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Creator and Artist Stories

Curator of the Month: Michael Wesch

By Michael Wesch

Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Kansas State University

Anthropology professor Michael Wesch has the awesome job of studying YouTube and thinking about what it all means. We asked him to curate a playlist of his favorite videos, and he came back with an impressive list of clips that exemplify how the "wonderfully playful participatory culture" you've created manifests itself on YouTube. Four of those videos are on our homepage today, but he also wrote this thoughtful blog post to accompany his picks. Reading it, you'll get a sense of how a single video or person can create a ripple that swells into something so much bigger than ourselves.

What I love about online video is the way that it has allowed more people to join a global conversation. Television was a medium whose content was controlled by the few and made for the masses. It created a one-way conversation, and you had to be on TV to get your turn. We have all been excluded from that conversation for so long, it is no wonder that so many people are now jumping in (over 1 million videos uploaded online every day by my count).

One of my first favorites was Gary Brolsma's "Numa Numa dance," which he posted on in late 2004. When YouTube came along a few months later and made it so much easier for people to upload videos, thousands of people joined the dance. A search for "Numa Numa" now brings up over 125,000 videos, most of which are people doing their own rendition of the now-famous dance. And it is still going. [Recently], Brolsma led the Michigan State Band (and the whole stadium) doing the "Numa Numa."

There is a wonderfully playful participatory culture popping up all over the online video landscape.

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a guy who told me that he and his kids (ages 2 and 6) were working on their own rendition of blinktwice4y's YouTube hit "Mario Kart Love Song". When they are done, they will join hundreds of others who have also created their own rendition. And if you love participatory culture as much as I do, you might just find the more obscure ones to be the most entertaining (like matrock records jamming it out Brady Bunch style) and sometimes heartwarming (don't you just love these kids playing it live? Or how 'bout these young kids acting out the video? You just know they will be watching this with the tears rolling and hearts warming in 30 years. Or even this wedding serenade).

And speaking of weddings, almost everybody saw the JK Wedding Entrance Dance, but the remixes and remakes are a real treat. There is of course the "Divorce Dance," the live remakes at weddings everywhere (here's one from Spain) and even babies are getting in on it.

Or remember how OK Go made their career with that amazing treadmill dance? But what could be cooler than doing it live at your high school in front of all your friends? Of course, Granbury High was not the only remake. There are hundreds, yes, hundreds of groups of high school kids who somehow wrangled together several working treadmills, rolled them into high school auditoriums all over the world, and did their thing.

Undoubtedly, some people performing on YouTube are hoping to be the next Esmee Denters. It wasn't so long ago that Esmee was just a young girl singing (beautifully) in front of a crappy webcam -- until one day she was singing a Justin Timberlake song in front of a slightly better camera, which slowly panned right to reveal that none other than Justin Timberlake himself was in the room, and that he had just signed her to a record deal.

There's still a lot of unsigned talent out there, like Megan Tonjes or mandyvbats, who was brought to my attention by the absolutely amazing work of Kutiman, a musician who brought together snippets of YouTube artists from all over the world, working in so many genres, to create such beautiful music (which to me is the real YouTube orchestra).

But my favorite online video moments are those where the participatory culture spills out into the real world. There is probably no better example than the Free Hugs movement. Now three years old, it is still going, and it's global. But of course it wouldn't be participatory culture without the clever parody, which Greg Benson of mediocrefilms performed brilliantly by offering his "Deluxe Hugs" for $2.

The tools for such clever commentary and remixing are always growing, and several of my new favorites are coming from the creative uses of Auto-Tune. The Gregory Brothers have really mastered this with their Autotune the News series. Melodysheep is now bringing his amazing talents to set the beautiful insights of the best scientists of recent years (like Carl Sagan) to some moving music.

So much of this creativity relies on the freedom to remix and build on the material created by others, a freedom that's constantly being challenged. Which brings me to one of my more serious recommendations: Brett Gaylor's RIP: A Remix Manifesto. Or for a wonderfully artistic statement within the same theme, one of the most amazing videos on all of YouTube is Us by Blimvisible.

My favorite video of all time still remains MadV's "The Message." It comes from the early days of YouTube, when so many of us were still just amazed that we could reach out to millions of people through our webcams. MadV invited us to write a message for the world on our hands. The resulting compilation may just become one of those iconic videos that our descendants hundreds of years might look back on and say, "So this is what they had to say when they first wired up all those computers and cameras throughout the world..." He's now doing an HD version if you want to join in.

If you are interested in how we try to make sense of all of this in anthropological terms, check out "An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube," where my students and I discuss many of these videos and a whole bunch more: