Media Literacy: The Potential of Video Essays

John and Hank Green are influential people within the free-education community. They have founded many YouTube channels, including Crash Course, a channel with over 1,100 videos and 10.6 million subscribers as of April 2020. This channel provides 101-level scholarly information, and its content has branched out to include book clubs, entrepreneurship, video-game history, and even media literacy.

Engaging and accessible video essays make me optimistic for the future of our species. Content like Crash Course videos has the potential to create an educated global populace. This content is cheap and concise, and it reaches more people every day.

Quality educational content on YouTube is getting better, and new channels are added constantly. Video essays are digestible, engaging, and easier to consume for people who spend most of their time on YouTube, Audible, or one of the various podcast platforms. This academic tilt in the world of online video has a huge upside: accessibility.

If someone has internet access, they can effectively take any college 101 class and learn about filmmaking, video-game critique, house building, water purification…effectively, they can access the collective knowledge of our species for free. The content is there, and even more is being produced. But how many people have internet access?

According to the Pew Research Center, the median number of adults who own a smartphone is 76 percent in “advanced economies” and 45 percent in “emerging economies.” People ages 18–34, unsurprisingly, make up a much larger portion of those smartphone owners. Young people are the ones about to enter the workforce and shape the future of our globalizing culture; they are the people who need access to free knowledge the most, and they are the ones seeking it out.

During the summer of 2016, the United Nations declared internet access a human right. While quality content and accessibility are both taking big strides toward an educated global populace, there is one major problem with video essays on sites like YouTube and Vimeo: many videos are opinion pieces, and many are deceptively presented in an academic tone without being based in fact.

Video essays need to be reliable if they are going to continue educating us. Essayists are responsible for the content they produce, but there will always be an excess of content. With excess comes poorly made content and poorly fact-checked content. What needs to become widespread is analysis and evaluation of information. In order to trust the knowledge we are receiving, we need to research and fact-check the source.

Renee Hobbs, a cofounder of the Partnership for Media Education, recommends asking these five questions when choosing to trust a piece of media:

  1. Who created this message, and what is the purpose?
  2. What techniques does it use to attract and hold attention?
  3. What lifestyles, values, and points of view does it depict?
  4. How might different people interpret this message?
  5. What is omitted, or left out?

The least natural step necessary to educate a global populace through free content is to train everyone to be skeptical and skilled at judging the validity of content. But in the face of widespread fear and distrust of news outlets and media in general, we need to become more media literate if we want to have agency over our lives.

Thanks to Crash Course’s media-literacy playlist, anyone with an internet connection can learn how the media landscape is constructed, how it got the way it is, and how to interpret the information so they can trust what they read, listen to, or watch.

Backlist to the Future: American Scream: Palindrome Apocalypse

Everyone dreams of something. Winning the lottery. Starting their own business. Publishing a book. From little children to adults, dreams fly through our heads, but what doesn’t are the potential detours we take when on our way to realizing these dreams. Where we end up is not necessarily the place that we intended to be, but it is the place that we need to be at the time we get there.

American Scream: Palindrome Apocalypse by Dubravka Oraić Tolić explores the idea of dreams and what these dreams cost. It explores the idea of freedom and uses the historical story of Columbus discovering America on his way to India to ask the question of how to keep going when things do not go the way you intended.

The beautiful part about the poem “American Scream” is that anyone can relate to the story. Tolić just uses the idea of America, India, and Columbus to get at the wider picture of dreaming and, while I know hardly anything about Croatia, I found myself intensely drawn to the humanist aspect of the images. Dreams, not in the sense of those cryptic images that go through our minds when we sleep but in the wishes we have for ourselves and our future, lead us on paths that we cannot map. In the hundred texts of the poem, Tolić balances the historical telling of Columbus’ discovery of America and uses the same imagery to explore the issues surrounding art, mainstream history, politics, and many other humanist ideas.

The poem “Palindrome Apocalypse” explores these similar ideas of mainstream thinking and dreams on a much more personal level. Tolić uses her skill as a poet to explore the wars going on between east and west, on both the large and small scale. When I read the poem, I could feel the tensions between society and language within the words, echoing the tension of the war between Croatia and Serbia. While this is my first time seeing Croatian written out, I couldn’t help but read over the original text as I read the English translation; somehow it made me feel like I was getting closer to the true feelings of Tolić and her intention for the poem.

As far as poetry normally goes for me, and I’m going to be honest here, I still don’t fully comprehend everything that Tolić wanted for the poem. Even after reading the critical narratives included in the book, the most interesting of which being her fictional letter to the American Ambassador in Croatia, I found myself at a loss. I reread parts and looked up some of the citations in “American Scream,” but I still felt like I only understood the surface: the words, the lyrical movements within the narrative. I know that I will go back and reread both epic poems a few times, if only in a possibly vain attempt to understand everything that Tolić was trying to impart. But perhaps that is the point: to go back, to learn by seeing the same thing over and over. Maybe I won’t come to her conclusions, but I will come to one of my own, one that has more meaning for me than anyone else.

John Sibley Williams Guest Poet Post: “Poetry as Conversation”

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature John Sibley Williams, a poet from Portland, OR who helped generate the idea for Alive at the Center in his time at Ooligan Press. Please enjoy his post!

Poetry as Conversation

What makes an experience or concept universally accessible? How can we use words, specifically poetry, to turn the personal into the shared?
Perhaps the most important task of all poets is reaching our audience, transcending ourselves, building a bridge between that coveted realm of personal passion and how it’s translated by readers. Simply detailing one’s own experience of the world is not enough. How we express ourselves is key, how we leap over the innate divide between people’s unique perspectives and spark resonance, all by carefully stringing words together into a meaning that simultaneously respects our own vision and speaks directly to the reader. The challenge of poetry is ensuring our words enter into a basic human conversation with those we wish to touch.
At heart, poetry is an intimate conversation between the writer and reader. Beyond that, it accepts the reader’s part in the process and encourages connections deeper than mere recognition, understanding, and response. As all poets approach what we write from our own unique, inimitable, and unpredictable vantage point—based on what we’ve witnessed and experienced and how we processed that stimuli—why not write with this in mind? The question is: how?
When we remain too focused on the internal, we may lose sight of the larger issues we wish to express. We may forget that the act of sharing our work involves placing ourselves in another’s hands. It’s a common stereotype that writers live in their own minds. Even if this is partially true, and, further, even if this aspect helps spark creation and genius, to remain focused solely on the internal without regard to possible reader interpretation may lead down an ego-based path where resonance is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Poetry should be seen as the shared expression of the internal.
One example of this can be found in overly linear poetry. Let’s pose the question: how tightly should a poet cling to the facts of a given experience? I have always argued that truth is more important than fact. The details within a piece of literature only matter as far as they nourish the dialogue they create. Facts must be supple and ready to bend like river water around a turn. The core truths of the experience or concept we wish to express must take precedence over the common desire to remain strictly faithful to the where, when, and who of what really happened.
However, leaning too far in the opposite direction can similarly detract from creating resonance. If we write wholly focused on readers, we may end up betraying our own passion and perspective. We must walk that line between dictating the reader’s experience and leaving them lost. Why not allow readers room to breathe and encounter the work on their own terms, from their own backgrounds, through their own eyes? Why not purposefully plant metaphorical white space within the meanings of what you write?
The concept of white space as it pertains to design and layout is well known. The eye requires breaks from the constant barrage of black ink that streams across the page. Book designers utilize white space to provide a safe haven for the reader, both physically and mentally. It is like the silence we seek after a long conversation. White space provides the mind with a physical representation of silence. The strained eye has taken in a stanza of poetry, rich in metaphor and concept, and delights in the brief absence of type before approaching the next image, refreshed.

Power of Words--Unknown Photographer

Unknown Photographer


But we can include metaphorical white space in the way we write also. This perspective on white space involves far more than the physical strategy—striking a healthy balance between black and white, text and vacancy. Words themselves require room to become. Images should remain wet cement. Concepts and emotions reside in the gray area of interpretation, the interplay of meaning and translation. In other words, the substance of poetry develops from achieving a delicate balance of text and not text, of stating what we mean without stating our intent, of white space not just around, but also within the words we use.
How does one write to create white space and conversation? Perhaps by recognizing that our writing is a journey we wish others to follow us on, while realizing where they end up will inevitably be based only partially on what we’ve said. It’s also based on the joy and the baggage they carry with them. We cannot dictate meaning. Each image we create can mean as many different things as there are different readers. We can only guide others down a path that leads to a place we cannot wholly predict.
One metaphor I like to use is that of a forest, a forest of meaning. If we leave no room for ambiguity, for the reader to interact with the text, then we’ve pretty much carved only one path for them to follow. We haven’t fully appreciated their active role in the conversation. We tell them what to get out of the poem, instead of showing them. Conversely, if we provide too much ambiguity, then we’ve left them to roam the full forest alone, without guidance, and meaning and resonance become difficult to achieve. To navigate this struggle, I’ve found that the poems that leap the divides of nations and generations tend to provide a few paths toward meaning, not too many, but also not so few that they hold our hands. They respect readers by using language that can touch them, universally, regardless of where they come from and what of the world they have known to be true. They stay true to the essential elements of experience, forgoing overly elaborate, or overly personal explanations and details that keep readers from having their own experience with the text.
Forest Path

Unknown Photographer


Poetry is rhetoric, like all other writings. As poets, we are inherently trying to persuade others to see things as we see them, but funneled through their own eyes. We cannot convince by simply saying, “Believe me, this is how it is.” We must show them things that lead them to believe it: essential things, shared things. We must give readers the tools from which to construct meaning from what we’ve written. We must leave breadcrumbs along the path. We must balance what we mean with what others might think we mean.
And when a poem is successful, it ends up generating a wholly new experience based on the conversation it’s sparked in the reader. Why not write with this universality in mind? Why not invite readers into our work, into our words, and ask them to stake their own claims (call it “planting a flag”) in the personal creation we wish to share?
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John Sibley Williams is the author of six chapbooks and winner of the HEART Poetry Award. He has served as an acquisitions manager at Ooligan Press, both an agent and publicist, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Book Publishing. A few previous publishing credits include: Inkwell, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, Rosebud, Ellipsis, Flint Hills Review, and various fiction and poetry anthologies.
John’s Poem “Icelandic Church” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Portland edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.