Blog Post

Communications Circuits, YouTube, and Flying Sloths

This semester, I'm teaching an undergraduate research capstone course called "Information in Motion." The course looks at public libraries and at the internet to investigate what happens to information when it travels along networks, as well as how it influences (and is influenced by) the people it passes along the way.

Yesterday, we started talking about methods, with an emphasis on theory and models. (Next week, we'll be visiting with the lovely and helpful staff at the American Library Association archives and University of Illinois archives, where we'll start getting into some of the more nitty-gritty aspects of historical method.)

The students read Robert Darnton's influential 1982 essay, "What is the History of Books?" which established the agenda for book history, especially in the English-language academy. In the course of his essay, Darnton proposes what he calls a "communications circuit," as a  "general model for analyzing the ways books come into being and spread through society." (You can see an illustration for the circuit here.)

After discussing the circuit and thinking about how we might adjust it for application to print--libraries are noticeably absent, for example--I wanted us to think about what it might offer the study of digital information and its "life cycle," as Darnton puts it. To give us something to play around with, I showed them this video on YouTube, and then we walked through the circuit, talking about how we would need to shift the circuit in order to understand this representation of a flying sloth.

I want to offer some of the highlights of our discussion here:


My students quickly understood that authorship is pretty complicated in this instance. We have the person who actually did the filming of the event, but then we also have the person ("timah99") who took the video and added effects and music, producing what we actually watched. Add to that the fact that R. Kelly technically authored a borrowed part of the text, and we had a very productive conversation about how new technologies change who can produce and how they do so. At the same time, one particular student brilliantly noted that this might not be so new at all: quotation and citation are practices that may have shifted but which also have histories that stretch back much further than digital media.


Darnton emphasizes the role of printers and of those who supply the raw materials of books (paper, ink, type) and the labor to produce them. My students identified a similarly wide-ranging, and perhaps even more various, group of "suppliers" for this video--from the camera and computer manufacturers to the programmers who developed the editing software to the power company that made running any of those machines or software possible. Additionally, the person who initially made the video available, which "timah99" mixed and edited, also supplied the raw materials for the final product, in a sense. (Delightfully, it was also proposed that the sloth itself be classified as a supplier, specifically of the strangeness/cuteness that makes the video work.)


Darnton spends a lot of his essay talking about the wagoners and such who actually took the books from the publisher/printer to the booksellers. In the case of the video, the students identified YouTube as a primary shipper, but also pointed out that Internet Service Providers, satellites/cables, and cross-platform appropriators (Tosh 2.0 or those ridiculous CNN viral video segments) as making the product available to consumers in ways analogous to wagoners. One of the most interesting parts of the whole conversation came here, too, when another student proposed people who share the video on Facebook or via email as shippers. This led a discussion of how shippers and readers might be partially collapsed in the digital environment (but how sharing books after you've read them can serve a similar, if more numerically limited, purpose).


Following from our discussion of the booksellers (which I won't belabor here, except to note that our main conclusion was that YouTube/Google was essentially serving that role), one student raised an important question about the "reader" of a YouTube video: Is watching a clip like buying a book? Discussing this question, some students raise the issue of effort. Essentially, they wondered, if you don't have to actually go to a bookstore and pick up a book and buy it--but can rather sit at home and click a button--can we really compare the actions? Some students answered affirmatively, arguing that effort wasn't an important factor, since the text was still being experienced. And then another student took us to the heart of the "video-watching=book-buying?" problem: advertising. Watching a YouTube video is a commercial activity (like buying a book), the student insisted, but it's a commercial activity with an extra, complicating intermediary. The money made is not given by the reader to the seller; instead, the reader (or at least the reader's attention) becomes the commodity being exchanged, with the video merely facilitating the transaction. This got us talking about privacy, as well. If as Marshall McLuhan (who we read last week) argues, the "portable book, which men could isolation" led to the emergence of privacy, what changes when one's "reading" is tabulated, linked to other activities  like web searches, and commoditized?


Overall, though the conversation moved a bit awkwardly in places (I imagine this was the first time any of us had tried to apply a scholarly model to a sloth video), I think this pedagogical experiment was a success, We developed some great questions to follow through the rest of the semester, and we set up some interesting issues for the students to potentially pick up in their research projects.

[co-posted at]


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