Saturday, August 28, 2010
I've found myself fascinated by the influx of mash ups appearing in popular culture in recent months. I would define a "mash up" or "mashing" as when you take creative elements from two or more sources and present them together to convey a new message. Mashing is nothing new - we've all probably done it to some degree or another; whether it was adding an iTunes track to a slideshow or incorporating a video to a blog post. Christopher Shamburg says that Shakespeare himself incorporated unoriginal elements in his plays. Mr. Shamburg demonstrates how students can understand and appreciate literary work by Remixing Shakespeare. One could argue that mash ups are a triumph of Web 2.0, an open sharing of content and applications in collaboration with others, but perhaps it is time to reflect on where we are headed.
In the music industry it's called sampling when a rhythm track from one song is used in another (see Grandmaster Flash). I believe the common practice here is that permissions are sought to avoid copyright entanglements. Our laws are derived from the moral questions that society deems important, so where do we stand on the sampling of creative work that is displayed on the Internet?
Consider the case of Shirley Sherrod, the U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was forced to resign her job this past summer. A conservative blogger posted video excerpts of remarks she made at a NAACP function. Ms. Sherrod, an African-American, was portrayed as a racist who misused her government position; except her remarks were taken out of context, and were actually to the contrary. Nevertheless, these video clips were spread across the Internet and played on cable news to the point where the White House asked for her resignation. Ms. Sherrod has since been vindicated but I'm sure she's still wondering how this could have happened.
The cut and paste features that impressed us so much two decades ago have evolved into embedded html code. Now, we can move and edit entire videos, audio excerpts, and widgets created by a third party to our web pages to convey what we want. Does this mean that we are free to do what we want with it? I feel the lines are blurred as to what the acceptable practice is. I know certain clip art is copyrighted but why is it displayed and easily copied from massive catalogs on our browsers? Videos are shared on YouTube but what most people don't realize is that the Web is now a two-way street. What if your video was used in a way you didn't approve of? You're sharing your video not broadcasting it, so does that mean it can be used in any way? Comments, or a reaction is solicited for the videos; some will be positive and some will be crude, and some may take your video and mash it up. The Gregory Brothers are masters at this. They took a TV news segment about a break in and attempted rape in Huntsville, Alabama and put music to it. Using Auto-Tune, a digital music enhancer, they arranged the video and the victims' comments into a song. The resulting video went viral on YouTube racking up over 10 million views. Sounds terrible, but the video comes across as a battle cry for victims of violent crimes in a catchy jingle. The Gregory Brothers are selling the song on iTunes and are splitting the money 50/50 with the victims. The Gregory's YouTube channel features an assortment of edited newscasts that have been "auto-tuned" and mashed into musical arrangements of political parody. The clips they use are taken out of context so is this any different than Shirley Sherrod's? That's entertainment?
The last election was the first where a political candidate truly embraced the web and used it to spread his platform. Imagine a campaign of the future with mashed versions of the candidates' speeches turned inside out. Is this political commentary? Could this be construed as acceptable satire? Most importantly, do you think these videos could have an impact on a candidate's image and influence how someone would vote?
The Internet is a fabulous invention that lets us share our views, creations, and personalities with others. Are there any boundaries to prevent others from transforming our work or our words into something unintended? I've got a feeling that Creative Commons just isn't cutting it. I feel this is a topic that educators should be addressing with today's youth. We should be teaching editing techniques and content sharing practices but perhaps the morality of mashing others' intellectual property should pursued as well.