Thursday, November 29, 2007

Does Our “e-Celebrity” Culture Affect e-Learning?

Online students are encouraged to interact with each other and the world, and to engage with each other in discussions and debates that meaningfully incorporate the course content and the world at large. News has always been a focal point, but what happens when celebrity gossip and scandal begin to dominate headlines? Further, what happens when the news is influenced (or even provoked) by bloggers seeking attention by performing stunts, parodies, that place them firmly in the middle of the “conversation”?

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When Senator Trent Lott resigned suddenly only one year into his six-year term, the reasons for the powerful senator's resignation were lost in a cacophony of celebrity rumors. No one seemed to want to discuss the ethical implications and possibilities -- Senator Lott resigning for $ as a lobbyist? If so, this is an issue that really deserves discussion, particularly in the wake of the corruption scandals of earlier this year and in 2006. But, instead of an intense debate about ethics and corruption -- even among Presidential candidates, the public seemed more interested in rumors. Ethics in politics were quickly eclipsed by celebrity gossip: Britney pregnant with twins? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie feuding? Amy Winehouse headed to rehab after all, suffering from bulimia, too? Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise controlled by a cult?

Earlier this year, when O.J. Simpson ("The O.J. Sideshow is Back") was arrested in Las Vegas for armed robbery and a host of other charges, his scandal pushed aside the news that France was threatening Iran with war.

When Britney Spears opened the Video Music Awards (VMA’s) for MTV, not only did the awards show, which had been in decline, enjoy a 25 percent ratings increase, the fact that her performance of her song, “Gimme More,” was universally panned as a “trainwreck,” a disaster, or even a career-ending humiliation, generated a buzz that was still going strong more than a week later ("Britney Proves Awful is the New Awesome"). Britney’s performance (stage fright? Tripping on the broken heel of boot? Impaired?) her appearance (overweight? Outfit too skimpy?) made it to all the traditional news outlets: CNN, Fox, major networks, morning shows, late night humor shows, and more. Further, Britney’s performance was the subject of debate in offices, Starbucks, beauty salons, radio talk shows, but – above all – in blogs and online videos.

Perhaps even more telling of that performance’s impact on the culture at large – even if only for its own 15 seconds of notoriety – was the fact that Britney’s video performance spawned a wide array of video responses. Chris Crocker, a 19-year-old fan, created an impassioned “Leave Britney Alone” video while in front of his webcam, which, within 4 days of being posted on YouTube, had been downloaded and played by 8 million viewers. Other videos were parodies of her outfit, her performance, her “love handles.”

When the rather odd photos of boxing champion (Oscar de la Hoya) came out, and he appeared cross-dressing in fishnet and a women’s black bikini, it was immediately viewed as a visual allusion to Spears and her sparkly black lingerie-look bikini & fishnet outfit.

Chris Crocker’s
video became an excellent example of a “viral video” – one that is disseminated throughout the web and gains enormous traffic as people e-mail the links to each other, post links on their blog, or embed the script in their social networking space (MySpace, etc.) His success even led to a contract for his own show ("Chris Crocker: From YouTube to Boob Tube").

It is every parodist’s or prankster’s dream to create a viral video. After all, there is no doubt that people will see it. The average American may not be able to tell you where Turkmenistan is, but he or she can tell you which celebrity shaved her head and brandished an umbrella at a car full of paparazzi.

In Florida, a college student was administered electrical shocks via Tazer when he became disruptive at a speech given by former presidential candidate John Kerry. The fact it was recorded by a phone / camera and instantly posted on the web provoked intense debates about free speech and police brutality. At the same time, there was a very real possibility that it was a prank, inspired by an entire spectrum of reality shows, many of which focus on playing practical jokes and pulling rather harsh set-ups, gags, and traps.

If so, the prank provoked hard news. The bloggers make the news itself. In the traditional classroom, the “world at large” included mass media, but the participatory world of blogging, sharing videos, social networking, text-messaging, instant messaging, and even e-mail did not exist. The staged-for- television rallies of the past, and the “show” villages for media visits and public relations seem primitive and their artifice seems all too penetrable today, with our awakened consciousness.

The result is that the average e-learner has very different expectations about the kind of information that is available today, and the way one can or should obtain it. “Serious” sources, such as television news, and blogs, YouTube, MySpace, may actually have identical information. Celebrity sites such at TMZ, x17online, Just Jared, dlisted, and PerezHilton have mainstreamed. In many cases, the “hard” news services rely on the blogs for their information, which can make it quite difficult for fact-checkers.

E-Learner expectations about current information and its access can be summarized as follows:

1---It has to entertain. As a result, short, engaging clips are better than long ones. They have to engage the emotions and keep the viewer interested.

2---The more spontaneous or “live” the production, the more believable or authentic the video is. Production values are not as important as the way it engages. Reality programs have conditioned viewers to believe that authenticity comes in pixelly, low-resolution videos and images obtained by handheld devices.

3---Authenticity is no longer automatically attributed to the “official” version, or a function of the perception of wealth or power behind the company producing the video. In fact, many viewers are suspicious of “big” media, since it is assumed that they often have a commercial or political agenda, which results in spin or outright fabrication of facts.

4---Viral videos have more penetration than videos disseminated via “normal” channels. Short, spontaneous videos that capture the imagination and passions of the viewers take off and then spawn, producing view statistics that increase logarithmically. The viral video is an excellent example of a “meme” in action, and demonstrates how waves and tipping points occur in the “wild.”

5—Interaction is a must. Viewers want to interact with the e-media event. They want be able to voice their opinion, and to see their posts being responded to. Celebrities provide the players in stories that individuals want to discuss.

6---Celebrities and their sagas create socialization events in the virtual world, and in a world where face-to-face socialization is becoming (seemingly) less important.

7---Elearners will not respond enthusiastically to stale discussion boards. They want to be able to relate their own experiences and discuss issues that connect to their ideas, views, and values.

8---Socialization process that informs viewers in the ways of the new communication norms. The socialization process is not just about the use of celebrity stories to express values, beliefs, and mores. Instead, the socialization process involves fashion, new vocabularies, and technology itself. What are the celebrities wearing? What words do you use to describe current events? What kind of mp3 player or cell phone do you have? Elearners learn more about current trends via the web and celebrity-driven discourse than in their non-virtual world.

The result is that elearners are expected to have discussions and interactions on the Internet that put everything out in the open. As a result, a non-interactive course that is heavily text-based is likely to bore the average learner. The average course is likely to feel like a tight, closed-in box rather than an elearning space where memes can flourish and students can engage in the kinds of real-world discussions, media events, and communication that makes them feel connected. Learning takes place only after true engagement occurs. Engagement strategies that worked in the past just will not work today, and it is important to keep this in mind.

Coming soon!

Doof -- lots of games.
Good for social networking and elearning? article coming soon.