What is Fred Telling Us?
by Sonia Livingstone & Nancy Thumim - September 08, 2008
In a world that struggles to get children to read books, in which the youth television audience is increasingly hard to reach, and in which shared attention becomes fragmented as everyone follows their own niche interests, an ordinary fourteen year old boy is reaching millions with his own channel on YouTube.
In a world that struggles to get children to read books, in which the youth television audience is increasingly hard to reach, and in which shared attention becomes fragmented as everyone follows their own niche interests, an ordinary fourteen year old boy is reaching millions with his own channel on YouTube, the hugely popular user-generated content site,(see www.youtube.com/fred). According to the blogosphere, Lucas Cruikshank has over 100,000 subscribers, and after just a few months, he now reaches several million people per episode. So, whats his secret? And can we learn from him about emerging forms of communication? About media literacy?
Presenting himself as a manic, weird six year old with an alcoholic mom and an occasional girlfriend, Fred speaks rapidly straight to camera in a funny high pitched voice as he reveals the everyday craziness of his life, each episode leaking messages of childrens naughty, insightful, naïve or idiosyncratic view of the insensitive and sometimes shocking world they must adjust to. For example, in Fred Goes to the Dentist, he begins:
My mom got really mad at me yesterday because I ate all the dirt out of the vacuum cleaner. She said it was mad for me to eat the dirt but it just looks so cool I really want to eat it. Im not going to do that any more though because my mom says if I do any more bad stuff shes going to put me up for adoption.
The humor lies partly in knowingly revealing the usually-ignored perspective of the child (that dirt looks cool to eat) but also in the final shock - that an infuriated mother makes a terrible threat to a naughty six-year old, and that the child must live with the emotion this arouses. Bruno Bettelheim (1989) said about Grimms fairy tales that bedtime stories begin by announcing that the young hero is all alone in the world because his or her parents have died in order to let children face their unspoken fears in a safe setting. Freds YouTube channel, like the modern soap opera, may offer no happy ending, but the cultural acknowledgement of lifes hardships, so often screened out of the sanitized media produced for children, remains crucial.
Most people wouldnt know how to get their own YouTube channel nor how to create pithy, coherent, effective video shorts. There is no doubt that Lucas Cruikshank is highly skilled there are no duff notes, no awkward edits in his material. While on the one hand, the techniques are straightforward (mainly head and shoulders shot, few props, no other characters), on the other hand, they are used skilfully and confidently this is not just learning how to use a camera, but a camera as a comfortable means of expression, like writing your own story in a previous era. And as Henry Jenkins sets out, in the eighth of his Nine Propositions Towards a Cultural Theory of YouTube:
8. In the age of YouTube, social networking emerges as one of the important social skills and cultural competencies that young people need to acquire if they are going to become meaningful participants in the culture around them. We need to be concerned with the participation gap as much as we are concerned with the digital divide.
Fred certainly knows how to participate - creating as well as consuming online content, constructing a persona and networking with others. The to-camera video style, in which Fred is often seen running with the camera or engaged in frenetic activities in front of the camera, deploys an aesthetic that marks what we see as amateur content. This amateur aesthetic is so widely associated with participatory online culture that it has now been co-opted by powerful media institutions. Jenkins gives the example of Astroturf,
fake grassroots media - through which very powerful groups attempt to mask themselves as powerless in order to gain greater credibility within participatory culture. In the past, these powerful interests would have been content to exert their control over broadcast and mass market media but now, they often have to mask their power in order to operate within network culture.
Indeed, the big media producers have cottoned on to Fred and his productions now include product placements for which (apparently) Lucas Cruikshank is paid.
On the one hand, Freds creator is operating within the generic conventions of the network culture, exhibiting proficiency and ease with the tools and the environment and participating in a community that communicates via video and messages, references popular culture more widely, and even blurs the boundaries between powerful interests, media interests, and grassroots creations. Yet he is ahead of the game in knowing what kids find funny.
Indeed, not only are they both clever and funny, Freds high octane monologues are redolent with a child-centred critique of the adult world. On Fathers Day, the school tells the children to make their father a card, but Freds dad is in the State Pen. When he tells us, in all innocence, that his mother dresses up to get money by standing on street corners, we know what he cant grasp. Over and again, by touching on the taboos of our time child neglect, poverty, abuse - the viewer is forced to recognize the pathos and powerlessness of children in an intolerant world. In this, Freds vision is strongly reminiscent of the striking disjuncture between childish presentation (silly voices, jumpy visuals) and strong critical and taboo messages of South Park and Family Guy, controversial cartoons popular with teenagers but disapproved of by parents worldwide.
Through making visible experiences usually marginalized by our competitive, success-oriented world, this trailer trash kid has a lot to say about everyday failure, and people not only want to listen, they also join in. When Freds mom was missing, plenty of subscribers sent in photos of overweight, badly dressed women to say theyd found her. Several fans have set themselves up as Freds girlfriend, telling her own story, deploying the same mode as that established by Lucas, an equally irritating voice for example, and providing video that responds to Freds ongoing story. These video responses, as well as the pages of written comments expressing preferences or insults towards the videos, their characters and their makers, are both intrinsic to the YouTube form and content, and generate a wider dialogue of which the Fred Videos are just a part.
Thus, unlike the book author or television broadcaster, Fred does not simply speak to many, he speaks with many understanding the network society rather better than all those well-meaning, do-gooder messages to children to join in and have their say on fancy participation sites that host comments but provide little response, and certainly not the global adulation that Fred appears so effortlessly to achieve. Paradoxically then, this apparently powerless boy has found a powerful voice.
Of course Fred is not Lucas. And Lucas is clearly not powerless. Is he even giving a powerful voice to the fictional Fred (a six-year-old with anger management issues and an alcoholic mother....)? Or is he, perhaps, laughing at the white working class trailer trash America that it is acceptable to laugh at:
Im gonna give the photos to Judy [..] ohmigod Im in Judys house, ok I think I found Judys room I never knew the bedrooms inside her trailer were so big [..] (From Fred Stalks Judy)
Perhaps this is a new episode in the longstanding tradition of class hatred analogous to Jerry Springers entertaining of middle class audiences with scandalous representations of working class lives? Henry Jenkins, in his ninth proposition towards a cultural theory of YouTube, reminds us that inequalities and prejudices, and we can add, symbolic violence, are by no means absent from the participatory space of YouTube:
9. YouTube teaches us that a participatory culture is not necessarily a diverse culture . minorities are grossly under-represented - at least among the most heavily viewed videos on YouTube, which still tend to come most often from white middle class males. If we want to see a more "democratic" culture, we need to explore what mechanisms might encourage greater diversity in who participates, whose work gets seen, and what gets valued within the new participatory culture.
Thus while there is much to note and indeed to celebrate in terms of the media literacy skills evidenced by the creator of the Fred channel and, more importantly, the vast user community in dialogue with these videos and others like them, nevertheless educators must attend equally to who is being represented, how they are being represented and by whom.
Media literacy includes the ability to create but also the ability to critically interpret. Here a wealth of criticism predating YouTube comes in useful perhaps the classics of media education are ripe for a return, including Stuart Halls (2003) analysis of how stereotypes construct "a symbolic frontier between the 'normal' and the 'deviant,' the 'normal' and the 'pathological,' the 'accepted' and the 'unacceptable,' what 'belongs' and what is 'Other,' between 'insiders' and 'outsiders, Us and Them'" (p. 258).
Bettelheim, B. (1989). The uses of enchantment: the meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Vintage Books.
Hall, S. (2003). The Spectacle of the Other. In Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices ( pp. 223-90). London: Sage.