Before the opening talk at the Web 2.0 Expo earlier this week, the conference organizers played Michael Wesch’s video-ode to the participatory Web, “The Machine is Us/ing Us”. Given the insider-y nature of the crowd, I have to assume that most of the attendees had already seen it — it had rocketed to blogospheric celebrity in early February. But I didn’t realize the guy who made the video, a professor of cultural anthropology from Kansas State University, was at the conference.
On Tuesday afternoon I literally stumbled upon his talk in the hallway (on a tip from my neighbor Tim Bishop); it was a part of the free, informal “Web2Open” parallel conference. Across the hall, a hubbub made it hard to hear Wesch — the Justin.tv people had set up camp there and needed to be asked to pipe down.
Wesch turns out to be a rare combination of ingenuous Web enthusiast and smart cultural critic. In my experience, the cultural critics are usually pickled in cynicism and the Web enthusiasts are often blinded to their technology’s drawbacks. Maybe the discipline of cultural anthropology has helped Wesch maintain some balance; or maybe his sheer distance from Silicon Valley-mania — whether in the flatlands of Kansas or the mountains of Papua New Guinea — has helped him find a fresh perspective.
The came-out-of-nowhere saga of Wesch’s video neatly serves to mirror its message about the generated-from-the-bottom-up nature of the Web. Wesch originally made the video, he explained, because he was writing a paper about Web 2.0 for anthropologists, trying to explain how new Web tools can transform the academic conversation. He created it “on the fly” using low-end tools. Its grammar, with its write-then-delete-and-rewrite rhythms, emerged as he made goofs and fixed them: “The mistakes were real, at first. Then I thought they were cool, and started to plan them.” The music was a track by a musician from the Ivory Coast that he found via Creative Commons. (Once the video became a hit, Wesch says, he got a moving e-mail from the musician, who said that he’d been about to give up his dreams of a life in music, but was now finding new opportunities thanks to the attention the video was sending his way.)
The video’s viral success took Wesch by surprise. He’d forwarded it to some colleagues in the IT department to make sure that he hadn’t erred in his definition of XML. They sent it around. It took a week to go ballistic.
At one point someone in the small audience asked Wesch a question about his field research in Papua New Guinea. He paused for a second, asking, “There’s about a two-hour lecture there, I’m not sure I can compress that into a five-minute answer — should I try?” I couldn’t help myself; I blurted, “Hey, you did the entire history of the Web in four minutes — go ahead!”
[tags]web 2.0, web 2.0 expo, michael wesch, the machine is us/ing us, viral video[/tags]
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