Who Will Organize All of This Data?

A YouTube star explains the role of education in a new cultural order

A YouTube star explains the role of education in a new cultural order
Mike Wesch

At Kansas State University, professor Mike Wesch studies the impact of digital technology on human interaction.

Courtesy of Mike Wesch

This article is part four in the series "The New Literacy: Scenes from the Digital Divide 2.0."

For a movement to be considered mainstream in the U.S., it is helpful if it attracts a posse of social science outriders capable of adding the gloss of academic verity.

If there is a place where both the causes of and an antidote to the new digital divide are simultaneously on display, it is in a YouTube video called Web 2.0: The Machine Is Us/ing Us. The four-and-a-half-minute piece is the work of Mike Wesch, a 34-year-old assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, who is surely a contender for the most recognized and decorated teacher of the decade. Wesch, a David Letterman look-alike, has recently been named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, won Case Western Reserve University's U.S. Professor of the Year award, and been called "the Explainer" by Wired magazine.

For a movement to be considered mainstream in the U.S., it is helpful if it attracts a posse of social science outriders who are capable of adding the gloss of academic verity. In the realm of social media, the legitimacy arrow points almost invariably toward Wesch, whose video is an elegant multimedia proof that illustrates Howard Rheingold's previously noted formulation -- that in order to cross the social-media digital divide, students need to learn about social media.

The concept for Wesch's video is simple and brilliant. He takes the viewer on a spin through his own personal Web 2.0 navigational screen, an informational ballet that segues CNN.com into anthropology blogs that in turn lead to the Savage Minds site and then into "8apps Social Networking for Busy People" and then to Wesch's favorite anthro journals and on to Google, Flickr, and an XML program that enables data from several sites to be mashed together. Our on-screen text guide then asks the critical question, "Who will organize all of this data?" The answer that jumps onto the screen is straightforward and challenging: "You will."

It becomes clear that we are on the receiving end of what is not only Mike Wesch's personal Web page but also some of his inner life as well. Over the past several years, Wesch has become the Web's digital Magellan, except that he's not sailing uncharted seas in isolation. His The Machine Is Us/ing Us has had more than 8.5 million hits since coming online in early 2007.

Wesch contends that the numerous hits on his Web 2.0 video are a collateral effect of the growing centrality of YouTube, which he said in a June 2008 Library of Congress speech, now uploads more content in six months than all three of the major American television networks have presented in the past 60 years. In his talk, entitled "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube," Wesch points out, "This is not just about information, but about linking people together in ways we've never thought of before."

To prove his point, he talks about Gary Brolsma, the "Numa Numa guy," whose free-form interpretation of a Moldovan pop song traveled around the world via YouTube in 2005. Brolsma, a portly New Jersey teen, kicked off a "Numa Numa" Internet craze that resulted in his video being uploaded more than a half-billion times and inspiring more than 50,000 video takeoffs. Quoting Seattle-based writer Douglas Wolk, Wesch notes, "Something really important was going on, something that starts to look less like an infectious joke than a new cultural order."

Richard Rapaport is a political and architectural writer who contributes regularly to Edutopia.

This article is the fourth of five parts. Go to the part five to continue, or to part one to begin.

This article originally published on 10/27/2009

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