A Truly New Genre
My “video-book,” Learning From YouTube (LFYT), was “published” by the MIT Press in February. With support from the press and many others, I have pushed the media studies monograph, kicking and screaming, fully onto the Internet. "This is not your typical scholarly book (Learning from YouTube can never go to paper)," cautions MIT’s recent press release. "Juhasz writes about social media inside and through it."
It’s true, unlike most academic e-books — erudite words placed into regulation paragraphs unceremoniously plopped onto a new environment with a few links and illustrations added — my video-book (according to my Glossary) is "large-scale online writing that depends upon video, text, design, and architecture for its meaning making." That I can’t begin without defining the work itself (like the press’s request that I add a glossary to help readers) demonstrates how common terms of scholarly writing and publishing must be reworked, modified, or scare-quoted to most effectively describe and traverse the "limits of scholarship" of the digital sphere. But what, precisely, gets muddled at these borders and what might we best do about it?
The Internet is certainly warping the reading, writing, and learning practices of our students and society more generally. This was the focus of the undergraduate Media Studies course, Learning from YouTube — held both about and on the site over three semesters in 2007, 2008, and 2010 — that is also the subject of my self-reflexive video-book about teaching, writing about, and publishing inside of the very sphere I analyze. There, I found that engaged, situated online pedagogy and research begs for new writing forms and demands its own publishing models. As one of the first scholars to get the support to do so, I detail some of the lessons as well as the still open questions of fully online scholarly publishing:
- Medium specificity: A scholar should ask: What book medium is best suited for my study — codex, e-book, video-book, other? I have found that digital publication is ideal for inquiry into and expression about Internet and visual culture, new media forms, digital archives and databases. Given its home and topic, it never made sense for my project to leave the Net. Furthermore, a significant amount of my argument about YouTube is expressed in video and/or links off the book. And the videos are not illustrations, they are part of its writing, i.e., video-book. For example, many of the texteos [a page that expresses meaning through the integration of design, written text and video (text+video=texteo)] of the video-book are comprised only of one lone YouTube video.
- Reading practices: To be literate requires awareness of the parameters of engaging with books: slow, careful, often linear experiences that rely upon investments of attention, time, and money into words (that is, unless one skims, borrows, or Googles the book). Meanwhile, Internet reading customs are consolidating around a different set of norms: quick, scattered, linked, multiple engagements with words, sounds, images, and design. Which reading practice is best suited for your scholarly study?
- Writing practices: To publish online means to write to new reading practices. My video-book is more dense than your typical website, and more terse and fun than your average monograph. A scholar should ask: am I ready to write in new forms to new readers? LFYT is written using a montage form where I produce meaning by hitting words, images, and concepts against each other within one texteo. For instance, in “YouTube is DIY: Then What,” I place a video of Geriatric1927, a gentle YouTube vblogging celebrity born in that long-ago year, with two conflicting short pieces of theoretical writing about how cameras might "empower ordinary people." The three texts express different opinions about the potentials for DIY media, including my own more cautionary remarks, but the texteo’s meaning is their sum total: a demonstration and expression, via form, of how YouTube distributes authority, produces debate, and flattens expertise.
- Temporal expectations: The average Internet user appreciates that three or four clicks should do it. But I believe that a reader of my video-book should approach it as she does a movie: a 90-minute commitment sans popcorn — less time than for a book, more than for Facebook. To publish online demands either altering your expectations about readers’ (limited) attention or educating or enticing them about the new forms of digital reading that your publication might demand. Hence one of my “YouTours” (what I call chapters) is "How To Use This Video-Book."
- Expanded audience: The typical academic book is written primarily to the author’s field and perhaps its students. An online book may likely move to a greater constituency, especially if it is marketed to do so. Hence, field specific terminology, training, and background cannot be assumed. I tried to write my video-book for readers like my undergraduate students by using a dense, tweet-like voice and a lot of video and playful design. They say they enjoy learning in this ADD fashion, even as they express concern that it is harder than your average web page. For example, the first "page" of the "book" in its opening "chapter" — "YouTube is a Mess" — is comprised of one shore, simple sentence: “Videos are hard to find, easy to misname, and quick to lose.” But the two associated videos add a more developed, and sophisticated, arguments about searching YouTube (one by my students, another from a YouTuber). And if you hit the "Origins and Context" or "See Also" links, the once-simple sentence begins to grow around and under you, adding framing concepts like database logic and corporate ownership.
- Expanded authorship: Readers interact with books by teaching, citing, and returning to them. Online users expect and can have more, including a belief in their right to author. Online publications are written collaboratively with their designers and programmers — like Craig Dietrich, who worked with me on LFYT — as well as their readers, and in my case, also my students and day-to-day YouTubers. Thus, the very form of a publication continues to change as users build inside or upon it. This then affects legal and vetting issues of authorship and expertise…
- Legal challenges: The book contract refers to rights and obligations connected to original words printed on paper that are shipped and sold to stores, libraries, and individuals. The MIT Press made heroic steps to rethink and then rewrite a fair contract that covered Internet-based rights and obligations connected to moving, owning, and pointing to a variety of Internet content, and the associated issues of copyright, versioning, authoring, and correction raised. For instance, my contract reads: "Size of the Work: 6. The Work as delivered to us will consist of an unformatted manuscript of approximately ?????? words?” Because nearly all of my typed text repeats (given that the video-book is reiterative, recombinatory, and recursive by design, to comment upon this expressive quality of the Internet) it was impossible for the press to get a proper word count for the publication, a central building block for their typical contracts (in that this number signals what would be the size and publication expenses of any given book). The online academic needs to be open to yet-to-be stabilized norms of intellectual property and what that lack of clarity might mean in terms of evaluation and promotion …
- Vetting: Expertise flattens on the Internet while authoring opens up to include users and collaborators. These new forms of writing and reading demand new methods of evaluation. My video-book was peer-reviewed by scholars qualified to assess its design and structure as well as content. Once approved and edited, it was given an ISBN to count as a "book" and published by the MIT Press and granted its imprimatur. But it might not have gone so smoothly. I authored LFYT as a senior scholar in the field able to take the risks raised by unstable norms because I did not need it for my advancement or promotion. My hope is that the video-book will thereby hold the place of possibility for other new objects and their scholars who do seek promotion and employment.
- Support structures: Online publications demand institutional and professional supports well outside those established to produce books: designers, programmers, authoring tools, storage capabilities, copy-editing templates. My video-book was written in a database, transferred awkwardly to Word, expertly copy-edited there by Mel Goldsipe, and then clunkily returned by me back into the database where I typed in her corrections by hand. Our clumsy workarounds also included me printing a PDF of Goldsipe's corrections, and cutting these into slips of paper that I piled up and then taped to larger piece of paper (this for a digital publication!) Along a different vein, my video-book was supported by generous but soft grants from a variety of leading institutions that allowed it to be built and then also offered for free. LFYT was published by the MIT Press in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Alliance for Networking Visual Culture (ANVC) and USC’s online journal Vectors which is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. ANVC (and this video-book, their first supported publication) has itself been supported to promote and discuss more viable and long-term models for digital publishing. But here is no possibility for developing online academic publishing without a model that carries its added expenses. Eventually, more institutions, not just brave new scholars, will need to shoulder these costs in ever more self-sustaining ways. And yet…
Scholarly considerations of digital culture stay offline at the peril of obsolescence and the cultural cost of trained experts excluding themselves from timely and critical current debates of serious importance. I believe in the scholarly book, and celebrate its continued support. I am also certain that scholars’ voices need to be central to the larger and ever more relevant conversations occurring about and on the Internet and believe that these will need to be supported as well. My first-step attempts to write fully online will certainly seem laughable in the near future. Here I bring to light my own mistakes and uncertainties, as well as lessons I have learned, in hopes of broaching further conversation about developing academic norms, structures, and possibilities for online scholarly writing and publishing.
Alexandra Juhasz is professor of media studies at Pitzer College.
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