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The Boston Globe

For Young Activists, Video Is Their Voice

Don Aucoin

Elisa Kreisinger, remixing for her blog at home in Cambridge, said video is an easier way to communicate and can make “more powerful statements.’’ (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

When Elisa Kreisinger wanted to protest the newly diminished visibility of gay characters and story lines on television, she didn't launch a petition drive or write an angry op-ed piece. Instead, like many other members of the YouTube generation for whom the visual language is a native tongue, she found a way to have her say with video rather than words.

Kreisinger remixed scenes from "Sex and the City'' into a pair of pro-gay narratives, and uploaded the resulting videos to her blog, drawing 21,000 hits.

"I wouldn't have done it if it was text-based,'' said Kreisinger, a 23-year-old Simmons College grad from Cambridge. "Things are more easily communicated through video . . . And there can be more powerful statements.''

A growing number of young activists are turning to video as a forum for instant political commentary or an eye-catching tool to mobilize on behalf of social change. They might create videos and spread them through social-networking sites such as Facebook. They might remix existing video clips into mashups-with-messages. They might borrow from the tropes of the most popular videos on YouTube, which turned five years old last month, marrying serious substance with lighthearted style.

One way or another, whether the cause is bringing relief to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, protecting the environment, kindling grass-roots support for a favorite political candidate, or protesting the perceived depredations of corporate America, it is now a video, rather than a picture, that is worth a thousand words.

"Making media now is a powerful way of participating in all kinds of life, including civic and political life,'' said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. "These people are now deeply connected to the political process in a way that their parents, at their age, could never be.''

Claude Zeins, a 19-year-old sophomore at Emerson College, noted that his parents talk about how they protested the Vietnam War by marching in crowds to recruiting stations, then remarked: "That just doesn't happen anymore. Everything now is about the click of a mouse. You can do so much online, sitting at your desk.''

Not that it ends at the desk. In the case of a fund-raising and cultural awareness event last weekend at Boston University that was called "Boston Stands with Haiti,'' video was a key tool for spreading the word - before, during, and after the event.

During the event, which raised $50,000 for Partners in Health, video monitors showed segments filmed by students about water sanitation efforts in Haiti, HIV/AIDS, and issues confronting women and children in the aftermath of the earthquake, along with messages from elected officials and celebrities. There was also a half-hour video teleconference with several US military officials involved in Haiti relief efforts.

According to student organizer Sam Minkoff, footage of the event's musical performances and panel discussions "will be spliced with video footage from five student photographers that took video of the overall event and compiled into a final video that will eventually be uploaded on YouTube and our website.''

"Things like YouTube are allowing people to spread ideas and concepts all around the world,'' added student organizer Lauren Prince, 20. "It's becoming the preferred method of getting a message out to large numbers of people.''

In part, this video activism simply reflects the evolution of the Internet. In its early years, online video served primarily as a showcase for cheerfully goofy stunts or narcissistic preening. There is still plenty of that. But online video started to come into its own as a political medium during the 2008 presidential campaign, as video bloggers like the tandem known as the Vlog Brothers created clever spots to promote the candidacy of Barack Obama.

Since then, the generation's digital natives, inspired by the politically pointed use of video on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart'' and other shows, have stepped up their efforts to put their technological skills to political and social uses.

It is increasingly easy to create and circulate videos amid an explosion of user-friendly digital camcorders, video-ready smartphones, laptops with built-in webcams and editing software, and video-sharing sites. Those who remix video from other sources rely on the protections of the "fair use'' provision of copyright law, which allows for limited use of copyrighted materials for certain purposes, including education, criticism, research, and commentary.

While serious in purpose, video activism sometimes draws on the approach pioneered by entertainment-oriented videos. A group of Middlebury College students in a course called "Sustainable Television'' recently embarked on a class project to draw attention to the campus recycling center.

Rather than take an earnest but potentially dull public-service-announcement approach, the students sent their message in the form of a "lip-dub'' video: The camera moved from student to student in a single long take as they danced to Madonna's "Like a Prayer'' while lip-synching lyrics with an environmental message.

"The idea was to get them thinking about recycling in a new way,'' said Ryan Kellett, 23, who helped create that segment and a video called "See Beyond the Car'' that promoted environmentally friendly alternative transportation. "There's something very authentic and genuine about it, because we're students and we're targeting our own population, as opposed to some corporation or even nonprofit saying they're designing public service announcements targeted to young people.''

The recycling and transportation videos, along with 10 other segments created by the class on such topics as clean water, daily energy use, and house weatherization, were uploaded to the Middlebury server so the entire university could take a peek, and then to YouTube.

Jason Mittell, an associate professor of American studies and film and media culture who teaches the "Sustainable Television'' course, says there is a lesson here for organizations about how to reach contemporary audiences. "We are living in an era in which we communicate using new media forms,'' Mittell said. "If you want to engage younger people, you have to do it on these platforms.''

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