Exposing the Idiocy of Videocy: Four Studies of YouTube's Underbelly

Robert Lestón, Geoffrey V. Carter, Sherrin Frances, and Sarah Arroyo

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Robert Lestón is an associate professor of English and chair at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY. His most recent work includes "Attending to the Tactical: Robert Scholes Meets Quentin Pierce" in Recovering and Transforming the Pedagogy of Robert Scholes, forthcoming from Utah State University Press. He is working on a book that investigates the relationship between decolonial rhetorics, autonomous communities, and social movements in the Global South.

Geoffrey V. Carter is as assistant professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University, where he teaches undergraduate courses in composition and graduate courses in communication and media administration. His areas of interest in include writer's block, video culture, and the history of pinball. His work has appeared in journals like PRE/TEXT, Kairos, Computers and Composition, and Enculturation. Recently, his chapter "Speculative Phreaking: Uncovering the Future from Beneath the Internet" appeared in Rhetorical Speculations: The Future of Rhetoric, Writing, and Technology (Utah State UP, 2019).

Sherrin Frances is an associate professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University. Her research focuses on outsider libraries and the materiality of books. Her forthcoming book, Spine: Libraries Amid Protest, will be published through the University of Massachusetts Press in 2020. She has also contributed to publications such as CTHEORY, Pacific Coast Philology, and disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory.

Sarah Arroyo is professor of English at California State University, Long Beach. She teaches courses ranging from Theories and Practices of Composition to Critical Theory to Digital Rhetoric. Dr. Arroyo's most recent publications include "Growing Up with Electracy" (Enculturation, 2016) and "One More Video Theory (Some Assembly Required) (with Bahareh Alaei, Present Tense, 2015) as well as her book, Participatory Composition: Video Culture, Writing, and Electracy (SIUP, 2013)


YouTube’s emergence in public and higher education has resulted in some conflicting consequences. On the one hand, and following YouTube’s “Broadcast Yourself” mantra, the platform has literally opened up unprecedented channels for media participation. On the other, hand, as Sven Birkerts has suggested in the Gutenberg Elegies, the ubiquity of video technology is one of the primary factors leading to the collapse of the usual distinction between public and private life. “The doors and walls of our habitations matter less and less--the world sweeps in through the wires as it needs to. . . . One day we will conduct our public and private lives within networks so dense, among so many channels of instantaneous information, that it will make no sense to speak of the differentiations of subjective individualism” (130-31). The devastating implications of this collapse can be felt when peoples’ lives are exposed to a video culture that can often be mean-spirited and ruthlessly public. How we deal with the fallout from high profile cases from YouTube presents a challenge to educators engaging with issues connected to participatory culture.

Much of the existing work on participatory culture lauds its ability to create civic change for the positive (see Henry Jenkins and Clay Shirky), and while we will not dwell in the negative, we want to paint a more complex picture. Central to this complexity, and as Geof and Sarah point out in their introduction to “Tubing the Future,” is the concept of the "tube.” This historically loaded term goes back to the original "electric tube" (noun) with which Benjamin Franklin conducted some of his earliest electrical experiments and forward to the so-called “boob tube” of television and ultimately to the YouTube sites that stream video on the internet. This latter form of the "tube" also engenders an active sense of  "tubing" (verb), which includes both the passive drift from video to video and the more active encounters with sharing, commenting, and remixing.

In this collection, we bring to light the darker side of some of the more active and re-active exponents of YouTube culture and the unwilling participants whose lives have literally and metaphorically been swept up and sent “down the tubes.” We focus on people connected to the field of education who have had their lives caught in the crosshairs of video culture. Through four different videos, we consider and remix issues related to both “idiocy” and “videocy,” two terms that animate some of Gregory Ulmer’s recent efforts and share intersections with a number of other works focusing on the culture of the tube.

The “underbelly” of the tube might be described as something that is vulnerable, exposed, and ripe for attack. We position this vulnerability as a twist on Ryan Omizo’s articulation of a “vernacular video” that is based on the vulnerability of participants. Omizo’s vulnerability, however, works through the connections people make through video with “like minded viewers” and “when nurtured and mobilized, can lead to social change” (“Vulnerable Video”). We also see this underbelly of the tube as influenced by the discourses of exposure advanced by Jean Luc-Nancy, Avital Ronell, and Diane Davis’s “Communitarian Literacy” that thrives on a sense of “being-exposed” to the “inappropriable exteriority” of the other. By looking at videos that unwillingly gained attention and, in two of the cases, were surreptitiously recorded, we present an exposure and vulnerability that may indeed initiate social change but may also have disturbing results.

Four Case Studies in Brief

Before going into further detail about “YouTube’s Underbelly” and “Videocy,” we wish to introduce the four videos featured in this effort, so as to prepare Itineration readers for the range of issues to come. The authors of these videos produced them with the intention of generating overlapping themes that would bear on classrooms and create a space for educators to talk to each other and potentially students about a host of difficult issues.

In the first video, Sarah Arroyo and co-producer Bahareh Alaei show the uneasy relationship between video and education through the much discussed case of former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace, who suffered an extended backlash from a self-inflicted upload. This example is one of a cautionary tale about how mean-spirited and downright racist moments can quickly go viral, and the bricolage of remixes and vlogs that are brought together in this video offer a vivid context for discussion.

In the next selection, Geoffrey Carter shows how the difficulties of video culture are not limited to poor student choices. His focus on so-called “angry teacher” videos, especially one featuring former McGavok High School Teacher, Donald Wood, shows how hidden cameras can bring a teacher’s darkest day to light. While certainly not intended to condone Wood’s outrageous behavior, this video remix seeks to provoke discussion among students and educators contending with the unfiltered speed of online video in public classrooms.

Sherrin Frances’ next video shows that, even when participants attempt to limit their exposure, or frame what they’re doing in a different light, how their work will be perceived by the wider public is difficult, if not impossible, to control. Despite hiding behind a mask, former teacher and “Butt Print Artist,” Stan Murmur could not be shielded from the viral nature of his work. So, too, she juxtaposes Murmur’s case with Evan Emory, a student and would-be comedian, whose raunchy, adult lyrics landed him in hot water, after he digitally remixed footage he made performing in front of an actual elementary class. In both cases, the underside (pun intended) of YouTube is brought to light with damning consequence.

No doubt the most high profile video of all is one that Robert Lestón considers in the tragedy of Tyler Clementi. Intended as an “epilogue” to the four cases noted above, Lestón looks at issues connected to Dharun Ravi’s recording of Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man. Lestón’s video reveals the double movement that we want to discuss associated with exposure. On the one hand, Clementi’s sexual orientation was exposed by his thoughtless roommate, an event that illustrates Birkert’s assertion of the collapse of private and public space. But Lestón also reveals another movement of exposure, one connected to the common difference that we all share, that of being exposed to the inappropriable “offering” of the conditions of finitude (Nancy 9). As with our three other videos, how participatory culture comes to terms with cases like Clementi’s offers an opportunity for rhetoricians to examine the impact of video production in relation to rhetoric, the classroom, and a broader public sphere.


In his essay, “Exposing Assemblages Unlikely Communities of Digital Scholarship, Video, and Social Networks,” Alex Reid explains the following:

As this essay explores, the conditions of exposure occur in all communities, including traditional, print-mediated scholarly communities, though disciplines have created many mechanisms to close off the possibilities of exposure. Similarly, as the video below investigates, both mainstream and academic discourses have argued for the development of a critical, digital literacy to protect against exposure by and to social, digital media networks. In both cases, digital media are viewed as external forces threatening an existing internal identity rather than as part of a new assemblage through which contemporary identities will be produced.

Through all of our videos, we aim to extend Reid’s claims by highlighting and opening up the notion of exposure in video and participatory cultures. In response to Reid’s suggestion that mainstream and academic discourses have worked to protect this notion of exposure through critical and digital literacy, we offer “videocy”: a concept that we hope will contribute to Reid’s vision for exploring how contemporary identities are produced. Greg Ulmer’s articulation of “videocy” in his 1989 book Teletheory predicted that “video intelligence” would become a legitimate form of learning and envisioned a much larger, cultural role for video. While videocy was invented before the ability to upload and share video became a reality, we desire to reposition and refresh it for today’s culture of video sharing. In contrast to using digital literacy to perform critical analysis of online video, videocy entails production in the culture created by and through the videos, comments, remixes, and responses that might push digital literacy into the fast-moving currents of participatory cultures.

A necessary part of videocy is the similar-sounding concept, idiocy, which, in an email, Ulmer acknowledged that it detracted from potential use of term videocy in academic settings. Just as Ulmer notes that the concept of heuretics, which drives his “logic of invention,” has roots in the subversive term of heresy, videocy’s roots, with its connections to idiocy, exposes a repressed otherness in many online videos. It’s a repression that Ulmer himself now explores in works like Avatar Emergency (2012).

In the video projects assembled here, we argue that idiocy should not be dismissed but should rather be blended into the discussion. We might take, as Ulmer also recently alludes to, Deleuze and Guattari’s characterization of “the new idiot” in What is Philosophy? and move it into video culture. “The old idiot,” they write, “wanted to, by himself, account for what was or was not comprehensible, what was or was not rational, what was lost or saved; but the new idiot wants the lost, the incomprehensible, and the absurd to be restored to him” (63). Restoring the absurd, however, necessarily entails participation. The new idiot is participatory. The new idiot provokes. The new idiot is exposed. We come back to this discussion in the final section after the four cases.

Click on the Following Links to Explore Each Case Study