Literacy: OMG! Cameras Everywhere
Two figures in silhouette sit in a modest suburban rec room, arranged as the set of a TV talk show. A title card appears of a thumbs-up and the phrase “You Can Do Anything!”
Hostess Hi, I’m Kristina Nichols. I’m a photoblogger!
Host And I’m Roger Knight, an independent filmmaker.
Hostess And welcome to “You Can Do Anything!,” the only show that celebrates the incredibly high self-esteem of the YouTube generation.
Host ’Cause now, thanks to technology and everyone being huge [wimps] about everything, it doesn’t matter if you have skills, or training, or years of experience—you can do it.
Hostess You can do anything!
Host So let’s welcome our first guest, Liam Terry!
Liam Hi everyone, I’m Liam Terry from liamterry.com.
Host Tell us, what’ll you be doing today?
Liam I’ll be juggling ten bowling pins.
Host So you’re a juggler?
Hostess But you have juggled before?
Hostess and Host Then you can do it!
Liam stands up from his chair and throws the juggling pins in the air.
Liam I juggled!
—Saturday Night Live, season 37, episode 12, aired January 14, 2012
Everyday Digital Literacy: Where the “Decline” of Creative Expression Meets the “Rise” of Creative Technologies
In late August 2011, the cramped quarters of a central Los Angeles office had been converted, for one week, into a mini–movie studio. Half-eaten marshmallows wilted on a desk, deflating in the summer heat, as four preteen girls—three unsuccessfully pretending to be asleep on a sofa bed, the fourth filming the scene with a DSLR camera—shot a climactic scene in a modest music video of their own conception.
This was the fourth day of OMG! Cameras Everywhere, a nonprofit summer camp set up and run with as much improvisation as earnestness, conceived in the spring of 2011 by a small, loose collective of young music video directors and realized by late August. The campers attended at no cost, recruited through an e-mail sent to a loose network of arts nonprofits in L.A., and the counselors donated their time and equipment. Raised among friends, family, and industry acquaintances on Kickstarter, $4,500 provided food, a passenger van for outings and location shoots, and insurance.
Hiro Murai was there, flitting between bobbing thought bubbles on sticks over the heads of the couch-bound actresses and instructing the young camera operator—the DSLR camera was, in fact, Murai’s own. Two other twenty-somethings helped Murai to gently focus and negotiate with the girls.
“Don’t mess it up, girls. We gotta do the wide so we see all of you at once with the thought bubbles,” said Benjamin Kutsko, a music video director who is part of the music video collective the Masses, which normally occupies the space currently doubling as the girls’ dreamscape.
“Continuity, guys,” echoed Alex Pelly, another Masses director who, in addition to her technical role as a marshmallow wrangler, had been cast as the girls’ mother. Another spasm of laughter rippled through the lumps on the sofa bed before twin squeals prompted Kutsko to intervene: “She shouldn’t bite you, and you shouldn’t react like that, because you’re a professional actress.”
In rooms beyond Murai’s, a fabric whale was being manipulated by two twenty-four-year-old directors while two nine-year-olds shook a shimmering blue fabric in front of the digital camera being wielded by a fifteen-year-old camper, the oldest of the group. Other campers and their counselors were on location at a nearby park or in the alley behind the office.
Over the course of the week, the campers (referred to as directors on the group’s website) conceived, directed, and performed in five music videos, a live performance music video, and dozens of ultrashort films, ten seconds or less in length. The professional directors pulled an all-nighter on the evening after my visit, furiously editing the raw footage captured throughout the camp, and at 2:30 p.m. on the sixth day, they hosted a screening for their young collaborators, complete with a directors’ Q&A.
The basic idea for the camp, as well as the source of its raw energy, was the merging of the older group’s professional literacy and the kids’ potential literacy as music video producers. The twenty-somethings and the preteens shared an everyday familiarity with consumer digital camera technologies, as well as the pop cultural form of the music video itself. As OMG! explained on its website: “We’d hoped that by looking through the lens of a camera, they’d be able to expand their worldview and start seeing the universe as a place subject to their own creativity, open to manipulation by their imagination. After all, the program was founded upon the belief that the increased accessibility of cameras to everyone today can potentially give kids the tools they need to create and communicate like never before. We chose music videos not only because it’s what we know, but because it’s also something that they are all familiar with.”
The camp had largely been the brainchild of Isaac Ravishankara, a twenty-seven-year-old music video director who had enjoyed working with kids previously, as a tae kwon do instructor in high school and as a math and physics tutor for high schoolers during his undergrad years at Harvard. Speaking six months after the August 2011 camp, Ravishankara pinpointed two direct influences on OMG!’s creation. First, the success story of a fellow video director, Matt Amato, who had wanted to tell a video from a child’s perspective and so hired a plucky twelve-year-old as his cinematographer. The experience informed Amato—and shortly Ravishankara—that the largest gap between his young peer’s knowledge and his own was more technical than conceptual. The second impetus was Ravishankara’s growing fatigue, like Murai’s, at professional work that he felt was distancing him from what he had enjoyed about making films as a teenager. For Ravishankara, Amato, Murai, and another dozen of their colleagues, the answer for how to enjoy their jobs as if they were kids again was to round up some kids and put themselves back on their level.
To a large degree, the lessons about digital media literacy that OMG! has to teach are more interesting in the context of the counselors than the campers. Murai and his fellow counselors, all between twenty-four and thirty, are at a thoughtful halfway point between the traditional methods of instruction that dominated their collective educations and the informal, networked methods and possibilities widely available to their millennial campers with the tap of a touch screen. Just as Ace Norton’s stop-motion film set had been a crucial intervention for Murai at a moment when he most needed a link between his personal creative practice and his future professional one, so the directors of OMG! treated the camp as a referendum on what they felt were the most valuable parts of their creative educations. And the directors choose, partly consciously and part instinctually, to embody their self-interrogation by mentoring mostly preadolescents. This choice identifies the developmental stage that Murai and his peers collectively value as their creative core: the age just before instinct and curiosity begin to be overcome by expectations of meaningfulness and productivity.
Murai, who supplemented his lagging English fluency with an aptitude for communicating with his peers via drawing, reflected on the overall experience of OMG! with a notion of linguistic competence: “It reminded me of when you learn a new language. You can either learn grammar and vocabulary from textbooks, or you can just be with people who speak that language and then just learn it verbally. And OMG!, I thought, was the latter, and film school, at least in my experience, was more the former. It just felt really intuitive, and at that age, with the kids, they shouldn’t be worried about how to pull focus or, like, worry about sequencing or editing. It should be all about what idea they have and how to execute that, or what is more from the gut.”1
In so many words, Murai was contrasting process with product, intuition with pedagogy. As a professional artist teaching in an extracurricular setting, his concerns and priorities are more in line with those of an art school than a computer lab and represent an important alternative to educators with backgrounds in standardized, outcome-centered education leading projects on digital media production.
Making Things That Are Just Okay: Process, “Wrongness,” Meaningfulness, and the Path to Fluency
Which is not to say that OMG! was an “art for art’s sake” riot of anarchic, free-associative creation. It is to say that the final films presented at the screening were more than a little rough around the edges. A representative ten-second short film called “Horsie” plays as follows: Open with a medium shot of a girl in a red shirt sitting astride a bear statue at the La Brea Tar Pits. Girl says, “Look, Mommy, a horsie,” as the shot cuts to a close-up on Girl’s face, delivering the line. Cut back out to a medium, with the bear statue replaced by Dugan O’Neal, one of OMG!’s counselors, the Girl now astride him. O’Neal says, “Can someone get this kid off of me?” Close-up on O’Neal’s face as he asks. Cut to a close-up of the Girl screaming. Cut to a close-up of O’Neal screaming. Cut to medium of Girl astride O’Neal, both of them screaming. Blackout.2
It is easy, syllabus style, to enumerate the cinematic and storytelling techniques learned by the campers in making “Horsie”: different types of shots, shot composition, shot progression, cutting, match cutting, use of audio to obscure visual cuts. It is also easy to get excited and say that, having created this fundamentally fun but “professionally” underwhelming short, the young directors achieved a new level of digital fluency. In fact, often with multimedia programs designed for kids, we do just this: lay out a reduced rubric of skills to be mastered in a given amount of time and declare something to have been learned at the finish. This formal model obscures the most important parts of long-term learning—self-led questioning, experimenting, repetition, and retention. Not only are these kinds of informal processes important for kids’ learning, but they are exactly how we, as adults, come by our own limited proficiencies as everyday, functional users of the various technologies that propel us forward, from cars to computers to mobile phones. And yet these competencies suffice to earn us livings, keep roofs over our heads, and even occasionally afford us some degree of self-expression.
Screenshots from one of OMG! Cameras Everywhere’s ten-second shorts, “Horsie.” Figure should be read from left to right, top to bottom. As “Horsie” runs ten seconds even, these six images actually represent the entirety of the short fairly faithfully.
O’Neal and his young fellow directors had a Flip Cam and roughly fifteen minutes to create “Horsie,” and O’Neal or another counselor edited it in the middle of the camp’s last night while the campers were fast asleep at their homes throughout Los Angeles. The most potent lessons that O’Neal’s codirectors are likely to have taken away from “Horsie” are, first, “[A] grown-up let us make a movie that was basically just a dumb joke, and didn’t say there was any problem with that,” and second, “We said we wanted to make a short about a horse that turns into a man, and then we figured out how. Dugan helped.”
No one at OMG! believed that, after one week, the campers would be “fluent”—or even mostly fluent—in the wide range of production processes and technologies that were touched on over the course of the five days. Moreover, the counselors didn’t even attempt to have the kids truly engage with editing, a crucial part of the film storytelling process. As Ravishankara recounted, that decision had been made during a feverish midnight planning session only days before the camp got under way. “What came out of it was, ‘Editing? Screw editing.’ Editing’s not going to happen, it takes too much time, it’s a waste of time. You can teach editing; kids will be able to teach themselves editing if they need to.” Instead the adults wanted to narrow in on the proactive core of simply having ideas and finding the means to convey them through the chosen medium—exactly as Murai and his fellow counselors had done themselves at their campers’ age, with complete faith that their millennial peers could search to learn any skill that they might become interested to acquire. “Our definition of ‘making’ became if we’re shooting ideas that we’ve fleshed out, we as the director group will work to flesh those out in the editing,” he said, focusing instead on “how much can we just shoot and create under the context of a camera being the paintbrush. Just shooting is the end goal for the kids on the day, knowing that they’re shooting and having an idea and directing it.”
Ravishankara and company were, as highly fluent digital storytellers, distinguishing between fluency and being literate, and they placed the balance of OMG!’s value to its campers on their gaining a rudimentary knowledge of an expansive, translatable working process over mastering a more limited, prescribed set of definable skills. This matches up well with James Paul Gee’s proposed rubric of literacy, where “we can say that people are (or are not) literate (partially or fully) in a domain if they can recognize (the equivalent of ‘reading’) and/or produce (the equivalent of ‘writing’) meanings in the domain”3—as long as we understand and acknowledge that in a networked era, “producing” may not always depend on any given user’s absolute fluency with every step of the production process. The kids arrived at the camp as proficient readers of the “semiotic domain”4 of music video and by the end had imagined, analyzed, experimented, and collaborated their way through “writing” examples of pop culture’s most accessibly gnomic form. “The fact that we did the editing, I don’t think it took away anything of the kids’ vision,” Ravishankara said. “It was actually really empowering because I don’t think kids would have been as free to be like, ‘Okay, well then I’m going to eat these marshmallows and all of a sudden go flying down the hallway.’ I don’t think they would think of that if they were thinking, ‘How do I make that?’ So the fact that they knew that they could make that because of the resources that they had, they really were just truly being very creative and directing without any pretense of ‘Is this possible?’”
It’s likely that three novice adults given fifteen minutes and a Flip Cam wouldn’t have made anything much better than “Horsie”—the difference being that the kids weren’t embarrassed by its rough-hewn fun, nor did they dwell on how much better they “should” theoretically have been at making it despite their status as newcomers. One of the sharpest differences between formal and informal learning lies in how assessment takes place, and the ways in which processes of assessment are internalized in learners. Notions of rightness and—especially—“wrongness” are critical in understanding both why, over the last century, the majority of the population has skirted a working relationship with the arts as well as with creative technologies, and why digital technology holds such power to reorder these relationships.
In the first place, a pass–fail dialectic has crept into what should be qualitative and open-ended fields. Specialization and professionalization have marked a portion of the population as “artists” and the rest as “nonartists,” and we have come to believe that a special, innate talent fires those select few so born or designated. As Larry Gross notes in relationship to children acquiring language, while our mothers and fathers might not encourage our early mispronunciation of a word, they still continue to encourage our overall efforts at mastering our mother tongue. Similarly, a small thought experiment reveals how early the pass–fail attitude is ingrained in many of us: ask any adult to draw a picture—any picture—and, more often than not, abashedness ensues. As Gross explains, quoting the Canadian art educologist David Pariser, “In the most general sense—and this applies for children around nine to twelve years old—‘photographic realism is the commonplace criterion for being a good artist. The ubiquity with which this standard is upheld and the relatively low priority given to drawing instruction result in most children giving up on artistic expression in despair and disgust.’ Thus it is that inside most adults in our society there hides a nine-year-old, who only emerges when and if the adult is forced to try to draw something.”5
The arrival of “wrongness” in the creative process was half of what had given Murai tremors in college (“If you have an idea, even if it’s really stupid, if it’s just you and the camera, you can do it and see what happens. There’s no pressure if it doesn’t work out. … There isn’t such a thing as a mistake”), and most of OMG!’s counselors seem to have sheltered themselves and their passions from “wrongness” in a similar way to Murai throughout adolescence. OMG!’s core purpose was to re-create the same experience for their campers: Ravishankara’s dialectic of “How do I make that?” (where meaningfulness rests in the process of figuring something out) versus “Is this possible?” (where the weight of meaningfulness relies on the outcome, even before the task is undertaken).
James Paul Gee’s writings on video games praise their value in providing a safe venue for kids to experiment and fail.6 While the notion of experiencing failure safely is important, retaining “failure” as part of the diction of process puts a positive spin on a spectrum that has a limited number of outcomes: failure or success. Much like Gee’s realizations about video gamers and gaming, what Murai taught himself and what OMG! tacitly imparted to its campers is that failure doesn’t even really exist when an activity is undertaken as part of a process. Not that assessment doesn’t exist or that assessment is not still valuable but that “failure” in the temporal context of sustained progression or the social context of a knowledge community can actually be a first step.7 As Lucy Green observes:
Assessment is by no means missing from informal music learning practices. Rather, learners assess themselves throughout the learning process, in relation to their progression measured against their own past and projected performance, that of their peers and that of the models they are copying. Not only do they assess themselves in relation to such factors, but they also assess their peers, and they seek assessment from their peers. The decision to make their music public, on a stage at school, in a youth-club setting or in a more professional environment, is based on their own and their peers’ assessment of how well their music sits in relation to its overall style and with this, the likely expectations of the audience; and of course when they do play in front of an audience, the latter will very soon let them know if the decision to make their work public was a mistake. However, as enjoyment is so much a part of popular music learning, the informal assessment that goes with learning is rarely punitive.8
And Green was writing in 2002, a year before the founding of Myspace, the first monster social network, three years before YouTube uploaded its first video, and at a time when high-quality digital photography and video were first making inroads with consumers beyond professionals and the most committed hobbyists.
Digital technology, its media almost infinitely rewritable and daily more efficient and affordable, continues to lower not just the barriers to entry but the costs of early, clumsy efforts. And as digital tools become not only simpler to use but more thoroughly woven into our lives, they become more and more like pencils or paintbrushes—extensions of our expressive appendages, rather than interfaces to be wrestled with. As Murai put it, in a slightly different spin on his reverie about filmmaking and language, “I learned English by being here, so I’m not thinking about grammar and I’m not thinking about vocab. There’s less of a machine between my intent and what I say. I took French for four years in high school; I can’t say a sentence in French without thinking, ‘All right, so the conjugation for that word is …’ I think it’s all about removing all the filters between intent and what you’re expressing.”
Indeed, in his lifetime, Murai has seen technology brought to a point where a camp like OMG! is possible with little planning or funding. He conceded that such a camp might not have been possible when he was twelve: “Technology-wise, probably not. I mean, maybe, maybe. It would have been a lot harder, and I think part of what made … OMG! work was just that we did approach a lot of things in a haphazard way just because we were just starting out and we had to make things work. And the only reason that worked is because we had the technology to kind of back us up. If we thought of doing something spontaneously one day, we had the ability to kind of gather up cameras or iPhones or GoPros, and all we have to do is just sit in the editing room with five laptops and get it done.” (A flashback from the opposite end of the spectrum: the blogger Douglas Klinger, who attended and wrote about OMG!’s second session in 2012, recalled a filmmaking camp from his own Gen Y childhood: “I don’t know about you guys, but when I was a kid, I went to a camp that was also supposed to teach kids how to make movies. And the main thing I remember about that camp was kids weren’t allowed to touch the cameras.”)9
More important, according to Ravishankara, was not just that a critical mass of technology was easily harvested from among the directors’ (and sometimes campers’) personal inventories but that counselors and campers alike were able to take a large degree of familiarity for granted. “There’s a certain degree to which the technology is just there, it exists, but you don’t have to understand it, and you don’t have to be a master of it,” he told me. “Fast-forward a few steps [and] it really becomes apparent, where these kids just have cameras and have things that can make stuff, and they don’t really ever have to understand how it works, and they don’t have to respect it as technology in the way that we were raised respecting technology as this valued product of science.”
Digital technology also provides more opportunities than ever before for these experiments and processes to be normalized and supported by interest-based networks, where peers and near peers can help learners place their early efforts on a continuum of progress toward fluency rather than a dialectic of all-or-nothing mastery. These “peer-based economies”10 range from the well-known (YouTube, Funny or Die, Machinima, SoundCloud, MAKE) to the less well-known (YOUmedia, Vimeo, Skate Videos Online, Antville) and on some occasions include real economies, as in the case of Kickstarter, Etsy, Bandcamp, or Lulu. As networks that value economies of experimentation accrete around common interests, the experiences of individuals in that network, who have given serious, pleasurable pursuit to activities that might seem “meaningless” to culture generally, are writ large. The macro thrust of this accretion is the realization and assertion that these activities are “valuable”—and often, to translate that value into the most common form of “aspirational trajectory”11 that modern culture has, the most serious practitioners of these activities begin to find a way to make a living at them.
From pickling to quilting to electronic music to Arduino, as the economics journalist Adam Davidson remarked of a Brooklyn-based boutique beef jerky retailer in the New York Times Magazine in February 2012, “We’re entering an era of hyperspecialization. Huge numbers of middle-class people are now able to make a living specializing in something they enjoy, including creating niche products for other middle-class people who have enough money to indulge in buying things like high-end beef jerky.”12 The remarkable thing about OMG!, however, is that even as its counselors have benefited from the cultural forces that allow this hyperspecialization, the second thing OMG! was deliberately trying to do—after creating a culture that valued process and eschewed “rightness” or “wrongness”—was to avoid any sense that the campers were engaging in skills that could lead to a career.
As Ravishankara explained, “When we were trying to figure out what age of kids to reach out to, one thing I felt was really important was how young can we get kids involved so we can be productive making things?” In other words, “I wanted to be as far away from any sense of thinking, ‘I want to do this for a living’ in a tangible way or an advantageous way. … So we settled on ten to twelve. … How young can we get kids so they’re not thinking about it being a professional thing?”
But why? Ravishankara, Murai, and all of OMG!’s other directors are just as pleased as the picklers, quilters, and jerky vendors to be making a living at what they love. But again and again, the counselors touched on wanting to work with kids to sidestep the trappings of professionalization. They repeatedly invoked a sense of needing reinvigoration in their craft, and specifically that the need for their artistic considerations to be intertwined with business concerns weighed on them over time—despite none of these directors being more than eight years out of college, let alone into their careers. If they’ve figured out how to translate a lifelong hobby into a stable career, why wouldn’t they want to pass along that skill as much as the rudiments of cinematic problem solving?
The Saturday Night Live sketch quoted at the beginning of the chapter provides a stark example of what Ravishankara and company felt they were working against; our current conception of process-oriented creativity blurs when shot through with the notion of a livelihood. Where OMG! aimed to strip notions of success or failure away from process and to ignore the looming question of employability, “You Can Do Anything!” communicates more mainstream notions of what constitutes a “valuable” activity. When one of the guests states that he’ll be performing a song he wrote based on a poem he wrote, the hostess beams, replying, “Oh, good, because the world needs more singer-songwriters, and fewer doctors and engineers.”
To even consider this statement on its own merits, we first have to ignore that it was delivered by a career actress and written by a professional comedian operating at the apex of his or her field—which makes this unfortunately unsurprising formulation all the more maddening, and saddening. In it, expression is cast as diametrically opposed not just to practicality or systematic knowledge but to the ability to make a living, and specifically one that benefits others. As Gross puts it, his parents’ undiscriminating acceptance of his early paintings and drawings, while kind, still carried a firm and lasting secondary message: “I understood very well my father’s sympathetic comment that although being involved in art was nice, I did need to understand that it wasn’t possible to make a living at it (I was about seven at the time and not yet pressed to make a living).”13 Gross further observes: “The acquisition of sophisticated competence in any symbolic mode requires an enormous investment of time and effort. The basic modes we all learn absorb most of our time and energies as infants, but, of course, we do not assess the activities of young children in terms of productivity. Beyond infancy, however, time is a scarce commodity and must not be squandered too freely on the acquisition of nonremunerative skills (as my father informed me).”14
As digital technology makes creative expression simpler, less dependent on specialized training, yet no less improved by dedicated practice than ever, more and more adolescents, students, and adults will likely turn toward creative pursuits for their livelihoods. The fact is that many more could find satisfaction in creative careers than will, and many, many more could find satisfaction in just plain creative pursuits-as-pursuits—but we must find a less frivolous basis on which to discuss, encourage, and support these endeavors. This is what OMG!’s avoidance of the language of professionalization contended: not that their campers couldn’t be ready to think of filmmaking as a job but that they shouldn’t have to; that at the center of any successful, truly engaged pursuit or livelihood should be process, a lack of “wrongness,” and the ability to explore before meaningfulness is necessarily apparent. And as digital technology helps dissolve the borders between personal hobbies and professional careers, the critique made by OMG! is already being echoed by the jerky makers, picklers, quilters, and Arduino devotees, just as it was instinctually experienced by Murai in his time at USC—all recognizing that hyperspecialization differs from traditional professional specialization in its recognition of process as much as of a viable hyperniche market. As James Paul Gee notes, “There really is no such thing as learning ‘in general.’ We always learn something.”15 And we learn it in the presence—whether physical or digital—of others. Creative communities of practice are blazing the trail toward a new model for learning—reinventing apprenticeship via networked, informal knowledge communities. What if budding astrophysicists had a way to experiment and imagine in the digital presence of NASA engineers, or putative architects had a safe way to make their first halting efforts in the company of near peers—as repeatedly as is possible for digital producers any second of the day on YouTube, Vimeo, Machinima, Funny or Die, SoundCloud, or Etsy?
Collaboration and Reciprocity, Habituation and Holisticism, and the Cultural Capital of Creative Lifelihood
Whether peer and near-peer learning communities unite around film or pickles, marathon running or alternative fuels, such communities evidence a joint-undertaking process between learners and more experienced practitioners. OMG!’s fundamental language evoked this: both campers and counselors were called directors from the moment the camp began, a system that, to quote Elisabeth Soep, “violated the most traditional conceptions of teaching and learning, where the teacher holds and hands over knowledge, and the learner receives that information and then awaits a teacher’s evaluation and grade.”16 Indeed, as Ravishankara recounted, the first two days of the camp entailed an unworking of the one-way instruction routines the campers expected.
As he told it, on the first day of the camp, selections of the directors’ work were played, meant to provide fodder for ideas or curiosity about specific techniques. After the screening, Ravishankara said, “We were like, ‘Hey, what do you want to do?, And the kids were like, ‘I don’t know,’” not only timid but used to being provided with activities by their instructors. “So you had people like Dan Scheinert,” a twenty-six-year-old director who, in the five years since he and his directing partner graduated from college, has won the UK Music Video of the Year award,17 been nominated for a VMA18 and a Grammy,19 and become something of an all-around music video, comedy, and VFX community darling, “who were like, ‘Cool, I’m gonna take this camera, I’m gonna shoot this, you go over there and run toward it and jump at a specific time. You’re gonna jump in a specific place, and we’re gonna run around you and shoot a bunch of pictures so it’ll be animated.’ The kids were like, ‘I don’t know what that means, but okay, you’re telling me what to do,’” pleased to fulfill what was being asked of them.
Ravishankara was the only director who wasn’t actively involved in the directing groups, which provided an externalized organizing voice that allowed the kids and the rest of the adults to work in relative parity, posing problems and proposing solutions in a give-and-take between all group members. By “the second day, the kids were like, ‘We did that special effect yesterday, I want to do this and that.’ The amount of response that we had to this method of working with kids was way different to anything I’d ever seen before in any tutoring or teaching situations,” he said. “It was because we had groups of five kids—two of them happened to be professional directors, and three of them happened to be twelve-years-old—and they’re all doing the same thing. I would give them projects, and the group of five people would make the project. … By the third day everyone was on board, and it was literally collaboration rather than top-down instruction. They’re learning by doing as opposed to learning by teaching.”
In its weeklong life span, OMG! displayed every facet of this kind of networked collaboration, which doesn’t just stop at letting younger partners make decisions but demands full “reciprocity”20 in multiple directions: feedback not just between learners and near peers but between peers themselves; an onus on more experienced practitioners to share knowledge with, experiment with, and give guidance to their less experienced peers; providing the self as audience (and therefore motivation) for others’ learning and accomplishments; all participants’ recognizing and promoting good work within the knowledge community; and providing “aspirational trajectories” by example of what can be accomplished by advanced learners, from hobby to informal recognition to formal mastery to employment.
This, of course, is Yasmin Kafai’s “users/newcomers/oldtimers” rubric enacted through intuition by a group of creative practitioners.21 It is also closely akin to Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez’s theorization of the production of learning, “collegial pedagogy.”22 Even an exercise as simple as “Horsie” evinces all three conditions that Soep and Chávez lay out as necessary for collegial pedagogy, and theirs is a particularly useful tool to unpack what was happening between the counselors and campers, directors all, at OMG!. Soep’s first concept, “collaborative framing,”23 occurred in two steps: when Ravishankara delivered the assignment—take fifteen minutes to create a ten-second short film—and when the campers landed on a story about a horse that turns into a man. As O’Neal worked with the campers to confront the challenges of their story’s development—when it was determined that a bear statue was a perfectly suitable replacement for a horse, and O’Neal a perfectly useful replacement for a bear statue, and as O’Neal efficiently guided capturing the minimum shots needed to tell the story—“youth-led inquiry” took precedence.24 Soep’s final condition, “public accountability,”25 is trickier but not impossible to identify in “Horsie.”
Beyond delivery of a final media product, Soep strives to inculcate “strategic thinking about the potential intended and unintended consequences of the story young people and adults collaboratively produce,” and of a “need to find the language to express a rationale for [editorial] choices, in public, to convince collaborators that their judgments are right.”26 In working with an adult as a peer from the conception of their story, OMG!’s adolescent directors took on the difficult process of defending, promoting, or reconsidering their ideas and impulses in front of an audience that, in a more traditional setting, would have held a more inequitable amount of power. It is significant, however, that OMG! largely lacked Soep’s more social-justice-oriented accountabilities—most likely because much of media and media education does as well.
If OMG!’s counselors do not see these accountabilities as a majority responsibility of their roles as creators, it is largely because, as shoddy as the instruction toward process rather than product might be in standardized education, conversations about social accountabilities, and the way media carries these messages, are even worse. The preponderant social concerns of early twenty-first-century America trickled down into OMG! as much as OMG!’s counselors had absorbed them into their working mind-sets: all but one counselor was male, but half of the recruited campers were female; a minority of campers were Caucasian, reflecting the makeup of the Los Angeles Unified School District, though the ratio of minorities was higher among the campers than the counselors; Ravishankara insisted the camp be free not just to accommodate underserved students but to take cost out of the equation for all students; and storytelling was free but not required to reflect on its social impacts, negative or positive. Soep’s concerns are an area ripe for improvement as both learning and hegemonies of privilege rapidly decentralize—and her insistence in the conscious inclusion of these concerns at the core of collegial pedagogy is a correct prescription for education in the digital era, which has the potential to grow “as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally.”27
This is the final, quietly revolutionary, gift that communities of practice offer: not just something to learn, and people to learn it with, but how to make it part of one’s life, fully, meaningfully, and long term. Just as we speak of cultural capital in terms of exposure to creative activities and technologies within the home, so there is the capital of habituation and holisticism, which will only increase in value in the borderless digital age. The skills of how to habituate oneself to new experiences and how to draw knowledge from one area of experience to another only become more precious among cascading hyperlinks, social networks, apps, and interfaces.
Directly to this point, Ravishankara traces his impulse toward collaboration and reciprocity not to the craft-laden world of music video sets but to his childhood as the son of scientists. “My mom’s a doctor and my dad’s a chemist, but I just grew up, especially with my dad, just always being asked questions about stuff. Always asking him questions, and he always knew the answer to everything, and then him always asking me questions, never just telling me, ‘This is how you do it,’ but asking me, ‘Hey, how do you do this?’” Whether children grow up with this in the home or not, interest-based networks can and do provide this grounding; recall the critical intervention that Ace Norton’s DIY film set provided for Hiro Murai, who had superlative creative support from his parents but still needed a near peer to show him how to bridge his advanced technical skill sets back to a process-based creative practice in the context of an interest-based community. Both these young men, along with their fellow OMG! counselors, sought to provide their process as tacit examples not of specific livelihoods for their young campers to pursue but of creative lifelihoods they could translate into any path they chose to follow.
The example of OMG!—of Gen Y creative professionals retracing their learning by reaching out to digital native tweens and adolescents—provides a significant lesson about content. In education in the digital era, just as in digital entertainment, production, and communication, the most fungible component is content. The irreplaceable components are processes—how to search, how to learn—and function best when they are self-motivated, or motivated by interest-based networks that feel only marginally removed from the borders of the self. OMG!’s example, borne out not just in the success of its counselors’ careers but in their struggle to make those careers philosophically satisfying, begs that we trust that our digital natives are already literate in searching for what they want to learn, and that we find new words—beyond right, wrong, meaningful, meaningless, job, inessential, serious, or frivolous—to describe and support the diverse outcomes of the processes they undertake on the path to fluency.