Viral Inspiration

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I can't help but think Kevin Allocca's TED Youth talk missed an opportunity. As I see it, the speech had the potential to accomplish at least 3 things:

1. Useful advice - check
2. Entertain - check
3. Inspire - not so much

Inspiration may not have been Kevin's goal. And why should it be? He's not a teacher; he's a young guy who watches videos for a living. And as a former movie executive who watched movies and read scripts for a living, I may understand more than most what his job requires. It most likely entails getting eyeballs to watch screens, mine focused on getting butts in seats; both mean you often have to go for the low hanging fruit.

Yet it is precisely because of my background that I believe that TED Youth and YouTube together have great potential -- to inspire youth to use these powerful platforms to change the world and tell great stories. Moreover, as a psychologist who studies how these simple and easily accessible online tools shape youth values, I thought he missed an opportunity to inspire the youth who were so eagerly listening to his speech.

In our research on values and media at UCLA's Children's Digital Media Center@LA, we found that children believed what Kevin stated -- "we all want to be stars" and "anyone of you can be famous by next Saturday." But none of the children we spoke to seemed to understand the hard work or skill that is normally associated with fame nor did they anticipate the negative attention that could come with notoriety. Instead they were eager, as is developmentally appropriate, for the attention and status that comes from being famous. So many of them were posting online videos in hopes their video would go viral and bring them fame and fortune.

But what if we channeled this kind of energy and enthusiasm into fantastic and responsible storytelling? Kevin could have decided to show a video (or even two) that sparked an elevated conversation - something that could spark ideas, or stimulate social change. Or he could have shown a video that told a real person's story, something that a traditional studio gatekeeper is rarely allowed to greenlight.

As Kevin said, youth today can take ownership and define their own pop culture. But the pop culture that was featured in these videos went viral either because people were publically shaming the person who posted them or because they were extremely silly (and before you judge my taste, you should know that Airplane is one of my all-time favorite films).

The brilliance of YouTube is we now live in a world where anyone can share their story. This means the world is more likely to be authentic and transparent, with less filters and more participation. And that all of us have the opportunity to see some amazing stories. Pop culture has power to encourage social change (a la Glee), but until we help our youth harness and develop that power, we are likely to see many more cat videos; I guess there is nothing wrong with that.

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