A Brief Interview with Michael Wesch (The Creator of That Wonderful Video…)

Michael Wesch, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. If you've been reading Searchblog, then you know him as the guy behind this amazing video. After I saw the film, I had to talk to the man who made it. Michael is a very thoughtful…


Michael Wesch, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. If you’ve been reading Searchblog, then you know him as the guy behind this amazing video.

After I saw the film, I had to talk to the man who made it. Michael is a very thoughtful fellow, as one might expect, but he comes to “Web 2.0” from an entirely different perspective than your typical Valley entrepreneur (yet he seems to know more than most of us!). For more, read on….and keep in mind the Michael has agreed to answer your questions in the comments field, should any come up!

You did your fieldwork in a Melanesia, and teach at Kansas State. How did you end up making such a compelling video, one that resonates so deeply with folks like, well, those who read Searchblog?

For me, cultural anthropology is a continuous exercise in expanding my mind and my empathy, building primarily from one simple principle: everything is connected. This is true on many levels. First, everything including the environment, technology, economy, social structure, politics, religion, art and more are all interconnected. As I tried to illustrate in the video, this means that a change in one area (such as the way we communicate) can have a profound effect on everything else, including family, love, and our sense of being itself. Second, everything is connected throughout all time, and so as anthropologists we take a very broad view of human history, looking thousands or even millions of years into the past and into the future as well. And finally, all people on the planet are connected. This has always been true environmentally because we share the same planet. Today it is even more true with increasing economic and media globalization.

My friends in Papua New Guinea are experts in relationships and grasp the ways that we are all connected in much more profound ways than we do. They go so far as to suggest that their own health is dependent on strong relations with others. When they get sick they carefully examine their relations with others and try to heal those relations in order to heal their bodies.

In contrast, we tend to emphasize our independence and individuality, failing to realize just how interconnected we are with each other and the rest of the world, and disregarding the health of our relationships with others. This became clear to me when I saw a small boy in a Papua New Guinea village wearing a torn and tattered University of Nebraska sweatshirt, the only item of clothing he owned. The grim reality for me at that moment was that the same village was producing coffee which eventually found its way onto shelves in my hometown in Nebraska, and this boy may never be able to afford to drink the coffee produced in his own village.

So if there is a global village, it is not a very equitable one, and if there is a tragedy of our times, it may be that we are all interconnected but we fail to see it and take care of our relationships with others. For me, the ultimate promise of digital technology is that it might enable us to truly see one another once again and all the ways we are interconnected. It might help us create a truly global view that can spark the kind of empathy we need to create a better world for all of humankind. I’m not being overly utopian and naively saying that the Web will make this happen. In fact, if we don’t understand our digital technology and its effects, it can actually make humans and human needs even more invisible than ever before. But the technology also creates a remarkable opportunity for us to make a profound difference in the world.

So that’s some of the more personal and philosophical background behind this video. I wanted to show people how digital technology has evolved and give them a sense of where it might be going and to give some momentum to the all-important conversation about the consequences of that on our global society. I did not know it would reach so many people, but I had hoped that for those it did reach it would spark some reflection on the power of the technology they were using. Because without proper understanding and reflection, “the machine” is using us – all of us – even those that don’t have access to the machine at all.

Your video was quite sophisticated about how the web works, and the production quality was quite high as well. Where did you pick up those skills?

I made my first website in 1998 using notepad and HTML while I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia. It was slow- going but I saw a tremendous potential for transforming the way we present our research. Since then I have had a passion for exploring the latest technologies and how they an be used to communicate ideas in more effective ways. I like to learn these technologies on my own through trial and error, because sometimes the errors turn out to be new uses for the tool that I might not have discovered through formal training. I’m always looking for ways to use tools in ways other than for what they were intended. The great thing about our current era is that the tools are not only easier to use (as evidenced by an anthropology professor being able to learn them in his spare time), they are also more flexible than ever, allowing for some creative uses that seem to re-invent the tools all over again.

What tools do you use out there on the web that you find useful? Are you a devotee of any of the “Web 2” tools?

One can think of the Web as a place where multiple overlapping global conversations are taking place simultaneously. To keep up with these conversations I have established my online home at Netvibes, which allows me to integrate almost all of the tools I use and organize them into different “tabs” in a way that fits with my online life. I have a tab for blogs and comments which allows me to track multiple online conversations, along with a blog search module that updates whenever somebody posts something related to the topics I am currently interested in.

To keep up with parts of the global conversation that might not have a simple RSS feed, I use feeds from social bookmarking services like Diigo and Del.icio.us. As a visual anthropologist I also need to monitor parts of the conversation taking place in photos and videos. Sites like Flickr that allow photo tagging make it easy to monitor the photos, and with new video services like Viddler, Mojiti, and Bubbleply that allow users to tag, comment, and create their own content within and on top of existing videos, it will soon be possible to be alerted the moment somebody uses a tag to describe any particular piece of an online video. On the other end of the media spectrum, it is now easier than ever to keep track of traditional paper-based journals as well, as many are now providing RSS feeds and putting the articles online. This has created tremendous potential for Cite-U-Like, a social bookmarking service for academic journals, which I use to alert me whenever somebody uses a certain tag, or when somebody with similar interests as me tags anything.

The best tools are those that are flexible enough to be used beyond that for which they were intended. The more a web service can build this kind of flexibility in, the better, as it can tap into the collective intelligence of those using the service to extend its possibilities. Netvibes has this built right in by allowing users to create their own modules. With the help of an “API maker” like Dapper, we can create almost anything we need and integrate it into Netvibes, further extending our ability to keep track of those parts of the global conversation that interests us the most.

As a university professor I have also found Facebook to be useful. I was inspired to use Facebook for teaching by something I saw while visiting George Mason University. Like many universities, they were concerned that the library stacks were rarely being accessed by students. Instead of trying to bring students to the stacks, they brought the stacks to the students, placing a small library right in the middle of the food court where students hang out. We can do the same with popular social networking tools like Facebook. Facebook is not only great for expressing your identity, sharing with friends, and planning parties, it also has all the tools necessary to create an online learning community. Students are already frequently visiting Facebook, so we can bring our class discussions to them in a place where they have already invested significant effort in building up their identity, rather than asking them to login to Blackboard or some other course management system where they feel “faceless” and out of place.

Would you be open to answering any other questions readers might have in the comments section of my site?

Sure, sounds fun.

36 thoughts on “A Brief Interview with Michael Wesch (The Creator of That Wonderful Video…)”

  1. Michael, great interview. I was actually very intrigued by what you said early on in the interview. I sense that our relationships and connections matter more than we realize. I’m fascinated by string theory and the effects of global networking. I am very interested to hear your opinions about what you think the next 10-20 years hold as social networks challenge the traditional hierarchies and social institutions. I know that’s a huge question.

    Thanks for your time.

  2. Hi Michael,

    You’re video has also resonated well within the library community over the last two weeks… I’m curious, from a cultural anthropology perspective, what role do you see libraries (which have been long known as cultural institutions of knowledge and learning) fitting into this changing landscape?

    Helene Blowers http://www.librarybytes.com

  3. It’s always nice to see someone frame things we take for granted in a new and interesting way, so thank you Michael, that was a wonderful video. My question is as follows:

    Tags while very useful, especially for media types like images & video, lack a certain comprehensiveness and consistency as it relates to text classification, do you see users over time willing to put greater effort to creating sophisticated queries under labels (or tags) that can be reused, but also provide some insight into their tagging intent? I think of this as a coming together of sorts, between traditional classification systems and folksonomy, and am wondering if these two worlds can be reconciled based on what’s happening w/users’ willingness to share their knowledge more thoroughly online?


  4. Wow, I only had a few professors at university who really stood out as knowing how to interact with their students and you certainly seem to bear similar traits. I feel sure your students will remember you for a long time after they graduate.

    Facebook really fascinates me (plus it is great for keeping in touch) and the ability to harness a proportion of those incredibly clever minds (all of my mates who went on to do PhD’s in engineering, biochemistry, chemistry and physics at Cambridge UK are on there and really active) for learning/science when they are on Facebook for fun and staying in touch more than anything is a pretty cool idea. My question for you is what is your thinking regarding how it could be done?

    Thanks for a great video am showing it around my office lots.

  5. Thanks for the interview and to John for eliciting it. I am particularly grateful for Michael W’s straightforward but simple idealism. Getting it right is a matter of getting it and doing it right. Getting it truly and deeply right is to aim at a high standard. How many hours did it take to put together that 5 minute lesson? It packed a profound punch, so it might have taken really quite a long time, a week of serious work is my guess. But technical proficiency is one thing, ethical proficiency is a still higher aim. We should all aim high. Aim higher is my take-away lesson.

  6. Coning your thoughts comes in at 78%, Michael. That’s what we’d expect from a tight interview. More importantly, your thinking on interconnection is exactly what Coning Technology is all about. We connect the thinking dots: Who, What, How, When, Where, Why, especially the HOW and WHY. You might think of adding Coning to your box of online goodies.

  7. In this new communication world that your video helps to show, what do you think the future looks like for those in the content creation business, particularly authors who have generally focused on print? I find that I enjoy blogs, and yet I cherish a book I can sit down with, knowing the years of work that have often gone into its production, and I can stick with it for two to three hundred pages without the glare of a screen. How do you think authors of various kinds will need to adapt in the years ahead to make use of the these new communication tools? Where is the future?

  8. In this new communication world that your video helps to show, what do you think the future looks like for those in the content creation business, particularly authors who have generally focused on print? I find that I enjoy blogs, and yet I cherish a book I can sit down with, knowing the years of work that have often gone into its production, and I can stick with it for two to three hundred pages without the glare of a screen. How do you think authors of various kinds will need to adapt in the years ahead to make use of the these new communication tools? Where is the future?

  9. Coning (thinking hierarchy) at 78% makes your interview a tight one, Michael. We also look at interconnections within and across text wih Coning Tech. Like you, we tackle the HOW and WHY.

  10. Michael,

    Thanks for producing the video and this interview. I posted it in my blog that deals with Middle East related issues http://www.onejerusalem.org and it has attracted quite a bit of interest.

    Your thoughts on coming to terms with the need for more interconnectivity are well taken. Our constant striving for individuality has many down sides. But as Americans this has not always been the situation. Volunteerism use to be woven deep into the fabric of our society. This is noted in several early accoounts about the new American Repulic, e.g. Democracy In America. One powerful force for making the individual a part of the genereal society was the Church. Also national/local organizations such as The Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Parent Teacher Associations played a similar role.

    But as we got wealthier we sepearated more. More and more of us worshiped without getting together at Chruch or synagogue. National exercises such as voting – where on a given day the nation did the same civic duty in the same time period – has been undermined by mail and absentee voting.

    My contention is that being more interconnected is not alien to American society. Do you agree?

  11. Hi Michael. Absolutely fantastic video. Wish I had the same all-around skills and talent. Anyway, a practical question: how many hours do you guestimate you spent editing it? Congrats again.

  12. Michael – loved the video. I’m far from an anthropologist, but from layman’s perspective think that complete distance independent interaction – including the visual part (e.g. telepresence) will result in orders of magnitude change in connecting our planet. Wrote about it in the link below. Would love your expert thoughts.
    complete distance independent interaction

  13. Here’s an idea that I have been playing with for quite some time that might address some of these questions. It comes from a 1955 article by Edmund Carpenter called “The New Languages” in which he imagines each medium to be like a new language with its own possibilities, restrictions, and challenges. While no medium is completely restricted to specific types of expression, we might say that all media are biased towards certain types of expression due to their structure, format, and mode of creation and transmission. For example, with print-based media such as books there is a strong need to put together a full and tight argument before expending the significant amount of resources needed to make a print run. It should be literally “noteworthy” or it is not worth printing. In training for this environment we are taught how to form sound and solid arguments that will stand the test of time. There may be some relation here to the “argument as war” metaphor that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have pointed out. We say that we must defend our position, attack and shoot down the arguments of others, and most importantly, we conceive that we can either win or lose. This model is well-suited for scholarship dominated by the slow peer review structure of traditional print-based scholarship.

    The Web speeds up the process of rebuttal, reply, and revision and calls forth a different approach. The radically collaborative technologies emerging on the Web create the possibility for doing scholarship in the mode of conversation rather than argument, or to transform the argument as war metaphor into something that suggests collaboration rather than combat. Personally, I prefer the metaphor of the dance and that we are all here in this webscape dancing and playing around with ideas. The best dancers are those that find a way to “lose themselves” in the music – pushing the limits of the dance without fear of tripping or falling because they know that it is all part of the dance.

    I don’t think that one medium is absolutely better than another. One is better for some things, another for other things. In fact, they complement each other and the more forms of media that we become fluent in the richer our intellectual field.

    So I think there will always be a demand for books, but nonetheless libraries are changing … I think we are already seeing a shift in that we are beginning to recognize that the most valuable resource in the library is not the books or physical resources but the librarians themselves. They are information professionals and are needed more than ever, even as their traditional roles seem to be disappearing.

    On the next 10-20 years and social networking … I think this will greatly depend on the structure of those social networking tools and what kinds of communication are made possible with these tools. For example, on Facebook there are “walls” and “discussion groups.” Both of these sections are for human communication, but they are structured differently and therefore elicit different kinds of conversations. Furthermore, they are used in ways beyond how they were intended. Even now, as I am answering multiple questions with one long comment at the bottom of a blog post, the structure of the medium is in some way affecting how I am responding. On a forum I would address each question individually in separate threads. These seemingly minor differences are important because all human relationships are mediated by communication. If we change the way we communicate, we change human relationships, and since society is ultimately based on human relationships, those seemingly minor differences can have a profound effect on society, especially if they become dominant or very popular modes of communication. I can’t see into the future, but what gives me hope is that there are now more people than ever capable of creating and contributing to how these communication structures might be built, and even more people capable of contributing to a serious conversation about the implications.

    This response also speaks to p-air’s question about tagging, though I don’t have a solid answer. It does seem that a hybrid system of folksonomy, hierarchy, and various Google-like technologies are the future. I’m not well-versed enough in this area to offer any specific solutions, but I do think that when trying to harness the power of a “smart mob” the structure in which you ask them to operate is very important. People will eventually get smarter about tagging and contribute better tags, but this can be helped along with simple tools like the “suggested tags” feature on Del.icio.us. Perhaps there is something similar that could be done to address your question?

  14. Professor Wesch

    You cite your time with tribesmen in New Guinea. If the children of the communities you studied had access to the Internet and social networks like MySpace and YouTube would it be a positive or a negative on their social ecosystem?

    Would it destroy the balance of their communities?

    Your video is brilliant, your interview was a great read. Thanks John for the refreshing topic!

    (p.s, this comment section is tough to navigate John)

  15. The most fascinating post for a very long time, John. This highlights a topic that has been bouncing around my head for some time – the web 2.0 crowd has become such a homogeneous group following what feels like a consensus viewpoint. That always raises a red flag; it has felt more and more like a fraternity subconsciously losing the ability or interest in viewing themselves through valuable outside vantage points.

    I applaud your recognition and outreach to bring this much needed lens to the forefront. This post, and your comment with Tim on how to re-center the conversation on the “outer edge” is very encouraging.

    Keep rethinking the chewy center of web 2.0 – it is badly needed!

  16. I was wondering if you had any book recommendations that outlined the history and evolution of the Internet…Great video too- obviously heard that one a million times. Thanks again though!!

  17. To Allen Roth, your insightful comments made me rethink some of the ways we often discuss ideas of interconnectivity. We (myself included) often say that we are more interconnected than ever before, but as you point out, this is not necessarily true. Instead of stating that we are more interconnected we should be focusing on how we are connected and how these connections may be different than in the past.

    To jeanfab and others who were wondering about the technical aspects of the video. I used camstudio to capture screen shots and then edited the captures with Sony Vegas. Video editing has become easier than ever, and I would strongly encourage anybody who has considered creating a video essay to do so. It took me about 3 days to put the video together, but of course it took months of thinking and research.

    Addressing MikeM’s question, many people in Papua New Guinea are gaining access to the internet, but it is not available in very remote communities like the one in which I was living (and continue to visit frequently). In order for it to become available there would need to be so many other changes that measuring the singular impact of the internet itself would be impossible.

    As for readings about the history of the Web, it’s a bit dated, but Tim Berners-Lee’s book Weaving the Web is a good history up to 2000. More recent broad overviews are difficult to find, though there are several good niche books. I like to use Smart Mobs by Rheingold as a primer and conversation starter in my classes when discussing the mobile internet. If anybody else has suggestions, I would also be interested in hearing them.

    Finally, Perry, I like your phrasing of “rethinking the chewy center of web 2.0.” The homogeneity of the web 2.0 crowd is apparent by the size of “web 2.0” in Del.icio.us tag clouds. We’ll know tagging has gone mainstream when the “web 2.0” tag moves into the fine print. And when that happens, the nature of Web 2.0 may be very different because the “smart mob” running the show may be a very different kind of beast.

  18. Hi Michael,

    Your vedio is really amazing. I have enjoyed it very much. Comparing to the other people, I may have more reasons to be excited when watching your vedio. I am currently writing a web article about web evolution. In the article, I have presented a new vision that web evolves like humans grow up. Although these two things seem unrelated in the first glimpse, their similarity is amazingly high beyond even I originally thought of.

    I have finished the first draft of the Part 1 (which is the story) of my article. I am working on the second part right now and it will be released soon. As an anthropologist, I believe you will like to watch it. And also I am hoping to have some detailed discussion with you if you would like.

    By the way, the article can be accessed through my blog or homepage (Sorry that I am not able to post a link in this comment. This is really a strange limit to the public. This anti-spam mechanism directly violates a fundamental law of WWW and eliminates a valuable web resource—links. I believe it may hurt the future of this site in a long run.)

    Again, thanks for your vedio. It is really a great one.


  19. Greetings Michael

    I agree that there needs to be a shift in the way we manage information so that we are able to create, inform, caretake our environment, invent, make decisions, engage in diplomacy which is based on a good holistic understanding of the place our actions have in context.

    Individual right of way over information is breaking our ability to govern globally. I think this is a function of two business models.
    Broadcast publishing operates from a single source to a mob of recipients. Law operates as a financed competition between rival perspectives. Both models favor single well financed perspectives over diffuse public interest with limited or no funding or voice.

    We are now publishing with a diffuse and less financially directed model, law is still functioning in a way which suits the broadcast model(imho).

    Knowledge Ecology International is a group looking at information ecology at WIPO. Theyve just won an award for their work. They suggest:
    -Creating value from open standards,
    -Expanding access to scholarly and scientific research,
    -The sharing and repurposing of information in new knowledge
    -Knowledge as a shared asset and knowledge creation as collaboration, rather than a commodity, and
    -Using prizes rather than prices to stimulate drug development.

    It is very refreshing to hear the debates get beyond the me statements and look at the whole.

  20. I used camstudio to capture the screenshots and Sony Vegas to edit the captures. I may post a video tutorial sometime as several people have been asking about this and it is difficult to explain in text.

  21. Very interesting material
    We lived for a while in a village in Fiji, more than thirty years ago, not as anthropologists but as friends of someone who owned a hut site there. My husband was doing forestry evaluation in the area.

    It was very educational living in a place where the social norms were different in many ways. The reason I’m mentioning this is because one of the norms was that by asking a person a favour one was offering them a compliment and strengthening the bonds of friendship.

    In many ways this with hindsight reminds me of Web 2.0 culture

  22. Thank you, John and Michael for continuing the conversation about new conversations. I shared the video with me students earlier this month and think it opened some eyesxxx minds. And thanks for mentioning Edmund Carpenter… I’m dusting off my copy of “Oh, what a blow that phantom gave me!” for more inspiration.

    Heh. The first time I typed that, it came out “Oh, what a blog…”

    As Carpenter said somewhere in that book, “We live inside our media. We are their content.”

  23. first i’d like to apologize for my scattered thoughts…

    it seems that we have created a global dialogue which has the ability/potential to transcend the boundries of “nation,” i look at the internet community as a working form of communism, where we are excited to recieve and hand out knowledge to anyone who is willing to learn from us – whether we have a degree or not.

    it also seems that only a certain type of person is able to process the amount of information that is available to us through this technology on a scale that makes it work – a lot of the ideas that you present here, and ideas that are presented in an article (also shown in your video) from wired.com by kevin kelly (We Are The Web) can only be grasped by someone who is familiar with this dialogue. the comments you make at the end of your video, i think, are what had the most impact on me – this is something that i have been thinking about as an internet junkie for years, and while all of these ideas have been available to me, presented to me, and mulled over by myself, i can never seem to convince anyone around me that the cybercommunity is possibly the biggest revolution we could imagine, and that some serious re-thinking of life is in order. this is where i admire your work most – you seem tohave a good grasp on the fact that the cybergeneration is the future.

    do you think that eventually this will end up creating a union of cultures? we are able to translate anything into any language, learn anything that we want – what we can do with this limitless space lacks any kind of physical boundry which is what we have always attached ourselves to. I have had the opportunity to travel and live with different people, just across the united states, because of connections i have made and relationships i have developed over the course of years of internet communication. Some have said that the internet is “escaping reality,” and that the internet really is irrelevent to global communication and diplomacy… but it seems to me to be slowly strapping together minds from different nations, different systems of thought, and expanding what we are able to grasp as individuals. it seems to me that “newbs” to the internet are stimulated in ways that they never knew before. People who are misunderstood and coined as “addicted to the internet” are just trying to process what they can hold in their head. our minds, and our childrens minds, are being stuffed full of information and ideas. If people continue to connect with eachother, do you think that eventually it could possibly lead to the demise of land-tied nations?

    do you think the idea of a sort of “cybernation” would be detremental or beneficial to humankind?

  24. Hello Michael
    I was impressed by the dideo. It seems to have an outstanding impact among those who related to it, judging by the comments. I agree with your sense of connectiveness. Ciberculture with its connectiveness provides a sense of place. Maybe different from other cultures with their identities and exclusions. The with its nonbounderies will make a difference.


  25. Excellent, excellent video.

    What are your thoughts on terms like “user friendly” in this part of the Computer Age? I sent the video link to friends and family, but I’m not sure all will follow it. I think my question is more aimed towards how this will affect older generations that aren’t following the latest ‘Net trends, as well as 3rd Worlders that do not necessarily have access to this technology, as you have mentioned.

    My sister and brother-in-law are librarians, so I’ve thought a lot about how media will be cross-referenced. I think e-books are starting to bridge the gap, but the problem is, I think, we don’t have digital… notepads, if you will, that effectively mimic ones described in Arthur C. Clarke’s book 2001: A Space Odyssey (some editions have photos of the prop that was used for the Stanley Kubrick movie adaptation). It’s been quite a while since I was in school, and I was just beginning to see how the MLA and APA were creating standards for referencing Web content in hardcopy documents.

    To wit, Blackberry devices, PDAs, and Apple’s iPhone seem to be bridging this gap on the tech side, but… they are so small. Most businesses and institutions I can think of prefer to have archives in hardcopy as a backup– the Pentagon is one example. So my last question is, how will Web 2.0 websites change archiving?

  26. Dear Michael, no clue if you are still following this thread line, but I suppose you will be pleased to know that I am writing my pre-master thesis inspired by your idea’s. I will use your words in the introduction and write it on ‘the relation between social media and educational inequality’.

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