July 2012, Chicago, IL
I’m on the southwest side of Chicago on behalf of Hive NYC sponsor Mozilla. My mission is to teach and collaborate with a group creating interactive videos based on Cory Doctorow’s 2008 novel Little Brother. It’s a smart and quick read, about a precocious group of techno-geeks who find themselves smack up against the Department of Homeland Security. Little Brother is a near-future trip to a world where technology signifies both freedom (open-source code, web as playground for antics and creativity) and claustrophobia/suffocation (overbearing rules enforced by clueless adults, poorly designed surveillance systems). Not surprisingly, the main character has a tenuous relationship to the formal nodes in his learning eco-system—school doesn’t fit his purposes, there’s too much to learn online and off-world. Download a free copy here.
Enter Free Spirit Media (FSM), a stalwart Hive Chicago member, with a focus on social justice, media production and literacy, and cultivating youth voices. After a meeting of the minds during the 2011 Mozilla Festival—a heady, inspiring, collaborative hack/make-athon—Free Spirit Media has been using the video remix tool Popcorn Maker to recontextualize Doctorow’s vision. FSM’s Popcorn Crew teens read of the book will drive a dynamic website with interactive videos that look at Doctorow’s themes—surveillance, digital footprints, anti-authoritarianism and hacking—through their own individual lens.
The Web as Canvas
In preparation for the workshop, I talk to the FSM team to better understand their experience with both Popcorn Maker and the novel. The lead educator on the Mozilla Popcorn Project is Soukprida Phetmisy. We are joined by the Program Director Melissa Bryan, and Program Manager Elizabeth Czekner, as we plan the workshop. Our mission? To develop a nuts and bolts workshop that will help prepare FSM’s Popcorn Crew to use Popcorn Maker and its features to remix Doctorow’s rowdy and dystopic vision.
I invite Anjum Asharia to join the team. She’s a youth educator and the New Media Producer at People’s Production House (PPH), an active Hive NYC member organization. People’s Production House has been doing great work with their PPH POP SQUAD, a team of youth that use Popcorn to teach interactive storytelling to other youth across New York City.
In our planning sessions we build a demographic of the teens in the workshop. They are all seasoned FSM participants, who have been selected for this advanced internship. They travel to North Lawndale College Prep High School from different locations on the west and south side of Chicago. They each attend different schools. We knew they are comfortable with media production, teamwork and using professional editing tools. After several weeks of Popcorn Maker templates they are hungry to use their own materials but need more skills to do so. I check out a few of the youth’s blog entries, including a series of “letters to Popcorn” that detail their experience as beta-testers.
Opening the Web
After a few weeks of conference calls and collaborative documents, the design process moves quickly when we’re all face-to-face. We solidify a process-oriented strategy and the building blocks of the design challenge. To increase teen knowledge, assess their learning and stoke their interest in web-native media, we decide to mimic the production cycle itself—from a script, through production to a wrap party. Although this is a tried and true approach, I see this iteration as the pilot of an activity that we will continue to playtest and grow.
We work with the Free Spirit Media team brainstorming a list of words that we feel epitomize the values, ethos and strategies underlying the web. We decide to create small teams to ensure that production moves quickly and pair off the educators and the teens in working groups. Free Spirit Media are great thought partners. We feel the collaborative power of the Hive and its ability to connect learners across interests, purpose and geography.
The result is the following challenge: To create a video that builds on the interactive and participatory nature of the web through peer sharing and collaboration. In practice, it’s a scavenger hunt with digital media content generation. Teams are given lists of assets to collect and lists of Popcorn features to include in their video. Then they work together to collect assets to build videos with specific themes and characteristics. We insert mini-challenges throughout the activity. To the users they seem like funny digressions. For us they are designed to have a cumulative effect. The goal of the mini-challenge is to fine-tune thinking about the web’s infrastructure and provide a practice space for producing engaging web content that can be incorporated into the final deliverable.
We begin the day by cutting the activity sheets into sections. Since the steps of creating the web-native video will be “unlocked” by different mini-challenges, having everything on-hand and easily accessible is key. Pizza arrives early so we fuel up. I’m wearing my “Adopt Mozilla” T-shirt, it has become crucial gear for these moments when I channel my inner Tim Gunn and RuPaul. Our goal for the experience is a sense of levity, fun and exploration that we hope will encourage the teens to seek out different styles and modes of production.
The challenge begins. Each team has to draw a picture that illustrates what the web looks like to them. The first team to reach consensus, create a representation and explain their concept is able to choose the theme that will structure their video—“open,” “hyperlink” or “code.” Another mini-challenge is to hack a web page. We are fascinated to see how some teams discover how to do it on their own and where and when others need hints. In this way, the mini-challenges surface and build skills—learning how to find the code underlying a webpage or remixing a pre-existing one with different images will come in handy later.
As the day progresses the simple decision to pair teens with adults continues to pay off—with educators and learners constantly changing roles. The mood is light, with the educators lending their expertise around the larger context of the challenge and the teens explaining different elements of the tool. Everyone builds content together and there are a variety of approaches, everything from stop-motion animation with a webcam to live reenactments. About an hour in, they’re still having fun but the teams have become slightly competitive. We tweak as we go along, dynamic difficulty adjustment. In a later blog post, one of the teens describes the visit as “pretty fun.” We know it’s a work in progress, but we accept this verdict as words of encouragement.
Then it’s the final count down. We’ve explored, we’ve discovered, we’ve coded. After pushing the production process all day, there is a need to bask in the post-production glory. Now, changing gears and preparing for a more formal critical evaluation feels out of place. So we change course, crowding around the monitors and sharing out the finished videos as viewers and makers. The piecemeal nature of the challenge yields both expected and unexpected results. The final products are equally smart, silly, random and fun. Some pick up on web-related themes, some do not. The original assets have been re-mixed using Popcorn Maker, customized using HTML code and sprinkled with assets the teams have generated along the way. Their work has morphed back and forth between image and code all day. While they don’t understand every line of it, they know where it lives and they can begin to translate it together. The pizza re-emerges and the wrap party and picture-taking begin. Next step? The FSM Popcorn Crew will tackle Doctorow and his San Francisco techno-geeks—now that’s a reading and a remix worth waiting for.