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Mimi Ito on Amateur Media: Incremental, Experimental

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Michael Bernstein

MIT Ph.D. student Michael Bernstein

photo by Jason Dorfman

When late night comedy can't retain an audience but a man lipsynching in his chair nets more than 700 million views, we know that something is up. What makes amateur media production tick, what makes it successful, and where is it going next? Anthropologist Mizuko (Mimi) Ito tackled these questions in the closing plenary at the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work.

Successful viral videos on sites like YouTube, Ito says, are amateurish in just the right ways. They are a moment of joy shared on the internet. They are slightly transgressive, putting an intimate, embarrassing or risky moment in public view. They reference established memes and genres, but add their own elements of uniqueness.

For example, take the A Day at the Office, a recent YouTube hit that features a quintet of officeworkers and their simultaneous webcam recordings of the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way". These everyday people build on the established tradition of lip-syncing -- your first introduction to this genre was probably Numa Numa. The Back Dorm Boyz then built on Numa Numa and set up the Backstreet Boys as someone to imitate. These folks took it one step further with multiple synchronous recordings. This story epitomizes the process of experimental innovations on top of existing ideas or techniques.

Media production on the horizon is even more impressive, tying amateur sensibilities and crowd participation together with professional talent. SOUR's Hibi no Neiro ("Tone of Everyday") video is a professionally-produced music video that compiles a group of enthusiastic internet denizens to produce stunning visuals. Likewise, the Mother of all Funk Chords remixes hordes of unrelated amateur YouTube video into a musical masterpiece. Some up-and-comers like Pomplamoose even reverse-engineer this phenomena into what they call a VideoSong.

Increment, innovate, experiment. Viva la amateur media culture.

Michael Bernstein is a PhD student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. You should follow him on Twitter.


Ed Chi

Lawrence Lessig has spoken at length about the 'remix' culture, and how it is changing the dynamics of media consumption:

More importantly, "Lessig presents this as a desirable ideal and argues, among other things, that the health, progress, and wealth creation of a culture is fundamentally tied to this participatory remix process."

Michael Bernstein

It's interesting to compare the perspectives of a lawyer/lobbyist who is attempting to legitimize and legislate this kind of behavior and an anthropologist who is just trying to study it.

Specifically, both Clay Shirky and Mimi Ito brought up examples of activities that were clearly illegal, even by Lessig's standards. For example, Ito has studied the fansubbing community, which tries to subtitle in English and release (for free) anime 24 hours after it airs in Japan. Even so, they have their own internal rules for what is acceptable: fansubbers often stop subbing once a series has been licensed for production in the US.

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