An Audience of One

7 mins reading

Over the years I’ve occasionally found myself describing to students what might be termed a ‘hierarchy of value’ in regards to peer-to-peer interactions. This sounds very problematic on the face of it, but hear me out. To paraphrase myself:

If you like a peer’s tweet, that’s okay. If you follow their account or retweet their post, it will mean a little more. But if you reply to them in an effort to initiate a conversation, that will be the most meaningful interaction of all.

Demonstrating that you have actually engaged with someone’s ideas or content beyond a single and simple click is the fastest and most effective way to a personalised connection with them. However, in the past month or so my thoughts on what constitutes the ‘pinnacle’ of online interaction have changed. As important as it is, I no longer see the written ‘reply’ as residing at the farthest, most productive end of the spectrum.

Week 2 Meme

Encouraging students to communicate with each other online is a challenge for anyone working in Higher Education. I’ve only ever had one student in the past adamantly tell me they had no interest in talking to and learning alongside their peers, which was somewhat tragic. The vast majority of the time, shyness and nervousness are the chief reasons that students are tentative to get involved in virtual spaces. I should also say that I’m obviously talking about social media interactions here – discussion boards don’t even facilitate the above-mentioned spectrum of interactions, so I’m not going to get myself worked up over those forums here…

Personalised Video-Making

Fittingly, it was a student’s suggestion that initially got me thinking about the qualitative value of certain types of audio-visual interactions. After I made my very first video for TikTok (see my last blog), an undergraduate Communication student requested I ‘recreate’ the below TikTok, the song of which was trending fairly heavily at the time.

I don’t know if Jess actually thought I would say yes or follow through – the suggestion was a pretty random one, after all – but I had a few moments to spare and a spontaneous idea of how I could do something similar-but-different. So I made this TikTok for Jess…

In the months that followed, I found myself making more micro videos every now and then for other people. For example, after listening to my sister tell me about how she was craving chocolate, I made this TikTok to make her feel better about her dilemma (as well as a direct follow-up video). And when my Aunty Carole entrusted me with a broken suitcase she was still very much attached to, which I promised to help find a good home for via my nature strip, I was inspired yet again…

My Aunty’s reaction on Insta was predictable in nature, and betrays (or perhaps hides) her enjoyment at this little tribute, which she confirmed in person when we next saw each other.

Oh!!! NO. My beautiful purple travelling companion of 7 yrs has just been sent on its merry way. No trust Nephew 👎😩

Most importantly, this response demonstrates that making a video for someone can be a very meaningful thing, resulting in a deeply affective experience for the viewer-receiver – at least more so, I would argue, than a simple typed-out message would produce. Snapchat has certainly helped this along, but the power of personalised video-making has been around for a lot longer. And TikToks are not the only means by which I’ve sought to make a connection with a student in this way. Early in a unit called Making Video, a Cloud student called Brandi bravely ventured outside her comfort zone to be one of the few students to make and share a short intro video on Twitter.

Knowing that Brandi was enrolled interstate and was joining the student learning community all the way from Adelaide, I made Brandi an offer to motivate her to keep actively involved in the weeks ahead.

Apparently this was an offer Brandi couldn’t refuse… Well, I’m confident Brandi would have remained active anyway, but before the end of the trimester I had made another ‘personalised’ video.

If you had asked me whether I would one day spend several hours making a polished, 2+ minute edited video for essentially one person, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. And this points to an important theme: resources. The inevitable limits of resources – i.e. time, money, and energy – mean that in any context, the personalisation of student learning can only ever proceed up to a point. I will never be able to make individual TikToks for the hundreds of students I work with – it would become mundane if I even tried (for me and the audience). But I may just be able to find opportunities to continue to engage people in relevant, valuable, and personalised ways when and where I can.

Scary Times

Whether you are an educator or an industry practitioner, the mere fact that I’m now even partially thinking of authentic engagement with people online in terms of making short, personalised video content for them should scare you! This is exactly what I said to a group of communications specialists I was invited to speak to at a Geelong Communication and Marketing Professionals Network event in October 2019. When it comes to the imperative to connect with people online, it’s an exciting but intimidating world we’re living in – and that’s not going to change.

This is a great example of personalised content designed (or at least modified) for an individual, and I’ve been impressed for some years with the efforts of the team at Canva to respond to the application’s users in a similar way (click here for an example). However, I have to admit that scrolling through their feed’s increasingly repetitive visuals makes me reflect yet again on the difficulty – and necessity – of constantly reinvigorating one’s engagement strategies. There is always a finite period of time before a template will start to feel like a template. If I made a video that was identical (or almost so) for a second person after I’d already done so for another, the likely effectiveness for the receiver – perhaps both if they knew about it – would undoubtedly be diminished.

Of course, while the kind of videos I’ve highlighted in this blog were each made for one person in a very important sense, they were also not made for one person alone in another sense. The very nature of publishing media content on platforms like Twitter or TikTok makes it all but impossible that only the intended audience will see it. And there is no small irony in the fact that arguably the least creative TikTok I made with some old footage of me walking with my nephew – which was essentially for my sister alone – has so far received almost 100 more views than any other micro video I’ve made with the app. Must be the weird kid…

Yet any media we make is also for ourselves too. Video-making in particular is intrinsically enjoyable for, well, pretty much everyone I’ve come across (if they’re not making one for an assignment, that is). So I don’t want to position this kind of pedagogical endeavour as some purely selfless act – teachers getting personal gratification and enjoyment out of teaching has been a phenomenon since long before the internet existed, after all. And setting the teacher aside, I also began to witness the power of personalised, ‘one-to-one’ audio-visual interactions when several students sent video replies to a peer using Flipgrid – but that’s a story for another day…

Making videos is undoubtedly one part of the ongoing quest to figure out how to engage and connect with others, and I’d say it’s an increasingly important one. Like creating personalised audio feedback, making videos for students in one way or another is worth looking into, not least of all because young people are constantly looking at them. So I think I’ll keep creating personalised videos for people – singular and plural simultaneously – when I can; when I have time; when I’m inspired to.

I may have grown up with a dinosaur fetish, and I may have refused to let my Mum discard a few of my childhood toys recently, but I don’t want to become a dinosaur just yet.

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Featured image: Photo by Angel Origgi (free use via Unsplash)

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