube’s “participatory culture.” Classroom views are mostly initiated by the teacher. Promoted views are initiated by the creators, their families, friends, and followers. External recommendations come from interested communities. Google and YouTube searches are initiated by organic audiences—even if Google controls the actual search results.

But video suggestions are initiated directly by Google. Like any other form of promotion, that is partly a good thing for creators who can reach more eyes. Carissa’s video appeared alongside suggested videos that were also questioning the use of ABA, most notably the video, “Is ABA Therapy Child Abuse?” But the degree of control that YouTube exercises over its suggestions is a troubling reminder that the most important, powerful audience on YouTube is often YouTube itself.

Conclusion

Over eight years now, we have learned a few things about YouTube audiences and how we can think about them in useful ways. We are happy to share that here, maybe as a starting point for further discussion, or for similar conversations about digital audiences. We continue to learn every semester and we welcome creators in other classrooms to join us in thinking about these and similar questions. How do we balance public digital advocacy and protection from abuse? How do we assert our fair use rights in systems that give so much power to copyright claimants? How do we resist and oppose the power of Google to limit our audiences, even as we use its platform and tools? How can we build similar classroom conversations on other platforms that reach thousands of eyes?

We have not unlocked Google’s search algorithms to figure out how to turn serious college video essays into viral sensations. Google/YouTube suggests that the success of our videos is in our hands, based essentially on the quality and rhetorical sophistication of our work—even as it only vaguely describes its “search and recommendation systems [as using] hundreds of signals to determine how to rank videos.” Of course, quality and persuasive power do matter. And adding enticing titles, interesting thumbnail images, compelling video descriptions, thorough lists of tags, and other searchable metadata—all that may help too. Promotion to build an early audience has often seemed to matter for us, although a few videos (like Carissa’s) still find growing audiences with very little creator promotion.

But Carissa’s case study of her video also demonstrates that Google/YouTube’s algorithm computers are faithless friends. YouTube did not promote her video. Then it did. Then it didn’t. And those mercurial decisions held great power: at least 83 percent of her total audience through March 2021 has been due to Google/YouTube referral sources. YouTube is a rigged game, and it is the only game in town. As critical thinkers and creators, we keep that reality in mind as we call it out and resist it.

Yet, we also remain excited and hopeful. This flawed corporate platform still gives all of us a chance to reimagine the work we do in writing courses and why we do it. We can practice and study how to compete to reach audiences far beyond one teacher, one classroom, one semester, and one college. We can all publish work that may find a growing audience around the world for years to come.

Notes

[1] The WPU IRB confirmed on August 26, 2020 that this research and article did not require formal IRB review. We cite only public videos whose creators have reviewed a draft of this article and agreed in writing to be included.

[2] Carissa’s website has lived beyond the classroom and semester as well. She has reedited and updated it with new information gathered over the years.

[3] The “suggested” and “device” categories are new here, added based on Carissa’s case study. The “audience size” column uses Carissa’s and Abdus’s audiences for these estimates.

Bibliography

Arroyo, Sarah J. 2013. Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Efficacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Alexis Bennett and Hyacinth Rios, who assisted us as sensitivity readers for this article, as well as the student video creators who allowed us to share their work and their stories. This research was supported (in part) by a Summer Stipend from the Research Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at William Paterson University.

About the Authors

A college writing teacher since 2003, Sean Molloy is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at William Paterson University. His work has been published by the Journal of Basic Writing, College English, the CUNY Digital History Archive, on YouTube, and recently in two edited collections: Writing Assessment, Social Justice, and the Advancement of Opportunity (2018) and Talking Back: Senior Scholars and Their Colleagues Deliberate the Future of Writing Studies (2020).

Carissa Kelly will graduate from William Paterson University in May of 2021, majoring in Art and Secondary Education and minoring in Teaching Students with Disabilities. After college, she hopes to continue working with neurodiverse students. In her free time she enjoys making stained glass and spending time with her cat, Chippy.


This is a screenshot that depicts how an undergraduate student uses Glogster EDU for a Virtual Classroom Bulletin Board.
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YouTube and Glogster: From On-the-Ground to Online and into the School Classroom

January 16, 2017

Tracy Bartel
An analysis of how YouTube and GlogsterEDU were used in an online college course to replicate the experiences of the on-the-ground section and how the skills learned using those tools could be transferred into teachers’ K-12 classrooms. Read more… YouTube and Glogster: From On-the-Ground to Online and into the School Classroom

Let’s Go Crazy: Lenz v. Universal in the New Media Classroom

xtine burrough, California State University, Fullerton
Emily Erickson, California State University, Fullerton

Abstract

This article examines the Lenz v. Universal case, demonstrating how it can serve as a unique vehicle to teach students about fair use and the creative transformation of copyrighted content. The authors—a visual communications professor and a media law professor—discuss the ways the Lenz case highlights a gap between First Amendment rights found within fair use doctrine and current practices under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. They argue that what Lawrence Lessig calls today’s “remix culture” makes it imperative to provide students with a strong grounding in both copyright and fair use, as well as a savvy understanding of how copyright owners are approaching unauthorized uses of online content.

 

“In a world in which technology begs all of us to create and spread creative work differently from how it was created and spread before, what kind of moral platform will sustain our kids, when their ordinary behavior is deemed criminal?”

– Lawrence Lessig (Remix, xvii)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tz_w37aILuI

Video 1. Let’s Go Crazy Google Collage. (dougmod 2011)

Introduction

On February 7, 2007, Stephanie Lenz posted a blurry twenty-nine second home video of her toddler on YouTube. In the video, thirteen-month-old Holden bobbed up and down on his rubbery legs, at his mother’s enthusiastic urging, to Prince’s 1980s hit Let’s Go Crazy while his older sister ran breathlessly around the kitchen table.1

Video 2. Stephanie Lenz, “Let’s Go Crazy #1.” (YouTube.com)

The song, playing in another room, was barely recognizable. But when Lenz uploaded her video to YouTube, she titled it “Let’s Go Crazy #1”—leading Universal Music Corp. to find it with a web crawler and send YouTube a takedown notice à la the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which provided copyright owners with an efficient vehicle for quick removal of such content. For the next six months, anyone looking for the video—namely, Holden’s relatives—would find a black rectangle in its place, bearing the ubiquitous YouTube apology: “We’re sorry, this video is no longer available.”

Although the video was eventually reposted, Stephanie Lenz sued Universal in July 2007 for knowingly misrepresenting her work as copyright infringement and argued that her use of the Let’s Go Crazy recording was covered by the “fair use” doctrine.2 As of December 2011, Lenz’s legal battle with Universal continues. At its heart is a crucial question: exactly how should the copyrights of content owners be balanced against the fair-use rights of those who post user-generated content (UGC) on Web sites such as YouTube—content that often contains copyrighted songs, film and television clips and other copyright-protected work mixed together with original work. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) ostensibly answered this question with its system of takedown notices. However, the Lenz case represents a challenge to that paradigm—one that argues for a fine-tuning of the law and the parameters of fair use.

This article, the product of collaboration between a visual communications professor and a media law professor,3 examines Lenz v. Universal and the challenge it poses to current practices in the online sharing of materials under copyright. We studied the application of fair use in the visual communication and media law classrooms using two methods. In the practice-based visual communication class students created a remix of the Lenz video. In the media law class, students reviewed and discussed a series of remix videos and online content where fair use is in effect. This study demonstrates how this case provides a unique opportunity to teach students about copyright and the creative transformation of copyrighted content. The authors embarked on this project hoping to demonstrate that supplementing copyright and fair-use lectures with a UGC media assignment would prove a memorable and effective supplement to lecture material. In the following sections we will review Lenz’s case in relation to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and fair use doctrine and the current status of Lenz v. Universal, before arriving at our classroom investigation.

The DMCA, User-Generated Content, and Fair Use

When Stephanie Lenz pulled out her digital camera to capture Holden’s wobbly dance moves, Google had only recently acquired YouTube. Its $1.6 billion purchase of the Web site in 2006 (Rushe 2007) assigned a concrete monetary value to the site for the first time, and made Google—rich with its Internet successes—a prime target for copyright lawsuits. During the first half of 2007, media giants like Viacom were preparing to sue YouTube’s new owner (Nocera 2007). At the same time, they and other content owners from the music, television and film industries were aggressively issuing takedown notices for YouTube videos in the hopes of pressuring Google to begin policing its new Web site for copyright infringements (Hechler 2011).

Google had originally agreed to create a filtering system for YouTube, but then it balked, saying that such a filtering system was unworkable. Moreover, YouTube had no legal obligation to police the videos it was hosting. Under the DMCA, the “safe harbor” clause (Pub. L. 105-304)4 guarantees online service providers (OSPs) legal immunity when users post infringing content as long as the OSP responds promptly to takedown notices by copyright owners. This provision places the burden on content owners to hunt down copyright infringements and issue takedown notices. OSPs, on the other hand, are obligated to immediately respond to those notices but the OSP does not have to look for potential infringing uses itself. Companies like Viacom knew this in 2007, but they argued that sites like YouTube—which emerged years after the DMCA’s passage—“induced” users to post infringing content online, and therefore should not be able to claim immunity under the safe harbor clause. 5

What made YouTube so different from online service providers in 1998?  It was part of the new Web 2.0 paradigm that saw a shift from a traditionally passive audience consuming professionally produced media to an active audience that was interacting with, remixing and creating original content online. In many ways, YouTube represented the epicenter of this new paradigm. Its purpose was to act as an ad-sponsored Internet host for user-generated content (UGC) that could be posted by—and accessed—by anyone.  Today we all know how quickly a simple home video can go viral, attracting the kind of viewership that previously only broadcast TV networks could claim.  But in the mid-2000s, the term “user-generated content” was still fairly new.

Indeed, in April 2007, just two months before “Let’s Go Crazy #1” was removed from YouTube, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) issued a report that sought to remedy the absence of a concrete definition for user-generated content.  Ultimately, the committee suggested that UGCs share three crucial traits: they are published online; they demonstrate at least some degree of creative effort (in contrast to just posting a clip from a TV show); and they are produced outside of professional practices. Like most of YouTube’s content—and the work produced by many of our students—Lenz’s video fit the bill.  It was unambiguously UGC.  However, while the “UGC” label may suggest content is “legal” or “legitimate,” it is not synonymous with fair use.  And Lenz’s video—like a lot of user-generated content—included an unauthorized use of copyrighted material and thus a possibility of copyright infringement.  So where did this leave it under the DMCA?

A content owner’s copyright is limited by the doctrine of fair use, an affirmative defense against copyright infringement.6  Although there is no explicit reference to fair use in the DMCA, it can be inferred in the law’s “counter-notification” provision, which allows users to challenge takedown notices if they believe their use is non-infringing—in other words, if it is fair use. Fair use requires a consideration of four factors. The first examines the purpose of use—whether it has commercial (for-profit) use or noncommercial (not for-profit) use. Noncommercial use also includes creatively transformative use, as well as use for the purposes of education, news or commentary. The next two factors consider the nature of the original copyrighted work (creative work receives more protection than factual work) and the quantity of the original that was used (less is better). The fourth factor analyzes the potential monetary impact on the original copyright owner. Although all four dimensions are considered, the first and last are more heavily weighted—with the outcome determined by tipping the balance of the four in the direction of either fair use or infringement.

In the analysis we present to our students via online screencast, measuring the Lenz video against these four factors yields a clear result (See Figure 1). First, Lenz’s purpose of use was to show off Holden’s newly acquired motor skills to his relatives. It was, in other words, noncommercial. The next factor doesn’t go her way—the Prince song was creative and thus highly protected. The advantage shifts back to her on the third factor, however—very little of the song was used, and even that was almost unrecognizable. And finally, the brief appearance of “Let’s Go Crazy” on her twenty-nine second video posed absolutely no threat of economic harm to its owner. Conclusion: The Lenz video constitutes a fair use of “Let’s Go Crazy.”

Figure 1. Screenshot of the fair-use analysis of Stephanie Lenz’s YouTube video we include in the Fair Use screencast we use in our class. (YouTube.com)

Notably, the first dimension, which largely defines fair use—the purpose of use—is echoed in the OECD’s guidelines for user-generated content: UGC must represent a creative effort and be made outside of professional practices. Both fall naturally into noncommercial use and, when combined with an absence of economic harm to the content owner, represent a solid case for fair use.

But, as we noted before, UGC is not synonymous with fair use. What if Stephanie Lenz had posted a video of Holden with a high-quality recording of the Prince song, in its entirety, as its soundtrack?  Although her purpose would still be noncommercial, she would lose on number 2 and number 3 and weaken the outcome for number 4:  After all, since “Let’s Go Crazy #1” was posted as a public video on YouTube and copyright covers public performances, shouldn’t the owner of that song receive some level of compensation for the public performance of the entire piece? Or is it possible that the nature of the Internet means that copyright law as it stands does not effectively address the legal challenges brought to bear by UGC? There has been no definitive answer to that final question yet, although content owners like Universal have continued to act on the assumption that the answer is no and such videos do not constitute fair use.  In fact, this is just one of several grey areas in copyright law that can make it both confusing and even legally precarious to publish user-generated content if it contains copyrighted material.7  And it illustrates the growing need for clear and thorough education about copyright and fair use.

Lenz v. Universal

After YouTube removed Stephanie Lenz’s video, she received a stern warning that additional copyright infringements would force the company to cancel her account. Following the DMCA requirements, she submitted a counter-notice, arguing that the brief appearance of Prince’s song constituted fair use (Lenz v. Universal, 2008, p. 1151). Under the DMCA, online service providers are instructed to pass on counter-notices to the content owners. At that point, the owners can either take legal action or not. If they don’t take any action within two weeks, the OSP must repost the content [DMCA, § 512(c)]. Two weeks went by and YouTube failed to repost the video. By the time it was reposted—six weeks later—Lenz was ready for action. Supported by legal counsel provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, she sued Universal, arguing that it had violated her First Amendment rights by misrepresenting her video as copyright infringement when it was clearly a fair use. Universal filed a motion to dismiss, pointing out correctly that the DMCA makes no mention of fair use (Lenz v. Universal, 2008, p. 1152). But in August 2008 a U.S. District Court judge refused to dismiss the case, ruling that copyright owners must indeed consider whether their content has been used within the parameters of fair use before issuing a takedown notice (Lenz v. Universal, 2008). Recognizing that this precedent could profoundly change the ease with which it currently uses the DMCA, Universal has gone through several more legal contortions to make the case go away. But in March 2010, the judge ruled against the company’s motion for dismissal again, bringing Lenz closer to the courtroom. However, at the close of 2011, Universal’s various motions have continued to keep the case from proceeding to trial (Sandoval 2011).

Although Stephanie Lenz’s video was ultimately reposted on YouTube, her case demonstrates how easy it is, under the DMCA guidelines, for content owners to get user-generated content (UGC) removed from the Web when it contains copyrighted material, even if that material’s use is clearly fair use—published with no profit motive or likely economic harm to the content owner. Lenz’s case also holds the possibility of ending this current paradigm, in which UGC creators are held guilty of copyright infringement (i.e., losing the right to post their remixes, parodies, mash-ups and home videos) until proven innocent.

Bringing Lenz to the Classroom

Meanwhile, our students—who grew up with peer-to-peer file-sharing and the accompanying threat of lawsuits from the recording industry—have gradually begun to understand that the practice is illegal, but they are still vague about the legality of other online activities when it comes to copyrighted content. And this vagueness isn’t helped by the massive number of takedown notices issued by content holders—which, as Lenz v. Universal demonstrates—has generally been undertaken without considering fair use.

In the introduction to his book Remix, Lawrence Lessig recounts a Stanford presentation in which he shared a stage with the late Jack Valenti, former president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Valenti, who had represented some of the most aggressive content owners in the United States, was currently fighting what he called the “terrorist war” on “piracy.”  He told the audience about a Stanford student who asked how illegal downloading could be wrong if “everyone’s doing it.”  Valenti then turned to his Stanford hosts and challenged them:  What are you teaching these kids, he asked. “What kind of moral platform will sustain this young man in later life?” (Lessig 2008, xvii).

Valenti’s point was that students should be taught to respect the copyrights of content owners like his former clients – the six movie studios that dominate the global film industry. Lessig’s point in recounting the story was to argue that if it is normal for everyone to break a law, perhaps we should reconsider whether that law is truly just and reasonable. We agree with Valenti that the student’s ethical reasoning suggests a need for education about copyright. And we agree with Lessig that current copyright laws fail to acknowledge what he calls our “remix culture.”  However, it seems unlikely that we’ll see a significant change in the legal landscape of copyright law anytime soon. Therefore, as we await a definitive ruling in Lenz (which could provide a minor tweak to that landscape), this article suggests how to follow a pedagogical path that will give students a clearer sense of what constitutes fair use in the era of Web 2.0.

In our classrooms, Lenz v. Universal is used as a didactic tool that illustrates how one might go about creating user-generated content with a rich understanding of copyright law and the current practices of online service providers and content owners. Part of this entails showing students the potential disconnect between these. We want students to recognize that laws, and the execution of laws, are imperfect constructions in an imperfect world. This is particularly true of our remix culture where cultural change occurs rapidly and laws quickly become obsolete.  We also want students to approach creative work with a savvy understanding of today’s realities.  With this in mind, we approached this project believing pedagogy that combines a UGC activity with the fair use doctrine can provide a moral platform to sustain our students until policymakers accommodate practices that are in sync with today’s online activities (which, we believe, should largely be protected by fair use).

Teaching Fair Use with User-Generated Content

With the Lenz case as a model for exploring fair use, we wanted to see if teaching fair use in combination with a remix project (in the visual communication class taught by Professor burrough) would produce a stronger, weaker, or equal understanding of the doctrine than students gain in a traditional media law class (taught by Dr. Erickson). We recognized that the content and expectations of the courses are different; however, our students are enrolled in the same Communications major. Therefore, all students will enroll in the media law class, and many enroll in the visual communications elective. These students are familiar with the type of content and expectations set forth in both classes.

First, students enrolled in both courses took a pre-lecture/activity survey to measure knowledge of fair use doctrine (See Appendix 1). Visual communications students scored an average of 66 percent on the pre-lecture/activity survey. Media law students averaged 62 percent on the same survey. The authors collaborated on a video screencast so students enrolled in both classes would receive the same fair use lecture. The Lenz v. Universal case, fair use and parody were central concepts of discussion culminating in a review of fair use in the media law class and the Let’s Go Crazy UGC assignment in the visual communications class.8

Remixes made for YouTube, such as My Cubicle, Why is the Rum Gone? and Sarah Palin Remix “Doggone it, Darn Right, You Betcha”, served in both courses as examples of what Lessig calls “remix culture,” along with Where Daft Punk Got Their Samples From and Eric Faden’s A Fair(y) Use Tale. After viewing these examples in class and the lecture screencast at home, media law students participated in a traditional classroom discussion about copyright and fair use. Digital media students, on the other hand, created a parody video or remix of the original Let’s Go Crazy #1 video, which had to follow four guidelines: the video is the same duration as the original, twenty-nine seconds; the video uses Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy or an audio remix of the original video as soundtrack of the work; the content of the video is transformative, and the work is posted as a video response to the original Let’s Go Crazy #1 video on YouTube.

Figure 2. YouTube users logged in to their accounts can post a video response as a form of commenting by clicking the “Create a Video Response” link in the Comments area of the page.

Each time a user uploads a video response, YouTube automatically sends a message to the owner of the original video. Each semester, Stephanie Lenz receives multiple notices from YouTube that new users are uploading responses to her original video. By following the last component of the assignment, students share their remixed work with Lenz before it is made public on YouTube.

Figure 3. The landing page for all video responses posted on Lenz’s “Let’s Go Crazy #1.”

Finally, students from both classes were retested with the fair use survey.

Guidelines and Execution

The communication students enrolled in the visual communication class are not film students. Many used video capabilities on their cameras or cell phones for the first time while creating media for this assignment. Classroom dialogue included a reflection on the aesthetics of the original video. In order to respond to the assignment, students must reference the original video. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, “When parody takes aim at a particular original work, the parody must be able to ‘conjure up’ at least enough of that original to make the object of its critical wit recognizable.” (1994, 588) Simply placing Let’s Go Crazy as background music to borrowed visuals without adding criticism, or clearly expressing the transformative concept of the creative endeavor, leads to mimicry or abstraction. During planning, lecture and critique sessions, students were directed away from mimicry and toward the creation of a work that communicates a new idea.

Students were encouraged to dissect the original movie before planning their transformative work. For instance, in the original video, the person holding the camera speaks into the microphone. She says, “What do you think of the music?” at five seconds, and she laughs at twenty-five seconds. There are two characters—a red-clad Holden is seen bouncing in place while another child circles him with a play stroller. The video is made at home. Indoor lighting is used. We do not know the time of day or the relationships among the child running around Holden, the cameraperson, and Holden. We know that Stephanie is Holden’s mother (because we have read articles about the court case in class), and we assume Stephanie is holding the camera since she posted the video.

Before responding to the assignment, students make aesthetic and conceptual decisions about the dialogue, audio, identity of the speaking person, and nature of his or her relationship to the characters or the cameraperson. Is the speaker seen in the video or heard from an off-camera position? Will the video be made using indoor lighting? Are there two characters? Are the characters children, adults, machines, animals, dolls, or something else? Will someone be dressed in red? Will a character be seen pushing an object? Will a second character run in circles around the first?

Assessment

Student videos were evaluated based on the following four dimensions:

1. How clear is the new message? An analogy to a writing class would be the evaluation of the clarity of a thesis statement.

2. How clearly is the message articulated within the YouTube video medium? To use the writing analogy, this is similar to evaluating how clearly the thesis was supported by the style used throughout the text.

3. How original is the new message? For example, a video that repeats the two characters running around a house and culminates in the (written or spoken) words “fair use” creates a literal and unimaginative message. Having such a large bank of responses on hand is helpful for illustrating how many alleged “new messages” are actually similar to pre-existing messages. We demonstrated this concept by separating the banal from the unique in dialog with our students.

For instance, one of Lenz’s favorite videos (burrough 2009) is by our measure a literal and not terribly transformative work:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3KWNd6AD20

Video 3. Bottom’s Up. (YouTube user “iwannau2luvme” 2008)

The following video merges the “original” dancing baby with the Prince song (albeit, starting and stopping points of the song do not match Lenz’s video). Students often find this video to be more transformative than the two young women dancing above, but less transformative than the Lego characters below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2MVPTOl1Yk

Video 4. Dancing Baby Prince Remix. (Michael Maughan 2011)

Finally, this video is often a favorite among students for its transformation of characters and message:

Video 5. Let’s Go Crazy Toys. (Sean Jacobs, 2009)

Each semester students evaluate a sample set of videos to determine a range of what they believe to be is less or more transformative in prior student works.

4. How much of the original video is referenced in the remix or parody? This condition is tricky, as the new authors have to reference enough of the original video to make an iconic reference or commentary. However, referencing too much of the video results in mimicry, especially if the new message is unclear.

Video 6. A demo reel of student responses to Stephanie Lenz’s “Let’s Go Crazy #1.”

This assignment meets several of our university’s missions and goals by integrating advances in information technologies into learning environments; integrating teaching, scholarly and creative activities, and the exchange of ideas; and affirming the university’s commitment to freedom of thought, inquiry and speech. The students also formed a relationship with Stephanie Lenz. After the first videos were posted as a response to Let’s Go Crazy #1, students communicated with Lenz through YouTube’s messaging center. As a class, we developed a set of interview questions. This direct connection with Lenz gave the project a sense of urgency and personal significance that it may have lacked if the class remained distant from the case.

Outcomes and Conclusion

A comparison of only two groups can yield, at best, a preliminary descriptive result.  With this said, the results of our pre- and post-screencast survey did not necessarily support our assumption (see Appendices 2-5). Media law student scores averaged 91 percent as opposed to the visual communication class post-survey average of 81 percent.9 In retrospect, our sample was not ideal: Why did we suppose students who created a remix video would score better on a traditional assessment than students who had spent half a term tackling the kind of thinking that underlies law and policy?  Clearly students in the law course had greater familiarity with traditional assessments of media law course material and orientation to this information than the visual communication students. Moreover, visual communication students were likely to spend time working on the remix assignment, and perhaps did not study or prepare for a traditional assessment.

In short, future study would be better served by using a control group that was also part of a visual communication class.  And ultimately, we maintain that students who create user-generated content should do so while learning about the copyright landscape and the principles of fair use.

According to Henry Jenkins (2006), cultural literacy is developed by active participation with mass media. And dancing babies, including Holden, have most certainly asserted themselves into the public’s consciousness via mass media. Lawrence Lessig reminds us that our world is one in which “technology begs all of us to create and spread creative work differently from how it was created and spread before” (Lessig, xviii). Under the threat of takedown notices, the amateur UGC producer receives quite a different message. For Jenkins and Lessig, participation sustains culture. In addition, we believe participation is an essential component of our First Amendment rights. The Lenz v. Universal case demonstrates how copyright law and fair use doctrine demand further explication, given the nature of user-generated practices today. Amateurs and citizens alike reconstruct their relationships to society by downloading, remixing, and sharing media. Fair use is an essential component of copyright law that legitimizes (from a legal standpoint) this type of behavior. Students of the twenty-first century must understand fair use doctrine in combination with how to construct meaning for our networked, participatory culture, using a variety of digital tools.

Bibliography

Apple Computers. 2003. “Rip, mix, burn defined.” Accessed March 31, 2010. http://support.apple.com/kb/TA44040?viewlocale=en_US.

burrough, xtine. 2009. Interview, Winter 2009. “Let’s Go Crazy.” Accessed January 8, 2012. http://www.letsgocrazy.info/interview.html.

California State University, Fullerton, “Mission, Goals and Strategies.” Accessed March 28, 2010.  http://fullerton.edu/aboutcsuf/mission.asp.

Campbell v. Acuff-Rose, 510 U.S. 569 (1994).

“Comm 317- Lets Go Crazy- Fall 2011.” 2011. Accessed November 15, 2011.  http://youtu.be/W2MVPTOl1Yk

Dawkins, Richard. 2006. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199291151.

Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry, Committee for Information, Computer an Communications Policy, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 2007. “Participative web: User-created content.”Accessed March 24, 2010. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/57/14/38393115.pdf.

Digital Millennium Copyright Act (2006). 17 U.S.C. ß 512.

Faden, Eric. 2007. “A fair(y) use tale.” YouTube. Accessed November 12, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJn_jC4FNDo.

Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985).

Hechler, D. 2011. “Disruption as usual.” Legal Week.com Accessed November 15, 2011. http://www.legalweek.com/legal-week/analysis/2084257/disruption-usual-bleeding-edge-google-worlds-fastest-moving-legal-team?WT.rss_f=%26WT.rss_a=Disruption+as+usual+-+on+the+’bleeding+edge’+at+Google+with+the+world’s+fastest-moving+legal+team – free_tri

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814742815.

Lefevre, Greg. 1998. “Dancing Baby cha-chas from the Internet to the networks.” CNN.com. Accessed April 1, 2010. http://www.cnn.com/TECH/9801/19/dancing.baby/index.html.

Lessig, Lawrence. 2008. Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. New York: The Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594201721.

’Let’s Go Crazy’ #1.’ 2007. Accessed March 20, 2010. http://youtu.be/N1KfJHFWlhQ

“Let’s Go Crazy Student Response Videos.” 2011. Accessed September 30, 2011. http://youtu.be/IAUPwTobEpI

“Lets Go Crazy Video COM317.avi.” 2011. Accessed May 14, 2011. http://youtu.be/Tz_w37aILuI

“Lets Go Crazy!!!” 2008.  Accessed December 8, 2008. http://youtu.be/q3KWNd6AD20

Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., 572 F. Supp. 2d 1150, N.D. Cal. (2008).

Lenz v. Universal Music Corp., LEXIS 16899, N.D. Cal. (2010).

Nocera, Joe. 2007. “Behind the YouTube suit.” The International Herald Tribune, March 17.

Rushe, Dominic. 2007. “Big media strike back at Google.” The Sunday Times, March 18.

Rushkoff, Douglas. 1994. Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture. New York: Balantine Books. ISBN 9780345382764.

Sandoval, Greg. 2011. “Strange turn in dancing baby vs. Prince case.” Cnet news. Accessed November 18, 2011.  http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-20031782-261.html.

“sjacobsgoescrazy3.” 2009. Accessed May 12, 2009. http://youtu.be/R29Fx7Iu5V4

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

Appendix 4

Appendix 5

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Professor Burrough at cburrough@fullerton.edu or Dr. Erickson at eerickson@fullerton.edu. Both can be reached at The College of Communications, California State University, Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, CA 92834.

 

About the Authors

xtine burrough is a media artist and educator. She is the editor of Net Works: Case Studies in Web Art and Design and co-author of Digital Foundations. Informed by the history of conceptual art, she uses social networking, databases, search engines, blogs, and applications in combination with popular sites like Facebook, YouTube, or Mechanical Turk, to create web communities promoting interpretation and autonomy. xtine believes art shapes social experiences by mediating consumer culture with rebellious practices. As an associate professor of communications at California State University, Fullerton, she bridges the gap between histories, theories, and production in design and new media education. Her Web site is missconceptions.net.

An award-winning teacher, Emily Erickson specializes in media law and has taught and developed several original communications courses as well. Dr. Erickson’s research focuses on First Amendment jurisprudence and the role of journalists in public records policy, an interest propelled by her work in helping create Alabama’s first freedom of information group. She is the co-editor of Contemporary Media Issues and has published legal and communications research in a number of academic journals.

 

Notes

  1. The video of Holden was not the first viral video of a dancing baby on the Web. In the mid-nineties, Michael Girard’s 3D dancing baby graphic became one of the earliest forms of an Internet meme. From email inboxes to Ally McBeal, where it appeared in the lead character’s hallucinatory interludes, the dancing baby epitomized Douglas Rushkoff’s notion of a “living organism” that traveled “the circulatory system for today’s information, ideas, and images.” (Rushkoff 1994, 7)
  2. See the final Lenz v. Universal Music Publishing, Inc. and Universal Music Publishing Group, Inc. complaint in full detail at https://www.eff.org/sites/default/files/filenode/lenz_v_universal/lenz_complaint_final.pdf.
  3. The authors are members of the Communications faculty at California State University, Fullerton. The university is one of the largest in the system, and the department is one of the largest on campus, with an enrollment of approximately two-thousand students among the five concentrations: advertising, entertainment studies, journalism, photo/visual communications, and public relations.
  4. See Section 512 in Title II—Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (page 19 in the linked PDF).
  5. See Viacom Int’l Inc. v. YouTube Inc., 253 F.R.D. 256 (S.D.N.Y. 2008) at 259 (“Plaintiffs allege that those are infringements which YouTube and Google induced and for which they are directly, vicariously or contributorily subject to damages of at least $1 billion (in the Viacom action), and injunctions barring such conduct in the future.”).
  6. The doctrine of fair use has been codified in Title 17, Section 107 of the U.S. Code (See the U.S. government’s official interpretation of fair use at http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html) and explicated in a number of court cases, including one case in which the U.S. Supreme Court noted the embodiment of “First Amendment protections” within the doctrine.  See Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539, 560 (1985).
  7. Indeed, the fact that YouTube is a profit-generating company—one worth billions of dollars, in fact—potentially complicates the first dimension of fair use. Even if the user doesn’t have a profit motive, these videos are being published on a profit-generating website. Neither the DMCA nor the courts have clarified the fair-use doctrine under these parameters.
  8. We eliminated students who had previously passed or were currently enrolled in the media law class during their enrollment in the visual communications class (see the first question of the survey).
  9. Again, the parameters of this study preclude any consideration of statistical significance.  With this sample size, a reasonable margin of error might be as much as 10 percent, which would collapse any difference between these scores. Furthermore, the difference in class size (20 in a visual media class versus 80 or more in the law class) also provided a challenge. Three sections of the visual communication class were surveyed, one during intersession. Meanwhile, the law class was surveyed one time, during intersession. As a result of eliminating students from the visual communication class who already completed Media Law, we ended up with a similar amount of participants with this combination of classes surveyed.

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